here. My conversation with Rob about his edited and annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion appears here and our chat about his biography of Thomas De Quincey can be read here.
Robert Morrison is British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. The Regency Years was shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association Crown Award and named by The Economist as one of its 2019 Books of the Year. Morrison’s biography of Thomas De Quincey, The English Opium Eater, was shortlisted for the James Tait Black prize. His annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion appeared from Harvard University Press, and for Oxford University Press he edited a selection of De Quincey’s writings. You can hear Rob read from The Regency Years here, read his recent essay on Jane Austen and Netflix's Bridgerton here, and find out more about Rob and his work on his website. The Regency Years is available for purchase through Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, or your local bookstore.
Q. The Regency Years conveys a huge amount of information from a huge array of different sources. Before we jump into the content of the book, tell us a bit about your research and writing process.
When I began the book I thought I knew the Regency period quite well. It is brief, beginning in 1811, when George III lapses permanently into some form of insanity, and ending in 1820, when George III dies and his eldest son, who had been ruling Britain as the Prince Regent, becomes George IV. The Regency falls right in the middle of the broader literary movement known as “Romanticism,” about which I have taught and researched and written for many years, and which is typically said to begin with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and to end at some point in the 1830s with the passage of the Reform Bill, or the rise of Charles Dickens, or the crowning of Queen Victoria.
But when I started to do my research I quickly discovered that there were significant events (the War of 1812, for example, or the inventions of George Stephenson and Charles Babbage) that I needed to explore in more detail. Further, it was soon clear that writing about, say, John Keats as a major Romantic author was different from writing about him as a major Regency author. When Keats’s poetry is placed alongside the work of major Romantic writers like William Blake and William Wordsworth it looks one way. When it is placed alongside the work of major Regency writers like Walter Scott, William Hazlitt, and Jane Austen it looks another. The differences and similarities between these two perspectives are striking and often unexpected, and they certainly helped me to bring the contours of both periods more clearly into view.
When conducting my research I just work with Word files—hundred and hundreds of Word files. In the case of The Regency Years, these files were grouped into two main categories: “people” and “events.” I went over and over these files, read some more, made connections, winnowed down, discarded and rethought, drew comparisons, read again, and gradually worked toward organizing the files into themes and then the themes into chapters. I have to talk about Waterloo. Where does that go? I have to talk about Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan. Where does that go? All six of Austen’s published novels appeared in the Regency. Do I group them all together? Do I consider them separately?
I spent about three years asking myself those kinds of questions, and trying to see my way toward a structure and an argument. Once I got there, the writing began, and for me that’s when the real rethinking and shedding and connecting starts to happen. Looking for the best way to put it all together is sometimes a bit daunting, but I’ve discovered that if you just keep pushing away at it, eventually it takes on a shape and, I hope, an energy and a depth.
Q. As I mention in my review of The Regency Years, I particularly loved the way the book shared not only your vision of the Regency but its vision of itself. I often felt like I was eavesdropping on the most interesting guests at a wonderful party! Was this generous use of quoted material part of your plan from the start? How did you see this element as adding to the book’s meaning or usefulness?
I did know from the start that I wanted to let Regency people speak for themselves in as many instances as possible, from the Royal family right down to people living rough in the streets. I also knew that I wanted Regency authors to speak on topics that we do not typically associate with them; that is, I knew I wanted Dorothy Wordsworth on the battlefield of Waterloo, William Wordsworth on emigration, Keats on the arctic, William Cobbett on boxing, Walter Scott on evangelicalism, Maria Edgeworth on roads, Lady Caroline Lamb on flagellation, Percy Shelley on the Luddite Riots, the Duke of Wellington on Almack’s Club, and so on.
Part of the reason I made this decision was because some of the finest authors in the English language wrote during the Regency, and I was as ever distressingly aware that they could put the idea with far more force than I could. I have marveled for years, for example, at the pith and drama of William Hazlitt’s prose. “Though we are mighty fine fellows nowadays,” declared Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881, “we cannot write like Hazlitt.” Some of my favorite moments in the book are when Hazlitt describes the Brighton Pavilion, or watches Edmund Kean on stage for the first time, or looks at Thomas Lawrence’s remarkable portrait of the Regent.
So much of the character of the period—especially its formalities and restraints—comes through in its language. Martin Amis is very good on this point. “Mr Darcy’s first name is Fitzwilliam, which is a nice name—but Elizabeth will never use it. She will call him ‘Mr Darcy’ or, occasionally, ‘My dear Mr Darcy’. You call your mother ‘Madam’ and your dad ‘Sir’….If it be the sixth of October, then ‘Michaelmas’ will have been celebrated ‘yesterday se’nnight’. ‘La’, what ‘extacies’ we were in!” Austen’s language—and the words of dozens of other people that I quote in the book—at once attracts us to the period and reveals our distance from it.
Q. As an expert on Regency literature and history, you were thoroughly familiar with much of the material the book covers before you began writing it. Did anything particularly surprise you as you moved through the process of putting it all together?
There was a good deal that surprised me as I started putting everything together. I think it is part of what almost invariably happens when you start digging around and down into the details and the neglected material and the overlooked asides. Nuances, complications, and paradoxes come into view, and the period starts to emerge in new lights and from different angles. It was an exhilarating part of the process and it convinced me that I had an idea worth pursuing.
I didn’t realize the extent to which the engineer Thomas Telford transformed the Highlands of Scotland with a series of roads, bridges, canals, and harbors. I didn’t realize the extent to which Byron hated Wellington as a warmongering master of “a brain-spattering, windpipe-slitting art.” I didn’t realize the extent to which Dorothy Jordan commanded the Regency stage: in 1815 Leigh Hunt said that she was “not only the first living actress in comedy” but “the only actress…who can any way be reckoned great and original.”
I didn’t realize the extent to which the Regency witnessed the peaks of government-orchestrated, mob-based homophobic violence. Same-sex love was one of the most explosive topics in Regency Britain, and it united groups from every class and background in a common cause of loathing and rabid persecution, as seen for example in the 1811 execution of two members of the so-called Vere Street coterie. Warned a German traveler to England in 1818: “The kiss of friendship between men is strictly avoided as inclining towards the sin regarded in England as more abominable than any other.” The punishment for a convicted “sodomite” was the pillory and then death by public hanging.
Yet I also didn’t realize the extent to which the Regency marks the crucial moment in British history when writers—despite the routine execution of homosexual men and no doubt to some extent because of it—began a serious examination of the experiences, identities, and sensibilities of homosexuality. Jeremy Bentham produced a wide-ranging indictment of British attitudes toward same-sex love. He believed that England’s sodomy laws brought “death to a human creature” and “anguish to an innocent family,” and he systematically demolished the religious, legal, and historical claims of those who insisted it was “unnatural.” Anne Lister, who is often referred to as the “first modern lesbian,” wrote voluminous diaries in code in which she detailed her joyous and sometimes rakish experience of lesbianism. Her most cherished lover, Mary Belcombe, was concerned that their relationship was “unnatural.” Lister disagreed: “my conduct & feelings” are “surely natural to me inasmuch as they were not taught, not fictitious, but instinctive.” Throughout her diaries she writes with sophistication and largely without guilt, as she creates and then self-consciously embraces her own lesbian identity.
Q. Your book’s subtitle suggests that the Regency ushered us into the modern age. Could you give those who haven’t yet read your book a brief overview of this point?
I try when I write to show why the lives and literature of two centuries ago matter now. It is far from the only objective I have in mind, but I do think it is reasonable for readers to ask, for example, what is in an Austen novel that makes it worth reading now, and what has enabled it to maintain it relevance beyond its own historical moment. (My shortest answer is that falling in love today still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy.)
Austen is only one of dozens of remarkable Regency women and men who did and wrote things that have left an indelible impression, and I wanted to write a book in which I brought these achievements together not only to show what a compact, elegant, and disturbing period the Regency was, but to demonstrate why what happened then profoundly shapes what happens now.
The Regency witnessed the advent of the desiring, democratic, secular, commercial society that is for the first time recognizably our own. William Cobbett and Henry Hunt pioneered civil disobedience as a strategy that sought to raise political consciousness and that brought the peaceful demands of the many right to the door of the privileged few. Sir Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday invented the miner’s safety lamp, and demonstrated the powers of science to save lives and ameliorate the human condition. John Clare was among the first environmental activists and wrote compellingly of the intricate interrelationship between the human and the nonhuman worlds. David Brewster invented the kaleidoscope, the instant and immense popularity of which revealed the burgeoning powers of consumerism.
Further, Charles Babbage was the first to imagine what would eventually become the modern computer. Pierce Egan established modern sports journalism. Percy Shelley championed secularism. Edmund Kean and Lord Byron were the first modern celebrities. Henry Raeburn and Thomas Lawrence painted the glamorous portraits that have made the Regency a byword for beauty and poise. John Constable produced timeless versions of rural England. J. M. W. Turner revolutionized British landscape art. Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were the first to detail the soaring intellectual pleasures and vicious cycles of bodily pain brought on by opiate addiction. Mary Shelley created Frankenstein and John Polidori produced The Vampyre, the two most potent horror myths of the modern age.
Q. The Regency Years evokes so many colorful, complex people. Are there any individuals whose lives or temperaments particularly appeal to you? What about them makes them especially interesting?
I like the melancholy of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon as he recalls one of his best Regency dinner parties: “How one ought to treasure such evenings, when life gives us so few of them.” I like William Henry Harrison, a future American president, for his honest assessment of the Indigenous leader Tecumseh: “he was one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions.” I like the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine writer John Wilson for his celebration of a prize fight between a black man and a white man: “We saw before us two human beings—and our hearts beat for the cause of liberty all over the world.” I like Jane Austen for the strength and independence of her women: “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” I like the radical journalist Leigh Hunt for speaking truth to power: the Regent “was a violator of his word” and “a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace.”
I like Sydney Smith, the Anglican clergyman and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review. Austen may have used him as the model for Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. The Regency prized wits, and Smith was one of its greatest. When he heard two women shouting at each other across an alleyway, he observed that they would never agree, for they were “arguing from different premises.” Of his friend Henry Luttrell, Smith declared: “[His] idea of heaven is eating pâté de foie [gras] to the sound of trumpets.”
I admire the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry because of her courage and kindness (one of her favorite words), and because her efforts genuinely seem to have made a difference in the lives of hundreds of female prisoners and their children who, before her interventions, were living dead-ended lives in intolerable conditions for minor crimes such as poaching a rabbit or cutting down a growing tree. “I hope you will endeavour to be very useful, and not spend all your time in pleasing yourselves,” she wrote to her children in 1813 after her first experience of Newgate prison.
I have since my undergraduate days admired John Keats. Coleridge and Wordsworth both went to Cambridge. Percy Shelley was born into an affluent family. Byron was an aristocrat. Keats, on the other hand, did not go to university, had terrible struggles with debt and poor health, published work that was viciously condemned by contemporary reviewers, and died tragically early at just twenty-five. At the start of 1818 he had written little of significance. By the end of 1819 he had produced some of the finest poems in the English language, including “The Eve of St Agnes,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Autumn.” It is a staggering pace of development and one of the most remarkable stories of the Regency. “The ‘Grecian Urn’ is unbearably beautiful,” observed the great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, and “likewise with the ‘Nightingale,’ which I can never read through without tears in my eyes.”
Q. One of my own surprises as I read had to do with Beau Brummell. I knew almost nothing about him beyond the fact that his name has become a sort of byword for a stylish man. I was fascinated by your description of him as a democratic figure and a sort of exemplar of self-invention, as well as the similarities between his impact and that of “influencers” today.
I expect that, like many people who were teenagers in the 1970s, the first time I heard the name “Beau Brummell” was when Billy Joel sang his name in “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” When I was writing The Regency Years, though, I thought more often of another rock star, David Bowie, who like Brummell rose far above the class into which he was born, and who—again like Brummell—used a powerful sense of self-invention to transgress the boundaries of rank, fashion, and gender.
Brummell was the foremost dandy of the Regency, and he presided over London’s chic West End as its acknowledged leader of fashion. His vision of the dandy was inspired by aristocratic ideals, as seen especially in his contempt for work, his commitment to metropolitan languor, and his powerful sense of exclusivity. Yet Brummell’s dandy was also, as you say, a democratic figure (the same might also be said of Bowie’s). Anyone could become a dandy. It was not about being born into the right family. It was about a different kind of aristocracy, a new, modern version that was founded in individual talent, mettle, and vision.
Brummell was on an intimate footing with some of the richest women and men in Regency Britain. But he was also their nemesis. The traditional elites based their claims for superiority on birth, breeding, and education. Brummell showed them all up for shams. Social status, he demonstrated, was about performance rather than merit, and even someone from his much humbler origins could play the part as well as—or even better than—them. Byron, who knew a great deal himself about self-invention, was deeply impressed. When he ranked the “three great men of the nineteenth century,” he placed “himself third, Napoleon second, and Brummell first.” Through the sheer force of his personality and without Byron’s own aristocratic advantages, Brummell transformed himself into one of the most celebrated members of the Regency haut ton, and a fashion icon whose sense of style still influences the way men dress.
Q. As I read the book, I was really struck by a paradox: The Regency saw myriad immensely gifted women doing interesting and important things, yet also really painful levels of female vulnerability, victimization and powerlessness. Fair reading?
Sadly, yes, I think that is a fair reading. I set out consciously in the book to put women center-stage as often as possible. I wanted to bring forward a large female cast and then highlight what each of them accomplished as an individual. Their stories are, for me, a very large part of what makes the Regency so fascinating.
I gave as much space as I could to famous names like Austen, Princess Caroline, Mary Shelley, and Lady Caroline Lamb. But I also tried to make room for women who are perhaps not as well known. Mary Linwood, an artist in needlework, established her own gallery in London, where she staged what one Regency visitor described as “perhaps the most extraordinary exhibition in the world.” Elizabeth O’Neill made her London debut at Covent Garden in 1814 in the role of Juliet, and Hazlitt almost immediately hailed her as “by far the most impressive tragic actress we have seen since Mrs Siddons.” Maria Graham spent two years in India, and took a keen interest in the country’s history, languages, literature, music, mythology, and religion, as she details in her Journal of a Residence in India (1812) and Letters on India (1814). Lady Hester Stanhope, travelling in 1813 with her rich and much younger lover, Michael Bruce, became the first European woman to reach Palmyra in Syria, where she was proclaimed “Queen of the Desert.”
Yet for many other women in the Regency, life was misery. Nothing reveals the vicious and competitive side of the era like its thriving trade in prostitution. In 1811, the novelist James Lawrence estimated that within the last few years the total number of London prostitutes had risen from “fifty…to seventy thousand: so that every eighth female that we meet in the streets is a prostitute.” Some of the females driven by poverty into the trade were horrifyingly young. “Prostitution,” reported Pierce Egan, “is so profitable a business, and conducted so openly, that hundreds of persons keep houses of ill-fame, for the reception of girls not more than twelve and thirteen years of age.”
Women—then as now—were also the victims of entrenched double standards that very often thwarted or diminished their lives. The Regency courtesan Julia Johnstone put the matter very plainly. “Man may commit an hundred deviations from the path of rectitude, yet he still can return....But woman, when she makes one false step, can retrieve it no more!” Byron makes the same point in Don Juan when he has the young and beautiful Donna Julia, trapped in a loveless marriage to an old philanderer, compare her monochromatic existence to the colorful world open to men like Don Juan: “Man’s love is of his life a thing apart, / ’Tis woman’s whole existence,” she tells him. Men have many options and many resources at their disposal, women “but one, / To love again, and be again undone.” Austen worried that Pride and Prejudice was “rather too light & bright & sparkling.” But as the Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant knew, Austen wrote with a “stinging yet soft-voiced contempt,” and all her novels contain pressing questions about money, matrimony, class, powerlessness, spinsterhood, and the fate of women.
Q. What are you up to, and working on, now?
Like everyone, my life has been thoroughly disrupted by Covid. When the pandemic began, I was living in Bath, and working at Bath Spa University as a British Academy Global Professor. Over the last wo years I have continued (virtually) to work for and teach at Bath Spa. But I have done so from our home just outside Kingston, Ontario. I have now returned to Bath full time, and am looking very forward to seeing my students and colleagues again, and to diving back into the British archives.
My biggest project right now is to produce a collected edition of the letters of the English essayist and opium addict Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). De Quincey also lived in Bath, and published his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, two hundred years ago last year. There are various selected editions of De Quincey’s letters, but there has never been a collected edition.
It’s a big project but one that I am finding immensely rewarding. De Quincey’s letters are scattered all over the world, and part of my work in the last year has been tracking down which letters are where, and who has what. So far I have found about 100 letters that I did not know existed before I began my research, and I think I am closing in on dozens more. It is very exciting to find a De Quincey letter that reveals a good deal about him that we did not know, and that has probably not been read by anyone for more than a century.
The edition will be in two volumes and is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. The new material is fascinating and when gathered together in the new edition will I hope throw a great deal of new light on De Quincey’s life and works.