Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Class Distinctions in Regency England

By Philippa Jane Keyworth

I want to thank English Historical Fiction Authors for having me here. It is a real privilege to guest post, and I want to thank them for giving me the opportunity.

Today I want to write about a well-known primary source, The Mirror of Graces by a Lady of Distinction. This book was first published in London in 1811, and, presumably due to its popularity, it was subsequently re-printed in New York in 1813 and 1815, in Edinburgh in 1830 and then again in Boston in 1831.

The copy that I own is an enlarged photo-reprint and spans some 239 pages or more. At such a length, I can hardly say that this article will cover the entirety of the book or will be a full analysis of the source. However, I wanted to share a little something about this captivating text which I am currently studying.

Specifically, I have been drawn to the passage entitled, 'ON THE PECULIARITIES OF DRESS, WITH REFERENCE TO THE STATION OF THE WEARER'. It strikes me that when reading a Regency romance and even when writing one, we tend to focus on the positives of class divides. Who can resist a classic Pride and Prejudice-esque storyline that follows the romantic attachment of a man and woman divided by class who eventually overcome it?

What we sometimes fail to see is, as John Tosh describes it, 'The gulf between past and present.' We don't give complete gravity to the social divides of the time and instead we romanticize them. In truth, while reading this passage from The Mirror of Graces, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or to frown in comprehension. The peculiarities of dress A Lady of Distinction refers to are the fashions of the time, and she sets us straight from the beginning by describing the danger of lower and middle classes dressing fashionably:
It is not from a proud wish to confine elegance to persons of quality that I contend for less extravagant habits in the middle and lower orders of people: it is a conviction of the evil which their vanity produces that impels me to condemn in toto the present levelling and expensive mode.
And before this statement of her conviction she declares the propriety of corresponding your dress with not only your season of life, character and figure but also with your station. She speaks of this matter so:
This is the subject not less of moral concern than it is a matter of taste.
Yes, that's right, you've got it. She believes that dressing for your station is not just about taste but actually your moral obligation. Well, doesn't this just put a new spin on the classical fashions of the Regency!?

She differentiates between tradesmen and those with 'fortunes of princes'. Of course, for those with 'fortunes of princes' it is different. They are allowed to array their 'fair partners' in 'rich produce', but not so for the tradesmen:
...but I animadvert on our retail shopkeepers, our linen drapers, upholsterers, &c. who, not content with gold and silver baubles, trick out their dames in jewels!
Shocking! She even uses an exclamation mark! 

And what, pray tell, does she think of the morality of these tradesman she so heartily attacks for their expensive tastes?
No wonder that these men load their consciences with dishonest profits, or make their last appearance in the newspaper as insolvent or felo de se! 
Incompetent both in business and morals. Just wait until she gets onto the working-class women....
If the brazier's daughter is taught to sing, dance and play like the heiress to an earldom, we must not be surprised that she will also emulate the decorations of her rival...not able to have hers of gems, foil-stones produce a similar affect....
So, these women are like those of today who shop in Primark to emulate the fashions of Chanel and D & G. Is this successful in attracting men (which is one of the purposes of such finery) ?
...and when she is thus arrayed, she plays away the wanton and the fool, till some libertine of fortune buys her either for a wife or a mistress.
Harsh words!

So, having devoted four pages to these working-class tradesmen and women, a Lady of Distinction moves swiftly, and unsurprisingly, back to the class she is from:
After having drawn this agreeable picture of her who has well-chosen, I will leave this modern daughter of industry to her discreet and virtuous simplicity; and once more turn to her whose fortune and station render greater changes and expence in apparel not only admissible but commendable.
I found this passage, as I have said, quite humorous, but it was also very enlightening. There is a lot to be learned here, I believe. 

The author is, as she describes herself, '...a woman of virtue and a Christian...' who does not feel it beneath her dignity to lift her pen on these subjects, so I will therefore assume her to be from the upper echelons of society. It's important to count this information when making any deductions from what has been said above. 

What I will deduce from the above extracts is:

The importance of dress to some women in Regency Society
The industrial revolution allowing for the rise of rich tradesmen (note the term she uses, 'this modern daughter of industry')
The ability of the middle and lower classes to buy finer clothing
Tradesmen becoming bad businessmen when they buy fine clothing for their female relatives - oh, I love this woman's logic!
The availability of ‘mimmick’ clothing, jewels etc
Dress being a clear factor denoting status
The status line being questioned and blurred by trade and affluence
The 'truth' that tradesmen's daughters dressing above their station leads to wantonness and becoming a libertine's wife or mistress
Following the fashions and spending money on fashion for women 'of fortune' is commendable

Again, I want to stress that this is a tiny section of this text which I have analysed and there are far more diverse subjects within it which should not be discounted. However, it does provide a valuable window through a contemporary text into opinions advocated by one woman, at least, and embraced by more, most probably, as evidenced by the multiple re-printings of this book.

It is an interesting text, especially as it is written almost twenty years after Mary Wollstonecraft's controversial text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which declares the need for women to receive an equal education for men, whereas the Mirror of Graces implies the opposite. To gain some insight into the differing views on women and their roles between the years 1792 and 1811, I would highly recommend reading these two contemporary texts. They could not be more different, and yet both contain insights into the mindset of women toward other women and toward their role within society itself. 

Which mindset was more prevalent? It would have been amazingly helpful if the rest of the women in British Regency England had written a volume cataloging their responses to the views put forth in these two texts—if only!

Thank you again for having me, and I hope you enjoyed this little research topic of mine!

Known to her friends as Pip, Philippa Jane Keyworth has been writing since she was twelve in every notebook she could find. Add to this her love for reading, history, and horse-riding, and you have the perfect recipe for creating Regency romances. You can find out more about Philippa by going to her blog, checking out her Facebook page, or following her on Twitter.

Pip’s debut novel, The Widow’s Redeemer (Madison Street Publishing, 2012), brings to life the romance between a young widow with an indomitable spirit and a wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation. It is this week's giveaway on EHFA and you can click here to read more about it and enter to win.


  1. From our perspective looking back, this attitude seems crazy and harsh, but I have read similar attitudes expressed myself. Many people really felt the need for a class distinction.

    Interesting post, thanks!

  2. It's interesting that the concern about the "lower orders" dressing above their station occurs throughout history, as in the medieval sumptuary laws. It seems a sign of insecurity during periods of significant social change.

  3. Regency romances are Cinderella stories. They are the exception, rather than the rule. I believe that is what makes them so compelling. Of course, having such strict and abundant guidelines and rules is what makes breaking them so much fun!

  4. Wow, Philippa, I've always known there existed a strict class system in England. I have a friend who is 103 years old that often told me tales of such division. She was an under-nanny to the wealthy and not permitted to advance her education because it might give her ideas above her station. It was the reason she left for Australia with 4 children and 200 pounds in her pocket in the early 50's. What you have written about is what I admired so much about The Widow's Redeemer. You put it out there straightforward about the prevalent societal views of the day. Yes, it seems harsh to our 21st century ears, but it is the truth. I love the truth in historical fiction. Historical fiction is primarily for enjoyment, but I firmly believe education about a time period is essential as well to give the novel depth and honesty. Well done.

  5. I enjoyed this very much but want to make one small pedantry point about Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth and Darcy are not divided by class but by income, which is quite a different thing: "He is a gentleman. I am a gentleman's daughter," Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine. But her father is a not-so-wealthy gentleman who has never saved and has 5 children to provide for, whereas Darcy is extremely rich and likely to become even more so if he marries Lady Catherine's daughter (who is her only child and heiress).

    The anxiety about tradesmen's daughters dressing above their station which the Lady of Distinction reveals may well be related to this, as it was quite possible for a tradesman's daughter to be richer than a gentleman's daughter, have a better dowry and thus be a more desirable marriage partner for the sons of less wealthy gentlemen, younger sons of aristocrats (like Darcy's cousin Fitzwilliam, who explains as much to Elizabeth) and impoverished nobles like Byron, who complains in his diaries of having spent his fortune and being obliged to look for another by marriage to a heiress (it didn't work out too well).

    How to discourage this? Unlike France, there have never been laws about marrying outside your class in England. One way, of course, is to try to police the dress codes and behaviour of the dangerous lower-but-richer class. Another is to stigmatize men who marry below their class as 'libertines' - ie men who cannot control their desires.

    It's interesting that the classic Regency love story is a Cinderella one (it goes back to Richardson's Pamela in the 1740s) in which the woman "marries up" in class and money terms, but never about an impoverished man marrying down but richer.


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