Obviously, the bulk of the Aubrey/Maturin series takes place on the high seas, but it is important to remember that our heroes are most definitely British (well, Stephen is half-Irish and half-Catalan, but he’s technically British at least). The period covered by the series, roughly 1800 – 1817, was very much one of transition for England and the world. The democratic revolutions in America and France were leading to a change in the political landscape, while the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution were leading to a change in the economic one. In short, the very fabric of society was changing. One can almost consider most of the Georgian Era as the Old World, the Victorian Era as the Modern World, and the Napoleonic/Regency Era as the bridge between the two.
This time in history featured a wide gap between rich and poor, and at the same time, a rise in the merchant middle class. Merchants, insurers, bankers, and shipping companies, all strengthened England’s move toward the vast empire it was to become during Victoria’s long reign.
The haut ton played, and played hard. Beau Brummell rose to fame, and then crashed in 1816 when he was forced to France to escape his creditors. Emma Hamilton rose from prostitute to lady and became the lover of Horatio Nelson, England’s most honored naval hero. Lady Oxford lived scandalously, bearing children rumored to each be from different fathers.
Lord Byron wrote darkly romantic poetry; Lady Caroline Lamb openly chased him then outraged society with her scathing novel, Glenarvon, which satirized Byron, Lady Melbourne, and her husband, who later became Queen Victoria’s Lord Melbourne. The poet Shelley abandoned his wife to elope with Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, to the Continent, where he eventually drowned. The sixth Duke of Devonshire became a most eligible bachelor, renovated his estate, Chatsworth, and lived in Regency splendor.
The Prince Regent spent a fortune redecorating his Brighton pavilion and Carleton House in London, to the outrage of Parliament. The construction of Regent Street and Regent’s Park began in 1816, only a small part of the grandiose and unrealized plan for transforming that part of London. The Regent’s beloved daughter, Charlotte, married for love in 1816, then died in childbirth in 1817. Her husband, Prince Leopold, became the uncle and mentor of Princess Victoria, then took up the throne of Belgium.
Britain fought a war with the United States (1812-1815); causes included British blockading of American ships. The U.S. army burned Toronto in 1812, and in retaliation, British troops burned Washington DC in 1814. Many historic sayings and songs emerged from this war that is now barely touched upon in U.S. schools. Frances Scott Key wrote the poem that was to become The Star Spangled Banner while watching the battle of Fort McHenry (1814) from a British vessel. The USS Constitution proved itself in battle and was nicknamed Old Ironsides. “Don’t give up the ship,” became a battle cry. In the 1814 Battle of New Orleans, actually fought after the war’s end (word had not yet reached either army of the truce), Americans under Andrew Jackson caused heavy losses for the British army, including many veterans of the Peninsular War (1808-1814). The Duke of Wellington felt those losses as he gathered troops for the battle of Waterloo in June, 1815.
Napoleon Bonaparte of France rose from obscurity as an artillery officer to ultimately crown himself Emperor in 1804. He spread himself from Spain to Egypt to Russia, but was eventually defeated by the combined might of England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Lord Nelson stymied the French by destroying a good many of their ships in Alexandria, then he won the decisive naval victory at Trafalgar–at the price of his life. General Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, slowly but surely pushed Napoleon’s forces back from Portugal to Spain and into France. The loss of life in Napoleon’s army during his Russian campaign was devastating. At last, Napoleon abdicated, only to escape his confinement at Elba to begin his One Hundred Days, gathering French forces as he marched back to France. At Waterloo, Wellington was victorious, despite his misgivings, and Napoleon’s power was broken for good.
French émigrés, those aristocrats who fled to England to avoid the guillotine, began returning to France in 1814-15, although many chose to remain in London. They had lived there, after all, for more than twenty years, and the France they had known was forever gone.
By the time the Prince Regent was crowned George IV, England was industrial, crowded, elegant, powerful, and troubled. Poverty and food prices soared, and in 1819, the Peterloo Massacre of protestors at St. Peter’s field outraged the nation. The time was right for England to step into reform, empire, and the modern age.
Courtesy of Jennifer Ashley. Introduction by your captain.
NY Times bestselling author Jennifer Ashley writes romance, mysteries, urban fantasy, and mainstream fiction as Jennifer Ashley, Ashley Gardner, and Allyson James. Her most recent novel, Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, was released today. For more information on all her names and current releases, see her website.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: