Morrison has previously published an illuminating biography of the bohemian writer Thomas De Quincey, who reappears here as a symptom of a society “literally soaked in opium” — an indication of this book’s broader canvas and its author’s dramatic turn of phrase. He portrays big characters and changes, charting the emergence of a Britain that was more “desiring, democratic, secular, opportunistic”. At the same time he is fascinated by its uglier features: the bare-knuckle prizefights, the squalid rookeries where beggars and criminals consorted, and the seediness of Covent Garden, which according to the poet John Keats was the haunt of 20,000 prostitutes...Morrison has a keen eye for such detail. A fluent writer, he is fond of a zippy anecdote. Yet he can strain for effect, favouring pushful adjectives (“remarkable”, “unprecedented”) and overegging his plaudits: William Hazlitt is “the hardest-hitting writer the political left has ever known”, Scott’s Waverley launched a “worldwide craze for historical fiction”, and Nash’s designs for Regent’s Park and Regent Street were masterpieces without which “modern London is inconceivable”.