The Scandalous Regency Era

Much of our cultural concept of the English Regency era is based on the tame and polite society depicted in Jane Austen’s work, and the popular genre of regency historicals that reflect that same depiction, like the work of Georgette Heyer. Because of the popularity (in our time: Jane Austen was relatively obscure in her own time, amidst a flood of very popular female writers) of Jane Austen and the polite society depicted within, we don’t often see that the Regency era was one that loved the scandalous and the shocking, where some of the most popular parties and salons were hosted by known courtesans and attended by the Prince Regent and his coterie of sharp-dressed and sharp-witted gentlemen friends, along with anyone else who wanted a place in high society.

The Regency era loved a good scandal–not to be scandalised at it, but to celebrate it. My current favourite topic of research is Sir Lumley St George Skeffington. “Skiffy” to his friends, and, well, most of London. Society loved him almost as much as they loved to lampoon him: several caricature cartoons of him are mentioned in his obit, including this one with his good friend Montague James Mathew. Both Skiffy and Montague died bachelors–there are quite a lot of lifelong bachelors in the friend group of the Prince Regent and Beau Brummell, including Brummell himself. Skiffy was known for his outrageous outfits, of his own design. I’m particularly delighted by this pink suit: are those feathers?

The courtesans of the Regency have been largely forgotten–they were driven out of the upper echelons of society by the social reforms of the Victorian Era. Victoria was far more restrained than her uncle, who surrounded himself with the most outrageous (and well-dressed) men in England and attended parties hosted by the most outrageous (and well-dressed) women in England. Harriette Wilson was one of the most popular courtesans of the era, even more so after her bestselling memoirs. She’s particularly remembered today for allowing high-profile lovers and clients to buy their way out of being mentioned in her memoirs. Julia Johnstone was another leading member

of the “Cyprians”, who had such wealth and fame that they could throw balls attended by all the greatest figures of the day, many of them their lovers (Beau Brummell, Ian Kelly, 2006)

Julia Johnstone, Harriette Wilson, and Hariette’s sister Amy Dubochet were known to their society as the “Three Graces”, and their salons were always full of doting admirers–including the future king.

In addition to the open and popular sexuality of the courtesans, I strongly suspect that “Prinny’s set”–the close friends of the Prince Regent and the elite of Regency society contained a lot of homosexual figures. It’s hard to confirm, since there’s very little serious scholarship on the topic, but a surprising amount of the prince’s friends die unwed, living long and popular lives with rather a lot of gentlemen friends. Men like “Skiffy” abounded, and the more shocking and scandalous they were, the more popular they became. Including the handsome and clever Beau Brummell, who even accompanied the prince on his honeymoon.

I get a lot of questions and comments about the homosexual characters in my books not encountering more outright homophobia. But this is the Regency era! This sort of thing may not be depicted in the relatively tame oeuvre of Austen, but sexual scandals and salacious rumours often served to make their subjects even more popular, as we can clearly see with the Cyprians, who capitalised on this to significant profit.

It’s also worth remembering that homosexuality has always existed as a human trait. Suppose we use the very generalised modern statistic that 10% of people have homosexual inclinations. That’s quite a lot, so let’s say that 9/10 of these possible Regency era homosexuals live in denial and never act on their impulses. 1%, then, of society might be actively inclined homosexuals. By the population of Great Britain in 1810, that’s 120,000 active homosexuals throughout Great Britain during the Regency. Several of whom were the celebrated close friends of the Prince Regent himself and the toast of Regency society.

 

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