“I like a red coat myself.”

There’s something about a man in uniform. At least, that’s what the Bennet women believed. And even though Elizabeth Bennet decried her sisters’ obsessions with men in uniform, there was a time when she liked Mr. Wickham in his regimentals more than any other man of her acquaintance.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in 1815 just before he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in 1815 just before he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo

In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet led the charge when it came to admiring men in uniform:

“I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and, indeed, so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls I shall not say nay to him; and I thought Colonel Forster looked very becoming the other night at Sir William’s in his regimentals.”

Portrait of Captain Alexander McInnes, 2nd Life Guards, by Ramsay Richard Reinage. 1825 (courtesy of National Army Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Portrait of Captain Alexander McInnes, 2nd Life Guards, by Ramsay Richard Reinage. 1825 (courtesy of National Army Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Her youngest daughters joyously followed in her footsteps, chasing after officers and flirting unabashedly with them. Lydia and Kitty Bennet were, in Elizabeth’s judgment:

… ignorant, idle, and vain. While there was an officer in Meryton, they would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, they would be going there forever.

Lt. General William Stuart, by Henry Raeburn

Lt. General William Stuart, by Henry Raeburn

No wonder, then, that when the Bennet ladies discovered the regiment was removing to Brighton, they were desolate:

The dejection was almost universal. The elder Miss Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and pursue the usual course of their employments. Very frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Kitty and Lydia, whose own misery was extreme, and who could not comprehend such hard-heartedness in any of the family.
“Good Heaven! What is to become of us? What are we to do?” would they often exclaim in the bitterness of woe. “How can you be smiling so, Lizzy?”

Their affectionate mother shared all their grief; she remembered what she had herself endured on a similar occasion, five-and-twenty years ago.

“I am sure,” said she, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away. I thought I should have broken my heart.”

Even the Prince of Wales and future King George IV wore a red coat from time to time. An 1815 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Even the Prince of Wales and future King George IV wore a red coat from time to time, as in this 1815 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

With that kind of encouragement ringing in her ears, Lydia was more determined than ever to capture the heart of an officer. And when Lydia was invited to travel to Brighton with the regiment, she had a picture in her mind of what would happen once she got there:

In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.

Cavalry Officer by Antoine-Jean Gros

Cavalry Officer by Antoine-Jean Gros

It’s always been interesting to me how much the officers—and the Bennet family’s involvement with them—drove the story of Pride and Prejudice. In a way, the story’s climax (Lydia’s elopement with Wickham) never would have happened had Jane Austen not set the stage by introducing Lydia’s and Mrs. Bennet’s infatuation with officers early in the story and then built on it throughout the novel.

Lieutenant Alexander Graham Spiers by Henry Raeburn, 1814 (courtesy The Keep Military Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Lieutenant Alexander Graham Spiers by Henry Raeburn, 1814 (courtesy The Keep Military Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

So decided to see for myself what the attraction was for a man in a red coat. I’ve collected some portraits and illustrations of British officers from about the 1790s to 1820s. They’re displayed on my new Pinterest board, which you can view here. I hope you enjoy it!

The Evolution of Love

Postcard Grecian Woman editedIt’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the old-fashioned traditional Regency romance. I devoured them back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. My office bookcase still has a dedicated favorites shelf crammed with Regencies by Rachelle Edwards, Patricia Wynn, Elizabeth Mansfield, Joan Smith, and, of course, the great
Georgette Heyer.

I often reread those traditional Regencies to cleanse my palate after reading a spate of mysteries, thrillers, or contemporary fiction.

What I like most about traditional Regencies is their level of escapism. Although they’re grounded in historical fact, they’re actually pure fantasy. A major component of the fantasy (as a general rule) is the attractiveness of the hero and heroine. You know the Regency lingo: Nonpareil. Diamond of the first water. Complexion like a damask rose. Regency heroines are usually ravishing, spirited, and enchanting, with red lips, dark curling lashes, and impossibly small waists. It’s part of the fantasy to read about a heroine that I wouldn’t mind looking like myself, if given the chance.

Pearl Fidler LeMunyon_editedGeorgette Heyer certainly clothed her heroines in beauty. Venetia was described as “a fine-looking girl; most would not have hesitated to call her beautiful. It was not only the size and brilliance of her eyes which excited admiration, or the glory of her shining guinea-gold hair, or even the enchanting arch of her pretty mouth; there was something very taking in her face which owed nothing to the excellence of her features; an expression of sweetness, a sparkle of irrepressible fun, an unusually open look, quite devoid of selfconsciousness.”

And Arabella was unquestionably the beauty of the family, with “large, dark, expressive eyes, little straight nose, and delicately molded lips” as well as a complexion that was “the envy of less fortunate young ladies.” Arabella enchanted her admirers by a “deceptive air of fragility, which inspired one romantically minded young gentleman to liken her to a leaf blown by the wind.”

I’m not sure how Regency heroines evolved to being such paragons of attractiveness. In Pride and Prejudice—the book that originally inspired the Regency genre—Jane Austen described her heroine in plainer terms. Elizabeth Bennet, while certainly attractive, was not a beauty. Instead, it was her sister Jane who was the acknowledged beauty of the family. When Darcy sees Elizabeth for the first time, he describes her only as tolerable.

card00300 editedBut that’s where the romantic fantasy of Pride and Prejudice takes hold. As the story progresses and Darcy comes of know Elizabeth, his feelings for her spark, then flame; and at the same time, the author’s description of Elizabeth changes, too, almost as a reflection of Darcy’s feelings. The more love he feels for Elizabeth, the more beautiful she becomes.

“Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticize. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”

Beauty-Dearest Loveliest Elizabeth resized

By the end of Pride and Prejudice, she is his “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.” And that brings me to the part of the fantasy I love the best . . . That every woman is beautiful in the eyes of the man who truly loves her. It’s that perfect ending that draws me back again and again to Pride and Prejudice, and to many of those traditional Regency romances still crammed on the bookshelf in my office.

Jane Austen on the £10 Bank Note

The Bank of England announced that Jane Austen’s image will appear on the new £10 bank note.

Bank of England Jane Austen 10 Pound Note

The new bank note featuring the beloved author of Pride and Prejudice will probably start appearing in 2017.

In addition to Jane Austen’s image, the bank note’s planned design includes:

  • A quote from Pride and Prejudice – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
  • An illustration of Elizabeth Bennet, one of the characters in Pride and Prejudice
  • An image of Godmersham Park in Kent – the home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, and the inspiration for a number of novels
  • A central background design of the author’s writing table which she used at home at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire

Click here to read about the announcement and the public campaign that influenced the Bank of England’s decision.