Jane Austen’s Regency World
What exactly is ‘the Regency’? When did it take place? In what ways is Jane Austen a Regency woman and a Regency novelist? In this month’s Musings, Robert Morrison, British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and author of The Regency Revolution, takes us into Jane Austen’s Regency World.
By James Gillray – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8766 (color film copy transparency), uncompressed archival TIFF version (49 MB), level color (pick white point), cropped and converted to JPEG (quality level 88) with the GIMP 2.4.5., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4352835
The term ‘Regency’ has been attached to many different areas of interest. There is Regency fashion, architecture, furniture, jewellery, and so on. There are Regency novels, clubs, festivals, gardens, hotels, and antique dealers. Bath, where Austen lived and set large sections of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, is often called ‘a Regency city’. In this general sense, the Regency covers about five decades, from the closing years of the eighteenth-century (the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 is often taken as its start date) until the third or fourth decade of the nineteenth century (the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 is often taken as its end date).
The Regency as Austen knew it, however, was not a broad term that applied to several decades, but a specific political or constitutional term that covered less than one decade. A Regency occurs when a person – often another member of the royal family – is appointed to administer the affairs of the country during the minority, absence, or incapacity of the sovereign. There have been a dozen Regencies in English history, and three dozen in Scottish history.
The most famous Regency in Britain, and the one we associate with Austen, began on 5 February 1811 when the profligate Prince of Wales replaced his violently insane father George III as the Prince Regent and, in effect, the monarch. It concluded on 29 January 1820 when George III died and the Prince Regent became King George IV.
George IV van het Verenigd Koninkrijk by Thomas Lawrence – http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/PINs/PINs_Sala15_12_060.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1343303
The Regent was widely despised and largely oblivious in matters of state. He combined capriciousness, incompetence, and lachrymosity with a gargantuan appetite for gambling, sex, shopping, booze, and food. Austen was especially angered by the way he treated his wife. ‘I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband’, she told her close friend Martha Lloyd flatly in February 1813.
Yet despite his many excesses and failures, the Regent partially redeems himself with cultural, literary, and aesthetic judgments that have proven remarkably sound. He engaged in vast building projects using John Nash as his architect and John Rennie as his engineer. He commissioned portraits from Thomas Lawrence and genre paintings from David Wilkie. Like many of his contemporaries, he greatly admired the poetry of Walter Scott until Lord Byron shot to fame in March 1812 with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, at which point the Regent asked to meet Byron, whom he ‘surprised & delighted’ with his intimate knowledge of ‘poetry and Poets’.
Perhaps most notably, all six of Austen’s published novels appeared during the Regency, starting with Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and finishing in late 1817 with the posthumous appearance of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. These works met with only modest commercial success, but from the start the Regent was a discerning and enthusiastic supporter. He ‘has read & admired all your publications’, James Stanier Clarke, Librarian to the Regent, told Austen in November 1815. When it was suggested that she dedicate her next novel, Emma, to him, she bit her lip and agreed:
To his Royal Highness The Prince Regent, this work is, by his Royal Highness’s permission, most Respectfully Dedicated
Part of what makes Austen so impressive as a novelist is the way in which she transcends her own era. In the Regency, for example, highly oppressive legal, social, and religious strictures ensured that women were almost always unequal partners in their relationships with men. Broadly speaking, men got a dynamic public world of politics, war, business, and adventure, while women got an airless private realm of purity and obedience in which their individual identities were submerged in their responsibilities as daughters, wives, and mothers.
Enter Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. When Lady Catherine de Burgh hectors her about aspiring to a match with her nephew Darcy – ‘Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’ – Elizabeth hits back with her belief in personal dignity and individual preference: ‘He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’. This is the prescient Austen, the Austen that was well ahead of her time. Elizabeth’s ‘triumph over Lady de burgh is something more than personal’, declared the great American critic William Dean Howells in 1901: ‘it is a protest, it is an insurrection’.
In many other ways, though, Austen’s work is clearly marked by the Regency. All her novels reflect the tremendous pressure on young women of the gentry to secure a prosperous match as the surest route to social status and financial security. They had, after all, only a brief span of years to attract a partner before they were deemed too old. ‘A woman of seven and twenty’, remarks Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, ‘can never hope to feel or inspire affection again’. In Persuasion, twenty-seven-year-old Anne Elliot has already been forced onto the shelf by younger rivals.
The Regency was the last brazen huzzah for libertines before the sobering and much stricter mores of the Victorian age took at least some of the wind out of their sails.
Regency rakes are a regular feature in Austen’s novels, and John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility the most dangerous of all. He seduces and then discards women such as Eliza Williams the younger on his way to marrying Miss Sophia Grey for her money. ‘Happy with a man of libertine practices!’ cries Mrs Dashwood after Elinor has spoken to her about Willoughby’s visit to Cleveland. ‘No – my Marianne has not a heart to be made happy with such a man!’
The Regency is full of major political events that Austen has often been accused of ignoring, including most prominently the Napoleonic Wars. But military service and conflict repeatedly shape her narratives, as do issues such as prize money, economic upheaval, colonial conquest and, especially, the shortage of men. Marianne’s husband Colonel Brandon was a soldier and Lydia Bennet’s husband George Wickham a militiaman. Anne’s reconciliation with Captain Wentworth, and their walk along the Gravel Path in Bath, is one of the most moving scenes in her work. Austen’s two sailor brothers, Francis and Charles, were involved in the War of 1812, a conflict Austen introduces suggestively into Mansfield Park. ‘A strange business this in America, Dr Grant!’, Tom Bertram exclaims, ‘ – What is your opinion?’
Jane Austen lived and wrote during one of the most politically tumultuous and exuberantly creative decades in British history. Her conviction that healthy relationships involve respect and equality is one of the ways her novels see far into the future. But they are also thoroughly informed by the Regency decade in which they were published, most notably in their exploration of the burden on women to marry well, their fascination with the rake, and their understanding of the impact of war on the hopes and fears of Regency women and men back home in Britain.
The Regency Revolution is Robert Morrison’s latest book. It was named by The Economist as one of its 2019 Books of the Year and shortlisted by the Historical Writers’ Association for its Crown Award for the best in historical non-fiction. He is also the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. His edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press.