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Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs

Joanna Major and Sarah Murden
Pen and Sword, Barnsley 2017 HB pp179, ISBN14-73-86-3465 £19.99

This is a ‘romp’ of a book, retelling the almost unbelievable story of Charlotte Biggs (c1760- 1827). It is meticulously and enthusiastically researched, and it is this enthusiasm, paradoxically, that makes the book quite hard to read. The authors are very keen to explore the extraordinary networks and family connections which surrounded Charlotte’s life in Georgian England. It is sometimes overwhelming, requiring a great deal of concentration and memory on the part of the reader. I have a great deal of sympathy for this approach, the desire to ensure that the reader understands the often-astonishing coincidences and chances that construct a life, but in this instance, I wonder if a series of appendices might have been valuable.

The events are in the book appear to be true although the book is full of rhetorical questions for the reader. Did this really happen? Can it really be true? The story is fast moving, Charlotte, a middle class girl living in central London, is abducted, and raped by a rich and older neighbour who had become besotted by her. It is a dreadful tale of deceit and treachery set within the licentious and unregulated times of Georgian London.

From that point Charlotte appears to become what we now we would call a ‘survivor’: Sometimes the story does seem far fetched but of course the reader can suspend disbelief, considering that truth is often stranger than fiction. After her escape from her captivity – which even the authors acknowledge was just a bit too easy, Charlotte then returned to her captor, escaping again to a Swiss convent, returning to England after her abductor’s marriage. We then see her in France during the Revolution with a new suitor, who remains a shadowy figure throughout the book. They were imprisoned (and finally released) as foreigners, though the subsequent account written by Charlotte, seems to have been plagiarised from other contemporary accounts. Once back in England, she turned her hand to writing and the theatre, using influential contacts like Sheridan and Beau Nash. She inherited property from her father. She cultivated politicians and writers, always keen to pour scorn on revolutionary France and to support the monarchy. In 1809, she appears to have single handedly orchestrated a series of celebrations for George 111’s jubilee and then persuaded the Foreign Secretary to fund her on a fact finding mission in France after the defeat of Napoleon- the authors like to call this a spying mission -and it is just another extraordinary chapter in the life of this extraordinary woman.

It is a good read, and for any student of the C18th and early C19th, I think the coincidences and networks revealed between the ‘great and the good’, and an ordinary citizen like Charlotte, would fill in some of the gaps and lacunae of the social and political life of that period.

Alison Ronan

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