My study of the music of the Regency Era has covered a broad range of musical forms. One of the most typically English forms is that of the traditional ballad. It is a difficult field of study in one aspect as many of these songs have been passed down in varying forms long before they were written down. Their authors were often unknown and their words were interchangeable depending on the singer and the venue in which they were performed. In addition to word of mouth, during the Regency many of these songs came from the music hall in the form of parlour ballads, music hall comic operas and eventually in the form of commercial print literature and broadsheet publications.
A few of the commonalities they shared were formulaic diction, stock phrases and narrative motifs. One of the most fascinating of these is the stock phrase. Each of these phrases had a message or meaning the listener knew at once because it was such a standard in so many ballads. The best examples of these can be found in what was known as the “Child’s ballads” – songs of love, betrayal, murder, and mystery collected and published in the nineteenth century by Francis James Child in his The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Here are a few of those stock phrases, some quite chilling when one learns their meaning!
Lily-white hand serves as a warning something dramatic is about to happen. When written as a man taking a lady’s hand it can denote either rape or seduction. And whilst the rape connotation always ends tragically (such as in Prince Heathen) the seduction connotation can go either way (in Katherine Jafray she is seduced and later rescued by her lover.) In addition to her lovely skin tone the phrase may also denote the lady’s virtue as well.
Playing at the ball – serves a rather eerie purpose as it usually forewarns a love affair, adultery or violent death (sometimes all three.) A group of ladies or boys are seen playing at a ball and one is singled out as the ‘fairest flower’ of them all. The word play can be used to mean a literal game, a symbol of fate or to signify manipulation and pursuit. In some ballads the game is followed by the immediate death of the game’s spectator.
Where will I get a bonny boy – This plea is generally met with a willing response from a boy to either carry a message or run an errand. His efforts can end well or ill. In Lord Lovel the lover receives a message from his lady, but when he returns it is too late, she has died of longing for his return. However, in Geordie the condemned husband is saved. The term bonny is used to denote health, strength, vigor, and physical beauty.
She dressed herself in silks so fine / rich attire / scarlet red – a ballad character who dresses in her finest is often about to embark on a journey. Some of its other uses include outfitting oneself for war. Most often this journey is to confront a lover who is about to marry another. As you can imagine, many of these ballads do not end well for any of the parties concerned. Sometimes the heroine is dressing to go to her execution. One does want to look nice for such an occasion.
O mother, mother make my bed – This one, unfortunately, never bodes well. It always signals the imminent death of the speaker. It usually refers to the grave. The best example can be found in Bonny Barbara Allen.
As many of the early singers of these ballads could not read or write and learned the words and melodies by heart, these phrases enabled them to compose their own songs or to add their own or local twists to a song familiar to their listeners. In later years it served to give a ‘traditional’ flavor to the songs used in the music halls and the broadsheet ballads. These phrases were familiar to the man on the street and to even the most discerning music listener of the era.
And interestingly enough, the use of phrases like this is nothing new. They can be found in the works of Homer and in the verses of many of the epic poems even before the middle ages.
A particularly maudlin form of the English ballad is the murder ballad. But that is a story for another post.
The soubriquet ‘Queen of Hearts’ is an expression that might have been intended for Caroline of Brunswick. This wife of George IV was also his greatest enemy and from the day of their marriage to the day of her death, the couple were at daggers drawn.
Married in 1795, Caroline gave birth to the couple’s only child in 1796 and in 1797, the marriage was effectively over. Caroline moved to Blackheath and threw herself into the single life. Gossips were soon whispering about the procession of men who visited her home; it was all too deliciously outrageous to be ignored.
Charlotte also had a passion for adopting poor children and in 1802, her household was joined by an infant named William Austin. This was the evidence that George needed and when he heard a juicy bit of gossip from Caroline’s former friend, Lady Douglas, he swung into action.
Having fallen out with Caroline over their shared affections for a dashing naval captain, Lady Douglas made a groundless claim that William was no orphan at all, but Caroline’s own illegitimate child. The Prince of Wales seized upon the moment to play the victim and demanded a full inquiry into this serious if baseless accusation. The Delicate Investigation was convened to find out the truth of the matter and began on 1st June 1806 under the stewardship of the Prime Minister, William Grenville. The stakes were high, as noted in The Morning Post on 24 June 1806:
“The acts charged would, if proved, amount to no less than high treason in the illustrious personage: […] The nature of the accusation, amounting to what might eventually affect the succession of the crown; and the great stake the accusers put to hazard.”
Lady Douglas repeated her allegation that Austin was Caroline’s son and went on to elaborate with stories of sexual intrigues that engulfed any number of famous men, describing a house where debauchery was rampant and of a woman who was never without male company. One might raise an eyebrow to learn that many of the men implicated were senior Tory figures who championed the cause of Caroline as regent should the Prince of Wales die before he assumed the throne.
A procession of witnesses were sworn in and questioned, including doctors and domestics yet Caroline had an ace up her sleeve in the shape of William’s true parents, Sophia and Samuel Austin. They told the commission that William was indeed their child and had been given over to Caroline’s care in order to assure a better life for him. Naturally, his only enhanced her reputation as a lady of selfless philanthropy, much to George’s disgust.
With this damning evidence against the case of adultery and illegitimacy, the Delicate Investigation limped to its conclusion six weeks after it had opened and declared that William was not Caroline’s child, illegitimate or otherwise. However, it stopped short of exonerating her on charges of adultery and declared that she had not been proved innocent of that portion of the case.
The victory was a slight one for George, who had hoped that William Austin was to prove his winning ticket. Instead, the consummate gambler had been left with a dud hand.
About the Book
For over a century of turmoil, upheaval and scandal, Great Britain was a Georgian land.
From the day the German-speaking George I stepped off the boat from Hanover, to the night that George IV, bloated and diseased, breathed his last at Windsor, the four kings presided over a changing nation.
Kings of Georgian Britain offers a fresh perspective on the lives of the four Georges and the events that shaped their characters and reigns. From love affairs to family feuds, political wrangling and beyond, peer behind the pomp and follow these iconic figures from cradle to grave. After all, being a king isn’t always grand parties and jaw-dropping jewels, and sometimes following in a father’s footsteps can be the hardest job around.
Take a trip back in time to meet the wives, mistresses, friends and foes of the men who shaped the nation, and find out what really went on behind closed palace doors. Whether dodging assassins, marrying for money, digging up their ancestors or sparking domestic disputes that echoed down the generations, the kings of Georgian Britain were never short on drama.
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian who writes on all matters 18th century at www.madamegilflurt.com. Her work has been featured on HistoryExtra.com, the official website of BBC History Magazine and in publications such as Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and JaneAusten’s Regency World. She has provided additional research for An Evening with Jane Austen at the V&A and spoken at venues including the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Lichfield Guildhall, The National Maritime Museum and Dr Johnson’s House. Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
Bibliomania or Book Madness and the Gentlemen of Regency England
By Louisa Cornell
I will confess to a certain amount of obsessive behavior when it comes to books. Especially books written about or during the Regency era. My antique books are located in a bookcase next to a window. In case of fire, those precious volumes are coming out of the house quickly, one way or another. I have those stickers on my windows and doors that say “Firemen, please save my pets.” I have yet to find one that says “Firemen, please save my books.” However, I am still looking.
During the late 18th and at least the first half of the 19th century, book collecting became quite common among gentlemen, and some women, mostly in Britain and for the large part in the upper echelons of Society. As with all things, the lines between hobby, pursuit, and madness are easily crossed, more often than not blurred, and sometimes only separated by space and money. There are a number of reasons these people collected books. Allow me to introduce you to the most interesting ones. Bibliomania had many forms.
As powerful as my obsession is, it cannot hold a candle to the dark, at times frightening, pseudo-psychological madness that swept through the upper classes in Europe, and most especially England, in the nineteenth-century. At its height this strange madness was such that a number of satires were written on the subject – none of them flattering to the victims of this affliction, to be sure.
Gustave Flaubert’s Bibliomanie dramatized the legendary Spanish monk biblio-criminal who murdered a rival bookseller. Probably the most famous satire of this oddity was that of Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric, who in 1809 published his Bibliomania, or Book Madness : A Bibliographical Romance. In it, he goes so far as to ascribe actual symptoms to this disease.
He dramatizes a convincing pathology and uses medical language to describe the behaviors and idiosyncrasies of various sufferers of this malady. He presents as evidence rambling fictional dialogues based on conversations and real collectors he encountered. He categorizes those infected into classes based on the particular books they collected – First Editions, True Editions, Black Letter Editions, Large Paper Copies, Uncut Books (edges not sheared by binders’ tools,) Illustrated Copies, Unique Copies (those with specific bindings like morocco leather or specific linings like silk,) and Copies Printed on Vellum.
Dibdin’s work may have been fiction, but the characters in his book bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the better known book collectors of the time. In a particularly ironic twist, the book was very popular among book lovers and sparked reckless bidding wars over copies of it at auction. One particular copy started a 42-day auction at the 1817 Roxburghe sale. Most of the readers of Dibdin’s satire were from the upper class. To be certain they recognized many of their own in reading it. And why wouldn’t they? Dibdin was one of the founding members of the Roxburghe Club and a known bibliomaniac in his own right. Takes one to know one. Having read the book, I can say I recognize a few people I know today. Not mentioning any names for fear someone might mention mine. What happens at the Bibliomaniac Club or the House of Artie Collectors stays there.
As early as the 1730’s, there were those who purchased books as a symbol of wealth and power. Members of the socially elite and many who fancied themselves as scholars collected books, no matter the price, in order to build their own personal libraries. Where did you think all of those gorgeous libraries in stately homes came from? Once again, never underestimate the power of the mine-is-bigger-than-yours challenge, especially between men with ridiculous amounts of disposable income.
Beginning in 1804, English book collector Richard Heber (1773-1833) began to amass his collection of 146,000 rare books – books he stored in eight houses bursting at the seams. The cost of his impressive multi-house library? Over 100,000 pounds of his personal fortune.
Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) sacrificed most of his fortune (250,000 pounds,) his living conditions, and his wife’s company to his ambition to own “one copy of every book,” in vellum manuscripts, no less. One of his contemporaries declared the man’s house a “dilapidated swamp of books.” His country home, Middle Hill in Worcestershire, had twenty rooms. Sixteen of the rooms were given over completely to books.
“The state of things is really inconceivable. Lady P is absent, and were I in her place, I would never return to so wretched an abode. Every room is filled with heaps of papers, books, charters, packages, and other things lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, and ladders.”
Still not convinced it was about power? He made it a point to outbid his most powerful rival, the British Museum, for entire lots of books at auctions. He accused his own son-in-law of being a “book thief” and had it written in his will no Catholic could look upon his book collection after his death. “Book thief” the son-in-law was Catholic. So strong was his attachment to his books, he wrote his will in such a way it took over 100 years of legal maneuvering to disperse his collection.
After the French Revolution in 1799, French aristocrats emptied their library shelves and flooded British auction catalogues with French books before they fled France. Many of these collections arrived on the market as libraries were liquidated posthumously. However they arrived, the books brought staggering prices at auction. Prices of antiquarian texts preserved in the libraries of French nobles brought quadruple the price they had before the Revolution. Owning large sections of French books, especially rare and antique texts, added prestige and continental flair to an aristocrat’s library. Whether he read the books or not.
The 1812 auction of the library of John Ker, third Duke of Roxburghe, was an unforgettable moment in the history of book collecting. The flames of auction fever were fanned by both advertising and the wartime shortage of books. England’s wealthiest peers and even a representative of Napoleon attended the auction which lasted 47 days and included a large selection of books printed prior to 1500 – incunabula.
Dibdin wrote of the event as being full of “courage, slaughter, devastation, and phrensy.” Thomas de Quincy, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater and a man well-acquainted with the throes of addiction, described the “literary addicts” he saw at this event as irrational and governed by “caprice” and “feelings” rather than reason. He called the method by which prices were determined pretium affectionus or “fancy price.” In his mind the book collector was nothing more than a dandy ruled by his emotions.
Michael Robinson in his upcoming book Ornamental Gentlemen : Literary Antiquarianism and Queerness in British Literature and Culture 1760-1890 speaks to an interesting side-note to the aristocratic book collecting phenomenon. Whilst Robinson concedes 1812 is too early to speak of a “gay” subculture, he does agree there was an “uncanny queerness of the stereotypical representation of the 19th century bibliophile.”
Men who collected books were often seen as effeminate. Heaven forbid a young English lord be more interested in collecting and reading books than he was in riding to hounds, drinking, and wenching. As late as 1834, the British literary magazine the Athenaeum published an anonymous attack implying one of the prominent members of the Roxburghe Club was homosexual. Dibdin’s language, both in Bibliomania or Book Madness and in his epic Bibliographical Decameron, was replete with sexual double entendre and some phrases that can be seen as almost raunchy. Apparently men who wrote or enjoyed such language had to be homosexual. Who knew? Some of these people really would have done well to read the books in these libraries. Sexual innuendo was not unique to any portion of the population. Where do you think all of those heirs, spares, vicars, fourth, and fifth sons came from?
There were those aristocrats who collected books and built their libraries out of a serious love of the written word and a desire to preserve books not only for their own use, but for the use of scholars, their tenants, their neighbors, their children, and ultimately posterity.
Men such as Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, who commissioned the creation of ballad collections like The Bagford Ballads and amassed large collections of Renaissance literature, Middle English literature, and Anglo-Saxon literature. His library and that of his son, Edward, was sold to the British museum in 1753 by the Countess of Oxford and her daughter, the Duchess of Portland.
Mark Masterman-Sykes of Sledmere House amassed one of the finest libraries in England and was considered both well-read and extremely knowledgeable in the areas of literature and art.
I’ll be discussing some of the more important stately home libraries of this era in a later post.
Until around 1814, when the mass printing of books became more practical and affordable, many saw the book collecting of aristocrats as denying their fellow countrymen a part of their literary heritage. The rich dilettante as conspicuous consumer of books he might never read was seen as having an antisocial disease that kept him from sharing his riches with the intellectual commoner. Perhaps.
However, whether they needed a serious intervention from the Hoarders crew, or were just too greedy for their pantaloons, or were in search of power and prestige – the Bibliomaniacs of the Georgian era saw to it many pieces of our literary heritage survived, stored up as the treasures they truly are. New ones are being discovered every day in the libraries and collections of National Trust houses and aristocratic stately homes all over the UK. But that is a story for another post.