Meet the Georgians by Robert Peal review – tales from Britain’s ‘wildest’ century

The way Robert Peal describes Georgian England, you’d be mad not to want to live there yourself. In “Merrie Englande” – he uses the term without irony and a fair shot of wistfulness – everyone is high on a trifecta of chocolate, sugar and gin. No one seems cross, although there must have been some almighty hangovers, and sex sounds polymorphous and unproblematic. In the period known as the long 18th century, suggests Peal in his euphoric introduction, you could love any way you chose, get giddy on spirits and dress in a positive rainbow of new colours imported from Britain’s nascent empire. Religion, moreover, was reasonable and unflustered by sin.

Peal knows it’s not really like this of course – in the 18th century most people couldn’t afford sugar, homosexuals were hanged and John Wesley founded Methodism in order to make people feel guilty about absolutely everything. Still, Peal’s aim in this avowedly populist book is to rescue the Georgians from collective cultural amnesia. For some reason we tend not to do them at school, jumping instead from one puritan to another, Oliver Cromwell to Queen Victoria. Nor do they crop up much in historical novels and costume dramas, ceding instead either to the Tudors (Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory) or the neo-gothic (Sarah Waters, Susanna Clarke). Editors of popular history magazines will tell you confidentially that putting a Georgian on the front cover, as opposed to a Plantagenet or a Nazi, just doesn’t shift copies. They are not what you’d call catchy.

Quite why this should be is beyond the scope of Peal’s book. Rather, he sees his job as recuperating some of the fun and fizz that has been lost by skipping over the period. He does this by rounding up what he calls a “dirty dozen” of Georgian personalities, people whose lives are neither model nor moral, but whose experiences tell us something about what was possible between 1714, when George of Hanover took up the offer to be king of Britain, and 1837, when his great-great-great granddaughter, still constructing her sentences in a way that sounded more German than English, ushered in what we now know as the Victorian age.

If this sounds a tad 1066 and All That, Peal is aware of it, even mentioning Sellar and Yeatman’s book by name. Certainly, he nods to their practice of using a defiantly contemporary mindset to investigate the historical past. His opening chapter on Anne Bonny and Mary Read, “the Pirate Queens of the Caribbean”, draws unblushingly on the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island to build instant associations for his readers. So, when he tells us about “peg legs” we immediately think of Long John Silver, and when he describes the pirates’ habit of wearing all their loot on their person for safe-keeping, we see Captain Jack Sparrow swaggering about like a Christmas tree. Using these prompts, Peal is able to paint the piratical Bahamas as a paradigm of gangster capitalism, a place of ruthless getting and spending, of acquisition and sudden loss, a bloodier version of what was going on in the newly buoyant City of London in the first decades of the 18th century.

Meet the Georgians draws on popular modern references, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Meet the Georgians draws on popular modern references, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Photograph: Photographer: Peter Mountain/Disney/Allstar

Against this broad-brush backdrop Peal retells the stories of his “pirate queens”. Bonny was the Irish-born mistress of Calico Jack, a flashily dressed pirate whose party piece was to disguise his ship as an innocent merchant vessel, sneak up to a cargo boat and board it before anyone realised what was happening. Also in the crew was Englishwoman Read who, like Bonny, dressed in baggy trousers and jaunty bandanas. Both girls had been passed off as boys as children, and Peal leaves it open as to whether their adult cross-dressing was a hangover from their tangled family inheritance, or whether they simply preferred things that way. Similarly, there was gossip on board that the two women were having an affair, even though, when they were captured along with Calico Jack in 1720, both escaped hanging by virtue of being pregnant. Gender, for the Georgians, was seldom binary.

Legitimacy, too, was always up for grabs. Indeed, it was far from clear that the Georges who gave the period its name were not, in the language of Sellar and Yeatman, Foul Usurpers. Peal includes the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie as a reminder that in 1745, more than 50 years after the ignominious exile of James II, the Stuarts still believed that they had a better right to the throne than their German cousins whose only qualification was being Protestant. In August that year, the “young Pretender”, James II’s grandson Prince Charles, sailed incognito into the Scottish Highlands on a French warship. His plan was to raise an army among the pro-Stuart Highlanders and from there to march into England and seize the throne from George II.

Even now, after multiple retellings, the story of the ’45 Rebellion still thrills. Of how Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army got as far as Derby, before having to retreat to north of the border. Of how the vicious Duke of Cumberland, son of the British king, prosecuted an enormous defeat at Culloden, a battle which remains a byword for butchery. Of the Speed Bonny Boating and tartan nostalgia that would come to mean so much to Queen Victoria and her German consort a century later. Above all, it offers us a last chance to see the Highlands of Scotland in all their baronial bloody-mindedness, before the Clearances of the following decade robbed them of their power and independence and brought them into line with Westminster.

If Prince Charlie wanted to be king, Olaudah Equiano was fighting to be a man. In 1756 the chieftain’s son from Benin was captured and shipped to Virginia by way of a holding pen – literally – in Barbados. Bought by a master who took him to Britain, Equiano managed to pick up an education and commercial skills, despite still being, legally speaking, a chattel. Finally, in 1766, having saved sufficient money by his own labours, Equiano bought his freedom with the famous declaration: “I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master and completely free.” A man at last, Equiano set up “Sons of Africa”, a group of freed black men who campaigned to end Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. In 1789 he published The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, the African, which sold in its thousands and hastened the beginning of the end of Britain’s shameful dealing in human cargo. There is a sad irony in the fact that Equiano died before he could see that legislation passed in 1807 but his text is perhaps the first example in literary history of memoir-writing as a form of social activism.

Taken as individual stories – Peal also has chapters on the political “firebrands” John Wilkes and Mary Wollstonecraft, the mad, mad Lord Byron and steamy James Watt – there is nothing new here. And there are times too when Peal’s determinedly anachronistic language can prove annoying – do we really need to know that Nelson’s Lady Hamilton was “a certified super-babe”? Still, by collecting such dissimilar lives together, he does make us think about the extraordinary breadth of experience on show in a period that tends to get written off in popular history as a matter of poodle wigs, harpsichords and tea parties. What’s more, the Further Reading section shows that Peal has a sharp awareness of the best scholarly work on the subject and where to find it. Most readers will not be going that far, of course, but nonetheless this book functions as an excellent entry point for anyone who believes, along with that great historian GM Trevelyan, that “the poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today”.

Meet the Georgians: Epic Tales from Britain’s Wildest Century is published by William Collins (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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