Historically, the Regency Period in England lasted for only nine years, beginning when King George III was declared mentally unfit to rule in 1810. The Prince Regent took over for his father until his death in 1820, when George IV became King of England in his own right.
This is the time period when Jane Austen wrote her novels. However, many novels and period dramas have Regency Era characteristics but are set outside the timeline above. Culturally speaking, the Regency Era began in the later years of George III’s reign and denoted the architecture, fashion, literature and music of the period until the death of King William and the ascension of Queen Victoria in 1837.
As a lover of all things Jane Austen, I was curious about some of the social customs of the time and was surprised by some of what I learned.
Women Could Own Property I’d always wondered about this one. I never understood why in Pride and Prejudice Lizzy and her sisters could not own property but the powerful Lady Catherine de Bourgh could. In the Regency Era a marriage was very much a business contract. Once an offer had been made and accepted, both families would reveal their circumstances to the other and the negotiations ensued. While it is true that once married a woman’s property became entirely under her husband’s control, an astute and wealthy family would want to negotiate a settlement for their daughter. This was land and/or money set aside for her and her children should she become a widow. Of course, a kind husband could also provide a jointure in his will which designated a pre-determined amount of land and/or money to his dependents upon his death. Mr. Bennet, however, could not leave a jointure for his widow because his land had been entailed away. An entail put limits or restrictions on the inheritance of land, usually requiring the property be inherited by the closest male heir. An entail remained with the land for several generations. It was designed to protect the property from being broken up or sold off. Power and social status were derived by land ownership. Preventing the property from being divided and sold to pay a squanderer’s debts was seen as a way to protect one’s descendants and the family name. However, if no male heirs were conceived the property would be inherited by nephews or distant cousins leaving wives and daughter’s dependent on the generosity of those they barely knew.
When Dancing, Women Led the Way One of my favorite parts of any British period drama are what my sister and I call the “tippy-toe” dance scenes. But did you know that in Regency dances the women led and the gentlemen followed? The paces of the dance were designed to put the genteel young lady on exhibit. She always moved first. The gentleman’s responsibility was to steer her through the intricate steps with the hopes of avoiding any Mr. Collins’ style disasters. Many of the most popular dances of the era were a blend of both town and country culture. Following the French Revolution, many English aristocrats abandon their stately Georgian movements for steps resembling traditional country dances they were acquainted with from their summer holidays. The hops and stomps of the livelier jigs were replaced with dainty steps and baroque music and the closer proximity allowed for quiet conversation, smiles and flirtation.
Rank Wasn’t Just for the Upper Class During the Regency era, anyone who wanted to portray themselves as having an ounce of middle-class respectability employed domestic help. Maintaining even a modest home (keeping it lit, heated and clean) could be a full-time job. So it shouldn’t be surprising that keeping a grand home functioning in elegant style might require up to fifty servants. Just as the members of the ton were classified by rank and precedence, so were the servants hired to maintain, clean and run their homes. The greater the servant’s responsibilities, the closer the servant worked with the master or mistress of the estate, the higher their standing. The master’s steward stood at the top of this pecking order. Functioning much like a personal assistant, he managed all staff and household affairs. In the master’s absence, he often performed day to day tasks and made decisions in his place. Under him, the butler and the housekeeper supervised male and female staff, respectively. The lower one’s rank, the more physically demanding the work. It was not uncommon for scullery maids, lowest of the female servants, to clean and scour the kitchen for 18 hours a day. Servants of equal job title under the same roof would be ranked by the standing, in the family line as well as society, of whom they served. The prominence of the person served was far more important than length of service to the family.
What Regency Era custom do you find most interesting?