Faces in the crowd: as Napoleon roamed, the home front was feverish

Uglow’s subject is the everyday life of those who stayed behind, for whom the 22 years of conflict were experienced in terms of boredom, bad weather, missing fathers, sons or brothers, the price of bread, failed harvests, mourning, making money and, overwhelmingly, reading the newspapers.

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In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815
Jenny Uglow
Faber & Faber, 740pp, £25

“Jane Austen never heard the cannon roar at Waterloo,” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1940. Nor did Walter Scott see “sailors drowning at Trafalgar”. Austen had two brothers in the Royal Navy and lived, said Woolf, “very close to the life of [her] time” but in neither her novels nor those of Scott can be found a direct mention of the Napoleonic wars.

When Woolf was writing in her Sussex cottage about Austen as “not disturbed or agitated or changed by war”, she was able to hear the gunfire from the Channel. She could turn on the wireless and listen to “an airman telling us how this very afternoon he shot down a raider; his machine caught fire; he plunged into the sea; the light turned green and then black; he rose to the top and was rescued by a trawler”. Austen, Woolf reminds us, had never heard the disembodied voice of Napoleon enter her drawing room in the way that “We hear Hitler’s voice as we sit at home in the evening.”

In our own times we watch war on tele­vision but in Jane Austen’s times war was “remote”. Woolf is right to note that Austen lived alongside rather than inside Napoleon’s battles but she is wrong, as Jenny Uglow shows in this rich tapestry of a book, about war’s absence from Austen’s fiction. Each of her novels is marinated in the business of battle: Lydia Bennet is thrilled by the flash of red uniforms in Meryton; Persuasion is filled with noble naval heroes; Fanny Price’s beloved brother, as well we know, is fighting at sea.

War is more than the sound of cannon roaring; it also involves, as Uglow puts it, the business of “waiting, working, watching”. Between 1793 and 1815, when England was at war with revolutionary and then Napo­leonic France, the nation was divided between those who put on uniforms and marched away and “private people”, as Woolf called them, who stayed behind.

In These Times is that most delicate of things: a history of private people, or what George Eliot called in Middlemarch a story of “unhistoric acts”. Uglow’s subject is the everyday life of those who stayed behind, for whom the 22 years of conflict were experienced in terms of boredom, bad weather, missing fathers, sons or brothers, the price of bread, failed harvests, mourning, making money and, overwhelmingly, reading the newspapers. For those sitting at home in the evening, war was about getting information and Uglow’s opening chapter is called, appropriately, “Who Tells the News?”.

Britain was a news-obsessed nation and Napoleon’s victories and defeats were followed like a long-running serial. Those unable to afford a daily paper bought a weekly paper or shared subscriptions. When Dorothy Wordsworth visited Glasgow in 1802, she saw “30 gentlemen” sitting like “puppets” in the circular window of a subscription coffee house, each absorbed in his newspaper. Newspapers were read aloud at work and in taverns for the benefit of the unlettered. Men such as General Tilney in Northanger Abbey gathered in book clubs to discuss the latest events. “I have many pamphlets to finish before I can close my eyes,” he explains to Catherine Morland, “and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep.”

“All read of war,” wrote Coleridge in “Fears in Solitude” – “The best amusement for our morning meal!” This was no exaggeration. Everyone, regardless of age, gender or class, was up to speed on manoeuvres in France, the Iberian Peninsula, Denmark and Russia. Mary Russell Mitford recalled being perched as a toddler on the breakfast table to read “some Foxite newspaper, Courier or Morning Chronicle”. Scott, according to his biographer John Gibson Lockhart, would sit in his coach with an enormous map on his lap, over which he was “perpetually poring, tracing the marches and counter-marches of the French and English by means of black and white pins”. Hearing of the assassination of the prime minister in 1812, Mary Wordsworth wrote in distress to her husband, William, that she had only been able to get hold of “Monday’s Farmer’s Journal”, which did not carry the details. When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Mary was again without “a newspaper to satisfy us”. The household had not seen a paper for a week and was “therefore . . . in utter darkness probably made more gloomy by reports which are afloat in the neighbourhood”.

Thomas De Quincey told a wonderful story, not included here, about nightly walks with Wordsworth to the top of Dunmail Raise during the Peninsular War in 1809, in order to meet the carrier who brought the London papers. Beneath the vault of stars, Wordsworth would lie with his ear to the road, listening for the sound of the wheels “groaning along at a distance”.

The Romantic age, as we now refer to these years, was also a time of constant writing. The educated and the elite were scribomaniacs who, Uglow says, “wrote in the morning and the afternoon and in the early hours, in studies and boudoirs, clubs and country houses. They wrote at home and on the road – many coaches had fitted writing desks.” Uglow’s dramatis personae, listed in the opening pages, range from farmers such as Mary Wordsworth’s siblings and the Hutchinsons of County Durham, to Quakers such as the extended East Anglian Gurney family and the Galtons of Birmingham; from bankers such as the Hoares of Fleet Street to upper-class women such as Amabel Hume-Campbell, a daughter of the Earl of Hardwicke, and Betsey Fremantle, the wife of a sea captain who was there when Nelson lost his arm. All wrote letters, diaries or memoirs in which they recorded the price of hay crops, the rise of interest rates, royal weddings and the killing of kings. “The king of France Louis 16 inhumanly & unjustly beheaded on Monday last by his cruel, bloodthirsty subjects,” the Rev James Woodforde wrote in his diary on 26 January 1793. “Dreadful times I am afraid are approaching to all Europe – France the foundation of it all.”

Meanwhile the king of England had gone mad and the regent, known as the “Prince of Whales”, was the most loathed man in the country. Although cartoonists such as James Gillray could mock all they liked the cheese-paring court of George III and the excesses of his useless son, private people who spoke plainly against the British monarchy were likely to be prosecuted. A lawyer called John Frost, who expressed the view in a coffee house that there should be “no kings in this country”, was sent to Newgate for six months. In Plymouth, a Baptist minister was given a four-year sentence for his opinion that the French Revolution had “opened people’s eyes”. Leigh Hunt was imprisoned for two years after criticising the Prince Regent in print. The country was under surveillance: Wordsworth and Coleridge, planning the Lyrical Ballads as they walked along the Somerset coast, were accused of being spies.

Jenny Uglow describes the movement of her chapters, from “fields and farms to dockyards and foundries, theatres and fairs, drawing rooms and clubs”, as a “cavalcade” and this captures well the pace of the volume. Her writing progresses in a horizontal rather than a vertical direction; she accumulates great quantities of detail and paints broad, expansive landscapes. While following Napoleon’s global progress and the change in his image from Boney the Bogeyman to oriental despot, Uglow keeps an eye on the textile industry, the ironworks and the economy and discusses our revolutions in poetry, painting and scientific discovery.

In These Times, Uglow suggests, might be called “crowd biography, if such a thing is possible”, but the description is not quite accurate. The book contains crowds – there are press gangs, parades and protests – and it is often about crowds and how people behave in them, but the effect is closer to a cacophony of voices than the painting of biographical likenesses. As in Nature’s Engraver, her life of Thomas Bewick, A Gambling Man, her study of Charles II, and The Pinecone, about the architect Sarah Losh, Uglow’s concern is with the cycle of the working day. Her subject is employment and her characters are no more than “glimpsed”, as she puts it in the final pages, as they pass by in all their busyness. The people in these pages are not vivid in the sense used by Yeats in “Easter, 1916”, in which the Irish rebels who seized the General Post Office are described as “Coming with vivid faces”. R F Foster’s new study of Ireland’s revolutionary generation, entitled Vivid Faces, comes closer to what a crowd biography might look like.

Instead, Uglow achieves what Wordsworth, in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798), describes as his own ambition: to catch the language of the “humble and rustic” in “a state of vivid sensation”. There are many Wordsworthian rustics here, in various states of sensation. When, in February 1793, Pitt declared that the country was at war, James Badenach, farming south of Aberdeen, recorded in his diary the prices of corn and fodder, adding: “The French war may alter them. Early spring flowers rather backward – no crocus or snowdrops yet.” His second sentence could be a line from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, kept between 1799 and 1802, which contain not a single reference to events beyond her Lakeland vale. Even a visit she and William made to Calais during the Peace of Amiens goes unnoted. Of the many different journal entries quoted by Uglow, those of the farmers are the most arresting. “Horses,” writes a Suffolk farmer in 1796, when Spain was declaring war on Britain and Napoleon was invading Italy. “Poor old Carter was so ill as to require to be knock’d on the head.”

There was never a shortage of recruits or volunteers. Men left their factories, fields and farms in their thousands to fight. Boys who were born in the year that the French king lost his head died at Waterloo. Those who signed up were for the most part “the scum of the earth”, as Wellington wrote. “Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – some more for drink.” Soldiering, however, was an ennobling experience. One man described in his memoirs how he felt like “a new figure – my head being trimmed to order and crimped with hot irons; my blood-red coat, white small-belows, with black leggings; belted and armed; and with a long leather cue, or tail, fashioned to my pole. A strange metamorphosis, thought I to myself, since the day before.”

In the two decades of conflict there were many strange metamorphoses, not least the lighting of the streets into which the crowds poured when the war was over. One front door in Manchester was illuminated by lamps spelling out the word “peace”. In Edinburgh, a returning soldier found that he “scarce knew a face”. The city “had doubled itself in my absence. I now wandered in elegant streets where I had left corn growing.” “Surely,” someone else regretted, “there will never be any more news as long as we live. The papers will be as dull as a ledger and politics as insipid as the white of an egg.”

In These Times closes with the strange uncertainty of the country in 1815. Over the years a new consciousness had emerged; the British now felt themselves bonded by a new sense of “Britishness”. “Old paternalistic patterns had been fractured,” Uglow writes, “but in their place there was a new sense of solidarity in groups.” Mass mobilisation, regimental life, the rallying of workers, the organisation of dissenters and the demonstrations of the peace movement had created different kinds of crowds.

In 1817, two years after Waterloo, Jane Austen died in the city of Winchester, today the home of the Sir John Moore Barracks, commemorating an officer who died in the Battle of Corunna. We can now, just about, hear the cannon roar in her novels. 

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis