Meet the Georgians: Epic Tales from Britain’s wildest century

The Georgian period in history is the sandwich filler between the dull Stuart age and the virtuous Victorian age. As with all sandwiches, it is the filler that is the tasty bit. And Meet the Georgians by Robert Peal brings it all to life for us, giving us all the best of the tasty bits.

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‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ is how Lord Byron, the poet who drank wine from a monk’s skull and slept with his half-sister, was described by one of his many lovers. But ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ serves as a good description for the entire Georgian period: often neglected, the hundred or so years between the coronation of George I in 1714 and the death of George IV in 1830 were years when the modern world was formed, and changes came thick and fast.

Whilst the Georgian age enjoyed relative political stability, it was also full of merry-making and fun-loving people, relaxed morals, and extravagant and colourful fashions. Spices and new delicacies from chocolate to chilli were entering the markets, the Empire was growing, but at the same time, important political victories were also being won by the people.

Robert Peal has selected twelve magnificent Georgians, if not moral ones, who were excellent examples of this colourful age. Whilst the three kings, George I, II, III & IV did not set the pace it was some of their subjects who set the world alight.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read, pirate queens of the Caribbean, Tipu Sultan, the Indian ruler who kept the British at bay, Olaudah Equiano, the former slave whose story shocked the world, Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist who fought for women’s rights and the Ladies of Llangollen, the lovers who built paradise in a Welsh valley. These are just five of the twelve chapters culminating in the greatest Georgian of them all, Lord Byron if greatness is measured in how many rules were broken.

Here are two of my favourites.

HESTER STANHOPE

One woman who I had not heard of was Hester Stanhope. She was a British aristocrat, adventurer, antiquarian, and one of the most famous travellers of her age. Her archaeological excavation of Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first to use modern archaeological principles. She became an icon for other women who dreamed of adventure. Born with an instinctive, irrepressible desire for freedom, she refused to be bound by the expectations of other people.

MARY ANNING

Mary Anning is very famous for her discovery of fossils on the Dorset coast however her back story is probably not so known. She was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis.

“Professors and other clever men all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

Lady Harriet Sylveester

If anything, having read this book, I felt as if I had missed out on the great Georgian party. They lived life to the full and sometimes spilt over the top. It is not an era that does not feature heavily in history learning however it is one that is full of adventure and discoveries. Robert Peal has given us a book that is easy to read, full of humour, and a wonderful insight into the Georgian age.

‘The way Robert Peal describes Georgian England, you’d be mad not to want to live there yourself … He does make us think about the extraordinary breadth of experience on show in a period that tends to get written off in popular history … Peal has a sharp awareness of the best scholarly work on the subject and where to find it … An excellent entry point’

Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

It all inevitably came to an end. As the great historian G.M. Young wrote, ‘By the beginning of the nineteenth century, virtue was advancing on a broad, invincible front.’ Raucous living was roundly disparaged. Respectability now ruled.

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