• Nina Jarrett

Was Regency Polite Society ... um ... polite?

They named Polite Society for its many rules of proper behavior; from how to address different members of the peerage to courtship rituals, how to pay calls, whether one was permitted to talk to another, and the other endless rituals of etiquette.

However, it only takes a few minutes scanning through the cartoons of the Regency period to realize that while proper behavior might be required, many improper activities were occurring. And many members of the Polite Society were well aware of those activities.

To get a proper sense of the scandals and humor of the time, I read a wonderful book published by the Royal Collection Trust, High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson, which showcases a royal archive of his works.

Each cartoon is accompanied by an explanation regarding who the illustration was about and the scandalous activities that were being portrayed—or rather mocked. Bear in mind that readers of the time understood these nuances and were "in" on the joke.


The Prince Regent suffered from image issues and was the object of such humor far more frequently than he appreciated.


An example of a scandalous Rowlandson drawing which predates the Regency is "A New Cock Wanted. Or Work for the Plumber" depicting a maidservant standing by a splattering sink at left, showing a plumber that it needs to be fixed. She gives him an alluring glance while he holds his plumbing tools. An angry old man stands behind them on the right. The implication is that the young maid is casting aside her older lover—the master of the household she works in—for a younger man.


My word! That is awkward stuff. Quite impolite, in fact.


Why, you ask, do I bring this up?

I have read about satirical drawings in Regency novels and research, and been intrigued at this window into the mindset of the people of the time.

You might recollect that the Duke of Halmesbury reflected on how Rowlandson's cartoons influenced his thoughts during his carriage ride with Annabel en route to Baydon Hall.

I asked myself could I take on the mindset of a satirist from the Regency period and craft my own comic ideas in the style of that time?


If you have read my early newsletters, you might be aware that it is dangerous to ask such a question of myself because my imagination begins to run wild working over the problem until days, weeks or months later it is finally answered.

I will reveal the results of this enterprise in my upcoming book, To Redeem an Earl, in which Richard Balfour, the Earl of Saunton, may or may not find himself the subject of such satire.