Book review: In These Times, by Jenny Uglow

Victory over the French at Bussaco, Portugal, in 1810. On demobilisation in 1815, some 350,000 men left the forces. Picture: Getty/Hulton

Victory over the French at Bussaco, Portugal, in 1810. On demobilisation in 1815, some 350,000 men left the forces. Picture: Getty/Hulton

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JENNY Uglow’s social history of Napoleonic Britain is a triumph of style and scholarship,
says Iain Gale

IN THESE TIMES: LIVING IN BRITAIN THROUGH NAPOLEON’S WARS

Jenny Uglow

Faber, 752pp, £25

It is often said that the character of modern Britain was forged in blood and there was surely no greater example of this than than the 22 years in which this country stood against the tyrannical might of one of the greatest generals of all time.

The Napoleonic Wars did not change just one generation – it underpinned the entire lifespans of several. We know, of course, of the battles – Trafalgar, Salamanca, Talavera and Waterloo. But what was happening at home while the sons of Albion were beating Johnnie Frenchman? We might have read about the industrial revolution, Luddites, the Gordon riots and the Peterloo massacre. But how did it really feel to be alive in “the best of times and the worst of times”?

Jenny Uglow sets out to chronicle not just the happenings of this cataclysmic period but its key social aspects. And she does so with no little skill. The book is a triumph, bringing together a huge amount of scholarship in a single tome. In fact, at a thumping 700-plus pages, it feels as if it should have been published in several volumes. But that would have defeated the purpose. For this book depends upon its scale, swamping us, drawing us deep into the glorious, ghastly, bawdy, bloody world of Napoleonic Britain. And the spectre of war, the first “world” war, dominates every page.

The death toll of Napoleon’s wars was some 311,000. Anyone wounded and lucky enough to make it home (and we might suppose that for every one man dead there would have been at least one wounded) might have returned missing an arm a leg or an eye. And this at a time when the entire population rose from 10 to 14 million.

In all, a million men served on land and sea against Napoleon and even given the timespan, this is a huge figure. On demobilisation in 1815, some 350,000 men left the forces – one in six of the male population of military age. And with no general military pensions and tiny allowances for the maimed, the heroes who had vanquished Boney came home to nothing.

Cleverly, with her biographer’s eye, Uglow follows a group of individuals through the book, using them to illustrate her chosen areas of enquiry. It makes for gripping and highly readable social history, presented at times more like a novel or a documentary. We become acquainted with a good two dozen real people of all classes, from the religious Heber family of Shropshire, and the Gurneys, a family of Norwich bankers, to the Galtons, Birmingham gunsmiths, William Salmon, a Bristol mariner, the Hutchinsons, farmers from County Durham and James Weatherley, a Manchester factory boy.

But Uglow also gives us individual vignettes of the popular celebrities of the day. My own favourite of these concerns the serving army officer, Captain Barclay, so strong that he could famously lift half a ton. Barclay was a gambler and a runner and did so dressed in a flannel shirt and trousers. In 1809 he wagered a thousand guineas with one Wedderburn Webster that he would “go 1,000 miles on foot in 1,000 successive hours”. He did so. £100,000 was bet on him and by the time he finished six weeks later he had lost two stone. The following evening Barclay went up to London for a night on the town and the next day joined his battalion on the ill-fated expedition to Walcheren.

There are caveats to Uglow’s achievment. It should be made clear that while this book deals with the Napoleonic wars, it is not a military history. No military historian would allude to Henry Percy carrying three French bronze eagles from the field of Waterloo to lay at the feet of George IV: only two were taken in the battle. But what Uglow loses as a specialist, she makes up for by cleverly weaving strands of the fighting together with social happening and anecdote, enabling the reader to scan from the heroic exploits of the Peninsular war to the waterways of Kent, where canny, if somewhat unpatriotic, English smugglers ran lucrative operations as escape lines for French POWs.

The detail is astonishing. We are told about bankers’ salaries and early pension plans and often the period seems alarmingly familiar: social unrest, a protracted war justified by the government; technological innovation advancing in leaps and bounds; a cult of celebrity and scandal; a royal family on the verge of crisis; a golden age of satire. But, of course, such parallels are to an extent fatuous. Life in the early 1800s, on the battlefield or at home, was brutish and short. On 12 May 1812, for instance, two mines on Tyneside exploded, killing no fewer than a hundred men and boys.

By the end of the book we are so immersed in the period that names, faces and incidents flash through the mind. From Nelson’s funeral to the Rothschilds’ bullion dealings, from the scandal of the Duke of Cumberland’s butchered valet to, as the author puts it so well, satirical prints on the new French fashions that showed “nipples galore”. And beneath it all there simmers a groundswell of sedition and the notion that at any moment Britain itself might be plunged into revolution.

There is in fact, something for everyone here and with no less than 60 well-paced chapters, the book can either be taken on in a giddy steeplechase, or dipped into again and again. Either way, it will not disappoint.

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