Review: “The Regency Years” by Robert Morrison

Thumbs up for The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern by Robert Morrison. History.

I was puzzled, at first, by this book: why in heaven’s name does it start with crime, punishment, and riots? The violent political backdrop of the Regency is certainly important, but starting there—in a somewhat academic style no less—immediately excluded this book from being what I thought it perhaps was: a narrative primer of the period. As I pressed on through several sections, I realized it was not that. This is in fact a book dense with interesting detail pulled from primary sources, but I began to enjoy it only when I realized that it is neither intended as a chronological history nor a comprehensive social one, but is, rather, a grab bag of small (regrettably unlabeled!) sections that can be read essentially in any order. It suffers from not having its concept explained in the introduction. That said, while this review sounds critical, I would highly recommend it for a student of the era who already knows the basics and wants to drill down deeper into a diverse spread of topics. It does not paint history with a broad brush, nor is it intensely focused, but it is full of wonderful detail to spark the imagination. For example, on gambling:

Three ritzy West End clubs dominated the gambling landscape. The oldest, White’s, had an elected membership in 1814 of 500 and was loosely affiliated with the Tories. In addition to whist, the card game that ruled the club, its famous betting book contained wagers between members on anything from birth and marriage dates to domestic politics and the unfolding events of the Napoleonic wars: “Mr Brummell bets Mr. Irby one hundred guineas to yen that Bonaparte returns to Paris (Decr 12th 1812).” Brooks’s, a second and only slightly less fashionable club, was allied with the Whigs, had like White’s an exclusive membership, and was known for dice games such as hazard (the forerunner of craps) and card games like faro and macao (a variant on vingt-et-un). Water’s, on the east corner of Bolton Street, was the greatest of the gambling clubs. The Regent (at the time still Prince of Wales) had impetuously suggested its founding when—after listening to guests at his dinner table complain about the bad food at White’s and Brooks’s—he rang for one of his personal chefs, Jean Baptiste Watier, and asked him if he would like to start a club. Macao reigned supreme at Watier’s, but play there was much more reckless than at the other two establishments, and in 1819 it was forced to close after only twelve years in business, a high-profile casualty of an appetite for gaming that too often knew no limits.

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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