20 May 2024

Regency Graces

With the launch of the third season of Bridgerton, our attention is turned once again to all things Regency.

We have once again been looking at Regency etiquette guides, in particular The Mirror of All Graces, written by a “Lady of Distinction” and published in 1811. This is a Guide for young ladies, which takes a detailed look at fashions, female beauty, carriage and demeanour and deportment, and even drills down to the details of corsetry and recipes for face creams, lip salves and “wash for the hair”. It is a curious mixture of repressive moralisation and gushing effusion, and while it undoubtedly contains plenty of useful information, we can only feel sorry for the young ladies who had to conform to such complex and elevated standards of self-presentation and behaviour.

The main emphasis of the authoress appears to be on the importance of young ladies recognising and maximising their natural attributes and ensuring that they are not guilty of ‘affectation’, which is to be avoided at all costs. At all times it is important that a woman’s physique is matched by her demeanour and deportment, or she may be considered ridiculous:

The youthful and delicate-shaped girl is allowed a gaiety of air which would ill become a woman of maturer years and larger proportions; but at all times of life, when the figure is slender, a swan-like neck, and the motions are naturally swaying, for that girl, or that woman, to affect what is called a majestic air, would be as unavailing as absurd.”

Ladies of “larger proportions” might not be able to achieve the quicksilver charms of the “young nymph”, but can make up for this deficiency with elegance and dignity:

The woman whose figure bears nature’s own stamp of majesty, is generally of a stately make; her person is squarer, and has more of embonpoint than the foregoing. The very muscles of her neck are so formed as to show their adaptation to an erect posture. There is a sort of loftiness in the natural movement of her head, in the high swell of her expansive bosom. The step of this woman should be grave and firm: her motions few and commanding; and the carriage of her head and person erect and steady.”

Of course, there is always a risk that this commanding demeanour will lapse into haughtiness and an air of “undue consequence” which, instead of charming all and sundry, fills onlookers with a desire to “pull her at once from her throne”.

But what of ladies of “no determined character”, who do not fit into these two narrowly defined categories? They are urged to adopt their demeanour to fit the class of woman they most resemble, with the proviso that “a too faint copy of a model is better than an overcharged one.” As always, young ladies are urged towards moderation:

By falling easily into the degree of undulating grace, or the dignified demeanour which suits your character, you merely put on the robe which nature designed, and the habit will be fit and becoming.”

Good deportment is yet another art that must be acquired and displayed at all times. The Lady roundly condemns the tendency to over-insist on an erect and upright posture, which can turn young ladies into stiff, soldier-like marionettes. She argues instead that ladies should display the ease and pliancy of dancers, which will ensure that their posture and gait is elegant, and that there is no slouching and slumping:

Many of the naturally most pleasing parts of the female shape have I seen assume an appearance absolutely disgusting; and all form an outré air, vulgar manners, or hoydening postures. The bosom, which should be prominent, by a lounging attitude, sinks into slovenly flatness, rounding the back, and projecting the shoulders!”

The Lady finishes her treatise by concluding that these outward attributes form only a small part of the young lady’s appeal:

While I exhort you to preserve your persons in comeliness, to array yourselves in elegance and sweet attractive grace, I would not lead you to believe, that these are all your charms…. Woman must, in every respect, and at all times, regard her form as a secondary object; her mind is the point of her first attention; it is the strength of her power.”

Much is being demanded of the young ladies of Regency times. They must identify and exploit their natural attributes, maintain an appropriate demeanour and ensure that their gait and carriage is always elegant and graceful. Having achieved all these outward charms, they must also manage to project a good mind and fine sensibility, as it is “deemed laudable in woman to collect into herself all the innocent advantages, mentally and corporeally, which may render her most admirable and precious in the eyes of him who may be, or is, her husband.” This is the crux of the matter: all the advice that must be heeded is to secure one end, an advantageous match.

Young ladies are advised to “ever hold a reserve on certain subjects” when conversing with men of “all ranks and relations” that would not apply when in the company of their own sex. Discretion and a sense of propriety is of paramount importance. To social inferiors they must “ever preserve a gracious condescension”. Finally, “to her equals, particularly of the male sex, her manners must never lose sight of a dignity sufficient to remind them that she expects respect will be joined with probable intimacy.” Only then will the young lady show herself to be worthy of a gentleman’s respect:

The present familiarity between the sexes is both shocking to delicacy, and to the interests of women. Woman is now treated by the generality of men with a freedom that levels her with the commonest and most vulgar objects of their amusements…When any man, who is not privileged by the right of friendship or of kindred, to address her with an air of affection, attempts to take her hand, let her withdraw it immediately, with an air so declarative of displeasure, that he shall not presume to repeat the offence.”

A handshake was seen as unpardonably intimate in the Regency era, where the customary greeting was a discreet bow of the head or, when meeting someone of a notably higher social class, a curtsey.

It is very hard from our 21st-century perspective to appreciate what a delicate and precarious path young ladies of the ton were forced to tread during the Regency era. They had to be ever mindful of their appearance, carriage and deportment and aware that they were being scrutinised by exacting harridans like the “Lady of Distinction” and found wanting. But they also had to be acutely sensitive to the fact that a pleasing appearance was never going to be enough; they also had to be entertaining but discreet conversationalists and tactful diplomats, alive to the nuances of social class, mindful of their dignity, paragons of discretion and ever guarded against the risk of being treated with a demeaning lack of respect.

Top: Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Caroline Matilda Sotheron, 1808


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