No Filters, No Limits, No Romance

“Who the devil do you think you are?” This question has special resonance in England. If it’s asked in America or France, it is a query that merely demands identification. Do you have a valid pass, sir? In England, there is another layer: it contains an element of class snobbery, are you a member of the elite, sir, in which case, no pass required.

Of course, these rules are not hard and fast: in America, neither Beyoncé nor Elon Musk would even be asked. It’s a pretentious question. I have not heard it used “in the wild” for a while. It has, however, been frequently used by writers of period dramas.

There is something about Regency England that has taken hold of the world’s imagination. It doesn’t require much searching to find people who are breathless with anticipation for the next season of “Bridgerton”. Last year, the viewing public fell in love with “Queen Charlotte”, a fictionalised version of the relationship between King George III and his wife.

But why? “Queen Charlotte” was not devoid of difficult truths: for example, it highlighted the barbarity of medical treatment in the past, particularly for those with mental health issues. “Bridgerton” is not all fiction: the “ton” existed. It was a viperish, judgemental, gossipy elite, which could turn on an unfortunate individual in the blink of an eye. The rules of etiquette were suffocating and often obtuse. Yet there is hefty demand not just for these programmes but for anything to do with Jane Austen and other period dramas and novels.

I personally found “Queen Charlotte” touching because though much of it was fictional (it is highly unlikely that Charlotte, offspring of the ruling family of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, had substantial African origins) it did tell a true love story. George III clearly adored his wife. They had 15 children, sadly not all of whom lived to adulthood. Also, I suspect Queen Charlotte was a formidable character; her portrayal by Golda Rosheuvel (“Sorrows! Prayers!”) probably contains more than a kernel of what she was really like. According to the historian Janice Hadlow, Charlotte thought “obligation was more important than personal happiness”.

Furthermore, there are no reliable reports of George III having any other paramours; I wish the same were true of his profligate and dissolute successor George IV. Nevertheless, George and Charlotte’s romance was a tale for the ages, one that should resonate and inspire generations to come.

However, it may very well be that what we most enjoy is the stuffiness, the hard inflexibility of rules, yet love poking through cracks in its surface like a flower emerging from an imperfection in a neverending slab of concrete. The rules say one thing, the heart says another: how can the two align?

Almost every great story, or rather, one that bears repeated reading, contains not only richly detailed characters but also significant challenges. This is true regardless of genre: in “Lord of the Rings”, the Hobbits of Middle Earth must take a long and arduous journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. In “The Good Soldier Svejk”, Svejk climbs over the foothills and barriers erected by Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy to survive military life. Charlotte and George navigate through the treacherous waters of British royal politics all under the watchful eye of the vicious “ton”. Sometimes characters fail to overcome these challenges, leaving a concluding sad echo. Nevertheless, the barrier, the challenge appeals to something deep in human nature. We are a problem-solving species. We appreciate most that which was won with effort.

This is an era of no filters and few limits. I cannot know what it is like to be a female online. However, the sheer number of women who state up front that they do not wish to receive pictures of a man’s genitals nor any private messages tells us something significant. Our instant access to information and services has created an expectation of instant gratification of every impulse. Incels, with their petulant, insolent, and downright toxic demands for access to women’s bodies are a by-product of this age. Who the hell do they think they are?

In contrast, the bygone rules of etiquette, the pomposity of the “ton” seem positively civilised. People should get to know each other. Both parties should curb desire until they are sure. There should be challenges and obstacles which highlight character, intent, and behaviour. We secretly long for such things and this makes its way into the continuing obsession with all things Regency and Georgian.

I used to work for the University of Southampton. The university remains a major centre of research into 18th century women’s writing. It has a strong relationship with Chawton House, where Austen lived for a time. I have sat in Jane Austen’s kitchen. As I waited there for a colleague, I noticed the number of tourists on the grounds. The enrolment for studies of Austen’s writing was healthy. I knew intellectually that romance back then was not all fancy balls, candlelight, and claret. The works of Esme Louise James and Kate Lister have made this particularly clear.

However, there is something there. Perhaps it is the thought of looking at someone with pure love that has painfully built over time, and yet unable to say it because of society’s rules. The beloved knows and feels the same but also is bound to respect the same strictures. Love expresses itself only when it is greater than the ties that restrain it, i.e., when the rest of the world no longer matters. If there are no constraints, then how do we know the profundity of emotion? Without fear of consequences, what kind of risks are we taking? Without the confines from within or those imposed by society, how can desirous impulses be channeled into art, science, and acts of heroism?

This is not to say the Georgian period was wonderful. Slavery was prevalent in much of the world. The majority lived lives, as Thomas Hobbes would state, that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Books about medical treatments at the time are a catalog of horrors. Esme James has highlighted that syphilis was a persistent health problem in London. There was a lot of hypocrisy; despite the far greater transparency afforded by the current era, hypocrisy has not left us.

However, as Francois de La Rochefoucauld stated, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. In our efforts to be authentic we may have gone too far. We have given ourselves too little of the ideal to which to aspire and be hypocritical about. We switch on “Bridgerton” and pick up “Pride and Prejudice” to scratch this itch. Who the devil do we think we are? We are, perhaps, more romantic than we thought.

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