The Regency & Post-Regency Period
The Regency: 1811 – 1820 by author Melinda McRae (Write Byte) A Quickie on the Regency with Mary Jo Putney Regency Language – A Primer by Diane Farr (Write Byte) The Era of Conservative Reaction: 1815 – 1822 by Jean Mason Beau Brummell by Ellen Micheletti
(Articles on the Regency Romance)
Celebrating the Regency Romance…the End of an Era? (2005 ATBF) Author Kate Moore on writing Regencies and Historicals (Write Byte) Author Karen Harbaugh on the Regency Romance (Write Byte) Reader on Regencies
The Prince, “Prinny”, set the tone for the period with his lavish expenditures and indolent lifestyle. His marriage to Caroline of Brunswick had been a disaster from the beginning and the prince cultivated a string of mistresses who grew older and fatter with him. In 1820, after becoming king, George tried to divorce his wife for adultery. The scandalous trial entertained the country, but his claim was not upheld. Their one child, Princess Charlotte, died in 1817.
The British army had been fighting the French on the Iberian Peninsula since 1809. The eventual Duke of Wellington commanded the British forces for most of this time and eventually defeated this wing of Napoleon’s army. Napoleon himself was busy with his disastrous campaign in Russia. He surrendered in 1814, was exiled to Elba, escaped the following year and made one last attempt to retain his empire at Waterloo, where Wellington and the Allied forced prevailed.
The Regency period was the heyday of the Romantic poets, led by the scandalous Byron and Shelley and the more mild-mannered Keats. Sir Walter Scott, who began writing epic poetry, turned his hand to historical novels such as Waverly and Ivanhoe. And Jane Austen delighted the country with her timeless accounts of the manners and morals of the Regency era.
London was the center of the Regency universe. The Season began with the opening of Parliament, usually in March and lasted until late June, when the haut ton fled to their country estates. Young girls made their “come out” to the aged Queen, and then started off on the great husband hunt. Women visited with their friends, patronized the fashionable shops and showed off their finery at lavish balls, the theater and the opera. Gentlemen, when not busy at their clubs, courted the ladies and pursued “manly” sports.
The Other Side:
Life during the Regency was not all glamor and excitement. Dickens’ descriptions of the miserable conditions in the Victorian slums are equally applicable to the Regency. Social reformers worked for prison reform and changes in the poor laws, while evangelical religions gained in popularity. There was growing agitation for political reform from both the rising middle class and the increasingly vocal laborers.
George III died in 1820 and Prinny ascended to the throne as George IV. He reigned only 10 years; upon his death in 1830, his next living brother became William IV. When he died in 1837, he was succeeded by the child of his predeceased younger brother – the Princess Victoria. Born in the waning years of the Regency (1819), she reigned as Queen until 1901.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought Britain a great victory, but it also left the country with serious economic and social problem. Britain had won the war largely because of her economic resources, but the country was left with a huge debt and a shaky economy. The country had to adjust to peacetime economic conditions, and especially to the end of economic isolation which had kept the price of grain unnaturally high. The response of the ruling class (whose wealth was still based primarily on agriculture) was to pass the Corn Laws, which placed prohibitive duties on imported grain. The result was to keep grain and bread prices high at a time when many in the lower classes were finding it hard to make ends meet.
The economic problems Britain faced were not solely the result of postwar adjustment. Equally problematic were the vast social and economic changes that accompanied industrialization. The Industrial Revolution had begun in England around 1760. By 1815, it was well underway in some of the most important industries in Britain – the textile industries. The introduction of machinery caused all kinds of dislocation among the working classes. Before the invention of power looms, weavers had been among the elite of the English working class. The looms and other machinery threatened their position and their livelihoods. The Luddites as early as 1813 had attacked the hated machines, and Luddism and other working class movements lurked always below the surface, and were perceived as a threat to the existing order.
The British government in the years after Waterloo was one of the most reactionary and class biased governments that the country had ever had. The above-mentioned Corn Laws are just one example of class based legislation. Headed by Lord Liverpool and filled with members of the most reactionary elements of the Tory Party, the government lived in fear of revolution. But rather than acting to deal with the problems that created discontent, the government turned to repression.
The high point of reaction occured in 1819. In that year, a peaceful gathering, which was being addressed by one of the radical journalists and was asking for reform, was attacked by mounted yoeman sent in by the local magistrates. There were numerous casualties. This became known as the Peterloo Massacre. The Manchester magistrates were congratulated by the government, which proceeded to pass a series of laws. These acts prohibited peaceful meetings, limited the freedom of the press, and increased the punishments for “seditious libel,” a catch-all term that could encompass any written or spoken complaint against the government.
There were those in the ruling class and in parliament who opposed the repressive actions of the government and advocated reform to deal with the problems. The Whig Party, although much diminished, continued to espouse the principles of reform. The Whigs were especially associated with the call to end the religious disabilities which kept all non-Anglicans from serving in Parliament and in the government. (This was especially a problem in Ireland.) The so-called Radicals in parliament like Brougham called for legal reform and parliamentary reform. And occasionally a determined MP could get a piece of reform legislation through parliament. Sir Robert Peel the Elder did succeed in convincing parliament to pass a Factory Act to prevent the exploitation of children in textile factories, although the act suffered from a lack of an effective means of enforcement.
But for the most part, the years 1815-1822 were characterized by economic hard times made more difficult by a government which tended to see any call for any change in the existing order as a wedge opening the door to its overthrow. It was against this background of suffering and repression that the ton danced and played at the lavish balls and entertainments that are so lovingly portrayed in the romances that we all so enjoy.
LLB: What do you call the post-Regency era, the time between the end of the Regency and the Victorian age?
Secondly, I really appreciate the eye-opener you’ve given me about the end of the Regency. Who knew? Is there a transition you can provide about society at the end of the Regency and the Victorian period.
What I’d like to get at is the gaiety of the ton and its bedroom hopping mentality of “after marriage, anything goes”, to the Victorian puritanism. I don’t even know if that’s accurate, and if it’s not, please enlighten me, but that’s my sense.
Jean Mason: Actually, the period 1820-1837 has no catchy name like Regency or Victorian. The classic history of the era (Oxford) calls it “The Age of Reform” and that is as good a title as anything. I can do an analysis of the changing social mores, but I think it fits into the 1822-1850 era. I believe that the change in behavior, while having roots earlier in the century, can be largely attributed to the new attitudes that led to the whole panoply of reforms that characterized the era.
Beau Brummell is one of the best known figures of the Regency period. He shows up in many novels set during the time and his name has become a figure of speech. The phrase, “He’s a regular Beau Brummell,” brings to mind a very dapper, well dressed man.
Beau Brummell’s reign in Regency Society was brief, but while it lasted, he was one of the best-known and most gossiped about men of his time. Brummell was said to be obsessed with his clothing and it took him five hours to dress. He polished his boots with champagne, had three hairdressers to groom him, one for the sideburns, one for the forelock and one for the back of the head. It took two glovers to make a pair for the Beau – one for the thumb and one for the fingers. He sent his laundry to the country claiming that they were the only ones who knew how to bleach correctly.
These were some of the stories told about George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, the social arbiter of Regency Society. Even though many of the stories told about him were not true, Brummell never bothered to deny them. He knew that it was better to be talked about than ignored. While Brummell was a wit and a dandy, he was also a very loyal man whose capacity for friendship served him well when he fell from Royal favor and spent long years in exile.
Beau Brummell was proof that a man with humble ancestors and no great fortune could become a figure (a dictator in his case) of Regency Society provided he had charm, wit, audacity and the patronage of the Prince Regent. Brummell did not come from a distinguished background. His father was either a valet or a major-domo, but he seems to have been a thrifty man. He owned a house in London and rented rooms to the members of Parliament when it was in session. One of the inhabitants of Mr. Brummell’s rooms noticed his son, William, and gave him a start in the world.
William Brummell began his career as a clerk. He later became Private Secretary to Lord North who steered some sinecures his way. The money he obtained from those, and the money that he got from his wife, made William Brummell a man of small, but still good fortune. He was able to send his two sons to Eton where Beau, (known then as Buck) became a prominent figure known for his witty talk and his attention to his clothing and appearance. Early on, Beau Brummell attracted the attention of the Prince Regent who enjoyed his wit and charm. Brummell was given a post in the Prince’s own regiment – the 10th Dragoons – where he did not stay very long.
Brummell’s father had died and left him an inheritance of roughly 30,000 pounds. Brummell set up household and furnished his rooms in exquisite taste, and he soon became the social lion of London. Beau Brummell was a trend setter in men’s fashion. Before him, men were peacocks. They wore powdered wigs and coats of silk and satin in bright colors with fancy embroidery. Men wore knee breeches and silk stockings and their shoes had high and often colored heels. Men wore makeup and beauty patches on their faces and doused themselves in perfume to cover their own bad smell – bathing was not something they did frequently.
Beau Brummell was very different from these gaudy, but dirty gentlemen. First of all, he was clean. Brummell bathed every day and did not use fragrances. He insisted that a gentleman should smell like clean linen and country air. He popularized pantaloons instead of knee breeches. Brummell’s pantaloons had straps in the instep to keep them tight under his highly polished Hessian or Wellington boots. Because of Beau Brummell’s influence, men’s jackets were no longer made of brightly colored satin, but instead were made of wool in dark colors. Brummell ousted peacock colors and put men into sober black for formal wear, and they are still in it today. Men’s jackets, since they were no longer able to hide bad construction under lots of embroidery, had to be perfect in fit and cut and English tailoring became the standard of perfection. Brummell is credited by some as being the first to starch his cravat which he never wore so high and starched that he could not turn his head. One of Brummell’s friends left a description of how he put on his cravat:
“The collar, which was always fixed to his shirt, was so large that, before being folded down, it completely covered his head and face, and the white neckcloth was at least a foot in height. The neckcloth, which was outside the upturned collar was tied first and the collar was turned down, and Brummell then standing before the glass with his chin poked up to the ceiling, by the gradual declensens of his lower jaw creased the cravat to reasonable dimensions”.
The word reasonable should be stressed. Beau Brummell insisted that a gentleman should never be noticed for the singularity of his dress. Beau Brummell was always neat and well dressed, but never wore odd or outlandish clothing, unlike some members of Society who went to extremes, like the gentleman who starched his cravat so stiffly that it cut his ear.
Brummell was a very congenial man and made a number of friends among the wealthy of London Society, including the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron. He particularly enjoyed the company of charming, witty, married women. Brummell was no rake and seems not to have had a serious love affair in his life although he did patronize some of the fashionable courtesans. He did have many women friends though, and counted Lady Jersey and the Duchess of Devonshire among them. Brummell was a very good friend of Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of York and spent many weekends at her country estate, Oatlands. In almost all cases, Beau Brummell was noted for his loyalty. If Brummell was your friend, he remained a friend even if you and another one of his friends were on the outs. Brummell was a friend of Lady Jersey, one of the Prince Regent’s mistresses and remained her friend even when the Prince dropped her from favor.
Sadly though, Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent did not remain friends. The exact reasons for their falling out are not clear, but it seems that Brummell’s witty remarks had become a little too cutting at the expense of Prinny’s dignity, especially when Brummell took to making cracks about the Prince’s increasing girth. Most sources I have read give the following incident as the one that drove the final wedge between the Prince and Brummell:
Brummell and three of his friends; Lord Alvanley, Sir Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierpoint gave a ball. They invited the Prince, even though he was no longer speaking to Brummell and didn’t care for Mildmay either. When Prinny arrived, he went to the hosts of the ball, shook hands with Alvanley and Pierpoint and cut Mildmay and Brummell. Then the Beau made his famous remark, “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?”
That was the final straw. From then on there was no hope of reconciliation between Brummell and the Prince Regent. Brummell could have stayed in Society, where he still had many friends and supporters, but his passion for gambling had gotten him very deeply in debt. Brummell was forced to flee to France where his friends provided him with a small income and came to visit him often. Even though the cost of living was less on the Continent, Brummell remained in poor financial shape, so some of his friends arranged for him to be given the post of British consul at Caen. The post was abolished after a period and Brummell’s financial woes continued to mount. He eventually ended up in debtor’s prison but was rescued by his loyal friends. A few years later Brummell suffered several small strokes and his mind began to fail. The once ultra-clean and fastidious Beau Brummell became filthy, slovenly and finally incontinent. He died in a mental hospital at the age of 61.
Melinda McRae’s website Mary Jo Putney’s website Mary Jo Putney at AAR Diane Farr’s website Read about Jean Mason find links to her other articles at AAR Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer – you can email her via the link here Find links to all of Ellen’s Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants Return to Author-Penned Articles & Write Bytes Search our reviews database by Title or Author by Titleby Author’s Last Nameby Author’s First Name Do a more in-depth review search via Power Search
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