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Three Books, Two Centuries And One English Regency

This statue in Weymouth, England, commemorates King George III entering the 50th year of his reign in 1809-1810. It was donated to the town in 1809. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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This statue in Weymouth, England, commemorates King George III entering the 50th year of his reign in 1809-1810. It was donated to the town in 1809.

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As the summer winds to a close, I'm thinking about the bicentennial. Not the one we celebrated with tall ships 35 years ago, but the one just across the pond: the 200th anniversary of the English Regency.

It's a term often associated with fussy furniture, but it refers in fact to the last nine years of King George III's life, when he was put in a straitjacket and his son was asked to mind the throne. The Regency began with a massive kickoff party in the summer of 1811. It ended with George III's death in January 1820. In between, the English got food riots, Luddites, Jane Austen and Waterloo.

For most Americans, the period comes down to one man: Colin Firth, whose star turn as Austen's Fitzwilliam Darcy still brings grown women to their knees. For those who'd like to know more about those racy nine years, a few good books come to mind.

Seize the Fire

Heroism, Duty, And Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar

by Adam Nicolson

Paperback, 18 pages, Harpercollins, $14.95, published September 1 2006 | purchase

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Seize the Fire
Subtitle
Heroism, Duty, And Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar
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Adam Nicolson

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Naval power was a defining aspect of the Regency. Vice Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson's annihilation of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar took place a good six years before George III went insane, but to understand the period you must know something about why Britannia ruled the waves. Adam Nicolson's Seize the Fire is a good place to start. The grandson of English writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, Adam Nicolson has a passionate love for the sea and ships. Whether you care a whit for naval warfare or not, his prose is lyric enough to carry his grand ambition: to understand the cult of heroism that surrounded Nelson and the Royal Navy, which literally scuttled Napoleon Bonaparte's planned invasion of England. To read this book is to know why Napoleon would destroy most of the old world in order to own it — and why England refused to let him.

The Battle

A New History of Waterloo

by Alessandro Barbero

Paperback, 340 pages, St Martins Pr, $18, published June 13 2006 | purchase

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The Battle
Subtitle
A New History of Waterloo
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Alessandro Barbero

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We all use the word "Waterloo" as shorthand for "utter defeat," but few of us can walk our way through those three brutal days of battle in June 1815, when it seemed civilization itself hung in the balance. Alessandro Barbero, an Italian military historian, brings the terror of cannon fire in the ripening rye fields to vivid life. If for nothing else, read this book for cavalry officer Frederick Ponsonby's matter-of-fact account of surviving 36 hours on the ground while the French trampled, stabbed and robbed his wounded body, apologizing profusely as they abandoned him to his death. That Ponsonby survived the ordeal seems a peculiarly British triumph.

Persuasion

by Jane Austen

Paperback, 229 pages, Bantam Classic & Loveswept, $3.95, published April 1 1984 | purchase

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Persuasion
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Jane Austen

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2011 is also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility, the first of Jane Austen's trenchant novels of Regency manners; but to my mind she captures the period best in her last book. Set between Napoleon's banishment to Elba and his return at Waterloo, Persuasion is a bittersweet, autumnal tale of second chances and love regained. It perfectly captures the ambitious striving, the social upheaval, the vast uncertainties of the Regency period — and the desperate yearning of those who waited in silence for warriors who might never come home again.

Those of us who love the Regency are sometimes accused of escapism — to a sedate and romanticized England long since lost — but as these books prove, struggle, change and survival have always existed. Even 200 years ago, in the ballrooms of Jane Austen.

Stephanie Barron writes a series of books featuring Jane Austen as a detective. Her latest is Jane and the Canterbury Tale.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.

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