nobleman’s or noblewoman’s sense of noblesse oblige. Of course, not everyone got beyond complacency in their own life—as so frequently happens today—but many must have, or it could not have produced the people necessary to defeat Napoleon, build marvelous new buildings, and establish the first organized, and centrally led, police force in Britain’s history. Nor would we look back on the era with such fond nostalgia.
Whether you call it “the Napoleonic era,” “the Regency,” or “late Georgian,” the era of c. 1795-1830 is one of the most dramatic times in the history of the world. It is a time of war. And gaiety. Sorrow and pain. Downright hedonism. It is social manners taken to the ultimate degree. It is the heyday of the Industrial Revolution when merchants were becoming wealthier than noblemen. There was more education, for a wider range of people. More ideas. New evangelical churches, mostly appealing to the middle and lower classes, and beginning to preach a new morality. There were riots. The landed class lived in terror of a French-style revolution, which was based on the rebellion of the American colonies, both well within the lifetimes of most people of the Regency.
As for the role of women, for all their restrictions, women of the Regency had more freedom than they would in the coming strict Victorian society. Women, particularly widows, had much greater leeway than after the terrible shadow that would turn them into black-clad recluses in imitation of Victoria after she lost Albert. In the Regency, a woman with independent funds could still have a reasonable amount of freedom. She could even enjoy herself. Nor were the ladies of the Regency pressed into fainting fits by wasp-waisted corsets!
With Mary Wollstonecraft leading the way, women seemed on their way to far more independence, until they ran into a barrier of evangelical morality and a male reversion to tyranny that would last until women a hundred years later cut off their hair and their hemlines and demanded the vote.
So what happened? Just as the Flower Children rebelled against the unrealistic ideals of the Nineteen Fifties, and life in the Nineteen Eighties did everything it could to eradicate the last vestiges of the Flower Child rebellion, our customs and manners are cyclical. Regency Britain stands out, however, as World War II stands out. It was a