All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century. By Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. 2019. Pp 170. £25.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781526744616; £8.32 (ebook), ISBN 9781526744630.
All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century takes its name from Joanna Major and Sarah Murden’s highly successful blog. The volume provides readers with an array of short narratives concerning life in Georgian England between 1714-1830 that are designed to illuminate the complexity – and at times, tragedy and hilarity – of Georgian life. Major and Murden have a track record as co-authors having published three full-length biographies of lesser-known Georgian women with Pen & Sword in recent years. This volume presents twenty-five new tales to the reader, recounted with the same genuine scholarly excitement and skills for storytelling that readers have come to expect from this partnership. From actresses plucked from the streets of London and thrust into the spotlight of The Beggar’s Opera, to the first flight of air balloons and the discoveries of female astronomer Caroline Herschel, this volume brings together some of the most intriguing stories of the Georgian period in one illuminating compendium. It is worth noting that as well as being a highly readable, enjoyable volume of short stories, it is clear that this book has been extensively researched. A glance down the ‘Notes and Sources’ pages gives the reader a sense of how familiar the writers must be with the inside of a Record Office.
Georgian women are certainly the stars of this volume, and it is refreshing to see so many tales with female protagonists from different ranks and social stations within the collection. What emerges from these stories is that a woman’s ability to succeed in this period was not always determined by their rank or by their ability to read and write, but instead owe a lot to skill, cunning, and a degree of luck. Intriguing accounts like that of Anne Rochford who rose from a nursery maid to gain royal favour as a coffee shop owner in the Royal Mews with a high-class of clientele despite being born illegitimate and made an orphan early in her childhood, exemplify this point. Readers interested in this theme will find the fate of sisters Sally and Maria Wallen particularly intriguing. Despite being sisters, these women entered into markedly different vocations: whilst ‘Crazy Sally’ became a famed female bonesetter at Epsom, her sister Maria Wallen found success playing Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera. Curiously for both women, the pinnacle of their success came during single life, indeed, both suffered disastrous marriages that lead to their respective downfalls. Maria ultimately ended up at the Old Bailey addressing charges of bigamy and was replaced by a younger actress, whilst Sally was abandoned by her husband who took her life savings with him, eventually being buried in a pauper’s grave. Of course such tales are tinged with sadness, but this volume is at its best when it is exploring the fortunes and fates of women like Anne, Sally, and Maria – women born into the lower echelons of society, forced to navigate their way through the complexities of Georgian public sphere and the harsh realities of life without the benefit of wealth or social security. By including these tales, the authors provide a much-needed insight into the Georgian period as a time of social change in which fortune, station, and marriage was not always a prerequisite for individual success.
Despite the well-selected range and scope of subjects in the twenty-five tales, there is one significant omission: the marked absence of minority groups in these tales. For example there were thousands of black servants and enslaved people in Britain in the 1770s and yet, the only clues one finds in this book to their existence is in some of the portraits and cartoon illustrations included alongside the main tales. Recent scholarship in this field has made significant strides in accounting for these and other minority groups in the Georgian period, indeed, one can even find evidence of Major and Murden’s telling stories about individuals from a minority background in their blog. Given the considerable work that has clearly gone into representing different facets of Georgian life and the populace of England, it is a shame, then, to find minorities largely omitted. The inclusion of accounts to this effect would have helped to represent the diversity of England’s populace during this period, and been a great asset to the reader grappling with the intricacies of Georgian Society.
On this note, though, additional praise should be given that in the production of this volume the authors have worked hard to source and include various pertinent illustrations – over 100, in fact – to accompany the main text. The visuals provided throughout help add texture to the tales, whilst demonstrating the distinctiveness of this period. Indeed, Major and Murden have created a well-structured and well-researched book that makes for highly pleasurable reading. The volume will appeal to both those familiar with this era, who are bound to find something new and intriguing amongst this rich collection, and more broadly, those interested in social-cultural history and women’s studies.
*Disclosure: Sarah Murden is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837.