The best books about Regency England: beyond balls and bonnets

Who am I?

I’m a writer of Jane Austen-inspired fiction who fell down a research rabbit hole and perhaps I’ll never climb out. Dr. Johnson said, “The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading… a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” The five books I’m recommending offer a window into the long 18th century, the era of the Enlightenment, and the dawn of the industrial revolution. In these books I’ve met philosophers, romantics, and reformers who brought literacy to the underclass and emancipation to the enslaved. These books have helped me place the characters of my novels within a fascinating, consequential period of history. 

I wrote...

A Contrary Wind

By Lona Manning,

Book cover of A Contrary Wind

What is my book about?

Fanny Price, an intelligent but timid girl from a poor family, lives at Mansfield Park with her wealthy cousins. But the cruelty of her Aunt Norris, together with a broken heart, compel Fanny to run away and take a job as a governess. Far away from everything she ever knew and the man she secretly loves, will Fanny grow in strength and confidence? Will a new suitor help her to forget her past? Or will a reckless decision ruin the lives of those she holds most dear? 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain's Rebels and Revolutionaries

Why did I love this book?

How did governments spy on their own citizens in the age of quill pens and candlelight? Although Londoners lustily sang “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves,” the reality was that few men could vote, and some were in danger of being dragged off the street and impressed into the Navy. The struggle for democratic reform, however, was met with suspicion by government leaders who feared a revolution like the one in France that toppled the monarchy. Regency Spies uncovers the hidden world of espionage and agents provocateurs who kept an eye on populist reformers like Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and deluded fanatics like Arthur Thistlewood. While learning about the Peterloo Massacre and the Cato Street Conspiracy, I was also intrigued by the parallels to our own times.

By Sue Wilkes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Regency Spies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sue Wilkes reveals the shadowy world of Britain's spies, rebels and secret societies from the late 1780s until 1820. Drawing on contemporary literature and official records, Wilkes unmasks the real conspirators and tells the tragic stories of the unwitting victims sent to the gallows. In this 'age of Revolutions', when the French fought for liberty, Britain's upper classes feared revolution was imminent. Thomas Paine's incendiary Rights of Man called men to overthrow governments which did not safeguard their rights. Were Jacobins and Radical reformers in England and Scotland secretly plotting rebellion? Ireland, too, was a seething cauldron of unrest, its…

Book cover of The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

Why did I love this book?

A book about a group of London intellectuals – sometimes friends, sometimes frenemies – who expressed their influential ideas with an elegant style that I find irresistible. (Dr. Johnson strongly influenced Jane Austen, so if you like Austen, you’ll like Johnson.) This book is filled with anecdotes of friendships, rivalries, partying, and bickering, with a fair amount of Georgian bawdy humor sprinkled throughout. You’ll meet writers, poets, playwrights, legislators, and bluestockings. The Club gives you multiple biographies plus a portrait of London in the late Georgian period. Spending time with this book is like spending a few hours with Dr. Johnson and his witty friends at a London coffeehouse.

By Leo Damrosch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of the group of extraordinary eighteenth-century writers, artists, and thinkers who gathered weekly at a London tavern

Named one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review * A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019 * A Kirkus Best Book of 2019

"Damrosch brings the Club's redoubtable personalities-the brilliant minds, the jousting wits, the tender camaraderie-to vivid life."-New York Times Book Review

"Magnificently entertaining."-Washington Post

In 1763, the painter Joshua Reynolds proposed to his friend Samuel Johnson that they invite a few friends to join them every Friday at the Turk's Head…

Book cover of Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen's England

Why did I love this book?

In Regency England, the first-born son inherited the property, while the younger brothers had to choose between a handful of “genteel” professions such as the army, the navy, and the church. It was these younger sons (such as Jane Austen’s two sailor brothers), who fanned out across the globe and changed the world forever. We learn about their aspirations and frustrations as they struggle to get ahead in a world where promotion was based on patronage, not merit, and corruption was pretty much taken for granted. Muir gives us an appreciation of the hardships of Regency life, even for the privileged classes. I wish that more history was taught this way, with a lens on the economic drivers of human behavior. 

By Rory Muir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A portrait of Jane Austen's England told through the career paths of younger sons-men of good family but small fortune

In Regency England the eldest son usually inherited almost everything while his younger brothers, left with little inheritance, had to make a crucial decision: what should they do to make an independent living? Rory Muir weaves together the stories of many obscure and well-known young men, shedding light on an overlooked aspect of Regency society. This is the first scholarly yet accessible exploration of the lifestyle and prospects of these younger sons.

Book cover of Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade

Why did I love this book?

While doing research on the British campaign to end the slave trade, I read many books, but no book transported me to the decks of the slave ships and to the rugged coast of Africa like Sweet Water and Bitter. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is placed in its historical, military, and economic context, but Siân Rees also shows the human side of the story. On every page, there is another amazing/shocking/heartbreaking/inspiring vignette. You meet the sailors and missionaries who fought to smother the slave trade, often at the cost of their lives. The hopes and hardships of life in Africa are expressed by emancipated slaves, naval officers, and ordinary seamen. Rees' prose is clear and even-handed. My paperback copy is bristling with little post-it notes.

By Siân Rees,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sweet Water and Bitter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sweet Water and Bitter is the extraordinary sequel to Britain's abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The last legal British slave ship left Africa that year, but other countries and illegal slavers continued to trade. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, British diplomats negotiated anti-slave-trade treaties and a 'Preventive Squadron' was formed to cruise the West African coast. In six decades, this small fleet liberated 150,000 Africans and lost 17,000 of its own men doing so. This is the tale of their exciting and arduous campaign.

It is a story of unforeseen consequences and a swashbuckling naval adventure,…

Book cover of The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London

Why did I love this book?

The story of how one unscrupulous person seized control of the evolving institutions of municipal government to line his own pockets might not strike everyone as seat-of-the-pants reading but Julian Woodford’s account of Joseph Merceron is vivid and still relevant today. The long career of this scoundrel is also woven into the larger picture of the times: the ebb and flow of political campaigns; the British reaction to the French Revolution, the effect of the long-running wars against Napoleon, the rapid growth of London, and the scourge of cholera. Stepping into this world is like stepping into a Hogarth print. This book taught me things about everyday life in London I wanted to know but didn’t know how to look for.

By Julian Woodford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Boss of Bethnal Green as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Julian Woodford uncovers the breathtakingly appalling life of Joseph Merceron (1764-1839), gangster and corrupt magistrate, who accumulated enormous wealth while presiding over the creation of the poorest slums in Georgian London.Ruling Spitalfields and Bethnal Green from his base in Brick Lane for half a century, Merceron gave the East End the bad reputation that still lingers today, while the exploits of recent mobsters and political miscreants pale by comparison with his staggering violence and ruthlessness.Julian Woodford's shrewd biography - the first on this subject - is essential reading for all those interested in eighteenth century London, anyone fascinated by the…

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Interested in Regency, King George III, and slaves?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Regency, King George III, and slaves.

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