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Book Review: In These Times

By (April 27, 2015) No Comment

In These Times:in these times cover

Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815

by Jenny Uglow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Jenny Uglow, the great biographer of Hogarth, presents in her latest book a sprawling broad-spectrum look how Britain’s decades-long wars with France’s revolutionary National Convention and, later with the country’s usurping dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, what amounted to a world war in its scope and ability to touch the most intimate corners of even the most distant civilians in its ambit. These wars, Uglow writes, “were like permanent bad weather … They affected everyone, sometimes directly, and sometimes almost without their knowing it, and in the process the underlying structures of British society ground against each other and slowly shifted, like the invisible movement of tectonic plates.”

Although she acknowledges the “big names” like Bonaparte and Wellington and Pitt and Paine, Uglow’s task in this thumpingly wonderful big book is to trace the impacts of the wars on the smaller names, the ordinary people who raised the future soldiers, provided the shoes, stays, gun stocks, sail seams, fish barrels, and echoed the latest news and rumors in their letters and journals and conversations throughout the key years. Uglow has sifted through a staggering amount of these scattered primary sources, and she weaves them all into a narrative that should be read compulsorily in conjunction with every thousand-page biography of Bonaparte or Wellington, since she reminds her readers of how thoroughly the wars infiltrated their societies:

The war rumbles beneath the late poems of Burns, and colours the work of Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lamb, Clare, Byron and Shelley; it affects Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen; it prompts moral outpourings from Hannah More and angry articles from Cobbett and Leigh Hunt; it inspires paintings by de Loutherbourg and Turner. The prints of Gillray, Rowlandson, the Cruikshanks and fellow satirists are a version of the history in themselves, biased and brilliant.

These were the wars in which Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza was married to a captain in Marie Antoinette’s dragoons, a man who returned to France to safeguard his land and was guillotined in March of 1794; they were the wars in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge secretly enlisted as a private in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache”; these were the wars in which able-bodied men in the farthest provinces were never safe from press-gangs – a fate to be feared, since as Uglow writes, “Army service was unlimited – once in, you were there for life. That life might be short, since disease as well as battle cut men down, and it was certainly brutal, with harsh punishments for petty misdemeanours.”

Not everything was dread, of course; as Uglow amply demonstrates, the war years were also boom years for well-placed merchants and manufacturers. She evocatively describes, for instance, the surge in musket-making in England: “Along the lanes and alleys and over the roofs of Birmingham in the winter of 1792-3 the frost glittered, hard as steel. Yet within the open workshop doors men sweated in their shirts, sleeves rolled up, necks open, making handguns and muskets …” And she does a marvelous job of bringing these usually-anonymous profiteers to life, as in the case of army supplier Samuel Galton, Junior, who grew rich and bought a second house out of the war:

He and his wife Lucy, from a Scottish branch of the Barclay family, had five sons and three daughters and a house full of noise, music and books. Lucy was clever and humorous, knowledgeable about plants, birds and insects, a reader of Homer, Dante and Milton. Samuel was bulky and serious, with a piercing glance from beneath heavy brows … Like all who supplied the army, Galton was raking in money. His profits grew year by year …

In These Times rolls on so smoothly and engagingly in telling these stories and linking them all to the larger drama of statesmen and clashing armies that the whole thing reads almost like the grandest of all possible Napoleonic historical novels. The book is a masterpiece of social history, not to be missed.