Thanks to “Regency House Party,” part of the BBC “house” series, I now know quite a bit more about the Regency period, though nothing more about houses. As I watch these DVD’s, I’m going backwards in history to before the Victorian era of the 1900 House. In contrast this is one of the more recent recently filmed “house” shows, aired in 2004. You can tell.
“Regency” refers to the period of “prince regents” first made necessary when George III (the one the US so resented) went quite mad. It was organic -- the condition that makes one’s urine purple -- and poor Mrs. King (portrayed by Helen Mirren in “The Madness of King George”) could not save him with her love. So the next few Georges, who had to face Napoleon, made a muddled struggle of it. (All this has nothing to do with our president, George II, though it is suggestive.)
It’s the period of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” but the main similarity here is the clothes and the huge preoccupation with trying to make a good marriage. The set-up for the show is that certain attractive young folks (the producers consider thirty to be young) are invited to spend three months at a very nice country house built with sugar money made in part by the use of slaves. (The MacFies -- Bob’s ancestors -- had one of those. I think the Strachans -- my ancestors -- did not.) Since this is a BBC show, several black folks were actually in the cast and their presence was defended with history. Money, music and royalty are effective bleaches, even then.
The main focus was the culture of the times, for instance, how they ate: more French customs and much nicer food than the other shows -- though no one in the other shows ate off of a scantily-clothed countess stretched out on the dining table as in this show -- historically accurate of course. No one here minded eating a pig with its head on nor a peacock with a decorative uncooked head reinstated on the roasted body. But as much like foodies as these folks are, they are supposed to be (according to the narrative) even more focused on drink, partly because the water was untrustworthy. That other modern vice, nicotine, is off camera except for snuff, because “smoking” hadn’t been invented yet. (Is this true?) Aside from that, these people are clearly rather modern YUPpies.
Not occupations but preoccupations are the order of the day: phrenology, riding, picnics, scientific “experiments,” ghosts, concerts, playlets and pageants, secret societies, bare-knuckled boxing, balls, clothes, little model ships for a mock battle on a pond (slingshots propelling the “cannon balls”), fireworks, and kites -- are all given episodes of explanation and demonstration. If they weren’t doing these things in the most idyllic of settings (both indoors and out) and if they weren’t very attractive people in their own right, it would be pretty boring. In fact, I suspect that ennui was a major problem in the midst of a confused social and national scene that could have used the talents of such alert people more constructively. What could be more modern?
This series, like the others, appears to have a rather overt agenda about women’s lives in particular. In every era the females rail against the limitations, the confinement and sometimes the pure ickiness of arrangements for hair and menstruation. Also, there is considerable worry about whether the servants are being abused or getting upset. The chief goal often seems to be to convince us that though such times as the Regency seem wildly romantic and easeful if glanced at through the eyes of a resourceful author, it is our own times that are the best of times.
One of the more engaging sub-plots is the idea that one of the men, a charming science teacher with a sort of Alan Bates aura, does not fall in love with one of the eligible young ladies but rather with a charming and intelligent chaperone who is already married. He asserts with some energy that he wants a wife who will give him children and accompany him through life, so the match is made impossible by their own interests. Their parting is sweet and marked by all. What’s a romance without an impossible love match?
Another sub-plot features a young woman who can’t make up her mind between two admirable men. One has a gift for romantic gestures with flowers, making rose petal trails interspersed with sweet sentiments and so on. The other, helped along by the puppeteers offstage, suddenly becomes noble and wealthy. Towards the end there is a highly significant string and tag labyrinth and finally an unchaperoned candlelight masked ball.
The main plot line is war among the chaperones, centering on the technical hostess, hired for the occasion, a previously glamorous heiress who is now raddled and jealous, very preoccupied with respect to herself. Her chief opponent is an erect woman with a rosebud mouth who has been a military officer. Her problem is getting her “charge” married well, which will bring her a major reward of money. The “charge,” who is enough Black to be one of those lush, rosy, golden, overflowing maidens who makes the others look like pale sticks, never does really score. The acting out of all this affront and indignation is not very convincing. The young “host” is not quite up to commanding these battleships. Throughout the scenario, there is a serious lack of mature males except as coaches and instructors.
The frat boy element comes to the front when the men are urged to get into shape with strenous and pointless exercises accompanied by emetics that cause them to puke in the gravel of the courtyard. Also, it was the practice of the time to erect a screen in the dining room so that gentlemen could ease their bladders without leaving the room. In Regency England, we are told the women are excused at the end of the meal, and I expect they were happy to go, both to relieve their own liquid over-supply and to escape the smells.
In short, there was much posing and flirting, many long conversations, a bit of ick factor, but very little eroticism. The science professor (I admit he was my favorite, not least because he preferred older women!) got to kiss some shoulders and necks (not bosoms, though they burst out of bodices everywhere) but only servants kissed on the mouth once in passing. The “countess” is implied to have spent the night with the “host,” but was not shown actually in the bed.
Clearly these were real, identifiable people who would go home at the end and so had a need to preserve some dignity. I’d be curious to know how much they stayed in touch. The point of the English Regency period (does any other country have a period identified this way?) is that it’s an interim, though the wars were desperately real. “Play” for the upper classes appears to be relief for an underlying anxiety. What could be more modern?