My thanks to William Collins and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.

The Georgian Era or the period between 1714 and the 1830s when the four Georges ruled England, as the author Robert Peal tells us, was set apart from the preceding Stuarts and succeeding Victorians, both sterner and duller (at least on the surface), by its relative political stability, merry-making and fun loving people, relaxed morals, and extravagant and colourful fashions. Spices and new delicacies from chocolate to chilli were entering the markets, the Empire was growing, but at the same time important political victories were also being won by the people.

Meet the Georgians explores this vibrant period in English history, but not by simply telling the story of the period, but by looking at the lives and stories of twelve personalities (in some cases, sets of personalities) from different walks of life who represent different facets of the period. These women and men include pirates and politicians, poets and adventurers, rebels and claimants to the throne, inventors and discoverers.

 While some of these very much represented the age—like John Wiles and Byron who certainly were rakes—others rebelled against convention managing to live the lives they wanted or at least of their own making. Anne Bonny and Mary Read with their unusual upbringings (both were dressed by their respective fathers as boys) went on to become pirates that terrorized the seas from the pirate country of Nassau. On the other hand, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, ‘the ladies of Llangollen’, brought up in conventional Irish families, rejected conventional life, and moved to Wales where they created for themselves an idyllic rural retreat. Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote in defence of the rights of women, Mary Anning, the ‘fossil hunter’, who contributed to geology and palaeontology, and Lady Hester Stanhope who travelled the world, ending up as a mystic in Syria, too lived their lives in defiance of all convention.

John Wilkes may have been a rake but he won for people the right to criticize government. James Watt, in contrast suffered depression and personal and financial trouble for a large part of his life, but his creation of a more efficient and workable steam engine not only revolutionised the world, but also brought him wealth he had never had. Olaudah Equiano was sold into slavery but rose to wealth and prominence bringing before people the reality of Britain’s slave trade in his book. Also making her own way from rags to riches was Emma Lyon, who rose from humble beginnings to become Lady Hamilton (she was also a dancer and mistress to Nelson, among others), who could count among her friends, royalty. Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ held his own against the East India Company which could only gain victory in its fourth attempt. But Charles III or Bonnie Prince Charles didn’t quite consider the advice given him, failing to regain the throne for the Stuarts. Byron too, failed in battle, but his poetry remains widely read to this day.

I loved the refreshing approach that the author has taken in the book of tracing the story of an age through its people—and what an interesting collection of people he has picked. Some were ‘known’ to me while others weren’t but each was fascinating in their own way. While some may have been more flamboyant than others, each had a distinct personality and all led unusual (and very interesting) lives, together taking us to different corners of the world.

It was interesting that though Peal has devoted an equal number of chapters to men and women, there did end up being more women than men he has talked about (with Anne Bonny and Mary Read; Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler working/living in pairs). What stood out about most, in fact, all of the women here was how they questioned, or flouted, or lived their lives contrary to convention, and relatively successfully in a sense, in an age where women had few rights and could opt for few occupations. And still, there was a level of acceptance of the paths they chose.   

The author has kept the tone and writing light-hearted and humorous throughout which makes for very easy and enjoyable reading. Some of the word choices weren’t so appealing though. Also while the book is labelled adult non-fiction, it seems more geared to a younger (perhaps teen) audience.

Still, I found it to be a really interesting read, as colourful as the people it is about. 4.25 stars.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Meet the Georgians by Robert Peal

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