How did middle-ranking gentlewomen of Georgian England fill their waking hours? Were they mostly bored senseless? It seems that the tentative answer is ‘no’ except that this conclusion only applies to woman who were prepared to put the effort in, and obey the social conventions. This is how it could be done.
The first line of defence against ennui was people- friends, family and acquaintances. For the leisured classes of the Regency, it was an era of conversation. You visited, and were visited. When you visited, you chatted and drank tea. There were rules, but there was also flexibility. If it is a nearby close fried or family, it could be unannounced. If they are not in, then there is always tomorrow. You are not that busy.
Not being in was no the same as not being ‘at home’. You could be ‘in’ but not want to see people. You could issue a blanket ban by telling the servants, who are literally the gatekeepers to your house, or you could be not ‘at home’ to specific individuals. Some people may merely leave their card, as you might do when desiring the acquaintance of somebody new in town. Then you wait for a response; if a week passes, they are not interested.
Assuming you, or you guests get through the door, the visits were flexible. Guests for breakfast were not unusual; the leisured classes had breakfast around nine, and all strata of Georgian society, even the rich, tended to do something before they had their morning meal. If you have unexpected visitors in the morning, then you might invite them to luncheon. The weather and crime made the roads impassable at times, so be prepared for people to stay the night as well. People became fearful of crime on a moonless night. These sleepovers do not involve work for you-remember the servants! – but it may involve entertaining them all evening, and even early morning -more of that later.
Visits could be short, especially if it to people that you see often or don’t hold that much store by. Thirty minutes could be delightful, cake, ginger biscuits and wine would be nice. They could be a few hours as well; in most cases you will be ‘in a party’- sitting or walking in a group. Your conversation will be light and refined, uncontroversial and predictable yet not boring. You will gossip and chat but not start on a subject that cannot be changed to something else instantly. You will talk about your activities, and the activities of others without breaking the rules and social conventions. If you met people you know on the street, you could walk with them awhile, even if this changes the direction you were walking in. You are still not busy. You may be the host, and that brings extra responsibilities to be charming and facilitate conversation. It can be mentally draining, and definitely counts as an activity. Around you are servants, who have cleaned your clothes, cooked your food and cleaned you house. They gave you the scope to be charming, if that is what you choose.
You don’t need to nice. You could occupy your time disliking people. Fail to be at home when visited. Fail to offer luncheon if they inveigle their way into your home. Switch from affection to mere politeness. Don’t be delighted to see somebody- pretend to be delighted. The difference will be noticed. Gossip about them to sympathetic friends. Cut people in the street, skilfully. It has to be obvious that you have seen them for the blow to wound.
When not in company, you could write and receive letters. They are a vital activity and source of entertainment. The post is increasingly efficient and for short distances there are servants to pass notes. Mail delivery is not cheap unless you know a Member of Parliament who can give you one of his franks- allowing free postage. Letters need to have content- brevity and platitudes will not do, and you will be marked down for it. But also bear in mind it was the custom to read received letters aloud en familie,so be careful what you write as well.
Copying can be used to fill your day. With some form of education under your belt, you can almost certainly write as well as you can read. Write out old recipes, patterns for clothes, and poetry. Some of these could be gifts. Gifts are important- see below.
Reading is another worthy time consuming activity. Fiction and poetry would be most appropriate. Sir Walter Scott was all the rage. Perhaps Marmion; A Tale of Flodden Field? It is a historical romance in verse, so ticks two boxes. Books, like letters, could be read aloud to family and friends. You would also be welcome at the local subscription library. Newspapers would not be out of the question, though you probably would not be asked your opinion on matters of national importance. If national politics intrude, say the state of Ireland, a man could read aloud and explain as he went along. Stay in your lane, and all will be well.
Clothes are in your lane. You could make or repair them mostly because you wanted to rather than needed too. Make a neckcloth or cut out a shirt from a pattern for a male relative. Go out and collect eider down to make a pillow, and give it as a gift. Learn to knit and sew. Make a cloak from that cloth you were given last year. Buy some straw for a bonnet.
You could make things. You could make fresh products from local ingredients and resources- shoes for your younger sister’s dolls, lip salve for yourself, lavender water to be used by the household, or a nosegay. You could weave a purse. Some of these could be made from a recipe (or ‘receipt’) given to you in one of your many long conversations with the ladies, or copied by you from a book, or copied by somebody else and given to you as present.
You could go shopping- for materials to make those clothes or straw to make that bonnet for seasonal foods (all foods), for gifts for your friends, clothes for you. Visit every linen draper in town for that exact piece of lace, yet still not find it. Have the high shopping standards of those who have time to waste. Buy a new toothbrush ( you use tooth powder, not paste). If you are a widowed women-pay your bills in town. The tradesmen have been waiting six months. Pay with a bankers draft or large banknote that you ordered. A banknote can be for any amount; in the Regency there was such a thing as a fourteen pound banknote.
Some shopping brings responsibilities. Sugar, alcohol, candles and tea are a target for theft. You need to look after the luxuries- the household items that you did not trust the servants with. You would bulk buy candles, wine and sugar. Sugar would need to be broken up- sugar cubes were at least thirty years way. Wine, bought by the cask rather than the bottle, would have to be fined with isinglass. Candles, popular with the household and the servants, would have to be accounted for. Your sugar would be in a locked or inaccessible cupboard, which would need cleaning. Your tea will be of excellent quality and immense quantity, as you will drink it in company many times a day. You will need to protect it.
Rich people like you can break the tedium with surprise gifts to other rich people. Send people presents, and receive them to add variety to your life and to cement your social contacts. You are eating better than ninety-five percent of the population, so do some food swaps with your neighbours who have access to foodstuffs you don’t have. We are talking asparagus, strawberries, lobsters, oysters, simnel cake, geese, hares, woodcocks, ham, honey, vinegar, olives and, if sent rapidly, mackerel or lampreys. Make a point with a Pine Apple, or be functional with a pig’s head. It doesn’t have to be food- send textiles, geraniums, holly, ribbons, satin caps, bonnets, pillows, barley water, a nosegay, a servant to help.
Is there anything to look forward to? Something that is literally not in your hands? Well, there are balls and assemblies. Its one of the reasons that you have been creating and repairing your clothes. Its definitely the reason you bought that ivory fan. Look forward to the ideal set of circumstances- an equal gender ratio, a good supper, a place to gossip, acceptable dance partners and adequate transport there and back. And perhaps a husband for you, or for your daughter?
There are subscription concerts and theatre plays as well. A series of six musical events would be a bargain at, say five shillings for ladies ( four times a much for the men). Two plays in the theatre on the same evening, of completely different types, would be normal. It would be rowdy in the pit, but not in the stalls where your party is.
What about the long evenings with nowhere to go? Assuming you have protected your stock of candles, you will have enough illumination…but what can you do? Cue the card table-preferably three or four. The list is huge; there is a game for all occasions. More socially there whist table, gosch ( or gosh), piquet, casino, if anti-social, patience. Quadrille is still nice for for ladies, although it is a little old-fashioned in the Regency. Lanterloo ( or ‘Loo) for larger numbers. Gambling is involved is most of these games, and it is not unladylike to stake, win and lose small sums. A ten shilling loss or win is fine.
Talking of gambling, you could buy a chance for the national lottery. A male relative could do this for you- perhaps a sixteenth of a ticket? Or a quarter? All profits went to pay off national debt. Moderate drinking will be acceptable; the men in your life can be tipsy, have wine enough or be merry, but if you are, people will talk. You drink small amounts all day anyway, as part of your mutual hospitality regime.
Chess can be played. It was not a very sociable game as it would be played in silence, with others watching as their form of entertainment. It was a mixed event, a one-on-one contest and you could ask somebody that you were interested in. It could be a long night, with four games in a row not being out of the question. If you have company, if the activities are engaging and if it is a warm or light evening, you may stay up late-past midnight. You wouldn’t think twice about doing this at a ball. A memorable ball could last until 6.am. You do not need to be an early riser. Other games and activities for an evening would be backgammon; spillikins; charades, and music. You may already be a singer, and learn the piano; you will be expected to entertain on occasions. The flute is popular, depending on how well it is played.
During the day there is the garden, the hothouse and the surrounding fields. The servants do the dung moving and tree-felling, and you do the nurturing. Cultivate your pink hyacinths. Gather violets. Make a basket from off-cuts of wood to carry your violets in. Check the weather first- there are no official weather forecasts- you would have to be skilled in doing it yourself. Plant sweet peas, geranium and Marvel of Peru in Spring. Use tobacco smoke to fumigate your plants. Tie up your clematis. Remember what you did, so you can chat about it later over bread and butter and a glass of wine with people who do exactly the same thing themselves but still listen politely
You could have other interests- landscapes, butterflies, old monuments, drawing and painting. Charity is a an appropriate hobby for a lady. You could visit the poor. Preferably a blameless widow with children made destitute by illness and bereavement, who deserves help and is grateful. You could contribute a guinea subscription for a distressed clergymen, or a local woman widowed by an industrial accident.
Walking is fine, because you do not need to. You are carriage company, so you can walk if you wish. You have been imprisoned in the house from December to February by the weather and the terrible roads, so walk when you can. Walk into the garden, with or without a hat and gloves; walk to the nearest town; chat with people you know as they pass you on the road; its fine to take a lift. Walk to see of your mother is home. Walk to Church.
Go to church. Mingle with your equals, show some piety and at least pretend to listen to the sermon- just make sure you can comment briefly on it afterwards. You will have your own pew, and you need to remember your key. If the weather is horrible, worship at home. The reading aloud could be the morning prayers, followed by the Bible. The rules on Sunday differ slightly; some people would avoid visiting and resent visitors. It will be duller.
You could mark the seasons; New Years Day is no big deal, at least in England, but there are Sundays, fast days, royal anniversaries, the first day the fire is not routinely lit in the living room, and the day it is lit again for winter. Listen for the first cuckoo ( late April in the South of England) . Wash your dog once a year and your feet once a month. From April to September, save candles by doing things ‘in the dusk’. Christmas has not really been invented yet; expect a nicer meal, a church visit and alms for the poor.
And there are holidays. Spend late June to early September in a resort such as Weymouth, Brighton or Worthing. Spend a day packing, and another day getting there by select mail coach, private chaise or your carriage. Or take the waters at Tunbridge, Bath or Cheltenham.
But wait. You are not really going to the spa for the waters, or to the coast for the warm bathing. You will not do this daily, and never alone. Nothing could be more dispiriting than walking alone to the well, drinking a glass of sulphur smelling water and going home. You are there for the company, just like at home, and it is the same company. Most of the activities will be the same as home, but with added seaside, boats and the occasional awkward stranger and hint of something different happening…but not very often.
This blogpost is inspired by the online diaries of Fanny Chapman
My book has a chapter on Fanny’s life, and that of sixteen other interesting Georgians
Some other Georgian and Victorian books