The Regency happens to be one of my favorite times in history, which is likely the reason the majority of my books take place during this time. The Regency era in the United Kingdom is the period between 1811-1820. This is the period when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled in his father’s proxy as Prince Regent. The prince became King George IV upon his father’s death.
I should also note that the term Regency Period sometimes refers to a larger time frame in history from 1793-1837, which includes the beginning of the war with France and William IV’s reign. Regardless of the time frame, the Regency Period is noted for its elegance and achievements.
Although an era of excess and decadence for the aristocracy, the time was also one of uncertainty caused by the Napoleonic wars, periodic riots, Catholic emancipation, rapid industrialization, and fear of England falling in the way of the French Revolution. Despite the social, political, and economical changes occurring at the time, the Regency was a period of great refinement and accomplishment, shaping the future of Britain’s society.
The Prince Regent was a great patron of the arts and the upper class flourished in a type of mini-Renaissance under his rule. With the help of architect, John Nash, the Regent commissioned the Brighton Pavilion and the refurbishing of Carlton house with a lavishness that his people found extravagant. He ordered the building of numerous public works and architecture, but unfortunately he used the treasury for his exuberant projects, in turn passing the costs onto his people.
The affluent continued to flourish, but the downtrodden continued to struggle to rise above their plight. There was a wide gap between rich and poor, while simultaneously England saw a rise of the middle class in the form of merchants, bankers, and shipping companies. In the seedy areas of London, thievery, womanizing, gambling, alcoholism, and rookeries were a part of the everyday. From 1801 to 1820 the population boom increased from under one million, to one and a quarter million. The squalor that existed in these areas bared a striking difference from high Society and the Regent’s social circles. Poverty was rarely addressed and with the retirement of King George III, the more pious and reserved society had given way to a more frivolous one, in part due to the Regent’s influence. The Regent was kept away from military and political strife by his ministers and he allowed them full charge over government matters. This led to the prince seeking his own pleasures and entertainments. He accomplished this by overindulgence, be it wine, women, gambling, spending, and revelry, the Regent seemed to care little for the debt he accrued and many of his people were distressed by his over-the-top expenditures. It is believed the Regent’s hatred for his father is what drove him to ally himself with the Whig opposition in Parliament. The Regent also involved himself in a secret marriage with Maria Fitzherbert in 1785, which was deemed invalid. In 1795 he married Princess Caroline of Brunswick, though he loathed her on sight.
Taxes were rife during this era. People were not only expected to pay taxes to the Government and King, but also to the Church. The wide-ranging extent of taxes was extreme, for example, a window tax expected from anyone with a window. These taxes rose in proportion to the number and size of your windows. As a result, those who could not afford the tax were forced to brick up their windows.
Due to the industrial revolution, people began to leave the farms and countryside to find work in the cities factories. This shift from rural to urban life, led to the growth of slums and pollution.
Technological advances at this time included the steam printer. In 1814, The Times adopted steam technology and increased production capabilities. In turn this sparked the production of popular novels, in which many rumors of the aristocracy were often hinted between the pages. Authors like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens began social commentaries on the people and classes of their time through fictional novels that were based on truths. Due to the large gap in the hierarchy of society, the upper classes were often viewed with wonder and awe, and novels sold well, in part due to this interest. The invention of steam engines, railroads, gas lighting, and even stethoscopes, altered the landscape of everyday Regency life.
The Regency is often described as a time of British decadence, an era of lavish parties, mistresses, and lecherous behavior. And yet at the same time it encompassed a society of strict rules and proper decorum. It was a time when men copied the dress of Beau Brummell (see previous article on Brummell http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=91) and ladies followed the latest fashions of La Belle Assemblée.
London was the epic center of the Regency universe. The aristocracy flocked to the city during the Season, which was from March until June, when Parliament was in session. The aristocracy held themselves to a stringent moral code of conduct and expected it to be followed. A young lady could easily find her voucher to Almack’s revoked if she failed to curtsey at the appropriate depth to the leading patronesses. And although young hopeful ladies entered Society in search for a husband, marriages were seldom based upon love. Marriages were often arranged, and a good match was usually based upon a person’s title, income, and placement in society. Young ladies did not have careers, their goal was to wed and anything less portrayed them as a failure.
So why do I love a period so bogged down by rules and moral structure? I would have to say it is because of the excitement that can occur when one breaks the rules. When there are so many rules, are they not then often broken? And when they are broken, what are the consequences? Can the results from breaking the rules be overcome by our natural inclination of love for another, regardless of circumstance? For me, bringing a hero and heroine together amidst these obstacles can be very dynamic and the history that I find fascinating serves to further demonstrate the power of a great passion and unstoppable love.
Thank you to the University of Southern Queensland and An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England.