Did Prinny Turn the Victorians into Prudes?

Well, he didn’t do it all by himself, he had help. From the Carlton House set, from his princely brothers, even, ironically, from his father, George III. All of the various influences in his life contrived to turn a very strictly brought-up young prince into one of the most reviled monarchs of his age. In fact, his extravagant and debauched lifestyle revolted his own niece and so many of his younger subjects that eventually a backlash in attitudes led to the almost puritanical sensibilities of the Victorian age.

What were the factors that led to this unequivocal volte-face from the accepted standards of behavior current during the Regency?

King George III is responsible for imposing upon his sons a harshly rigorous educational regime, which allowed little relief in the way of amusement or entertainment. This was how he, himself, had been educated, but it was especially hard on his eldest son, George, an intelligent, active and imaginative young man. By the time he had reached his majority, George was practically champing at the bit to be free of his tutors and experience the lighter side of life. He and his brother, Frederick, eagerly fell in with those that ran with Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Though they gambled, drank and whored their way across London, at this time the Prince of Wales was still an attractive and personable young man and compared to his dull, though respectable father, "Farmer George," he found great favor with the younger generation of the English populace.

Then George III sent his favorite son, Frederick, to Hanover, officially to pursue his military studies, but also to get him away from the bad influence of Fox’s set. The Prince of Wales wanted a military career of his own, but his father would not allow it. Nor would his father allow him to become officially involved in politics. This was a crushing blow to an intelligent and active young man at loose ends. He was almost pushed into the lap of Fox and the Whigs by his father’s treatment. And so, he pursued opposition politics and debauchery in equal measure.

Taking up with Beau Brummell pushed him even farther along his road to an extravagant life-style. Though, personally, I cannot fault Brummell for improving the Prince’s taste in clothes. If you have seen the movie, The Madness of King George, in it, Rupert Everett’s Prince of Wales is a good approximation of how he looked before Brummell had the dressing of him. Under Brummell’s influence, George left off the hair powder and face paint, and he began to dress in less outrageous fabrics and colors. In the process, he also developed a taste for the very best of everything and bought it, without any thought about whether or not he, or more precisely, the Civil List, could afford it. And there was no one to gainsay him, so he spent and spent, on clothes, houses, food, liquor, horses, gambling and his increasing number of mistresses. And with everyone toadying to him, he became increasingly selfish and arrogant, slowly loosing touch with the real circumstances of Britain and its government.

If George III had treated his eldest son better, had allowed him some meaningful and engaging occupation, it is quite possible the young prince would not have fallen so easily into the company of the opposition party, who had such a strong tendency toward debauchery. Sadly, he had very little self-control and seemed to want only to outdo those with whom he associated. His weight continued to increase while his taste in mistresses seemed to decrease, and he spent tens of thousands of pounds on his extravagant residences both in London and in Brighton.

Prince George’s brothers were no better:

Fredrick was estranged from his wife, who was popular with the English public, and he kept several successive mistresses. He had to resign his post as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army when it became known that his mistress, Mary Anne Clark, had been using her relationship with him to sell army commissions.

William had at least ten illegitimate children with his mistress of twenty years, the actress Mrs. Jordan. In 1818, after the death the previous year of Princess Charlotte in childbirth, he married a German princess half his fifty years, in order to beget a legitimate heir to the throne, though he was unsuccessful.

Edward remained single most of his life, keeping a succession of mistresses. But 1818, he too, married another German princess in an attempt to beget a legitimate heir. He, at least succeeded, his wife giving birth to the Princess Victoria in 1819.

Ernest was perhaps more a victim of slander than a true libertine. He had been wounded in the face during his brief military career and was permanently disfigured. It was rumored he had murdered his valet and had incestuous relations with one of his sisters, getting her with child. It is unlikely either of these two events actually occurred, but many among the English public believed they had.

Augustus was not known to keep mistresses, but he married twice, in both cases against the reigning monarch’s wishes, in direct contravention of the Royal Marriages Act.

Adolphus was perhaps the best behaved of the Prince’s brothers and there was no public scandal surrounding him.

With his own outrageous behavior, coupled with that of his brothers and his libertine friends, it is not surprising that very few mourned the passing of George IV. His brother and heir, William IV, tried very hard to smooth over the bad feeling caused by the notorious behavior of his brothers and their friends, but public opinion was already turning against them. When William died, seven years later, and the fresh, young Victoria ascended the throne, people were eager for new, more decent standards of behavior. The more relaxed era of the Regency was long gone.

Anyone reading a Regency novel today might feel that standards of decorum during those years were quite strict. And so they were, from our modern-day perspective. But those living in the mid- to late-Victorian period would have found them rather lax. Unmarried ladies of the Regency era would not have been allowed to spend time alone with a man not of their family, they could not travel about the city unaccompanied, they could not dance more than two dances with any man at Almack’s. But in truth, those restrictions were in place more to protect young women than to restrict them. These same Regency misses might allow the necklines of their evening gowns to plunge quite low, many of them would not be averse to showing a goodly bit of ankle to a prospective suitor, and a few of them might even dampen their gowns to catch a man’s eye. There were no skirts on pianofortes in the Regency era, "leg" was still a perfectly acceptable word for use in mixed company and ladies and gentlemen still treated their personal servants like human beings, not machines.

I think the change in standards of decorum during the course of the Victorian age were more severe upon men than upon women. Unmarried women had always been kept rather close, but men had been free to do pretty much as they pleased without fearing the censure of society. By the time Victoria came to the throne this was changing, mostly because of deep public disgust over the extravagant and irresponsible behavior of Prinny and his set. If a man wanted to succeed in Victorian society or politics, he had to maintain a much more upright and conventional image. He might still gamble and keep a mistress, but he no longer flaunted either activity if he wished to be accepted in society. Which is one of the reasons I find Victorian society more hypocritical than the Regency. There was a double-standard for the behavior of men and women in the Regency, yet men were fairly open and honest in their dealings, no matter what those dealings might be. Later, anything which was not acceptable to Victorian society usually didn’t stop, it just went underground. So, even though the Victorians has more technological conveniences than the Regency, I think the people who lived during the Regency were more forthright. Given the choice, I would choose to live in Regency rather than Victorian England.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Did Prinny Turn the Victorians into Prudes?

  1. Cari Hislop says:

    I’d choose Regency England over Victorian any day. The Victorian hypocrisy just gets up my nose. Everything about it was suffocating…the constricting clothes, the controlling culture, the hardened class divisions perpetuated by the self-important on every rung of society, the enforced social rules, the forceful do-gooders, many of who were probably Sadists. (The inventors of the Victorian workhouse had to be Sadists). The list goes on and on. There’s just something sinister about the whole age.

    Speaking of sinister, I came to see if you’d written about the Ratcliff Highway Murders (1811). I was watching a program on Hawksmoor’s London churches and the murder was mentioned in passing so I had to look it up. if you haven’t read it, the info on the Wiki page is rather fascinating. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratcliff_Highway_murders

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There is no doubt the Victorian era was much more repressive and hypocritical than the Regency, but it does seem to have been due at least in part to a backlash against the bad behavior of a few during the Regency. Worse, it seems to have been even more repressive for women, who had even less freedoms than they had during the earlier part of the century. They may have had a few more modern conveniences, but I, for one, would not feel they compensated for a more restricted life.

      I have read the Wikipedia page on the Ratcliff Highway murders, but I found it had a few errors. I much preferred the book, The Maul and the Pear Tree, by P. D. James. If you have not yet had a chance to read it, I highly recommend it, though it takes a strong stomach in some parts.

      Regards,

      Kat

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