Fashion, Transport, Political and Sexual Revolution in on one balloon: a gentleman and lady, waving the tricolore with a perfectly true to Regency Romance “arch” expression on her face, in a fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797. Image: Dames a la Mode
The real Regency was the most elegant time in history to be alive – if you were rich and fashionable.
It was also a time of violent psychological and social upheaval during almost constant continental war, revolution and counter-revolution, of increased national danger and private suicides, of intellectual and emotional struggle, of technological innovation and female emancipation, of radical changes in fashion and education, of mass consumerism and society scandals, of experiments in free love and drug abuse, of famine and rural poverty, of volcanic eruptions and climate change.
The sense of anxiety reached into the heart of middle England where Jane Austen’s heroines were embarking on perilous journeys of self-examination, and where Marianne Dashwood fell into the emotional abyss.
Women’s Rights beyond the domestic sphere had been declared, but for most of the female sex of the middling and upper classes, the competitive marriage market, for all its humiliations and disappointments, was the lesser of two evils, the other being poverty.
The working poor woman had no elegant choice to make: she worked, she mated, she mothered, she cooked, she cleaned, she worked in a cycle of drudgery. Her alternative was destitution.
The rituals of polite society masked the sordid reality that women were being sold into a luxurious form of slavery, without rights to keep their own property and money when they wed. Men’s financial interest even more than gender discrimination kept women subservient.
At its best, making a good marriage was similar to modern film and theatre casting, decided by who’s related to whom, who’s got money, connections or the most powerful matchmaker/agent behind them, who’s good at manipulating opportunity, who cares enough to run the gauntlet.
Yet women were allowed the power of influence, some of them were acknowledged (by a brave minority) to be the equals, even on rare occasions the superiors, to men in their wit and intelligence, their literary, acting and artistic talents, their philanthropic work and housekeeping acumen.
Like her ancestresses, Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Beatrice and Congreve’s Millamant, the Regency Romance heroine outdazzles her beau with her wit, she wears the trousers metaphorically at least, even while she likes leaning on a strong masculine arm. Theirs is an essentially camp relationship.
There was more hypocrisy, but less compartmentalization, about sexuality and gender. It was the age of the dandy, after all, and when an actress (Siddons) and a princess (Charlotte) were notable for showing more positive masculine attributes than most men.
In many ways, Jane Austen was at odds with the Regency period in which her novels were published. She was torn between the self-expressive freedom of Romanticism and the moral patterns of the earlier Enlightenment, where the landscaped gardens and elegant columns of Pemberley belong.
Charlotte Brontë was born the year before Austen died and grew up to hate her books and everything they represented about the repression of female sexuality.
That was understandable but unfair, because Austen’s couples enjoy, after a struggle, realistically happy unions, while the Brontës’ creations, for all the blazing emancipated passion and voices calling across the moor, do not. Austen wrote prose, prosaically. For her, getting your man didn’t mean having to maim, blind and nurse him. He was allowed a past you didn’t know about, a club you weren’t allowed to enter – not an ideal modern marriage, but with more space than most.
Independence was not yet attainable, but a truce, even a peace, was within the art of the possible..
Jane Austen used irony as a tool with which to open a window on human life, not as a shield to hide behind. Romantic infatuation was a trap, not an escape.
Regency Romance gone wrong: Sally Siddons portrayed and betrayed by Thomas Lawrence c.1795. They were two parts of a love triangle which ended in the death of her younger sister from TB.
To us, seeking diversion at this distorting distance, the Regency looks like a time of eternal light and sunshine, full of seaside romps at Prinny’s exotic private nightclub, the ‘Pavilion’, in Brighton, elegant promenades and drives through the park in curricles, and always coming back for dinner at Pemberley with Elizabeth and Darcy.
A lady and gentleman eating ices in 1810. Source: Pinterest
We love them. We want to be them. They are the happiest married couple in the virtual world. Their personalities complement each other perfectly: united, they make each other better people than when they were single.
They seem more open, less repressed and self-obsessed than other romantic couples from other times. They don’t burn up and die; he’s not blinded or maimed before he is redeemed; she isn’t sent out to the moors to live off porridge and religion before she’s allowed to win her man; they understand that marriage is a contractual balance of power, not an institutionalized castration.
A couple at the window by Georg Friedrich Kersting, c 1815. Private Collection. Image: Wikipedia
Elizabeth and Darcy don’t lose their mojo when they marry. She doesn’t get staid and matronly like Natasha when she settles down with Pierre in Tolstoy’s paternalistic channelling of her life-force at the end of War and Peace (an historical novel of the Napoleonic Wars published in 1869).
The Regency Romance genre is sneered at for having nothing in common with Jane Austen’s subtle moral comedies, but for all her superior literary origins, Elizabeth with her “wild” side is the ancestress of all Regency Romantics, the Cinderella who talks back, and kicks her other slipper off when she feels like it.
Except economically, Elizabeth is her husband’s equal, just as much as Jane Eyre when she confronts Rochester soul to soul.
The difference is in the women’s humour, for Lizzy Bennet, like Shakespeare’s Beatrice, was born under a dancing star and uses laughter as her weapon of self-assertion. She can never resist teasing male authority in the handsome figure of her husband.
Elizabeth and Darcy are the archetypes of the Regency hero and heroine of modern romance, the mother and father of safe-sex fantasy, the erotically charged tension between opposites, the feminine free-spirit emancipating the melancholic male from despondency, the masculine strength – and economic power – providing repose for female vitality.
Their progeny appear in countless forms, re-imagined and renamed under different titles in different circumstances, threatened by zombies, embarrassed by corpses, in a Regency-inspired Never Never meta-land of aspirational beauty, wit and romance.
The downside for Elizabeth’s daughters and granddaughters is the fear that if they can’t make their man laugh, they will lose him – but that’s a Regency Romance yet to be told.