Austen Authors January 8, 2018: Comparing Regency England and the American Old West

I am currently in the midst of editing my NaNo story, which is set in the American West in 1878. It won’t be ready to publish for another week or so, and I didn’t realize how close my posting date here was, so my excerpt and giveaway will have to wait until February. 🙂 However, some things have come up during the editing process that got me thinking about the differences between Regency England and the Old West here in America.

Image courtesy of Jane Austen Centre

The Regency period, as I’m sure we all know, began in 1811 when the Prince Regent took over for George III and lasted until 1820, when the Regent’s father died, and he became King George IV.

The Old West’s timeline was harder to pin down. In the end, I had to search “Wild West” to find the answer I was looking for. The Old West that I’m thinking of and wrote about began after the Civil War, in 1865, and ended in 1895, after the enclosure of the prairies and the taming of the lawless elements.

As you can see, the Old West lasted more than three times as long as the Regency period in England.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the Regency, people traveled on horseback, in carriages and coaches, and by walking. Travel was via similar means in the American West, except that carriages were generally called buggies. The Regency period began and ended before trains came to England, but in the Old West, trains crisscrossed the country beginning in 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. For most of the book I’m editing, Darcy and Lizzy either walk or ride in Darcy’s buggy, though both took a train to get to Bodie, California.

Women’s fashions in the Regency, as we know, consisted of gowns with an empire waist. Rumor has it, they wore no undies. Ladies wore a chemise under their corset, but that and a petticoat were it. Nothing like what we wear now. Depending on the time of day and the event, a woman might wear a fichu or chemisette to cover her chest. They wore stockings on their legs and shoes on their feet, of course, and then their gown and maybe a pelisse.

Gentlemen may or may not have worn undergutchies (as my brother calls them.) They were more likely to “go commando” and simply tuck the long tail of their shirt up under themselves and pull their breeches or pantaloons/trousers on over top. They wore a waistcoat and a tailcoat. They wore stockings of cotton or wool inside their boots. For dress occasions, they wore silk stockings over a pair of cotton ones, to hide their leg hair. I guess I see the point, but as a lover of hairy men, to me that seems a shame. 😉

Image courtesy of Pinterest

In the Old West, a gentleman of Darcy’s standing—a wealthy gold mine owner and businessman—would have worn either a frock coat over his vest (known in the Regency as a waistcoat) or a sack suit. The lapels would have been narrow, and a thin tie or a bow tie would have topped it off. In the earlier decades of the Old West, the fit of a man’s suit was looser than it was in either later years of the period or in the Regency. Stripes became popular in the 1880’s.

Image courtesy of Pinterest.

Lizzy in the Old West would have worn a gown with a bustle under it. The waistline of her gown would have been low and tiny, so her corset would have been designed differently, to pull her in tighter than her Regency counterpart’s would have. Her skirts would have been tight and worn over an underskirt. For undies, a woman in the Old West would have worn a garment that consisted of a camisole with an attached pair of drawers. Over that would be her petticoat, then the bustle, and then her gown.

In the Regency era, dining out was not the same as it was in the Old West. The concept of restaurants had not really moved out of France and into England, though meals could be had at inns and taverns. Most people ate in private homes.

In the Old West, many towns had restaurants, especially towns like the one in my book, Bodie, which was a gold mining town. There were several restaurants in Bodie, California, in its heyday, two of which I mention in my book.

Courtesy of Pinterest. Y’all know why I had to include him, yes? 😉

Finally, I’d like to compare dating/courting in the two periods. In Regency England, couples did not date. They courted. They were introduced, did not touch except for dancing, and in general, had to be chaperoned all the time. The courting couple walked, as Jane and Bingley and Darcy and Lizzy did in Pride & Prejudice. They might go for a ride in a curricle or ride horses. The gentleman called on the lady at her home and ate meals with her family.

In the Old West, many of the rules governing behavior that were still enforced in the eastern United States were ignored. Often, this was due to circumstances. Life was dangerous and difficult in that area at that time, and people did what they had to do to survive. In more populated areas, many of the same rituals held true as in Regency England. A girl’s reputation must be protected. As Lizzy and Darcy do in my book, a courting couple might dine out, or “walk out,” or go riding. They would not necessarily be chaperoned, especially in a town like Bodie, but everything they did was public.

In the end, there were many similarities between the Old West and our favorite Regency period in history, but there were also many differences. I really enjoyed discovering them as I wrote my book.  


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