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Interview: Ian Mortimer, Author and Historian
November 7, 2020

I am an absolute sucker for social history books about everyday life in Britain. I have a whole shelf of these types of books by historian and author Dr. Ian Mortimer, known for his Time Traveller’s Guide series. Mortimer is back with another one! This time, readers are whisked away to Regency Britain, a time of high-waisted dresses and monarchical uncertainty.

Fans of the Restoration period may want to check out our interview regarding his last book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain.

Welcome back to the blog, Ian!

Since this is the fourth book in the successful Time Travellers Guide to… series, you must be exceptionally adept at digging up everyday life details by now. Did you find anything unexpected while researching Regency Britain?

Ah, I learnt my craft – or, rather, how to dig – long ago, first as a teenager interested in family history, then through studying at university (for four degrees) and through work (I was employed as an archivist for some years) and, most of all, working for the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts for five years, where a major part of my work involved telling other people how to undertake research. Also, my earlier history books involved far more manuscript research than a Time Traveller’s Guide, so in many ways, this sort of book is research-light, in that I don’t need to spend long hours in archives around the country ‘digging up everyday life details’. Most of the source material I need – especially diaries – are in print. However, it does take an enormous amount of reading to get to grips with a period of time in order to write about it for the public. And however much you think you know, there is always the challenge of finding out how relevant your knowledge is and was – especially in the various regions – and how widely everyday life details were shared.

For me, the biggest surprise lay in reading the huge and detailed reports of the Commissions for inspecting the state of the large towns, published in the 1830s. I knew that life in the Industrial Revolution was no fun for those at the bottom of the social pile but I never appreciated how grim it really was. Life expectancy for the poor in industrial towns was considerably lower than it was for peasants in medieval England. Throughout most of history – and, indeed, still today – the poor can expect to live 85%-90% as long as the well-off, and I thought that that was more or less a constant. It was certainly true in the 14th century and the 16th and it is still true now. However, in London in the 1820s and 1830s, that ratio sank to 50%, and in places like Liverpool, under 40%. Life expectancy at birth in many Northern towns dropped to 16 or in some places 14. It has left me with a very different impression of this period of history.

 

The Regency is usually defined as a decade. Since your other books cover a broader timeframe, I’m curious why you focused on the Regency instead of the entirety of the Georgian era.

Most cultural historians refer to the Regency not in its political terms – which is officially just 1811-20 – but in the wider sense, from the French Revolution to the end of George IV’s reign (1789-1830). I do the same. The Regency was first proposed in 1788, and even though it did not take place then, George was always the Regent in waiting, so it makes sense to look at this period as a unity.

Also, it suits my books, to deal with a whole generation. You need to be able to talk about change in a text like this – but not too much change. To do the whole Georgian era would be way too much. You’d have to cover life before the Enlightenment and the Agricultural Revolution all the way up to 1830 – and that would just bewilder most readers. Just think how much the English yeoman family’s daily life changed over that time, from a world of oak furniture and social stability to one of mahogany tables and chairs and riots in the overpopulated streets…

 

Jane Austen is obviously a big part of what people think of when they think of the Regency. Did you use anything Jane Austen related in your research? Or perhaps that would not have been a good idea?

I love Jane Austen’s wit, and of course, Pride and Prejudice in particular is so well known that it would be wrong not to mention it. However, I needed to keep references to her to a minimum, because she only represents a tiny fraction of upper-middle-class and lower-upper-class society (although she treats the interactions between those two groups brilliantly). Unfortunately for a historian, she avoids talking about the rural and urban lower-middle classes and the 70% of the population who were working class. But several of my favourite quotations of hers do appear in the book. Not least her verdict on historical writing. ‘I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention’ (Northanger Abbey). Also, I used her house (Chawton Cottage) and her family’s recipe book to talk in detail about rural middle-class living standards and diet.

But I have to say, in terms of summing up the character of the age, another young female novelist, Mary Shelley, steals the limelight. Jane Austen is wittier, more observant, a more careful writer and a better novelist all around – but Mary Shelley had far greater vision. Austen does not discuss the human condition but Shelley does. She encapsulates better than perhaps any other writer the changes of the age. So there are quite a few lines from Frankenstein in the book too.

I’m borrowing a question I used in our last interview: The history time traveller is back from their journeys in Elizabethan, Medieval, and Restoration England. What’s something from the Regency era that they might not be prepared for unless they read your new book?

Well, I’d have to say they would not be prepared for the fact that the rich are even richer and the mass of the poor even worse off than ever before. But I’d also say they would be bewildered by the changes in attitude towards many aspects of life. People from Elizabethan and Restoration times would be astonished to hear debates in which people talked about abolishing slavery, the rights of women, and the virtues of NOT hanging homosexuals and NOT beating animals or treating them so badly, and NOT being antisemitic and racist. They’d be amazed by the discussions of parliamentary reform and such initiatives as the setting up of lifeboats and institutions for self-education and mental care (as opposed to mere incarceration) and the ubiquity of turnpike roads – not to mention the cost of using those roads. They’d gape at the clothes and styles: gentlemen wearing trousers, and women in see-through muslin dresses, with short hair!

But most of all they would be bewildered by the technological advances. Coaches that are far more rapid and comfortable, with suspension and continuous iron tires around the wheels; steam engines; hot-air balloons; and even such things as we take for granted like the tape measure. They would be totally wowed by shows of moving images, the earliest successful experiments with the electric telegraph, the electric clock, early forms of the bicycle, and even the first photographs, or ‘heliographs’, displayed in London in 1827. But then they would weep at the smoke and industrial chimneys, the thudding mills, the commonness of prostitution and debauchery, the alcoholism, and the destruction to the countryside, where so much land is being given over to sheep farming or the houses of the rich.

It would indeed be a bizarre experience to walk through history like this, stepping from the Middle Ages via Elizabethan England into Restoration Britain – and now entering the Regency. I suggest you stick to reading my books. Much safer!


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain will be available in hardcover, audiobook and Kindle in the UK on Thursday, November 12, 2020. Pre-order the UK edition here, the Canadian edition here and the US edition over here!

You can learn more about the book on Goodreads or over at Ian’s website.

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Jillianne Hamilton writes delightful historical fiction and historical romance featuring rebellious heroines and happy endings.

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