Quirks of Regency Britain

A recent reread of a couple of Jane Austen classics reminded me that, while I do love the Regency and Victorian eras and believe I was born in the wrong century, it wasn’t all violets and roses and Mr Darcies on every corner and medicated childbirth and female suffrage and other nice stuff. Here are a few of the quirks that jumped out at me that we’re well shot of in 2016.

1. Senility came on in your early 30s

Life expectancy for a 20-year-old person in 1843 (a couple of decades after Jane Austen primetime) was roughly 60 years old, whereas now it is 20 years higher. No wonder, then, that her characters, reflecting their early mortality, were so concerned about wrapping up inheritances and getting married ASAP. Mid-twenties, women began losing all attractiveness and certain emotions simply shut down:

A woman of seven and twenty […] can never hope to feel or inspire affection again

Even men peaked long before the mid-thirties, and Sense and Sensibility‘s 35-year-old Colonel Brandon is completely over the hill:

thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony

It’s clear that Marianne Dashwood’s romantic sensibilities and youthful bias have something to do with these overblown statements; but if you’re due to expire at sixty, there will naturally be a certain ‘tick-tock’ that hangs over your early adulthood in a way it no longer does.

2. Bad news could trigger violent ill-health

There certainly was a lower barrier to entry when it came to physical discomfort back then. Hysteria and its violent accompanying symptoms were noted phenomena and may have been one of the few outlets for emotional disturbance (where swearing was not permitted) that women possessed. Thus, upon hearing that ‘Mr Ferrars’ was married and assuming this referred to Edward, her sister’s suitor, and not his brother Robert,

Marianne gave a violent start, fixed her eyes upon Elinor, saw her turning pale, and fell back in her chair in hysterics

Again, Marianne’s exaggerated reaction, compared to her sister’s reserve, could be lined up as another example of the excesses of her mental susceptibility. However, the origins of the ‘hysteria’ phenomenon lie in observations of what appear to be real medical/psychological issues: from Hippocrates’ ‘wandering womb’ that was supposed to move about the body in response to imbalances in body fluids, to later definitions of the symptoms as a response to psychological trauma.

3. Servants were basically accessory robots

It is a servant, Thomas, who bears the Dashwood sisters the sadly misunderstood news that Robert Ferrars has married Lucy. This is a vital plot twist and creates serious tension when Eddie later comes to visit, but the bearer of the news is portrayed as no less dispensable than household linen:  

Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed

Even the pivotal words of kindly Mrs Reynolds, portraying Darcy in such glowing terms that Elizabeth begins to forgive and esteem him, are discounted and their impartiality questioned by otherwise upright Mrs Gardiner:

He is a liberal master, I suppose, and that in the eye of a servant comprehends every virtue

Servants don’t have much of a role to play in Jane Austen; they are merely the silent cogs that power the lavish dinners in country estates. As commonplace as dishwashers are now, even the entailed-up-to-the-hilt Bennetts and the orphaned Dashwoods could afford to keep a few of them employed full-time. Austen seems almost as dismissive of them as her characters are; they are occasionally wheeled in at dramatic moments, but never cared for as people or curated as characters.

4. ‘No’ was assumed to mean ‘yes’

Jane Austen breaks new feminist territory here using good old Lizzie Bennett as her mouthpiece, while Mr Collins plays the goon who refuses to take Lizzie’s repeated opinion of his marital advances seriously:

You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course […] As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females

Need I dwell on the absurdity of assuming that Lizzie’s completely unsimpering refusals must be false? Or the arrogant presumption that no one could possibly say no to his position as Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s principal sycophant?

And would it derail the conversation to throw in the weirdness of his address to her in familial terms? Perhaps not, given that Mansfield Park’s golden couple Fanny & Edmund share a ton of DNA themselves.

5. The male ego gets piqued

You think the Regency world is all about scrupulous politeness, right? Think again! Mr Rushworth, the ‘stupid’ suitor and later husband of Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park goes as far as to insult his love rival Henry Crawford purely on the basis of his height:

Nobody can call such an under-sized man handsome. He is not five foot nine.

Rushworth was clearly one of those guys who put their height on their Tinder profiles.

6. (Less quirky, more nasty) The Caribbean is associated with slave plantations, not postcard-perfect white-sands holidays

Antigua was a British colony in Jane Austen’s time, largely populated by African slaves working on sugar plantations. Britain had abolished the slave trade by law in 1807, but owning slaves, as Sir Thomas Bertram appears to, was not outlawed until 1833. In the meantime, such momentous historical concerns as the abolition movement are not permitted to disturb the cushy lives of Austen’s gentry. We get but the faintest mention of the issue in Mansfield Park, when Edmund asks a question of his father:

Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?

Fanny replies that she had wanted to ask Sir Thomas more about it, but her cousins weren’t interested, and:

there was such a dead silence!

Not only do her characters refuse to interest themselves in what to us is a moral outrage, but Austen herself shies away from it, not narrating this conversation directly but having the abortive discussion reported indirectly by one of the characters. Yet the Antigua trip is a device to get Sir Thomas’ oppressive presence offstage for a while so that improper theatricals and emotions can start to flourish and set off the drama; it’s not designed to be a vehicle for ethical discussion. So while slavery is clearly an awkward topic, Austen quickly skips over it to get back to her main business of deft conversational manoeuvring and marriage-mongering.

But don’t be put off! There are many great things about Austen and her ilk (as described in a previous blog post). The glossing over of slavery, the treatment of employees, the scant prospects for single women, the high maternal & infant mortality, and other quirks present in literature of the time can, if nothing else, give us reason to be grateful.

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