The Romance and Reality of the Regency

4 Oct


I’m a writer. It’s kind of new for me so I like to say it out loud. I write historical romance novels. Actually, I’ve written one, a romance novel called Her Grace in Disgrace that takes place in England’s Regency period. What, you may ask, is the Regency? I’m glad you asked. I’ll do my best to answer your impromptu question.

The Regency period in England technically spans from 1811-1820, the exact period that Prince George was Regent (which basically means “stand-in king”) in England during his father’s battle with mental illness. More commonly, however, the era is thought to encompass 1795-1830, the dates that the man who would be George IV influenced British society.  And influence society he did. Prinnie, as he was commonly called behind his back, was larger than life. Literally, the man’s girth grew to match his many excesses. From his passionate romantic entanglements, to his love of food and grand architecture, the future George IV’s passions and pursuits eased their way into the mainstream life of the elite as the 18th century  gave way to the 19th. And it is due to this extravagance and opulence, which defined the upper classes of the Regency, that it is one of the most romanticized eras in history. And why not? The exquisite clothes, the palatial mansions, the lavish balls and the heart stopping romance. Sigh! It’s enough to make a girl’s heart flutter. But, once the fluttering has passed, this modern woman takes a breath and thinks about what it would really be like to live in Regency England. Let’s take a look at just a few things that might not be as romantic as they sound.


Transportation in the Regency was quite simple. On land, it either involved a horse or using your own two feet. Since self-powered transportation is notoriously slow, most likely you would have to succumb sooner or later to the “horse-powered” variety. Why you could achieve such staggering speeds as 16-18 mph on a fast horse in good conditions!  

It’s not all about speed of course. Horses are beautiful creatures and have always had an aura of romance about them…until you get up close to one. Oh, they are still beautiful, graceful creatures, but they smell! And if you find a pleasant one that would enjoy a good nose rub, you’ll find that those kidskin gloves that you are wearing will be a different shade than before said nose rub. For those of you who are not inclined to getting up close and personal with your transportation, then a carriage would be your best bet. Carriages were as varied as cars are today and went from the stripped down version to the sporty variety to the luxury model. However, being removed from the “horse power” of your vehicle would not make the smells go away. Picture London or any large city and visualize the fumes emanating from the thousands of cars on the road. Now think of that as horse poop. Enough said.



Humans of every generation are slaves to fashion in some way or other. Women don’t totter around on 3-inch heels because they are comfortable! The Regency, of course, was no different. The elite of the Regency period, called the ton, dictated the fashion dos and don’ts. They were the “What Not to Wear” of British society.  There were very strict rules about what to wear and when. Morning gowns were worn at home in the mornings and afternoons. If you went out for a ride in the carriage, there were carriage dresses or if you got about on foot, there were walking dresses. If you felt like a ride in the park on your favorite horse, you would don a riding habit. In the evening, you would change for dinner and wear an evening dress, unless you were to attend a ball and in that case, you would wear a ball gown. The well-born Regency elite found themselves changing 3, 4 or even 5 times a day!

And it wasn’t just the women. Men, too, changed frequently, depending on their activities and their clothing was probably more restrictive than their female counterparts. They wore skin tight pants, starched collars turned upwards, the points often touching their cheeks and cravats that were so intricately and tightly tied that the looked like a fancy neck brace and giving them about as much mobility as one. And the jackets! They were so form fitting that they could not put them on without the assistance a valet!

The gowns of the Regency were much less restrictive than the previous few decades. However, with four layers of underclothes, most of which were fastened by hooks and eyes in the back, and stays (a variation of a corset, but used as a sort of push-up bra), the sheer difficulty of getting in and out of these clothes made getting dressed a challenge. Enter the lady’s maid. It was nearly impossible, unless clothes were specifically altered, to get dressed on your own. Oh, it sounds nice to have a lady’s maid to pamper you, but day in day out with little to no privacy. I think it might drive me crazier than I already am.

Parties and balls:

Imagine it! You are dressed to the nines, you can hardly breathe because the whalebone of your stays is cutting into your rib cage, your hair is stiff with curls and ribbons and you are freezing standing in the huge ballroom in your flimsy dress with short puff sleeves and a daring low neckline. But that is nothing to you. You behold an elegant room, of huge proportions filled with hot house flowers and lit by scores of candles gracing the three elegant crystal chandeliers in the room. The ballroom is filled to the brim with ladies and gentleman, all in their finery (thanks to their maids and valets). You enter shyly, hopeful that your dance card will be full, that some handsome man will take a fancy to you and ultimately want to marry you. As the evening progresses, to your delight, your card is indeed full and you dance and make polite conversation and drink lemonade, because despite your thin dress, the dancing has made you quite warm. Finally, long after midnight, the ball is over and you go home to dream of all that has occurred this magical night.  You fall asleep wondering which of your dance partner will be your future husband. You wake the next morning, have a few visitors, go out for a carriage ride in the afternoon and then – do it all again. Rinse and repeat. Ad infinitum. And all with the same people; nearly identical conversations and in similar ballrooms. I don’t know about you, but to me it sounds like way too much of a good thing! I love a party, but a party every night with the same crowd would get tedious.

Did I just burst your romantic bubble?  Never fear! Just do what I do; ignore the reality of it all and enjoy the romance. If I’m honest with myself and with you, I confess I would not be the lovely debutante who meets the dashing lord, but one of the crotchety matrons, confined to sit and gossip on the sidelines of the ball, while watching the youngsters cut up the dance floor. But, in fiction…well, in between the pages of a book, I can imagine that I am the heroine and dance the night away in my primrose shot silk ball gown that is just a trifle too low in the bodice and shimmers in the flickering light of a thousand candles. So, here’s to romance with a touch of reality for authenticity sake.

What about you? What would bother you if you were suddenly transported back in time to Regency England?

2 Responses to “The Romance and Reality of the Regency”

  1. David E. Manuel October 5, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    I have to say, your commentary on “odors” is compelling. I still like Westerns, for example, but every time I watch one, I find myself wondering just how bad everything must have smelled. No modern sewage, everyone riding horses, baths monthly if you were a clean freak, clothes probably washed after numerous wearings.

    Then I remind myself of the two years I spent in East Africa in a country where water was a precious commodity. People didn’t bathe much because they just couldn’t afford it, what sewers there were didn’t work very well. And we got used to it. So I suspect the people in the Old West just didn’t notice. Probably the same with the Regency folk.

    Or there’s another explanation: perhaps the West was so violent because people were just sick of living with other smelly people! But then, why wasn’t the Regency period more violent?

    • claudiaharbaugh October 5, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Hahaha… Why weren’t they more violent? They were too repressed!

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