A section of the preface to my Annotated Cantos I & II (with audio narration) planned for the bi-centenary of Don Juan in 2019.
The first two cantos of Don Juan were published in July, 1819, at the start of an 18-month period of political upheaval that led, eventually, to constitutional reform in Britain.
In some ways, these two years marked the end of the Regency society that once lionised Byron, but that he had fled three years earlier. Now, popular outrage erupted at the repressive and corrupt Liverpool government and at the adulterous, undignified Prince Regent (soon to be George IV) who sought a hypocritical bill of “Pains and Penalties” from Parliament to deny his estranged wife Caroline a crown.
Labor unrest in the industrial Midlands and north of England, unemployment among former soldiers, and deepening rural poverty raised alarming prospects of revolt and even revolution in England. The old “jacobin” Jeremy Bentham waged a popular campaign against waste and corruption in government and for universal (male) suffrage. The radical publisher William Cobbett — whose twopenny Political Register had a circulation of 40,000 when he fled to the United States in 1817 — returned in 1819 to begin his rural rides campaign in which he condoned machine breaking and hay-rick burning. The general outcry in the British press and at many popular meetings against the “Peterloo Massacre” had frightened the Cabinet into over-reaction, suppressing public meetings and civil rights.
So nervous were the authorities — and so sensitive to criticism — that in mid-December 1819, even the “reactionary chauvinist” Cam Hobhouse was arrested on the order of Parliament for publishing a brochure that the Commons declared a breech of parliamentary privilege and spent ten weeks in Newgate prison. Still, his release from jail was a “get into Parliament” card since the sentence all but guaranteed his success at the next ballot for the seat of Westminster.
Fears — or, for some, hopes — that government institutions were under attack were apparently confirmed when, in February, 1820, the Bow Street Runners arrested thirteen so-called “Cato Street Conspirators” at a small stables in central London. They were plotting to blow up the Liverpool Cabinet at a dinner meeting in Grosvenor Square, take over the Royal Exchange and empty the coffers of the Bank of England into the hands of the poor.
But the services of the Liverpool government had, in fact, known of the plot for months. A government spy had joined, and even became deputy-leader of, the group. Although the Court disallowed the spy’s testimony in their trial, the testimony of two of the conspirators against the others sent five of them to a gruesome and well-attended public execution for treason. Their posthumous beheading was roundly booed. The serially-adulterous Duke of Wellington mentioned to one of his girlfriends an unlikely report that Hobhouse — in jail when the plot was discovered — had been offered the leadership of the country by the conspirators, should their plot have succeeded, and had accepted.1
Then the affair of Queen Caroline rivetted public attention for four months from her retun to England in July 1820 — seeking coronation as Queen when the Prince Regent assumed his father’s crown — through the failure, in Parliament in November, of King George IV’s attempt to divorce her on the grounds of adultery. Despite plausible evidence of Caroline’s affair with her Italian ‘Secretary’, many in both the middle and working classes were shocked by the King’s hypocrisy and ‘ungentlemanly’ behaviour to his wife.2 Letters, pamphlets, cartoons, public demonstrations mocking the King and participants in the Parliamentary drama demonstrated overwhelming disapproval of, and embarrassment at, the King’s extravagant, selfish and dissolute behaviour. Middle-class women, too, formed large public associations that issued “Loyal Addresses” supporting the Queen and received replies from her confirming her sense of injury to her role as a mother and wife.3
The British middle class did not sustain its support for the Queen after the Government allowed the prosecution to lapse: her affairs, too, were an embarrassment. By good fortune or ‘genius’ the British assimilated the turmoil without any fundamental rifts in society and went about the necessary political reforms.4 Still, the attachment to “family values” of domesticity and propriety that lay behind the outcry over the Caroline affair was sustained into the Victorian age that followed.
In the 1820s the expanding middle-class of a relatively wealthy Britain sent their children to grammar schools that were now broadening their curriculum away from classic literature toward more mundane and commercially useful studies with the support and promotion of reform-minded luminaries such as J.S.Mill, Francis Place and Jeremy Bentham. Thomas Arnold (Matthew’s father) began a program to lift the moral tone and educational standards of the public schools, too, with the aim of producing “Christian Gentleman” such as the squeaky, earnest “Tom Brown”.
The new “proprietors” disapproved of the raucous, liberal, even libertine manners and tastes of the late 18th century and the early Regency, exemplified by some of the authors whom Byron cited in his defence of his alleged ‘excesses’. The decade of the 1820s saw the emergence of what we now think of as Victorian taste: overt propriety in language and behaviour; respect for commerce; sentimental taste for uplifting or at least morally-didactic art and literature, and; pious adherence to established institutions such as the Monarchy and (except for the troublesome Irish and the “new” dissenters, especially Methodists) the Church.