A lively new chronicle brings crisp focus to a significant decade in British history and culture.
Morrison (Queen’s National Scholar/Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ontario; The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, 2010) declares that there has not been a study on the Regency in three decades, which is extraordinary given that it is a wildly popular era of study, a time when the quintessential elements of modern Britishness emerged. The short period between 1811 and 1820, when an incapacitated George III ceded to his son, the prince of Wales, brought enormous political turmoil: triumph over Napoleon at Waterloo, Irish famine, roiling Scottish politics, and the War of 1812 across the Atlantic. It also witnessed rich innovations in culture, such as the efflorescence of novelists Jane Austen and Walter Scott; the revolutionary work of poets John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and the radical movements against the industrial inequities of Regency society. Morrison proceeds thematically, launching first into the country’s poor systems of crime and punishment, as exemplified by the so-called “Bloody Code,” which meted out the death penalty for more than 200 major and minor crimes, even to children. The author explores the era’s expanding displays of sexual expression within stringent boundaries (“prudery brigades” would triumph during the later Victorian era) as well as underscoring the era’s many sexual anxieties, some of which were symbolized in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Morrison also looks at the period’s fresh inventions, technologies, and ideas to improve the human condition—e.g., the miner’s safety lamp, a prototype for the computer, and the work of the first prison reformer (Elizabeth Fry) and environmental activist (John Clare). During this time, England continued to expand the empire, and internal unrest and economic despair prompted tens of thousands of citizens of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales to flee to Canada and the United States.
Morrison expertly encapsulates the brief, radical trends and movements of this era of “intense sociability.”