The devil in the detail

This is my review of In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793–1815 by Jenny Uglow.

I was drawn to this book by admiration for Jenny Uglow's excellent biography of Charles ll and my fascination with the Napoleonic period. The author has set out to write a social history from the viewpoint of a wide range of people living in Britain at a time when, in addition to the threat of a remarkably successful military opponent, they had to contend with the throes of the Industrial Revolution and a growing demand for democracy.

Using a framework of themed chapters, each ending with an impressive list of sources researched, Jenny Uglow quotes widely from letters and journals, and recounts the exploits of those who may not have had much truck with writing, such as the blacksmith who led a group of "labourers wearing skirts to look like housewives" who "marched through villages crying 'We cannot starve", and wrecked a mill that was supplying the navy rather than the people of Devon. He was hanged at the same mill "with great ceremony", whereas other ringleaders sometimes escaped with the lesser punishment of transportation.

Jenny Uglow contrasts a hidebound parson who feared that the French Revolution would spark unrest in England, with the respectable, liberal-minded men who joined more anarchic colleagues in urban pressure groups calling for political reform. At first quite nonchalant about a foreign uprising which he expected to be short-lived, first minister of state William Pitt was driven in due course to take a tougher line, banning societies and public meetings and suppressing free speech as ferociously as a modern dictator. The author is good on the direct effects of the war with France, such as the way troops waiting in coastal ports for the order to attack commandeered so much food that the local people began to go hungry.

I was less impressed by chapters which seemed to ramble off at a tangent into a morass of detail. An example of this is "Warp and Weft" which seems to belong more to a book specifically on the Industrial Revolution. I learned that "to add strength to the cotton, weavers added `fustian', wool or linen yarns, to make the warp", and that Robert Peel, son of a future Prime Minister, employed in his factories children who had no shoes or stockings, visiting Poor Law Guardians being informed "if they gave them shoes they would run away". These points had to be teased out of a mass of information on a few weavers and mill owners – arbitrarily chosen except perhaps that they happened to have left records.

The brain can only absorb so much "dissociated" fact and it becomes distracting to be continually asking, "Why am I reading this? What does it have do with the impact of Napoleon on the lives of ordinary people in the British Isles?" I realise that this is a question of taste, and some people thrive on detail, plus it may be of value to students, but I would have preferred a shorter text with a stronger focus on the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on Britain. I coped with the book by skipping through some passages to find what interested me, but that is not entirely satisfactory in what I do not think is intended to be a reference work.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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