Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
High and Low in the Regency
The Regency Underworld
By Donald A. Low.
Sutton Publishing, 1999. xxvi + 192 pages.
50 b/w illustrations. Hardcover, $35.
An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England
By Venetia Murray. Viking, 1999. Xvii + 317 pages.
44 b/w illustrations. Hardcover, $30.
Reviewed by Judith Fiedler.
The Regency Period (defined by Low as 1800-1830, by Murray as 1788 1820) was a time of immense economic, social, and political change. Enclosure, the shift from mixed farming to the more profitable raising of sheep for the burgeoning wool trade, the increase in industrial investment and employment, the rise of moneyed commoners into the social sphere dominated by the landed aristocracy, and the movement of commercial interests into political influence, dramatically affected society. While all of these changes had begun earlier, their effect intensified during the Regency. Adding to this instability was the financial and human cost of 25 years of intermittent and inconclusive war against France and the Napoleonic Empire.
The authors present their views of a society under stress from radically different perspectives. One might expect that these books would differ entirely in content. However, the pictures that emerge are remarkably similar in attributing societal problems to the upper and lower echelons of society. Lower class people responded by breaking free of traditional social restraints. Low attributes the sudden upsurge in crime in large part to a 20% increase in London population between 1800 and 1820. These newcomers were largely unemployed farm workers driven from the land, dependent on unreliable industrial wages. Unlike farming, factories offered no useful work for many youths, who turned to theft and prostitution. The Regency saw the rise of organized crime as entrepreneurs recruited gangs of robbers and directed brothels. Untrained and ineffective watchmen and police were unable to establish order.
Within the small group of wealthy and powerful families who governed fashionable London, responses to change took the form of loosened morals and extravagance. A few autocratic hostesses determined who was acceptable, their decisions based on criteria of descent and polite behavior which owed little to virtue or public service. Among gentlemen, interest and competence in sport offered another avenue for inclusion, although not all of a gentleman's sporting companions could be introduced to his ladies.
Members of society competed in squandering money and time. Adultery was condoned if accomplished with style and minimal discretion, and slander was a constant amusement. Upper and lower classes shared a passion for drinking, gambling, and casual mayhem.
The upper classes were literate and reasonably well-educated. Murray notes, "...one of the delights of the Regency period is the freedom with which people wrote about their friends...," and letters, diaries, and memoirs provide a lively trove of information, all the more interesting for being meant only for private eyes.
Among the lower classes, such sources do not exist, but the late 18th and early 19th Centuries produced innovative studies of sociology and criminology. William Hogarth and the Fieldings wrote on crime, followed by Patrick Colquhoun, who connected poverty, "perverts" and inadequate policing as causes of the explosion of crime. His Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1797) estimated the number of criminals in London at 115,000 (in a population of about I.l million), ranging from 50,000 "Unfortunate Females of all description . .. who support themselves ... by prostitution" (in addition to "2,000 Bawds"), down to 60 "Professed and known Receivers of Stolen Goods."
Neither book is scholarly, but both are entertaining. Illustrations and copious quotations from contemporary sources present a clear flavor of the period. The Regency Underworld includes a bibliography, but no indication of which books contributed to the text. Murray provides footnotes, although even on first reading one can identify a number of factual errors. Since she declares her aim is to ". . . convey the mood of the Regency," and "to entertain ...," too close a reading might seem ungracious.
The books share a regrettable failure to assign dates to their statements. In a turbulent period of 30 years, it would be helpful to know exactly when a specific event occurred or a particular letter was written.
Both social and criminal activities were concentrated in London, and the authors focus on the capital. It is unfortunate that they provide little information about other regions and the large percentage of the population who sought their pleasure neither in gin shops nor at Almacks. Given their respective title (Regency Underworld) and subtitle (High Society in Regency England), this is no surprise, but it would be interesting to know more about the minor gentry and the respectable middle class who sustained English society and prosperity during this tumultuous period. Fortunately, here Miss Austen can enlighten us.
Of the two, Murray's book is more brilliant, reflecting the luxury and depravity of her subject. In contrast, Low emphasizes the often pedestrian details of law enforcement and legal remedies. Read Murray for fun, but remember that for most of England at the turn of the 19th Century, Low's depiction is much closer to life as it was. (The reviewer would like to thank Nancy Mayer and Anne Woodley who commented on An Elegant Madness.)
Judith Fiedler was trained in sociology, and has worked in public opinion research and social program evaluation. She recently joined the JASNA Board of Directors.
JASNA News v.15, no. 3, Winter 1999, p. 28
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