The Regency Period
The Regency Era 1795-1830 England, was a time of stark contrasts, of defining styles and tastes and of scandal and gossip. It saw the madness of kings, Napoleon rise and fall (1769–1821), and the struggle for power in the Americas (1812-1815). The charming Lord Byron became a social celebrity with his dark romantic poetry, the cheeky and controversial Beau Brummell defined and shaped the fashions and, in a new style of writing, the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens began their social commentaries on the people and classes of their era through fictional novels which were heavily steeped in truths of the time.
The Kings of Regency
In 1820, George III (1738-1820) was deemed unfit to rule, suffering from the now understood disease of porphyria, which is caused by arsenic poisoning. He had been father to fifteen children, and a faithful and loving husband to Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. His son however, George IV (1762-1830) embraced his new title of Prince Regent, proxy of George III, with excess and scandal. He was a renowned gambler and financed many impressive plans to build and restyle many of the regency style buildings of London, the Brighton Pavilion and Mayfair two of which still exist today. George IV had an even more scandalous love life, taking many mistresses, secretly marrying Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a twice married Roman catholic, void of course because the marriage never had the consent of the King. Then the prince publicly married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick (1795) for a higher allowance from Parliament. George IV is remembered by historical logs as a an over-indulgent, obese and selfish ruler; he served for only nine years as king of England
The class system in England during Regency was strictly upheld by the old class land owners and their peers, the Church and the Royals who defined the social scenes. But it was a time of economic and social change as England embraced the industrial age. While it was a time of a widening the gap between the rich and the poor, a new class of bourgeoisie were blossoming. Their new money from rising industries enabled entrepreneurs to achieve riches and experiences that would have otherwise remained unattainable for the middle classes. It was this new middle-class that seemed to threaten the once secure state of aristocracy. Previously the aristocrats instigated an incredibly formal etiquette code, in order to somehow distance the upper class from any crassness of the lower classes or anyone who tried to step out of their traditional roles. It was also the age of submission to ones superiors; once again a hierarchical structure was enforced so that people of the regency period knew the correct way of addressing and showing respect to those with more wealth or higher political or social ranking than themselves.
Regency styles and fashions
The fashions of the Regency Era saw the rise of the 'Dandy', led by the infamous Beau Brummell, who would eventually be chased out of England for insulting George IV dress sense. There was also a move away from the traditional aristocratic styles of the periwigs and powder of the eighteenth century as the French Revolution (1789–1799) had made it unfashionable to be overtly aristocratic and in its place came simplistic elegance. Men embraced elegant linen trousers and overcoats with breeches and boots while women abandoned corsets for a high wasted, natural figured, thin, gauzy dresses. Although this new informal fashion had taken hold it had in no way slowed the upper classes desire for lavishness with both men and women changing outfits several times a day in preparation of different activities.
This same simplicity extended to the design of the upper classes environments and homes. The court architect John Nash was prominent in developing the ‘regency style' drawing from Greek, Roman, Gothic, Egyptian, Asian and neo-classical English influences. This eclectic mix celebrated such features as elegant furniture and vertically pin-striped wallpaper, bay windows, balconies and stucco walls. It was a time where wealth was celebrated and opulence was expected.
The English Industrial Revolution and the poor
While Regents Park and Regent Street of London were celebrating the highlights of 'regency style', this opulence very much contrasted with the abject poverty and inflation of the prices of food which crippled many lower class families. Taxes were rife during this era, people were not only expected to pay tax to the Government and King but also to the Church. The wide ranging extent of taxes were extreme, for example, window tax expected from anyone with a window (this extended to small ventilation holes in huts), these taxes rose the larger the windows were and the more there were. As a result those who could not afford the tax were forced to brick up their windows.
England was also in the middle of an industrial revolution during the Regency, so there were growing numbers of people leaving the farms and countryside to find work within the cities in the new and plentiful factories. This shift from rural to urban saw the growth of slums and an increase and intensification of poverty within the major cities.
As with all industrial revolutions, this shift lead to a huge increase in pollution. England, with tons of waste from the factories along with London's sewerage being dump untreated into the river Thames. The coal being burnt in the factories also created thick smog in the cities, so much so that when a person wore a white dress out for a day, they would return wearing a grey one.
Under George IV, England was industrial, crowded, powerful and troubled. It was a time of convict transportation in which Australia was colonized, but none of this dirty, bleak history is revealed by Jane Austen, as she lived in the English countryside and not in London, and the focus of all her novels were the charms of the countryside and its relative romance.