Women in the 19th Century – Life in Regency England, Part 1: Society

Daily Life

Life in high society during the Regency was a glamorous round of balls and parties, governed by strict rules of etiquette. Members of society, called the ton after a French word for taste, spent much of their time socializing-and if they were single, looking for mates.

The hub of fashionable life in London was Almack’s, a club in King Street presided over by seven ladies called patronesses. Among them were Lady Jersey, Princess Lieven, and Lady Castlereaugh. These women determined who was chic-and who wasn’t; once, they turned away the Duke of Wellington himself because he was wearing trousers, rather than knee breeches.

After 1814, the patronesses also took it upon themselves to decide who could waltz, not only a t Almack’s, but at any other social function. Prior to 1814, waltzing was considered decadent. However, it finally gained respectability that year when the patronesses sanctioned it. But there were limits. No debutante could waltz unless one of the patronesses had given her permission, something that was only granted to girls “whose deportment was considered impeccable,” according to Venetia Murray, author of An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England.

Debutantes were central to Almack’s. Indeed, according to Murray, “Almack’s main function was to act as a showcase for the pick of the debutantes.” Parties at the club were “where girls were launched upon society,” and “Almack’s was rightly known as ‘the Marriage Mart.'” To a great extent, though, all of London was a marriage mart during the Season, which lasted from late winter through late spring.

Every debutante’s presumed goal was to make a brilliant match-that is, to marry a wealthy, well connected and preferably titled gentleman. Ideally, a girl would be engaged before her first Season was over. In reality, though, a girl without a large dowry might spend a couple of Seasons looking for a suitable husband.

Parties at Almack’s, important though they were, made up only a small part of a fashionable young woman’s social life. Far more frequent were the often lavish balls at private homes where most socializing with potential mates took place. The social rules at these balls were quite strict, as they were throughout most aspects of Regency society. For instance, a young woman had to dance with the first man who asked her to. If she refused him, it meant that she wasn’t dancing at all that evening. Accepting a subsequent offer to dance from someone else was considered a shocking faux pas, almost as bad as waltzing without permission.

Regency society was full of such rules. Venetia Murray asserts that although “by the time of the Regency, the hard and fast rules of the eighteenth century had been superseded by more flexible standards, to an objective outsider, English society was still a class-ridden minefield, full of inexplicable taboos.” Maneuvering through this social minefield is central to a Regency heroine’s life. Whether she’s trying to obtain permission to waltz (with the hero, of course) or riding through Hyde Park with unladylike agility, she must always bear in mind the rules of life in ton. Obeying those rules is another matter.