Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fencing in Regency England: Could a Woman Do It? by Christy English



During the Regency Period, fencing became the formalized sport that we know today instead of simply a means to defend oneself in a duel. Standard rules and forms began to be applied and gentlemen fenced, not just to stay in shape for combat but for sport and enjoyment.



The Weapons
(right to left) Medieval Longsword; Rapier; two Smallswords; Classical Epee, Foil, and Radellian Sabre; modern Epee, Foil, and Sabre




According to Salle Greene LLC, Domenico Angelo founded the Angelo School of Arms in 1763. His grandson, Henry Angelo, was the third generation of that family to teach fencing to the haute ton of England’s elite, training gentleman fencers during the Regency.  



In my novel, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, I take the liberty of allowing my leading lady to fence. This is relatively unlikely in the state of the world at the time, but my heroine is the daughter of a military man, a girl raised as much by her father’s veterans as by her mother.



Regency Fencing Kit



As far as I can tell, there is no physical reason that a woman could not have fenced secretly during the Regency period. But beyond the realm of fiction, it is highly unlikely that women would have been trained in combat at all. How does one fence in stays and a gown, for example? And more importantly, why would a woman risk her reputation by doing something so masculine and outlandish?



But in the realm of fiction, it was a lot of fun to conceive of a heroine who set aside her fears of social censure and to pick up a rapier. Courage or folly, that is the kind of woman I love to read about.



After years of acting in Shakespeare’s plays, Christy is excited to bring the Bard to Regency England. She can often be found hunched over her computer, immersed in the past. Her latest novel is HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew. She is also the author of the historical novels TO BE QUEEN and THE QUEEN’S PAWN. Please join her on her website http://www.ChristyEnglish.com or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ShakespeareInLoveSeries

10 comments:

  1. I took a fencing class out of curiosity years ago, and it is a sport a woman could do, and do well (several girls in my class carried on and were excellent). Your observations about stays, gowns etc. are very just-I can't imagine a lunge in a gown! It definitely would not have been considered a ladylike activity.

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  2. So true Lauren! I think it would not have worked very well. Not to mention completely offended everyone in sight.

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  3. It's not far fetched to think a woman would have fenced. We have illustrations from the Victorian era (http://avictorian.com/women_fencing_gallery.html) on through Edwardian era, when clothing was very restrictive. And from Georgian era, too -- http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-lUGeZb8_9UY/Tq2oyziX-9I/AAAAAAAAI5Q/a1jtsaKJYEk/s1600/fencing.jpg. Why would women stop fencing during the Regency ear? The corsets and stays actually might be an advantage in that they'd provide excellent posture (and custom made stays are actually very comfortable).

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    1. Thank you for these fabulous links, Shannon. You make great points. So maybe my Caroline isn't too far fetched after all...

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  4. Actually the clothes in the Regency era were not as restrictive, as the Georgian or Victorian eras, neither were undergarments. Stays seemed more bearable than corsets! Lizzie Bennett strides out across the fields in P & P, I can see her picking up a rapier!

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    1. So true, Maggie! I would fear Lizzie with a blade! :)

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  5. When, as a child, I attended ballet classes at the Faulkner Studio it was the fencing classes that I watched with hunger. Grown up, I indulged my passion. Interestingly, my classmates never lost the idea that they were murdering each other.

    The most memorable class was when a fencer from the rival Salle Santelli showed up to challenge us wearing TWO fencing gloves. My teacher, the very elegant Herr Rhode, had learned his English from the stage hands at the Metropolitan Opera where he was fencing master. After our bouts with the ambidextrous fencer he ceased to refer to the Santelli folk as "Dem gum-chewin' polukas."

    Why ever wouldn't a free thinking woman fence?

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    1. I love your stories, Katherine. And indeed, why wouldn't a free thinking woman fence? Touche!

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  6. While researching for a book i'm working on, I have just come across a piece in the Morning Post from Friday 08 Match 1816 which makes reference to the female fencer Signora Ermenegilda Cheli "whose extraordinary and agile use of the small sword drew such repeated plaudits from the covent-garden auditory a short time since" was to have what I assume was an exhibition match at Signor Francalanza's fencing rooms the following day. I cannot find out anything more about her but am now intrigued - so at least one lady (though I don't know her background) did fence openly during the Regency.

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  7. I have just come across a story in the Morning Post from Mar 8th 1816 in which the female fencer Signora Ermenegilda Cheli "whose extraordinary & agile use of the small sword drew such repeated plaudits from the Covent-Garden auditory a short time since" intended to make "un grand assaut d'armes" at Signor Francalanza's fencing rooms the following day. So at least one woman (though I can't find out anything more about her) was fencing openly during the Regency and now I admit I am intrigued about her.

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