The Regency period, from 1811 to 1820, fascinates and enthralls me. I love the sophistication and glamour of the rich – and usually titled – ladies and gentlemen of the ton (that is, the highest level of society). I marvel at the innovations of the age: gas lighting, steam driven machines. The battle of Waterloo stirs my emotions as I think of the carnage, the sheer waste of human life.
It was a time of great change, a bridge between the old ways and the new. In England, those of the old order were anxious, frightened even. The French Revolution was fresh in their minds and they were terrified the same thing might happen here. The new generation, however, looked ahead, embracing new inventions and ideas, new ways of doing things, allowing people into their society who would never have been accepted before.
A lot of firsts happened in this decade, from London’s first Indian restaurant to macadamised roads, dental floss to the first plastic surgery. (Yes, really. It was carried out in England by Dr Joseph Constantine Carpue in 1814.)
The Grimm Brothers published their fairy tales. Beethoven and Rossini were writing new works. John Constable and JMW Turner painted. The first cricket match at Lord’s was held. Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley were new authors.
But it wasn’t all wonderful. The poor were extremely poor, their children starving and dressed in rags. Soldiers coming home from the wars against Napoleon, or against the USA, were left to fend for themselves. No longer useful to the nation, they were thrown off and forgotten.
Steam driven machines meant fewer workers were needed. Without work, whole families found themselves on the streets, hungry and desperate, while those in the ton looked on them with contempt, calling them lazy and undeserving. There were riots, the offending machines smashed. Rallies were held, and were brutally put down by the militia, under order of the rich and powerful.
The decade helped to shape our current world. It may be 200 years ago, but it feels very modern, and we can identify with the people who lived then, even through the differences in our lives.
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