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A Gorgeously Grim Age
Horrible Histories: The Gorgeous Georgians - Terry Deary
Member Name: CarolineR-D
Horrible Histories: The Gorgeous Georgians - Terry Deary
Advantages: Good introduction to the period, lots of fun
Disadvantages: More an overview than an in-depth account
The Georgian age was the era of highwaymen, the Industrial Revolution, huge wigs and (not surprisingly) four Kings called George. If you are confused about which George was which, this book will make things clear. You will soon learn which George spoke no English, which George wore a corset to make his bulging waist look thinner, which George died after a violent attack of diarrhoea and which George lost the American colonies (along with his marbles.)
In keeping with the riotously funny and irreverent Horrible Histories style, this book introduces readers to the key characteristics of the Georgian age, focussing on the grim detail. The idea is that the more shocking or dark the content, the more likely you are to commit it to memory. The idea of a man shaking bugs out of his wig in front of his lady friends, or a woman being taken to a market by her husband, tethered to a rope and traded for an ox are the sort of vivid pictures you don't forget in a hurry.
I think these are superb 'starter' history books for children as Terry Deary avoids focussing on any one topic for too long. There is an excellent balance between text and cartoon illustrations, with the information being provided in a variety of stimulating ways, such as diary entries, quizzes and stories. This is great for those with shorter attention spans. Many children are put off by history when they feel they have to memorise names and dates, but Horrible History books are written in a chatty, relaxed style where the aim is to provide an appreciation of the overall flavour of the age, not the minutiae.
I like the way Horrible Histories highlight little anecdotes throughout, which make children aware of the human stories behind the historical events. For example, in this book there is a reference to the way rich girls in Georgian times were often fitted with a steel cage under their clothes to pinch their stomachs in and improve their figures. One girl, Elizabeth Evelyn, died as a result of this practice - and she was just two years old! It is quite sobering to think how all these years later we are still prepared to take a few stupid risks for the sake of our appearances. This could stimulate some interesting discussion, I think.
Georgian fashion is an obvious target for poking fun and we have the opportunity to observe a 1770s makeover, complete with lead to make the face look white, silk cut-out beauty spots to cover small pox scars and false eyebrows made from mouse skin! There are some wonderful cartoons in this section, including a maid applying bright red plaster to a lady's lips and telling her, "Don't smile or your lips will drop off" and another in which the lady wears a ceiling-high wig and the maid comments, "I'm sure madam's umbrella is in there somewhere." I was interested to learn that wig theft was common in this age. Thieves would jump onto the back of a carriage, cut a hole through the back, snatch a wig and jump off. I think many young readers would find that a hoot.
One of the most interesting parts of this book is where Terry Deary talks about how stories of smugglers, pirates and highwaymen have become romanticised. He compares the smugglers immortalised by Rudyard Kipling's poem - "watch the wall, my darling while the gentlemen go by" with the ungentlemanlike behaviour of a real gang of smugglers in 1748, describing what they did to the chap who betrayed them . We also have a chance to find out about the real Dick Turpin, the man behind the legend.
As for pirates, were they really like the ones in the movies? I was interested to read that pirates were not very likely to make you walk the plank, as in Peter Pan, but were much more inclined to hack you to death and throw you over board. Did they really bury treasure? Why did they have gold earrings and parrots? It all makes fascinating reading. I like this section because it warns children not to take things at face value but to be prepared to consider alternative explanations and to understand how legends develop over time, embellishing the truth.
I love the way this book invites the reader to imagine him/herself in particular situations. For example, there is a quiz to find out if you've got what it takes to be a good body snatcher. There is also a section on what it was to be a child in Georgian times, when you were quite lucky if you just managed to survive being born. I think children will appreciate the reference to a rebellion at Winchester School in 1793 when some of the boys took over the school tower and fired pistols at the teachers below! Meanwhile, at Rugby school a gang of pupils used gunpowder to blow up the headmaster's door. As Terry Deary points out - "And you thought you were daring when you dropped a stink-bomb in school assembly."
There is an amusing section on wacky Georgian words. Can you match the words to their meanings? This is a great way of showing children how our language keeps changing and developing with the meanings of words changing over time and new words being invented. I had not realised that a man's status was measured by the size of his wig in Georgian times, which is where the word 'Bigwig' comes from. When you have mastered some of the unusual words in the Georgian section you can have quite a laugh creating new insults along the lines of - "You sumph! " and "You're nothing but a pain in the scrag."
I was intrigued by the section on entertainment. In this section we see some actual advertisements from the period, showing what was on offer at various local fairs. Things that passed as entertainment included "a man eating a cockerel alive, feathers entrails and all" and fights between scantily clad women wielding blunt, two-handled swords. I should warn that there are some quite unpleasant references to animal cruelty in this section, which may be upsetting to some readers.
I was surprised to learn that although there was no shortage of barbaric pastimes available to the Georgians, cricket only became legal in 1748. It was deemed to be a very dangerous game as there were no pads or gloves back then, which meant some serious injuries. There is a lovely little story about an unusual game of cricket that took place in Surrey in 1773 between a carpenter on one side and 9 tailors on the other. The carpenter won by 64 runs! His prize was a quarter of lamb and a cabbage. Those were the days.
The Georgian era spanned over 100 years and saw lots of changes so I think Terry Deary does a great job of packing so much information into a mere 127 pages. Of course, you can only really skim the surface but the flavour of the age is very clearly expressed and most of the key areas touched upon. If there is a particular area that grabs your interest, such as pirates or highwaymen, for instance, you might consider going on to read a book which focusses directly on that topic. It's a great overview of the main topics of Georgian times, without going into anything in depth.
Even subjects with the potential to be rather dull for young readers, such as the development of Parliament, are handled well, with a rogues' gallery of 'Peculiar Prime Ministers.' Here you can read about the only British PM ever to be assassinated, the youngest PM to die in office and the one who was said to be not only "the worst prime minister ever" but also "the ugliest prime minister Britain ever had." It may not offer much detail about the political career of these guys, but it at least familiarises children with some of the names, which can be expanded upon in later reading.
At the end of the book is a Test your Teacher quiz, which of course could just as easily be used to test a parent or friend. The point is, it gets children to interact with others and share the things they have learned and is a great way of consolidating what you have picked up from the book.
I would definitely recommend this as another triumph from the Horrible Histories team. It's ideal for children who like their history to be colourful and teeming with bad taste detail. Terry Deary, tells us - "Georgian Britain is a bit like the moon; it's bright and flashy to look at from the distance...you may even like to visit it......but you wouldn't want to live there. Would you?" This statement captures the whole mood of the book, inviting readers to think for themselves, to imagine what it would be like to live in that period.
We see the Georgian age from the contrasting perspectives of the rich, the poor, the educated, the uneducated, men, women and children. Although the Georgian era contributed much towards the modernisation of Britain, as with all periods of history progress comes at a price. It is an interesting talking point, something to get children thinking about.
Of course it is also suitable for any adult who wants a crash course on Georgian history, a kind of 'who's who' of the main personalities and a guide to the main events. It won't make you an expert, but it might come in handy if you are visiting a Georgian stately home, for instance, and want to familiarise yourself with the character of the period first.
The Gorgeous Georgians is available from sellers at Amazon from a mere £0.01. There is also a Kindle version.
Summary: Another engaging read from the Horrible Histories range