Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 1: The Regency defined and the Madness of King George

Welcome to the first day of Mr. Beard's Regency Tour.

Today, we're going to start off with something deceptively simple: What is the Regency?

Properly speaking, the Regency era is the period of British history comprising the years 1811-1820. During this period, the then Prince of Wales (the later King George IV) ruled the United Kingdom as Prince Regent for his father, King George III.

Why did they need a regent when they had a perfectly good king? Unfortunately, there was the slight matter of King George III's insanity. This is an area of historical controversy. Some historians think he suffered from the genetic disorder porphyria. Whatever the cause, through the late 1700s, George III would occasionally have bouts of derangement. His disorder would afflict him on and off throughout the years. With the death of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia, in 1810, he fell fully into insanity by 1811.

The Regency Act of 1811 (officially called the the Care of King During his Illness, etc. Act) set his son, the 48-year-old George, Prince of Wales, up as Prince Regent. He would continue on as Prince Regent until the death of his father at which point he assumed the full throne as King George IV.

1811-1820. Nine years? That's it? That's the grand period so many movies and books are set in? Actually, no. Often, the "Regency era" is used to describe a period from the end of the 18th century up to the time of Queen Victoria, in other words, the transition point between Georgian and Victorian England. That is the rough definition of Regency era I'll be using for these blog posts.

This was a time of great transition both in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Industrialization and land reform had begun to transform the fundamental nature of British society. Violent labor unrest rocked the countryside and cities.

The bloodbath of the French Revolution gave rise to the Le Petit Caporal, the brilliant French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe becoming an intercontinental slug-fest costing millions of lives.

In contrast, this was also a period of genteel society. The Prince Regent, in particular, was fond of parties, fashion, and luxury. The upper-classes took their cue from him. Lavish parties and balls made famous in many film treatments of the period spread. Industrialization led to a new class of wealth. Landed gentry and aristocrats began to find their social circles invaded by a growing class of increasingly wealthy merchants and industrialists. 

Literature and arts flourished. Many influential British novels were published during this period. Jane Austen would publish her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818. Walter Scott would publish Ivanhoe in 1814. Many of our current ideas about Robin Hood come from that novel. The modern vampire story was  created by John William Polidori when he published The Vampyre in 1819. 

The Regency and the later Georgian period was a time of surprising and fascinating contrasts. I will be exploring all aspects of this period, both the dark and the light. 


Lindsay said...

I also tend to use same timeframe for the Regency period as you describe here.
Even though I write contemporary mysteries I, when I want a break, read books set during that period.

J.A. Beard said...

Yeah, one thing I always think of is that several of Jane Austen's novels were written before the actual Regency, even though she didn't get them published until the actual Regency period. So even though they are often treated as some of the quintessential 'Regency' novels. They are more Georgian than 'true' Regency.

Chaz A. Young said...

Neat to know! I will be looking forward to reading more of your posts on this subject.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chaz. For now, the plan is for Regency-related posts to go up every Thursday evening.