Over the years, Robert Morrison (BASc (BA) ’83) has brought together a passion for literature and research to produce a compelling body of work. Recently, The Economist named his book The Regency Years as one of the 2019 Books of the Year. His book was also longlisted for the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize, which recognizes great works of Canadian non-fiction.
What about your research excites you the most?
Learning new things. Before I began the book, I thought I knew the Regency period – which extended from 1811 until 1820 – quite well. I had published on several of its major authors and I had taught its major literary texts many times over more than twenty-five years. Yet when I started to dig into various aspects of the decade – imperialism, scientific innovation, the theatre, prize-fighting, religiously-inspired philanthropy, celebrity culture, prostitution, and much else – I realized that there were huge areas of the Regency that I needed to learn a lot more about. The process of exploration – of learning, for example, how debates about slavery, the monarchy, landscape gardening, and the War of 1812 – shaped the novels of Jane Austen, was the most exhilarating part of writing the book.
The Regency Years is generating substantial buzz among literary critics. What do you hope that readers will get out of your book?
There are several things that I hope readers will take away from The Regency Years. At the top of my list would be a recognition that literature and the arts matter, and that what happened then still has a profound influence on what happens now. On one level, the book explores the poise and elegance that we typically associate with the Regency period, in the beautiful portraits painted by Henry Raeburn and Sir Thomas Lawrence, in the architecture of John Nash, in the fashion sense of Beau Brummell, and especially in the novels of Jane Austen. But on another level, I try in The Regency Years to bring into view people who have been neglected in previous accounts of the period, including the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, the Indigenous leader Tecumseh, the arctic explorer John Franklin, and the diarist Anne Lister, who wrote extensively of her experiences of same-sex love. The Wall Street Journal review said that it is the “progressive cultural legacy” of the Regency that the book “commends to contemporary Britain and the rest of the world.” I like that assessment a lot.
How did your foundation at the University of Lethbridge prepare you for the academic and professional career that you have had?
I learned many things at the University of Lethbridge. One of them was how important teaching is. My life was changed by the excellent teachers I had at the University of Lethbridge, and as I have made my way through my own academic career, I have very often reflected on how teaching can transform lives as it did mine, and how I try to do for my students what my University of Lethbridge professors did for me. I also learned at the University of Lethbridge that education matters – both the sciences and the humanities – and that learning about the past illuminates the present in ways that I try to bring to the fore in The Regency Years. Finally, to put it mildly, I did not arrive at the University of Lethbridge with a deep understanding of writers like Wordsworth and Keats and Austen and the Shelleys. But I did leave with the confidence that, if I worked hard, I might at some point have something to say about them.
Robert was recognized as the University of Lethbridge’s 2013 Alumnus of the Year. He is currently a British Academy Global Professor and Queen’s National Scholar.