The Time Traveller's Guide to
Regency Britain

About writing the book

The Regency volume was by far the hardest to write of the four Time Traveller's Guides. My first file of notes was created on my laptop on 14 March 2016; I signed the contract later that year and actively started work on the book on 11 April 2017. Already I was quite a long way off meeting the deadline of the end of January 2018. The last section, the envoi, was not completed and sent to my editor until 7 April 2020. More than two years late.

Why did it take so much time?

Regency society was complex - much more so than it had been in earlier centuries. The prime reason was simply the numbers: by 1830 there were over 16 million people in Great Britain. In discussing late medieval England I was talking about a society of just 2½ million. Imagine guiding people over a swamp: it is much easier to guide a handful safely than a crowd. You can't watch out for everyone. Early nineteenth century Britain had more people doing more things in a greater variety of ways than its predecessors in Restoration, Elizabethan or medieval times; for every pro-republican radical there wasn't just a monarchist but a whole spectrum of points of view. The growth of British overseas interests, the development of America and the consequences of the war with France meant there were more interactions by those people with people outside Britain too, and more influences on the British. The French Revolution was also a complicating factor, affecting so many aspects of British life - from politics to costume and the establishment of the National Gallery - that it was difficult to avoid talking about formative events on the other side of the Channel.

Another problem for me was that so many potential readers know, or think they know, about Regency society already. Their knowledge might come from Jane Austen's works or TV adaptations of them; or it might come from Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels about the Peninsula War; but that knowledge made it harder for me to surprise them and, at the same time, it made it necessary for me to show how their awareness is of just a small segment of society. It became increasingly apparent to me in the course of writing the book that there was a greater disparity of living standards between rich and poor in this period than ever before or since. Before 1750 the poor could expect at birth to live 85%-90% as long as their wealthy contemporaries; that is reflected in a similar proportion today. But in Regency times in many towns that proportion was less than 50%. You don't read about the grime-streaked half-naked children 600ft down a mine in a Jane Austen novel but they too were a part of Regency Britain. Those people also had to appear alongside the Mr Darcys and Lady Catherine de Bourghs of the day.

These various aspects - the complexity of society and its interactions, the greater prior knowledge among readers, and the incompleteness of that knowledge - all combined to make the writing process much harder. One of the ways in which a Time Traveller's Guide works is through a historical equivalent of what literary critics call 'the objective correlative'. In short, this means that, by juxtaposing two things, you give them greater combined meaning. For instance, described by itself, the screeching of tyres could mean many things. Add a thud, and you imply a collision with someone or something. Then add a child lying in the street and the whole scene becomes one of tragedy. History works in a very similar way except that the 'things' we are juxtaposing are the past and the present. If everyone lived to 79 in Regency Britain - the same age that men can expect to live to in modern Britain - the historical correlative effect would be slight. The fact that workers in the unsewered streets of Ashton-under-Lyne could expect at birth only to live to thirteen has a much greater correlative effect, especially if you previously did not know this. Our tendency automatically to juxtapose now and the period we are learning about means the author has got to come up with the right information that is going to be new for the majority whose levels of knowledge in some quarters is already quite high. It's a tricky business.

And then there were the personal aspects that got in the way. I was approaching fifty years of age. First my eldest son and then my daughter were leaving home, heading off to university. I reflected on my life and decided to set myself fifty New Year's resolutions to complete in the year I turned fifty (2017). This included writing a book about the meaning of running, eventually published in 2019 as Why Running Matters. Of course, these resolutions were a huge distraction. Looking back, I am very glad I did them - especially writing the running book - but they further delayed my work on the Regency.

On the plus side, writing about the Regency was so involving. After all, here I was in my study, sitting at a Regency table, with my great-great-great-grandfather's writing slope in front of me, on an 18th century chair that had been a gift from a nineteenth-century bishop of Exeter to Samuel Milford, whose wife had given it to her niece, from whom it had descended to my father and then me. Likewise, when it came to gathering a selection of coins to assist me in thinking through the practicalities of the period - as I had done for the previous two books - I did not need to buy more than one or two as I had inherited several silver shillings and a crown from my father. I knew what all my own ancestors were doing in this period; I mention a great-great-great-great-great-uncle, William Mortimer (1773-1823), several times in the text. What's more, although I am about as middle class an Englishman as you could expect to find, 28 of my 32 great-great-great-grandparents were working class, and thus akin to the people who suffered rather than benefitted from the Industrial Revolution. Several were labourers, one was a smuggler. One died in childbirth at the age of thirty-five. The Mortimers were fullers and dyers of cloth; the Burgoynes publicans. This was history nearer my own time and more personal than anything I had written about before.

The personal aspects revealed themselves in other ways too. My love of Beethoven's music was one of the reasons for selecting the date range, so that was no surprise. But writing about William Wilberforce brought back memories of my father taking me as a young boy to see the Wilberforce Oak at Keston, not many miles from where I grew up, and telling me how in May 1787, Mr Wilberforce stood on that very spot and told the prime minister, William Pitt, of his intention to introduce into Parliament a Bill to abolish the slave trade, and Pitt gave him his blessing. Lord Byron was a childhood hero of mine, especially when I was in the sixth form at school and at university, and so it was a delight to revisit his works and read about his life once more. And there was the constant delight of remembering being taught about William Pitt and Lord Liverpool by Euan Clarke at Eastbourne College. Every so often a line would come to my attention that took me back to that classroom in 1983-5. Some had remained etched on my memory for the last 37 years - for instance, Daniel O'Connell's line on Sir Robert Peel: 'his smile was like the silver plate on a coffin'. Who could forget that? And who could not include it in the book, knowing that one day Euan Clare would read it and know his erstwhile pupil had been paying attention all those years ago.

The complexity, the greater awareness of the period among readers and the much greater personal involvement all meant that, inevitably, I was going to over-write this book. Indeed, the usual chapter 4 on the character of the time ended being chapter 4 on the old character and chapter 5 on the new, reformed character that was emerging at this time. These two chapters totalled well over 40,000 words. The whole first draft of the book was around 225,000 words. Wisely my commissioning editor told me to cut it down. So I reduced it as one does when reducing stock, little by little, down to 152,500, a much more manageable extent. Chapters 4 and 5 were compressed into one chapter 4. Some of the bits I cut can be found on this website, in the section entitled 'Cutting Room Floor'.

For me, the most memorable aspect of the whole process was when asking an academic for an opinion on the central portion of the book. This was a man who had promised on several occasions to help, and whom I had thought actually would. He is not one of the people credited in the book with helping, and you will understand why when I tell you what happened. When it came to giving me feedback, all he gave was dismissive criticism, as if he was marking an essay by an undergraduate. And then I read the lines that revealed all to me:

'Far too whiggish. Far too critical of the period'.

'My god,' I thought, 'does he really think that if a modern man or woman were to find himself in the slums of Liverpool or Manchester, or see people sentenced to hang or be transported to Australia, he or she would not be critical of the period?' It was clear that this academic could not look past the academic dictum that has prevailed since Herbert Butterfield published The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) that we should judge people according to the standards of their own time and not by ours. But this would not do - it could not, in a time traveller's guide. According to the standards of the eighteenth century, plantation owners and slave traders were among the great and the good. The roads and buildings named in their memory and the statues celebrating them all framed their achievements in terms of respect. Thus the academic approach is to judge them as respectable. However, to insist that we, with such different values, should continue to judge slavers and cruelly exploitative industrialists by their own standards was wrong. Or, to be precise, academic history had no way of doing what I was doing in this book: making the past relevant for the present-day reader. While we cannot necessarily condemn individuals for not seeing virtues that were then still minority opinions, and thus perpetrating behaviour we now judge as evil, we can condemn the age for maintaining values that were essentially cruel. Indeed, it is important that we do so, and that was why I was so critical of the period. It was either that or be unfairly critical of the individuals for not seeing things the way we do. That the academic in question could not see this simply confirmed to me how far off the mark some supposedly professional historians are. Hence I wrote about this in the envoi to the book.

At the end, it all felt as if everything had come good. My longstanding editor, Jörg Hensgen, told me that he thought this was the best of my time traveller's guides - and he edited all four of them. Re-reading it, I had a tear in my eye at the end. Twice. It says many things I have long wanted to say - about the past, about people's ideas of togetherness, and about our senses of ourselves in time. In many ways the first three guides were a necessary preparing of the ground for talking about the things I touch on in the envoi. The fundamental idea that to understand you own time, you need to have come to terms with at least two others, appears right at the start of the first book. Well, in this one, I felt I had accomplished what I set out to do way back in 1995. I sincerely hope that my readers feel not only that the effort has been worthwhile but also that they too have come to terms with the extraordinary experience of seeing the centuries passing.

Ian Mortimer, Moretonhampstead, 8 August 2020