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AN IMPOLITE SOCIETY
The years of the Regency have come to be synonymous with an elegance and style which are unique in the history of English culture: but they tend to be seen through a romantic haze. The vision persists of an elitist society, a time of grace and honour when manners were all and money irrelevant. So much evidence remains of Regency taste, in architecture, decoration and furniture, that it would seem reasonable to attribute an equal elegance of mind to its creators. But any such assumption would be wrong. The reality of life was far more robust than the romantic image suggests, and so was the behaviour of the ruling classes. The Regency was an exciting, dramatic and immensely entertaining time to be alive, and it is true that there has seldom been a period when so much flair and imagination has been spent on the arts, or a society which put such a high premium on civilized living. But it is also true that Society managed to behave at times with amazing vulgarity. Gluttony and gambling were the fashionable vices; the contemporary attitude to money was often dishonest by modern standards and sexual morality, at least among a certain section of the haut ton, virtually non-existent. A successful mistress had a lot more fun than a wife -- and a much better financial deal since she was free to control her own money. On the other hand, a wife could, and often did, behave just as badly as a courtesan, provided she was reasonably discreet. The Regency was a time of glorious paradox.
The romantic image of the Regency, furthermore, tends to concentrate on the artistic achievements of the period, and forgets that it was also a time of tremendous innovation in the world of science and technology. The same year, 1816, that Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, William Hedley built a primitive train and called it the Puffing Billy; Charles Babbage began work on the first calculating machine and Sir Humphrey Davy joined forces with Michael Faraday; the first steam ships appeared on the waterways of Britain and the first gas lighting in the streets of London. By the closing years of the Regency the Duke of Devonshire had been notified of Princess Charlotte's death by means of the new telegraph service, Daguerre had produced a prototype camera, Sir William Herschel had published his catalogue of the stars and Thomas Telford had built more than a thousand miles of roads. During the eighteenth century a letter from London to Bath could take three days to arrive, but, by the 1820s, mail was delivered the morning after posting in towns more than 120 miles apart. In central London the postal service was so efficient, and there were such frequent deliveries, that an invitation issued in the morning could be acknowledged the same afternoon.
The tone of a society tends to be set by its titular head and there can be no better example of the double standards prevalent at the time than that of that Prince of Paradox, the Regent himself. In 1788, when the question of a Regency first arose, the Prince of Wales, as he then was, had already made himself notorious for his wild behaviour and appalling extravagance. Yet he was a man of enormous charm, intelligence and taste, with impeccable manners when it mattered. Canning, a man of great discernment himself, was `charmed beyond measure' by `the elegance of his address and the gentlemanliness of his manner'; and William Beckford, too, thought that the Prince was `graciousness personified' and wrote that, `brighter than sunshine', he `cast a brilliant gleam wherever he moved'. The Prince, after all, was known as `The First Gentleman of Europe'. But the heir to the throne was also a dedicated hedonist, drunkard and lecher; and, unfortunately, by the time he was thirty, this was the image the public recognized.
The Prince's headquarters were at Carlton House, a mansion off Pall Mall, where he gathered around him a circle of friends, ranging from politicians to gamblers, scholars to courtesans, and society hostesses to suspect jockeys. And it was the exploits and behaviour of this `Carlton House Set', as they came to be known, which dictated the mood of Regency society. This powerful little group included some of the most brilliant figures of their generation: Charles James Fox, who was both a political ally and a convivial drinking companion; Georgiana, the legendary Duchess of Devonshire, one of the great Whig hostesses, with whom the Prince may or may not -- opinions differ -- have had an affair; Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, politician and serious drunkard; and `Beau' Brummell, King of the Dandies, the man who ruled society for years and created a revolution in masculine fashion, but was ruined by gambling debts and ended his life in impoverished exile. But there were others among them, who, though they have been largely ignored by posterity, were equally responsible for the image of the group as a whole -- and several of these were distinctly dubious characters, or, at best, confirmed eccentrics.
Sir John Lade, for example, who managed the Prince's racing stable for a time, affected to dress and speak like a groom: he married the notorious `Letty', who started life as a servant in a brothel and was said to have been the mistress of `sixteen-string Jack', a highwayman who ended his career on the gallows in 1774. Lady Lade was also reputed to have been the mistress of the Duke of York, and to have acted as procuress for the Prince himself. Colonel George Hanger, another somewhat tarnished star of the inner circle, was at least literate and intelligent; but he was a gambler and a rake, a typical `Regency Buck'. Hanger married a beautiful gypsy girl who played the dulcimer to perfection: she was christened `the lovely Aegypta of Norwood' by his fellow officers, but, in the end, ran off with a bandy-legged tinker. Hanger lost a fortune at cards and was imprisoned for debt in 1798, but survived to make another fortune in trade, as a coal merchant. The notorious Earl of Barrymore was known as `Hellgate', in recognition of his wild behaviour, while his brother, who limped, was `Cripplegate', and their foul-mouthed sister `Billingsgate'. The Prince's new bride, Princess Caroline, was justified when she complained a few weeks after the wedding that her husband's `blackguard companions ... were constantly drunk and filthy, sleeping and snoring in boots on the sofas'. The Regency was certainly not an age to be remembered for decorum.
As for sexual morality, the Prince's example again set the standards for society. His love affairs became the serial scandal of his generation: they began with his passion for `Perdita', a lovely young actress, carried on through numerous mistresses, and included a clandestine, and illegal, `marriage' to Mrs Fitzherbert. His actual marriage, ten years later, to the unattractive, but nevertheless unfortunate, Princess Caroline was an unmitigated disaster. Upon meeting his future wife for the first time, the Prince turned to his aide and said, `Harris, I am not well. Pray get me a glass of brandy.' To be fair to the Prince, Caroline, whom he had never met before the marriage, was blowsy, petulant, noisy, vulgar and dirty. She was also silly: one of her ladies-in-waiting reported that Caroline hated her husband so much that she made wax effigies of him, stuck the figurines through and through with pins from her own dress, roasted them, chanted a few curses and actually believed that such methods would succeed in killing him. In spite of all this, she was much more popular with the public than her husband.
In later years the Prince confined his amorous attentions to a succession of society ladies, including several of his friends' wives, most of whom were old enough to be grandmothers. On the subject of the Prince's preference for older women, Peter Pindar (John Wolcot), the most popular satirist of the Regency, wrote the following:
The foremost of the royal brood,
who broke his shell and cried for food;
Turn'd out a cock of manners rare,
A fav'rite with the feather'd fair ...
But though his love was sought by all,
Game, dunghill, bantam, squab and tall,
Among the whole, not one in ten
Could please him like a tough old Hen.
By the time he became Regent, in 1811, the Prince's charm, intelligence and great aesthetic sense had fallen victim to public calumny. He was endlessly caricatured as a drunken buffoon and dismissed as a boor and a lecher by most of his contemporaries. When the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg met the Prince she found his behaviour so coarse that she was embarrassed: `Handsome as he is,' she wrote to her brother the Tsar, `he is a man visibly used up by dissipation and rather disgusting. His much boasted affability is the most licentious, I may even say obscene, strain I have ever listened to. You know that I am far from being puritanical or prudish; but I avow that with him ... I do not know what to do with my eyes and ears -- a brazen way of looking where eyes should not go.' Leigh Hunt, editor of the Examiner at the time, was admittedly a Radical, but he was not alone in his judgement when he described the Regent, on his fiftieth birthday, as: `A libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace ... a man who has just closed half a century without a single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect.' Yet this was the man who had been instrumental in founding the National Gallery, built the Brighton Pavilion, commissioned Nash to redesign the West End of London and create Regent's Park, revolutionized the art of interior decoration and became one of the greatest royal patrons of the arts this country has ever possessed.
The Prince Regent was by no means unique in his blatant approach to sex. All the royal brothers were dedicated lechers, with the possible exception of the Duke of Kent. The Duke of Clarence had ten illegitimate children by Mrs Jordan, the Duke of York's affair with Mary Anne Clarke caused a major scandal because it involved the sale of army commissions, and the Duke of Cumberland was rumoured to be guilty of incest. But then a considerable proportion of high society, including its most enlightened, cultured and liberal members, were equally indifferent to the concept of fidelity. Round the corner from Carlton House, where the Prince held Court, the fifth Duke of Devonshire lived for years in a ménage à trois with his wife, the beautiful Georgiana, his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster -- who was also his wife's best friend -- and their assorted children. The Duke had three legitimate children by his wife and two by Lady Elizabeth, while the Duchess had a couple by Lord Grey. According to contemporary gossip the parentage of some, at least, of Lady Melbourne's six children was a matter of speculation: her second son, William, the future Lord Melbourne and Prime Minister, was thought by many to have been fathered by Lord Egremont. As for Lady Harley, later Countess of Oxford, she had so many lovers that her numerous children were known as `the Harleian Miscellany'.
Most of these upper-class bastards were given the family surname, brought up in the same household as the legitimate heirs and introduced to society on equal terms, or at least acknowledged quite openly; but a few, the real mistakes, would be born abroad, reappear at a suitable age and suddenly acquire a benevolent `godfather'. One particularly fortunate product of disputed parentage was a charming girl called Maria Fagniani, known as `Mie-Mie'. She was the daughter of the Marchesa Fagniani, a famous beauty who was particularly free with her favours at the end of the eighteenth century. In effect, Mie-Mie had three fathers, all of them rich and all of them claiming paternity. The first candidate was her mother's husband, the Marchese, and the others were Lord March, later Duke of Queensberry, and George Selwyn. The last two, both well-known rakes, had been lovers of the Marchesa at the same time, and each regarded Maria as his daughter and heiress. Selwyn left her £20,000, and cynically appointed the Duke as trustee. `Old Q', as the Duke was usually called, went on to leave her another £100,000 and so Mie-Mie, in spite of her doubtful lineage, became one of the most eligible girls on the market. At twenty-one she married Lord Yarmouth, a man whose reputation was already as bad as that of her putative father's.
The mood and manners of any society are formed as much by events as example and England at the time was in a constant state of crisis: the period which began with the first Regency crisis in 1788 and ended with the death of George IV in 1830 stretched from the eve of the French Revolution, via the Napoleonic Wars, to the Congress of Vienna and the Age of Reform. The French Revolution caused a panic among the landed classes which affected the whole of Europe, but was particularly strong in England, thanks to the sudden influx of refugees. The thousands of French aristocrats who fled to England in the wake of the Terror added a new dimension to society: one estimate put the number as high as 40,000 by the end of the eighteenth century. Brighton, at the time, was the most accessible port to the French coast, and became the main reception centre for the fugitives. Some had only just managed to get out in time and arrived with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and even these could be of the wrong sex. The Marquise de Beaulle escaped by dressing as a sailor and pretending to be part of the crew on a fishing boat, while her maid was smuggled on board in a trunk, in which she spent the whole crossing. The Comtesse de Noailles, who was twenty-one and pregnant, also dressed in boy's clothes and hid in the middle of a large coil of rope for fourteen hours on the same boat. Mme de Noailles was taken in by Mrs Fitzherbert, an old friend, dressed as a woman again, and the next day went to a cricket match with her hostess and the Prince of Wales. The tales of such escapes were dramatic enough, but the stories of life in the Paris the émigrés had left behind were horrific. A particularly ghoulish example was the series of parties given by survivors of the Terror whose relatives had been executed: they were known as `Victims' Balls' and the only criterion of admission was a certificate to prove that a member of the immediate family had been guillotined. The men, on entering the ballroom, had to salute, by a movement of the head, in the manner of a victim as he bent to be guillotined, while the women wore a thin red ribbon round their throats in another ghastly piece of mimicry. This sort of story horrified the débutantes at Almack's and, incidentally, made their fathers even more wary of Reform. Prior to the French Revolution the country had begun to realize that the movement towards Reform was more than just an idealistic dream. The more enlightened politicians, including a few of the Tories, were prepared to accept that a change might be needed in the electoral system, and that the time had come for a softer approach to the working classes. The events of 1789 reversed any such liberal thinking and talk of Reform took on the taint of treason. The effects of the Revolution, coupled with the uneasy wind of democracy arriving from America, delayed the cause of Reform by more than forty years. In 1817 Lord Holland might write, `That cursed business of Reform of Parliament is always in one's way. With one great man nothing is good unless that be the principal object, and with another nothing must be done if a word of Reform is even glanced at in requisition, petition or discussion.' But it was to be another fifteen years before the Bill became law.
The Revolution was followed in 1793 by the declaration of war with France, a war which was to last almost continuously for nearly twenty-two years. Admittedly the war was unpopular with a large proportion of the public, who saw no reason for England to become involved, but one of its most curious aspects was the reaction of society in general and the Whig aristocracy in particular. At the end of the eighteenth century the love affair of the English upper classes with France was at its peak and it continued in spite of the war. The educated classes had always spoken French as easily as English and saw no reason to change their ways: people continued to break into French at parties, sprinkle their letters with French phrases and hanker after Paris as their spiritual home. It must, however, be added that such an attitude was confined to a small section of society, the élite and the liberals: the great majority of the public were violently anti-French, as the cartoons of the period show. (Nevertheless it is easy to imagine the public reaction if the upper classes in Britain had spoken German to each other at parties in 1940 and made it obvious that they could not wait to revisit Berlin.)
All those with the slightest pretension to fashion or taste remained dedicated Francophiles, filling their houses with French furniture, eating French food and drinking French wines. The Regent himself carried on decorating his houses in the French mode and adding to his collections of Sèvres porcelain, clocks and other exquisite objets d'art from the Continent. It was more difficult to get hold of such things, of course, but some of the emigres had managed to escape with valuables, and others were smuggled by agents. The import of luxury foods from the Continent, as well as wine and brandy, also seems to have carried on throughout the war. Regency society had no intention of allowing Napoleon to interfere with their gastronomic pleasures. Such was the belief in Paris as the arbiter of taste that even the fashions initiated by the enemy were copied in London. When the opera house was redecorated at the beginning of the nineteenth century the silver and blue associated with the Bourbons was replaced by scarlet and gold, the colours Napoleon favoured. They were also the colours adopted by the Prince Regent when he redecorated Carlton House yet again in 1815; although, at least, by then peace had been declared. The love affair between French and English society was occasionally reciprocal: for example French ladies came to London to buy their riding habits in London and the Bond Street tailors were considered the best in Europe. English coachmakers, too, were greatly in demand and as soon as the war was over trade was resumed. In 1817 the French government put in an order for 900 mail coaches from a London firm, at a price of £150 each.
Most intelligent people realized that the Treaty of Amiens, in 1802, would never work and that the subsequent peace was only temporary, but they made the best of it while they could and high society streamed over to Paris en masse. The Whig grandees led the stampede, headed by Charles James Fox and his new wife, Mrs Armistead, Lady Holland, and the Duchess of Devonshire with her entourage. The Prince of Wales's sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cumberland, was another visitor, and Lady Conyngham (later the mistress of George IV), who was deemed by French society to be the most beautiful woman in Paris at the time. Another contemporary account even insists that the English ladies were much better dressed than the French. Gronow, for one, disagreed. Describing the English exodus to Paris, he wrote that `Thousands of oddly dressed English flocked to Paris immediately after the war ... and our countrymen and women having been so long excluded from French Modes ... adopted fashions of their own, quite as remarkable, and eccentric as those of the Parisians, and much less graceful. British beauties were dressed in long straight pelisses of various colours; the body of the dress was never of the same colour as the skirt; and the bonnet was of beehive shape, and very small.' And, again, no one seemed to feel the slightest embarrassment about the situation. All the English ladies wanted to be presented to Napoleon: Sheridan put Lady Elizabeth Foster in a fury by saying that she would fake a faint, or rather seven faints, if that was the only way she could attract his attention, while Lord Lansdowne and his wife had breakfast with Josephine and `liked her very much'. Lord Morpeth, later sixth Earl of Carlisle, was definitely in a minority when he refused to allow his wife to be presented to Josephine, but that was probably because he disapproved of Josephine herself, rather than from a residual sense of patriotic loyalty -- her behaviour while Bonaparte was in Egypt had caused an international scandal. Everyone fraternized happily with their erstwhile opponents: General Menou, for example, had been defeated at Alexandria only a few months before, by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, but was asked to dine by all the English nobility in Paris; and another of Napoleon's commanders, General Andreossi, was appointed ambassador to the Court of St James almost immediately after the war.
Paris became the scene of a strangely unreal social season during that spring of 1802, when Europe was sandwiched between two furious bursts of warfare. (Hostilities were resumed fourteen months later and continued with even greater ferocity until 1815.) Madame Recamier was the great hostess of the day, and her parties were reported back to the unfortunate friends left behind in England. Frederick Foster wrote to Lady Melbourne that: `We have been very gay lately. Last night we went to a Ball at M[adame] Recamier's, it was a very pretty one & lasted till 5 in the morning. Vestris danced & most excessively well.' He goes on to report various social encounters with some of the most infamous leaders of the late Revolution, showing no hesitation at meeting them. Admittedly Tallien, whom he met at a dinner party, had `the appearance of a Gentleman Murderer, and talks of Guillotines & slaughter with the greatest coolness & composure', but he later qualifies this stricture by adding that Tallien's `manners are very civil & his Conversation & look give me the idea of a Philosophe-Bourreau [intellectual executioner].' This passion for the French lasted throughout the Regency and well into the nineteenth century. Although none of the English found anything strange in conducting their social life in the language of a country which they had been fighting for the last twenty-odd years, foreign visitors to London did. Richard Rush, the American ambassador, was clearly surprised to find that, not only were the guests served French food and French wines but, even though all `The foreigners spoke English: nevertheless, the conversation was nearly all in French. This was not only the case when the English addressed the foreigners, but in speaking to each other.' It was clear that nothing could shake the English infatuation with France and the war was regarded, by some, at least, as no more than a tiresome hiccup.
For others, however, the war was a violent reality. Too many scions of the English gentry were killed or maimed for society to be able to ignore it. The scarlet uniforms disappeared from the ballrooms and boys in their teens rushed off to seek action and glory in the Peninsular Campaign. Anxious parents searched The Times's dispatches for news of their sons and letters from the front were passed round drawing-rooms all over the country. Lady Bessborough's son, Frederick Ponsonby, a young cavalry officer, described the Battle of Talavera in a letter to his mother: `We had the pleasing amusement of charging five solid squares with a ditch in front. After losing 180 and 222 horses we found it was not so agreeable, and that Frenchmen don't always run away when they see British cavalry, so off we set, and my horse never went so fast in his life.' He adds that if it had not been for the hampers sent out to the army by his mother he would have starved. Later he reports on the hazards of waltzing in uniform and says that he stuck his spurs into one lady's gown and brought half Madrid down with him. Both Ponsonby and his sister, Lady Caroline Lamb, were guests at the famous ball given by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo. Lady Caroline wrote to her mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, that that `fatal ball has been much censured; there never was such a Ball -- so fine & so sad -- all the young men who appeared there shot dead a few hours after.' She rather spoiled the effect of disinterested sympathy by adding that it was common gossip afterwards that it was Lady Frances Webster who made the Duke of Wellington late for the Battle of Waterloo.
Lady Caroline always exaggerated but the casualties at Waterloo were indeed horrific. The Allies lost 30,000 men, and almost all Wellington's aides-de-camp, most of them members of the English nobility, were either killed or wounded. Caroline's brother, Fred Ponsonby, was one of the casualties; he was badly wounded and lay on the ground of the battlefield for eighteen hours, yet survived. His extraordinary story has become famous, both as a testament to his own courage and to the way battles were fought during the Napoleonic Wars. It is so evocative, and, incidentally, so well written, that it deserves telling at length.
He begins by saying that most of the officers had been at the ball when they received their orders, and had only had time to dash back to their quarters, change and collect their gear before joining their men. Ponsonby and his regiment arrived on the scene at 6.00 in the morning and were sent first to Quatre Bras, where he found that the action was over and the ground covered with wounded from both armies, and the next day went on to Waterloo. Wellington, as usual, remained totally calm while the troops took up their positions. `It was a most interesting time for the Duke,' Ponsonby wrote with glorious understatement and obvious awe.
[He] had every reason to expect that the whole of Bonaparte's army would immediately fall upon him, before he could collect his army on the position of Waterloo.
I was with him, the Duke, just in front of [the] line of cavalry, when we were all observing the preparations and movements of the immense mass of troops before us. He was occupied in reading the newspapers, looking through his glass when anything was observed, and then making observations and laughing at the fashionable news from London ... It is a very curious thing that very few of us expected a battle. Why, I cannot tell, but so it was. About 10 however the artillery began, and soon after we saw large bodies of the enemy in motion. The first attack was very formidable, it was repulsed, and my cousin General Ponsonby charged and had great success.
... my regt charged. It entered the mass and at the same time a body of French Lancers charged us on our flank. Nothing could equal the confusion of this melee, as we had succeeded in destroying and putting to flight the infantry. I was anxious to withdraw my regt, but almost at the same moment I was wounded in both arms, my horse sprung forward and carried me to the rising ground on the right of the French position, where I was knocked off my horse by a blow on the head.
I was stunned with the blow, and when I recovered, finding I was only wounded in my arms and seeing some of my regt at the foot of the hill, I attempted to get up, but a lancer who saw me immediately plunged his lance into my back and said: Coquin tu n'es pas mort. My mouth filled with blood and my breathing became very difficult as the lance had penetrated my lungs, but I did not lose my senses. The French tirailleurs ... took up their round again at the crest of the rising ground where I was; the first man who came along plundered me. An officer then came up and gave me some brandy; I begged him to have me removed, but this he could not do. He put a knapsack under my head and said I should be taken care of after the battle. He told me the Duke of Wellington was killed [he had not been, of course] and that several of our battalions in the night had surrendered. There was a constant fire kept up by those about me, a young tirailleur who fired over me talked the whole time, always observing that he had killed a man every shot he fired. Towards the evening the fire became much sharper, he told me our troops were moving on to attack and with his last shot he said: Adieu mon ami nous allons retirer. A squadron of Prussian cavalry passed over me. I was a good deal hurt by the horses -- in general horses will avoid trampling upon men but the field was so covered, that they had no spare space for their feet.
Night now came on, I knew the battle was won. I had felt little anxiety about myself during the day as I considered my case desperate, but now the night air relieved my breathing, and I had a hope of seeing somebody I knew. I was plundered again by the Prussians. Soon after an English soldier examined me. I persuaded him to stay with me. I suffered but little pain from my wounds, but I had a most dreadful thirst, and there was no means of getting a drop of water. I thought the night would never end. At last morning came, the soldier saw a dragoon, he was fortunately of the 11th in the same brigade with me. He came and they tried to get me on his horse, but not being able to do so, he rode in to Head Quarters, and a waggon was sent for me. Young Vandeleur of my regt came with it, he brought a canteen of water. It is impossible to describe the gratification I felt in drinking it. I was of course very much exhausted, having lost a great deal of blood from five wounds. I had been on the ground 18 hours. I was taken to the inn in Waterloo, it had been the Duke's quarters. Hume dressed my wounds. I remained about a week in this village and was then carried into Brussels.
Ponsonby's family raced to Brussels to help nurse him and, after months of agony, he recovered.
Violence was endemic during the Regency, in civil life as much as on the battlefield. The ruffians of town and country, moreover, were restrained by no such code of honour as governed the conduct of the military. At the beginning of the nineteenth century muggers and cut-throats roamed the city streets virtually unchecked and a man took a serious risk if he walked alone at night, even in Mayfair. The Prince of Wales and his brother, the Duke of York, were attacked and robbed while walking near Berkeley Square; two young ladies returning from the opera in their own carriage were held up by a single footpad in St James's Square. There was no centralized police force to cope with crime during the Regency: it was not until 1829 that the Metropolitan Police Act was passed, and even later before the rest of the country were required by law to maintain a regular constabulary. There were highwaymen on the open roads and heathland, `wreckers' along the coast and bandits in the forests. Racecourses, country fairs, markets and prize fights were the natural habitat of pickpockets, con men and rogues of every calling. All these villains would cut a man's throat for a few shillings. The stories are legion -- and explain why men carried swords and their servants pistols.
Violence, however, was not confined to the criminal classes. The cost of maintaining the war combined with the effects of the Industrial Revolution resulted in economic chaos. It was, as usual, the poorest section of society who suffered and they responded by some of the most vicious riots the country has ever known. The Luddite riots, in protest against the unemployment caused by the new machinery, began in 1811 (just as the Prince Regent was giving his inaugural, and appallingly extravagant, fete at Carlton House), and carried on intermittently for the next four years. They were followed by strikes and yet more riots all over the country. The incidence of civil disturbance throughout the Regency is not surprising in view of some of the economic facts. For a start, between 1789 and 1830, the population of Great Britain increased from eight and a half million in 1801 to almost twice that number by 1830: at the beginning of the period it was mainly rural, by the end nearly 50 per cent urban. Furthermore, according to Colquhoun's estimate of employment figures in 1803, only two million men, out of the total population, were in work: and 450,000 of those were in the lowest, poorest strata of society, living on family earnings of just over £1 a week. Captain Gronow, one of the most acute observers of his generation, considered that the years 1816 and 1817 were
a most dangerous period. The spirit of the people of England, exasperated by taxation, the high price of bread, and many iniquitous laws and restrictions was of the worst possible nature. In the riots and meetings of those troublous times the mob really meant mischief; and had they been accustomed to the use of arms, and well drilled, they might have committed as great excesses as the ruffians of 1793 in France.
The Government's response to riots brought about by high prices, and the very real threat of starvation, was to order a large number of Dragoons to be posted all over the country, to be deployed in case of trouble. This, naturally, created a vicious circle: the peaceful section of society resented the presence of the army and linked forces with the rioters in protest.
Every time there was an election, too, the mob went wild, and again, dangerously so. Charles Greville, writing in 1818, thought that the behaviour of the crowds during the Westminster elections was as bad as anything seen in Paris during the Revolution. This may have been an exaggeration but it was a fact that the Tory candidate at the time was assaulted so violently that his life was in danger, and that when Lord Castlereagh, an arch-Tory, went to vote he was openly hooted, abused, pelted with stones, and only `got off with some difficulty'. The mob expressed its disapproval of an issue by smashing windows and stoning carriages. During one of the riots Lady Anne Barnard complained that she had had thirty-three of her windows smashed by the mob, and that some of the large ones cost 5 guineas each to replace. Anyone known to hold conservative views could expect their whole household, including their servants, to receive the same rough treatment. There were spontaneous fights in the streets and in several parts of London the Horse Guards were called in to prevent further violence by a show of force. During the election of 1820 Princess Lieven complained to Metternich that she was obliged to board up her house in Brighton and hardly dared go out of doors. She reported that the Whigs, led by `the Cavendish gang', all wore pink ribbons and their opponents blue: the dangerous element was `the pinks', furious at losing the election.
It should be emphasized, however, that the manner in which the populace expressed their approval could be equally dangerous: the celebrations after the victory of Salamanca, for example, turned into a drunken saturnalia lasting for three days. Deprived of the Duke of Wellington himself, because he was still abroad, the mob managed to intercept his brother, the Marquess Wellesley, who was driving around looking at the illuminations all over the West End, dragged him out of his carriage and, much against his will, paraded him around the streets, finally dumping him at Apsley House. At this stage of the proceedings the crowd was still good-natured, but when the illuminations were turned out later that night they went berserk, smashing windows, letting off firearms and throwing fireballs into the crowds. Coaches were overturned, horses stampeded and several people were badly burnt:
In the Strand, at one time, three women were on fire, and one burned through all her clothes, to her thigh. Likewise in the Strand, a hackney coach, containing two ladies and two gentlemen, was forced open by the mob, who threw in a number of fireworks, which setting fire to the straw at the bottom of the coach, burned an eye of one of the gentlemen, his coat, and breeches; one of the ladies had her pelisse burned, and the other was burned across the breast. In St Clement's Churchyard, a woman, of respectable appearance, hearing a blunderbuss suddenly discharged near her, instantly dropped down and expired.
All this violence bred a certain insensibility, or, rather, a different set of sensibilities to those of the modern world. For example, in the weeks following Waterloo, according to one society lady, `the great amusement at Bruxelles, indeed the only one except visiting the sick, is to make large parties & go to the field of Battle -- & pick up a skull or an old shoe or a letter, & bring it home.' These macabre relics were later put on display in the drawing-room, to the admiration of all, and this was considered neither ghoulish nor in bad taste. Public executions were always well attended, and not only by the rougher elements of society: George Selwyn, for example, would travel miles to see a good multiple hanging. (But then he was also suspected of necrophilia.)
When the Duke of Kent was given the command of Gibraltar he treated the troops with such gratuitous brutality that they mutinied: the Duke was also the only commander known to have sentenced a man to 900 lashes, a flogging tantamount to prolonged execution. Bear-baiting and cock-fights were theoretically illegal but carried on anyway all over the country and watched just as eagerly by members of the haut ton as the general public. But the most obvious testament to the paradox of Regency sensitivities was the cult of pugilism. The Regency was the golden age of boxing, when champions acquired the status of celebrities. They were courted, fêted and emulated by a society conditioned to violence. The `noble science' of pugilism attracted such diverse admirers as Hazlitt, Keats and Cobbett, while Lord Byron not only wrote about the ring but frequently put on the gloves himself. Though the Prince Regent withdrew his patronage, and refused to attend any further prizefights after a man he had promoted was killed in the ring, his brothers and friends had no such qualms: the Dukes of York and Clarence, the Earl of Barrymore and the Marquess of Queensberry, whose descendant clarified the rules of boxing, were all active patrons and regularly attended the fights. News of a prizefight to be held in a country town, such as Grantham or Derby, would attract spectators from as far away as London or York and there was not a bed to be had in the inns for miles around.
It is no coincidence that the spectacular success of boxing, as a fashionable spectator sport, happened at a time when England was at war. The same aggression and cruelty were displayed in the ring as on the battlefield, but there was also the same glamour and excitement. The romantic young heroes of Salamanca and Talavera were the toast of the times: among those at home pugilism was the nearest expression of valour (or `bottom', as courage was known colloquially amongst boxers). Sparring with `Gentleman Jackson' at least provided a vicarious thrill. Jackson, a former champion, retired from the ring and started his own school at 13 New Bond Street. It was an instant success with the young men of fashion, who queued up for lessons from the Master and revelled in fighting each other under his auspices. This was, however, a peculiarly English phenomenon: there was no sudden craze for boxing among the European nobility. As Hazlitt wrote: `Foreigners can scarcely understand how we can squeeze pleasure out of this pastime; the luxury of hard blows given or received; the great joy of the ring; nor the perseverance of the combatants.'
At the same time it was also an age when men burst into tears on the slightest provocation, and thought nothing of crying in public. They cried about love, money and even politics, long and loudly and without embarrassment. Walpole reported that Fox was in floods of tears on the floor of the House of Commons over a political quarrel with Burke, who was so upset himself that he started weeping as well: Creevey, writing in 1815, said that `there was not a dry eye in the House', adding that one minister sobbed so much that he was unable to speak. Sheridan was another one who always burst into tears when he failed to get his own way. On one occasion the Prince had just given Sheridan a particularly lucrative sinecure, worth £800 a year, but the latter wanted to pass it over to his son; when the Prince refused, pointing out there was little enough justification for giving the father the post and none at all for the son, Sheridan made a frightful scene and began to `cry bitterly'. Another time it was the Prince himself who `cried long and loud' over some political dispute with one of his ministers. But then the Prince, too, was always in tears, usually over his love affairs. He had `cried by the hour' over Mrs Fitzherbert, according to Mrs Armistead, later the wife of Charles James Fox, and `testified the sincerity and violence of his passion and his despair by the most extravagant expressions and actions, rolling on the floor, striking his forehead, tearing his hair.' (This was in the early days of his courtship when Mrs Fitzherbert refused his advances because they were not married: after making endless scenes and bombarding the lady with appallingly sentimental love letters -- one is forty-two pages long -- he threatened to kill himself unless she became his mistress. His suicide attempt caused a panic at Court because he was found moaning and covered in blood: in fact the Prince had almost certainly faked the whole incident, but it was enough to melt the heart of Mrs Fitzherbert.)
An excess of sentiment was thought to be so effective with reluctant ladies that it was common practice to spatter a love letter with fake tears. Brummell wrote, in his farewell letter to the young French girl he fell in love with at the end of his life, `Adieu! I have yet sufficient command over my drooping faculties to restrain any tributary tears from falling over my farewell; you might doubt their reality; and we all know that they may be counterfeited upon paper, with a sponge and rose-water.' Tears, during the Regency, were regarded as proof of an exquisite sensibility and a perfectly acceptable means of emotional blackmail. T. H. White writes that there was a certain jealousy of accomplished weepers, which `came to a head in Fanny Burney, who became positively cattish about an unfortunate girl called Sophy Streatfield, because the latter was able to cry at will. It was because Fanny herself was probably the second-best weeper in the kingdom, and could not endure to be beaten.'
The manners and mores of any society always fluctuate with succeeding generations, but the changes which took place during the Regency were almost revolutionary. During the eighteenth century the rules of etiquette and precedence were clearly defined, but by the beginning of the nineteenth they had become vague and elastic. The Prince Regent, for example, changed the accepted order whenever it suited him: at one of the Duke of Clarence's parties he went against all the rules of protocol by giving precedence to his brother's mistress, Mrs Jordan, over a Duchess. At the fête he gave in June 1811 to celebrate the advent of the Regency neither his legal nor his morganatic wife were invited. Mrs Fitzherbert had already been given her congé, and the Princess of Wales was not allowed anywhere near Carlton House. As one of the gossips said, `the two wives are sitting at home'. Conversely, the rigid eighteenth-century code could be invoked as the perfect excuse whenever necessary. The Regent was besotted about Lady Conyngham, his final mistress, but society had reservations about her. Much to the Prince's annoyance his own sisters refused to accept Lady Conyngham, their argument being that, as he had insisted they ignore his lawful wife, Princess Caroline, they could not possibly speak to his mistress: what they meant, of course, was that they didn't like her. The royal princesses had had no such qualms about making friends with some of their brother's earlier mistresses, notably the Ladies Hertford and Jersey, both of whom were not only popular society hostesses, but received at Court. In 1796 a contemporary diarist wrote that Lady Jersey
was invited with the Prince's party to the Queen's House, and put to a card-table with the Princess Augusta and Lady Holdernesse. The Prince of Wales, in the course of the evening, repeatedly came up to her at table, and publicly squeezed her hand. The King sees and disapproves ... The Queen is won over to the Prince's wishes by his attention, and presents in jewels, etc.; the Princess says her father told her to observe everything and say nothing.
The hypocrisy of the Court and society during the Regency could be breathtaking.
At the same time, society as a whole was becoming much more egalitarian and the criteria of acceptance less rigid. The eighteenth century's emphasis on breeding had fallen victim to the French Revolution. Blood alone was no longer enough and `Who are her people?' mattered less than `How much is she worth?', particularly in the matter of marriages. Nevertheless, snobbery was still endemic. The fifth Duke of Devonshire said of his cousin, the distinguished scientist Henry Cavendish: `He is not a gentleman; he works.' Harriette Wilson, the leading courtesan of her day, agreed, defining a gentleman as a man `who has no visible means of support'. But then Harriette, with the aims of her profession in mind, was prejudiced. She went on to explain that `... the system at White's Club, the members of which are all choice gentlemen, of course, is, and ever has been, never to blackball any man, who ties a good knot in his handkerchief, keeps his hands out of his breeches-pockets, and says nothing.'
The Duke and Harriette were wrong, or at least in a minority. Poverty was no barrier to social success provided there was some other distinction to offer, be it brains or beauty, elegance or charm. The diarist Creevey, for example, lived on an income of no more than £200 a year but was invited everywhere and became almost a fixture at the Prince's parties. Henry Luttrell, too, one of the recognized `wits' of the Regency, was not at all well-off but lived and moved in the wealthiest circles. Luttrell was the author of a long poem, originally titled `Advice to Julia' but known by all as `Letters of a Dandy to a Dolly'. According to one of the critics, it was `full of well-bred facetiousness and sparkle of the first water', in other words snob-appeal. As for Lady Anne Barnard, she and her sister broke all the rules when they actually started their own `business'. Short of money and with a natural talent for interior decoration, they took to buying or renting houses, doing them up, and letting them furnished for a considerable profit. One or two people had the bravery to see that this was an excellent idea, but others took the view of the lady who complained that `she wished to God those two very agreeable women would leave off being upholsterers and begin to be women of fashion [again]'. Inevitably, there were further complaints from the Old Guard about the new millionaires created by the Industrial Revolution. As usual, the nouveaux riches were blamed for any lapse in standards, and in particular for the extravagant entertaining with which they bought their way into society. As one peevish commentator put it, `Commerce, contracts, loans and war prices have poured an influx of wealth into hands not hitherto in contact with the Corinthian pillars of society.' They were accused of inviting `their noble friends to splendid dinners in apartments of Eastern magnificence', with the result that the aristocracy felt compelled to compete. And so `The duke, the commoner, the contractor, all entertain, as it is called, in gay apartments, full of pomp and gold; "And one eternal dinner swallows all".'