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Interview: Author Jenny Uglow on life at the time of Napoleon

Among authors arriving for Books on Tyne is Jenny Uglow. The acclaimed biographer told David Whetstone about her new book about life in the time of Napoleon

Author Jenny Uglow
Author Jenny Uglow

One hundred years ago, as we have been reminded many times, Britain was engaged in the war against the ‘hun’ and still hoping it would be over by Christmas.

But 100 years before that there was a different enemy across the Channel. Shops are already starting to stock books about the battle of Waterloo whose 200th anniversary comes along in 2015.

Jenny Uglow, who wrote an excellent biography of Thomas Bewick a few years ago, is coming to the Books on Tyne festival in Newcastle this week to talk about her latest acclaimed publication.

It is called In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars and it is a big and brilliant book offering not just the dry stuff of politics but many telling little insights into everyday life.

Far from focusing on one person or battle, Jenny, who was born in Cumbria, drew many elements into her book which has been described as a ‘crowd biography’.

She explains: “I invented that to describe what I was up to because I don’t think anybody has tried to explain history through looking at the lives of lots of different people and places.

“It was a bit of a mad project and I sometimes thought, Oh, why did I decide to do this?

“But then, when you actually read the letters and diaries from so many different kinds of people, you do feel you’re close to them, and they do roll on because the book covers such a long period, 22 years, that they ask to come in at different points.

“They tell different kinds of stories but the over-arching story of the war is so grand and terrible that it did come together.”

In the book, among people from different classes and backgrounds, we meet the workers on a Norfolk farm, in a Yorkshire mill, a Welsh iron foundry, an Irish village and a London bank.

Jenny says the idea for the book came because she had written about so many people who had lived in those times, including Bewick and (in her book The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future) the pioneering 18th Century engineers and scientists who gathered around physician Erasmus Darwin.

“When I started out on this I had totally forgotten about the anniversary of Waterloo,” says the author a little sheepishly. “It’s not a Waterloo book. It ends at the point many of those other books on the shelves begin.

“It’s not telling you about the soldiers because I thought their stories had been told so well and so often. It’s about the people who were left behind. I thought their stories hadn’t been told.”

Jenny visited archives around the country and sifted through letters and diaries relating to life from 1793 to 1815. Through them she felt she got to know some of the individuals who were alive at the time and gained an understanding of their lives.

Jenny explains that her period of study includes two wars against the French.

“The first one was called the French Revolutionary War when Britain and other European powers engaged what they called the ‘Republican rabble of France’, which was perceived as a threat to every crowned head.

“That war really divided the people. Thomas Bewick would bang his tankard down on the table and say, ‘We don’t need to be fighting this war. It’s just for the interests of the aristocracy and the rich’.

“There was a big radical opposition to that but it was absolutely stamped on in the so called ‘Pitt terror’ (William Pitt being the Prime Minister of the day).”

The British monarchy kept its head and its position at the top of affairs. But then came the Napoleonic Wars against the man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who would become First Consul and then Emperor of France.

“This time it was much easier to rally the national spirit because there was a very big threat of invasion.

“Napoleon wasn’t Hitler but he was someone who could easily be portrayed as a major threat, thereby fostering a great sense of national unity. There was a tremendous amount of propaganda at the time.”

As would be the case in the Second World War, the invasion never came. But the war, punctuated by bloody battles across the Channel, affected a great many people at home.

“One in five families had someone actively involved in the war,” says Jenny.

The process of recruitment, especially into the militia, seemed bound to engender bad feeling, with communities expected to produce their quota of able-bodied men over the age of 18.

The rich or well-connected, of course, could pay a sum of money to ensure that another man had to go in their place.

Jenny found Navy records a particularly rich source of information – the Army records less so. She read the diaries of Betsy Fremantle, which she started to keep at the age of seven and continued throughout her long life, and also letters written by wives to their soldier husbands.

People returned to Britain from France and its territories with terrible wounds and, in many cases, the prospect of poverty.

“Every time there was a victory there was a tremendous celebration but the human cost was terrible,” says Jenny.

“The French were also fought in their colonies and in the West Indies 45,000 men died of fever. More people died per head of population than in the First World War and they didn’t bring the bodies back, unless they were very grand people like Nelson.”

Jenny points out the lack of war memorials to those who died in the French wars, making them seem even more distant and remote.

But she says names can be found in the archives and, with the popularity of family research, more people are discovering personal links with those who lived and died during a turbulent period in history.

Jenny Uglow will launch her new book, which is published by Faber, at the Lit & Phil, Westgate Road, Newcastle, at 6pm on November 28. It is just one of the events taking place as part of Books on Tyne, a joint venture between the Lit & Phil and Newcastle City Library, which begins today and runs all week. Find details on www.booksontyne.co.uk


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer