Monday, March 07, 2011

Experiencing the Regency at First Hand

In a fascinating article in the BBC History magazine last month, the historian Stella Tillyard described the Regency period as “an altogether stranger time than we might think, haunted by the madness of the king, shadowed by war and wracked with uncertainty about the future.” The political tone of the period was conservative and cautious and there were high food prices and social unrest. Whilst many costume dramas have concentrated on the elegance and excess of high society, summed up by the extravagance and eccentricity of the Brighton Pavilion, there was also a different trend emerging, that of a growth in evangelicalism and a change in morality from the bawdy excesses of the past.

Stella Tillyard identified eight moments in the nine-year Regency period that caused consternation and amazement, including the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in 1812, the Luddite riots of 1811-12 and the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. This prompted me to browse through a Regency timeline and think about those events and experiences I would have been interested to see at first hand:

The publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813 and of Frankenstein in 1819 and the poetry of Keats and Byron and Shelley.

1812 The waltz is introduced into London ballrooms and gas lighting is introduced into main London streets.

1814 The Frost Fair when the River Thames froze over. 1816 was also a year of exceptional weather after volcanic dust blocked out the sun and the harvest failed. It was known as the “year without a summer.” (Actually I might give 1816 a miss - we seem to get our own "years without summer" every so often!)

1817 – The death of Princess Charlotte, the heir to the throne, not only threw the country into mass mourning but also threw the succession into turmoil as not one of the Regent’s brothers had a legitimate heir. Not a highlight, but a moment of profound significance for the country.

1817 – Crowds attend the opening of Waterloo Bridge, a new bridge across the River Thames named in commemoration of victory at the Battle of Waterloo and opened on the 2nd anniversary of the battle. It was a toll bridge with nine arches. It was designed by John Rennie and the Italian sculptor, Canova, described it as “the finest bridge in all Europe.”

If you could go back and experience some of the events of the Regency period, which would you choose?


Sarah Mallory said...

Do you think Austen or Shelley had "public readings" when their books were first published? I think they may well have read them to small gatherins of their friends. Imagine how wonderful to listen to them reading from their books - and did any of their listeners realise just how popular these books would be?

Nicola Cornick said...

I'm sure you are right, Sarah, that Jane Austen at least might have read them to a small group of family and friends, as they portrayed in the film Becoming Jane. I'm not sure whether Mary Shelley "went public" from the first with hers. But it would have been amazing to be amongst the group who were listening. And suppose you were a friend of Keats and he came over one day and said "I've written a poem about a nightingale I'd really like you to read..."

sarah mallory said...

Didn't Shelley writer Frankenstein as part of a "competition" with Shelley and his friends? They probably read out bits to each other - but that would be nothing like standing up in front of a grioup of strangers and saying - "this is from my latest book" (which I'm sure you have done, Nicola!)

Nicola Cornick said...

I didn't know about the writing competition, Sarah. I think both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen wrote anonymously at first but would certainly have read aloud to friends, I imagine. I've never done a reading. I'd be too self-conscious!

iva steele said...

I would have liked to be involved in the industrial revolution, shipping, privateering. The beauty and brains behind the fortune.

Louisa Cornell said...

I think I would have loved to have seen the Frost Fair! It sounds like one of those once in a lifetime sort of things. I would love to have watched Lawrence paint or Keats act. And I would like to have been one of the first to see Elgin's marbles. I saw them as a child, but I think seeing them in the moment with the people of the time and no preconceived ideas of what they were supposed to be might have been quite the experience.

Oh, and I would love to have gone into a book shop and purchased Pride and Prejudice the day it was published. Again, the idea of embarking on a brand new voyage into the literary world with no idea where it might take me is breathtaking.

Nicola Cornick said...

Hi Iva! I imagine it must have been a very exciting time to have been at the cutting edge of industry. So many new ideas and new technology around!

Louisa, how cool would it have been to have bought Pride and Prejudice and thought "I wonder what this new author will be like..."

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Sarah is right in thinking that 'Frankenstein' was written as a result of a competiton between Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron when they were staying in the Villa Diodati in 1816. It had been a wet summer and they had read German ghost stories to pass the time.

Mary was the only one to complete a book. Byron, writing to his publisher, John Murray, in May 1819, said of it: 'It is a wonderful work for a girl of nineteen, - not nineteen, indeed, at that time.' He never completed his own vampire story but he sent the fragment to Murray to read.

His doctor, John Polidori, had just published 'The Vampyre' and word had got round that it was actually Byron's work. Byron was anxious to prove to Murray that Polidori's book was 'some bookselling imposture'.

It would have been worth a sleepness night to hear Byron, Mary and Percy discussing Mary's astonishing story.

Sarah Mallory said...

Thanks for explaining the origins of Mary's story, Elizabeth! i always think Polidori is a perfect name for the villain of a novel!

Part of me would love to have been a guest at the Villa Diodati wit Byron etc., but the sensible part wouldn't go near it. Just like those rakish heroes - delicious between the pages of a book but in real life? not so sure!