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Our Tempestuous Day : A HISTORY OF REGENCY ENGLAND by Carolly Erickson (Morrow: $18.95; 268 pp.)

March 30, 1986|ANNE K. MELLOR | Mellor is professor of English at UCLA and a specialist in English romanticism. and

When the American businessman, Louis Simond, landed at Falmouth in 1809, he found an England radically divided between the rich and the poor. In London, King George III was confined to his rooms and considered mad by his subjects, while the self-indulgent and grotesquely overweight Prince Regent entertained "society" at Carleton House with unbelievable splendor. On June 19, 1811, he gave a ball for more than 2,000 guests that featured an immensely long dinner table with an artificial stream meandering down the middle between the ornate silver serving dishes, complete with sand, moss, rocks, aquatic plants and miniature bridges. Live gold and silver fish swam among the rocks, their scales reflecting the candlelight, "to the infinite delight of the guests," until the fish began to die of oxygen starvation and took everyone's appetite away.

While aristocratic "society" gossiped about the Prince Regent's separation from his wife, Charlotte, and the scandalous affair of Lord Byron with the married Lady Caroline Lamb (who visited him in his apartments, dressed as a page, and openly sent him a lock of her pubic hair), the weavers of the north were on the verge of starvation and gangs of abandoned children roamed the streets of London, picking pockets, engaging in prostitution, and filling more than 200 "flash houses," in effect, crime schools with dormitories. Orphaned and illegitimate young boys, ages 3 to 6, were regularly sold to master chimney sweeps, sent naked into the flues to clean out the soot, and--if they got stuck in the chimneys--either burnt or cut out.

The military triumphs of the Prince Regent's reign--the victories of Wellington over Napoleon Bonaparte first at Vitoria in Spain in 1813 and then at Waterloo in 1815--only accentuated the domestic cruelties of his Tory government: the crushing of the Luddite frame-breakers in 1812 and the Corn Law Act of 1815 (which almost doubled the price of bread, the food staple of the poor), the public hangings of thieves (the sailor John Cashman was executed in 1817 merely for breaking into Becksmith's gun shop in a drunken rage), and the Peterloo Massacres of 1819, in which the Manchester Yeomanry on horseback charged a crowd of more than 60,000, slashing with their swords at unarmed men, women and children, killing 11 and wounding more than 400 others, many of whom later died of infections.

It is a powerful story of social injustice that Carolly Erickson has to tell, but unfortunately she tells it without a coherent thesis and in lackluster prose. Much of the energy of her widely consulted and well-chosen sources gets lost in the translation to her rambling and occasionally repetitive narrative. Students wishing a subtle, judicious and well-informed account of the Regency period will find nothing new here, although Erickson has a good eye for the details of fashion, food and architecture. And her discussions of the barbarous treatment of the crowd in St. Peter's field and of the London street children combine detail with a moral passion to make these pages the most engaging in her book.

But those wishing a good read about Regency England should turn not to Erickson's leaden prose, but to two Regency writers' zestful narratives: Lord Byron's brilliantly revealing "Letters and Journals" and William Cobbett's impassioned descriptions of lower-class suffering in his "Rural Rides."

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