A reviewer for my newest book, A Gentleman’s Surrender, posed a fair question which made me think to post this article.
It is revealed later in the book that my heroine, Monique, was born in France before the war with England began in 1793. The reviewer wondered why people in England would not have questioned the French spelling of my heroine’s name, which in English, would typically be spelled as “Monica.” The reason, as I will now explain, is that the English nobility were enamored with all things French.
The French have long been noted for their stylish flair, and that was true even during the Regency period of England (the corresponding time in France is referred to as the Empire period). The aristocracy’s obsession with French culture and art during the Regency is evident even in the French words by which the fashionable referred to themselves. The terms, the ton, bon ton, haute ton, or beau monde, are synonymous with Society during the Regency. I should point out, however, that this love of French culture did not necessarily extend to the common folk, whose anti-French sentiment probably stemmed from the nobility’s very love for it.
Fashionable young gentleman embarked upon a Grand Tour to see the world and experience other cultures before settling down, and their experiences doubtless added to this obsession. Paris was one of, if not the, most popular destinations until war was declared. Though trips to France were halted during wartime, they quickly resumed once peace prevailed. Speaking French fluently as a second language was practically a requirement among the nobility, unless, Heaven forbid, you be castigated as unpolished or uneducated. You have to think it was something of a paradox that business might be conducted in the tongue of the enemy.
And all of those marvelous French wines and champagnes! Bordeaux (or claret) and burgundy. Hermitage from the Rhône region south of Lyon. The wonderful wines from the Champagne region of France. Cognac and other fine French brandies. French cigars for the men to enjoy with their brandy. All luxuries the well heeled enjoyed. And all from France.
For the upper crust, what lady didn’t crave beautiful silk from Lyons, or delicate lace from Alencon, Arras, Dieppe and Le Puy? Women’s styles were influenced by France and by 1802, all women in vogue were wearing what we would call the Empire style gown (as in French Empire) made popular by Marie Antoinette. The cravats dandies like Beau Brummell wore had their origins in 17th century France.
Even French furniture was desirable. George IV, the Prince Regent, redesigned the Carlton House to showcase his enormous collection of fine French furnishings, which was rather contradictory since England was at war with France.
Are you seeing a trend here? English society adored everything French. So what happened when a war broke out and the beloved items were banned from being imported? Why, it gave rise to a huge industry of smuggling. The upper class wasn’t about let a little thing like a war deprive them of their indulgences! The topic of war time smuggling could consume numerous posts, but with France beckoning just across the English Channel, you can imagine.
During a brief period of peace under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, the English Channel was overrun with people heading to Paris to legally purchase all the French items they coveted. Charles James Fox, a Whig leader, together with a group of people which included the Duchess of Devonshire, were the first to arrive in France after the peace (which only lasted about 14 months). Lady Conyngham, the later mistress of George IV, was toasted as the most beautiful woman in Paris at the time. Being presented at Court to Napoleon was all the rage, even though the ink had barely dried on the treaty!
So, the bottom line is, all things French were fine and dandy during the Regency, never mind there that they were at war with France. A bit ironic.