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The Regency England of Jane Austen VS. The Victorian England of the Brontë Sisters

A brief look at the cultural and historical context for the lives of these literary ladies.



 

Greetings, dear Janeites! Welcome back to JASP’s latest series, Austen & the Brontës! Have you ever wished to fully picture England during the lifetimes of Jane Austen or Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë? One of the very best ways to contextualize their novels and other writing, I do believe, is to understand the world in which they lived. And that is a topic both vastly interesting and delicately nuanced. (The theme of the Jane Austen Summer Program in 2021, after all, was Jane Austen's World.) In this post I hope to illuminate a few of the cultural and historical differences in England during the Regency versus the Victorian era.


Let's begin with some important statistics. While some historians still disagree regarding the exact dates of the Regency and Victorian eras, the following dates are widely accepted. The Regency era– somewhat of a subset of the Georgian period– lasted from 1811-1820. The catalyst for the Prince Regent (later King George IV) to take the throne was the fact that his father, King George III, was deemed unfit to rule. The Victorian era, in its strictest sense, spanned the length of Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837–1901. When considering these two eras, it is imperative to note that had the Prince Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, not died in childbirth in 1817, the whole course of English history would be altered.


Societal Ideals & Literature


An emphasis on etiquette, propriety, and the rigid English societal code characterized the Regency era. The Victorian period also boasted a strict class system, with social emphasis placed on virtues such as morality, prudence, temperance, and sentimentality. (These two eras were not, however, without their fair share of scandal, despite society's best efforts to stamp out anything resembling vice.) And just like today, the widely-accepted ideals of the time influenced the art world, particularly with regard to literature.


"The Temple of the Muses" – London circa 1809


In the Regency, the most popular forms of writing consumed by the public included novels and poetry. The novel in particular was still a somewhat burgeoning form of entertainment, and during the Regency era stories typically employed the use of early Romantic themes, which juxtaposed Gothic and sentimental trends that appeared in the latter half of the 18th century. In the early 1800s the purchase or possession of books was still a categorization of the middle and upper classes; by the 1840s, very nearly anyone could afford to purchase a novel. Some books were specifically aimed at affluent, intellectual individuals, and others at less-educated readers. Those in the latter group– largely members of the working class– often looked for short, sensationalist stories, like penny dreadfuls. Victorian novels were typically recognized by their immense length and complex plot elements and characters.


Important Events, Innovations, and The Class System


The 19th century was full of change, creation, and consequence for England. One of the most important ongoing events of the Regency era were the Napoleonic Wars. It was a time of unrest and trepidation for those at home in England, and was an issue particularly dear to the Austen family as two brothers, Frank and Charles, were directly involved in the conflict. Austen referenced the navy and militia in her novels, as well, most notably in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. (Captain Wentworth? He made his fortune during the Napoleonic Wars.) War is a facet of life the Brontës never experienced– either first hand or through family– nor explored in their written work.


Another threat to English peace in the Regency was the continual aftermath of the French Revolution. While the conflict ended in 1799, there was a lingering concern that the English people would take a page from France's book and revolt against the monarchy. And in 1807, four years before the Regency began, slavery was abolished in Britain, which was a momentous occasion. It was not an altogether smooth transition for the general public and caused upheaval in the years that followed, most particularly with regard to the British settlements in the Caribbean. All the while the Prince Regent, who was largely disliked, lived a life of total opulence and grandeur while a dissatisfied public looked on. Additionally, construction of factories and railways began as all signs pointed towards the impending Industrial Revolution. Jane Austen was well-informed and aware of all of these issues, from the firsthand accounts of her French cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, as well as the stories of her brothers, who actively worked against the slave trade during their time in the Royal Navy.


During the Victorian era, international affairs were relatively sound. England had largely good relations with world powers and the British Empire circumnavigated the globe. But back on the continent, however, all was not well. Despite a beloved monarch on the throne, a great deal of social and cultural change was underway. The population increased and city slums, notably in London, veritably overflowed with people. This boom was instrumental to the Industrial Revolution, which thrived due to the intense exploitation of the poor and the widespread use of cheap labor. Literacy and childhood education clashed with child labor, with the first general laws against child labor passed in 1833 and 1844 respectively.


More affluent members of Victorian society either felt a responsibility to help those in need or that the poor deserved the neglect they received. Many authors, like Charles Dickens, used their status to illuminate these pressing issues in their work, ensuring the public did not close their eyes to the ills at work in England at the time. In their novels, the three Brontë sisters focused mainly on the mistreatment of and risks for working women, including details they all knew intimately. The prospects for poor governesses and teachers did not improve over the course of the 19th century. (Portrait above: The Governess by Richard Redgrave, 1844.)


Transportation


In the Regency era, carriages were the main form of everyday transportation. Jane Austen mentioned them widely throughout her novels– they were symbols of status and integral parts of Austen's plot lines. From broughams to barouches, curricles to coaches, regular references to these then-commonplace vehicles give 21st century readers a delightful taste of a world without cars.


Circa 1847, publication year of Jane Eyre


Victorian travelers were able to employ not only various types of carriages, but other forms of transportation. (Thank you, Industrial Revolution!) Steam engines and railways became commonplace for longer voyages as trains proved to be efficient not only for traveling between the metropolis and the country, but for easy transport of goods, as well. While the first steam engines were conceived and constructed as early as 1804, locomotives were not popular as means of transport until much later in the mid 1840s. But that's not all! Another wheeled device presented itself during the Victorian period– the bicycle. Bicycles could act as both an entertaining form of exercise and a practical conveyance for short trips.


Despite the use of bicycles increasing during the Victorian period, during the course of my research I was intrigued to stumble upon the image I have included at left. Titled "Pedestrian Hobbyhorse", the picture was published in 1819 in Ackermann’s Repository, a popular Regency periodical. While Austen's well-crafted heroes certainly did not cycle around the country– nor did any Brontë hero– the fact that the prototype for the bicycle as we know it was used as early as 1819 is an anecdote of transportation history I shall tuck away for future dinner party conversation.


Parallels


Despite the differences I have outlined above, there are quite a few similarities between the Regency and Victorian eras, two crucial periods in English history. The most glaring, I think, was the widespread view of women, specifically for those of the middle and upper classes. Women of society were largely discouraged from exertion during the Regency and Victorian eras and many were encouraged to live a life at home. But this did not deter many women from pursuing activities such as dancing, riding, and walking. These recreational activities were not competitive, but rather beneficial for mind and body. Beyond these pursuits– and depending largely on her rank– a woman was also expected to be "a great proficient" in many areas such as reading and writing, mathematics, languages, dancing, music, sewing, and embroidery. For women of the middle and lower classes, no more attention was paid them than before. While the world changed around them, the expectations of ladies did not waver from the Regency era to the Victorian period. And that, dear Janeites, was illuminated and captured oh-so-well by the pens of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.


 

Thus concludes our brief overview of a few differences defining the Regency and Victorian eras. We'd love to hear from you! Which of the two eras do you prefer? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don't forget to check out more Austen + Brontë content byway of Jane Austen and Co.'s current Austen & the Brontës series!

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