After a winter and spring spent writing about pregnancy and childbirth during the Regency era—a topic that fascinates me—I now turn my thoughts to what I’ve learned while researching the Regency era. My first and hardest lesson: feeling confident I have gotten the history right when I know my view of Jane Austen’s world differs from that of other Janeites.
Hilary Mantel’s Perspective on Getting the History Right
By chance I caught Jeffrey Brown’s April 3rd interview of Hilary Mantel on PBS Newshour. Their discussion focused on the film adaptation of her first two books in the Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which aired on Masterpiece Theatre between April 5 and May 10 of this year. In response to Brown’s observation that some people do not accept her version of events regarding King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Mantel said: “We all share the same sources; we share the same facts. The question is: Where do we stand to view them?”
Her question struck me like a lightning bolt, for I realize—after some five years of research—that I do not see Jane Austen’s world in quite the same way many other Janeites do.
Where Some Janeites Stand
Have you seen the film Lost in Austen? The last time I laughed that hard during a movie was back in 1964 while watching Blake Edwards’ film A Shot in the Dark. Regardless, with its chaotic plot and twisted characters, Lost in Austen is fun, clever and delightfully deranged. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
The gist of the film is this: the protagonist, Miss Amanda Price, prefers to remain in the refined realm of Pride and Prejudice rather than live in her 21st-century home. Never mind that Regency-era medicine is dangerously primitive—there is no paracetamol!—Miss Price is attracted to Jane Austen’s time for its elegance, its simplicity, its formal manners and its established expectations. She’s also attracted to Mr. Darcy, but then, who isn’t?
I believe many Jane Austen fans stand where Miss Price stands. They see a Society ruled by elegant manners and strict codes of behavior, a society where people knew what was expected of them. Young, unmarried ladies of the aristocracy certainly felt Society’s strictures. They were confined mainly at home with family, shielded from exposure to baser instincts (and people) and taught to guard their virtue until they married. They were not allowed to walk or visit with a single gentleman without a maid or governess and were to expected to behave with decorum at all times. And yet…
And yet…young, unmarried ladies often took chances. They must have done, for I believe people living then were not much different from people living today. Oh, we have more gadgets and electricity and the Internet, but in our essential natures, we are not all that different from persons living during the Regency era. Consider these examples:
1) A Regency Thelma and Two Louises?
Lady Worsley (née Seymour Dorothy Fleming), wife of Sir Richard Worsley, visited her mother and step-father, Edwin Lascelles, at Harewood—their Yorkshire country house—for Christmas and New Year’s in 1778-1779.1 At a New Year’s masquerade ball held there, guests wore paper mâché masks and strolled freely through the family’s private bedchambers and closets. It was a night for merriment and mischief. Lady Worsley and her two comrades, the Miss Cramers, daughters of Sir John and Lady Coghill, pursued their own devilment: they stole the gentlemen’s clothes, particularly their breeches, and threw them out the windows. As if this were not bad enough, the three ladies rode cart horses toward Leeds and commandeered a room at an inn along the way where the colors of the local Militia were stored; these colors they set aflame with red-hot pokers, after which they pissed on them to put out the fire.
Gossip about the ladies’ antics surged through the homes of northern aristocratic families and beyond, threatening to damage the reputations of the unmarried Miss Cramers and endanger Jane Fleming’s engagement to Charles Stanhope, the future Earl of Harrington.1 (Jane was Lady Worsley’s older sister.)
Here we have three young ladies—a married Thelma and two single Louises, albeit not so explosive as the originals, perhaps—brought up according to Society’s strict rules regarding proper manners but behaving like hooligans. Two years later, Lady Worsley set polite Society ablaze with a scandal of epic proportions, as will be seen in an upcoming post.
Fortunately, Jane Fleming’s reputation survived her sister’s shenanigans. She married Charles Stanhope, becoming a society hostess who was much praised for her generosity and virtue.2 I have yet to determine what happened to the Cramer sisters.
2) A Runaway Marriage
Lord Townshend, 1st Marquess Townshend, was a British soldier—he commanded British forces at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Quebec City, Canada) during the Seven Years’ War—and served in Parliament for Norfolk. In 1751 he married Charlotte Compton, Lady Ferrers of Chartley, with whom he had 8 children. After she died in 1770, he decided to take a new wife. Here’s how the story was reported:3
“On Tuesday, May the 18th , Lord Townshend, accompanied by a gentleman and several servants, came to the Cranes Inn, and remained there all that day and the day following. Lord Townshend sent expresses in different directions, and numerous were the conjectures as to the motives of his lordship’s visit to Leicester. On Wednesday four post-chaises arrived at the inn, bringing several ladies and two gentlemen; one of the former being young and exceedingly beautiful. After dining at the Cranes, they all set out for the metropolis. In a day or two, the London Evening Post cleared up all the mystery, by making the following announcement: ‘Yesterday, Lord Townshend was married to Miss Montgomery. She is said to be about 17 and his lordship about 50 years of age.’”
Imagine what her parents were thinking: he’s too old for her—he already has six or eight children—she should marry someone her own age! Regardless of their opinions and pleadings, Miss Montgomery decided to run away and marry his lordship. At the time of their marriage, the new Viscountess (as she would have been styled at that time) was only a year older than Lord Townshend’s eldest son and heir. The couple appear to have made a success of their marriage and had six children of their own.
My Perspective on the Regency Era
Following on Hilary Mantel’s question, where do I stand to view the facts about the Regency? I entered Austen’s realm embracing the strict codes of behavior that ruled women’s lives but later emerged seeing an entirely different world. My perspective was shaped by two of the first books I bought at my local used bookstore: Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter and Mark Harris’s The Heart of Boswell. Call it luck, call it misfortune, call it what you will … I was never the same afterward.
1Hallie Rubenhold. Lady Worsley’s Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce. London: Vintage Books, 2008, pp. 19, 35-37.
2Wikipedia entry for Jane Stanhope, Countess of Harrington.
3James Thompson. The History of Leicester in the Eighteenth Century. London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1871, p. 146 (PDF p. 170).