|Jan/Feb 2015 Reviews & Interviews|
In These Times
Faber. 2014. 740 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 26952 5.
This is a weighty book. Not just because its 740 thin pages and inserts of glossy photographs make it heavy to hold, but also because Jenny Uglow covers a daunting range of topics and people. Yet she does it so well that the aching arms are worth it. Her intention is to show how the lives of ordinary people in Britain were affected by the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, which for twenty-one years from 1793 to 1815 (apart from a brief respite in 1802-3) touched every part of the country.
Every village, every town, every city, every farm, every industry, every bank—everything you can think of which was associated with the everyday lives of the people of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales—was influenced by these wars. Huge industrial, military, and social changes took place, too. And many well-known names in war, politics, industry and the arts crop up in this book: Nelson, Napoleon, Wellington, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Pitt, Trevithick, Telford, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Jane Austen—to name but a few.
Far from being a dry historical chronology of "these times," however, Uglow's decision to base much of her account on the letters and diaries of people from all walks of life allows her to offer many revealing, curious, and often intimate details of the way people responded to the threat of invasion and their personal involvement in war. She also has an eye for the sort of snippets of information which bring a book to life. So, for example, we hear of the growth of the smuggling trade and stories of marshy ditches filled with parcels and haystacks which "doubled in size overnight." We hear of armament tests which drew crowds of people to Woolwich Common to watch the dramatic displays. And of Joseph Bonaparte's silver chamber pot, which was looted by the British Hussars after the defeat of the French at Vittoria and, for generations after that, was "filled with champagne on festive nights at the barracks."
Jane Austen's brothers were officers in the navy and family letters are quoted. The Gurney family, Quaker bankers whose business weathered the booms and busts of that long period, also had three lively letter-writing sisters, one of whom, Betsey, married Joseph Fry and became Elizabeth Fry, famous for her prison reform work. Byron wrote scathing poems about current events; and the popularity of Walter Scott's novels fostered a tourist industry amongst the middle and upper classes. The French revolution spawned such fears of uprisings in Britain that Tom Paine's enlightened writings about human rights led to accusations that he was a Jacobin, and in many places his effigy was paraded, hanged and burned.
War with France required soldiers and sailors. Press Gangs and Crimps flourished alongside compulsory ballots for men to join the County militias, elite volunteer regiments which designed their own fancy uniforms, and the drum of regular recruiting parties which was heard throughout the country. Uniforms, shoes, cannon, guns, ships, provisions for the army and navy, money to pay for all this, all were essential and industries grew and flourished, failed, and grew again. Sea-men earned prize money, and spent it. War was waged (again) with America. The plight of wounded men, the unemployed, the impoverished and starving brought new government regulations and taxes. New machinery took away jobs and there were Luddite uprisings. Slavery was abolished. Prisoners-of-war were taken. Prime Ministers came and went, some popular, some not: in 1813 Spencer Percival was shot as he entered the House of Commons. Nelson, Wellington and Napoleon became national heroes. George III suffered bouts of madness, the Prince Regent entertained on a grand scale, and the aristocracy carried on with their balls, their banquets and their travels. There were food shortages and starvation but also periods of plenty. Everyone, as Uglow says, went on with their daily lives, but also everyone shared in the war.
Uglow does not follow the war itself in detail but provides a chronology at the end of the book. Instead, she manages to convey what it was like for ordinary and not-so-ordinary people to live through a long period of enormous and significant change. The voices of these people fill in the personal and human details which war histories generally neglect, and this makes for a fascinating study, although a long and involved one. At times, since I read the book in small doses, I lost track of who was who, but it was easy to catch up. Also, Uglow ensures that we learn what happened, in the years after the wars were over, to all the individuals and families we have come to know. Her book is a remarkable feat of scholarship, well written, interesting and amply illustrated with satires by Gillray and Cruikshank; early pictures of towns, workers and industry; miniatures of some of the people we meet in the book; and paintings by Turner, Constable and other prominent artists of the times.