The Weekend Bookshelf (Georgian Edition): The Trials of the King of Hampshire, The English and The Annotated Pride and Prejudice

Royal History: The Trials of the King of Hampshire: Madness, Secrecy and Betrayal in Georgian England by Elizabeth Foyster. 

The madness of King George III made the mental health of the wealthy and powerful a national concern. The early nineteenth century saw the invention of the tabloid press as the workers who moved to the cities during the industrial revolution created a market for inexpensive broadsheet newspaper. In this cultural climate, the insanity trial of the 3rd Earl of Portsmouth was a public sensation. The Earl was well connected to the leading cultural figures of his time. Jane Austen’s father was his first tutor and Lord Byron was part of his wedding party. Foyster, co-author of The Family in Early Modern England, places the reader in the position of the Lunacy Commission, beginning the book with the insanity trial then presenting the evidence concerning Portsmouth’s sanity over the course of his life.

Portsmouth’s experiences reveal the dark side of the seemingly genteel high society of Georgian England. Although George III’s health increased public awareness of mental illness, those deemed to be “backward” or “mad” were treated badly, confined to public or private madhouses and often treated as shameful family secrets. Portsmouth’s trial seemed to threaten the existing social order as the earl’s servants and labourers on his estate testified that he had the mind of a child, challenging the recollections of members of the aristocracy who did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary when he appeared at balls. Only when Portsmouth cast his vote as a peer in the House of Lords during the adultery trial of Queen Caroline did he appear “muddled” to members of his own social class as he hesitated and changed his mind over the course of the legal proceedings that became the first royal scandal covered by the tabloid press.

Portsmouth’s story unfolds like a novel, filled with blackmail, abductions, adultery, secret marriages, disputed inheritances and family scandals. Readers will find the book difficult to put down. There’s also a Canadian postscript to the story: Portsmouth’s widow eventually immigrated to Canada and settled in Chatham-Kent where the story of “How the Countess of Portsmouth came to Chatham” remains a fixture of haunted walks in his Ontario town. *****

 History: The English: A Social History, 1066–1945 by Christopher Hibbert

I bought The English: A Social History in a second hand bookstore last month, having read and enjoyed Queen Victoria: A Personal History and Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert. The English: A Social History is a denser book, filled with details of how English people of all social classes lived their lives from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until The Second World War. The book is divided into four parts: the middle ages, Tudor and Early Stuart times, the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, and Victorian and Modern Times with chapters in each section addressing a single theme. Hibbert uses both documentary and literary sources to illuminate daily life in past centuries but is sometimes too reliant on a single set of texts for a particular theme. (The daily lives of medieval women are summarized through analysis of the Paston letters from the Wars of the Roses alone). The strongest section of the book covers the Restoration and Georgian times as Hibbert captures the sense of England in transition, rapidly becoming more urbanized, populous and connected to the rest of the world. A thorough and readable examination of social change in English history. ***
 Literature: The Annotated Pride and Prejudice: A Revised and Expanded Edition by Jane Austen and David M. Shapard

When Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, her readers recognized the social constraints that governed the lives of the characters. There was no need to explain why Mr. Bennet had to visit Mr. Bingley before his wife and daughters could be introduced to him or why Lydia Bennet had the power to undermine her sisters’ marriage prospects through her scandalous conduct.  Shapard’s annotations are filled with interesting details about regency society that bring this context alive for the modern reader. What was the purchasing power of Mr. Bingley’s 5,000 pounds per year? (£150,000 to £200,000 in modern income but goods were more expensive and hiring servants was more affordable). Why is Mr. Collins so grateful for the “condescension” of his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (Only 30% of early nineteenth century clergymen received a living within five years of ordination and half spent their lives as poorly paid curates). Why did the Gardiners leave their children in London when they spent Christmas with the Bennets? (Christmas would not be a family celebration centred on the children until Victorian times). The Annotated Pride and Prejudice is an excellent guide to all things regency that will fascinate anyone interested in Jane Austen and Georgian England.  *****

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