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By Brenda S. Cox

Last week we looked at the lady “Rock Stars of the Regency” identified by Dr. Jocelyn Harris at this year’s JASNA AGM.* The other two Regency celebrities, who Jane Austen certainly knew about, but almost certainly never met, were the Prince Regent and Lord Byron. Both were flamboyant, charismatic, and extravagant. Jane Austen certainly did not like the prince, and I doubt she thought very highly of Byron. Let’s take a look at these two gentleman.Then I’ll add another famous gentleman, one I think she might have admired.

The Prince Regent (1762-1830)

As you probably know, King George III’s eldest son became Regent of England during the king’s madness from 1811-1820. When his father died, the Prince Regent became King George IV, until his own death in 1830.

The Prince Regent, later King George IV, by Henry Bone, 1816, public domain, wikimedia

Sometimes called “Prinny,” the Prince of Wales (heir to the throne) was an elegant man with a wide education, excellent artistic taste, and great charm. As a boy, his father insisted that he be taught simplicity and hard work. The prince was whipped severely for any laziness or lying. However, he disappointed his father’s hopes. The prince was known for his faults more than for his strengths.

By the time he was seventeen, he was already involved with several women. A series of many mistresses followed. Although he could not legally marry without his father’s consent, he went through a form of marriage with a Catholic widow, Mrs. Maria Fitzerbert, in 1785. This quasi-marriage to a Catholic caused him difficulty with Parliament, who were often being asked to pay his bills. (Catholics faced many restrictions at this time, and if the prince were actually married to a Catholic he could not legally become king.)

Prinny constantly ran up amazing debts. He lavishly furnished his mansion, Carlton House, running up almost £270,000 in debt! Parliament helped him defray that debt, partially. He immediately began another project, the even more opulent and fantastically expensive Marine Pavilion at Brighton.

In 1789, the king appeared to be going mad, probably because of the disease porphyria. The prince’s supporters tried to get the prince declared regent. His enemies attacked him as being Catholic, or married to a Catholic, and as a gambler who spent his time with unsavory people. Newspapers condemned the prince as “a hard-drinking, swearing, whoring man” who “at all times would prefer a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon” (quoted in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). The king recovered, and the prince did not become regent yet.

To get his debts settled, the prince agreed to marry his cousin Caroline, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick. Caroline and the prince had one daughter, Charlotte. (Charlotte eventually died giving birth to a stillborn child, so she never inherited the throne.)

The prince’s marriage to Caroline was miserable from the start. The prince soon went back to his mistresses, and Caroline was later also accused of sleeping around, though it was not proven.

The king lapsed back into madness in 1811, and the prince was sworn in as regent. His political policies were unpopular. Oddly, considering that his formerly-beloved Mrs. Fitzherbert was Catholic, he was strongly against giving any civil rights to Catholics.

In 1820 his father died and he became King George IV. He did not want his wife Caroline to be queen, so he put her on trial for adultery. She was not convicted, but she died a few weeks after his coronation.

George IV’s years of indulgence, gluttony, and drinking took their toll, and he became more and more ill. He died in 1830.

Jane Austen’s Perspective

The Prince Regent was a fan of Jane Austen’s. He requested, via his librarian, that she dedicate Emma to him, and she reluctantly did. He apparently read her books often, and kept a set of them in each of his residences. She did not return his admiration.

Jane Austen reluctantly dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, at his request.

In 1813, when the Regent was in the midst of a controversy with his wife, Austen wrote about her in a private letter: “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband” (Feb. 16, 1813).

Why did Jane Austen “hate” the Prince Regent? I imagine there were multiple reasons:

  • He treated his wife very badly, avoiding her, flaunting his unfaithfulness to her, slandering her, and finally putting her on public trial. Earlier he had also been unfaithful to his first “wife,” Mrs. Fitzherbert, and even allowed others to slander her in Parliament.
  • He was extravagant, wasting the country’s money. He was a Sir Walter Elliot on steroids, not willing to give up any pleasure, inordinately proud of his position, and always spending far beyond his income.
  • He was known for drinking, gambling, laziness, and of course sexual immorality. He also apparently had little regard for church or religion. Austen did not appreciate such shortcomings.

For more on the Prince Regent: Colleen Sheehan speculates delightfully about all the places in Emma where Jane Austen may have been making fun of the Prince Regent in “Jane Austen’s ‘Tribute’ to the Prince Regent: A Gentleman Ridiculed with Difficulty.” Mr. Knightley, as a true gentleman, contrasts with the Regent. Be sure to follow the link at the end of Sheehan’s article, which takes you to a second article with an entertaining alternate solution to the “courtship” riddle!

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

“Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” That’s how one of Byron’s lovers, Caroline Lamb, described him. George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron, was as famous and infamous as the Prince Regent.

Lord Byron, replica by Thomas Phillips, circa 1835, based on a work of 1813. © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Byron’s narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, based on his travels in southern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, took London by storm in 1812. The upper classes adored him. He was quite cynical about society and its institutions, however. He called his country’s leaders “The Mad—the Bad—the Useless—or the Base” (from an epigram written in 1814).

Byron soon became known as much for his love affairs as for his poetry. An affair with married Caroline Lamb, whom he called a “little volcano,” ended when he got bored with her. She, however, blatantly pursued him everywhere. (Her husband, by the way, later became Lord Melbourne, the prime minister who so much influenced young Queen Victoria.) She even published a popular novel, Glenarvon, based on her marriage and her affair with Byron.

In the following years, Byron continued to write romances about Byronic heroes: broody men with dark secrets, in exotic settings. He also continued to have torrid affairs with married women. He became close friends with his married half-sister Augusta, who he considered the only woman who understood him. It’s possible, but not proven, that he was the father of her daughter Medora, born in 1814.

Perhaps the desire to squash rumors about his relationship with his half-sister contributed to Byron’s decision to get married in January, 1815. He married Annabella Milbanke (niece of Lady Melbourne, Caroline Lamb’s mother-in-law). Apparently they were fond of each other, and Byron “esteemed” her. However, the marriage was a disaster and they separated in January, 1816. She believed he was insane.

They had a daughter, Augusta Ada Byron. (That daughter became Ada Lovelace, one of the developers of the first computer.) One of Byron’s later lovers, Claire Clairmont, gave him another daughter, Allegra. Allegra died of a fever at age five. Byron also had a child with one of his maids, and he provided for her.

Byron spent money extravagantly. He inherited his title and family estates, but they were already deeply encumbered by debt. At first he refused to take payment for his writing (making his publisher rich instead), but by 1814 he began to accept, and even negotiate for, large amounts for the copyrights of his books.

Byron continued traveling, writing, and having affairs. His newer books, including Don Juan, increasingly shocked society. His original publisher finally refused to publish any more of Byron’s books, but Byron quickly found another publisher.

Lord Byron eventually got involved in the Greek struggle for independence, which suited his romantic ideals. He fell ill and died in Greece in 1824.

Jane Austen’s Perspective

Byron’s personal life was doubtless repugnant to Jane Austen. His open adultery with a long series of married women, and his taking sexual advantage of maidservants, would both have disgusted her. I imagine she also thought poorly of his extravagance and debts. What about his writing?

Lord Byron was the epitome of the literary movement, Romanticism. He wrote and lived the untamed passions of individual desire, the wildness of nature, imagination, and vision. Jane Austen epitomizes the best of the opposite movement, Rationalism. It emphasized self-control, order, harmony, balance, and logical truth. Austen and Byron did have something in common, though: both used irony and satire to confront flaws in their society, though in different ways.

Austen, like others in her society, read Byron’s books. In 1814 she wrote unenthusiastically, “I have read the “Corsair,” mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.” There is no indication that Byron read Austen’s books. Byron’s wife, however, wrote in 1813 that Pride and Prejudice was “a very superior work . . . the most probable fiction I have ever read.”

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick talk about Lord Byron and Walter Scott and disagree about their merits. They also mention Lord Byron’s “dark blue seas.” Benwick appreciates the “impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony” in Byron’s Giaour and Bride of Abydos. Anne doesn’t think Byron’s poetry is healthy reading for the grieving Benwick. She encourages him to read more prose, especially works by the “best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.”

Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick discuss how to pronounce the title of Lord Byron’s Giaour. (Online dictionaries say it’s something like JOW-er, or jowr. Merriam Webster says it means “one outside the Islamic faith.”)

According to the editors of the Cambridge edition of Persuasion (Janet Todd and Antje Blank), Giaour and Bride of Abydos “have exotic eastern settings, in which despotic rulers murder disobedient women and moody, passionate heroes are consumed with grief and guilt over violent crimes they commit.” They suggest that Anne Elliot’s alternative reading would have included Samuel Johnson’s articles in The Rambler. Johnson recommends (in issues 32 and 47) that in times of calamity, loss, and sorrow, we turn to hard work, diligence, and keeping our minds busy with other things.

I think Anne might also have recommended another of Austen’s favorite writers, William Cowper. Cowper suffered with depression for much of his life. One of the remedies that helped him at various periods was keeping busy with meaningful tasks, especially writing. Both Johnson and Cowper were known for their devotion to God; Byron, on the other hand, was known for his religious skepticism. Both Johnson and Cowper died well before the Regency, so we can’t consider them “Regency rock stars.” However, both were very popular authors that Jane Austen admired.

For more on Lord Byron and Jane Austen, see “Romanticism, a Romance: Jane Austen and Lord Byron, 1813-1815,” and “Jane Austen and Lord Byron: Connections.”

For those who like their history presented as fiction, I enjoyed this novel, based on Byron’s marriage: Dangerous to Know, by Megan Whitson Lee.

Lord Byron” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) offers the next generation’s perspective on Byron’s religious views.

On Samuel Johnson, see “Finding Jane Austen’s ‘Dear Dr. Johnson’ at the Godmersham Park Library.

On William Cowper, see “William Cowper: Joy and Depression, Glimmers of Light in the Midst of Darkness,” “’With what intense desire she wants her home’: Cowper’s Influence on Jane Austen,”  and “William Cowper, Beloved of Jane Austen.

William Wilberforce? (1759-1833)

I want to nominate one more “rock star of the Regency”; this time, one that Austen may have admired, though she doesn’t mention him. In an age of corrupt, self-seeking politicians, a mad king, and a profligate Prince Regent, M.P. William Wilberforce lived a life of integrity, devotion to God, and concern for the poor and downtrodden. Wilberforce was much loved and respected in England, even by those who disagreed with him, for his gentle kindness and his persuasive speaking.

Statue of William Wilberforce at St. John’s College, Cambridge University

Wilberforce is best known for leading the fight against the slave trade and slavery. Thomas Clarkson, who Jane Austen said she “loved,” worked with Wilberforce. Clarkson collected evidence and wrote books promoting abolition. Wilberforce and his friends persevered for almost twenty years, against great opposition, until the British slave trade was abolished in 1807. The House of Commons, who had previously voted down Wilberforce’s proposal ten times, this time gave him a standing ovation. The fight continued until slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, as Wilberforce was dying.

In contrast to other “rock stars” of the Regency, Wilberforce lived frugally. He was wealthy, but during his lifetime he gave away most of his wealth to people in need and to various causes he supported. For example, he supported groups working to relieve the miseries of climbing boys (chimney sweeps’ apprentices), to reform prisons, and to prevent cruelty to animals. He helped start the first “free church” in the country, a church in Bath where the poor got the best seats on the main floor rather than being marginalized because they could not pay pew rents. He also financially supported free education for the poor. However, he was not a radical, and he has been criticized for supporting government crackdowns on rioters and protesters, and for opposing labor unions.

Wilberforce was also a leader of the Evangelical movement in the Church of England. (Please note that the word evangelical did not have the same political implications that it has today; it meant, and technically still means, those with certain religious beliefs.) He wrote a best-selling book which challenged the shallow faith of the upper and middle classes of his day.

William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians

Jane Austen’s Perspective

Obviously Jane Austen would have admired Wilberforce’s faith, lifestyle, and integrity. In 1809 her sister was trying to persuade her to read a letter by Evangelical Hannah More, and Austen wrote, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” However, by 1814, her niece was considering marrying an Evangelical. Austen wrote “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest & safest. . . . don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.” She was not an Evangelical herself, but apparently her attitude toward the Evangelicals was very positive at that point. Wilberforce’s actions and reputation may have been one reason for that change.

For more about Wilberforce, see “William Wilberforce’s Joy”  and “William Wilberforce.”

 

We have now considered Jocelyn Harris’s five “Rock Stars of the Regency,” plus my own nominees for others.

What do you think of them? And what do you think Jane Austen would have thought? Who would you add to this roster?

 

In the presentation for the *Jane Austen Society of America’s Annual General Meeting, the “rock stars” were skilfully played by:

Emma Brodey as Emma Hamilton

Deborah Barnum as Dora Jordan

Linda Troost as Fanny Burney

Christopher Duda as The Prince Regent

Paul Savidge as Lord Byron

Jocelyn Harris, as the narrator, was dressed as Dolly Parton.

“Rock Stars of the Regency” was originally scheduled to be shown at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but instead, of course, it was online.

 

Sources: These summaries are based on entries in the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, plus Jocelyn Harris’s presentation for the JASNA AGM, “Rock Stars of the Regency.”

Please note that the thoughts about Austen’s responses to the rock stars are mine, not Dr. Harris’s.

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