Dramatic depictions of the early 19th century on our screens have recently begun to change. While period dramas featuring grand country houses and fancy balls remain hugely popular, BBC One’s new period drama Taboo, set in 1814, is a far cry from any Austen novel.
With a budget large enough to match a Hollywood movie, the seedier side of life in 19th century London is vividly brought to the screen; it is as though the great city were a character. Computer-generated wizardry sweeps the viewer majestically across the rooftops and chimneys of London, past the dome of St Paul’s unhindered by today’s massive skyscrapers, over the banks of the Thames and down into the underbelly of the East End.
The poverty depicted in Taboo was a reality that was lived not only in the capital but also in other rapidly expanding industrial towns and cities such as Manchester and Glasgow. Taboo’s attempt to recreate a snapshot of the era from a different perspective is a significant draw, but as with any TV show it can never be more than a snapshot. The fact that the infinite variety of human existence and experience lived in any particular age cannot be presented in one series is nothing new.
It is here that books allow us not only to gain an overview of any particular period but conversely to drill down into the minutiae of life for those living at the time. In our bookshop at The National Archives we have one of the widest selections of British history books available anywhere and I have chosen a small selection based broadly on some of the themes portrayed in Taboo.
The Profligate Son combines a gripping tale with cutting-edge historical research into early 19th century family conflict, attitudes towards sexuality, credit and debt, and the brutal criminal justice system in Britain and Australia at the time.
The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London uncovers the breathtakingly appalling life of Joseph Merceron (1764-1839), gangster and corrupt magistrate, who accumulated enormous wealth while presiding over the creation of the poorest slums in Georgian London. This is essential reading for all those interested in early 19th century London, anyone fascinated by the capital’s criminal history and everyone who loves an exciting true story well told.
Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain is a sweeping narrative that spans the globe, exploring the intersection of philanthropic, imperial and economic interests that underlay Britain’s anti-slavery zeal, from London to Liberia, to the British East India Company and the Confederate States of America.
Finally I have chosen Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. For many Londoners in the early 19th century, debt was a part of everyday life. But when your creditors lost their patience, you might be thrown into one of the capital’s most notorious jails: the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. The Marshalsea became a byword for misery; in the words of one of its inmates, it was ‘hell in epitome’.
These books, like Taboo, begin to explore aspects of life in early 19th century Britain which have for too long been largely ignored.