Saturday, January 28, 2023

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England

"VICES overlook'd in the New PROCLAMATION. To the Commons of Great Britain, the representation of Vices, which remain unforbidden by Proclamation, is dedicated, as proper for imitation, and in place of the more dangerous Ones of Thinking, Speaking & Writing, now forbidden by Authority." [1] Caricature by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, 24 May 1792. Clockwise from top left: Avarice: Queen Charlotte and King George III. Drunkenness: George, Prince of Wales (later George IV). Debauchery: Prince William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV), and his mistress, the actress Mrs. Dorothy Jordan. Gambling: Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (holding dice cup). Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D12456.

Venetia Murray's An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England (Viking, 1999) could be subtitled "Aristocrats Behaving Badly." The upper classes of late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain ate and drank to prodigious excess, took drugs (snuff and laudanum), wore revealing clothes (tight pants and diaphanous gowns), spent outrageous sums pursuing the latest fashions, loved parties and disreputable pastimes (such as opera and theater, particularly if the actresses playing male "breeches roles" wore tights that revealed their shapely legs), slept around, and were stupendous snobs.

With material like this, Murray's An Elegant Madness is nothing if not diverting. She offers a host of scandalous and salacious anecdotes spanning the years 1788 to 1830, or roughly from the onset of George III's first major episode of mental illness to the death of his son and successor George IV. [2]

As the Prince of Wales and (from 1820) King of Great Britain, George IV was a notorious glutton and profligate. In 1785, in his early 20s, he had undergone a ceremony of marriage with the twice-widowed Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. However, the marriage was invalid because under the Royal Marriages act of 1772 the Prince was required to receive the King's prior consent, which had not been sought and would not have been given, and under the 1688 Bill of Rights anyone marrying a Catholic was barred from the monarchy. The couple considered themselves married, and George called her "the wife of my heart and soul."

However, in 1787 during the Parliamentary debate about his debt relief, George had his spokesmen flatly disavow rumors of the marriage (which would, of course, have removed him from the line of succession). Charles Fox "declared, with the immediate authority of the Prince, to contradict the report of the Marriage in the fullest and most unqualified terms: it was, he said, 'a miserable calumny, a low malicious falsehood. . .a monstrous invention, a report of a fact which had not the smallest degree of foundation, actually impossible to have happened.'. . .Mr. Fox replied, that he did not deny the calumny in question merely with regard to certain existing laws, but that he denied it in toto, in point of fact as well as of law: it not only never could have happened legally, but it never did happen in any way whatsoever, and had from the beginning been a base and malicious falsehood." [3]

"DIDO FORSAKEN. Sic transit gloria Regina [Thus passes the glory of the Queen]." [4] Caricature by by James Gillray, published by Samuel William Fores, 21 May 1787. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D12994

The Prince was rewarded for his dishonesty: Parliament increased his annual income by £10,000, plus awarded him lump-sum payments of £161,000 to cover his immediate debts, and £20,000 for the renovation of his residence, Carlton House.

In 1794, in debt trouble again, George parted from Mrs. Fitzherbert permanently to clear the way for his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. It was not a love-match; as with many royal marriages, neither party had seen the other before the marriage was contracted. George married Caroline only in order to have his immense debts paid off by his father and to beget a recognized heir. Having accomplished both objects (Princess Charlotte was born in 1796) he separated from her.

George took many mistresses, and one of them, the Countess of Jersey, was appointed as Lady of the Bedchamber to Caroline. It must have been galling to the Queen.

"The JERSEY Smuggler detected; — or — Good cause for Separation Discontent — 'Marriage vows, are false as Dicers oaths.'" Caricature by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, 24 May 1796. Queen Caroline discovers her husband George IV in bed with the Countess of Jersey; behind the Queen, Princess Charlotte sleeps in a cradle. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D13023

George's separation from Caroline increased the popular dislike of George and sympathy for his wronged wife, which continued for decades. In January 1813 Caroline had written to George to protest his decree restricting her ability to see their daughter Charlotte, then 17 years old. She wrote, "I am at length compelled, either to abandon all regard for the two dearest objects which I possess on earth, mine own honour, and my beloved Child, or to throw myself at the feet of your Royal Highness, the natural protector of both." [5]

Caroline's letter received no response, on 10 February it was published in the Morning Chronicle. Jane Austen wrote to her friend Martha Lloyd on 16 February, "I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself 'attached & affectionate' to a Man whom she must detest." [6]

After her husband separated from her, Caroline had taken her own lovers. As grounds for divorce George attempted to prove her adultery by Parliamentary investigations in 1807 and 1820, but without success. In company Caroline admitted that she was an adulteress: she'd slept with the husband of Mrs. Fitzherbert. Nothing like such a mis-matched royal marriage, of course, could possibly happen in our own time. . .

George spent vast sums on redecorating Carlton House, and on throwing huge balls and banquets. Murray reprints a menu from one of the banquets, held at the Brighton Pavilion on 15 January 1817, which featured 36 entrées and 32 desserts, plus many other dishes "pour extra."

"A VOLUPTUARY under the horrors of Digestion." [7] Caricature by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, 2 July 1792. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D33359

While the Prince and his guests were gorging themselves into insensibility, millions of his subjects were going hungry. The imposition of the Corn Laws in 1815, the enclosure by wealthy landowners of common lands, the poor harvests of 1816 ("the year without a summer" due to the eruption of Mount Tambora), the rising price of wheat and bread, the factory owners' replacement of skilled workers with machines, and the economic slump following the end of the Napoleonic wars led to widespread immiseration.

Two weeks after the Brighton banquet the Prince's carriage was attacked and stoned in the street. Around this time demonstrations occurred in many areas including Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, and London, and in March 1817, amid fears of insurrection, Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act and the Seditious Meetings Act. In August 1819 soldiers attacked a peaceful mass meeting of tens of thousands of people at St. Peter's Field in Manchester; more than a dozen men, women and children were killed in what became known as "Peterloo" (a sarcastic reference, of course, to the decisive British military victory at Waterloo). Meanwhile the Prince continued his enormous expenditures on his houses and his belly.

Whether George was deliberately setting the tone for the ton, or unthinkingly following the mores of his class and time, he was far from alone in his lack of personal and financial restraint. In 1809 it was revealed that the mistress of George's brother Frederick, Mary Anne Clarke, had been selling army commissions. For more than a century it had been the practice for regimental officer commissions in the British Army to be "purchased" (awarded on the payment of a cash bond); there was a long waiting list, and the prices were supposed to be fixed. Murray reports that the rank of ensign could be purchased for £400, while that of major cost £2600.

"The Bishop and his Clarke, or A Peep into Paradise." Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, published by Thomas Tegg, 26 February 1809. Bishop [the Duke of York]: "Ask any thing in reason and you shall have it my dearest dearest dearest Love." Clarke: "Only remember the promotions I mentioned I have pinn'd up the list at the head of the Bed." Image source: British Museum

Clarke sold commissions to the highest bidder and then apparently added the names to the list of new commissions before it was signed by Frederick in his role as Commander-in-Chief. It seemed impossible for this to have gone on without Frederick's awareness (or, as Murray writes, connivance), and he was put on trial in the House of Commons. He claimed that he had signed the lists without reading them and was unaware that names had been added. After seven weeks of humiliating public evidence his defense succeeded, but he resigned anyway because there were 196 votes against him out of 474 cast. (Four years later he was reinstated.) Frederick ran up huge debts at gambling and may well have turned a blind eye to Clarke's side business.

Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (detail), by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783. Image source: National Gallery of Art 1937.1.93.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her husband William Cavendish lived in a ménage-à-trois with his mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster, Georgiana's best friend (and possibly her lover as well as his). Lady Elizabeth bore the Duke two children, while Georgiana bore him three; Georgiana also had a daughter by her lover Lord Grey. Georgiana gambled for high stakes, and lost frequently; according to Murray, at her death her son inherited her gambling debts of over £100,000 (somewhere in the range of £3 - 6 million in today's money). Georgiana's son, who became the sixth Duke of Devonshire, also lived beyond his vast means; Murray writes that he died with debts totalling more than £1,000,000. Murray writes that "even the richest noblemen lived on credit" (p. 66), but it would be more true to say that only the rich, or those believed to be rich, could live on credit; for everyone else it was a cash economy.

Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb dressed as a page. Image source: South London Guide

Georgiana's niece, Caroline Ponsonby, at 19 married William Lamb, and seven years later embarked on a passionate affair with Lord Byron. (It was Caroline Lamb who said of Byron that he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know.") Byron ended the affair after a few months, but Lady Caroline continued to pursue him. At a party held in July 1813 Byron socially "cut" Lady Caroline by ignoring her, and in response she cut herself: she broke a wine glass and in front of the company tried to slash her wrists with the shards, and then stabbed herself with a pair of scissors. Ultimately she was carried out, bleeding and in hysterics, with her arms bound. She would go on to write a roman à clef about Byron entitled Glenarvon (1816), which was avidly read but resulted in her (temporary) banishment from society; Murray calls it "a silly novel, virtually unreadable today" (p. 154). After his affair with Lady Caroline, Byron would go on to father children (probably) with his half-sister Augusta Leigh and (certainly) with Mary Shelley's step-sister Claire Clairmont, as well as with his wife Annabella Milbanke Byron. [8]

Murray is an entertaining writer, but not always a careful one. There are examples of garbled sentences that somehow made it past both Murray and the copy editor. From early in the book: ". . .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% urban" (p. 16). In other words, in 1830 the population was still more than 50% (or, as we might say, "mainly") rural. The points are clear—as England industrialized the population grew and more people lived in cities—but the expression is botched.

Some of Murray's statements are curious. In her chapter on men's clubs she writes: "Gambling and politics were yet to be condemned as mutually exclusive occupations. [Sorry, but when was that memo issued?] Membership of Brooks's, however, was by no means confined to politicians: other celebrities included Burke, Reynolds, Garrick, Horace Walpole, Gibbon, Sheridan, Wilberforce and the Prince of Wales, who joined so that he could talk to [Charles] Fox in comfort and privacy (and enlist Fox's support in parliament over his debts and other complaints against his father and the government)" (p. 161).

Among the "other celebrities" enjoying memberships "by no means confined to politicians" Murray names Edmund Burke, who served as a member of Parliament between 1766 and 1794; Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and who served in Parliament from 1741 to 1768; Edward Gibbon, who was a member of Parliament in the years 1774–1780 and 1781–1784; Richard Sheridan, who was a member of Parliament from 1780 to 1806; and William Wilberforce, the antislavery campaigner who was a member of Parliament from 1784 to 1812. It's not clear why Murray doesn't consider men who held decades-long careers in Parliament to be politicians as well as writers.

"The UNION CLUB. We'll join hand in hand, all Party shall cease, / And Glass after Glass shall our Union increase. / In the cause of Old England we'll drink down the Sun, / Then toast Little Ireland, & drink down the Moon!" [9] Caricature by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, 21 January 1801. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D12754

Murray calls both demonstrators and rioters "the mob," adopting the language of the class that made them desperate. She moralizes about debt, writing that dandies "based their lives on the premise that money fell from the sky and living in debt was not only normal, but somehow rather chic. . .This attitude to money, so alien to the twentieth century, needs to be seen in the context of its time" (p. 61-62). Later she writes that living in debt was "a curious morality, and one which would be unacceptable today" (p. 65). Of course, today almost every homeowner or possessor of a credit card is living in debt. If she means that borrowing money without any intention of paying it back is now unacceptable, a man whose companies filed for bankruptcy six times was elected as the U.S. President (after this book was published, of course). The rules have always been different for the rich.

An Elegant Madness does not offer in-depth discussions of Regency politics, economics, fashion, arts, food, or sex. But despite its limitations, it is enjoyable, not least for its black-and-white reproductions of caricatures by Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and others. I recommend reading it as background to the novels of the period, or for entertainment. After all, we're not the ones the upper classes of England forced off the land, threw out of work, maimed or killed in their factories and wars, and left to starve. The passage of time provides a safe buffer for our amusement.

  1. From The House of Lords Journal, 21–30 May 1792: Seditious Publications, Proclamation [by the King] respecting, delivered: "Whereas divers wicked and seditious Writings have been printed, published, and industriously dispersed, tending to excite Tumult and Disorder, by endeavouring to raise groundless Jealousies and Discontents in the Minds of Our faithful and loving Subjects, respecting the Laws and happy Constitution of Government, civil and religious, established in this Kingdom. . .We therefore being resolved, as far as in Us lies, to repress the wicked and seditious Practices aforesaid, and to deter all Persons from following so pernicious an Example, have thought fit, by the Advice of Our Privy Council, to issue this Our Royal Proclamation, solemnly warning all Our loving Subjects, as they tender their own Happiness, and that of their Posterity, to guard against all such Attempts which aim at the Subversion of all regular Government within this Kingdom, and which are inconsistent with the Peace and Order of Society. . .And We do strictly charge and command all Our Magistrates in and throughout Our Kingdom of Great Britain, that they do make diligent Enquiry in order to discover the Authors and Printers of such wicked and seditious Writings as aforesaid, and all others who shall disperse the same." 21 May 1792; ^ Return
  2. The Regency Era designates the period between 1811 and 1820 during which the Prince of Wales served as regent for his incapacitated father. While officially the period only lasted nine years, depending on the writer its boundaries are movable. Murray's view of the reign of George IV (1820–1830) as in many ways a continuation of the Regency Era seems reasonable, as does her choice to place the Regency's origins around the time of George III's first major breakdown and the introduction of the first Regency Bill in Parliament (the King recovered before it was passed). ^ Return
  3. Charles Lansdale, Memoirs of Mrs. Fitzherbert; with an account of her marriage with H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, afterwards King George the Fourth (London, 1856), pp. 191-192. ^ Return
  4. Atop a smoking pyre of what look suspiciously like giant penises, Maria Fitzherbert as Queen Dido of Carthage clutches a crucifix and grasps futilely at the crown and other royal symbols being blown away by Prime Minister William Pitt and his ally Viscount Melville. At her feet are instruments of torture "For the conversion of Heretics," along with a crucifix and rosary, symbols of Fitzherbert's Catholicism. Sailing away on a battered boat named Honor towards a castle flying the flag Windsor, the Prince of Wales as Aeneas is saying "I never saw her in my life"; "No never" is echoed by his fellow sailors Lord North, Edmund Burke and the steersman Charles Fox. Their dialogue is a reference to the First Sailor's song from Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas (1688?):

    Come away, fellow sailors, come away, your anchors be weighing,
    Time and tide will admit no delaying.
    Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
    And silence their mourning with vows of returning,
    But never intending to visit them more,
    No never intending to visit them more,
    No never, no never intending to visit them more. ^ Return
  5. Quoted in A biographical memoir of the much lamented Princess Charlotte Augusta (1818), p. 317.$b675834&view=1up&seq=339 ^ Return
  6. Letter of February 16th, 1813, to Martha Lloyd. ^ Return
  7. Sitting in front of a heap of picked-clean bones, a stupefied Prince of Wales picks his teeth with a fork. Underneath the table are a pile of empty bottles; on the rug are objects related to gambling: a dice cup, a ledger reading "Debts of Honor Unpaid," another ledger entitled "Faro Partnership Account: Self, [Lady Sarah] Archer, [Lady Albinia] Hobart, & Co" [Archer and Hobart were both hostesses of high-stakes card parties], and a book entitled "Newmarket List," a reference to the Newmarket Racecourse. Behind the Prince is an overflowing chamberpot holding down unpaid butcher's, poulterer's and baker's bills, with an upaid doctor's bill on the floor. On the wall is a shelf holding a stand of jelly glasses and various remedies for digestive problems: a jar of ointment "for the Piles," a bottle labelled "Drops for a Stinking Breath," a large bottle of Velnos' Vegetable Syrup, a patent medicine said to cure "all Impurities of the Blood and Juices, (whether Scorbutic [scurvy] or Venereal)" (see Geri Walton's blog for more details), and a container of Leakes Pills, a supposed cure for venereal disease. Hanging above are a mock coat of arms with crossed knife and fork and a wine-bottle candle holder, and above the Prince's head a portrait of Luigi Cornaro, writer of a treatise on prolonging life through an ascetic dietary regimen, drinking from a glass labelled "Aqua" (information from Yale University Library Digital Collections). ^ Return
  8. Caroline's husband William Lamb would go on to inherit the title of Viscount Melbourne and serve as Prime Minister under King William IV and his successor Queen Victoria. Byron's daughter with Annabelle, Ada, would become Countess Lovelace and a renowned mathematician who wrote the first algorithm for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine—she has been called the first computer programmer. ^ Return
  9. From the National Portrait Gallery: "This scene of drunken debauchery was a response to a formal print published to celebrate the first meeting of the Union Club, founded after England and Ireland were united in 1800. In the original illustration of the grand inaugural dinner, the Prince of Wales presided over a convivial scene seated on an elaborate throne. Gillray's version highlights the contentious nature of the Union by showing the Prince lying drunk under the table. Above him, the opposition leader Charles James Fox is collapsed in a chair, his feet propped on the table. All those not incapacitated or fighting drink a toast to the Union. Prominent among them are the Irish MP Lord Moira in a green jacket and Lord Cholmondely who raises his hat. The well-known fop Sir Lumley St George Skeffington dances in tipsily from the far right on the arm of an Irish friend." ^ Return