Introducing my new book- Voices of the Georgian Age
I love to read historical diaries, especially eighteenth century ones. Did anybody else on the planet request the diaries of Parson Woodforde as their main Christmas present this year? I think not! So I decided to turn my obsession into a book for Pen and Sword, and you can see the result above. Seventeen cameos of Georgians who kept a diary, wrote an autobiography or committed their travel adventures to paper in the form of a travelogue. All the documents are available for free on the internet; that was a deal breaker; that’s why there was no Parson Woodforde in the book.
So our diaries, travelogues and memoirs are problematic, but no more so than other historical sources; just because they are attached to a named, frail human being does not change anything. All survivals from the past need to be treated with caution, and the normal questions asked about provenance. Some were commercial endeavours, written to be bought and read, others were private and reflective. The difference is easy to spot, and relatively easy to take into account. One major advantage is that our witnesses are already well-known people; our sources are not scraps of letters or diaries that have survived with no context, but documents that can be interpreted with specific background knowledge.
Who are the seventeen? They are in approximate chronological order (they overlap, as you would expect) and the first is William Hutton– a bragging and boastful Birmingham businessman and polymath who struggled very hard to make something of himself, succeeded and made his success self-righteously obvious. In order to tell us how far he progressed, he gives us a harrowing account of his early life and work; perhaps exaggerated for effect, but it is still an excellent portrayal of Georgian family life.
Our next voice (above) is our only foreigner, the Anglophile intellectual Karl Moritz, who came to England in 1782 and wrote about his travels. He arrived in Gravesend on June 1 determined to love everything about the country, but found his position increasingly untenable as he travelled through London, Windsor, Oxford and Birmingham. We leave him in Burton-on-Trent, where the whole population seemed to come out their houses, line the streets and jeer at him.
Our next voice is are only cabinet minister, William Windham. He was a member of the establishment by 1800, involved deeply in the struggle against Napoleon, but we follow him in his earlier years when he was racked with self doubt and introspection. This was an age of sensibility and sensitivity, but you get the feeling that Windham took it all much to far. He feels very modern with his relentless focus on his own feelings, and a bit less so when he does mathematics on his coach home to Norwich or searches the bookshops for Greek texts.
Our next witness was another traveller, John Byng. Byng had fifteen sightseeing holidays in England and Wales between 1781 and 1794, never earlier than May and never later than mid-September. He rode his horse from place to place, sending his servant ahead as an ‘avant courier’ to secure accommodation and stabling, and spent his days researching and sightseeing. There was little about the contemporary world that impressed him; he had loyal friends and family, and was married to William Windham’s sister. They didn’t impress him much either, at least not on the surface. He complains and comments a lot; so much that only a fraction of his journey could be covered. The key to Byng is that he is entertaining despite his apparent misanthropy. The folio society has published all his diaries in their normal beautiful book form; they have not done this for Windham.
Our next voice is Joseph Farington, a metropolitan artistic lovie type who step his days drinking tea, and gossiping. His machinations at the Royal Academy had no historic consequences so after his death he was soon forgotten; he is entertaining because he likes to tell stories and paint pen pictures; both of the rich and famous, and of the poor if they did something connected with death, money and sex. He loved it when people died in a strange and entertaining manner. He would have loved his own death. His reputation as a first rate Georgian artist has not survived; yet his work is still sold at auction houses for respectable amounts of money-expect to spend £10,000 at Christies for one of his more substantial works, but that is not why he is in the book.
At this point, you may be asking, where are the poor and powerless? The short answer is ‘not writing travelogues and diaries’. The exception is James Hardy Vaux, a plausible and highly literate criminal who is completely unrepresentative of his class, criminal or otherwise, but his description of Georgian underworld is accurate and fascinating. He is a lying, cheating, conniving thief, short on morals and long on excuses for his behaviour. I found him hard to dislike, because he was always interesting. This, to me, presents a dilemma for all human relationships- why often do people prefer interesting and dangerous to good and reliable?. Once again, we follow his adventures for only a small part of his journey, as his diary is dense and action-packed. For most of my readers, if they only follow up on one of my witnesses, this will be the one.
The radical priest is not a new phenomenon. Our unorthodox member of the establishment is Richard Warner. As well as opposing war- a brave position in the 1800s- he was also a fanatical pedestrian. Like Karl Moritz, he liked walking and writing down what happened to him. We follow his through a journey to Wales in the late 1790s. He walked through the Principality in August 1797 and August and September 1798, taking with him both his intellectual interests and his English prejudices about Wales, although to be fair, these prejudices were mild and not particularly directed at the Welsh, though he did prefer the Wales of the past. Like Byng, he looked backwards.
We have a fair number of genteel, educated ladies with time to kill. Our next witness, Jane, wrote one hundred and sixty letters (see her desk, right) to her her sister Cassandra, all full of gossip and family news, and I have concentrated on two aspects of her life- her dancing, and her moving about the country. The lady in question did lead the kind of sheltered life that was common amongst the unmarried, middle class woman, but she did meet ( and understand) people, and was able too use the material to write her novels.
Our next witness is Hannah Gurney. Hannah is a Quaker, deeply introspective and intelligent like Windham, but disconnected to the material world. We follow her journey to full membership of the Quaker faith, her marriage and family, but it is very hard going at times. Essentially, I read this so you don’t have to, and I can’t sat that about any pf the other witnesses. She would have seemed odd even at the time; the Georgians did not seem to be able to deal with the Quakers at all.
Our next witness is my favourite. She is Fanny Chapman, and unmarried middle class lady living in Bath in 1809 who is very dependent on men and knew it painfully. She is Jane Austen without the books. We follow her for one year in which her life is turned upside down. Her diaries are dealt with in more detail by Sarah Murden in this excellent blog, which was my inspiration for this chapter. Thank you, Sarah.
Our next witnesses is a hardened criminal who stole dead bodies from graveyards and sold them to doctors. He is generally agreed to be Joseph Naples. For about a year he committed to paper the crimes of the infamous Borough Gang, in neat handwriting and with spelling that was excellent unless written after drinking, which was often. Naples was the bookkeeper, keeping a tally of activities and revenues and distributing the money fairly to his colleagues, who were desperate men prone to mindless, drunken violence when holding a grievance. You may find yourself admiring his efficiency.
Our next witness is pathetic, in the correct sense of the word. He is Thomas Holden, sometimes Thomas Holding who was a convicted Luddite and was transported to Australia. His desperate, near illiterate letters to his wife and family have survived. It would take a heart of stone not to pity him, yet the reactionary government of the time had such a heart. His story does seem to have a happy ending, and I seem to be the first author to find it.
Is mindless, tick-box trophy tourism a new thing? Elisabeth Chivers proves this not to be the case. Elizabeth was 28 and unmarried when she set out with younger sister Sarah and an unnamed uncle for a twenty-day visit to London in March 1814. Her diary is mostly a list of every tourist site that she saw in London. Most of it is less informative than a normal tourist guide; the more interesting part is the glimpses of her life, family and experiences that appear in the gaps between the destinations.
Our next witness is the Scottish surgeon Thomas Lucas, who wrote about the goings on in Stirling in his published diaries (1808 to 1821) only ending with his own death in the year 1822, aged sixty-six. Like nearly all of the diaries, they are too long to do justice to in their entirety so a few years and a few themes have been selected. His interests include the weather, his garden, the war with Napoleon, the antics of the ruling class in his city, and the behaviour of the poor. He is cynical but not bigoted, and provides us with a excellent window on to provincial respectability.
Have you encountered a committed, intelligent radical reformer who despite the good intentions, is perhaps a little too self-regarding? This is another type of human who existed two hundred years ago. Our example is Samuel Bamford, self- taught poet and weaver who was hounded by the authorities because he wanted political reform. We follow him for four years; he is on the run, captured, put in prison and finally present at the massacre of the working people at Peterloo. For most people, he is easier to respect than to like
Our next Georgian voice is the polymath Ellis Knight. She was born in Westminster in 1757, but lived in Italy from 1776 to 1800, with spells in France and Vienna. She was highly educated; she painted (her work can still be bought today) and wrote poetry, knew modern and classical languages, and was the author of two novels. She was by no means the only educated and erudite woman in Georgian Britain, but Knight kept a diary and became a courtier, so providing a unique insight into late Georgian Society. She reminds us that a highly dysfunctional Royal family is not a new thing.
Finally, Rees Gronow is our loose-tongued witness to Georgian eccentric high society, as seen above. As with Farington, our task is to turn his gossip into historical evidence, but even if that fails, there are still the interesting stories of the Regency. Gronow is a member of the top 10,000 like Knight, Byng and Windham, but he alone was also a member of the often capitalized ‘Fashionable World’ as well; he knew Beau Brummell. He knew lots of other famous people, or just knew people who knew them, and he enjoyed collecting stories about them. He was a gossip without a judgmental bone in his body, so the stories are rarely about him, but there is enough confessional material to convince us that he was an adventurous, devil-may-care individual similar to the people he wrote about.
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