Fortunate for posterity that when the American Mr. Louis Simond made a trip to Regency London in 1809, he not only stayed in the fashionable West End of the city, but kept notes on what he saw there. He recorded details about the general tide of life for the residents who lived, loved and played there. His are not the only eye-witness notes we have of the period, but they are revealing.
Simond was amused to notice that, firstly, no one “stirred" earlier than 10am. At that time, shops became sleepily awake, and the Horse Guards were on the move in a noisy parade, their daily march from the barracks to Hyde Park. But what of the ton, the inner circle of fashionable society?
These lofty souls did not appear until nigh three or four o'clock, when, in a great racket, they would begin making their “morning" calls, or go shopping or promenading, or grace an assembly room with their presence. Why was the beginning of their day so late in the afternoon? Because it went on until early next morning, or even ‘til dawn.
Simond says there was gaslight on the streets, and this, in 1809 (earlier than most of us thought); but the lights were not effective, and after being lit at dusk, did little to illumine one's way ( but made “little brightish dots" in a line going down the street). *
There was a lull of activity around this time, and then, from six o'clock to about eight, after people had dressed for dinner and evening entertainments, the racket and street traffic started up again. Another lull would follow, and then near ten o'clock the crush of carriages was back with all its ensuing noises: The thunderous hoof-beats, whinnying, whips cracking, people laughing, wheels turning, churning, and lumbering along the cobbled roads. It was an awful din that rarely subsided before midnight.
In the book, Our Tempestous Day, Carolly Erickson says that, according to Simond, “At one o'clock it was still difficult to sleep for all the commotion. Gradually, though, the number of carriages diminshed until, as the sky began to grow light, only a single carriage was heard now and then at a great distance. The fashionable world went to sleep, not to be roused until long after noon. " *
The next day, it would start all over again, and the endless whirl of activity called the “season" would continue.
Simond also detailed what it was like attending a party (or, “rout") of the fashionable. After waiting in long carriage lines along the street to gain entrance, one would greet the host or hostess, and then stand (never sit) in rooms crowded with elegant people, jostling and moving about to find one's friends, with no entertainments offered and apparently no refreshments. He mentions the lack of cards, music, and even conversation. Supposedly, the aim was to get there, be seen, and to see whomever else had braved the crowded streets to attend.
When ready to leave, waiting for one's carriage was the next trial, after which it was on to another “at home" (what we would call an “open house"party today). One can imagine the sheer exhaustion of attending just one or two of these in a week! And yet they were constantly being hosted, and the greater your popularity and consequence, the more invitations you would receive.
Entire evenings could be spent attending such things, and, as the grid-lock and flux of carriages in the street and their accompanying flambeaux gave away the location of these affairs, they were virtually public knowledge-and therefore heavily attended.
So much for the painstaking work of ordering and sending little gilded invitations to an elite list of recipients, weeks in advance. As Mrs. Bentley notes (in “Before the Season Ends, "**) “a hostess always prefers a crush to its opposite! But important members of the ton must not be made to suffer!" Alas for Mrs. Bentley, it was seemingly unavoidable at times.
Interestingly, a picture of a “rout" occurs in the BBC “Sense and Sensibility" with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The scene where Marianne spots her mysteriously absent sometime suitor and cries out (quite unfashionably) “Willoughby!" Some people are shown with a glass in their hand, and there are, I believe, servants making the rounds with trays. A generous host, no doubt, but this was apparently not always the case.
Either way, I must still say, the Regency? You've got to love it!
c 2006 Linore Rose Burkard
Acknowledgement goes to Carolly Erickson's “Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England, " in which she discusses Simond's visit.
Linore Rose Burkard writes Inspirational Regency Romance as well as articles on Regency Life, Homeschooling, and Self-Improvement. She publishes a monthly eZine “Upon My Word!" which you can receive for FREE by signing up at her website quickly and easily.
Ms. Burkard graduated from the City University of New York with a Magna Cum Laude degree in English Literature, and now lives in Ohio with her husband and five children. To order “Our Tempestuous Day" by Carolly Erickson, or the DVD of “Sense and Sensibility" click the following: http://www.LinoreRoseBurkard.com/Resources.html