From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Austenesque fiction like The Jane Austen Project and the BBC TV series Lost in Austen have entertained Janeites with fantastic stories about journeying back in time to Austen’s Regency Britain. While I cannot imagine being tempted myself, unless guaranteed a round-trip ticket, the idea of a virtual visit to Austen’s Britain with an experienced tour guide who is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a writer of historical fiction was an opportunity not to be turned down.
The Lure of the Past
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency Britain, the latest in Dr. Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guides, takes the reader on a journey to the past, with chapters focused by subject: The Landscape; London; The People; Character; Practicalities; What to Wear; Traveling; Where to Stay; What to Eat, Drink and Smoke; Cleanliness, Health and Medicine; Law and Order; and Entertainment. The book jacket promises “this is history at its most exciting, physical, visceral—the past not as something to be studied but as lived experience.” The excerpts that follow highlight a few of my favorite stops on the “tour.”
“This lighting up of coastal towns is something new. In the mid-eighteenth century you’d have seen just occasional pinpricks of light from the few large houses near the coast. Now there are sea-facing town houses with chandeliers burning in their drawing rooms. Even where these are obscured by curtains or shutters, you may see the bright lanterns above the front doors. … If you could make a time-lapse film of the south coast of England at night between 1789 and 1830 you would see tens of thousands of lights coming on, and growing brighter, as the coast gradually emerges from the darkness.” (10)
“If you ask a Regency person to sum up the spirit of the age, he or she will probably use the word ‘evil’. This is not necessarily because of any of those things that we would condemn as ‘evil’—sexism, racism, childhood mortality, ignorance and violence. All these things can be justified in the Recency mind as natural and sent by God. For many, the real evil is change or, as some people call it with horror, ‘innovation’. The introduction of machinery to take men’s jobs is an evil. Chimneys belching smoke are another evil. The possibility of a French-style revolution is an even greater evil. Threats to the status of the old landowning class are, again, an evil. In short, people fear the future. As Mary Shelley puts it in Frankenstein, ‘nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.’” (89)
Cleanliness, Health, and Medicine
“The great innovation in haircare in this period is the introduction of hairbrushes. Surprisingly, although clothes brushes have been around for centuries, those for the hair are first manufactured by William Kent at his factory in Hertfordshire in 1777. Soon the shops are stacked with them. An ordinary one with a lacquered wooden handle should cost you between 2s and 2s 6d. You will also want to consider acquiring a comb made of horn, ivory, steel or silver (which will cost between 6d and 2s), a pair of scissors (3s 6d) and perhaps a set of curling irons for 1s, with which to shape your hair or wig.” (280)
Visuals, Data, and Takeaways
There are eight pages of color illustrations, several tables and lists with population data, reference notes, and an index that makes finding specific information easy. The author concludes with an epilogue titled, “Envoi” with reflections on surprising take-aways from his research and an explanation of his approach to history.
“Obviously if you want to know why a historical figure did something, or why someone reacted in the way he did, yes, you need that contemporary understanding. But in a Time Traveler’s Guide I find myself constantly questioning this narrow view—that we should only judge people by their own values—by exposing those values themselves to judgement… It is all very well making finely balanced academic points about contemporary values but if we neglect the impact on people’s lives, we are not presenting the full picture. What’s more, we are failing in our public responsibilities as historians, through inadequately explaining to people how their ancestors lived and died. And if we fail in that, we fail altogether.” (366)
This is about more than knowing the price of a hairbrush in 1810. Mortimer never loses sight of the purpose of history; even has he treats his readers to fascinating stories and observations.
A strong sense of place is one of greatest strengths of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency Britain. For example, the chapter on London is divided into three sections: 1790, 1810, and 1830. In each, I felt as though I were walking through the streets with the author, noticing changes to landmarks along the Thames, dodging obstacles as we navigated crowded streets and alleys, quickening our pace to escape the cesspit odors in the parish of St. Giles, gazing in awe at the Chinese pavilion in the Vauxhall Gardens. Regency London came alive for me in this chapter.
Ian Mortimer makes good on the promise of the book’s subtitle “A Handbook for Visitors to the Years 1793 to 1830” with his thorough exploration of the social, political, and economic changes that occurred during the Regency. Mortimer’s history is never dry or boring, but vivid and accessible for general readers and history lovers alike. Readers interested in a particular aspect of Regency life can easily dip into a particular chapter or section without needing to read the entire book. But I recommend the complete tour, based on my thorough enjoyment of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency Britain. Now that I’ve read this guide, I plan to check out the others in the series as well.
5 out of 5 Stars
- The Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency Britain: A Handbook for Visitors to 1789–1830, by Ian Mortimer
- Pegasus Books (April 5, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (448) pages
- ISBN: 978-1643138817
- Genre: Nonfiction, British History
We purchased a review copy for our own enjoyment. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Pegasus Books © 2022; text Tracy Hickman © 2022, austenprose.com.
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Laurel Ann Nattress, editor