From 1811 to 1820, Prince George, the eldest son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, was appointed as Prince Regent of the United Kingdom on behalf of his father. The king, who had suffered from recurring bouts of mental illness and breakdowns, had been deemed unfit to rule. Although George’s reign as Prince Regent lasted less than a decade, it was a time of great cultural, political and social change that subsequently became known as the Regency period.
When thinking of the Regency – or 19th century England in general – the social season probably crosses your mind. Coinciding with the sitting of Parliament, members of the upper class, known as ‘the ton’ would arrive in London from their stately, country homes to engage in both politics and socialising.
Although the timing of the season shifted, it typically started in January or February and ended in July or August. The season had been growing since the 17th century and during the Regency, it had become the time for fashionable society, as well as the perfect opportunity to arrange marriages.
Surviving the social season revolved around many factors including etiquette, fashion, and of course, escaping notorious scandal – here is our guide on how to ‘make it’ amongst the highest echelon of British society.
Mind Your Manners
Etiquette was a high stakes game
It was extremely important to be aware of the rules of etiquette before arriving in London for the social season. If you failed to meet the high standard of behaviour expected from members of the ton then your reputation would be at risk. This was especially a concern for the ladies, as a damaged reputation would hamper their marriage prospects and consequently, their entire future.
To avoid making any embarrassing faux pas, many upper-class young ladies would prepare for the season by taking etiquette lessons. These lessons would include learning how to enter and leave a room, how to maintain a straight posture when sitting, standing and walking, and of course, how to approach the queen and courtesy properly.
When it came to introductions, gentlemen were introduced to the ladies and not the other way round. A gentleman could not approach a lady without a formal introduction, and this could not occur until all parties agreed to be introduced in the first place. Remaining formal even after an introduction was made was a must and referring to another person by their first name (unless you were related) was a no-go.
Gentlemen were expected to be chivalrous while ladies had to be polite, elegant and calm, avoiding displays of obvious emotion, even when it came to laughing. However, while a lady was expected to be poised at all times, it was always appropriate for her to faint if faced with crude behaviour.
The biggest etiquette rule of them all was that a lady should never be alone in the company of a gentleman unless they were related to or married to them, as this would attract gossip. If a lady did meet a gentleman, whether it was for personal or professional reasons, a chaperone always had to be present to ensure that no impropriety took place. In fact, ladies were not supposed to go out alone at all and where possible, they were always to be accompanied by another lady or servant – although this rule did relax towards the end of the Regency.
Get Your Dancing Shoes On
A chance to make a good impression
No social season was complete without a dizzying array of balls to attend. The most important one was Queen Charlotte’s Ball, which was founded by King George III for his wife’s birthday in 1780. The queen’s ball was the moment where debutantes were formally presented to the court and they officially entered society for the first time. Without attending the queen’s ball, you could not join the marriage market.
The young ladies needed to make a good first impression as they were being presented to the queen, because they were also being watched by eligible bachelors and the rest of the ton from the sidelines. Meanwhile, their mothers would be keeping an eye out for suitable husbands.
Debutantes were typically between the ages of 16 and 18 when they were introduced to society. Generally, it was ideal for a lady with younger sisters to be married first before they were presented to society, which is in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet’s decision to bring all five of her daughters out at once is unusual.
Balls and dances could last until the early hours of the morning and unsurprisingly, various rules governed how ladies and gentlemen were supposed to behave while at a ball or dance. They were supervised by a Master of Ceremony, who ensured that the event went smoothly, and who was responsible for formally introducing the young women and men.
Ladies would wear dance cards with a list of dances scheduled for the evening on their wrists. These cards helped them to keep track of the dances that they had promised to different partners – and potential suitors – throughout the night. However, a lady could not promise a dance until she was formally introduced to the gentleman in question.
Balls and dances gave ladies the perfect opportunity to meet several eligible gentlemen and vice versa. Yet, a lady also had to take care not to dance with the same man more than twice – or, heaven forbid, all night – as this would attract gossip regarding the nature of their relationship and put her reputation at risk.
Dress to Impress
Keeping up with the latest fashion trends was a must
Ladies and gentlemen wishing to get through the season needed to ensure that their wardrobe was up to scratch unless they wanted to become social pariahs. Regency dresses were characterised by a raised, empire waistline and a narrow, ankle-length loose skirt. During the day, ladies were not to expose their chest or arms, and so their dresses would have long sleeves with a tucker or chemisette to cover the chest. They were also supposed to wear bonnets if they were out in the daytime, and a lady always had to wear her hair up once she was formally out in society.
Meanwhile, it was acceptable to wear short sleeves and lower necklines in the evening, although ladies had to wear elbow-length white or light-coloured gloves made from leather or cotton. Dresses were made from sumptuous fabrics such as satin and they were decorated – albeit sparingly – with intricate embroidery.
For Queen Charlotte’s ball, debutantes had to wear a white court dress and a headdress decorated with ostrich feathers. The queen insisted on retaining the wide-hooped skirts, popular in the late 18th century, for court dress even though they had fallen out of fashion. However, these dresses also had a shortened bodice in line with Regency fashion and so the wide skirt began at the waistline under the bust. This resulted in a unique – and strange – silhouette. The requirement for wide-hooped skirts finally ended when the Prince Regent ascended the throne as King George IV in 1820.
As for gentlemen, it was common for them to wear breeches during the early years of the Regency. They eventually moved on to long trousers or fitted pantaloons, worn with Hessian or two-toned top boots. White linen shirts with a straight, upright collar were a must, finished off with a cravat. Cravats were a piece of fabric that was tied over the shirt collar that could be styled in lots of different ways. Men would also wear a tall top hat when out during the day. Many men took their lead from Beau Brummell, the society figure and close friend of the Prince Regent, who set the leading trends for men’s clothing.
Meet Your Match
Finding a spouse was the name of the game
To think of marriage amongst the upper classes in Regency England probably conjures up images of bossy mothers, foisting their daughters on prospective suitors at every opportunity – and this isn’t entirely wrong. After all, once young ladies had been officially introduced into society, they needed to secure a suitable husband by joining the marriage market – the throng of single ladies and gentleman looking for a spouse.
Finding the right husband or wife involved many factors. Marriage offered an opportunity to climb the social ladder and form or strengthen family alliances, so marrying below one’s station was not ideal, especially for gentlemen. If a lady did marry someone who was of a higher social status, not only would her status rise but so would her family’s would by virtue. Also, if the eldest daughter made a good marriage, it gave her sisters who were due to join the marriage market a better chance too.
Wealth was also an important factor because daughters, unlike sons, did not inherit their father’s estate and so their financial security depended often on their future spouse. A good dowry boosted a lady’s prospects and securing a wealthy husband also meant that she would have the means to take care of her family if needed. For gentlemen, marriage was all about producing an heir to secure his family line and finding a wife who was capable of managing the household.
Although there was a lot of pressure to find a good match in terms of wealth and social status, love was not out of the question. If couples were desperate to be together but their parents disapproved, they always had the option of eloping to Scotland, where the law on marriage was not as restrictive. In particular, the Scottish village of Gretna Green became a popular destination for elopements.
Get Out and About
Becoming the social butterfly of the season
There was a variety of activities to keep the ton entertained while in London for the season, such as card parties, visiting museums, attending horse races, dinner parties, going for a ride in the park and attending the theatre. The more you were out and about, the more opportunities you had to socialise with others and scout potential partners.
A classic season activity was to go promenading – a leisurely walk in a public place – allowing you to see and been seen by other members of high society. Courting couples would often promenade together, always in the presence of a chaperone, to show off their relationship to the ton.
Ladies and gentleman would also find themselves clamouring to be accepted into a range of exclusive social clubs in the city. The most famous and exclusive of them all was Almack’s Assembly Rooms, also known as ‘the Marriage Mart’, where gentlemen would look for a suitable bride.
Almack’s was run by the Lady Patronesses, the six or seven most influential ladies of the ton. These ladies decided who could be admitted into Almack’s to attend the club’s weekly ball and you could only purchase a voucher with their permission. This voucher could also be taken away by the Patronesses if they deemed you were not worthy after all, something that amounted to social disaster.
Their control over the club did not sit well with everyone, with Captain Gronow, a Welsh Grenadier Guards officer and writer, claiming “the female government of Almack’s was a pure despotism and subject to all the caprices of despotic rule.”
Another popular place to go was London’s public pleasure gardens, such as the iconic Vauxhall Gardens. Visited by people from all social classes, these pleasure gardens hosted concerts, masquerades, costume balls, fireworks, amusement rides and even zoos – some even offered hot air balloon rides. However, under the cover of darkness, the gardens also offered an opportunity for couples to mingle without a chaperone or even sneak off – something that would cause a huge scandal if they were caught.
Avoid the Gossip Pages
Endangering your reputation could mean game over
One of the biggest objectives of making it through the social season was to come out unscathed by scandal or gossip. For ladies especially, anything that had the potential to negatively affect their reputation could prevent them from securing that all-important match with a prized suitor.
Reputation was so important that a gentleman could challenge another to a duel if they felt their reputation – or that of a lady’s – had been slighted, to restore their honour. Of course, duels were potentially deadly and not to mention illegal, so they typically took place at dawn so that the men were less likely to be caught.
It was during the Regency era that the steam-powered rotary press arrived, first adopted by The Times newspaper in 1814, making papers quicker and easier to print than ever before. Various newspaper columns and periodicals would be filled with pieces of salacious gossip, exposing scandal among the ton, from affairs and elopements to gambling and hedonistic behaviour – often obtained from closes sources like servants or fellow members of the ton.
One such gossip column was the ‘Tête-à-Tête’ in Town and Country Magazine, which predated the Regency as it folded in 1796, but had reported on illicit meetings between members of the elite.
Although the people involved in the scandals were not explicitly named, their initials would be included and this – coupled with plenty of hints – would be enough for many readers to guess their identity. Sordid stories from the press would be shared over gambling tables, at Almack’s and in coffeehouses, so it was not long before scandals amongst the ton became wider knowledge. Gossip also spread thanks to the popularity of caricatures of the elite, frequently displayed in printshop windows for all to see.
Even members of the royal family could not escape the papers. The Prince Regent’s brother, the Duke of York, found himself embroiled in a huge scandal when it was discovered that his mistress, Mary Anne Clark, had been illegally selling military commissions and promotions, reportedly with his knowledge. As Commander-in-Chief of the army, the duke faced a parliamentary inquiry and although he was cleared, his love letters to Mary were widely published in the press. Consequently, he was forced to from his position, but he was eventually reinstated.