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An overlooked era

Professor Robert Morrison’s The Regency Years is feted with prestigious book honours at home and abroad.

Queen’s University Professor Robert Morrison’s latest book The Regency Years was recently named to the RBC Taylor Prize Longlist and was picked by The Economist as a Book of the Year. The Gazette contacted Dr. Morrison to talk about the book and what the future holds.

Q: Tell us a bit about this book and what inspired you to write it.

A: This book is about a period in British history known as the Regency. It began in 1811 when the king, George III, went permanently insane, and his debauched son, George, Prince of Wales, became the sovereign de facto, or Prince Regent. It ended in 1820 when George III died, and the Prince Regent became George IV. There were many reasons why I wanted to write the book. But I think the biggest one was that I wanted to show why literature and the arts matter, and how what happened then still shapes what happens now. The book concerns novelists like Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, poets like Lord Byron and John Keats, military men like the Duke of Wellington, painters like J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, and scientists like Michael Faraday and Sir Humphry Davy. Their achievements defined the Regency, but they also shape the world we live in now.

Q: The regency years are often called the overlooked era. Why do you think a book about this era is resonating so much today?

A: I’m not sure. I would like to think it is because I try in the book to take a fresh and much more wide-ranging approach to the Regency. On one level, I explore the elegance and poise that we typically associate with the period, in the architecture of John Nash, the portraits of Thomas Lawrence and Henry Raeburn, and the novels of Austen. But on another level, I try to bring into view people who have been left out of previous accounts of the period, including the Indigenous leader Tecumseh, the arctic explorer John Franklin, the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, the comedian Dorothy Jordan, and the diarist Anne Lister, who wrote at length of her experiences of same-sex love.

Q: Your book has been named to the RBC Taylor Prize Longlist and picked by The Economist as a Book of the Year. Are you surprised by the accolades and media attention it has received?

A: Very surprised. I just sit in my library and work as hard as I can at reading and thinking and writing. But then it all goes out into the world and different readers react in different ways. Having it recognized by The Economist and the RBC Taylor jury is a big thrill.

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Q: Talk about some of your other research interests. How do they intersect with the Regency years?

A: Many of the people I have studied and taught for the past 20 years were active during the Regency, and writing the book was a way of bringing highly diverse interests together. For example, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, her most famous novel, in 1813. That same year, after nearly a decade of experimentation, Thomas De Quincey became addicted to opium. 1813 was also the year that Robert Owen published his New View of Society, the Duke of Wellington won the battle of Vitoria, Turner and Constable dined together at the Royal Academy, Lady Hester Stanhope became the first European woman to reach Palmyra in Syria, and so on. The book seeks to highlight events such as these, but also – and I think more interestingly – to try and bring them into collision.

Q: Regarding your writing, what can we expect next?

A: Right now I’m working on the Oxford Handbook of Romantic Prose, which brings together 52 different scholars, each of whom is contributing a chapter on a specific topic in early 19th-century British prose, ranging from Africa and Antiquarianism through Magazines and Metropolitanism to War and Welsh regionalism. I’m also editing the Collected Letters of Thomas De Quincey, and writing a book on the literature of addiction, beginning with De Quincey and moving up to Carlyn Zwarenstein, a Toronto writer who recently published a fascinating book called The New Confessions in which she engages very consciously with De Quincey’s many accounts of his opium addiction.