Philosopher, philanthropists and philanderers: famous and infamous characters from the Regency Era

James Heywood, Founder of the First Free Library in Kensington
James Heywood, Founder of the First Free Library in Kensington

Kensington and Chelsea libraries holds a nationally renowned biography collection at Kensington Central Library (we’ve blogged about it before).   There are over 80,000 printed works with over 1000 new titles added each year.

As part of our celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Two of our Triborough Stock Librarians (who are responsible for the maintenance of the collection), Sally Connew- Volpe and Andy Norton highlight a few of the most important and often notorious characters from the Regency Era who feature in our biography collection.  

The collection features numerous biographies, memoirs, diaries and volumes of letters by and about the contemporaries of Jane Austen.

Charles Babbage by Anthony Hyman
Charles Babbage by Anthony Hyman

Charles Babbage: (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was an English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer. Considered a “father of the computer”, Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs

William Blake by Peter Ackroyd
William Blake by Peter Ackroyd

William Blake: (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of poetry and the visual arts.

George IV: A Life in Caricature by Kenneth Baker
George IV: A Life in Caricature by Kenneth Baker
The Prince of Pleasure by J.B. Priestley
The Prince of Pleasure by J.B. Priestley

George IV: (12 August 1762 – 26 June 1830) was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and king of Hanover following the death of his father, George III, on 29 January 1820, until his own death ten years later. From 1811 until his accession, he served as Prince Regent during his father’s final mental illness.

Beau Brummel by Hubert Cole
Beau Brummel by Hubert Cole

Beau Brummell: (7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840) was an iconic figure in Regency England, the arbiter of men’s fashion, and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. He established the mode of dress for men that rejected overly ornate fashions for one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored clothing. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and above all immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat.

Byron: The Flawed Angel by Phyllis Grosskurth and Byron by Benita Eisler
Byron: The Flawed Angel by Phyllis Grosskurth and Byron by Benita Eisler

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Among Byron’s best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the short lyric “She Walks in Beauty.” He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential.

Coleridge by Richard Holmes
Coleridge by Richard Holmes

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets.

Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England by J.C. Reid
Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England by J.C. Reid

Pierce Egan : (1772–1849) was an early British journalist, sportswriter, and writer on popular culture. He born in the London suburbs, where he spent his life. By 1812 he had established himself as the country’s leading ‘reporter of sporting events’, which at the time meant mainly prize-fights and horse-races. The result of these reports, which won him a countrywide reputation for wit and sporting knowledge, appeared in the four volumes of Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism, which appeared, lavishly illustrated, between 1818-24.

Elizabeth Fry by Catherine Swift
Elizabeth Fry by Catherine Swift

Elizabeth Fry: (21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845) Fry was an English prison reformer, social reformer and, as a Quaker, a Christian philanthropist. She has sometimes been referred to as the “angel of prisons”. Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane, and she was supported in her efforts by George IV.

England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams
England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams

Lady Hamilton: Emma, Lady Hamilton (26 April 1765 – 15 January 1815) is best remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson.

Edward Jenner by I.E. Levine
Edward Jenner by I.E. Levine

Edward Jenner: (17 May 1749 – 26 January 1823) was an English physician and scientist from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine. He is often called “the father of immunology”, and his work is said to have “saved more lives than the work of any other man”.

A selection of Nelson biographies
A selection of Nelson biographies
Nelson: a Dream of Glory by John Sugden
Nelson: a Dream of Glory by John Sugden

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, KB (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) was a flag officer famous for his service in the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was noted for his inspirational leadership and superb grasp of strategy and unconventional tactics, which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories. He was wounded several times in combat, losing one arm and the sight in one eye. Of his several victories, the best known and most notable was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, during which he was shot and killed.

John Soane by Gillian Darley
John Soane by Gillian Darley

Sir John Soane, RA : (10 September 1753 – 20 January 1837) was an English architect who specialised in the Neo-Classical style. The son of a bricklayer, he rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and an official architect to the Office of Works. He received a knighthood in 1831.

A Queen on Trial: The Affair of Queen Caroline by E.A. Smith
A Queen on Trial: The Affair of Queen Caroline by E.A. Smith

Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (Caroline Amelia Elizabeth; later Queen Caroline; 17 May 1768 – 7 August 1821) was the Queen consort of King George IV of the United Kingdom from 29 January 1820 until her death. Between 1795 and 1820, she was Princess of Wales.

A Flame in the Sunlight:The Life & Work of Thomas De Quincey by Edward Sackville West
A Flame in the Sunlight:The Life & Work of Thomas De Quincey by Edward Sackville West

Thomas De Quincey (15 August 1785 – 8 December 1859) was an English essayist, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).

The Life of Walter Scott by John Sutherland
The Life of Walter Scott by John Sutherland

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, popular throughout much of the world during his time. Scott was the first English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.

Life of Wellington - in two volumes
Life of Wellington – in two volumes

Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), was a British soldier and statesman, a native of Ireland from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy,and one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century.

The Man Who Freed Slaves: The Story of William Wilberforce by A. & H. Lawson
The Man Who Freed Slaves: The Story of William Wilberforce by A. & H. Lawson

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark
Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark

Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; 30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851) was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein.  She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

All of the titles featured above and many more are available for loan from Kensington Central Library.

You can also find more information about these Regency Era characters  online by visiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (you’ll need a library membership to access this database outside of the library.

Andy Norton and Sally Connew-Volpe
Andy Norton and Sally Connew-Volpe

Andrew Norton and Sally Connew-Volpe

Tribrorough Stock Librarians

The history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Triborough Reference Librarian, Gillian Nunns looked  at the history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe in Chelsea Library’s Costume Collection.

In the Regency period, Paris was no longer the centre of men’s fashion that it had been – velvets, lace and satins went to the guillotine as fashionable gentlemen distanced themselves from the aristocracy.  Also, Europe was now at war, and as England became cut off from France a style of men’s tailoring developed in England that was to dominate the European fashion scene during the Regency period.  The Regency period in England gave birth to the Dandy, a style that has its routes in more practical and masculine pursuits than the French Court.

 The precursor to Regency men’s fashion in England was the Macaroni, a style that the Dandy reacted against.  Here is a great image of a Macaroni which we found in a book published in 1884 called Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency by Lewis Wingfield.

A Macaroni from 'Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency' by Lewis Wingfield
A Macaroni from ‘Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency’ by Lewis Wingfield

And here is another great example that we found in The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker.

Another Macaroni from 'The Saville Row Story' by Richard Walker
Another Macaroni from ‘The Saville Row Story’ by Richard Walker

The Macaroni’s fashion tastes were aristocratic and French in origin, with frivolous and extravagant styles: hair piled up high with small French hats on top, colourful short breeches, large and sparkly buckles and buttons and tightly fitting coats.  The Macaroni is part of a mood of extravagance that those with more robust tastes opposed after the French Revolution. 

The beginning of a more masculine style has its origins in the outdoor pursuits of an English country gentleman, for whom lace ruffles, powdered hair and embroidered coats were wholly unsuitable.  The influence of this style was spurred on not only by disorder in France but also by George Brummell, who made notable contributions to English costume, and was the original Dandy.  Here is a page from The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker, describing Brummell and the extent of his influence.  He describes Brummell’s dressing routine as

‘a mesmerizing performance of several hours that drew the Prince to the Beau’s home in Chesterfield Street.  The Prince was now the pupil and Brummell the arbiter of taste’
George Brummel at his dressing table from 'The Saville Row Story' by Richard Walker
George Brummel at his dressing table from ‘The Saville Row Story’ by Richard Walker

And here he is in an etching and mezzotint by Robert Dighton, 1805, that we found in Dandies by James Laver.

George Brummell- the original Dandy from 'Dandies' by James Laver
George Brummell- the original Dandy from ‘Dandies’ by James Laver

The clothes of a Dandy are simple but impeccably cut.  Notable features include long trousers, which would previously have been scorned in the world of fashion, as well as impeccably tied neckties, top hats and coats that are practical for riding horses on a country estate.  This is the fashion that Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice would have been influenced by, as we can see in this illustration by Hugh Thomson in a 1894 edition of the book, depicting Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy at Charlotte’s house.

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy- illustration by Hugh Thomson in 1894 edition of 'Pride and Prejudice'
Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy- illustration by Hugh Thomson in 1894 edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

As well as in England, the style of the Dandy spread across Europe.  Here are some images of the Dandy’s style as interpreted in France, also in Dandies by James Laver.

The Dandy style from 'Dandies' by James Laver
The Dandy style from ‘Dandies’ by James Laver

As well as having a huge influence on fashion in the Regency Period, Brummell’s character has been popular ever since, and there are lots of anecdotes and satirical accounts of his activities such as in a story found in the February 1902 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, entitled ‘The King of the Dandies‘ by Charles Wilkins.

‘My dear fellow’ exclaimed Brummell, ‘Aw – where did you pick up that extraordinary affair you have upon your back?’
The Prince laughed good-humouredly as he added, ‘It is not your fault, mine goot sir.  You shall not be to blame because a devoid-of-conscience influencing tradesman deceives you when you purchase from him his delusive fabrics.’
 ‘Is there anything the matter with my coat?’ I inquired in dreadful confusion.
 ‘Coat!’ exclaimed Beau Brummell.
Coat! Cried his friends in chorus, all in extreme astonishment.
 ‘It’s no more a coat than a cauliflower-if it is, I’ll be d—d!’ cried Brummell himself, everyone continuing to scrutinise the garment.

After finding this story, we decided to have a look in the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1813, to see what a fashionable gentleman would have been reading about in the year that Pride and Prejudice was published.  We came across this article in the Abstract of Foreign Affairs in September, which is an article about what must be a very early submarine?

‘In the American papers it is asserted that ‘A Gentleman at Norwich U.S. has invented a diving boat, which by means of paddles, he can propel under water at the rate of three miles an hour, and ascend and descend at pleasure.  He has been three times under the bottom of the Ramilies, off New London.  In the first attempt, after remaining under some time, he came to the top of the water like the Porpoise for air, and, as luck would have it, came up but a few feet from the stern of the Ramilies […].’

The article goes on to describe how the diving boat inexplicably decides to use a torpedo to ‘perforate a hole through her copper’.

We were also interested to come across review of Emma, by ‘the writer of Pride and Prejudice in the Review of New Publications section in September 1916’s Gentleman’s Magazine.  It says that “… a good novel is now and then an agreeable relaxation from severer studies.  Of this description was Pride and Prejudice…” 

And goes on.

 ‘ […]If Emma has not the highly-drawn characters in superior life which are so interesting in ‘Pride and Prejudice;’ it delineates with great accuracy the habits and manners of a middle class of gentry; and of the inhabitants of a country village at one degree of rank and gentility beneath them.’

And finally, in a book called The New English Dandy by Alice Cocolini, we found some great images of modern day Dandies.

A modern day Dandy from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
A modern day Dandy from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini
Another modern day Dandy from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
Another modern day Dandy from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini

And even some advice for how to tie a good necktie!

How to tie a necktie from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
How to tie a necktie from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini
Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns,  Tri- Borough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library

Bibliography

All these sources are available to view at Chelsea Reference Library:

  • Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency by Lewis Wingfield
  •  The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker
  •  Dandies by James Laver
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1813
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1916
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1902
  •  The New English Dandy by Alice Cocolini