The best books about Regency England: beyond balls and bonnets

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Sue Wilkes

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

Why 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.


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

By Leo Damrosch

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

Why 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.


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

By Rory Muir

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

Why 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. 


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

By Siân Rees

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

Why 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.


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

By Julian Woodford

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

Why 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.


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