When Mary Crawford is having trouble deciding which handsome Bertram should win her heart, Tom Bertram wanders off to the horse races, where she cannot follow without a chaperone. What were horse races like in Regency England, and what would it have been like to go?
In “Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern,” by Robert Morrison tells us that horse races were one of the few activities enjoyed by Britons of all social classes. As such, attendees often wore their very best. The St. Leger, the Oaks, and the Derby (now called Epsom Derby) were well established already and are still important races in England today. The Regency also saw the rise of two new major races: the 1,000 Guineas and the 2,000 Guineas. However, these were far from the only ones. Jane Austen herself references races at the Newbury, Basingstoke and Canterbury in her letters, according to Deirdre Le Faye.
Readers can guess that Tom’s primary interest in going to the races would have been gambling, of which there was plenty. Debts might be paid on the race track or at Tattersall’s, the site of a lively horse auction and popular hangout for horse-crazy patrons of racing.
One might bet on impromptu horse races among friends as well. We know from “Mansfield Park” that horseback riding was one of few acceptable forms of exercise available to elegant young ladies, although, as Fanny experiences, access to a horse was often a hurdle for less wealthy gentlewomen.
So next time you don a fantastic hat and cheer for your favorite horse, you can imagine that you are keeping a tradition from Jane Austen’s time alive.
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