Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

The Regency Years by Robert Morrison

The full title is The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern. Morrison’s book is highly readable and engaging, while maintaining a level of scholarly rigor not often seen in works marketed to a lay audience.  For those interested, there is a wealth of endnotes and reference lists. I will be investigating several as soon as possible. Hats off to Norton for including them.  I am happy to see academic historians, such as Morrison seeking to write accessible history that still adheres to the standards of the discipline.

Morrison’s main argument goes something like this: The Regency, though only a decade (~1811-1820), was a time of many world altering events and an explosion of creative output in almost all areas, including literature and the arts, science, engineering, and even politics throughout the world, but particularly in Britain.  Because of these events and the outsize personalities of many of the creatives, the Regency is where we should look for the roots of modernity, rather than the Victorian era. He gathers evidence from areas as diverse as sport and other forms of entertainment, sex, and landscape design. He manages to include the words of several women, albeit mostly of the upper classes, as well as evidence from the lives of free people of color. Although the scope is Britain, he makes the effort to take into account different perspectives, such as North Americans, including native people, and views from other colonized areas and people. He does not flinch from taking a hard look at from whence the prosperity of the Regency arose–often the backs of the working classes along with colonial expansion and exploitation. He uses the contradictions of the Regent himself–an urbane supporter of the arts who could also be crude and gluttonous for more than just food and drink–as a symbol of the contradictions of the Regency–a time of glorious literature and great advancements in science during which the wealth gap became ever wider and whole swathes of society lived in abject poverty and filth. 

At several points he seems to be using the Regency as a warning to us in the present;  the struggles for political representation and fairness engaged in by the working classes mostly ended badly, such as the Peterloo Massacre, because of the government’s overriding fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain. During much of the Regency, Wellington is fighting Napoleon somewhere. The warning isn’t that the people will be defeated, but that they have a point and that protest can lead to positive change without violence. 

During the Regency, radical orators, politicians, novelists, satirists, caricaturists, philanthropists, poets and journalists assailed the entrenched hierarchies of Church and State from every available angle, and focused in particular on the trumped-up, tricked-out Regent as a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain. Their strategies loosened the grip of Regency intolerance. Their courage and insight remain as inspiration to those who seek to carry on their work… (63).

While I enjoyed the book immensely and would highly recommend it for learning more about the Regency period, I am less certain that Morrison’s argument that the Regency is the root of modernity is completely convincing.  I don’t disagree, and he has more than enough evidence for the first part of his argument about the Regency as a watershed politically and creatively, it is difficult to trace the origins of a concept such as modernity. To be fair, Morrison is does show convincingly that the Regency era marks the beginning of realistic novel writing as opposed to Gothic/Romances (NOTE: this usage of Romance is the more classical meaning of a genre in which a hero has a quest), but he also rightly points out that the most popular novelist at the time was Walter Scott who situated his works squarely in the Romance category, albeit the newish genre of Historical Romance.  Even though Scott and the Regent admired Austen’s works, they never achieved the popularity of Scott’s during her own lifetime. In retrospect, Austen’s reputation outstripped that of Scott (for more about that read this recent article by Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser–you may recognize the license plate!), but this makes the case for realistic novel writing as a “movement” of Regency rather less sure. 

Likewise Morrison’s tracing of protest movements.  Though he argues successfully that they existed and that ideas about nonviolence may be traced to some stars of Regency protests, ultimately there is no indication that anything actually changed as a result. Even Peterloo did not really bring about any desired change. “Liverpool’s government was unrepentant. It tried, convicted, and imprisoned several radical leaders…It passed the notorious Six Acts, which introduced harsh measures of control over assembly, the popular press, and the bearing or arms” (56). Morrison is continuing the conversation about the significance of the Regency which will likely continue as more evidence is discovered, sifted, sorted, and analyzed.

Morrison’s use of a core cast of Regency characters lends continuity and a sense of intimacy to his work. He draws heavily from Byron, Leigh Hunt, Austen, The Wordsworths, Scott, two sets of Lambs, and Hazlitt among others.  By using evidence from these luminaries in each chapter, the reader gains a sense of the familiar that serves as a throughline for the book as it describes wide ranging aspects of the Regency. Morrison, not unsurprisingly, uses evidence most frequently from figures he has written about before in his other works.  This is both a strength–because he knows them well–and a weakness, because it limits the evidence. However, it is not a serious weakness and his conscious decisions to look for representations from all classes and types of people offsets any real criticism for sticking with his cast of Regency characters. It would be impossible not to limit the evidence somehow or else risk a book too long to read comfortably.

I recommend Morrison’s work to those with an interest in the Regency period–it is entertaining and informative, as well as being methodically sound. Enjoy!