The English Regency lasted a scant nine years: from March of 1811, when Parliament passed the Regency Bill which made the Prince of Wales nominal head of state, until January 1820, when Mad King George III finally succumbed to his years and the Prince of Wales became George IV. He was, in case you’re wondering, a rotten king (although there’s a case to be made that, had he ascended the throne a couple of decades earlier, or at least been given some meaningful work to do while waiting, he might have been a fairly good one; there’s a nifty alternate-history premise for you).
In the lengthy continuum of English history, the Regency is, therefore, a mere slip of a time period. Why is it so interesting? I can only answer for myself.
Look at the Regency’s flanking eras. I rather like the Georgian years (which are many: from George I’s ascent in 1714 to George III’s death is more than a century of Georges). There was a lot going on, certainly: the Age of Enlightenment, the culture of coffee houses (touted as “places where the disaffected meet”); works like Dean Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and Gulliver’s Travels; Tom Jones; The Vindication of the Rights of Women, The Wealth of Nations; The establishment of the Royal Society and (unrelated) of the Bow Street Runners; the introduction of cheap gin to the British public in the 1730s (and boy, did that cause havoc). International philosophic discourse that led, among other things, to our Revolutionary War. The Georgian era is dense with events and ideas.
The Victorian age is stuffed too–they were busy folk. But somehow they just don’t speak to me the same way. I don’t avoid the Victorian era, or dismiss it. There are books from and about the Victorians that I love and appreciate, but as a whole, Victorian England is not where I want to spend an hour.
Partly it’s aesthetics. Clothes, furniture styles, even hairstyles. I love British fashion from the Tudors through the Regency, but about the time that the bodice line on woman’s fashion starts to widen into that odd big-shouldered mid-1820s look, they lose me. More than aesthetics, there’s a popular sensibility to the Victorians that doesn’t suit me. Some of what I dislike–the sentimentality, the rigid jingoism–have certainly existed at other times (try contemporary songs about the English victory over the Spanish Armada if you want to hear nationalism in full bloom). But the way it expressed itself in Victorian England annoys me in ways that earlier eras don’t–perhaps because the Victorians were able to use the new technologies to mass-produce their pop culture.
The Regency is a transitional period between the Enlightenment and the rise of the industrial society of Victorian England. Everything–and I mean everything, from religious practice to property law to poetic styles–was changing. The state of almost continual war put peculiar stresses on the British populace, which, coming at the same time as the move toward an industrial economy, gave rise to political tensions that made for huge changes. In the country side people were starving, supporting the war. Many were being thrown off lands they’d leased and farmed for generations. Cottage industries like weaving were being localized into factories. Gentlemen who lived on the income from their farms and properties (and therefore on the work of others) suddenly found themselves facing tradesmen and factory owners who meant to be their equals (or at least meant daughters of trade to marry gentlemen’s sons). The struggle between the Tories, who felt that the status quo was the only way to hold the line against entropy, and the Whigs, who felt (or at least claimed) that reform was necessary to weather the changing times, feels a little like our own times to me, which makes it all the more fascinating. The urge to put characters into this roiling soup of change is just irresistible.
Oh, and there was a comet in 1811 which was reported to be the harbinger of the end of the world.
In the end, it comes down to this: sometimes you find yourself in a place that feels right, a fit for your sensibilities, your pace, your outlook. There may be much about it that you dislike or would change, and yet it just feels like your place. That’s me and the Regency; what’s your era?
June 8th, 2011 at 12:02 pm
This same time period over in America was just as fertile — plus the War of 1812 (not what the English call it, of course) was our first Vietnam, turns out. The training through the apprentice system was breaking down — farm folk were finding that items they had made for trade, or for their own use, were no longer marketable, or not in the same way. And the wealthier folk were developing a conscience — they were noticing poverty and trying to figure out what to do to help people escape it.
So it’s a fascinating microcosm of change!
June 8th, 2011 at 3:16 pm
“…The Regency is a transitional period between the Enlightenment and the rise of the industrial society of Victorian England…”
There was a neat scene in “Princess Caraboo” that was a reminder of what was going on, as they went past a very primitive locomotive.
June 8th, 2011 at 3:31 pm
Lord, I’d forgotten that scene. It’s funny how one tends to box history up without considering the overlap. But the overlap is sometimes so huge!