By Kirsty Pearce
The word ‘Regency’ has always contained within it a certain magical quality for me. Technically lasting less than a decade from 1811 to 1820, it’s a period of history primarily associated with the writings of Englishwoman Jane Austen, her works largely characterizing people’s impressions of the era. This being the case, life in England during the Regency will be the central focus of this article.
One of the shortest eras on record, this small pocket of time occurred near the waning years of the Georgian period. Several of the elements now linked to it helped ensure its place in history. One of the most notable and recognizable of these aspects is, naturally, the fashion trends of the day. Heavily influenced by the classical world such as Greece, the focus was on high-waisted empire-line style gowns with small puffed sleeves for women. Bonnets, spencer coats, and pelisses were all common accessories. The men also favored a migration to a simpler, more natural style, with the term ‘dandy’ rising in popularity regarding those who dressed in a more subdued and polished manner.1
What people wore, their daily activities, and how they conducted themselves largely depended upon the station of life they were born into, and informed by intricate social maneuverings and expectations.2 They maintained a strict hierarchical structure, with those near the highest rungs (commonly referred to as the ton) comprising royalty, the aristocracy (Duke, Marquess, Earl, and Viscount), and the landed gentry (Baronet, Knight). Next was the middle/working classes (merchants, apothecaries, tenant-farmers, etc…), & at the bottom, laborers and servants.3
While the Napoleonic Wars and ongoing impact of the American Revolution (most distinctly evidenced in The War of 1812) also had a sizable effect on people’s lives, they did not appear to alter the Prince Regent’s lifestyle one bit. Filled to the brim with flamboyance and excess, he dedicated much of his time to supporting others’ artistic pursuits, with architecture, writing, and painting flourishing as a result.4 And while Jane Austen was a huge dominating force in this area, several other writers also made their mark, including John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Joseph Mallord William Turner is just one example of the many talented painters, while two of the most notorious and influential personalities of the time belonged to Lord Byron and Beau Brummell.
Dancing was another majorly significant pastime, serving double duty as both entertainment and a well-established means of catching a spouse. Taking place at balls, family/house parties, and assembly rooms, we know the general style used as the English Country Dance. Regularly appearing in many an Austen book at a significant juncture of the plot or where events happen that alter the trajectory of the story, it consisted of social folk dancing which involved set steps and patterns.5
I think one of the major things that captivates me the most about this era is how the combination of all the above elements work together to evoke this general sense and feel of a type of romance, honor, elegance, and nobility that are foreign nowadays. This intangible quality also heavily shines through in the entertainment and art produced during the era and those it has since inspired. People traveled via horse and buggy, wrote letters by hand, and lived by the underlying unspoken mores of a different society to today’s which governed everything, layering all their interactions with one other. There was also a darker side to Regency England outside of the dancing, art, and fashion, seen through such instances as child labor, the Peterloo Massacre, and factory worker conditions.
Although like all period of history there were both wonderful and horrible experiences and circumstances that were facts of life for the people who lived then, the Regency has steadfastly continued to capture people’s imaginations. We can see this in the plethora of Jane Austen film adaptations alone at our fingertips today, not to mention the books and re-enactment events. This lasting impact reflects our fascination with a different world than the one our modern sensibilities are used to, one where… the magic has endured.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hopeless romantic, fervent bibliophile, and aspiring word-smith, Kirsty Pearce also has a deep love for fantasy, fairy tales, & history. With a wide range of TV obsessions from Outlander, Bitten, & Grimm, to Dancing With The Stars, Nikita, & Horrible Histories, she enjoys watching as many Hallmark films as possible, knitting, baking, and sharing all her fan-girl thoughts on her blog.
Recommended Regency Authors: Kristi Ann Hunter (Hawthorne House Series), Sally Britton (Branches of Love Series), Ashtyn Newbold (Brides of Brighton Series), Julie Klassen (The Tutor’s Daughter, The Secret of Pembrooke Park), The Regency Brides Collection (Multiple Authors, including Michelle Griep & Erica Vestch), Melanie Dickerson (Regency Spies of London Series)
Recommended Regency Films: Bright Star (2009), Pride & Prejudice (1995), Sense & Sensibility (2008), Northanger Abbey (2007), To the Ends of the Earth (2005), Duel of Hearts (1991), Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story (1987)
1. Monet, D. (2019). Fashion History: Early 19th Century Regency and Romantic Styles for Women. Bellatory. Retrieved April 13, 2020, from https://bellatory.com/fashion-industry/Fashion-History-Early-19th-Century-Regency-and-Romantic-Styles; The Jane Austen Centre. (2011). A Brief Overview of Men’s Regency Fashion. [Online Magazine]. https://www.janeausten.co.uk/an-overview-of-mens-regency-fashion/
2. Anna. (2011). Rules and Etiquette of Regency Society. Austenised. https://austenised.blogspot.com/2011/05/rules-and-etiquette-of-regency-society.html
3. Lane, M. (1996). Jane Austen’s World. Carlton Books Limited.
4. Warren, R. (2018). Regency Period of Jane Austen. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://www.janeausten.org/regency-period.asp
5. Village Green English Country Dancers. (2017). What is English Country Dance? http://villagegreenenglishdancers.org/?page_id=1314; Early Dance Circle. (n.d.). English Country Dance. https://www.earlydancecircle.co.uk/resources/dance-through-history/english-country-dance/; Lane, M. (1996). Jane Austen’s World. Carlton Books Limited.