This book typifies the modern way of writing popular history. The author takes her cue from an object – in this case The Sharp Family, a huge painting by Johan Zoffany – and her own response to it. Building on that intuitive reaction, she proceeds to reanimate some of the individuals in the picture, hoping to restore to view not only the public achievements of the men but also the quieter domestic trials and triumphs of the women. The seven Sharp siblings (four boys, three girls), born into a clerical family, were undoubtedly a high-achieving bunch: their number included a philanthropic priest, a royal surgeon, a brilliant inventor-engineer and a tireless abolitionist. Anyone who has ever enjoyed or endured a canal boat holiday can bless or curse the Sharps too, since they invented the whole shebang. The Union, launched in 1777, was seventy feet long and could accommodate twenty-four people in grand style as they wafted up and down the waterways, beguiled by music and chat.
Grant brings archival research and legal expertise to her endeavour. Her book also relies upon a great deal of imaginative reconstruction, some of it unacknowledged as fictional, and the liberal application of gushing, frothy, fruity epithets. Thus