A fascinating account of how Britons lived through a generation of war.
Despite painful memories of defeat in the United States six years earlier, Britons welcomed the 1789 French Revolution, writes British historian Uglow (A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game, 2009, etc.). Finally, they believed, France was coming to its senses and becoming like England: a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and liberty. The 1793 guillotining of Louis XVI quickly changed almost everyone’s minds. France resumed its role as the traditional enemy but with an overlay similar to the panic in the U.S following 9/11. The Jacobins and, later, Napoleon were considered loathsome yet fiendishly clever, bent on destroying British liberties either through invasion, spies, subversion or simply by encouraging unpatriotic attacks on the government. Yet Britain around 1800 was an imperfect democracy with a tiny electorate ruled by an aristocratic elite with few constitutional guarantees of liberty. Despite this, leaders could not ignore popular opinion and a pugnacious press, and even poor Britons considered themselves the world’s freest people; slavery, Uglow reminds readers, was illegal on the island. Despite high taxes, painful shortages, hunger and oppressive censorship, they endured for 22 years, but they did not suffer in silence. Immortals (Jane Austen, Byron, Wordsworth, Pitt, Wellington) have their say, but mostly Uglow delves into the immense archives of letters, journals, books and editorials from a highly opinionated cross section of farmers, shopkeepers, bankers, clergy, seamen, entrepreneurs, journalism and peers. “[The wars] affected everyone, sometimes directly, and sometimes almost without their knowing it,” writes the author, “and in the process the underlying structures of British society ground against each other and slowly shifted, like the invisible movement of tectonic plates.”
A vivid portrait of citizens who gave priority to day-to-day lives but rarely forgot they were engaged in the greatest war in history.