Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Religious Season in Georgian Britain

We all know that Georgette Heyer was the founder of the Regency romance genre as we know it. Yes, there were certainly others, but nobody else enjoyed her level of success, then or now. However, subsequent studies have shown that Georgette was not infallible, not least in the attitudes she brought to her stories. In many ways the manners and morals are the ones from Georgette’s childhood, or from the novels of Jane Austen. Austen was very much a writer of the upper middle class, not the upper class, and in a particular part of the country, so she can’t be taken as typical of all Regency manners and morals.
Of course most authors bring a lot of themselves into a story. However, Georgette brings one omission that many subsequent writers have overlooked – religion.
I’m not going to talk about beliefs, or the developments of the new kinds of Christianity, but about how the religious year affected high society. We are, to a great extent, a secular society, and religion is a matter of personal choice, but back then religion made up a large part of the social year. Not to mention the legal one (a subject for another post!) Everybody attended church every Sunday, or they faced a fine for not doing so, and most households started with family prayers, often led by the householder. Every village had its church, and churches abounded in the burgeoning cities, so they inevitably became centres of society, where people met and gossiped after the service.
Regency society was Christian, specifically Anglican, with a few Church of Scotland and Catholic members. The monarch was the Head of the Church (and still is!) and non-Anglicans were restricted by law from many professions. So when we look at the Season from the viewpoint of secular society, we only get a partial picture. The Church was heavily incorporated into the constitution, with bishops and archbishops forming the Lords Spiritual, an important component of the House of Lords. The aristocracy were the Lords Temporal, and the two often combined by being members of the same family. The most important universities were run by men with spiritual qualifications. Society wasn’t so much about belief as it was about belonging.
Heyer assumed that the Season, the part of the year that roughly covers the spring, was the only one that mattered for the aristocracy. We known now that wasn’t true, and while the “little season” in the autumn didn’t exist by name, it did in reality. The aristocracy came to town in the autumn for the opening of Parliament and to conduct parliamentary business. Of course their families often accompanied them! Important politicians might base most of their year in London, and go to their country houses in the summer, when Parliament was not in session. Back in the spring, when Parliament came back.
But there was more to it than that. Add in another component and the Regency year makes a lot more sense. The religious component.
In the Regency people observed two other seasons – Lent and Advent. The forty days between Shrove Tuesday and Easter and the three weeks before Christmas Day were for fasting, sacrifice and contemplation. Perhaps more importantly for society, churches were not allowed to be decorated, clerics wore relatively simple robes, and celebratory events like weddings were not held.
What was the point of landing a duke if you couldn’t celebrate the union? While marriages were relatively private affairs, especially when compared to today’s shindigs, the wedding breakfast and the balls afterwards more than made up for it. And many clerics were loath to conduct wedding ceremonies during these periods. Most refused to conduct them at all, and they were certainly deterred or ordered not to hold them, by order of the bishops.
Society would not hold grand balls and great displays during Lent or Advent either. It would be considered shockingly disrespectful. They might have smaller gatherings like dinners, but these periods of the year might also provide useful breathers. Theatres were closed, as were other places of entertainment, and there were no Drawing Rooms at court.
So now we have a clearer idea of the seasons. Society might come to town any time after the end of September, when the shooting season was fading. Then they’d retire during Lent, probably to their country houses, and return (weather permitting) in January. Not all of society came to London in the early part of the year, but would wait until after Lent, at the end of March to mid-April, depending on the moveable feast that was Easter. Then, after Easter Monday, it was all go, with balls and presentations at court, and the rest of the merry-go-round, until the summer house parties began at the end of June, and the aristocracy moved out.
Some families preferred to use their power bases in the country for the majority of the year, and this is evinced by the closing of the huge London mansions, and the consequent aggrandisements of the country estate. But a few others stayed in London.
But by ignoring the religious year, an important component is missing.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I quite agree with you, Lynne. Jane Austen's novels certainly show the importance of religion in everyday life. Just think of how many clergymen there are: Henry Tilney (NA.), Edward Ferrars (S & S), Mr Collins (P & P), Mr Elton (E), Edmund Bertram and Dr Grant(MP), Charles Heyter, Henrietta Musgrove's beau and an off stage Edward Wentworth, Capt. W's brother (P). And three of them are heroes! That would be almost impossible today - though Kate Fenton's 'The Colours of Snow' has a hero who is a vicar.

People go to church - even the rough Lieutenant Price, Fanny's father, Mrs Price and her fine brood of children. We know that William Elliot in 'Persuasion' is morally reprehensible because he travels on a Sunday.

And not all of her clergymen are admirable characters. Dr Grant isn't very nice to his wife - and he is greedy; Mr Collins is smarmy; and Mr Elton is after number one. Just like real life.

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