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Keynote speaker Robert Morrison on Austen, Regency fashion and the Empire

Portrait of the Prince Regent
Detail of King George IV when Prince Regent by William Say, after John Hoppner mezzotint, published 1812 NPG D11337 © National Portrait Gallery, London

While Jane Austen was writing her masterpieces, plenty was going on around her. To take a broader look at the Regency era, the Jane Austen Summer Program is excited to have as one of its keynote speakers this year Robert Morrison. The Canadian author will discuss his most recent book, “The Regency Years, During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern.” Released in 2019, it’s a wide-ranging and fascinating study of what the world was like at the time Austen wrote – from the political climate to the actual climate.

We chatted with Morrison about his book, his research and his interest in Jane Austen. (Morrison annotated an edition of “Persuasion,” released in 2011.)

What drew you to writing about this subject?

Author Robert Morrison
Author Robert Morrison

A number of factors were at play. One of the most important was my sense that few periods in British history could match the energy and diversity of the Regency, which began on February 5, 1811, when the Prince of Wales replaced his violently insane father, George III, as the sovereign de facto, and ended on January 29, 1820, when George III died and the Prince Regent became King George IV. At the center of this decade is of course the Regent himself, who was vilified by the masses for his selfishness and corpulence, but whose character is in part redeemed by his intellectual abilities, and by his especially astute judgments in the arts. Around him surged a society of brilliant characters, momentous events, and stark contrasts; a society of evangelicalism and hedonism, of elegance and brutality, of bigotry and innovation, of exuberance and widespread despair; a society forced to confront a whole range of pressing new issues that signaled a decisive break from the past even as they evoked a complicated nostalgia for it. When I realized that there had not been a book in more than three decades that concentrated specifically on the people and events of the Regency, I knew I had found my subject.

Another important factor at play was my interest in writing about Jane Austen. Though it can hardly be said that she has suffered from a lack of critical attention, she still does occupy a somewhat awkward place in British literary history. This is because she lived and wrote during the period known as “Romanticism,” which is typically said to extend from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 until the start of Victoria’s reign in 1837. This period is traditionally defined by the work of six male poets: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. It is a period which places a high value on solitude, Nature, and the imagination, and which is centrally concerned with subjectivity. None of this sounds very much like Austen! As a result she is commonly left to one side in accounts of British Romanticism, a writer whose literary and cultural allegiances mark her as belonging, not to the 19th century, but to the 18th.

“The Regency Years” challenges this view. It places Austen – whose six published novels all appeared during the Regency – at the heart of the decade, and it demonstrates the many ways in which she engages with some of the central issues of the era. If Austen is at the crux of the Regency, and the Regency lies right in the middle of the years traditionally assigned to British Romanticism, can we continue to think of her as out-of-step with her age? My intention in the book is not to diminish the immense achievement of the six major poets, four of whom published some of their finest work in the Regency, but to show that they were only part of a much broader series of cultural and artistic innovations, and that perhaps it is time to rethink early 19th-century literature in terms that bring Austen much closer to the center of the discussion.

What finding in your research surprised you the most?

How much was going on, and how often it was interrelated. Before I began the book I thought I knew the contours of the Regency quite well. But of course once I started digging, and rereading, and chasing down leads I discovered all kinds of connections and events and people that I needed to learn more about. One of the recent reviews of “The Regency Years” notes that “even the best-informed of Morrison’s readers are likely to learn a good deal.” That was one of my primary goals in bringing together the research and then writing the book.

The Regency was a period of scientific innovation, religiously-inspired philanthropy, state-orchestrated violence, and intense sociability. It witnessed the final years of the Peninsular War, the first and only assassination of a British prime minister, the Highland Clearances in Scotland, the Luddite riots in England, the War of 1812, the Radcliffe Highway murders, the Battle of Waterloo, and the Peterloo Massacre. There were rakes, addicts, prize-fighters, pornographers, and resurrection men, as well as scholars, educators, journalists, political activists, and Bow Street Runners. There were leading men like the Prince Regent, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron, but there were also many remarkable women, including the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, the needlework artist Mary Linwood, the tragedian Elizabeth O’Neill, the comedian Dorothy Jordan, the dramatist Joanne Baillie, the poet Felicia Hemans, and the novelists Mary Brunton, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Susan Ferrier, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan). I was surprised to find how many times, and in how many different contexts, the lives of these people overlapped and interconnected. Studying their stories, and then weaving them together, was the most exciting part of writing “The Regency Years.”

The summit of Mount Tambora as seen from space. Courtesy of NASA.
The summit of Mount Tambora as seen from space. Courtesy of NASA.

In the book, you mention the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia and how its effects (ash blocking the sun, rain) were felt as far as England. What global event had the greatest impact on England at the time?

The eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815 caused tens of thousands of horrifying deaths in Indonesia and sent a cloud of volcanic ash up into the stratosphere that wreaked havoc with the weather in Britain in the summer of 1816, the so-called “year without a summer.” Following Waterloo, the country was gripped by a series of post-war crises, and the cooler temperatures, darkened skies, and torrential rains seriously exacerbated an already volatile situation. J.M.W. Turner complained that he needed to be “web-footed like a drake” to cope with the “Rain, Rain, Rain, day after day.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it “end of the World Weather.” My favorite assessment belongs to Austen. She spoke to a neighbor “of its’ being bad weather for the Hay – & he returned me the comfort of its’ being much worse for the Wheat.”

I would say, however, that the global event that had the biggest impact on Regency Britain was not the explosion of Tambora but the steady expansion of the British empire. The wealth of Britain in the early 19th century was built on cheap labor at home and colonial conquest abroad, driven by inventions like the steamboat and the stream train. Explorers such as John Franklin and William Edward Parry led expeditions to the Arctic in search of trade routes and the almost mythical Northwest Passage. Tens of thousands of other Regency Britons were forced by political violence or economic despair to sail across the Atlantic and to try and make new lives in Canada or America, while for others emigration was a choice, an opportunity for advancement that far exceeded what was available to them in Britain, and that powerfully evoked the promises of what we would now call “the American Dream.” In the West Indies, slave plantations generated huge profits for their owners through the production of two major Regency commodities: sugar and rum. In the East Indies, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, quickly transforming it from an obscure fishing village to a thriving commercial hub, and attracting traders of all kinds from across the region.

Most significantly, Britain during the Regency tightened its hold on India when its armed forces won the third Maratha War of 1817-18, giving the British East India Company unfettered access to the wealth of India, including its stores of silk, cotton, spices, coffee, tea, and of course opium. Guiding Britain in India and elsewhere was its powerful sense of its own cultural superiority. Lady Maria Nugent spent three years in India, where she deplored the lack of Christian reverence in her fellow colonists, and praised Hindus “for real feelings of religion.” But throughout her stay she retained an overweening confidence in the benefits bestowed by British rule. “I cannot help remarking,” she declared in 1813, “how much … more prosperous and happy the people seem, in this part of India, which has been so much longer under the dominion of the British Government.”

Why do you think Beau Brummell, the famous dandy who “revolutionized British fashion,” was able to wield such influence in a society that often valued rank and money? Did Brummell have a female equivalent?

George "Beau" Brummell, watercolor by Richard Dighton (1805)
George "Beau" Brummell, watercolor by Richard Dighton (1805)

The influence of George “Beau” Brummell is both remarkable and revealing. He possessed neither a title nor a great fortune. Yet he rose to become a close if fractious friend of the Regent, and the acknowledged arbiter of fashion in London’s West End, before his spectacular fall from grace, and his subsequent exile in France. Regency society was profoundly hierarchical, but it did allow commoners of extraordinary talent to climb to the highest rungs of the social ladder. Brummell conquered London society through his impertinence, panache, and marvelous gifts for self-invention. He imperiously rejected the wigs, laces, silks, high heels, and perfumes worn by 18th-century men of fashion in favor of a new sartorial code that prized cleanliness, meticulous simplicity, and buttoned-up stylishness, a look he completed with a spotlessly white, well-starched cravat, which pushed his head up, and gave him the desired air of superiority and exacting self-confidence.

The dandy was inspired by aristocratic ideals, as seen especially in Brummell’s contempt for work, his commitment to urban languor, and his formidable sense of exclusivity. Yet the dandy was also a democratic figure. Anyone could become one. Dandyism, in Brummell’s hands, was not about being born into the right family. It was about a different kind of aristocracy, a fresh, modern version that was founded, not on rank, but on individual talent, mettle, and vision. Byron, possessed of aristocratic advantages and his own considerable gifts for self-creation, celebrated Brummell as a fashion icon who broke new cultural ground, and who dominated his so-called “betters” through the sheer bravado of his personality. When he ranked the “three great men of the nineteenth century,” Byron placed “himself third, Napoleon second, and Brummell first.”

There were female dandies in the Regency. They were known as “dandizettes.” The great Regency clown Joseph Grimaldi performed as a dandizette in his pantomime “Harlequin Gulliver.” Thomas Moore, the Irish poet and intimate of Byron, went to see a play at Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, where he saw a “Miss Ivers – dressed in the most exquisite extreme of Dandyism, & looking as like a man as any of the brotherhood.” Most notably, in 1819, Olivia Moreland (probably a pseudonym for the army officer turned writer Thomas Ashe) published “The Charms of Dandyism, or Living in Style,” in which she identifies herself as “Chief of the Female Dandies.” No dandizette in the Regency, however, rose to the dizzying social heights of Brummell.

Reading the book, I thought, “Wow, there were a great number of artists that emerged in that era.” What do you think contributed to that?

I often put that question to myself, for the number of major artists at work in the Regency is astonishing. George Cruikshank drew brilliant caricatures that battered the royals and the government with relentless ingenuity. The Regent was his favorite target, as several prints in “The Regency Years” demonstrate, and though two centuries have now past, our impression of him – bloated, gouty, inebriated, and bespangled – is still thoroughly shaped by the drubbing Cruikshank gave him. Thomas Lawrence painted highly flattering portraits of the rich and famous that helped to create the image of Regency high society as beautiful and glamorous. His portraits of the Regent countered the caricatures of Cruikshank, and presented him as dashing and regal. The Scotsman Henry Raeburn, Lawrence’s great rival in Regency portraiture, painted some of the most famous Scots of the era, including the novelist Walter Scott and the engineer Thomas Telford. At some point around 1814, Raeburn also painted Margaret (or Margaritta) Macdonald, dressed in a disheveled red cloak and a sensual white gown, with her head turned, her lips parted, and her eyes cast upward. It is one of the most enduring images of the Regency, and it features on the cover of my Harvard University Press edition of Austen’s “Persuasion.”

Other great artists were equally active. David Wilkie produced scenes of Scottish rural life full of humor, keenly observed detail, and remarkable gestures and expressions. His finest Regency paintings include “Blind Man’s Buff,” “The Penny Wedding,” and “Distraining the Rent,” which reveals the harsh economic conditions that afflicted many rural families. John Constable, one of the greatest British landscape painters, met with limited professional success in the first half of the Regency, but from 1816 onward he painted with much greater confidence. His most compelling Regency work, known popularly as “The White Horse,” depicts a tow-horse being ferried across the River Stour, and is one of the most cherished versions of a timelessly harmonious English landscape. J.M.W. Turner was Constable’s great rival, and the other preeminent figure in the history of British landscape art. In addition to Regency work such as the luminousDortrecht, the Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed” and the patriotic “England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday,” Turner painted “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,” which has been interpreted as his commentary on the career of Napoleon, and which is dominated by an enormous sky full of anger and flux. Turner is probably the finest painter Britain has produced, and the inventiveness and audacity of his output during the Regency confirms his place at the fountainhead of the modern movement in art.

What factors le