Regency Poetry: Nuances of Sensibility

Speaking of Downton Abbey, Violet’s character is so very rich, is it not? Her remarks are cleverly acid and yet illuminating as well. Certainly we know what her ladyship thinks of Byron. We probably can guess what she thinks of Regency poetry in general, with its idealism and “sensibility:”

Edith: “..am I to be the maiden aunt? Isn’t this what they do? Arrange presents for their prettier relations?”

The Dowager Countess: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s terribly middle-class.”

No pining about and no nonsense.

"Oh, Anne."

“Oh, Anne.”

I like to speculate what poets my favorite Regency-set characters favor. As dear Anne from Austen’s Persuasion famously says, “We are living through a great age for poetry, I think.” In the next few posts, this blog will consider some characters from Regency fiction and what poets they might find appealing.

Which of the following would Heyer’s Kitty Charing like?

“..Shelley’s ‘silver music,’ Coleridge’s ‘wings of healing,’ Wordsworth’s ‘wild unpeopled hills’ and above all..Keats.”

from  Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O’Brien

Hang on–wasn’t it Anne who advised caution against too much poetry? Her companion, Captain Benwick, was:

“..intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet (Walter Scott), and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other [Lord Byron]; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read poetry.”

Persuasion by Jane Austen (as presented by Janet Aikens Yount in Eighteenth Century Life, Winter 2010)

It must be recalled, however, that Anne Elliot is a masterfully drawn character. She is so nuanced in her beloved, practical way that it is a beautiful serendipity to find in her a great capacity for the “sensibility” vital to Romantic poetry. That capacity was hidden, in a:

“..heart large and expansive, this seat of deep, kind, honest and benevolent feelings–a bosom capacious of universal love, but through which there flowed a deeper stream…” — The Retrospective Review, Vol. 7 Part 1 (1823)

Still waters run deep, as they say.

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Downton Abbey’s Byron

It turns out the Earl of Grantham might be a poet.

Newstead Abbey, photo by Andy Jakeman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Newstead Abbey as photographed by Andy Jakeman and  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

When a family must be evicted, one that has held their tenancy at Downton for many generations, Lord Grantham gropes for a reason to let them stay:

“If we don’t respect the past,” he says, “we’ll find it harder to build our future.”

“Where did you read that?” asks the Dowager Countess.

“I made it up.”

“It’s too good,” she admonishes. “One thing we don’t want is a poet in the family. The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron and I presume we all know how that ended.”

A teasing remark a mother might make to her prosing son.

Still, the Dowager Countess must have been keenly aware that Byron’s finances, like the earl’s, were a mess. Moreover, the great Romantic owned an abbey, which had to be got rid of to pay his debts.

Clearly there exists some parallels between Baron Byron and the Earl of Grantham.

And they are just too appalling to contemplate.

Lord Byron on his Deathbed

Lord Byron on his Deathbed

Regency Servants: Nurse Nanny

Downton Abbey, like many great British family sagas, features a wicked nanny. Did you see the austere portrait of Queen Mary in the servants’ quarters downstairs?

That was Wicked Nanny’s cue.

Eddy and Bertie's younger brother, Prince John, pictured with Nanny Bill

Eddy and Bertie’s younger brother, Prince John, pictured with Nanny Bill

Mary of Teck’s trials with nannies were recorded by her oldest son, the abdicating Edward VIII. According to him, one had been dismissed for insolence, another for abuse. Both boys were allegedly pinched to make them cry so that a return trip to the nursery was necessary. Little Bertie might have been starved. All were reported by an assistant, the undernurse, Nanny Bill.

In Downton Abbey, Nanny West got sacked for calling Sybil’s daughter a “wicked little cross-breed.”  Her role was rather brief. I suspect she was a device to set up the viewer’s sympathy for her successor, who very well may do something really naughty.

Nannies during the Regency used to be called nurses. They had enormous influence over their young charges in the nursery. Happy was the family who could trust such a servant, and having found one they might retain her to stay on for future generations.

Nurses figured largely in the literature of the time. They might be intimate confidantes, mentors, or providers of safe refuge for their former charges, now grown up yet fleeing to them in times of adversity.

Indeed, one might have a mother but ’tis better to have a nurse:

Save the child–give it a truer mother, the domestic nurse, who possesses the equanimity of humble station, whose self-interest is more vigilant and attentive, and (such is the providence of nature) whose attachment often grows more maternal than that of the mother herself. — The Belfast Monthly Magazine, July, 1811

Worries over the nurse’s abilities seemed minor:

A child that is much danced about, and much talked to, by a very lively nurse, has many more ideas than one that is kept by a silent and indolent person. A nurse should be able to talk nonsense in abundance, but then she should know when to stop. — “On the Progressive Development of the Faculties of Children,” by Elizabeth Hamilton as printed in The Lady’s Magazine 1802

The Wet Nurse, by Marguerite Gerard

The Wet Nurse, by Marguerite Gerard

My favorite nurse from the Regency is featured in Heyer’s Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. Even when she is not in the scene, Nurse’s absence is rendered quite acute.

The following passage finds the pompous dandy, Sir Nugent Fotherby, attempting to placate his stepson’s demands. He has just sawed off one of the buttons from his elegant coat:

‘No need to cry, dear boy! Here’s your button!’

The sobs ceased abruptly; Edmund emerged from the blanket, tearstained but joyful. ‘Button, Button,’ he cried, stretching out his arms. Sir Nugent put the button into his hand.

There was a moment’s silence, while Edmund, staring at this trophy, realized to the full Sir Nugent’s perfidy. To blinding disappointment was added just rage. His eyes blazing through his tears he hurled the button from him, and casting himself face downward gave way to his emotions….

Fortunately, the noise of his lamentations reached Phoebe’s ears. She came quickly into the cabin, and upon being assured by Sir Nugent that so far from bullying his son-in-law, he had ruined one of his coats to provide him with the button he so insistently demanded…

(Phoebe) said contemptuously, ‘I should have thought you must have known better! He means his nurse, of course!’

Regency Brothers – Tinker, Painter, Soldier and–Arsonist

We love the Regency era novels of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion for the same reasons we like the Edwardian era dramas of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. These are stories that take place in stratified societies with rules the plot must heed like lodestones. If they stray too far they will offend the reader.

It sounds like a recipe for boredom and might well be–but for the persons that threaten to upset one’s beautiful world. Characters like George Wickham, Mrs. Clay, Mr. Parks and Tom Branson.

This post is an introduction to four brothers of the Regency, whose contributions, some dubious, enriched and horrified the Beau Monde.

Syon Park's conservatory to hold beautiful plants for the Duke of Northumberland (taken by Phill Brown - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Syon Park’s conservatory to hold beautiful plants for the Duke of Northumberland (taken by Phill Brown – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The Martin boys were among twelve children born to William Fenwick Martin and his wife Isabella in Northumberland. The family was decidedly lower class, the father being somewhat peripatetic in both lodging and trade. He had at one time been a fencing master but also built coaches, tanned hides and kept taverns.

Such an unstable environment was perhaps unsuitable for raising children and they were sent to live at various times with relatives before both parents died in 1813.

The sons were as follows:

The Tinker:  William– the oldest. An inventor and philosopher who “tinkered” with machines and ideas.

The Painter:  John — the youngest. An artist and historical painter to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.

The Soldier:  Richard — the second oldest. A quartermaster in the Guards, serving in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo.

The Arsonist:  Jonathan – the third oldest. Arguably the most famous of all.

They entertained the ton, existing in the beautiful world that was all around them, but forever out of reach.

Perhaps their stories will entertain you as well.

Northumberland cottage (photographed by Brian Norman and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Northumberland cottage (photographed by Brian Norman and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)