The Real Regency Hoyden: Down a Primrose Path

ScarlettIt was the same conflicting emotion that made her desire to appear a delicate and high-bred lady with boys, and to be, as well, a hoyden who was not above a few kisses….

“Oh, Honey, no. Don’t be unkind. She’s just high-spirited and vivacious.”

—- Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett’s time came well after the Regency. However, the censure that fell upon her was from the same rain cloud which hovered over early nineteenth century England. Hoydens were not whores, per se, but any sign of vivacity, or high-spirits, might lead a young woman astray.

Hoydens generally appeared in early nineteenth century fiction as a foil to the modest, well-behaved heroine. Of course, modest, well-behaved heroines could be dead bores. Therefore, they were given mysterious secrets to keep or sent away to frightening places where all sorts of things might happen to them in their innocence. The hoydenish character was a tool to complicate matters.

In retrospect, it seems ironic that it is the hoyden who appears more in control of the tangled events which entrap her more strait-laced sister.

Sophia Lee was the daughter of an actor and became a well-known mistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was perhaps prudent that she waited to publish her Gothic novels until after retiring from her headmistress vocation. In 1804 she published The Life of a Lover, a Series of Letters, in which the estimable heroine had the profound misfortune of bearing the same name as the natural daughter of the “dissolute Lady Leybourne” with “a levity which a cloisterSophia Lee, "The Life of a Lover" cannot abate, and a face pretty enough to make the seclusion necessary.”

They both find themselves boarders at a French nunnery and at once the hoyden sets about making mischief, when she’s not casting lures at a disreputable marquis. Before she departs from the story, “to fly to the arms of my lover,” she and another whom the heroine had reason to trust betray her.

The hoyden intercepts the heroine’s letters to the man she loves and through clever guile works a misconception that thwarts the heroine and her beloved. In a black moment, the heroine considers why virtue has served her so ill. The hoyden has no such recriminations. She is, if anything, very sure of herself:

“Two heads are better than one at a plot; and mine, they tell me, equal to most of my sex!”

4 thoughts on “The Real Regency Hoyden: Down a Primrose Path

    • Hoydenish behavior was viewed much like the old adage: idle hands make the devil’s work. That is, the hoyden was used in literature as a tool for evil. Naughty indeed.


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