England in 1819–20

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.

A satyri­cal print pub­lished by the rad­i­cal print­er (pornog­ra­ph­er and pirate of Don Juan), William Ben­bow, in Decem­ber 1820. It shows a gouty George IV, horned and with wings which are spread to pro­tect his sup­port­ers hold­ing a bot­tle labeled Peo­ples Tears, squat­ting with his mis­tress Lady Conyn­g­ham (“Care-away Cun­ning­ham”). In the back­ground on the left the cav­al­ry who charged at Peter­loo, at cen­tre-top Bri­tan­nia hides her face in shame, and on the right, beneath gath­er­ing storm-clouds “The People”.

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.

A satire (George Cruikshank) on the defeat of Hobhouse by Lamb at the Westminster Election. The Rump, or remnant of Reformers, is represented by the hind-quarters of a cart-horse, with its hoofs in the air, carried on a knacker's cart, the front of which is formed by a guillotine. The procession is headed by Mister John Ketch, Esqr., the hangman.A satire (George Cruik­shank) on the defeat of Hob­house by Lamb at the West­min­ster Elec­tion. The Rump, or rem­nant of Reform­ers, is rep­re­sent­ed by the hind-quar­ters of a cart-horse, with its hoofs in the air, car­ried on a knack­er’s cart, the front of which is formed by a guil­lo­tine. The pro­ces­sion is head­ed by Mis­ter John Ketch, Esqr., the hang­man. [Click for a larg­er ver­sion]

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.

  1. John Gard­ner (2002) From ‘Pover­ty to Guilt’, The Keats-Shel­ley Review, 16:1, 114–129. It is, how­ev­er, like­ly that Hob­house knew the chief con­spir­a­tor, Thistlewood.
  2. Louise Carter, ‘British Mas­culin­i­ties on Tri­al in the Queen Car­o­line Affair of 1820’ Gen­der & His­to­ry, Vol.20 No.2 August 2008
  3. Tama­ra Hunt (1991) “Moral­i­ty and Monar­chy in the Queen Car­o­line Affair”, Albion: A Quar­ter­ly Jour­nal Con­cerned with British Stud­ies, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Win­ter, 1991), pp. 697–722
  4. Laque­ur, T. W. (1982). The Queen Car­o­line affair: pol­i­tics as art in the reign of George IV. The Jour­nal of Mod­ern His­to­ry, 54(3), 417–466.

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