In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars by Jenny Uglow, book review: Bliss was it to be alive, even in a war

In These Times is a remarkable book written by an award winning historian at the peak of her powers

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As William Wordsworth wrote about the French Revolution in The Prelude: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!”

In her latest book, Jenny Uglow recaptures that heady atmosphere but also the insecurity and turbulence which followed. From 1793 to 1815, with a brief gap in 1802-3, the French Revolutionary Wars and then the Napoleonic Wars touched people in every part of Britain. Men from one in five families were directly involved in the army, navy, militia and volunteers and by the end of the war over 300,000 had died.

In this “crowd biography” Uglow looks at how the war affected people at home. Drawing on a wide variety of sources including letters, novels, poetry and newspaper reports she takes us into farms and factories, theatres and fairs, drawing rooms and gentlemen’s clubs. It was a time of rapid change. Uglow explains that “the underlying structures of British society ground against each other and slowly shifted, like the invisible movement of teutonic plates.”  There were exciting new ideas in literature, science and industry but innovation began to seem dangerous as events at home and abroad threatened to undermine established British society. 

Fear of invasion by France was very real, particularly once Napoleon came to power. English aristocrats were also afraid that they might lose their heads like their French counterparts. Inspired by Thomas Paine’s the Rights of Man, radicals imagined a more equal society but Pitt’s government clamped down on the reform movements bringing in a system of spies and repressive legislation which saw some reformers executed and others transported to Botany Bay.

The government was also grappling with financial problems. Uglow writes that the fragile interlocking system of credit was “like an immense house of cards. And no-one knew if the war would give it a push and all would fall.” When the war began, government stocks lost one fifth of their value, there was a run on local banks and over a hundred failed. As it was impossible to get cash or credit there were many bankruptcies. Prime Minister Pitt eased the credit panic by circulating more money and in 1797 it was agreed that the Bank of England could issue notes without the need to back them up with gold.  As the National Debt soared Pitt was forced to introduce income tax for the first time.

Everyone’s lives were changed by the war, but some suffered more than others. As Byron wrote sarcastically, life for the elite was still a round of “Routs, Riots, Balls and Boxing matches.” The Prince Regent hosted the Carlton House Fete, a dinner for two thousand, with lavish food and champagne, and a stream running down the middle of the table from a silver fountain complete with shoals of goldfish while  many of the poor were starving. As bread was in short supply, ragged children picked potato peelings off dunghills and beat off stray dogs competing for bones thrown out  of kitchens.  Bread riots were put down by the militia, the protestors were tried and sentenced to death or transportation.  

In These Times is a remarkable book written by an award winning historian at the peak of her powers. Uglow explains the complex politics of the era with elegant ease and has an eye for detail which is worthy of the biographer of the engraver, Thomas Bewick. Crammed with fascinating facts, we read about what the people wore, ate and thought. The period is brought to life as in this book we hear the beating of the recruiting drum, smell the choking smoke in a naval battle and see the pictures by Turner and Constable and the satirical cartoons by Gillray and Cruickshank. Thanks to Uglow’s skill as an historian two hundred years later we too can experience a taste of Wordsworth’s “dawn.”

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