In Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer

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For Ian Mortimer, an academic exercise can only tell you so much about the past. As he rather chillingly observes in the introduction to this Time Traveller’s Guide, ‘you would never guess from a skeleton that a human being could smile’.

Mortimer firmly rejects the idea that the historian should consider the physical document as the threshold of the knowable truth. Instead, he argues, we must ‘draw on our own experiences to blow life into the evidence’. Consequently, his engaging account of Regency Britain imagines what it would be like to visit this era.

As the title suggests, the book’s premise is that the reader is a time traveller, who has arrived on the coast of England between 1789 and 1830. The author has already written similar ‘guides’ to the medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration periods. Information about the epoch is related as if it were practical advice for a bewildered tourist. Chapter titles include ‘the people’, ‘what to wear’ and ‘where to stay’. This wonderfully entertaining device allows Mortimer to cover a wide range of subjects in a great deal of detail.

The book describes both the excesses of the aristocracy and the miseries endured by marginalised groups. Mortimer’s ‘guide’ begins with a biographical sketch of the Prince of Wales, who is shown throwing extravagant balls at the Brighton Pavilion. The future George IV is condemned as an ‘insensitive fat pig’, and instances of his gluttony, infidelity and selfishness are produced as evidence of this iniquity. Such decadence contrasts sharply with the indignities suffered by working class women at the hands of their husbands. Mortimer recounts the variety of ways allegedly disobedient wives were penalised; by 1800, they could still suffer ‘the ritual humiliation of the ducking stool’.

Although the book is highly imaginative, it is also supported by serious scholarship. Mortimer has written three well received works on English monarchs, and his professional background as an archivist evidently informs the Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain; passages which explain urbanisation and industrialisation are accompanied by statistics on population growth and life expectancy rates.

The historian’s description of Georgian Britain is full of amusing vignettes. Perhaps the funniest of these anecdotes is Robert Southey and S.T. Coleridge’s experience with laughing gas. In 1799, at a party hosted by the scientist Humphry Davy, the two poets inhaled nitrous oxide and – in the words of Coleridge – felt ‘more unmingled pleasure than I have ever before experienced’. Lighter moments like this keep otherwise dull topics from becoming too boring.

Mortimer’s account of late Georgian Britain is as entertaining as it is inventive. Though it often comments on the hardships faced by the labouring classes, the book also has many humorous episodes. I recommend it to anyone interested in the period.

In Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer

Review Author: Harry Adams

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Harry Adams