Sewage ran in the streets. Press-gangs roamed the streets of London, kidnapping unsuspecting men and forcing them into service in the navy, sometimes for years. Starvation was common, often “caused by wars, industrialisation and enclosure of the countryside,” all of which conspired to push up taxes even on the needy, trap men and women and children in brutal jobs, and increase the cost and the scarcity of edible food. Travelers rode in bumpy carriages and slept in infested beds; one wrote, “I was bit so terribly with buggs again this night, that I got up at 4 o’clock this morning and took a long walk by myself about the City till breakfast time.”
Some were more fortunate than others, though their numbers were exceedingly small, probably even smaller than the 1 percent that now bestride these United States. “The idle rich were truly idle,” the authors write, “as epitomised by Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.” A fortune was headed his way, and he had chosen to enter no profession or employment. “Unfortunately my own nicety,” Austen has him say, “and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being. We never could agree in our choice of profession. … I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.” Austen was amused by this 19th century Bertie Wooster, and we certainly laugh along with her, but her humor was tempered by disdain. As this immensely useful and informative book makes clear, Regency England was no laughing matter.
Jonathan Yardley reviewed this book for The Washington Post.