Looking Back Through Victorian Lenses

Back when I volunteered at a local museum someone once said that we look at the Georgian and Regency periods, as well as others,  through the lenses of the Victorian period, or through  a post-Victorian pair of glasses at least.  It is also most likely we look through post-war, post-feminism. post-modern, lenses too,  but when reading genre fiction set in a particular era, like the Georgian and Regency Eras of the 18th and 19th century, we can only see them through the mental constructs with we are engaged; the ways we have learned to think and understand the world.  It is akin to the way we say an optimist sees the world, through rose-colored glasses.  This may seem obvious and simple on the surface, but, how often I find myself thinking that Regency etiquette and rules seem so silly and unnecessary.

Recently, in MY AMERICAN DUCHESS by Eloisa James, a wealthy debutante from America living in England during the Regency Period is at a dinner party and requests a slice of pineapple from the fruit offered by their hostess.  In this example the young woman stands in for the reader, for, as a wealthy, brash and outspoken American she fails to comprehend the full implications of the request: Pineapples were very expensive and hard to grow in England.  Despite the expense, or perhaps because of it, everyone desired the distinction of having one in their display.  Less wealthy hosts rented the fruit for display at a party. 

The implications of requesting the pineapple speaks to the American’s cultural incomprehension as to how the rented pineapple will affect the hostess’s standing. The hostess presented it and thus cannot refuse to share it. And, until the situation is fully explained, the American doesn’t get it. After the explanation she feels more empathy for her hostess and understands the rationale but still lacks the depth of cultural experience in this milieu to not think it is a little silly that something so trivial would cause a ruckus. She tries to make amends in  a way only an “American” would — by replacing one pineapple with several.

The Regency Era continued through the reign of George IV and that of his brother William IV (1830 – 1837). It was succeeded by the long reign of Queen Victoria.

Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, London, on 24 May 1819. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III. Her father died shortly after her birth and she became heir to the throne because the three uncles who were ahead of her in succession – George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV – had no legitimate children who survived.  http://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/KingsandQueensoftheUnitedKingdom/TheHanoverians/Victoria.aspx

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert had nine children and her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II continues to reign today.

Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) and of the moral climate of the United Kingdom of the 19th century in general, which contrasted greatly with the morality of the previous Georgian period,…. Today, the term “Victorian morality” can describe any set of values that espouse sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime and a strict social code of conduct. ,….

…Historians now regard the Victorian era as a time of many contradictions,…. A plethora of social movements arose from attempts to improve the prevailing harsh living conditions for many under a rigid class system….

[Victorianism] has acquired a range of connotations, including that of a particularly strict set of moral standards, often hypocritically applied….

Two hundred years before [Queen Victoria ascended the throne] the Puritan movement, which led to the installment of Oliver Cromwell, had temporarily overthrown the British monarchy. Cromwell imposed a strict moral code on the people (such as abolishing Christmas as too indulgent of the sensual pleasures).

When the monarchy was restored, a period of loose living and debauchery inspired too by the rise of French court cultural influence all over Europe, appeared to be a reaction to the earlier religious based forms of repression. ,…

The two social forces of Puritanism and libertinism continued to motivate the collective psyche of Great Britain from the Restoration onward. This was particularly significant in the public perceptions of the later Hanoverian monarchs who immediately preceded Queen Victoria. For instance, her uncle George IV was commonly perceived as a pleasure-seeking playboy, whose conduct in office was the cause of much scandal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_morality

I think when we look back on the past, and the Regency in particular, through romance novels we are reading and imagining a highly “Victorianized” world – those Victorian Lenses.  After all, The Prince Regent, later King George IV, was a voluptuary. You can see how base the manners of this exalted person were depicted.

 

A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion Js. Gy. design et fecit.
(above: A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion
Caricature of George IV as the Prince of Wales, languid with repletion, leaning back in an arm-chair, at a table covered with remains of a meal, holding a fork to his mouth. His waistcoat is held together by a single button across his distended stomach. In the background, the Prince of Wales’ three ostrich feathers emblem is shown above a knife and fork crossed on a plate (instead of a coat of arms). The picture behind and above the Prince’s head is of Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian nobleman who wrote several treatises concerning dieting and eating habits.  James Gillray – Library of Congress,  Created: 2 July 1792
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A-voluptuary.jpg#/media/File:A-voluptuary.jpg )

I think this, in part, because I have looked at a lot of Regency era political cartoons and then also at Victorian Revival paintings and some Victorian political cartoons. 

But, I have also read that Queen Victoria collected nude pictures of men and even gave one to Prince Albert. Also, Victorians published quite a bit of erotica.  So the period seems to be the crossroads of the above mentioned Puritanism and Libertinism. 

Queen Victoria herself fails the test of “The Victorian Woman,” according to Victoriana.com (http://www.victoriana.com/doors/queenvictoria.htm).  And, thinking about that makes sense as she herself was a child of the Regency period.

Scientific discoveries, politics and the rise of industry cause a conflict between the power of the Church of England and the concept of the individual. As these ideas created a struggle threatening the class structure an understandable need to control the present through strict morality and rewrite the past must have been strong.

Art sanctioned or not, has always provided an important social commentary.  Through the political and social cartoons of the time we can see a progression from the ugliness of people portrayed, especially during the Regency Era. People are unattractive in the works of several  popular artists like Rowlandson and Gilray, whose works appeared in broadsheets or newspapers. These were sold and also hung up in windows to be read. Pictorial art was very important in an age where not everyone had an education.

l 'assemble national
The above print shows a reception given by Charles James Fox and wife for various groups and friends of the Prince of Wales, all opposed to the government. [London] 1804 June 18.
According to Wright & Evans, Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray (1851, OCLC 59510372), p. ix, “This we have no hesitation in asserting to be the most talented caricature that has ever appeared. The king is supposed to have been executed, the republic proclaimed, and Fox, as first consul, is holding his levée at his house at St. Anne’s Hill. All the leading Whigs are present, of whom the likenesses are most admirable, and in the right corner is seen a portion of the figure of the Prince of Wales. This caricature gave so much offence to the prince that he offered a large sum of money for its suppression, which being accepted, he ordered the plate to be destroyed. It was the misfortune of the prince and those by whom he was surrounded to place reliance on each other; the plate was not destroyed, it was secreted, and still exists. It will be found in the collection published by Mr. Bohn.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L-Assemblee-Nationale-Gillray.jpeg

The popular art of the Regency is much bawdier as these social caricatures (below) by Thomas Rowlandson show. I have no idea what the second one is about, but neither presents the people in them in a good light..

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The pictures I find from Queen Victoria’s reign are much more genteel. Even when they are critical of the Queen and her ministers, they portray her and others more realistically and without suggesting she is less than regal.

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Then, while in America we had the Colonial-revival, where the colonial and revolutionary periods were rewritten, In Britain and Europe they reinvented the Regency.   You can see it in the way Regency Revival paintings present the period in antiseptic terms. Much of this art is French or German, but don’t forget Queen Victoria’s children married all over Europe and the period’s ideals and morality migrated as well. I have found these to be mostly from the end of Victoria’s reign.

 

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So, what’s my point? Simply this:  We cannot comprehend the past with the mind of a contemporary of the period we’re looking at. It’s obvious, but hard to remember this as we read. It’s easier to see through the popular art of the period.  It is something for readers of Regency, or any historical fiction, to remember.

 

NOTE:

* Gladstone dreams about Queen Victoria’s Christmas dinner
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gladstone_dreams_about_Queen_Victoria’s_Christmas_dinner_Wellcome_V0050360.jpg