What can be more fun than discovering a good series after a lot of the books in it are already out? That is what happened to me with this series by C. S. Harris. Each of the next eleven posts will feature a review of a book in the series, in order.
The Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series is historical crime fiction set in the Regency Era, and so I will start by describing the era and why it has proven such a popular setting for fiction, from the books of Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer to Naomi Novik, to name three of the most popular. The works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Sir Walter Scott also fall into this category, as do those of many modern romance writers, including Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, and Lisa Kleypas.
Jane Austen is one of the best-known writers of classic Regency fiction.
Why has this period inspired so much literature?
For one thing, these were very interesting times historically. Most of Europe was at war, for and against Napoleon, depending on the year. America declared war on Britain in 1812, adding to the drama. Social mores were in an uproar as well: the rights of both women and slaves were being debated everywhere. And the conflict between the classes, especially in England, proved to be rich fodder for romantic plots.
The world being carved up into spheres of influence between Pitt and Napoleon — one of the most famous political cartoons of all time
The Sebastian St. Cyr series begins in 1811, the year that George, Prince of Wales (known by the public as “Prinny”) began his nine-year tenure as Regent of the British Monarchy. (A prince regent is a prince who rules a monarchy in the place of a monarch who is still the titular king but has been deemed unfit for any reason, such as age, or physical or mental incapacity. In this case, the Prince of Wales was standing in for his father George III, thought to be mad. On the death of his father in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV.)
The Prince Regent
Generally, though, the term Regency, or Regency era, refers to the broader period of 1795 to 1837, which was characterized by distinctive aspects of manners and social expectations, as well as styles in fashion, architecture and literature. “The Regency Era” formally ended in 1837 when Queen Victoria succeeded William IV.
During this period, society was greatly stratified – the wealthy and largely idle upper class was called the “ton,” a French word meaning “manners” or “style” and serving as shorthand for this group which included most of the peerage, aristocracy, and wealthy merchants or bankers who formed the top crust of English society. [Note we still use the word “tony” to denote something fashionable among wealthy or stylish people.] The ton lived, as Harris writes in Who Buries the Dead, in “a rarified world of manners and careful calculations ruled by the dictates of taste and fashion. . . . ” What mattered most in this world, she explains, was not intelligence, moral fiber, education or talent, but birth and wealth.
On the other end of society, and drawing the revulsion and contempt of the ton was the great mass of the poor. Many of these desperate people turned to begging, theft, or in the case of women, prostitution. The Church, as the author points out [in the second book], “taught the poorer orders that their lowly path had been allotted to them by the hand of God.”
Curricle, such as would have been driven by Sebastian St. Cyr (via Georgian Index)
At both ends of society, however, vice flourished, although in a more “overt” style in the lower stratum. The Port of London was the busiest in the world, attracting a large number of thieves and other criminals, and leading to the creation of crowded slums known as “rookeries.” [At that time, “rook” was a slang term meaning to cheat or steal.] The people living in or frequenting these areas developed their own argot, known variously as “flash patter” or “St. Giles’ Greek,” [the area of St. Giles was one of the more notorious of the rookeries], language you will encounter in novels set in this period. (Some authors, like Lyndsay Faye, include a glossary in their books. Others use narrative devices to clue you in on the content of conversations. You can find an online Flash dictionary here.] Another such district, Covent Garden, figures prominently in the St. Cyr books.
Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library
“Flash houses,” as Liz Hanbury explained on her excellent post about the period:
“. . . were the colloquial names for pubs frequented by criminals. A combination of brothels, drinking places and centres for criminal intelligence, some were kept exclusively for young boys and girls. They were described at ‘hot beds of profligacy and vice’ and usually situated in the rookeries described above. Some, like The Finish in Covent Garden, were under the nose of Bow Street.”
Bow Street, also figuring prominently in this series, was a precursor to Scotland Yard. Bow Street Runners are considered to be the first British police force. The force, originally numbering six men, was founded in 1749 by the magistrate Henry Fielding, who was also well known as an author. “Bow Street runners” was the name the public gave to the detectives on the force. Because of their experience in solving crimes, they tended to be consulted on cases throughout the greater London area. The force was disbanded in 1839, having become redundant after the creation of a London police force in 1829. The new force was constituted by an act introduced in Parliament by the home secretary, Sir Robert Peel – hence the nicknames “bobbies” and “peelers” for policemen.
[The original headquarters of the new London police force were in Whitehall, with an entrance in Great Scotland Yard, from which the name originates. Scotland Yard was so named because it stood on the site of a medieval palace that had housed Scottish royalty when the latter were in London on visits. Thus “Scotland Yard” is a metonym for the police force serving most of London.]
19th Century engraving of the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, to which the Bow Street Runners were attached
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the period from the standpoint of literature was the wide gulf between rights and opportunities afforded to different genders. [As for what the social, legal and religious landscape was like for bisexual and gay people in this era, as author Ann Herendeen reported in an article:
“In the Regency, the sodomy law established in the sixteenth century was still in effect. Sodomy, defined as anal sex between men, was a capital crime punished by hanging. Because credible eyewitness testimony was required for all convictions, executions were relatively rare, and men were more often found guilty of “attempted sodomy,” although even this brought a fine, a stint in the pillory and a jail sentence.
The pillory was not the innocuous little shame ritual some of us may imagine. Convicted offenders, men and women, were subjected to the abuse of the mob, pelted with rubble, dung and entrails from butchers’ and fishmongers’ shops nonstop for the length of their sentence, with the full encouragement of the authorities.”
C.S. Harris addresses this situation through her characters Russell Yates and Ambrose LaChapelle, inter alia. You can find out more about homosexuality in Nineteenth Century England from primary documents compiled on this web site.]
A woman lacked significant rights in England until the mid 19th Century. Not only did she lack educational and professional opportunities. The law of primogeniture stipulated that any daughters’ rights of inheritance were forfeited in favor of an eldest son’s, compelling many women to secure their social status and subsistence through marriage. A woman could only inherit if she had no brothers, or a husband who died intestate. If a woman did have property, the law of coverture, which defined the legal status of woman following marriage, provided that the husband and wife became a single unit for property purposes, with the husband having complete control over all the property of either person. Anything the woman brought into marriage, including real estate, clothing, furniture, or money, became the property of her husband. The husband could not sell dower real estate without his wife’s consent, but he was free to squander her assets. Given the significant proportion of time the idle upper class spent gambling in Regency England, this was not an insignificant consideration.
[Note the situation was not so different in early America.]
In the upper classes, families could usually arrange marriages for their daughters, and mothers were often obsessed with doing so. As Jane Austen wrote in a letter of March 13, 1816:
“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.”
Husbands in England at this time were also permitted by law to beat their wives.
In the lower classes, however, women’s choices were much worse. There were workhouses, in which work was often difficult, even dangerous, and entailed long hours. They could also enter into domestic service, in which they waited on the upper classes all day from early morning until late at night, without much time off. (A good fictional portrayal of life for domestics in this time period is offered in the novel Longbourn by Jo Baker.)
But many women didn’t even have those options. Harris portrays the harshness of the lives of the underprivileged with an acute and sympathetic eye. She writes in When Gods Die:
“It was a familiar enough story, a tragedy enacted a thousand times or more a year in London, Paris – in every city across Europe. Women barely eking out a subsistence wage, caught by illness or a downturn in the fashion industry and thrown onto the streets. Most turned to prostitution or theft, or both. They had no choice, but that didn’t stop the moralists from condemning them as sinful women and railing against them as the source of all corruption and decadence.”
The Royal Joke, or Black Jacks Delight, by James Gillray (1757-1815)
Impoverished men did not have enviable situations either. Harris reported in What Darkness Brings:
“The East End of London was choked with men . . . raised in want and desperation, uneducated, angry, and long ago cut loose from the moral underpinnings that typically anchored those who looked askance at them. . . Living precariously from day to day, subsisting largely on potatoes and bread and crammed as many as five or ten to a room, they wreaked their own kind of vengeance on a system that viewed them as a permanent ‘criminal class,’ impervious to improvement and suitable only for containment.”
“Those who didn’t die young or violently could generally look forward to being either hanged or transported to the nasty new penal colony at Botany Bay that had replaced the earlier hellholes in Georgia and Jamaica.”
[Botany Bay in eastern Australia was opened as a penal colony in 1786. Between 1787 and 1868, approximately 162,000 convicts were transported to it and other Australian penal colonies by the British government. Many convicts were transported for petty crimes while a significant number were political prisoners. More serious crimes, such as rape and murder, were not “transportable” offenses.]
Religion played an important role in maintaining the social order. In What Angels Fear, Harris observed:
“The Church, like the monarchy, was a valuable bastion of defense against the dangerous alliance of atheistical philosophy with political radicalism. The Bible taught the poorer orders that their lowly path had been allotted to them by the hand of God, and the Church was there to make quite certain they understood that.”
What did the rich do all day while the poor were struggling to survive? During the day (which started in the afternoons, since the rich stayed up so late), the men hunted, went to clubs, drank, took snuff, played cards, and gambled. Occasionally they dueled. At night they partied. The women shopped, did needlework, visited one another, and gossiped. And then at night, they too went to parties.
From Pride and Prejudice
Eligible young people (along with their older chaperones) frequented Almack’s, a famous club where gently bred young ladies could meet highly eligible gentlemen. Almack’s makes its appearance in most Regency Era novels set in London. Almack’s was governed by a select committee of the most influential ladies of the ton, known as “The Patronesses” of Almack’s. These Patronesses allowed entrance to the rooms only to those they considered good ton.
The First Quadrille at Almack’s: a French print
C.S. Harris acquaints you with all these aspects of the Regency Era and more in her books. Each one highlights a part of history from that time. I hope you will join me as I share these stories with you in the coming posts.