Georgian Society for East Yorkshire

Book Review: "All things Georgian" by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, 2019, Pen and Sword History



Sunday, 23rd April 2023

Never judge a book by its cover, we are told. In the case of this book, ‘never judge a book by its title’ would be a more appropriate caution. Or rather, go beyond the title to look at the sub-title: ‘Tales from the long eighteenth-century’.

In fact I’d asked the library to get me an altogether different book but they found this one instead (the title was similar). The one I’d asked for is published by the Yale University Press - likely to be altogether more solid, coming from an academic source.

‘All things Georgian’ suggested to me a general history of our period but this isn’t what is provided. ‘Tales’ is the give-away: the substance of the book is accounts of scandals from the period. Dodgy people who did dodgy things. Examples from the Contents list: ‘The Venus of Luxembourg’, ‘The Velvet Coffee-Woman, ‘The Queen of Smugglers’, ‘The Norwich Nymph: a Female Jockey’. Get the idea?

The authors obviously make a habit of such things; trailed at the end are other books, including ‘An Infamous Mistress’ and ‘A Right Royal Scandal’.

Some chapters are interesting from our point of view. They cover medicine, the royal menagerie, and astronomy. Most (for some reason) feature a woman. So the chapter on medicine is ‘Crazy Sally: A Female Bonesetter’; on animals is ‘The Queen’s Ass’ and on astronomy ‘The Astronomer William Herschel and his Sister Caroline, a “Heavenly Hausfrau”.

Of local interest is the account of the life of Jonathan Martin, responsible for starting the fire in York Minster in 1829, which caused extensive damage. There are also accounts of hot air ballooning and the towing of a post mill (windmill) by a large number of oxen - who somehow managed to move the whole thing from one site to another, a mile distant, in 1797:

‘West Mill was manoeuvred onto a contraption akin to skis and harnessed to a team of yoked oxen (accounts vary: contemporary newspaper reports say thirty-six oxen, later accounts eighty-six, and the painting of the event certainly shows more than thirty-six beasts).’

This painting is reproduced and this prompts me to mention the best aspect of the book - the illustrations. These are plentiful, beautifully clear and capture better than the words the ‘feel’ of the Georgian period.

So members of our society might find some of this worth a read (or at least a look).

Roger Lewis.

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