19 ON 19: The British Library's UNTOLD LIVES Blog

Written by a variety of scholars, the British Library's Untold Lives blog highlights quirky historical moments, images, documents, and, of course, people in richly illustrated mini-essays that range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. The list below synopsizes just a few of my favorite C19-related posts from this extraordinary resource.




1. The Bookbinders' Provident Asylum is built in 1843 to provide a refuge for aged and incapacitated book trade workers and their widows, as well as "females who have worked at the business for at least ten years." 

So19 Interviews: ROBERT MORRISON on THE REGENCY YEARS

Today I’m delighted to share my conversation with biographer and literary critic Robert Morrison about his most recent book, The Regency Years: During which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern. My So19 essay on the book appears 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.

So19 Art: A Startling Event in Regency London


I made this image as a homage to Rob Morrison's The Regency Years, the subject of our latest interview. The view of Regency-era Leicester Square is from the periodical commonly known as Ackermann's Repository, more properly the Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions, and politics. (The Internet Archive has digitized a number of volumes should you want to browse this splendid publication.) The hot-air balloon I floated above the scene started as a digitized version of a period engraving before getting some additional decoration in the form of the book cover, which I placed into a circular frame and superimposed onto the balloon. An old wood frame and tongue-in-cheek caption seemed like the perfect finishing touches. Thanks to Rob for a spectacular book—and some delightful inspiration for an afternoon of art-making. 

A So19 SPECIAL: a conversation between JULIE DOBROW and KIMBERLY A. HAMLIN

Most white women in the 19th century had one basic choice in life: whom to marry. Those who dared not marry or, worse, those who chose the wrong husband often faced dire consequences. The worst fate of all, however, was that of what the 19th century and some of the 20th called a fallen woman, the woman who had sex outside of marriage. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, things were starting to change for American women—especially for and because of those who were willing to defy convention—but the sexual double standard remained firmly in place.


Today, So19 is delighted to share a chat between biographers Julie Dobrow and Kimberly Hamlin, both of whom have written vivid biographies of fascinating women, tarred with the “fallen” brush, who were born in the 1850s. Their subjects probably didn’t meet, though Julie and Kimberly like to think that there could have been a chance encounter when each attended the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Whether or not they ever encountered each other, Julie and Kimberly are sure that they’d have had a lot to talk about—and I definitely concur.

So19 readers will know Julie Dobrow from our review of her book After Emily, as well as the lively interview she was generous enough to give us on the book. Kimberly A. Hamlin is new to So19, but we'll be running interviewing Kimberly on her book Free Thinker at the time of its softcover publication this summer. You can find brief bios of both Julie and Kimberly at the end of this piece—but before that, here’s their conversation. Enjoy!

JD: It would make sense to start with a bit of background on our subjects.

KH: I agree. Why don’t you begin?

So19 Interviews: KATE BELLI

I'm so pleased to share an interview with Kate Belli, whose Gilded Gotham mysteries explore fascinating aspects of New York City just before the turn of the twentieth century. Intrigued by history from an early age, Kate earned a PhD in American art and has variously worked as an antiques appraiser, a museum curator and a college professor. Kate has lived many places, among them Florence, Italy; Brooklyn; the American Deep South; and in a cottage next to Monet’s gardens in Northern France. Today she lives and works in Central Pennsylvania with her husband and son. Betrayal on the Bowery, her second Gilded Gotham book, appeared in Fall 2021 from Crooked Lane and can be purchased on Amazon, Bookshop, or at your local independent bookstore; a third installment of the series is slated for publication in October 2022. Find out more about Kate on her website and follow her on Instagram and Facebook. All that said, here's our chat!

Q. You’ve done so many interesting jobs! When did you begin writing fiction? What drew you to writing mystery novels rather than fiction in some other genre?


I started writing fiction some time ago, when I was in graduate school for art history. I think it began both as a reprieve from academic work and as a way to do something more creative with all the interesting history I was researching. When I started writing fiction, I was inspired by Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books, and the Gilded Gotham series began its life as a Gilded Age historical romance, but I found it worked much better as a mystery. While there’s still a romantic subplot, I’ve become more drawn to writing murder than kissing.

So19 Interviews: ANDREA PENROSE

I’m delighted to share my interview with author Andrea Penrose on her fifth Wrexford and Sloane Regency-era mystery, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens. With a satirical artist and an amateur chemist as protagonists, the series makes rich use of the era’s complex scientific and cultural innovations. While such innovations rarely resulted in real-life murders, Penrose’s novels offer a vivid and realistic sense of the tensions that arose around them. Reading her books, I’m always introduced to a new aspect of the intellectual life of the period and also reminded that our own is far from the only historical period in which conflicts around the interpretation, communication and commercialization of new discoveries reached fever pitch. A voracious reader who’s been fascinated by the Regency ever since she first picked up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Penrose received her undergraduate degree in art (though she also took enough history courses for a major in that as well) from Yale and earned her MFA in Graphic Design from the Yale School of Art, concentrating in publication design. In addition to the Wrexford and Sloane mysteries, she’s the author of seven Lady Ariana books, which she describes as being about “danger, devilry, deception—spiced with a dash of chocolate.” (Let me just add that if more danger came with chocolate, I’d be much less risk-averse.) She blogs at The Word Wenches, which is always a delightful read; you can find out more about Andrea and her work on her website and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens can be purchased on Amazon, Bookshop, and through your local independent bookstore. With warm thanks to Andrea for taking the time to chat with me, here’s our conversation.

Q. What inspired you to choose Regency London as the setting for a detective series? Were you always drawn to that time and place, for example, or did it just allow you to write about particular issues that interested you?

I love the era because it was a fabulously interesting time and place—a world aswirl in silks, seduction and the intrigue of the Napoleonic Wars. Radical new ideas were clashing with the conventional thinking of the past. People were questioning the fundamentals of society, and as a result they were fomenting changes in every aspect of life. Politics, art, music, science, social rules—the world was turning upside down.

Romanticism was taking hold, bringing a new wave of individual expression. You had Beethoven composing emotional symphonies, Byron composing wildly romantic poetry about individual angst, Turner dabbling in impressionistic watercolors and Mary Wollstonecraft writing the first feminist manifestos.

Technology was disrupting everyday life as the Industrial Revolution began cranking into high gear. Interest in science was exploding as people were suddenly wanting to understand the world around them and how it worked—geology; the workings of the heavens; the mysteries of the sea. People like Alexander von Humboldt, now considered the father of ecology, and Charles Darwin of evolution fame were starting to look around at flora and fauna and ask Why, Why, Why?

In so many ways, it was the birth of the modern world—and for me, its challenges, its characters and its conflicts have such relevance to our own times.

So19 Interviews: HELEN HUMPHREYS

I'm delighted to feature an interview with Helen Humphreys about her resonant new book, Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium, today. Small in size but imaginatively wide-ranging, Field Study uses reflections on herbaria—the collections of dried plant specimens made by both amateur and professional botanists to preserve and share information about plant species—as a means of connecting to the plants and plant lovers of the past, the plants of our present, the endurance as well as fragility of nature itself, and the seasons of our journeys both personally and as citizens of the Earth. It's filled with fascinating lore and detail, yet it's also a profoundly meditative book: an elegant, quiet, and compelling record of one woman's journey into past and present, the outside world and her own imagination. As beautifully designed and illustrated as it is written, it's a wonderful read as well as a perfect gift for anyone who loves plants, nature, environmental and scientific history and/or reflections on women's lives.

Helen Humphreys is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. My own favorites among her works include, in no particular order, Nocturne, The Ghost Orchard, The River, Leaving Earth, and (of course, for a feminist lover of the 19th century) Afterimage. Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium  appeared from ECW Press on September 21, 2021. It can be purchased at venues including Amazon.ca in Canada and bought in the US on AmazonBookshop.org, and through your local independent bookstore. With thanks to Helen for her thoughtful answers as well as her extraordinary book, here's our chat.

Q. Could you speak about the gestation of Field Study? What gave rise to the idea for the book at this moment in our communal lives and/or your own creative trajectory?

A: As I explained in the Introduction, I was looking for a way to write about nature that didn’t turn away from the dire facts of this present moment, but still allowed for praise. I decided on the herbarium because I wanted to show the interaction of humans and nature through time, and the herbarium seemed the perfect crucible for that exploration. I started writing and researching the book before the pandemic, so the subject matter wasn’t as timely as it became later on, after the book was published and the lockdowns had focused people’s attention more on the natural world.

Q. The first text we see after the title page reads, “This book was researched and written on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. I am grateful for their long and vital relationship with the plant life that inhabits this region.” That felt so important—could you talk about it a bit?

A: I wanted to give a land acknowledgement at the start of the book, as I give a land acknowledgement at the beginning of anything public that I do. It’s only right and proper to honor the people whose traditional territory I live and write in.