Courtesy of Mr. George Brummell…

Now, I shall be honest, I don’t talk much about clothes in my novels.

Not because I don’t know or haven’t spent long hours absorbed in the cut of a waistcoat at the Museum of Fashion in Bath or even longer studying the uniforms in the Musee d’Armee in Paris, but because long descriptions of clothes (his or hers) pretty much bore me witless.

(I also don’t write about the various mixtures and flavourings of snuff, for roughly the same reason…it adds nothing.)

But that’s not the same as ignorance.

Gentlemen’s clothing underwent a radical change during the early years of the 19th century.  The long war with France which began in 1792 had isolated Britain from the Parisian aristocratic trend-setters who had dominated the 18th century, along with their preference for brightly coloured silks and satins.

copy-of-beau-bonhamsIn their place, a new, austere, almost monochromatic aesthetic had taken hold, courtesy of one George Brummell.

And for this new vision of male style, based on the finest of British tailoring, Brummell drew his inspiration from the military (he’d served in a cavalry regiment for a while), from the clothes worn by English horsemen and country gentlemen and, above all, from a classical standard of masculinity as seen in the ancient Greek and Roman statuary, most notably the Apollo Belvedere.

And this ideal (as seen in the muted colouring of said statuary) of “unity, simplicity and a continuously flowing movement from one part of the body to the next” was at the core of Regency menswear.

So, gone was the ornate embroidery, gone were the flashy or clashy colours, gone were the baggy cravats and even baggier breeches.

Then too, the body beneath must needs be moulded into a figure worthy of the clothes–hence there’s a new emphasis on daily exercise as taken by gentlemen at the many boxing saloons, such as Gentleman Jackson’s on Bond Street, or Fencing schools about London.  Riding is also known to build strong back and shoulder muscles, as well as those of the thighs and calves.  Carriage driving also requires very strong shoulders…And if you’re thinking it’s all very macho, homo-erotic even, that’s because it is.

blokeAmong the essentials of this new neo-classical look were breeches or pantaloons for the day, made either of doeskin or chamois leather or a soft stocking-like fabric.  (If made of soft leather, often the wearer first wore them dampened, allowing them to dry to his physique so that they more closely resembled a second skin–they weren’t called bum-clingers for nothing.)

Both had corset lacing at the back, a fall front fastened by side buttons over the stomach, and were held up with braces to maintain the severe and fitted line over the thigh.  They were also cut wider on one side at the top of the thigh, and higher on the other, to accommodate the family jewels, in a custom known as dressing to one side.  Beneath the knee, button fastenings kept the fabric taut down the length of the leg.

Evening breeches or pantaloons were made of sheer black silk jersey, knitted cashmere or a stretchy silk-stockinette imported from India, made with only one seam per leg and that along the outside–though this was sometimes embroidered or ‘clocked’ down the length of it–all of which was intended to frame the flexing muscles of the thigh.

During an evening’s dancing, the jersey would cling tighter and tighter as the wearer perspired until they looked more like they’d been painted on than put on.  Also, due to the extreme sheerness of some of these fabrics, for modesty’s sake, the breeches or pantaloons might be lined with either swanskin, as they termed cotton flannel, or a sheer cotton.

For summer, the breeches would be cut the same, but made of stout pale or white linen or nankeen, a heavy twilled cotton.

Just as important was a gentleman’s fitted waistcoat, which would have been made of white or skin-toned fabric–the idea being that if a gentleman were to remove his coat, in his shirtsleeves and from a distance, he would resemble nothing so much as a naked Greek god, muscular, beautiful, carved from marble or stone.

Coats were now made of dark matte fabrics such as wool Bath cloth or ‘superfine’, sculpted through the back and shoulders, with a high collar to provide a contrasting frame to the whiteness of the starched cravats.  With the new emphasis in society on sartorial matters, there were many specialist tailors from whose work to chuse:  Stulz was known to make a large number of the military’s coats.  But there was also John Weston’s at No. 34 Old Bond Street, or even Mr. Brummell’s favourite, Schweitzer & Davidson on Cork Street.

BAL_202477Beneath it all, the shirt of white linen, plain and lightly starched, with collars “so large that, before being folded down, it completely hid [the] head and face…” with tiny buttons at the neck and cuffs.  Cuffs were worn long–a good inch or two longer than the coat sleeve to emphasise the fact that the gentleman did not work.

And of course, the cravat.

Made of fine Irish muslin, a triangle was cut on the diagonal from a square yard of fabric, with its edged plainly stitched.  This triangle was then folded twice and wrapped carefully about the neck, with the ends tied in one of several manners before the wearer lowered his chin to create a neat series of folds which were either rubbed into place by a day-old shirt or pressed with a hot iron.  (I favour the day-old shirt method, myself…less danger of frying the larynx.)

Footwear?  Highly polished Hessian boots with spurs by day and thinly-soled black pumps for evening.

Stockings?  Depending on the season and the hour, he might wear fine knitted wool stockings or silk stockings, plain or clocked–his preference.

Underwear?  Very little was worn and then only rarely–it being pretty much a thing of the 18th century, although it was still in use (in cold weather, for example) and referred to as ‘summer trousers’.  In this look of self-aware but careless, casual, sensual arrogance, there was no room for lumpy knickers or rucked up shirt tails.

1812_greatcoatThere would also have several driving coats and/or greatcoats, caped, and made of a heavier wool worsted or “Norwich stuff” for colder, rainier weather–that’s most days from September to May and most of June).

Anything else?  Gloves.  Which perform a practical service–they kept the hands clean of city dirt, possibly warm, and if the fellow was driving or riding, they protected his hands and fingers from blistering by the reins.

Hats?  High-crowned bevors from Lock’s, the Hatters, on St. James’s Street.

Moreover, a gentleman would have dressed some three or four times during the course of a normal day.

And according to the journal of a visitor to London at the time, he would also have required, per week, in addition to the usual “20 shirts, 24 pocket handkerchiefs, 9 or 10 summer trousers, 30 neck handkerchiefs, a dozen waistcoats, and stockings at discretion”, a chintz dressing gown and Turkish slippers for taking his breakfast.

A few years back I attended a display of Regency menswear as part of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, entitled, Undressing Mr. Darcy.  And during the course of the presentation, the abovementioned list was read out and the audience encouraged to think what vain and shallow creatures were the men of 1812 that they required so many shirts.

Ehem.  Let me just put it this way:  No deodorant.  And no loo roll.  (Thank heavens for those clean shirts…)

In fact, due to the no deodorant situation, one finds that many of the surviving shirts of the era have neat triangular patches inserted under the arm in order to eradicate the yellow perspiration staining.

purefoy as brummellLike Brummell, other gentlemen of his class and station bathed every part of his body every day, and in hot water.  Brummell himself used no perfumes (they were considered very 18th century) but smelled instead of very fine linen and country washing–which he said were the mark of a gentleman.

So that’s a little of what himself is famous for.  I think we owe him a myriad of thanks for the introduction of daily bathing.  I think that often.

However, there’s one small point that I feel I should also mention and that’s that  Brummell loved dogs.  Really doted on the things.  And they are said to have had an instinctive affection for him.  And it’s probably that which tells me–regardless of all that was said about him and there is a lot which is to no one’s credit–he and I should have got along just fine.

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What the Regency is and is not…

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?

blokeWhat 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. 

copy-of-beau-bonhamsBrummell 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. 

HoratioNelsonThere’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…

pittWas 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.  

alexander 1814But 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. 

Prinny RussellBut 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.)

Yes, I’m ranting…

Yes, I am ranting.  Rant, rant, rant

And I’ll tell you why.  Because of the internet. 

Because it makes me crazy and because so many misstatements of fact, so many bare-faced lies, and so much misinformed drivel is trotted out as fact on all the various blogs that clot up the blogosphere that it makes me absobloominglutely crazy. 

So there I was today, reading along in my quaint little Englishey fashion, when I came upon a blog about George Brummell–or Beau Brummell, if you prefer.  Whatever. 

And within two paragraphs, I was swearing.  Expleting.  Using the full-force of my extensive vocabulary in three languages! 

(It’s at times like this that I hate being an expert.  I hate, hate, hate it.  I want to be a nice person, you see.  I want to be supportive and lovely and charming and say things like, “That’s utterly fab!” and “I think you’ve done a smashing job…” 

I do not, not, not want to be known as that wild-eyed, wilder-haired semi-lunatic professor who throws chalk [hard] with unerring accuracy at his students and hits them smack in the forehead when they get their Latin verbs wrong!  [I had a professor like that once.  He was utterly brilliant.  Terrifying.  But brilliant.])

Also, please understand that I don’t really have an interest in Brummell one way or another.  I mean, I know lots about the fellow, because I read and research bloody everything, but knowing about him doesn’t get me firing on all cylinders like say the Russian light cavalry or formation of the Landwehr in 1813 does, or anything.  I mean, I’m sure he was perfectly delightful but…

But, okay, back to this blog…Because the first thing that set my teeth on edge was a bit about Brummell going to Eton where he ‘got to rub shoulders with the aristocracy’ as if it’s some sort of rare privilege accorded to a special few and we should all genuflect or something. 

So let me be perfectly clear here:  I am friends with several members of the aristocracy.  Get over it. 

In fact, until her death, my very dearest friend in all the world had a title–an ancient one.  And do you know what?  She was brilliant.  She was smashing.  She was the very least up-herself, stand-on-ceremony, proud or arrogant person in the entire world.  And I loved her dearly.  And I miss her like stink. 

But I’ll tell you something else.  She had to brush her teeth.  Just like everyone else.  And when she didn’t, she got cavities.  Just like everyone else. 

But back to Brummell. 

The thing about that statement–besides the obvious aristophilia issue which has me splenetically croaking–is that the author had just finished telling us that Brummell was born at 10 Downing Street where his father lived because he was the private secretary to Lord North.  Who was the Prime Minister under George III.  And who had, clearly, a title. 

And in and out of the front door of Downing Street, handing Billy Brummell (young George’s father) the requisite sweeteners to ensure that they could get in to see the Prime Minister were half the aristocratic heads in the kingdom.  Because that’s how politics worked in those days.  

So, young George would have been ‘rubbing shoulders’ with the aristocracy from the day he was born–or any time he wasn’t in the nursery…

Okay.  (Breathing in.  Breathing out.)  So then I skipped a bit, because there wasn’t a wall close enough at hand against which I could bang my head.  Hard…

And then I came across the statement that the thingie that’s called a Bow-window is called that because Beau Brummell used to sit in White’s bow window overlooking St. James’s Street.  What? 

Has no one but me heard of that superlative set of volumes known as the Oxford English Dictionary????  The repository of all the most wonderful information and the definitive authority on how and when words came into use in English?  And there’s no bally excuse for not using it because it’s now ON-LINE!

And had the author of this blog bothered to check any of her facts in that fine and noble work, she would know that it was Samuel Richardson who first used the word ‘bow-window’ in print in the year 1753. 

That’s 25 years before George Brummell made his appearance in Downing Street as a squalling brat. 

Later, Repton uses in in a discourse on gardens and conservatories or something.  And Austen used it in 1816 in Emma.  It had nothing to do with Brummell or his soubriquet.

[I have–since yesterday–refered to the index in my copy of Ian Kelly’s biography, Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy, and have found that Kelly does indeed refer to this thrice between pages 245-46.  He writes:  “The facade of White’s clubhouse…was remodelled during the second half of the eighteenth century, and a little later a bay window was added over a former doorway that became a landmark on St. James’s Street.  Here Brummell held court in the afternoons, in a bow window that became known as the Beau Window…The men of the Dandiacal Body…’mustered in force’ around Brummel’s chair in the Beau Window, watching the world go by and telling jokes.”  I, therefore, stand corrected on this point.]

Pause for more of that breathing manoeuvre…

So then, I skipped along and discovered the startling information that [allegedly] Brummell contracted the syphilis from which he died in 1840 in the last years of the 18th century, when he was stationed in Brighton with the Prince’s own 10th Regiment of Light Dragoons. 

Hello? 

The only problem with that bijou fact-ette is that it’s impossible–which she would have known had the author bothered to read the whole of the Kelly biography that she cited in her footnotes. 

Because syphilis was a fast-working killer in those days and as Brummell was clearly suffering the torments of tertiary syphilis in the 1820s and 30’s, he had to have contracted the disease in London, at the height of his fame and popularity.  So around 1811. 

Because by 1816, he’d shaved off his hair to combat the baldness that was a side-effect of the mercury treatment.

Had he contracted the disease in Brighton before 1797 as she averred, he would have been bald and losing his teeth by 1803–the very time he was introducing the starched cravat of folded linen to the gentlemen of White’s Club! 

And the thing that really vexes me and peeves me in all this is that now this blog with all this rot is out there.  You know?  And some perfectly charming little person, having read a Georgette Heyer novel or something, will think, “Oooh Beau Brummell, I should google him…”  

But instead of coming across a piece that will enlighten her and give her an insight into the early 19th century mindset and provide some useful historical context, instead of all that, this charming little person will get regurgitated sancitmonious Victorian de-sexualising b*ll*cks. 

Because that’s what happened!  By the time Gronow and his mateys were writing this pap about Brummell, Victoria was on the throne, Wellington–another quite the virile man about town–was a staid, elderly statesman, and all that naughty Regency stuff had to be white-washed–and for heaven’s sake, no one mention Harriette Wilson (Brummell’s close confidante and Wellington’s former mistress).  And to say they messed with their facts doesn’t even get warm!

The very worst I ever read of that stuff was one late Victorian biog of Brummell which simpered on about his mincing walk which was like he was tiptoeing around the raindrops. 

Ya, right.  A chappie who was a cavalry officer–think boots, well-built shoulders, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-riding, manly man, a fellow who spent 4-5 hours in the saddle every day–is supposed to have tippy-toed around the raindrops.  I don’t think so.

Oh–and another thing.  Brummell broke his nose when meeting face-to-face with a cobblestone.  On account of his horse having shied and spooked. 

Ehem. 

I also have met with the ground, nose to nose, as it were, pretty much in the same way.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a cobblestone, it was a hummock on the South Downs, so my nose does not have an interesting tilt to one side.  However…It’s not Romantic.  It’s just what happens…

And I’d also like to add that that prissy little picture of him isn’t Brummell.  The most likely candidate for an accurate picture of him is this one with the broken nose…

So what was Brummell then, if he wasn’t this prissy sissy clothes-horse? 

He was a man’s man.  A very well educated man who wrote rather spiffing epigrams in Latin (most Eton boys did so–they’d been writing plays in Latin or Greek since they were about 14.)  He loved dogs.  And dogs loved him.  He didn’t wear perfume or scented after-shave–he said a man should smell like clean, country-washed linen and nothing else.

And he most especially loved fabric.  Not in a girlie kind of way–but more in the way I conjecture someone like Karl Lagerfeld or Yves St. Laurent loves fabric.  He loved the weaves.  He was passionate about the depth of colour in a good English wool.  He loved how the cut of a coat could show off the fabric. 

And the early 19th century was a great time for English wool–the new mechanised looms were producing some fantastic weaves and blends…and he loved them all.  They set him alight.  And his enthusiasm for the cut of the fabric and for the design that would emphasise that changed English menswear forever. 

He was a dandy when the word didn’t mean some bloke who wears all different colours at one go and has floppy hair. 

A dandy as he lived it [dandy in those days was defined as the opposite of a bore–work that out…] wore perfect tailoring in subtle and dark colours–dark blue or dark green jackets with buff coloured breeches for daytime and for evening black breeches (later pantaloons) with a well-cut black or navy coat.  All of which sounds very contemporary, very button-down, very elegant.  No? 

Oh, and he had a great sense of humour–and played lots of practical jokes.  A lot like Oscar Wilde from what I can tell…

He was seriously addicted to gambling.  Compulsively.  Obsessively.  And it was this which destroyed him.  He gambled away millions.  And his addiction destroyed all his relationships–just as any addiction if left untreated will do–obliterated all other interests.  It left the friends who lent him money to pay off his debts seriously up against it. 

And in the end, he had no choice but to face the bailiffs or scarper off to Calais.  Which is what he chose to do.  In disgrace and ignominy. 

As for this other stuff, well…I think what I need to say is, People, do your research.  Do it properly.  Check everything.  Don’t present yourself as an expert if you’re not.  And don’t even think about blagging it.  

If only because I’m sick of knocking my head against the wall because you can’t be bothered.  

Otherwise, shut the **** up.

What exactly is the Regency, anyway?

I don’t know why it is, but I seem to be writing a lot about things about which I had vowed never to mention. 

Like recently I broke my promise to myself that I would never ever write about the Prince Regent.  But there I was a few months ago typey-tapping out a post on what a wild sexy young thing he’d been when in his late teens and early twenties. 

(I know!  What came over me?) 

And now this…this term, the Regency. 

You see, the thing is, I loathe the inexact, twee use of this word.  It makes me want to thrash my laptop with a riding crop.  Or beat my head against the desk.  Or both.  Together or separately, I don’t much mind which.  And there is so much misleading, misguided misinformation out there about it that…well, we’re back to the laptop or my head taking a pasting…

So, I shall clear up the whole weebley conundrum for once and for all.  Now.  Today. 

The Regency…Well, to begin with, there are actually two Regencies in English history. Continue reading

Nationalism or honest history…

The teaching of history to children often or usually involves blaming all or most of one event on one person.  This is done in the name of simplifying things so that they’re easily understandable.  For American children, one of those figures is George III.

His truculent and tyrannical behaviour is credited with causing the American Revolution and losing for Great Britain her prosperous American colonies.

He was used as a figure of hate at the time too–so perhaps this isn’t surprising.

And all sorts of stories are trotted out in support of this theory, and no doubt they will go on being trotted out for decades to come.  Proof of his incalculable stupidity is found in his not learning to read until he was 16, for example.

Yet, (and I apologise if this comes as a rude shock to anyone) history is rarely so simple as to be entirely the making of one man.  Even a king.

And in George III’s case, although I was raised and taught to hold him in contempt, I found, when confronted by some facts that I had to rethink my conclusions and abandon my happy nationalist view of the man.  Continue reading

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