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Antonia Hodgson on Street-Level History

I write about the early Georgians. Someone has to.

I confess I stole that punchline from Bill Bryson. But it’s true – it’s a neglected period. Hardly any-one writes fiction set in the early to mid 1700s. Is it the wigs? The Whigs? (Now that’s my kind of joke – historically accurate, and not very funny.)

Historical fiction tends to draw on the great stories of wars and monarchs. Henry VIII’s life has moved beyond history to the point of myth – and like all great myths, can be told over and over without being spoiled. The Wars of the Roses offer similar scope for novelists, and not just those writing historical fiction – famously, George R R Martin used them as inspiration for parts of Game of Thrones.

The 1720s and 30s might seem unpromising, by comparison. No major English wars. George II on the throne – one of the silliest monarchs in history. No wonder historians and novelists alike have tended to jump over these years, cantering off towards the French Revolution, Napoleon and Queen Victoria.

But there’s another history that runs in tandem to the great events of any age. It’s where most of us spend our own lives – at street level. Not all of it is dramatic on a grand scale, but does that make it less valuable? Less interesting?

When I’m researching my novels, it’s the primary sources of private individuals that draw me in the most: diaries, family letters, even account books.

Here’s one of my favourite examples – a note from a young boy to his mother, kept at the West Yorkshire Archives, Leeds. I found it while I was researching my third novel, A Death at Fountains Abbey. It was written in the mid 1700s.

Here’s another page from the same archive, taken from an MP’s notebook. Clearly, he got a bit bored during a session – rather like that MP who was caught playing Candy Crush during a committee meeting.

On a more serious note, here’s part of a letter from Metcalfe Robinson to his brother Tom. Metcalfe was a witty, thoughtful and politically astute man. He also suffered from mental health problems throughout his life – notably depression, sometimes attended by paranoia and suicidal thoughts. It’s possible the first line was an exaggeration, but knowing how often his family worried about him, and the fact that he did in fact take his life in 1736, I doubt it.

Finally, here are a couple of excerpts from the diary of John Baker, a young linen draper who travelled up north in the summer of 1728. I found this in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury – sadly I didn’t have a camera with me:

Sunday 16th June … went to Church in the afternoon where I had the misfortune to sleep almost all the time.

3 July … this evening in endeavouring to make Mr Thomas Gore drunk had much the worst of it. Went to bed about 4 and was very sick.

Thursday 4 July … Eat nothing – vomited mightily besides evacuation downwards … lay on the bed most of the afternoon … Misters Gore very good to be concerned for me which I did not de-serve.

Friday 5 July … almost recovered …

What do these snippets from letters and diaries tell us? That a little boy missed his mother, and that she treasured his first letter and kept it forever. That politicians sometimes get bored. That depression is nothing new, and that a brother needs his brother. Church is a good place for a quick nap. Oh – and drinking gives you a hangover.

In short, what they say with great immediacy and colour, is that we haven’t changed as much as we might think. And that’s one of the reasons I write about the early Georgians. It’s because I recognise the people Hogarth sketches on the streets of London, in the coffeehouses and taverns. Because the history of the world is also the history of human nature – how much it has changed and how much it’s stayed the same. And because you don’t have to be a king to be fascinating.

All photographs reproduced with kind permission from the West Yorkshire Archives. Taken from the Vyner Estate archives – WYL150.

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