In These Times is exactly what the title suggests, the story of what it was like to live through the French wars. By drawing extensively on private diaries and letters as well as works published at the time, Jenny Uglow has brought a wonderful sense of immediacy to the reaction to great events taking place overseas. In 1793, as in 1914 or 1939, the writers didn’t know what the outcome of the war would be and they express their fears freely. We learn how the war was affecting bankers, manufacturers, farmers, families. One word is constantly repeated: trade. When trade was good, the well-to-do prospered and the poor were fed. When it was bad, banks and businesses failed and ‘Soup kitchens were back in the streets.’ In bad times, people were quick to blame the government and to demand peace. ‘Cobbett and others were now attacking the aristocracy and landed classes as parasites living off the nation, profiting from the war, showing how they influenced elections and made vast sums out of posts, sinecures and fees, patronage, colonies and customs.’ There was a surprising amount of support for Napoleon; Hazlitt, for instance, never ceased to admire him.
I found it pleasing to read how very bloody minded the British were, then as now, at any infringement of what they then termed their ‘liberties’. The press gang, new taxes, the ‘Defence of the Realm Act, passed on 5 April 1798, (which) required county and parish officials to ask every man between fifteen and sixty about his willingness to fight in an invasion, and if he would do so outside his own area.’ were all vigorously attacked, on paper and in physical actions. These were turbulent times: mobs, riots, arson and general disturbances, all savagely put down. We may complain of constant surveillance, but we don’t have soldiers on street corners. Yet.
As soon as I started reading this book, I thought of Thomas Hardy, writing The Trumpet Major, meeting a veteran of Waterloo. Jenny Uglow mentions this very fact at the end of her book and I think it’s important in showing our connectedness to the past. Until very recently there were people alive who remembered Hardy. Today, many of us knew grandfathers who fought in the First World War and so feel a link to it. It’s salutary to read In These Times in this centenary year because it turns on its head ideas that the First World War was the worst war ever fought. The Napoleonic Wars (actually two wars, interrupted by a Peace) were also global wars which lasted longer than expected, involved terrible conditions for the fighting men and affected everyone on the home front. There is a strong sense of plus ça change as one reads of the fear of ‘aliens’ and spies, the introduction of draconian measures to suppress opposition, the rapid advances in technology to cope with the demand for weaponry and widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s conduct of the war. As for war’s horrors, ‘In the terrible battle of Leipzig, ‘the Battle of the Nations’, on 16 October 1813, the combined armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia converged upon the French. It was the largest battle Europe had ever seen, involving half a million soldiers. Up to a hundred thousand men died, and it took two weeks to clear the field of the dead.’ The field of Waterloo was also a scene of carnage.
I can’t possibly do justice to this long book, with its wealth of fascinating detail, in a short review. It covers the effects of the war on all classes and brings the people of the time before us as vividly as a novel by Dickens. There were celebrations after Waterloo, the fruits of victory were significant for the future empire, yet at home few people felt any improvement in their lives and social reforms were years in the future. Nevertheless, as Sellar and Yeatman wrote, the English were once again top nation.
I read this brilliant book courtesy of NetGalley and gave it five stars. I can also recommend Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening.