Every page of The Time Traveller’s Guide To Regency Britain is crammed with enlightening information about the period, some of it just plain weird.
Fashionable ladies shaved off their eyebrows and replaced them with false ones made from the hides of mice. Men put their wives on sale and prices varied from a few farthings to £100 for an attractive young woman.
A doctor told the future politician William Pitt, then aged 14, that he should drink a bottle of port a day to ward off gout.
This was an age on the brink of modernity but, repeatedly, we are reminded that the past is indeed ‘a foreign country’ and ‘they do things differently there’.
The ephemera is marvellous. If the recent American presidential election took place in the Regency period, the news of Biden’s win would appear in London in early February 2021. Fifteen horses died on the London-Brighton route in just one week in 1816, which was so dangerous that one deliberately slow coach was called The Life Preserver, which is the one I would take. “If one English gentleman sees another drowning, he won’t rescue him if they have not been properly introduced.” The Duke of Norfolk eats 15 steaks in one meal; you can buy opium from a pharmacy. I have always suspected that Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park was a drug addict. I still think that.
The more we understand the past, the author suggests, the more we are capable of understanding the present. In the hands of a lesser historian, or a less entertaining writer, this guide would have turned into a dog’s breakfast. But Mortimer’s erudition is formidable, and he rarely writes a dull sentence. The learning is lightly worn — you barely notice that the delectable anecdotes and the fascinating snippets of information are lent coherence by a solid contextual framework of statistical evidence.