Matthew Price, writer and book critic
In These Times: Grocery List History
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, January 18, 2015

In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815
by Jenny Uglow
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
752 pp., illustrated
$40

Who counts in history? Jenny Uglow faces the question head on in this vast, daunting chronicle of British life as it played out during the first modern world conflict. “In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815’’ is a teeming narrative, but it doesn’t showcase the exploits of great figures. Lords Wellington (hero of Waterloo), Nelson (hero of Trafalgar), and Napoleon — “Boney,” who haunted children’s dreams — lurk as background figures. This is hardly a typical war story.

She instead zeroes in on the home front and the transformations wrought by a war that seemed to stretch on forever. Over a million men and boys would serve in the army and navy. “Everyone shared in the wars,” Uglow writes. She describes the lives of ordinary people — farmers, bankers, factory boys, weavers, clergymen, and sundry others. She also includes the views of poets and writers like William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, and Jane Austen, whose brothers served in the Royal Navy.


The author, justly lauded for “The Lunar Men’’ and many other studies in British history and culture, serves up a rich harvest of diaries, letters, and other documents. Her approach has strengths and drawbacks. Across 60 packed chapters, Uglow’s hovering camera eye takes you into the beating heart of the British economy: farms and factories; drawing rooms and boardrooms; pubs and clubs; mansions and slums; city and country; London, Leeds, and points between.

She details the polarizing politics of the time, which nearly tore Britain apart. Some, like the young Wordsworth, looked to revolutionary France as source of hope; others saw sinister forces on the march. After fighting broke out, the government of William Pitt cracked down on civil liberties and taxed everything in sight — servants, hats, ribbons, gloves, newspapers, wig powder — to pay for a war whose cost was immense. (She is particularly good on those who made a fortune supplying troops and building barracks and wharves. Business was brisk.)

One of Uglow’s points is that life in wartime can be as quotidian as life in peacetime. The details of daily life are front and center here; the war sometimes an afterthought. In 1799, Mary Hardy, of a Norfolk brewing family, noted, “We all went to Mr. Z. Rouse’s Sale. Bought a large Dresser for £ 1-11-6, 2 blankets 7/- & Several other Articles to the amount of £6. Mrs Bartell dind [sic] here, Mrs Lebor & Miss Braithwait drank tea here. A Great Battle fought in Germany between the French & Austrians, the Austr. claimed the victory.”

Out of grocery lists history is made. Yet the reader often has to contend with so many bits and pieces of trivial information that the book can be a slog. Uglow suggests lives are bound by private concerns and banal transactions. True enough. But thankfully we also hear public-minded debate about British motives. Accurate news of the war was hard to come by; the government worked itself into a lather fulminating against the French. Hannah Greg, wife of a radical mill owner, was revolted by the hearsay and propaganda mongering that filled news reports: “Let Justice be done,” she wrote a friend in 1798, “and let me add, let truth be told whatever happen. I am quite disgusted and discouraged at the difficulty of knowing what is the truth of facts that are even passing almost under one’s own eyes.”

American readers should note that British parliamentary politics circa 1793 to 1815 are unforgivingly complex. Yet what Uglow shows, through her steady accumulation of minute detail, is how fragile society was during the wars. What remains in the mind are images of a country not so much at war with France as with itself. Peace protesters wondered whether “the most glorious results of war and victory abroad would be sufficient to compensate for such a mass of wretchedness at home.” In 1797, Royal Navy seamen mutinied over low pay. In 1800, riots broke out over crop failures and high prices. Luddites smashed newfangled weaving machines. Yet for all this, the nation remained intact, however wracked it was by social strife: “The mass mobilizations of the war years and the huge demonstrations of the peace movement had made everyone feel involved in the affairs of the nation.”

Britain emerged a stronger country when peace came in 1815. “In These Times’’ is a fastidious register of the toll victory took on the homefront.

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