Nicola here. Last week I spent a most enjoyable evening in London at a Georgette Heyer soiree. It was part of a two-day event organised jointly by London University and the London Book Fair; earlier in the day there had been a conference on Georgette Heyer and her writing which my writing friend and colleague Sophie Weston had attended. You can read her report on the conference here and it’s both fun and thought-provoking, like Georgette Heyer herself.
The evening soiree was, appropriately enough, in an 18th century townhouse, The House of St Barnabas, 1 Greek Street, Soho, London. It has been a homeless charity since 1862 and is now also a private members’ club dedicated to charity work. The first house on the site was built during The Restoration period, a grand mansion with coach house and stables. This original house was demolished for a new one to be built between 1744 and 1747. It is in glorious Georgian style with beautiful rococo plasterwork. When we visited it was also decorated with football memorabilia to celebrate the World Cup; a case of the old meeting the new! According to research, the rooms and gardens of the House of St Barnabas were the blueprint for the imagined lodgings of Dr. Manette and Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The alleyway on one side of the house was later re-named Manette Street.
We were met at the entrance to the reception rooms by a lady and gentleman in period costume who greeted us with appropriate formality, thereby making me realise that although I wrote and read Regency fiction a great deal, I was on uncertain ground when it came to putting the manners into practise!
The first part of the evening was a discussion around the theme of “Two hundred years of social mores: From dance cards to online dating.” I’d been invited to lead this debate with Alison Flood, a journalist and Georgette Heyer fan. As there had recently been some discussion in the press comparing the TV programme Love Island to a Jane Austen novel we decided to take this as our starting point and having checked how many of the fifty or so people present had watched Love Island (three) asked whether people felt there were any similarities between the two. Some lively discussion followed! We agreed that there were some superficial similarities, for example people have always tended to judge on first impressions whether on Tinder, Love Island or at the Pemberley Ball. In a relatively closed society, whether it be artificially so (Love Island) or a Regency village, newcomers often spell trouble and gossip abounds.
A lot of people felt that they would have preferred a Regency-style courtship to modern-day dating. However an examination of this
idea showed various pros and cons. It feels as though both time and subtlety are often missing from today’s dating. Everything happens fast because life happens fast. But of course in the Regency period matches were often made on quite a short acquaintance without having the chance to get to know one another very well, particularly if there was family pressure. People were also appreciative of the fact that these days there is a great deal more opportunity to meet a potential partner than there was in the past – although it might not always feel like it. Everyone agreed though that the courtesy, respect and “rules” of 19th century society could be helpful in comparison to what sometimes feels like chaos in the social interactions of today. And then there were the dress codes. Maybe we were old-fashioned (although there was a good age range in the audience) but we all agreed that Regency dress for both men and women was more attractive than tiny bikinis and endless six packs, even on Poldark! There was a sense of “put it away; public nudity is becoming boring.”
Other threads we discussed included the influence of Georgette Heyer’s own era on her writing, which is something Sophie also mentions in her blog, and the fact that we were in effect comparing our modern day reality with historical fiction, or in the case of Jane Austen’s writing, contemporary fiction. All in all it was a stimulating discussion that ran over time until we were all desperate for supper! We concluded by sharing our favourite Heyer books and why we liked them. There was an audible gasp in the room, and some disapproval, when I said that for many years my favourite Georgette Heyer book had been Beauvallet although these days I would probably choose Devil’s Cub or her short stories. We could all agree, though on the perennial appeal and talent of Georgette Heyer as an author and thought that perhaps one of the reasons we enjoy her books is that her characters do to some extent thwart convention whilst operating within that society.
After a delicious supper of modern canapes when we discussed everything from the popularity of Regency dancing to historical accuracy in books and costume dramas, we had some pianoforte music and tackled the fiendishly difficult Heyer quiz, which made me realise I needed to brush up on my knowledge of her books to have a hope of matching the experts. No doubt a Regency lady would have described the evening approvingly as “a crush” and for me and the other guests, I hope, it was wonderful fun to talk to so many Regency aficionados. I left to get the train home, rather wishing I had a carriage waiting!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topics we discussed at the Heyer soiree or on her books or any aspect of the discussion. What is it about the social behaviours of Regency society that we find attractive? What are the similarities and differences, and the pros and cons of dating now and then? Which would you prefer? And which one element of Regency manners would you re-introduce or encourage in modern society if you could?