Today, when we see men walking arm in arm, it’s a statement of a lifestyle. Two hundred years ago, it was public evidence of friendship, the confidence of the pair’s equality of station, and perhaps, their agreement in fashion. Since I’ve just released another regency historical work, I’ll stick with that time period (1811-1820) and the English aristocracy for this post.
Manners did maketh the man, as the saying went, and men were admired by women for their wit and delicacy of feeling, small hands and feet, nipped-in waists in a well-made coat, the graceful use of a fan. (Perhaps it’s unnecessary to mention that I rarely imbue any of my present day heroes with those attributes.)
There’s not a lot of evidence that we’ve changed much on the inside, but history in its written and pictorial forms illustrates how we continue to do the trendy thing and hope to influence/impress others with our exteriors. Portraitures, whether they’re self portraits of Van Gogh or Rembrandt to one of Napoleon’s florid depictions, paintings from the past shriek with historical goodies.
The complete regency gent would understand and employ the subtle language of plying a fan, and wield it as elegantly as he would by folding a calling card’s corner. How well a man was rigged-out—the cut of his coat, the shine on his boots, the crispness of his linen—made a statement as to his social worth. The intricate styles for tying neckwear, sometimes so elaborate and high around the shirt points that the wearer could not turn his head, relayed the message of that evening’s mood. Or intent.
During George Brummell’s social reign, he espoused daily bathing (thank you Beau) and a somber style of dress, the total opposite of the flamboyant Macaroni influence from a few decades earlier.
The same gentleman, who could make a woman’s hearts go pitty-pat when he shed a tear for the perfection of beauty in any form, was the same man who was expected to stand, unflinching, as he looked down the hole of a pistol barrel or faced a blade’s pointy tip. The regency buck could plunge his estate into bankruptcy from senseless wagers, and yet survive among his male peers, as long as he paid his vowels, the ubiquitous IOU.
The power men of all stations had over women was utter and complete. There were few laws for the protection of women. Murder comes to mind, which is not of much use when one is dead.
Until Queen Victoria’s reign, men were rarely monogamous. Fidelity was saved for their mistresses, and women were pretty much resigned to it. I can’t think of a better example than that of the Duke of Devonshire, who kept his mistress in residence, a woman who had been his wife’s friend. The Duchess of Devonshire, one of the most popular and politically influential women in history, could do nothing about it.
Since women had no power, men often compensated by being accommodating to female whims and demands beyond what was expected. Austin made that obvious in some of her family situations as well as when she poked fun at societal mores, and because of Austin, we have been given a perspective no history book could convey. And she did it with a delicious, sly sense of the ridiculous, showing us how, in so many ways, we haven’t changed at all.
In their favor, many men have found and embraced their feminine side, but now compensate with forcing themselves to sit through a chick-flick, bulking up at the gym and greeting each other with a fist punch. When all the posturing is done, I give the stand-up guys credit for their disdain and disbelief that women were ever so ill-treated.
My newest release The Rake and the Bishop’s Daughter (written as Julia Donner)
Suggestions for Regency Period reading:
Wellington by Elizabeth Longford (family approved biography)
Jane Austin, a Life by Claire Tomalin
And for fun and easier reading about the period:
The Regency Companion by Sharon Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin