A gentleman’s education…

While I was discussing poetry with someone today, it occurred to me to wonder why they wrote so much more of the stuff and were generally so much better at it 200 years ago than we are today? 

Given everything that we think we know about the paucity of education back then. 

One thinks of Austen’s rather acerbic commentary on the subject of good company in Persuasion:  “Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.  Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company, on the contrary, it will do very well…”

And yet, I think that may be unjust and/or inaccurate.  Probably both. 

Though their idea of education was certainly different from ours today, a late 18th/early 19th century education may well account for the number of fine poets Britain produced over the years.

Because a gentleman’s education at Eton, for example, (or Winchester or Harrow) was composed chiefly if not entirely in the study of the classics.  And yes, that means Latin and Greek. 

And the boys who went to school there would have not just learned their Latin and classical Greek, by the time they emerged, they would have been fluent in those languages.  (Though, yes, they would also be thoroughly versed in betting on horses and drinking too…)

There was then no set age of admission, as there is now, at Eton.  Boys as young as seven or eight might be admitted.  And remain there until about age sixteen, seventeen, or even eighteen.

They were expected to know some Latin upon arrival.  And the first two years of their education was entirely a study of Latin–memorising, reciting, reading, and answering set questions in that language, so pronunciation too. 

Thereafter, the syllabus was split between Latin and Greek to a point where their lessons were all in these languages, construing, repeating, reciting twenty or more verses of the Greek New Testament, studying Cicero, Tully’s Offices, all of Ovid’s work. 

Essentially, they read everything of the Classical Greek and Latin poets, playwrights and philosophers.  The sort of stuff we today relegate to post-graduate degree study…

They also were expected to learn Milton, Pope, (though curiously no Shakespeare) and both Roman and Greek history. 

They read Marcus Aurelius…and that’s without a dictionary (which had only just been invented a few years earlier in English, after all.  Such a thing didn’t yet exist in Latin.)

So yes, they would have been fluent in these classical languages to the extent that they could and did converse or write in them as freely as they could in English…imagine that.

By the time they were nearing the end of their years at Eton, they were studying and performing Greek plays such as Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus Coloneus, Antigone…and several plays by Euripedes, such as Hecuba and Orestes

Thus they learned to be confident public speakers, first in Latin, then in classical Greek and finally in English.

Equally, as their education consisted almost solely of the study of these kinds of work, so too, their own compositions reflect this education–they wrote and performed plays for themselves, composed classical odes (lots of them) and became masters of the epigram.  Beau Brummell, for example, composed classical verse well into old age. 

If one wished for further tuition for one’s son, one paid for tutoring of course.  And such things as French, fencing and dancing lessons were available. 

So, by the time they left the school–aged somewhere in their late-ish teens–these were young men thoroughly versed, and I mean thoroughly, in the classics. 

If they went on to Oxford or Cambridge, it would have been to further their study of the Greats (as the classics were then called), or to study for the church or the law. 

All of which starts to make a great deal of sense then when one looks at the poetry of Byron for example.  (He was a Harrovian, for those who don’t know.)

It also explains why the young men of the age migrated in large numbers to Italy for the Grand Tour.  Because the Grand Tour, when you read about it, doesn’t necessarily take in places like Spain or Portugal, does it? 

No, they’re always skipping off to Italy and Greece–well, since they had a foundation in the local languages, this too suddenly makes perfect sense.  And all those ruins would have meant a great deal to them. 

Yes, it is true that Englishmen of the period wore their education lightly.  There is indeed a popular sentiment that they learned nothing at all. 

But given how difficult it is to learn Latin, not to mention Greek, for an English speaker, ten years of lessons in those languages, the prizes won by so many, their writings, the endless recitation of memorised verses (which do stay with one unto old age) the lists which give an indication that many of those who later would claim to have learned nothing were rather more devoted to their studies than not…all of this tells a rather different story, don’t you think?

And possibly explains too why the poets of the Romantic age were read so voraciously by their contemporaries.  Because, it wasn’t just that they had no telly and no football to watch, it’s that this kind of education engenders a passion for poetry, for verse, for a clever construction of words, for plays…

So, well-educated?  I think so.  Don’t you?


A bit about the facts of life, circa 1812…

Yes, that’s right, boys and girls, it’s time to talk about sex.  Are you all sitting comfortably?  Good. 

(Actually, I don’t care if you are.) 

The purpose of sex in the early 19th century was, guess what?  To have fun?  Well, yes, possibly…but really, it was about procreation.  Lots of it.  Babies.  Lots of them. 

 They considered the ideal number of children for a family to be eleven.  (George III had fifteen…)

Why eleven?  Who knows?  But it may very well have to do with the high rates of infant mortality in the period. 

There are even sex manuals from the period and slightly earlier detailing how to ensure conception.  (Yes, indeed there are.  No, you can’t see them.)

This they believed was furthered by the man giving the woman a good time.  The greater her enjoyment, the greater the chances of conception.

They also had firm ideas about how to get boys–we learn this from the invaluable scribblings of Captain Grose in the late 18th century.  It was called riding rantipole or the dragon riding St. George–the lady on top, as it were.  And this was said to get a bishop (a boy).

(I implore you, do not ask me if this works…I have no evidence one way or the other, I assure you.  I’m just telling you what they thought.)

Because children were essential to a family’s business, to inheritance, to property.  Children were effectively your pension plan and your retirement carers. 

Remember too that the high infant mortality rates do not belong exclusively to one class more than another.  Within the memories of many of their grandparents–so just over 100 years–Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies and births and not one of her children lived to adolescence.   

And no, there wasn’t really any such thing as birth control.  Well, yes and no… 

Again, according to Grose, there were prophylactics called cundums, named after the individual who thought of the idea.  We know Casanova had one of sheep’s gut that he tied in place with a pink ribbon.  But as it will have been used and washed and used and, er, washed or not, as the case may be, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions about its effectiveness.

But birth control in those days was more generally spelled, ‘having a mistress’.  And that will have been how many men dealt with it.

Now, before we go passing a great deal of judgement from our hindsight position of 21st century medical care and physical well-being, it’s vital to remember that at the best of times, childbirth in the early 19th century was a chancy business. 

Women’s internal organs will have often been severely malformed due to the corsets they wore from childhood…and if the doctor told you that one more pregnancy would most certainly kill your wife, you might approach the situation somewhat differently.  Abstinence was not generally seen as a realistic option, nor was masturbation, so they’re not considering it as adultery or as wrong

(Ian Kelly’s fine biography of Beau Brummell talks about how the boys at Eton were weekly lectured about the evils of masturbation.  Besides hellfire, which is always a useful deterrent, they believed it led to physical deformities, excessive drooling and blindness, and told the boys so.) 

London was at the time the sex capital of Europe.  And the gentleman’s world of London, the world of White’s and Brooks’ and Boodle’s, had a strong measure of sexual indulgence about it.

King Street, which was most famous for its high class brothels, abuts onto St. James’s Street where those clubs are located…it was just a stroll away for the men of Mayfair and St. James’s. 

The house of the possibly most famous courtesan of the era, Harriet Wilson, where she entertained Brummell, Wellington, et al. was there, but hers wasn’t the only one by any means. 

Nor was this, in any way, a society ignorant about sex or sheltered from the realities of it. 

 The early 19th century is still an essentially rural society–despite the beginnings of industrialisation in the north.  On a farm, horses, bulls, dogs are all in possession of their crown jewels and procreation is happening all around.  So the women and men of whatever class would have been fully conversant with the facts of life.   It’s hard not to be in those circumstances.

In the shops and journals, caricatures of the Prince Regent and his brothers were generally of a sexual nature, or perhaps I should say, an explicitly sexual nature.

Their clothes too were designed to heighten nature’s endowments and they added what they could to this.  Women were known to wear nothing but a buff coloured silk chemise under their pale muslins, which when dampened, clung most faithfully to the wearer’s body and especially to her thighs, thus making it appear as if she wore nothing at all underneath her gown.

The men’s breeches, again tight, were cut with one thigh slightly roomier to accomodate the crown jewels.  If one were wearing buckskin breeches, one generally had them cut tightly, then for the first wearing, soaked them so that they dried as a second skin. 

Nor were they particularly strict about marriage being a necessary prelude to sexual relations.  In the 1780’s, it’s recorded that 58% of first births occurred within less than nine months of the marriage. 

By 1800, 40% of women getting married were already pregnant.  So by the early 19th century, although the general attitude toward promiscuity outside of wedlock is changing, it’s changing slowly, and that mostly due to the grassroots popularity of Methodism.

This isn’t to say they thought of nothing but sex.  For this is also the era where a collective social conscience first appears–in 1812 the pillory for women was finally abolished, debtors and their families were at last separated from felons in prison, and in response to the abuse of children in the industrial north, the 1598 Apprenticeship Acts were reformed. 

So there you are.  They weren’t ignorant, they weren’t Victorians, and they weren’t prudes.  And though they never reached nor aspired to the levels of sexual indulgence of 18th century France, still, they were pretty dashed sexy. 

And they knew it.

The Incalculable Importance of a Fine Waistcoat

Now, there are those who believe, today, that a waistcoat is nothing more than a mere bagatelle in the arsenal of a gentleman’s wardrobe.  A thing to be trotted out with morning dress for weddings, with tails to achieve appropriate white-tie-ness, and even, should one be of a foppish disposition, with a dinner jacket.  Of course, should one ride to hounds, one may also sport a natty windowpane check with the hunting pink.

But if this is your narrow definition of a waistcoat’s virtues, then I hesitate to mention it, but you are a Philistine.  A Visigoth.  A mere dabbler in the higher realms of sartorial elegance.  Continue reading

A Gentleman Ties his Cravat

“And his cravat, that which was meant to be an elegant arrangement of stiff white muslin with a discreet knot at the base of his throat, looked more like a wadded bandage tied in the dark by someone wearing woollen mittens”  (May 1812). 

As those who have been following these blogs may have worked out, I prefer to write from experience, to have tried out a thing before I start writing about it.  Thus, to get the true sense of the guns from the period, I have shot a 14-bore which was used at Waterloo; I have loaded the thing, smelled the powder, felt the kick against my shoulder, smelled the explosion, had my fingers stained with the powder…that sort of thing.  Continue reading

A shine you can see your reflection in?

One of the things most frequently mentioned about gentlemen in the early 19th century is that their boots had a shine in which one could see one’s reflection.  And there may well be those among you who read that and believe it to be gross hyperbole.  For how could anyone’s boots shine like that unless they were made of plastic or pvc? 

It goes along with the myth that their boots were polished with a mixture of boot blacking and champagne.  Cue another raised eyebrow of doubt.

It all seems so improbable.  Especially in this day and age of trainers and flip flops.  And who even knows what boot blacking is anymore anyway, let alone how to use it, right? 

However, it’s true.  And that looking glass shine is the result of something like seventeen or more hours spent, per boot, waxing and shining the thing with a combination of boot blacking and water. 

You wrap the soft cloth around your fingers almost like a tourniquet, you dip it in the blacking and then dip it in the water, (the champagne is optional) and then you rub it into the leather.  The first several or even many coats will sink into the soft leather…but eventually it will come up to a shine fit for an officer in Her Majesty’s Household Cavalry. 

If it sounds like a great deal of hard graft, that’s because it is.  Your hands ache and your fingers grow numb in the doing of it.  But it’s a thing which belongs to a day and age when a valet’s whole lifework was to make his master look elegant. 

So, now you know how Beau Brummell’s valet spent his afternoons.

What a Gentleman wears…

I keep getting told that this is a subject of endless fascination–which if I’m honest, always leaves me scratching my head.  But there you go.

The early 19th century sees English tailoring dominating male fashion for the first time.  Previously, it had always been Paris which had been the dominant capital of fashion.  But the combined forces of the ongoing war against the French and Napoleon (which would have made the idea of all things French repugnant to many) and Beau Brummell allowed the English tailors to show what they could do.  And what they could do what draw on Britain’s extra-ordinarily wide access to different weights and weaves of wool, and cut that wool so that it would mould to the figure as only a natural fabric, when well-cut, can do.  Continue reading

Inexpressibles…ha ha

Inexpressibles, what were they, you ask?  Very very tight, usually knitted of silk, trousers–almost like today’s women’s leggings, designed to show off a gentleman’s muscular legs to best advantage.  They were also known as bum-clingers and the term inexpressibles said it all–for what respectable woman could express that?

In colour, they tended to mirror that of a classical Greek statue–pale greys, pale ochres like sandstone or marble.  Because that was the whole idea of the thing, or the look, if you prefer.

The tight buckskin breeches, or inexpressibles of a pale colour, when worn with the tight waistcoat also of a pale colour were meant to create the impression–should one see the wearer without his coat–that you were viewing a naked Greek god or hero carved out of stone or marble with his enviable godlike physique.  Make no mistake, it was highly erotic.  And they meant it to be. Continue reading