In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars

Even the most eclectic history buff has periods that draw her back time and time again. if you’ve spent much time here at the Margins you know the late eighteenth century is one of those times for me. Regency England and Revolutionary France, colonial expansion in India and losses in North American, Enlightenment thought and the roots of Romanticism–all call my name.

Since this is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I’ll be spending more time than usual thinking/reading/talking about the long eighteenth century.* I suspect I won’t be the only one. In fact, I’ll bet the on-line discussion this July will equal that surrounding last year’s centennial anniversary of the assassination of the Grand Duke Ferdinand at Sarajevo.**

Jenny Uglow. In These Times Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 is a good place to start the discussion.

Uglow describes In These Times as “a crowd biography”. For much of her career, Uglow has looked at the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the lens of individual lives. With In These Times, she expands her talent for biography into a broader account of how the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars affected those who remained at home. The big names of British history–William Pitt and Willaim Cobbett, Nelson and Wellington, Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen–appear in their proper places. But Uglow focuses on less celebrated lives from all levels of society, from factory boy to aristocratic lady, as recorded in letters, memoirs, diaries, and parish records.

In This Times is not another version of “daily life in the time of”.*** Instead Uglow looks at how twenty-two years of constant warfare shaped society in fundamental ways. She not only describes direct effects of war such as enlistment practices and the economic impact of government military contracts; she also places events that are normally described in terms of their domestic impact, such as the social disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution, within the context of war. She looks at newspaper distribution, shoe manufacturing, the impact of war loans on private banking and the ethical dilemmas of Quaker gun manufacturers,

Depicting a society in which war is as pervasive as permanent bad weather, In These Times combines social and military history in a manner that will appeal to readers of both.

*Roughly 1688 to 1815, or 1832 depending on which historian you talk to. Sometimes centuries are an awkward time division when you’re talking about historical events instead of the calendar. .

** Normally I’d link to my own post on the subject. But this one is much better: Two Bullets, Eight Million Dead.

*** If that’s what you’re looking for, may I recommend Jane Austen’s England?

The heart of this post previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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