Thursday, October 2, 2014

Walking Through Regency England

The well-dressed men with their many-caped driving coats, the women in elegant riding skirts sitting sidesaddle on glossy horses, the debutantes with their parasols and white gloves and attentive maids and footmen strolling down the streets (where one sees the occasional flower-seller or street sweeper to lend local color, but let's not go overboard with the riffraff in this tableau) - anyone who reads what Kate and Mom and I affectionately call "silly books" will recognize the setting for your typical London-based Regency Romance novel. In my strollings around London I would often come across a familiar street name; familiar in that it was used in one of these books (or many books, for the more posh neighborhoods), giving me a brief double vision of the area, as I was suddenly surrounded by the imaginary population of a place that never really existed in whole two hundred years ago, though some of the parts are fairly accurate.

Two hundred years ago, Shepherd's Bush was a place where you'd find actual shepherds and sheep, out in the middle of the countryside surrounding metropolitan London, which at that time didn't go out past the east edge of Hyde Park, according to this 1817 map. Instead of walking through housing developments and shops, I would have been tromping through fields and hopping over stiles in hedgerows, until I reached Kensington Gardens. These formal gardens have been there since the early 18th century, and Kensington Palace has been the royal residence, either year-round or for short breaks, since 1689. Charles and Diana raised their sons in Kensington Palace and that's where she was living up until her death in 1997. The newest famous royal couple live there now with George Alexander Louis and the yet-unborn fourth in line to the throne (I think that's how it works, anyway). Tourists can walk through the State Rooms and the gardens, but probably won't be invited up for tea.

For those of you who are neither historians nor devotees of silly books, a brief explanation of the term "regency" follows. It refers to the years between 1811 and 1820 when George III (as in The Madness Of) was unable to rule, and his son acted as Prince Regent instead. Prince George became George IV in 1820 but he only ruled for ten years, having spent most of his time on the throne eating and drinking and being merry rather than royal, and his younger brother became King William IV in 1830. He was already 64, though, and died in 1837. As neither he nor George IV had any living children (legitimate ones, anyway), the throne went to the 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, only child of George III's fourth son.

Queen Victoria married her first cousin Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and they and their nine children were very happy until Prince Albert's death, at which point Queen Victoria switched to all-black clothes and ushered in the elaborate mourning rituals of the era which paved the way for later generations of goth teenagers. She had the Albert Memorial built in 1872 and its gold spire still shines at the south end of Kensington Gardens, at the border with Hyde Park. By this time the city had spread out to enclose the parkland, though Shepherd's Bush was still out in the sticks, as you can see from this map.

Kensington Palace was where William III lived at the end of the 17th century, but St. James' Palace was where he reigned, and according to the Royal Parks website, he had 300 oil lamps installed along the "Route de Roi" between the two so that the trip was less dangerous after dark (at the time this open park was much more wooded and probably full of nefarious types, not to mention wild boar). The Franglais version of the name of this pathway became "Rotten Row" and it features prominently in many silly books as the place to see and be seen on horseback or in a carriage, especially at the fashionable hour of 5pm or so. Plucky heroines in such books flout convention and ride in the very early morning so that no one can see that they prefer to ride astride wearing the stableboy's breeches. You can still ride your horse along the track, astride or sidesaddle, if you can afford to keep a horse in the middle of London. If you don't have a horse of your own, you can rent one, but it will set you back about $150 per hour.

The carriage road makes a circle around Hyde Park, and the Serpentine curves through its center. Although silly books accurately refer to it as the Serpentine River, it's actually a lake. In the beginning it was part of the River Westbourne, but when Queen Caroline had both Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park redone in 1730 she had the river dammed to form a lake.

100 years later the Westbourne became too polluted to use, so water was pumped up from the Thames instead, and the Serpentine became a true lake; any outflow goes through an underground culvert back into the Thames. You can swim in the lake at one end, off the Lido, or rent boats - also a fashionable pastime in the silly book era.

If you walk around the south end of the lake you'll reach Hyde Park Corner, at which point you may set yourself up on a soapbox and talk about anything you like. "Speaker's Corner" is technically more up north towards the Marble Arch, but the free-speech area is generally the entire eastern end of the park. I didn't see (or hear) anyone in my walk that day, and I wasn't moved to start a speech of my own. In fact, there weren't many people walking over in that area, but again it was a Monday during working hours. As I got to the Marble Arch region there were more and more tourists, and once I went through the arch onto Oxford Street I was back in the middle of both tourists and locals, in the center of the shopping district. Oxford Street goes into Bond Street, also another famous shopping area; it's the older of the two, and the silly books have their female characters spend a good deal of time looking for laces and gloves and hats (especially hats) along this stretch of road.

The more intellectual Regency Romance heroine would have left the park at Hyde Park Corner instead, to walk up to Picadilly where the bookshop Hatchard's has been located since 1797. She could have then gone on to see the latest exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts (founded 1768), perhaps meeting an elegant friend walking back from visiting his tailor on Saville Row, well known for bespoke men's clothing since the early 1800s. All of the group might have met up again at Berkeley Square for a sorbet at Gunter's, a tea shop that no longer exists, sadly, having vanished into time along with the lords and ladies and poor but noble vicars' daughters that I'll only meet in my silly books, and in my imagined strolls through London.

But Beau Brummell for your more than finished coxcomb. He could be grave enough, but he was any thing but a solemn coxcomb. He played with his own sceptre ... He played the balls of wit and folly so rapidly about his head, that they lost their distinctions in one crowning and brilliant halo.

On a reference being made to him as to what sum would be sufficient to meet the annual expenditure for clothes, he said, "that with a moderate degree of prudence and economy, he thought it might be managed for eight hundred per annum."

He told a friend that he was reforming his way of life. "For instance," said he, "I sup early; I take a little lobster, an apricot puff, or so, and some burnt champagne, about twelve; and my man gets me to bed by three."

- excerpted from "The Flowers of Literature; or Encyclopaedia of Anecdote: A Well Diversified Collection in History, Biography, Poetry, and Romance. Jeux d'Esprits, Traditionary Relics, Essays, Critical Scraps, (of "pith and Moment:") with Translations of Approved Authors, Ancient and Modern" by one "William Oxberry, Comedian," published in London in 1821

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