Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.
The clothing, the customs and the class system of the Regency may seem distant from our own time, but ongoing foreign wars, a fragile economy, criticism of the wealthy and an active Evangelical movement could be taken from our own headlines.
Jane Austen’s novels were published during the Regency. King George III had been declared unfit to rule because of his famous “madness” the symptoms of Porphyria, which made his behavior erratic. His son was named by Parliament to rule in his place as Prince Regent. The Regency of the prince lasted from 1811 until his father’s death in 1820 when the Prince Regent became George IV. The Prince Regent was known for his decadence: a series of mistresses, a love of food and drink, extravagant spending on clothing, art furniture and renovating his Royal Pavilion at Brighton. He became physically enormous and suffered from gout and heart palpitations. He was estranged from his wife Caroline who matched him both in girth and extramarital affairs.
Jane Austen supported Princess Caroline and felt her husband treated her shabbily. She wrote that she would support Caroline, “as long as I can because she is a woman.”
George Cruickshank satirical engraving of the Prince Regent, May 1, 1812
The era, if viewed solely from the perspective of the drawing room of an English country house, might seem quiet. It is important to recall that England was in a state of political and civil unrest within the country as well as fighting various foreign wars. The French Revolution had lead many in the upper classes to fear a similar revolution in England. England had been intermittently at war with France for almost a century. Taxes were needed to pay for the wars. Indeed, these same idyllic country houses were subject to a tax based the number of windows the house possessed. The militia and navy, which feature so prominently in Austen novels, were either fighting wars against the French or guarding the homeland from French invasion and political unrest.
(At right: the Music room in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton)
Economic difficulties in England contributed to the Luddite Rebellion in which looms were broken and houses burned by secret groups who claimed to be acting on behalf of “General Ludd.” In fact, these attacks were mostly led by the knitters themselves, who were being pushed to make cheaper products and found it increasing difficult to making a living. Their attacks compounded fears of the Gentry in the British countryside.
The same era gives us George Gordon Lord Byron and his infamous decadent lifestyle and liaisons including an affair with his half sister. At the same time, the evangelical movement, as epitomized by the prolific writer Hannah More was growing in England as a counterpoint to the excesses of Byron and other fashionable members of society. Jane Austen was critical of the Evangelicals. She was quite critical of one of More’s popular novels, Coelebs in Search of a Wife which disrupted the plot with helpful moral extracts.
Above: Two Regency extremes, the scandalous Lord Byron and the religious reformer Hannah More
“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all be Evangelical and am at least persuaded that they who are so far from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest.”
– Jane Austen, commenting on the Evangelical movement of the Regency era
Underneath the layers of empire dresses, bonnets, and Beau Brummell cravats, the issues facing the Regency were not unlike our own which is perhaps why the very real financial and emotional concerns of Austen’s characters seem familiar too.
Sources: Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson; An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, Venetia Murray