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. Continue reading