Few eras in history are as romanticized as the Regency era. But what is it about that time in history that so many of us love?
When I think of the Regency, I think of impeccable manners and careful dress, grand balls with elegant dancing, sweeping vistas of the countryside, men being dashing and treating women with courtesy, and women being gentle and graceful (but always quick and witty). But the more I have read, and especially the more I have studied about the era, I’ve had to acknowledge that my view of the Regency is not completely accurate.
Did men always treat women with courtesy? Well, a true gentleman always stood when a lady came into the room, offered a hand or an arm to support her in any exertion (such as ascending or descending anything from stairs to the carriage step), never allowed a vulgar word to escape his lips in her presence, and was ready to defend her honor at any provocation. But some “gentlemen” took for granted that only gently-born (titled or wealthy class) women should expect such treatment, and women of lower birth (especially of the serving classes) were fair game for anything from a pinch on the butt to an indecent proposal. Which is extremely offensive to me.
Was life all beautiful clothing and elegant parties? Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of the population enjoyed the ease and comfort we love to associate with the Regency period. All that elegance was made possible by members of the working class, whose services were essential to the comfort of their employers, but who eked out a living on mere shillings to pounds a year. While the middle and upper classes had nothing to do all day but visit and drive in the park and gather flowers and embroider and go to parties, their servants were sewing and washing and ironing and cleaning and cooking and grooming and mucking and shoeing and—well, you get the idea. And it kind of sours the lovely vision Jane Austen gave us.
As I’ve thought about this quandary, I’ve come to realize that though I have serious issues with the way many things were in the Regency era, I still am in love with it, and it’s not because of any of the superficial things we associate with the time. The elegance and manners and dress and dancing are all just a backdrop. What I love are the stories of strong people who were unafraid to be themselves, and who defied the status quo—sometimes quietly and subtly, which is almost more powerful—to make wonderful, impossible things happen.
Consider that gentlewomen were raised to believe that men were intellectually superior, and must be treated as such. But many women, Jane Austen included, didn’t subscribe to this view, instead speaking their minds and making their way in the world whether or not the men appreciated it. And many did appreciate it, being bored to death by propriety and welcoming a good challenge to the status quo. Several men, it turns out, not only revered the gentle sex, but respected them as well.
Also consider that social lines were solidly drawn. Where you were born is where you will stay. Well, according to some insurance policies of the time, a lot of “low-born” people were able to amass quite a few possessions, which opened the doors to social possibilities. Now, most social climbers would be labeled “mushrooms” and ostracized by the ton, but occasionally, as in the case of Lord Hardwicke, the son of a silversmith, nobodies made it into acceptable circles with whatever skills or attributes they could muster. And the children of “mushrooms” could often blend right into higher circles because their enterprising parents raised them “gently.”
What it boils down to is that even though every era has its dark sides, it is inspiring to see how people can not only resist being broken by adverse circumstances, but rise above them, in any time period. And it doesn’t hurt if their clothing and dance steps and manners happen to be classy, too.
Everything’s better with a British accent, right?