There is a certain class of people who, upon learning of my Jane Austen obsession, feel the need to explain why the modern world is superior to that of the Regency. “But the 19th century was a terrible place to live! Women didn’t have any rights, most people lived in squalor, and you were lucky to survive your infancy!” Of course I realize that Jane Austen’s world was not just one of manor homes, top boots, and ladies maids (I do spend three months in Portsmouth with the Price family every time I read Mansfield Park). I have a massive appreciation for modern plumbing, medicine (especially the medicine!), electricity, and something resembling gender equality, but that does not mean that there are not ways in which the Regency period was superior to our current era. I am working on a novel entitled Being Mrs. Bennet (currently posting at A Happy Assembly), in which a modern woman, following a car crash, finds herself inhabiting the body of probably the worst mother Austen ever foisted upon heroine. Alison Bateman finds much of the early 19th century disconcerting, but she also discovers aspects to treasure. One can adapt to almost anything.
I planned this post to be a list of reasons why the Regency remains superior to the modern world. I intend this list to be egalitarian, so it does not include privileges and luxuries that belonged to the upper classes alone, and I confess: it was rather difficult to make. It started out as a top ten, then narrowed to a top eight. I’ll come back to it in a moment.
As I try to compare and contrast the modern world with that of two centuries ago, my husband is making lists of his own. Spreadsheets, to be precise. The man adores a spreadsheet. I often mock his dependence on data, but on this occasion I support its compilation. He has received a job offer that would move us to Zurich this summer. As I watch him tally the numbers, it looks like he’s probably accepting it. We should have a final decision soon, once his current company provides their counteroffer. It is hard to think about anything else. Hard to blog, hard to write, hard to do anything but look up flat prices.
I finally turned to Facebook for help last Wednesday, pleading for someone to kick me out of the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had in a year. The number one response? “If you are thinking about Switzerland, write about Switzerland.” But what does Switzerland have to do with my top seven reasons the Regency was superior to the 21st century? Nothing. And even more irrelevant? The other elephant in the room.
The new job offer isn’t the only bit of news to rock my world recently. It is the bit I have shared on Facebook, with my child’s school, and my friends and family. Privately, in the confines of my own house and mind, I’ve been confronting another bombshell. Those who have read my last novel, The Madness of Mr. Darcy, might suspect that my own mind is perhaps not the most balanced. The emotions expressed in the story are poignant because they are real. I have been treated for a variety of mental health issues through the course of my life, like my parents and grandparents before me, depression and hyperactivity having always been the main culprits. Yet last week I received a new diagnosis, one I’m not so anxious to talk about, despite having always been pretty open about my mental health struggles. Inspired by Jeanna Ellsworth’s post earlier this week, Triumph over our Fears, I am going to confess to the world what I have been sitting on all week, too scared to share: I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
O.K. This is kind of weird, I know. First let me just explain that I have never been in a war or involved in or witness to a violent incident. I just had crazy (loving, but crazy) parents (who I am assuming will never read this), who happened to be at their craziest in my early youth: those years when your brain develops. My frontal lobe was apparently kept under too much stress, producing an over-abundance of cortisol. None of this was of the greatest moment in my adult life until I had a child – a daughter – forcing me to confront repressed memories, fears, and anger. Bad habits from my adolescence reemerged. For the first time in over a decade, my behavior was not within my control. I did more yoga. I found a new therapist. Then 2014 was a long series of deaths, including three of my grandparents in the last six months, and I ended the year being pulled, weeping, out of the cheese display at Costco. My daughter was sitting in the shopping cart, now three and a half, screaming “Mommy!” all the while. It was a scene out of my childhood, one enacted on numerous occasions with my mother. It is not what I want for my daughter. I spoke to my therapist, and we made an appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and she’s the one who told my befuddled self, “I think you have PTSD.”
Good news: as long as I can manage to not act like a maniac, this is not something I can pass on to my children. Yippee! Bad news: I have spent the past two decades telling myself I am responsible for my actions, that I can fight my chemical imbalances with sheer determination, and that no one is to blame if I lose control but myself. Now here comes along a diagnosis that points a finger squarely at my mom and dad. That is not comfortable for me. It doesn’t sit right. I want to forgive them, not blame them. I’m still just beginning to work this all out in my head and adjusting to the new meds. With treatment, my symptoms should go away. That is the best news of all.
The point of this enormous and emotional tangent is that I have been distracted lately: distracted enough that my addled brain, for once, is pretty firmly ensconced in the modern world. This has not made my self-appointed task of outlining the merits of the Regency any easier. Nevertheless, I shall now attempt to lighten this rather heavy post with my long awaited list of the top five reasons why I think the Jane Austen’s world was superior to ours. Thank you for reading/listening.
A married woman used to wake up in the morning and plop a frilly cap on her head. Hairdressing done. I call the cap the Regency equivalent to the ponytail in Being Mrs. Bennet, and it is true, but how many of us actually get to wear that ponytail to work? Thanks to makeover shows, a ponytail is derided as boring and lazy, where as a cap could be fashionable and even becoming. Somewhere in the course of women’s liberation, we messed this one up.
2. Custom Shoes
You couldn’t share shoes with your friends and relations back in the day. Each shoe was made for and molded to a particular foot. Today you can buy handmade Italian leather shoes for somewhere in the range of $1000 a pop, but this buttery and luscious feel of slipping your foot into such a concoction used to be much more accessible. Of course men’s boots, those of both the laboring classes and the gentry, would be made of sturdier stuff that needed to be broken in, but once that first round of blisters healed you had a shoe that hugged the contours of your feet perfectly.
3. Cheap Live Entertainment
One need not be a mogul to attend the theater in the Regency Era. Even the most lavish venues had seats cheap enough to accommodate the working classes. Now even our sporting events are beyond the reach of many, television having rendered live entertainment a luxury item. Sigh.
4. Standardized Mourning Rituals
Having been to more than my fair share of funerals lately and experienced mourning rituals ranging over a wide swath of cultural and religious beliefs, I really think it would be nice to have not an imposed period of mourning (that would be far too stifling), but the broadly recognized need for a person to step outside their normal activities and take the time to grieve. I also like the idea of wearing all black, or having some other, external signifier of grief, so that others know to approach you with care, preferably without looking like an overgrown Goth kid. I also like that they had gradations of mourning. Black ribbons in my hair would have been perfectly appropriate for my cousin’s death last year, while my grandfather’s loss made me crave bombazine and a heavily veiled bonnet. Can’t wear that to the supermarket!
While some of the imposed social rituals of the 19th century, like calling cards, are archaic in our modern world of cell phones, they represent a code of behavior designed to help humans interact with each other in a peaceful and orderly manner. We’ve lost a lot of that. I could really go on and on with this topic, which would end up being preachy, at best, so I’ll just beg each reader to hold the door for someone, wait for others to exit before you enter, and say excuse me when you step in someone’s path. The world could be such a happier place.
There you have it! What is your favorite thing about the Regency Era? Anything you would gladly trade for today? Or has Jeanna inspired any one else to confess their closely held secrets to the world?