Meet the Georgians, by Robert Peal: reviewed by Sue Purkiss
I write historical fiction for children – so you’d think I loved history, wouldn’t you? And you’d be right. Yet at school, I dropped the subject as soon as I possibly could – because the way it was taught was just so boring.
And the topics that finished me off were the industrial and agrarian revolutions, which both began in the eighteenth century. I don’t know how my teacher managed to make the industrial revolution in particular so deathly dull, but she did. And up until a few years ago, the eighteenth century remained for me a time when nothing much happened apart from Jane Austen: sandwiched between the drama of the Tudors and the Stuarts and the bustle and excitement of the Victorian Age.
Then I read a fascinating book by Richard Holmes called The Age of Wonder, and realized what I’d been missing. It covers the period at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries – a period when scientists and writers were pushing the bounds of knowledge, exploring the physical world but also the world of ideas with extraordinary verve and creativity.
And now here’s this new book for young (and, I’m sure, old!) adults, Meet the Georgians, by Robert Peal. It seeks to blow the dust off our perceptions of the eighteenth century by relating the stories of a group of its denizens – and it does so with verve and aplomb. The subtitle – Epic Tales From Britain’s Wildest Century – successfully indicates where the author is coming from. I’d heard of most of his subjects, but by no means all – and found out all sorts of new and interesting things about even the ones I thought I knew about. I enjoyed them all, but special highlights were Olaudah Equiano, who was kidnapped and enslaved, arrived in Britain after numerous adventures, was freed (eventually), then married and settled here; Mary Wollstonecraft, a far cry from Jane Austen’s heroines, who managed to live life very much on her own terms at a time when that was certainly not the norm for women; the Ladies of Llangollen, ditto; Hester Stanhope, an explorer and eccentric (perhaps the first of a line of lady adventurers – Marianne North, painter and botanist, was a later one, as, later again, was Gertrude Bell, archaeologist, traveller and political officer in the Middle East); and Lord Byron, who by this account was even more ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ than I’d realized.
It’s not just entertaining anecdotes about eccentric individuals. Peal also contrives to elucidate complex and not-widely-known areas of history, for example in the story of Tipu Sultan, where he writes about the rise of the East India Company, and in the account of John Wilkes, where he does the same for eighteenth century British politics – which can have been no easy task!
There is also an excellent introduction, which sets the stories of the individuals in the context of their time, and gives a perceptive and instructive (but always with a very light touch) overview of the period in which they lived.
Strongly recommended for schools for extended reading about the eighteenth century, and generally both for young people and for adults who want to be entertained, enthralled and instructed – all at the same time.
Sue’s latest book for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, concerns a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas with his uncle – at the end of the eighteenth century!