Book an enthusiastic telling of Napoleon’s effect on Britain

IN THESE TIMES: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. By Jenny Unglow. FSG. 641 pages. $40.

Given all the attention paid to the enormity of World War II, it is rather shocking to recall that it lasted a mere six years. World War I was over in four years, as was the American Civil War.

Now, imagine a 22-year struggle during which the enemy, the greatest army in the world, intermittently sat hunkered closer to the isolated British Isles than Cuba is to the U.S. Fear of invasion, a very real threat, infected the English population like a debilitating disease. A single word, “Napoleon,” produced a stew of emotions, an odd combination of terror, grudging respect and slightly perverse fascination.

On the other hand, Jenny Unglow contends in her new book about the Napoleonic wars, “In These Times,” the shadow that hung over Britain also united its people, fostering in them a spirit of “nationhood as well as nationalism.”

During the period 1793-1815, the sons of the earliest soldiers began to replace their fathers in the field, and everything changed. Village life began to give way to the Industrial Revolution.

The fight for the abolition of slavery resulted in the prohibition of the trade in 1808. Demands for participatory democracy became more strident. And, despite what Unglow characterizes as a particularly grim aftermath of the war, England came out of it “the leading industrial and financial nation, in control of the seas and supreme in colonial and commercial power.”

Unglow, author of prize-winning biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell and William Hogarth, partly filters her examination of the period through biographies of various members of society, “people on a Norfolk farm, a Scottish mountain, in a Yorkshire mill, a Welsh iron foundry, an Irish village and a London bank,” among others, including aristocrats, members of the middle class and those at the bottom (who felt the pain of war most acutely).

When not following the lives of these individuals, Unglow pushes the narrative forward with discussions of what was occurring in British politics, the press, industry, agriculture and the army and navy. Her descriptions of fighting conditions are uncompromising, reminding us that there is little new in the area of man’s inhumanity to man.

The 1813 Battle of Leipzig was the largest battle Europe had ever seen until that time, involving more than half a million soldiers. “Up to a hundred thousand men died,” Unglow writes. “It took weeks to clear the battlefield of dead. The countryside around was devastated, the people of the city died of starvation and epidemics and the area took years to recover.”

Thus, inevitably, not only was England evolving and changing, but its population included many wounded and disfigured veterans, depressed, unemployed, sometimes homeless.

“In These Times” captures, if occasionally in a bit too much detail, the multifarious aspects of the British homefront during one of the longest periods of trial in the nation’s history.

A chronology of events at the back of the book helps the reader focus somewhat, and 600 pages of information, a lot to digest, is briskly and enthusiastically written. “In These Times” is a thorough portrait of what is often forgotten by those fighting a war: the fate of the people left behind.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.