In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Reviewed by Jenny

uglow bookJenny Uglow has delved into the diaries and letters of an abundance of ordinary people — farmers, soldiers, artisans, and their families — to discover the ways that the war affected the cities and the country that was waging it. From radical poets like Coleridge, railing against a perceived conservative greed, to the brewer family holding a party to show off their fancy new vats.

There’s no doubt that Uglow has put in the grunt work necessary to produce a work of such broad scope. Though she doesn’t spend many chapters on the actual events of the war (assuming that when she says “Salamanca,” her readers will know what she’s talking about), it’s clear that her knowledge of the historical context is encyclopedic. She’s able to skate through military maneuvers and political posturing to get to the impact of both on the lives of the people of England.

In response to the threat from Napoleon, Britain’s industrial forces were thrown into high gear, and innovation blossomed across the nation. Yet at the same time, many families were losing their sons to the military, as impressment gangs ranged the nation searching for able-bodied men, and all families felt the increasing weight of the taxes levied to keep the war funded. Sanctions from and against France’s colonies and allies damaged the economy further. While some tradesman, financiers, and titans of industry profited hugely by the war, many thousands more were cast into poverty and starvation.

Uglow draws from a large cast of characters (many of them women! Hooray!), and I warn you now: While it would undoubtedly pay to be able to remember who is who, there are simply too many diariests and correspondents involved to hold all of them in one’s head at once. In general the book does not need the reader to remember whether this is the Hannah with the farm or the one with the sailor husband. Where such information is relevant to the quotation being used, Uglow reminds the reader of it.

If there is a complaint to be made, it’s that Uglow tends to focus heavily on ideologies and finances as they developed throughout the period. Perhaps England was simply not engaging in much frivolity over these decades, but I wanted to know more about what occupied people besides the direct effects of the war. The chapters dealing with theatrical productions, with the passion for vacationing throughout England, and with scandals followed by the broadsheets were tantalizing. But then it was always back to hearing about the financial problems of one industry or another.

This is, of course, a matter of reader preference, and Uglow can hardly be faulted for having failed to write the exact social history that I desired. Her writing is clear and unimpassioned, and her eye for the right quotation nearly flawless. Any inquisitive reader of historical fiction from this era — whether Patrick O’Brian, Susanna Clarke, or a host of Regency romance novelists — will want to put In These Times on the shelf for consultation.

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Jenny blogs at Reading the End.

Jenny Uglow, In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars (Faber & Faber, London, 2014) ISBN 978-0571269525, hardback 752 pages.

One Comment

  1. I’m reading Shirley by Charlotte Bronte right now, which is in fact a historical novel concerned in part with the disastrous effects of the Napoleonic wars on trade. Sounds like this book would help to fill out the picture even more.

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