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  • The Georgians: things you may not know - Britain Magazine feature

    Think you know the Georgians? Check out these weird and wonderful facts about the people who lived during an age of great social and political change, from Mike Rendell’s new book, The Georgians in 100 Facts.

    Jane_Austen_coloured_version Jane Austen, from a drawing by her sister Cassandra

    The Georgian era is known for its lavish fashions and sumptuous food, as well as being a time of great social and political change. It saw the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade and the expansion of the British Empire.

    It was also the age of some of the most colourful and creative characters in British history, from Shelley and Wordsworth to the mad King George III and Capability Brown.

    Mike Rendell’s new book The Georgians in 100 Facts covers some weird and wonderful facts about the era, as well as debunking myths. Here’s a taste of what’s on offer.

    George III may not have been mad to start with, but he was by the end

    It has been fashionable to explain the various bouts of illness that affected George III throughout his reign as being caused by porphyria. Certainly, one of the symptoms of porphyria can be blue urine, apparently noted by the king’s doctors, but others argue that the discoloration was caused by his medicinal use of gentian root. Nowadays, he would probably be diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder.

    Whatever the cause, the fact remains that the behaviour of the king was at times extremely erratic. Contemporaries speak of his excessive loquacity, which would lead to him literally frothing at the mouth. He would scribble long sentences, only occasionally bothering to use a verb, and spend hours designing enormous palaces, filled with dramatic staircases by largely devoid of windows.

    ‘Capability’ Brown destroyed more gardens than anyone else before or since

    Capability Brown died on 6 February 1783, in London, leaving behind a legacy unparalleled in the history of English gardening. Indeed, one of the criticisms made against Brown was that he had destroyed so much of what had gone before. The architect Sir William Chambers complained that Brown’s grounds ‘differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them’.

    His works destroyed the three greatest Baroque gardens in England: Longleat House in 1757 and Chatsworth and Blenheim in 1760. In its place he brought a parkland style which became so popular that there can hardly be a stately home in the country which doesn’t show Brown’s influence to some degree.

    Jane Austen remained anonymous throughout her lifetime

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that although Jane Austen published four novels during her lifetime they were all published anonymously. Each book was described as having been written ‘by a lady’. While she was alive she received a certain amount of critical acclaim, from writers such as Sir Walter Scott, but derived very little financial return from her writings, and certainly not enough to lift her from a life of considerable straightened circumstances. Jane, like most of her heroines, was faced with the unenviable choice of remaining single and poor, or marrying and losing all independence. Unlike her heroines, who generally waited until love prevailed and all parties got their dues, Jane turned her back on the one proposal of marriage she did receive and paid the price by never getting to live happily ever after.

    Written by Sally Hales for The Official Magazine Britain feature on 4th September 2015

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    Mike Rendell's The Georgians in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • The Georgians in 100 Facts by Mike Rendell

    I was sitting on a beach relaxing under the Mozambique sun when I got an e-mail from Amberley – and I was delighted to see that it was a request for me to write The Georgians in 100 Facts. The last few years have seen a plethora of books about The Georgians, but most of them are about royalty and courtiers, whereas what fascinates me is the life of “the man in the street”. Yes, there were kings who made their mark – George III for his madness, his son the ‘Prince of Bling’ for his excesses and debauchery, but for me they are overshadowed by the stories of people like Clive of India, or the Reverend Edward Stone who discovered the pain-killing properties of salicylic acid (later known as aspirin). Give me the man who patented the flush toilet and invented an ‘un-pickable’ lock (Bramah). Give me the brilliance of civil engineers like Smeaton or the engineer (Maudslay). Add in the story of the man who is credited with having invented the toothbrush (Addis) and the agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull and you are beginning to paint a picture of a remarkable century.

    The Georgian Age saw so many changes - the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the loss of the American colonies and the growth of the British Empire, and the enormous changes wrought by those giants who stood head and shoulders above their fellow men – people like Mathew Boulton, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood. But I have always been fascinated by the odd and quirky aspects of the period – not that James Watt invented the steam engine, but that he invented a portable paper-copier; not that Boulton churned out vast quantities of what were known as “toys” from his Soho Manufactory, but that he re-equipped the machinery in the Royal Mint, as well as producing millions of copper coins known as cartwheels; and that Wedgwood might never have been such a great industrialist if he had not had his right leg amputated and was therefore unable to reach the potters wheel. Also there are so many stories we all think we know about – the South Sea Bubble, the War of Captain Jenkins Ear, the voyages of Captain Cook and the extraordinary events of the Napoleonic Wars. But do we actually know the background to these stories?

    So, I was thrilled to sit down and think of a hundred facts which I thought worth developing. It took me hardly any time at all, and writing them up was a happy task. I have already covered many odd facts on my blog at mikerendell.com/blog - described by a friend as “history-lite” To me, I wanted it to be a book of slightly whimsical stories – not just the mainstream well-known facts, but including the everyday trivia which make history interesting.

    Georgians - John Joseph Merlin Gainsborough’s portrait of John Joseph Merlin

    If I was asked for my favourite character it might well be John Joseph Merlin – technically a Belgian clockmaker, but after he came to Britain as a young man he stayed to become the most prolific inventor. Forget about him making an appearance on the first-ever pair of roller skates while playing the fiddle – and crashing into a mirror because he had not at that stage invented a means of stopping. Instead, consider the remarkable machinery he made for the silver swan, still on display at Bowes Castle Museum at Barnard Castle, and still drawing gasps and applause after 225 years. He also invented whist cards for the blind, a mechanical garden, a ‘perpetual motion’ machine working on atmospheric pressure, a special chair for gout sufferers, a number of musical instruments – and some beautiful clocks. Perhaps even more remarkably, he helped inspire a young man who was entranced by Merlin’s mechanical automata – his name: Charles Babbage. The man went on to become the ’Father of Computing”.

    I had practically finished the book before I finished my holiday, so it is a delight to see it finally reach the printed page.

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    To learn about more of the interesting facts from the Georgian period check out Mike Rendell’s book The Georgians in 100 Facts available for purchase now.

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