I know, I know…why am I returning to this old chestnut? You wish to read something new, entertaining, disgusting and/or engaging… (And where have I been for the last month, anyway, slacker that I am?)
(Off for the holidays, since you ask. Followed by a vicious bout of manflu. So much so that I can now say, with absolute conviction than manflu is not a weenie version of influenza but was in fact the secret biological weapon of the Spanish Inquisition or possibly of Dr. John Dee working undercover as a Tudor torturer in the Tower of London…)
But back to this Regency business…
I have, in fact, already attempted to herd the fantasists into some verisimilitude of historical accuracy or other in my previous blog on the subject where I discussed the actual dates of the Regency, in my so aptly titled blog, What exactly is the Regency, anyway? And you would have thought that would be the end of it.
Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong.
Now I hear–courtesy of the ubiquitous grapevine that is the internet–that one or other or several of our charming colonial cousins are insisting at some length and indeed volume that the Regency actually started in the late 18th century and that history isn’t the only criterion. Or something.
(I don’t know–I could have heard that wrong or I may have had a bit of fluff in my ear…)
To which I feel forced to ask, therefore, how are you defining the word Regency? What does the word, in fact, mean, when you’re using it?
Are you using it in reference to a period of time during which George III had been found to have lost his senses, irreparably impairing his ability to govern and his son and heir was made acting head of state, aka the Regent?
Then you would be talking, as I have outlined, of a period beginning 5 February 1811 when the Regency Act became law and the death of the king in 1820.
Or, you could stretch the point and date it slightly earlier, beginning-ish a year or so earlier, when George III’s mental health began to deteriorate as it had previously and his son and heir stepped in ex officio to keep things ticking over and running smoothly–it was a time of war, with all the matters of state that entails–until such time as his father recovered or his condition stabilised.
But what if you don’t care a jot about history? Fair enough. Are you speaking culturally? What if you’re talking about architecture? Or furniture design? Or when Napoleon was gallivanting about the Continent calling himself Emperor?
What if, indeed, when you say Regency you’re actually picturing in your mind a chappie with his hair cropped and unpowdered, wearing a high white cravat constructed of heavily starched linen about his neck, a high crowned bevor on his head (which looks quite similar to our top hats), a tightly fitted tailored wool coat, a plain waistcoat and very tight buckskin breeches? What if that’s what Regency means to you?
Well, that definition of Regency would date the beginning of said period with the arrival of Mr. George Brummell in London and his appearance–which shocked his fellow members at White’s, particularly those of an older generation than himself–dressed as above.
Brummell bought his house in Chesterfield Street in 1799. He also became a member of White’s Club in that year. Though it wasn’t until 1802-3 that Londoners were treated to the first public appearance of the strangulation device known as the starched cravat. He had also cropped his hair by that point. And like many of his generation, he was no longer using powder–which was then heavily taxed to pay for the already long war with France.
1802-3 is also the year that the French Empire waist made a strong showing in ladies wear, here in England. The Peace of Amiens with France meant that travel was briefly possibly for those of means and what they did was pop over to France for a spot of shopping.
The fashion for dressing in white muslin was not new–Marie Antoinette had swathed herself in layers of white muslin–but the simpler silhouette we associate with the early 19th century was.
If you’re talking about furniture design, well, again the dates aren’t what you’d expect. We associate the designs of Thomas Sheraton with the best of the period, yet his famous book of designs was not published until 1812 and it was published posthumously.
There’s quite a lot of gilded furniture about at the time too–all those gold leaf porpoises are furniture for the Age of Nelson–who was the great Naval hero. Was he a Regency gentleman? He wore his hair in a queue, and powdered, and had he been asked, would have told you and with some passion that he served George III and his country. He was no “Regency gentleman”. He died in 1805, well before George III’s descent into blindness, deafness and madness…
If you’re talking about the delicious interiors of Robert Adam, such as at Osterley Park, home of Lady Sally Jersey (absolutely gorgeous–a most lust-worthy residence!) you’d actually be talking about the 1780s when Adam and his rival James Wyatt were at the height of their powers and popularity…
Was William Pitt a Regency gentleman? He was Prime Minister (until his death in 1806) during all the early years of the wars with France and Napoleon, yet while he lived and worked, George III retained a firm grip on the reins of government.
Viscount Castlereagh, husband to one of Almack’s Lady Patronesses, and a political force of incalculable stature powdered his hair all his life. And he didn’t drink to excess. He hardly drank at all and he never drank spirits, though he was one person the Prince Regent considered a close and trusted friend. Not what one would expect necessarily, is it?
(Almack’s Assembly Rooms themselves had opened in 1764…)
Or perhaps the word Regency indicates to you a certain sexual license and profligacy as exemplified by the Prince of Wales and frequently lampooned in the London newspapers and cartoons of the era. Hmn.
I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings and all that, but the previous generation’s morals, particularly those of the Whig aristocracy, were a great deal more…ah…exciting than those of the Prince Regent. Check out the doings at Chatsworth when Prinny was yet a spotty adolescent living at Kew, if you doubt me–they make the poor man appear positively staid.
Moreover, yes, I know that the Prince was considered universally unpopular and that is the picture one will arrive at if one relies solely on the London media–which was Radical and libellous by any standard.
But here’s the thing–I was recently reading about a trip the Tsar and the Prince Regent made to Oxford during the summer of 1814. Anyway, the Tsar left the dinner and parties early and flounced back to London (yes, it was rude–he was good at that!) because what he particularly liked was fawning adulation and the applause of the crowds–and he loved London for that. The London crowds adored him and booed the Prince Regent.
Yet in Oxford, the crowds were wild in their support for…yes, you guessed it…the Prince Regent, and loudly cheered him wherever he went, even as they ignored the Tsar. And the Tsar didn’t like that.
Which begs the question–did the London journalists and satirists actually speak for and reflect public opinion at the time or did they just shout the loudest and longest, drowning out all other voices? And was there such a thing as public opinion in the early 19th century, anyway?
I could, of course, list dozens of more anomalies…and I’m happy to do so…but I think what I’m most trying to say is that for all that the word Regency is today used quite loosely to designate a period of time-ish, historical reality isn’t like that.
Nothing happens all at once–and certainly not in a neatly contained box with dated end-papers put there for the convenience of later generations’ school essays. Change occurs gradually and often generationally.
Beau Brummell may have introduced his version of menswear and its astonishing wonder of the clean world, the cravat, in 1802, but not everybody hopped on the bandwagon and suddenly dressed like that.
The elder generations thought he looked like a numpty and certainly didn’t ape him–to them, he probably appeared as the first Goth appeared in the 1980s–equal parts shocking, daft, foppish and unBritish or some such thing. Those who did take up his lead initially were only a handful of young men from a tiny coterie of very rich and very aristocratic families. (And it’s doubtful their parents approved.)
Equally, in 1802, the majority hadn’t the means in that time of inflation and war to throw out their serviceable clothing in favour of what was new from London or from Paris. Nor did they chuck out their serviceable chairs and tables the second the new catalogue came out from Ikea in 1812…
As the old was worn out, it was replaced with the new–the new cut, the new fashion in colours, the new fabrics from wherever. Just as there came a time when the older generation was comprised of men and women who’d grown up thinking that Brummell dressed as a gentleman should dress, who had no personal memory of the old mad king, and believed that bagwigs belonged in the prop cupboard for family theatricals. But this all requires the passage of unminuted time…
So, back to the definition? Is that any clearer? I don’t know…I hope so.
But I will tell you one more thing. Regardless of what they may wish had happened, the United States did not have a Regency period. And do you know why? Because in order to have a Regency, you require a king or an emperor kind of person who is in need of someone to run things for him while he’s not of age or of mental ability…and a king is one thing America did not have–they’d taken care of that by 1783.
(Instead, the Americans had Thomas Jefferson and his rabid Anglo-phobia…to be followed by James Madison and his rabid Anglo-phobic policies which culminated in a declaration of war in 1812…And I’m fairly certain that did not stem from any desire to rejoin the Mother Country and share once more in the joys and privileges of having a Prince Regent…Ehem.)