The Regency Era
The Regency era is defined by the span of time around when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son took the throne as prince regent. His rule lasted from 1811-1820, though the Regency era is often considered to be about 1795 to 1837, from the latter part of the reign of George III, through the prince regent decade and beyond. The Regency is a subset of the Georgian era, covering the rule of George I, George II, George III and George IV. The term Georgian is more commonly used for architecture of the time while Regency is used for fashion (the most famous Georgian house in London is likely 10 Downing street, pictured here). The era ended in 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, ushering in the beginning of the Victorian era.
Greater Britain in Early Regency
As with any contemporary novel, the story was shaped by the world Austen was writing in. There had been an uncommonly hot and dry summer followed by a bitterly cold winter in 1794. In January of 1795 England recorded its coldest ever month. Farmlands planted as best they could but in the early Spring another cold snap destroyed most of their new crops. Grain prices skyrocketed, and some were accused of hoarding and worsening the shortages. There were massive food riots throughout England as a result that continued for months. Sheryl Craig, editor of the Jane Austen Society of North America newsletter, notes that “. . .as Jane Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility, Britons were experiencing . . .the economic results of a harvest failure of biblical plague proportions. Everyone in Britain was affected by the disaster. . . . it was a financial reversal every bit as devastating as the Dashwoods’ loss of their father’s income.”
Britain was also waging war against Napolean as he was building his empire, with an alliance formed in September of 1795 between Britain, Austria and Russia against France’s invasions. While Britain did not have the explosiveness of the French revolution, they were still reeling from the unpopular war with America. The populace at large, spurned by a public agitation, and near to the brink of famine, threw stones at the King’s carriage when he headed to Westminster to open a new session of parliament that season. With the combination of domestic and international hardships, the Spreenhamland System of wage supplements was enacted in Britain to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. The government also made it nearly impossible to hold public meetings in support of reformation (it was redefined as treason), driving public unrest underground.
This is the economic and environmental climate in which Austen places her suddenly homeless and in need of assistance Dashwood women.
Regency Pop Culture
The Dashwood women are well-read and Marianne in particular holds strong opinions about the popular books and music of the era. Here are some noteworthy names and happenings. Keep in mind the Regency time frame—Charles Dickens stories and the setting of Sweeney Todd are Victorian.
Books: Poets and playwrights were the intellectual superstars of the time while novelists were seen as mass-market entertainment. The poet Alexander Pope died in 1744 but was still widely read along with Shakespeare, William Cowper, and Jean Racine. William Blake, now considered a seminal figure of the Romantic age, was largely unrecognized during his life.
Music: The waltz is the fashionable dance of the time, and one of the most popular composers in England was Haydn. In 1795, Haydn completes the 12 London symphonies and returns several times to London. Mozart was still popular after his death in 1791. Beetohoven was mid-career and his hearing had just begun to deteriorate.
Art: 1750-90 is considered the “classical age” of English painting, and Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough the leading figures—both were founders of Britain’s Royal Academy of Art. The Romantic movement, characterized by large landscapes, began to edge out the classical portraits.
Science and Technology: In 1793 Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, and the next year the first (non-electric) telegraph is sent 143 miles from Paris to Lille, in the far North of France.