The Regency in England – Mistresses, Consorts & Clever Women

Frances d’Arblay (‘Fanny Burney’) by Edward Francisco Burney, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Novelist and diarist Fanny Burney (1752 – 1840), known after her marriage as Madame d’Arblay, much like the great caricaturist of the day James Gillray (1756/7 – 1815), successfully, portrayed the English society at work, at home, and at play in eighteenth century and early nineteenth century England.

In many ways her novels anticipated those of those other clever women who came after, such as Jane Austen, who also quietly provided unique insights into human personalities from a close observation of English village life. .

Fanny’s first novel was published anonymously in 1778 when she was 26 and it was immediately popular.

Evelina, or the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world went through five editions in its first year of publication. A clever woman Fanny wrote four novels, eight plays, one biography and twenty volumes of journals and letters.

They all explored the lives of English aristocrats, and satirized their social pretensions and personal foibles, with an eye to larger questions such as the politics of female identity.

In addition to the critical respect she receives for her own writing, she is recognised as a literary precursor to prominent authors who came after her such as Jane Austen (1777 – 1817), however it seems the objections of her father precluded her from becoming equally as famous.

They only serve to highlight the social lives and struggles of women in such a male dominated culture as it was. That great man the age, and of letters Dr. Samuel Johnson was one of her greatest fans and supporters. He noted in 1779 that “Miss Burney is a real, wonder” he said “what she is she is intuitively“.

During the Regency and later reign of George, Prince of Wales, George IV of England it was all about attaining harmony before marriage and then, once you had embarked on that journey, learning how to play the tune of life well. All that was required of any woman born or married into the aristocracy was that she provide her husband with a male heir.

After fulfilling this function, and hopefully bringing forth a spare,  just in case, she was more or less free to go on her own way. As long as she was discreet and if she were beautiful, she often did. If she were not, then at least she could earn some brownie points towards attaining the reputation of being a faithful and devoted wife.

Queen Charlotte with her Children and Brothers by Johann Zoffany, courtesy Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It had been in 1770 when Australia was first being discovered, a decade after the prince’s father George III of England had come to the throne, that a Bill went before the English Parliament for consideration.

It read ‘ That all women of whatever rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony, any of his Majesty’s subjects by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool (a form of rouge pad), iron stays, hoops, high heeled shoes and bolstered  hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours, and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall be null and void’ .

If ever men had an opportunity in history to change their lot, this was it, but they blew it.

As a child, published reminiscences of members of the royal household suggest the eldest son, George, Prince of Wales (1762-1830) already possessed a great sense of humour and devastating gift of mimicry. It has been mused that this was because he had so little to do but listen and observe the follies of all those around him, so his wit was honed to perfection.

Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, ca. 1765 Johan Zoffany (German, 1733-1810) courtesy The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, ca. 1765 Johan Zoffany (German, 1733-1810) courtesy The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Contrary to most other royal consorts from the past, George, the Prince of Wales’s mummy Charlotte presented his papa George III, with fifteen children. There was six daughters and nine sons. The King was so devoted to his daughters he did not want them to marry, which these days we would think very odd.

There were bitter complaints from them all emerging out of what they called ‘The Nunnery’. Three eventually attained connubial bliss. Charlotte became Queen of Wurtemberg, Elizabeth the Princess of Hesse-Homburg and Mary the wife of the second Duke of Gloucester.

Of his nine sons, two died in childhood and of the remaining seven, six became royal dukes.

The Duke of Wellington the nation’s hero of the time was far from being a republican or a radical, yet he lumped them all together to call them ‘the damndest millstones about the neck of any government that could be imagined’.

Divine-Minieature-George-Prince-of-WalesThey were all certainly fresh raw juice laden meat to the tigerish caricaturists of their day, as they busily reacted violently against those their father surrounded himself at court, out of which they burst like spoiled school children.

A lonely child, George and his brother Frederick had learned to ride and fence together.

They were also often flogged together by his father, who earnestly believed in the excellent educational virtues of not sparing the rod.

George had a good knowledge of the Latin classics, was competent at French, German and Italian and had some skill in music.

His spelling was quite poor but he did enjoy Shakespeare though, which means he couldn’t have been all that bad, surely.

During his teen years George became involved in secret assignations with Mary Darby, the Mrs. Robinson of history.

She was an actress famous for her role as Perdita in The Winter’s Tale.

This was his first great affair and it set a sexual pattern that he followed basically, for the rest of his life.


Mrs Robinson (Perdita) by George Romney 1780-81, courtesy Wallace Collection, London

George Romney’s portrait of Mary Robinson as “Perdita” depicts her confidently attired in a fashionable black silk cape and grey muff.

She is an elegant lady with a coy demeanour, her sharp features delineated by the artist’s soft, formal style.

Just as suddenly as George started the liaison he broke it off, apparently treating her very badly simply because he was bored and wanted change.


George Stubbs, Detail: George IV, his dog and Phaeton 1793, courtesy Royal Collection Trust

Artist Thomas Gainsborough lent George an air of well bred assurance, perhaps deliberately to counter his client’s unfortunate public image, while affirming his qualities as a convivial, civilized man.

He achieves a wonderful balance between royal dignity and gentlemanly ease in a portrait of the prince aged twenty. So at least we might all believe that despite the contrived hauteur, he may also be approachable.

George is wearing a black cravat highlighting a youthful rosy complexion enhanced by the makeup that men had worn for centuries, one that would fade away rapidly from this point onward.

George, Prince of Wales began his public career when he was twenty, in 1782.

This followed a traditional pattern that had been established by former heirs, for that of being obstinately independent as well as totally disrespectful to their father.

For years the quarrels between George and George III meant he was barred from playing a useful role in government. In frustration he became the unofficial centre of the opposition to the King’s ministers.

When in London his acquaintances and friends lived and spent most of their time in a small area between Grosvenor Square and St. James’s.

His Whig affiliations and his morals alike were all highly questionable and caused acute embarrassment to the Crown.

Mrs Mary Robinson (Perdita) by Thomas Gainsborough courtesy Wallace Collection, London

He spent most of his time in his youth with a pair of wild spendthrift friends, Fox and Sheridan and was soon in debt and never really got out of it.

One reason was because in 1780 the Argand lamp, which used colza oil to provide light, had been invented. This meant a room could be illuminated up to ten times more brightly than ever before.

The fashion for everyone wearing white lead paint on their faces and highly rouged cheeks had come about because of a need to be able to see each other through the gloom of candlelight.

Candles were always expensive and only the very rich could afford to use dozens to light a room.

Once bright light became readily and more cost effectively available then everyone quite literally got a fright at how they looked, and so make up styles and hair styles changed rapidly.

BEAU-BRUMMELAs a young man the Prince set style advised by his then friend Beau Brummel.

He wore his hair in the newest and most fashionable ‘Augustan’ style, with curls onto the face loosely arranged. George Bryan, Beau Brummel was a great wit and a stylish leader of fashion.

He derided men who did not look after their figures and they were scorned by society. This was a whole new pressure for ‘gentleman’ to worry about.

It was in 1784 that George, Prince of pleasure took one look at Maria Fitzherbert standing on the steps of the Opera and fell instantly in love.

George, Prince of Wales in 1792

Miniature by Richard Cosway George, Prince of Wales in 1792

He was so besotted he would only attend parties and events if the hostess of the evening assured him Maria would be both there – and sat at the table next to him!

Following a dedicated and unsuccessful pursuit of Mrs Fitzherbert, Maria was surprised one evening by a visit from some of the Prince’s men.

They told her the Prince had tried to commit suicide.

Mrs Fitzherbert went to him accompanied by the Duchess of Devonshire. They found him weak and bleeding in Carlton House, whereupon he persuaded Maria to marry him.

So, in 1785 George, Prince of Wales Prince married Mrs Fitzherbert (1756 –1837) a Roman Catholic, who had been married twice before.

The couple were seemingly very happy and society accepted the unconventional pair as they spent a great deal of time and effort together as he spent money recklessly establishing his own household in Carlton House at Pall Mall.

Its entrance front was dominated by a portico of Corinthian columns., perhaps the most sumptuous ever executed in London.

French architectural conventions governing the hierarchy of the use of the classical orders dictated that a Corinthian portico of this type would be appropriate only for a royal or civic building, not for the private house of an ordinary subject.

The portico at Carlton House was also an early instance of a porte cochere, which permitted a whole carriage to be driven under it so members of the household or guests could enter without getting wet. This made perfect sense in wet and windy London.

Today all that remains of this extravaganza is contemporary images of it drawn by Pyne and its portico, which became part of the facade of the National Gallery of Art.


James Gillray: A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion (1792), Library of Congress, WashingtonFor social historians the Regency is the age of scandal exemplified by the Prince Regent and his brothers and their astonishing record of gambling, gluttony and cast off mistresses, who surprisingly all ended up showing up rather well, by comparison.

The Act of Settlement debarred an heir apparent marrying a Roman Catholic and even though the ceremony for his nuptials had been performed by a clergyman of the Church of England with her brother and uncle as witnesses.

George was forced to deny, even in parliament, that the marriage to Maria Fitzherbert had ever taken place. Few relationships in his life show George in a feebler light than this.

His behaviour towards the one woman he is reputed to have genuinely loved and deserved his loyalty was, for many totally appalling.

Although they saw each other during the years following, when he became Prince Regent in 1810 following the loss of George III’s sanity,  Prinny (as George was known to his friends) and Maria parted company permanently.

From then on she received a yearly allowance of £5000 from the Royal family until she died .

When George, Prince of Wales did become Regent of England, and then King,to the utter amazement of many, he showed surprising political and diplomatic abilities.

However, it is as a man of wit, cultivation and as a patron of the arts that George wanted to be remembered.

He was, according to all his intimate friends, one of the most companionable of all English monarchs to be around.

Tripping the light fantastic at Almacks

His Regency and later reign as George IV are considered a high point of English social and cultural life.

In London Spring Gardens was an address, which became well known for its exhibitions on behalf of the Society of Artists.

Its neighbourhood and clientele was acutely observed by Thomas Rowlandson whose art works of the time also verge on caricature. Dinner parties were frequent and rarely on a small scale, and on many occasions must have been magnificent.

All on that magic list depends;
Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers friends;
“Tis that which gratifies or vests
All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.

The Duke of Wellington in his fashionable skin coloured trousers

A Ball and supper were held once a week during the season at Almacks – a severely exclusive and despotically vapour filled venue controlled by a group of patronizing patronesses, including the Ladies Castlereagh, Jersey and Cowper.

Persons engaged in commerce had no hope of going .

One night even the great grand old Duke of Wellington, who was wearing the new rage trousers, was firmly refused admittance. By the 1820’s men were wearing trousers for all sorts of occasions.

Slim fitting and a light in colour they did their best to suggest the skin colour formerly worn in tight fitting breeches, although for the evening the correct colour to wear was still black, hence the reason that he was barred.

All male guests had to have some skill in dancing and wear white cravats, which for many years defined a gentleman forcing him to keep his head up, chin forthrightly forward and bravely supporting all those girls new to the fashionable world who suffered and wept if they were not on the list at Almacks.

The distance between London and the fashionable high spots of Bath and Brighton for the weekend was eaten up quickly if you had the good fortune to be traveling in the Aston Martin of its day, the very fashionable racing phaeton.

A dashing young man of the ‘ton’, which meant he metaphorically raced around at a 100 miles an hour, could easily make the gatherings where all the eligible young ladies of marriageable age, and from approved families were invited every weekend in his phaeton.


Lemuel Francis Abbot, Horatio Nelson – courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Admiral Horatio Nelson was a tactician of genius, a charismatic and inspirational leader.

His figure cast a giant shadow across the British Navy for a century after his time.

Nelson met Emma, Lady Hamilton the beautiful wife of ageing English Ambassador Sir William Hamilton, one of the centuries most scholarly collectors.

Both successively and cumulatively the painter George Romney, his clients Sir William Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson launched Emma into society.

He ensured her a place in British history as she exploited her female charms to further her goals.

It appears that one married her, one bedded her and one painted her.

George Romney (17334 – 1802) was a sensitive and introspective man who had known Emma since she was a young lady.

He painted more than fifty portraits of her including his ‘Bacchante’, referring to her as his ‘divine Emma’.

In 1793 in Naples Emma and Horatio Nelson became lovers. Nelson was accepted tactfully by the ageing ambassador, who did nothing to interfere in what was obviously a very intense love affair.

Nelson was vain and Emma played up to it.

They were lovers from 1799 until Nelson’s death by which time they were virtually living as husband and wife and making only token efforts to conceal it.

Emma Hamilton as Bacchante by George Romney

When we have run our passions’ heat
Love hither makes his best retreat:
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race:

Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow:
And Pan did after Syrinx speed
Not as a nymph, but for a reed

Emma and her husband returned to London with him where they all set up house together in what would become an infamous menage a trois.

In 1801 she gave birth to a daughter, Horatia later acknowledged by Nelson as his daughter.

The victor of the battles of Copenhagen, the Nile and Trafalgar, Nelson was the most successful British naval commander of the Napoleonic Wars.

The son of a Norfolk Parson he entered the navy at 12 rising rapidly through the ranks on the outbreak of war with France.

He established himself as a popular hero by hunting down the French Fleet lying in Aboukir Bay off the north coast of Africa and destroyed all but two of their ships.

Detail William Wilberforce by John Rising, 1790, pictured at the age of 29, Wilberforce House Hull Museum,, Hull City Council

The books about Captain Horatio Hornblower by CS Forester and the series on ABC TV were all inspired by his exploits.

The Battle of the Nile ended Napoleon’s eastern ambitions and rocketed Nelson, by now a Rear Admiral with only one arm and one eye, to fame, one that no disquiet over his personality or private life has ever seriously tarnished.

Historically the Regency has been also been described as the age of reform dominated by the campaign to overhaul the English Parliament, and to abolish black slavery.

Though protesting people could not demand reform in Parliament because for the most part, they were not represented.

William Pitt

William Pitt the Younger by George Romney, 1783j, courtesy Tate Collection

William Pitt the Younger, was in private a lonely, isolated figure, but also the most prominent British politician of his day, dominating Parliament for twenty years.

He sought to reduce the national debt, reformed the government of Canada and reorganized the East India Company.

He was only 24 when he became Prime Minister an office he was to hold until 1801 when he resigned in protest after George III blocked his Bill for Catholic emancipation.

He was persuaded to return in 1804 and died in 1806 aged only 46. His main preoccupation during that time was the long war with France. Britain feared invasion and he organized the coalition with Russia, Austria and Sweden and greatly strengthened the British Navy.

With the victory of Trafalgar he was hailed as ‘the Saviour of Europe’ to which he famously replied; “Europe is not to be saved by any single man; England has saved herself by her exertions and, will, I trust, save Europe by her example’.

Wife of the philosopher William Godwin, and mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founders of modern British feminism.

She stands in her own right as one of the major figures of the period. She ran a school and traveled extensively on the continent before settling in London in 1787.

Blake, reality and spirituality

Blake, reality and spirituality

She was part of the radical circle that included the artist William Blake (1757-1827) who rejected traditional composition and ideas of perspective, evoking an enigmatic other worldliness in his paintings.

They reflect his uniquely personal, mystical vision, in which imagination and reality become one.

As an engraver, painter, poet, visionary and prophet of the modern age, Blake is perhaps one of the  most distinctive of all the English romantics. He was all at once astonishingly original and yet deeply rooted in the radical dissenting tradition from which he came.

His poems, especially Songs of Innocence 1789 and Songs of Experience 1794, include some of the purest lyrics in the English language.

They express his ardent belief in the freedom of the imagination and his hatred of rationalism and materialism.

Throughout his life he was upheld by the most real and vivid faith in the unseen, guided and encouraged, as he believed, by perpetual visitations from the spiritual world.

Allan Ramsay’s second wife Margaret…a connubial tribute, portrait now in the collection of National Galleries Scotland 1758-1760

Artist Allan Ramsay’s portraits combined a great delicacy of costume and pose with a realistic treatment of his sitter’s features.

His exploitation of the evocative powers of their facial particularities is at the very heart of his immense success as a portraitist.

He was far more influenced by French art than any of his English contemporaries and his enchanting portrait of his wife Margaret was a connubial tribute hard to match, even today.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) published her Rights of Women in 1792. It highlighted the ‘means and arts by which women had been forcibly subjugated, flattered into imbecility and invariably held in bondage’.

She was in Paris during the French Revolution where she had a child by an American, Gilbert Imlay, who abandoned her.

She attempted suicide but met and fell in love with William Godwin and then died at 38 giving birth to her second daughter Mary.

The influence of the mother she never knew on the future of Mary Shelley would be profound.

A gifted author by 1814 at the age of sixteen, Mary eloped to the continent with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who is critically regarded among the finest of all the lyric poets in the English language.

They set up house on the shores of Lake Geneva near his great friend George Gordon, Lord Byron whom Mary visited often. Their relationship was a literary affair.

This is when she began her famous work the novel Frankenstein in 1818.

Percy Shelley, his wife Mary and friend Lord Byron

Shelley died in 1822 and of the three children they had together only one, Percy Florence, survived infancy and Mary returned with him to England in 1823. The second part of her life was relatively uneventful.

A portrait of her by Richard Rothwell hung over the fireplace at Boscombe, together with the portraits of her first love William Godwin and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. When the portrait by Rothwell was exhibited at the Royal Academy at London it was Shelley’s description in the catalogue

How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of custom though didst burst and rend in twain,
And walked as free as light the clouds among

Jane Austen EraIn the age of revolutionaries and romantics mistresses, consorts and clever women achieved a great deal.

Jane Austen’s novels, which have become classics in their own right, allow us today to share the memory of the robust society in which she lived and gain an understanding about its privileges of rank, which was reflected in how they dressed, dined, performed and were entertained in a selection of social settings.

Like Fanny Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft she left the world on the brink of unprecedented change and would be pleased to know their writing is still being admired some two hundred years later.

Beauty, and or money were, it seems, were the only things required of a woman in the age of revolutionaries and romantics. If she had the first, she usually managed to marry the second. If she had the second, she did not need the first.

No matter how ill-favoured, there was a small chance of a rich woman ‘leading apes in hell’ a commonly thought superstition about the unenviable lot of spinsters in the after life. There was a story abroad that the practical Irish issued a list of English women of fashion from Duchesses down to untitled rich nobodies ‘for the benefit of Irish fortune hunters’, although it’s never been found in any archive.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2015

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