The Regency: A Nine-Year Wonder

The English Regency is a historic fact, or a nostalgic phrase, that evokes certain particular images, or elegances, or events, and certain styles of procedure and modes ol behavior— something that stresses a way of life at the expense of life in general, and a primacy of forms that obscure half of life’s most familiar functions. It such a conception must be a good deal modified by the Regency’s actual makeup, it is yet partly justified by its pre-eminence in social eclat and in the arts. We speak of Regency houses, Regency solas, Regency coachwork. Regency waistlines, Regency bowed windows and cast-iron railings; we recall Regency personalities and personages—not just the Prince Regent or the Duke of Wellington, but Canning and Castlercagh, Alvanley and Creevey, Lady Jersey and Princess Lieven; and Regency dandies, and Regency lollies, and Regency chibs. That is what, atmospherically, the word connotes, as against what it historically signifies, and as such it is not altogether unprecedented—a comparable atmosphere surrounds the English Restoration, which brings tea mind Nell Gwyn and Lord Rochester far sooner than John human and Judge Jeffreys. For stylishness dusted with wit and splashed with sin leaves its own bright indelible mark, avals and governments notwithstanding.

This aura is the more striking in that the actual Regency lasted for just nine years. George III’s periodic, porphyria-induced madness became permanent in 1811, when the Prince of Wales was designated Regent; and the mad, blind, deaf old King died in 1820, when the Regent became George IV. “Regency” has, with some cultural justification, been applied to anything from 1800 to 1830; Imt f. B. Priestley in his The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency (Harper & Row, $15.00) restricts himself to the actual nine years, and I would cheerfully follow suit, not because of a pedantic adherence to dates, hut because those nine years are a horn of plenty of activities, events, and achievements. More luster has been squeezed into them, and more scandal squeezed out of them, than almost any other nine years of English history. To both elements the Regent himself contributed something; to the latter, indeed, he contributed more than anyone else.

In calling him the Prince of Pleasure Mr. Priestley has undoubtedly nailed his subject’s chief object in life. As the son of domestic but despotic “Farmer George,” a thrifty and virtuous if pigheaded man, the Regent, born in 1762. was by temperament antithetical to Papa and by Papa’s training extremely antipathetic to him. The future George IV and his six brothers, said tlie Duke of Wellington, were “the damnedest millstones about the neck of any government that can he imagined.”Indeed, the seven deadly sons could be, by less than royal standards, frequently loutish, with occasional smidgens of lunacy; several of them went into the Army and the Navy and all of them into debt: they had mistresses and a platoon of illegitimate children, and they also became King of Hanover, or the father of Oueen Victoria, or the grandfather of George V’s Oueen Mary.

As Prince of Wales George countered his father’s viceless habits with a taste for mistresses, his father’s frugality with a passion for splurging. The Prince’s early liaison with “Perclita” Robinson, a married woman and beautiful actress, he abruptly broke off, with Papa having to pay £5000 to get George’s letters hack. George flouted his father’s Toryism by allying himself with the Whigs, finding a political leader in Charles James Fox and a companion in the witty and worldly Sheridan. Like both these spenclthrilts, the Prince in no time was heavily in debt, and soon after madly in love. His relations with Mrs. Fitzherbert, a well-bred, twice-widowed Roman Catholic whom he secretly married and lived with for many years, were the grande passion of his life; but the marriage, though sanctioned by Rome, was illegal in England, and George in due course, to placate his father and get his debts paid off, married his first cousin Caroline of Brunswick. The couple loathed each other at sight, had indeed no sooner met than George said: “Harris, I am not well: pray get me a glass of brandy’; and once Caroline had produced a daughter and heir to the throne—who died in childbirth in 1817—George sent Caroline a message calling it quits, and when she asked for it in writing, received it. Their ruptured marriage was to become, years later, a Regency uproar.

So, to a considerable degree, was the Regent himself. But in the intervening period, along with his endless self-gratifications, monumental debts, and older-than-he-was mistresses, he could display his genuine social gifts, sophisticated tastes, and artistic interests. For clothes he had a dandy’s passion if a Falstaff’s figure and was constantly designing them: he had a passion for furniture and was regularly installing it; and like all the Georges, he liked music. More valuable was his collecting of pictures; more valuable still, his feeling for architecture: in one way or another he used most of the best architects of the lime to create some of its best-known achievements. George’s residence, Carlton House, and Carlton House Terrace took years to finish or refinish, but London was the more distinguished for them; and most splendid of all, the work of George’s favorite architect, John Nash, were Regent .Street and Regent’s Park. Nash was also the principal architect for the Brighton Pavilion, the showplace of the little seaside town the Prince turned into a famous resort. Here George’s taste for various architectural and decorative styles—Gothic, Chinese, Egyptian—finally took a sort of Muslim Indian form, the array of domes, cupolas, minarets, and pinnacles lending themselves to Sydney Smith’s famous jest that “it looked as if St. Paul’s Cathedral had come down and littered.” Yet the whole effect, however outré and fantastic, resembles a sort of fairyland—or Disneyland—marvel.

Appointed Regent, “Prinny” began by dishing the liberal Whigs he had fellowshiped with and retaining his father’s Tories. Beyond the disloyalty involved, this revealed a certain irresponsibility, since the nation, rather wormy and rancid under the Regency icing, cried out for reform. But George had no real feeling for politics except as they supported his pleasures, and no real feeling for people, Mrs. Fitzherbert, it would seem, excepted. He could be impulsively kind, and his reckless extravagance could include generosity, but he chiefly, during a troubled decade, conducted a ballroom regime. His public image became as egregious as it was enormous—Charles Lamb dubbed him the Prince of Whales; his debts were so enormous as to antagonize the populace, and he was from all sides caricatured, castigated, denounced. As rulers go, he was possibly overabused: he was weak rather than wicked, vain rather than overbearing, selfish rather than cruel, untrustworthy tathet than crafty—in sum, pretty much of a rotter. He had what rotters often have, a feeling for style and art. Despite that feeling, I find him less like the sovereign lie is usually bracketed with, Charles II—a witty and perceptive man and a very shrewd monarch—than a royal-style good-time Charlie, rather more akin to Edward VII. He perhaps did more harm to himself as Regent than to his country, and he harmed himself most in his behavior toward his wife.

Caroline, though she has been variously characterized, has chiefly benefited from being ill treated. She seems to have had no particular virtues or charms, and could be rattlebrained, gossipy, unstable, and indiscreet; but as a displaced consort in a foreign land, suffering from Prinny’s edicts, such as how seldom she could see her daughter, and from his virtual campaign to humiliate her, she gained a great deal of sympathy. In 1814 she transferred herself to the Continent, where she had a conspicuous “friendship” with an Italian gentleman. But whatever the extent of her wrongdoing, it paled beside how badly she was wronged; and when, on the Regent’s becoming King, she dashed back, as Queen, to England and met with George’s rancorous opposition, she became as much England s favorite as he was its favorite butt. Against Caroline lie brought charges of “licentious, disgraceful and adulterous intercourse,” causing her to be tried by the House of Lords; and though a brilliant defense led to the charges’ being dropped, she was yet, by her husband’s order, refused admittance to his Coronation. Fie, when appearing in public, was loudly greeted with “God Save the Queen.” Caroline died soon after the Coronation; George lived on until 1830. These years saw George install his final ?naitresse en litre, Lady Conyngham, who came to Court equipped with a husband and departed. as George lay dying, “with sufficient jewellery, plate, etc., to fill two wagons.” The monstrousbellied King ailed during his later years, and his reign lacked both the glitter and the tarnish of his Regency.

In a not particularly long and loosely integrated, but personally pungent, text-and-picture book whose three hundred colored and black-and-white illustrations are part of its content and enhance its attractiveness, Mr. Priestley deals sufficiently with the Regent but wisely devotes more space to “his Regency.” These last two words of the book’s title we can interpret in two ways: the regime that the Regent gives his name to and the regime that revolved around him. In one very important essential the two meet at times, namely in the achievement between 1811 and 1820 in literature and art. Those nine years saw the publication of Wordsworth’s The Excursion, Coleridge’s Biographic! Literaria, most of Shelley, almost everything of Keats, all six of Jane A listen’s novels, many of Scott’s, Peacock’s Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey, Byron’s Childe Harold and the first part of Don Juan, and important work by Crabbe, Hazlitt, and Lamb. In painting, besides work by Turner, Constable, and Blake, there were Lawrence and Raeburn, and Crome, Cotman, and the Norwich School; in architecture there were Soane, the Wyatts, Henry Holland, Nash, and chiefly for landscape, Rcpton. This superb achievement, much of it at odds with Regency tendencies, makes plain how disproportionately prominent those tendencies can be.

They had, however, a decided upper-class impact. The eighteenth century, like an elderly beau, was still offering Regency society its arm: but the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars had altered society: the minuet now curtsied to the waltz: Bath, set against Prinny s Brighton, was sedate and passe; there was certainly style of a kind, and a lavish party-giving atmosphere—the era fathered Lambton’s famous concession that one could “jog along” on £40,000 (Si million in our money) a year. (After all, the strawberries at a breakfast party cost £150 (S4000 today) . and Lady Londonderry went to a ball “so covered with jewels that she could not stand up” and was followed wherever she went with a chair.) There was also the dandy, whose appearance was his whole raison d’être and whose self was almost the only thing he gave thought to. Indeed, the Regency world was like a fine wine that has begun to go bad, and that in its half-spoiled condition satisfied the Regency palate. The aristocratic too often gave way to the arrogant: elegant clothes were too often worn by vulgar people; Byron spoke of “the would-be wits and the can’t-be gentlemen”; bailiffs were disguised as footmen in ducal houses; “It isn’t fashionable,” proclaimed the Princess Lieven, “where 1 am not present”; and cheating was an accepted fact. “What would you do,” someone was asked, “if you saw a man cheating at cards?” “Bet on him,” was the answer. In a sense, the Regency best survives through its headlines, which certainly swathe its three most symbolic figures in scandal.

Beau Brummell, history’s most impeccable dandy and fashion’s most implacable despot, had attractive qualities and witty bad manners, and amid the excesses of Regency dress ordained for men plain black and white with “fine linen, plenty of it, and country washing.” (His boot, polish, he gave out, was made from the finest champagne.) He spent an incredible number of hours getting in and out of his clothes and looking critically and no doubt caustically through the privileged bow window of White’s Club, and he turned a sort of stylish impudence into an art. By giving a comparative nonentity his arm while crossing the street from Brooks’s Club to White’s, he wiped out, Brummell felt, a large gambling debt; but in an age of very steep play, many other large gambling debts felled him at last, and very nonchalantly one night he left the opera to flee for good and all across the Channel and escape his creditors, and to die, years after, in senile filth in France.

Lord Byron, having become the romantic hero and social lion of London as the Regency got under way, was by its middle years misbehaving generally and badly mistreating his wife. While she sued for a separation, rumors of incest with his half-sister Augusta were rampant, and smeared with scandal, Byron, like Brummell, left England forever. Our third symbol, the Regent, in exchange for giving the period his name, received its maximum notoriety. The supreme Regency personage was Wellington: around him hovers the period’s most famous social event, the Duchess of Richmond’s ball—Byron’s “sound of revelry by night”—at Brussels on the eve of Waterloo. The greatest pageantry centers in the visits to London, after Napoleon had abdicated and gone to Elba, of the crowned and military heads of Europe—among others, Louis XVIII, the Czar of Russia, the King of Prussia, and Blücher. The Russian guest and his Regent host—“the two vainest men alive”—did not get on. The friendly, jaunty, liberal-tyrannical Czar, with the populace falling at his feet, kept Prinny puffing at. his heels, now snubbed, now belittled: thus, very ceremoniously introduced to the Regent’s current mistress, Lady Hertford, the Czar merely bowed, and turning away, said: “She is mighty old.” There were countless less resplendent names and occasions, and a succession of period fashions: Almack’s club became the test of social standing, its balls tightly managed by some despotically titled ladies; Watier’s, another club, became the gilded road to ruin, where a throw of the dice could overthrow a fortune; prizefights became the rage and the Regency’s most popular sport. Under all the social glitter there was a good deal of immoral grime, just as below the ranks of fashion there was a good deal of moral displeasure. While the peerage and its playfellows were sucking the last luscious fruits of the eighteenth century, a well-behaved, well-to-do middle class was sniffing the purer, if stuffier, air of a predawn Victorianism,

But there was the other Regency world, one which reveals something black and unspeakable behind the trim facade; and an outstanding virtue of Mr. Priestley’s book is that, within his restricted limits, he does this world justice. Our nine years involve Peterloo as well as Waterloo, and the pinched face of poverty watching pageantry swagger by. Living conditions might be worse than under Victoria, and dying ones more dramatic: women dropped dead from hunger while begging with babies at their breast; and widespread starvation and destitution—and for that matter, almost unprecedented prostitution—infested the country. “An Englishman who can’t lay his hands on £25,” observed Stendhal, “is an outlaw.” A fifteen-hour day was not at all uncommon, and for long perilous working hours miners got less than $4 a week. And there were the chimney sweeps, children sometimes four years old who were sold by their parents for a few guineas and often forced to beg for their food when not pushed up chimneys, choking from soot, clouted by falling mortar, bigger boys jabbing their bare feet with pins to keep them moving, and occasionally kept moving by “lighting hay or straw below them.”

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars the Regency saw the effects of the Industrial Revolution, when new devices and machines were greatly expanding English industries. It was said that the spinning jenny and the steam engine had financed the defeat of Napoleon. Early in the Regency came the trial and harsh punishments of the Luddites, who, though best remembered for smashing machines as the archfoes of human labor, were extremely indignant over shoddy products that made possible bigger profits, and who were chiefly persecuted for attempting to organize. Unhappily, in the year after Waterloo the often hideous working conditions worsened into horrifying unemployment, and the Regency was to culminate in the Peterloo agitation, when possibly 80,000 people came together in Manchester to listen to the well-known “Orator” Hunt and demand reform. There was police intervention, followed by bloodshed and mounds of crushed bodies, producing intense working-class anger, and repercussions for years to come.

In 1817 stones that broke a window of the Regent’s coach led, under a Tory administration, to suspending the Habeas Corpus Act; at other times, laws slumbering from the Middle Ages were roused and reapplied, and t he miserable unredressed plight of the masses stumbled behind the steadily unreformist nature of those in power. There was of course a Regency England that was well dressed and genteel, or well scrubbed and respectable, or adequately fed and obedient, but set against such domestic candlelight the extremes of selfish pleasure and starveling want are like tremendous flares in the darkness. The vital issues that confronted a nation with a playboy Regent at the helm, a Tory government in the saddle, and a largely frivolous leisure class catching the limelight would continue, but Catholic Emancipation, legalized trade unionism, the full abolition of the slave trade, and the Reform Bill, when at length they came, could boast a kind of connection with the Regency—they helped remedy its evils.