Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sex, Swearing and Humour in the Regency Period

By Caroline Miley

History is full of facts, but Catherine Morland is probably not the only reader who sometimes found them a little trying: “I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page.”(1) Facts are, of course, of primary importance. But it's one thing to discover, for instance, that the Duke of Wellington's birthday was May Day, and quite another to know how it would have been celebrated - and the way life was lived is often far more interesting, but harder to discover, than reigns and dates and public events.

Thomas Rowlandson ‘Soldiers on a March’ 1808

Fortunately, in the late Georgian era there's a mass of contemporary material, ranging from newspapers, letters, diaries, memoirs and military dispatches to essays and novels. Not only are these full of useful information, they show clearly how people used to write and express themselves.

There's an idea that the Regency was full of people saying 'Demme, m'Lud, I do protest..' and so on, but a glance at Jane Austen's prose shows that ordinary people didn't speak like that at all. One of the things evident in reading a wide range of contemporary material is that educated people often used two quite different modes of expression, depending on what they were writing. There's the everyday, which is plain and unadorned. Clear, elegant prose was what the Georgians aimed for. Military dispatches, for instance, are models of concise statement. Here is the Duke of Wellington (in recorded speech): “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I called 'guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.”(2) So too with letters, including those Jane Austen gives in her novels. But when describing scenery in memoirs, writers sometimes break into a special 'literary' form: 'When we attained the crest of the hill, what a vale of Elysian delight opened before us! Fair Venus herself would not disdain to dwell in the exquisite groves...' and so on. But they didn't talk like that. It was a poetic mode considered suitable for literature.

The real problem for anyone wishing to learn not only the facts but the feeling of an era, is the vast amount of material that never appears in print. At the forefront of this is sex and swearing. Neither subject is ever mentioned, although there must have been a great deal of both. We can know quite a lot about sex at the time, but less of how people talked about it, and therefore what they thought. It was not a subject for polite conversation, so remained hidden. Fielding’s novels (Tom Jones, The History of Moll Flanders) and contemporary plays show that, as might be expected, people were keen on sex and thought about it a lot. There are hints about sexual desire under the text of Austen’s novels and letters – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, and other seductions, must have been motivated by libido, and there are occasional comments that ‘I could not like him in that way’. It is noteworthy that the Georgians were a great deal less squeamish about sex than the later Victorians. The fact of Colonel Brandon’s having an illegitimate daughter, for instance, doesn’t make him an unsuitable husband for Marianne. But when it comes to details of what people did and how they did it, if it were not for Fanny Hill (3) and Rowlandson's numerous, often very graphic erotic drawings, I don't know how we'd get on at all. As it is, these two sources provide almost too much information!

Swearing also doesn't appear in print, except the occasional genteel 'by G- sir!' Naval and military reminiscences give a few more clues - one of my favourites being the officer who recalled that he had been several days as a midshipman on his first ship before discovering that 'Damn your eyes!' was not a form of greeting. But I think it is safe to assume that there was a great deal of swearing among men and the lower classes of women, and that it centred, then pretty much as now, around the common ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sexual words in use today and blasphemy. In sharp contrast to today, though, a gentleman certainly did not swear in the presence of a lady.

Which brings me to the final category: humour. I've not been able to find any joke books of the period, but irony and satire there were in plenty, and I have to assume that broad fall-on-your-face humour was as likely to raise a laugh then as now. Again, the multitude of lampoons and caricatures of the period give us the best clues to this category. Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘The Stare Case’ depicts a crowd on the notoriously narrow staircase of the Royal Academy at Exhibition time. Plump ladies are tumbling down, their skirts hiked up to show their rounded bottoms (no underwear in those days), while some dirty old men (and the sculptor Nollekens) ogle them from the foot of the stairs. A similar idea animates his sketch of ‘The Line of Beauty (a concept in art), in which some Royal Academicians (4) have positioned themselves strategically to take in the more intimate charms of the nude model reclining before them.

Thomas Rowlandson  ‘R.A.s of Genius Reflecting on the True Line
 of Beauty, at the Life Academy Somerset House June 1, 1824’ 

There is a great deal of pictorial humour along those lines, as well as poking fun at stereotypes, such as fat greedy men shoving food into their faces and elegant dandies tight-lacing their corsets and padding their skinny hips. One of my favourites, ‘On the March’ which typically combines information with comedy, shows a line of soldiers and camp followers crossing a stream. All are burdened with various things; one man bears his wife on his back; a frolicking dog (a Rowlandson trademark) holds a bundle in his mouth, and at the rear a sturdy wife carries her officer husband, too refined to get his feet wet, on her back.

Thomas Rowlandson ‘The Stare Case’ 1811

But lampoons are not the place to find the more subtle wit that really characterised the age.  Here is Austen at her best, in her letters, where she spoke less guardedly than in her published works: “I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”(5) And for a feast of raillery, as it was called, it’s hard to go past Sheridan, the noted wit and satirist, who thought that “There's no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature”(6). His plays are full of comedy, and he must have been a formidable opponent as an MP. To understand late Georgian humour, you can do a lot worse than to read contemporary plays. The wit is often surprisingly modern, my favourite being this riposte by Goldsmith’s Tony Lumpkin, when his mother suggests that he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends waiting at the tavern: “As for disappointing them, I should not so much mind; but I can't abide to disappoint myself.”(7)

These are not the great affairs of State (or affairs of Statesmen) that are the staple of so much history. But if we want to get inside the lives of ordinary people and find out what they thought and how they lived, then nothing is more important than humour, sex and swearing.

(1) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, London, 1817, Chapter 14
(2) Quoted in The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, LL.D F.R.S, Secretary of the Admiralty from 1809 to 1830 (1884), edited by Louis J. Jennings, Vol. III, p. 276.
(3) Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, London 1748.
(4) Plate 32 from Charles Molloy Westmacott's "English Spy" 1824. Each artist's easel is initialled for identification: B.R.H. for Benjamin Robert Haydon, M.A. Shee for Martin Archer Shee, T.L for Sir Thomas Lawrence, B.W. for Benjamin West, R.W. for Richard Westmacott, J.J. for John Jackson, J.F. for Joseph Farington, and F.C. for Francis Chantrey (courtesy Met Museum).
(5) Letter to her sister Cassandra, December 24, 1798.
(6) The School for Scandal, Act 1, Scene 1.
(7) She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, 1773, Act 1 Scene 1.


Caroline Miley is an art historian and author of literary historical novels set in the late Georgian era. Her debut novel, The Competition, won a Varuna Fellowship and a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and was selected by the Royal Academy of Arts for its 250th Anniversary celebrations. Her latest novel, Artist on Campaign, was inspired by wondering what would happen if a rake of an artist was obliged to put up with the British Army, and vice versa.
Her interests are art, both as a practitioner and a viewer, books, films, history, travel and gardens.

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  1. For coarse language you can find a copy of Captain Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) on Project Gutenberg. Very enlightening! There are coarse terms for things you didn't know you needed coarse terms for.

  2. Enjoyable and interesting, thank you!

  3. This was a delightful post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You actually did make history come alive for me.


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