Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A medievalist, Carolly Erickson has written several biographies of the major figures of Tudor England, including Henry VIII and his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Henry’s second wife and the mother of Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn. As a biographer, Erickson has been drawn to women, or in the case of Henry VIII, a figure whose power and influence directly determined the fates of six wives. Her focus in those biographies has been less on matters of state, of high diplomacy and international conflict, than upon the upbringing and the private lives of her subjects. Those issues are of greater significance to the author than the constitutional concerns so often the center of Tudor biographies. In Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England, Erickson carries her interest in English history into the early nineteenth century. Instead of a royal biography, the author tells the tale of the ten-year period from 1810 to 1820.

George III celebrated his Golden Jubilee in 1810. The king had suffered from periods of mental instability in the past, however, and in his jubilee year, he suffered another relapse. This time he did not recover, and a regent was chosen to rule in his place, until his death in 1820. It was a divided era and a crucial one for Great Britain. What concerns Erickson was the deep-seated conflicts and fissures within that British world. The opulence and riches of the royals and members of the aristocracy contrasted with the poverty of many. The immoral and amoral sexual behavior of the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As an American writer, Carolly Erickson is unique. Although a professionally trained historian who initially taught at the university level, she became a full-time writer instead of remaining within academe. Erickson is thus closer to the British paradigm of women historians than to any model in the United States. Her career is similar to such English writers as Elizabeth Longford, the biographer of Queen Victoria and the duke of Wellington; her daughter Antonia Fraser, who has written about Charles II and Oliver Cromwell; and Cecil Woodham-Smith, the biographer of Charles I and a historian of the English civil war.

Erickson, a medievalist by training, has also chosen only European subjects, primarily British. Bloody Mary, The Great Harry, The First Elizabeth, and Mistress Anne chronicled the major figures of sixteenth century Tudor England. Our Tempestuous Day took Erickson into the early nineteenth century. She has written other royal biographies, such as Bonnie Prince Charlie (1989) and To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette (1991). The latter is not a British figure, but the era of the French Revolution does approximate in time the era of the regency.

Generally, Erickson’s subjects have been women, and her focus has been primarily on their private rather than public lives. Her male figures are individuals whose personal and private lives have been paramount in explaining their careers—Henry VIII, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and George, prince of Wales and regent. Critics have complained, however, that by concentrating upon the personal characteristics of her characters she slights the broader context and historical issues. Her more recent works, including Our Tempestuous Day, have not received the favorable and extensive reviews of some of her earlier studies, and as a result Erickson’s influence on women writers and on women’s issues has perhaps been lessened.

Our Tempestuous Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Casada, James A. Review of Our Tempestuous Day. Library Journal 111 (January, 1986): 82. Casada, an academic historian, is generally pleased with Erickson’s study, but he criticizes the work for its lack of discussion of the Industrial Revolution and Wesleyanism.

Guthrie, Margaret E. Review of To the Scaffold, by Carolly Erickson. The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1991, 20. The reviewer enjoyed this biography of Marie Antoinette but wished that more had been included on the structure of the French court and government.

Hibbert, Christopher. “Hero in a Ragged Kilt.” The New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1989, 16. Hibbert, a British historian, reviews Erickson’s Bonnie Prince Charlie. He praises the work but notes that there is little new in Erickson’s account and that four biographies of the subject had been published earlier in 1989.

Mason, Deborah. Review of Our Tempestuous Day. The New York Times Book Review, June 29, 1986, 24-25. The reviewer approves of Erickson’s lively account of Regency England, with its paradoxical mix of beauty and ugliness, commenting that the work “read like a whopping good novel.”

Mellor, Anne K. Review of Our Tempestuous Day. Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 30, 1986, 5. Mellor, an English professor, praises Erickson for her knowledge of fashion and architecture and for her portrayal of Peterloo and the London crowds. She argues, however, that Erickson lacks a coherent thesis.