In Which We Inspect the Regency Social Ladder

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) Before the Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805, by George Lucy Good (1854). Also titled Nelson Meditating in the Cabin of the Victory.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) Before the Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805, by George Lucy Good (1854). Also titled Nelson Meditating in the Cabin of the Victory.

“In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 56

The Regency period has always held a fascination for me even before I knew there was a little epoch of time niched into the overall Georgian period. I’m intrigued by the dramatic changes in the political, economic, and social conditions. It was a time when Napoleon either wreaked havoc by running rampant all over Europe, or inspired fear that such would happen should he escape his island prison. Politics grew increasingly global rather than merely continental. Art, literature, and music flourished with experimentation and newness. Industry morphed to encompass not just the laborers in the fields but also the new mechanization and automation of the cities.

Earlier this week I wrote about the mingling of the classes at the theatre (or most any public entertainment) during the Regency. At this “Common Garden,” if not for the contrast between their dress, it was hard to differentiate between the behaviors of the lower orders and their so-called betters. People will be people in the perceived anonymity of a crowd or entertainment.

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel.  Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself and her daughter.  I could advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest—there is no occasion for anything more.  Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed.  She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 29

The Quality Ladder, Isaac Cruikshank, 1793 (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University).

The Quality Ladder, Isaac Cruikshank, 1793 (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University).

So while the Regency period did see the rise of a larger middle class and cries for relief from the impoverished workers – among other social alterations – the dividing lines between and compositions of the classes remained relatively unchanged despite being in the midst of enlightenment and progress. There were plenty who tried to maneuver themselves up a level or two, and indeed a few more rungs were added to the ladder, but the overall structure of the classes in society remained static.

They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of making themselves agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 4

The folks at Hierarchy Structure have a helpful chart for those seeking the delineations between the levels of society in the Regency period. Rather than numbering the classes, I prefer to picture them as strata, or as Cruikshank drew near the end of the 18th Century, treads on a staircase.

Regency Period Social Hierarchy from HierarchyStructure.com

Regency Period Social Hierarchy from HierarchyStructure.com

 

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