More than just late-night escapism and bingeworthy TV, period dramas encourage fascination and intrigue into fact vs fiction. The likes of Bridgerton, and its upcoming prequel highlights that for would be lovers in Georgian England, rules of engagement were a far cry from dating apps and romantic love in the modern world.
Professor Sarah Richardson, a historian at the University of Warwick explores the five rules of love in Regency England:
Curtseying to the Cake
We know of the four seasons of the year, but the lesser known fifth season focusses less on falling leaves and sunnier days, and more on the marriage market. With parliament in session from October to May, aristocratic families in Regency England would descend on London for business and pleasure, with romance blossoming and marriages taking place.
The season began when young women from elite families were presented to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of the then King, George III, at her birthday ball in the hope that over the next few months they would find their marriage partner. The tradition, which started in 1780, required them to curtsey to the Queen and her birthday cake.
The season would not be complete without balls and dances. They did, however, involve strict protocols. If a couple danced more than two sets together, they would be considered engaged to be married by society.
Only then, when couples were engaged could they exchange letters, or even call each other by their first names. It would be expected that young women would be always chaperoned in public in order to preserve their reputation. Much like we see period dramas, such as Bridgerton, a family’s fortunes relied on women making lucrative marriage matches to ensure their place in aristocracy.
When it came to sexual matters, young women across high society received virtually no education. Those with older, married sisters would be considered lucky to get some advice, otherwise innocence in these matters was considered essential to demonstrate purity to their future spouse. Only once engaged would young women get some guidance from their mothers or older relatives, with an emphasis on the birth of an heir.
The strictures on women did not, however, apply to men. They married later and would often travel Europe on -The Grand Tour- gaining sexual experience with apparent impunity. They applied different standards to the women who may become their wife to those they slept with. The latter were akin to prostitutes while the former’s reputation would be destroyed if they so much as spoke with a single man while unchaperoned.
Once safely married, and especially if an heir had been produced, women were able to enjoy more freedom.
Affairs, ménage-à-trois, and even same sex relationships were not uncommon in the libertine atmosphere of Regency England. Famously, William, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, his wife, Georgiana, and her friend Elizabeth (Bess) Foster lived together at Chatsworth House. Bess had two illegitimate children by the Duke, whilst Georgiana had an affair with the future Prime Minister, Charles Grey.
Professor Sarah Richardson is the deputy head of the history department at the University of Warwick with research focusing on political, constitutional and gender history.
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