“What could possibly inspire ardor less than a time when women couldn’t vote or own property?” CNN there managed to slip in the very Jane Austen word “ardor.” Well done. LOL!
Still, that was the wrong question to ask as to the “what” here about that generally late-1700s to about 1820 era. First definition is called for. “Regency” refers technically to the years 1811-1820, when British King George III was unable to function because of his “madness” and his son served in his place as Prince Regent. That falls amidst the “Georgian” era, named after that same king, who had ascended to the British throne in 1760 (and his two predecessors, the first of whom had become king in 1714).
The two eras – as we term them – tend to blur one into the other; the “romance” attached to “the Regency” certainly began before 1811. And our modern interest in the era definitely did not start with the awful Bridgerton on Netflix, of course. Moreover that interest has almost zero to do with inequality and women then being unable to vote or to own property as they do today.
Indeed we tend to forget that most men then could not vote either unless they owned enough property to qualify to vote. (Today, there are no property or income requirements to vote.) For example, George Washington was elected U.S. first president in 1789 having received just under all of 45,000 votes nationwide. That in a country of about 4 million of whom some 1 million were white men of an age we would consider old enough to vote.
Most people then also worked far harder than we do now. And medical care – regardless of how rich you were – was as we know it then non-existent. Overall most lived much more difficult and shorter “hand to mouth” lives in “1800” than most in Europe and America do today.
Okay, so why all “the Regency” carryings on then?
We don’t want to think about the widespread poverty (compared to our lives) and the health challenges (compared to our lives) and so on. (Or the likes of chattel slavery.) We want to think about “Elizabeth Bennet” and “Mr. Darcy” as portrayed in Austen’s timeless Pride and Prejudice. Of course they – the gentry – too had daily chores/work to perform and their health horrors (Washington – a man with great resources compared to most – watched helplessly in 1773 as his 17-year-old stepdaughter died suddenly due to what was probably an epileptic fit.), but they did not struggle to survive in quite the same way as most people did day in and day out.
It is important to remember too that Austen did NOT write “romance” novels as we understand them. She wrote contemporary social commentaries of the world she knew, and especially on the place of women in that world and the importance attached to their being married. Built of course around relations between women and men, they have now come to us to be perceived as “romance” novels.
Aside from Austen’s writings and those of other contemporaries, we also know from plain historical elsewheres that the late 1700s and early 1800s were a time the relatively well-educated gentry wrote to each other much as (the married, twenty-six-year-old) Maria (probably pronounced “Mariah”) Cosway wrote this:
Parigi Mercoledì Sera [20 Sep. 1786]
Oh I wish you was well enough to come to us tomorrow to dinner and stay the Evening … I would Serve you and help you at dinner, and divert your pain after dinner by good Musik.
And the (forty-three-year-old widower) Thomas Jefferson to whom she wrote that (who she had weeks before evidently witnessed – while they were walking alone together in Paris – fracture his right wrist after he fell awkwardly in jumping some short fence while perhaps seeking to impress her with how “youthful” he still was), responded in part this way:
Paris Octob. 12. 1786.
for assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody. but friendship is precious not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life: and thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine.
Marriage was then still usually about a union of families and property… but it was increasingly also about “sunshine” and love. The “rules” regarding interactions between men and women led often to a great deal of formality and sometimes long “courtships.” (While not relishing the inequality between men and women, the clearer gender roles of the era are obviously in their way a fanciful draw to some today.) All told it was still the time of the “slow burn” and not the “hook up” – the former being clearly more appealing to many a woman in the early 21st century than the current latter.
It was an era too that we consider to have been in many ways a slower-paced time and rightly so. (Indeed it was at about the historical end literally of the “slower” pace – as steamships began to appear and, in 1825, eight years after Austen’s death, the first passenger train started operating in England.) In “1811” there was really still no such thing as travel faster than at the speed of a galloping horse or a sailing ship that had caught a good wind. There was no instant communications and certainly no radio or television, much less Netflix.
That era was also one in which daily interactions were mostly with those close to us whom we knew well. One might have woken up that morning as usual with the sun and after a day’s tasks probably on the farm or within walking distance sat together as a family in the evening. Books – which were usually expensive and much-treasured – were read aloud for group entertainment. If “Musik” was desired, it required someone actually to play an instrument – as Maria Cosway above suggests in her letter (Italian was her first language and her written English was weak) to the then U.S. Minister to France and future U.S. president that she would have played (probably a pianoforte as it was called at the time) for him after dinner.
Above all, our modern entertainment fascination with the era has long been, first and foremost, I believe, about escaping from what we consider our impersonal, decidedly casual, and “unrestrained” present day by becoming immersed for a time in some story of a handsome, well-suited/uniformed, well-mannered gentleman and a lovely, beautifully-dressed, uncommon (and possibly “spirited”) woman, and in seeing them finally happily together after they had somehow navigated successfully through the time’s archaic minefield of rules governing their love.
Have a good, uh, modern day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂