This one’s been bothering me for a long time.
It’s the generally perceived notion that the Regency was a period entirely given over to riotous living, debauched sex, feckless, foolish gambling and drinking and every conceivable excess. And as proof of the profligacy of the period, a few names are always trotted out: Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron, and of course, the Prince Regent…I say the names, the reader gets the images.
But hang on a tick, say I. That’s only three people. That’s hardly representative of a population of 11 million. And what were the rest of them doing? And who were these three and how did they become emblematic?
Well, the Prince Regent obviously gave his title to the period, which officially lasts from February 1811 until his father’s death in 1820. He had also stepped in as regent before this on the grounds of his father, George III’s diminishing mental capacities, due to the porphyria from which he suffered.
But by 1811, in many ways, the Prince Regent was a non-force. He was immensely unpopular and for so many reasons: his profligacy on every level; his architectural and sartorial extravagance; his gargantuan size and his hypochondria; his treatment of his estranged wife, Princess Caroline; his disloyalty to his father; his mistresses…So he wasn’t precisely someone whom people were eager to emulate.
Lady Caroline Lamb. Another interesting figure–iconic to us, perhaps. But not, I think, to them. Her father was a violent alcoholic, her mother almost certainly used a great deal of opium and drank excessively, so it would be surprising if there were not ante-natal damage to the child.
Her father also beat her mother nearly to death–she was whisked out of the country by her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, so that if she did die, the husband wouldn’t hang for it. And Caroline was subsequently bounced from household to household–spending much of her childhood in the home of her uncle, the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth. Nor was that household in any way ‘normal’. Devonshire had a menage a trois, with his wife and his mistress, Lady Bess Foster, and all their combined children. Caroline’s cousins didn’t like her at all–she was known to be an attention seeker as a child. But who could blame her in the midst of all that?
She married young, it was a political marriage to Lord William Lamb, and within a short time, she was openly involved with Sir George Webster. A state of affairs which shocked even her mother-in-law, the famously unfaithful Lady Melbourne, not just because of the indiscretion and openness of the affaire, but because Caroline had not yet produced an heir and to spare–thus ensuring the children’s paternity.
And then comes her affaire with Byron. Or not affaire. Certainly she carried on openly with him, but sources close to him insist theirs was not a sexual relationship. So more attention seeking?
In any event, he was having an affaire with Caroline’s mother-in-law at the same time. Caroline eventually went on, following Byron’s public ‘dumping’ of her, to do her best to gain even more attention by allegedly drinking crushed glass at a ball. Among other things. And eventually, she was incarcerated for her own safety.
Was she chronically depressed? A self-harmer? Maybe. Probably. A victim of generations of alcoholism? Almost certainly. All tabloid headline-grabbing stuff! But was she typical of the Regency? Er…no.
So who were the people who were typical and who are these others? The answer, I believe, often lies along political lines.
The Devonshires, the Melbournes, all these families from whom are drawn these images of Regency rakes and gamblers and scantily clad, sexually voracious women, belong to the Whig aristocracy. Who, curiously enough, despite Devonshire owning enough pocket boroughs to steal more than his share of an election, were never in power during the period.
The electorate of the country didn’t trust them enough to vote them into power.
Those who did hold the power were the Tories. And the stories about them, by comparison, well, they’re actually quite boring.
There’s Sir Spencer Perceval–the first and only Prime Minister ever to be assassinated. He was a successful lawyer, educated at Cambridge, married with twelve children; he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in1807 and Prime Minister in 1809. Never did a scandalous or a headline-grabbing thing in his life, except die rather dramatically at the hand of a schizophrenic assassin, John Bellingham.
There’s Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, married to one of the Patronesses of Almack’s. They had no children, but we know from their letters that they were wholly devoted to each other–we even have his letters telling her about all the shopping he was doing for her when he was in Europe in 1814. He was farmer, forever going on about the rearing and improvement of his herd of merino sheep. He was a fine cellist, and had a fondness for plum-coloured coats, as well as being Leader of the House of Commons from 1812 until his death.
There’s William Pitt, Prime Minister until his death in 1806. Yes, he drank. Excessively. But with the streak of chronic and terrible depression running through his family, it’s entirely probable that he was, as we might say today, self-medicating. It could also probably be said that he worked himself to death. He was unmarried, but utterly devoted to his family, to his nieces and their interests.
Or Lord Liverpool, married twice (his first wife died), devoted to his wives, Prime Minister from 1812…
All these men were also society figures. They were members of the landed gentry and arisotocracy…they turned up at balls, they danced, probably even well–it was expected that a gentleman would do so. If they gambled, it tended to be modestly. They married, settled down with their wives, had children, worked hard on their estates managing the land through a period of inflation and seriously bad harvests and therefore local unrest.
Castlereagh frequently played the cello in chamber works with his friends, and had, with his wife, a menagerie of wild and exotic animals down at their farm…
And in their spare time these men did things like pass legislation abolishing the slave trade, improving prisons, improving the treatment of working children, outlawing the pillory for women, separating felons from debtors in the prisons, and families from felons… Oh, and pursued the war against the greatest dictator of the greatest military state the world has ever seen–first through naval might and derring-do, and then, militarily under the direction of the Duke of Wellington, first in Spain and then at Waterloo.
That, to me, is the real Regency. They did all that: they had homes which they didn’t gamble away, they had children, they read Romantic poetry, they listened to the premiers of Beethoven’s music, possibly even played it from first editions, they ran the country surprisingly well, sitting through Parliamentary debates that often lasted more than 24 hours, their sons went to fight against Napoleon, and often they died and the families grieved terribly.
But yes, they danced well at Almack’s too.