Few periods in modern English history have been more ignored than the regency of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV). In 1811, he reluctantly assumed the reins of royal leadership from his father, George III, when the latter became incapacitated by recurrent bouts of porphyria, a disease which among a variety of symptoms produced uncontrollable loquacity that, in a medically less sophisticated era, gave the appearance of lunacy. Yet few other periods are more worthy of attention. The decade between 1811 and 1820, which comprises the years of the Regency, was one of acute tension in English society. Rapid industrialization in England, the first nation to undergo the Industrial Revolution, had brought into prominence an increasingly wealthy middle class eager to have its financial superiority translated into shared political power with a conservative aristocracy and a new, increasingly urbanized and dislocated working class fearful of job security because of the rapid mechanization of British industry. During this period as well, Great Britain and her allies brought to a successful conclusion nearly a quarter century of war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Although victory brought immediate rejoicing and national solidarity, both proved illusory because of the economic and social dislocations produced by the rapid transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. Especially onerous to both the middle class and the working class were the high tariffs erected against foreign grain (the “corn laws”) to protect the economic interests of wealthy aristocratic landowners. Sorely in need of royal and parliamentary leadership, Englishmen were saddled with a regent primarily interested in the satisfaction of his extravagant sensual desires and a Parliament resistant to political, economic, and social reform.
Probably the major reasons for historians’ neglect of this era are two. First and foremost, this period in English history has been overshadowed by the obsession with Napoléon I, whose personality, triumphs, and defeats have traditionally monopolized the popular imagination and historical scholarship. Second, the Regency lies between two of the most popular periods in British history: the early years of the reign of George III, when Great Britain, under the leadership of her first strong and assertive monarchy in a half century, won and partially lost her first empire, and the Victorian era, when Great Britain undertook the creation of her second empire and resolved many of the political, social, and economic problems created by the Industrial Revolution. Fortunately Carolly Erickson has brought this decade into focus for the historian and the general reader.
Carolly Erickson has become one of the most prolific young historians of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Holding a doctorate in medieval history, Erickson taught at several colleges and universities before deciding, in 1970, to devote her full time to writing. Since then, she has written a series of books, mainly biographies of Tudor royalty, including studies of Henry VIII, his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and his two daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. This is the first time, with the exception of articles for scholarly and popular publications, that Erickson has ventured outside the medieval and early modern periods. Her regular readers will be glad, although not surprised, to learn that she has succeeded admirably.
Erickson’s earlier biographies have been more than narratives of a personality. They are true social histories in which the author vividly describes the manners and customs of royalty and of upper and lower ranks of society. In describing the styles of dress, diet, amusement, and domestic and vocational features of everyday life, she has been successful in re-creating not only the lives of outstanding individuals but also of an entire age. In Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England, she applies her well-honed talents to a brief but significant period in English history. Erickson is not concerned with political complexities or socioeconomic statistical data, nor does she attempt to ascribe long-term significance to historical personalities or events; rather, she attempts and succeeds in capturing the flavor of an age, a kaleidoscope of characters, their surroundings, and major and minor events which provide an era with its distinctive and fascinating qualities. Thus, in Our Tempestuous Day, the author has no stated or implied thesis beyond her conviction that the period of the Regency presents the observer with the apparent contradiction of “a diseased and violent society” that has, because of the extravagances of the regent, become “synonymous with gaiety and vigor, swagger and style.” Her goal is modest: to create a literary “portrait” of Regency England, “written without any view to comprehensiveness but with an eye to recounting its events as they unfolded for those who lived through them.”
Erickson structures her work primarily around...