I’m not sure there’s any point to speculating as to why Regency England is such a popular subject for modern Americans. Suffice it to say that I, like so many others, know far more about what life was like in London during the Regency period than I do about what life was like in Baltimore during that time despite having lived there for nearly 30 years.

With the fascination with London and familiarity of Baltimore, it was interesting to me to get the perspective of three sisters from Maryland – Marianne, Bess, and Louisa–who traveled to England in 1816. As the granddaughters of wealthy Charles Carroll, these girls were rich and educated, at least by American standards, and they arrived with powerful letters of introduction that threw them into the height of British society. The lifestyle they enjoyed was far more lavish than anything depicted in a Jane Austen novel—and a little more scandalous as well.

As a history geek, I found the details fascinating.

Expensive Prescription for Health

Marianne had terrible asthma and Louisa had been weakened by repeated bouts of malaria. Doctors despaired of them recovering in the humidity and heat of Maryland and recommended taking the waters at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds. Although Marianne’s husband, Robert Patterson had no interest in making the costly trek to England, he was persuaded eventually. Of course, his wife’s health concerns seemed less persuasive than the family land offered by the girls’ mother, Mary Caton, and the fact that his wife effectively mortgaged her inheritance to cover the costs of the trip. Sister Bess put off a proposal of marriage because she was so excited to have the chance to visit Europe. The youngest sister, Emily, did not plan to go because she was about to get married, and she grew so tired of hearing the others talk about it that she hoped they would all fine Europe to be a disappointment.

But they didn’t.

Life at the Spa

Although the girls greatly enjoyed London, and their health improved in the cooler air, they at least had to pretend benefit from the spa regimen, and to do that, they needed to move to a spa town. The once fashionable spa town of Tunbridge Wells, (the scene of adventures in the stories of Frances Burney) was no longer in favor with the ton. So taking the waters there was not even considered. Even the fashionable town of Bath was losing luster with the rich and famous. So, the girls and Robert headed to Cheltenham, reputed to be the “merriest sick-resort on earth.” The aristocracy came to be cured and to be seen, not necessarily in that order. Jane Austen noted in the newspaper that the Duchess of Orleans, took the waters at the same pump she herself frequented.

In Cheltenham, the doctors ordered a strict routine:

  • Breakfast of no more than one cup of tea, coffee, chocolate and one piece of dry bread
  • Scrub teeth using a brush and either sage leaves or burnt toast crumbs
  • Promenade to the pump room at 8 a.m.
  • Consume four tumblers of saline spring water between 8 and 10 a.m.

Then they were free to do as they pleased the rest of the day, and there was generally much strolling around for those who were up for it. Bess and Robert, who had no need to take the waters, still had to sign their names in the subscription book so they could be counted as part of the social scene. The Duke of Wellington, taking the waters for a bilious complaint, accompanied Marianne and Louisa to the pump room every morning and then he remained with them to promenade to the library afterward, much to the annoyance of his wife. For whatever reason, the routine seemed to restore everyone’s health so they could get back to a serious round of parties.

Burning the Midnight Oil

Even in the country, the social life enjoyed by the Carroll granddaughters seemed surprisingly excessive. For instance, while they stayed with Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall in Norfolk (where Bess reported the walls to be covered in satin and velvet,), the regular evening routine included dining at 7 p.m., enjoying a play, and then dancing until supper was served at about 3 a.m. Then they’d all sleep late and have breakfast at one in the afternoon. The evening schedule also included prayers after dinner, with footmen present to hoist up any devout worshippers who were too drunk to rise from their knees on their own.

Marianne recorded that this same schedule was kept at neighboring country houses where they visited. Wilder country house visits might include nightly “coach rides” where gentlemen would wrap ladies up in carpets and drag them through the halls screaming.

The schedule would be even more excessive in town, where dancing often continued until 5 or 6 a.m.

Fashions Frustrate Frugal Americans

The extravagance of British and French society surprised and annoyed many Americans. John Quincy Adams, the American Minister in London at the time, was driven mad by the European propensity to start events late. Even when he tried to arrive late, he was still too early. For Louisa’s wedding, scheduled to start at 9 p.m., he arrived an hour late and still had to wait another hour before the event got underway.

The attitude toward money was also quite different. English aristocrats and gentry frequently lived beyond their means with little or no social stigma attached. This horrified the more practical Americans. However, they did adopt some of the excesses with a practical twist. Noting that even in country houses, ladies’ maids were dressed as finely as their mistresses, the girls bought silk to have gowns made up for their maids. However, they made sure to buy the silk in Paris, where it was priced better than in London.

Scandal and Success

Charles Carroll’s granddaughters were celebrated by many in society and reviled by a prominent few, all primarily because of the attention they received from the incredibly powerful and influential Duke of Wellington. He fell in love with Marianne, and because both of them were married, the attention he paid to her triggered vicious rumors of an illicit affair. Many of these rumors were spread—both in Europe and back in Maryland—by Robert’s sister Betsy. While it would be kind to think she was acting to protect her brother, historians generally believe she was simply jealous that Marianne and her sisters received the adoration she thought was due to her.

Betsy’s last name was no longer Patterson but Bonaparte. She had married Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome, but the emperor promptly annulled her marriage. Although initially on friendly terms with Marianne, as the years passed and Betsy’s attempts to gain money and position failed, Betsy turned against her sister-in-law.

Meanwhile, Marianne’s younger sister, Louisa, married the Duke of Wellington’s right-hand man, Sir Felton Bathurst Hervey, giving her a title. Marianne eventually returned to Maryland with her husband, but then went back to England and stirred up more scandalous rumors while staying at the Duke’s estate. After Robert passed away—but the Duke’s wife did not—Marianne married the Duke’s brother, and also gained a title. Bess, who seemed to be in love with English society more than any particular English gentleman, eventually also married an aristocrat and gained a title.

Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, who craved fame, love, and fortune, finally parlayed her connections into a fortune, but instead of enjoying it, she lived alone in a tiny room in a Baltimore boarding house, washing her own laundry and burning candles for light because she didn’t want to spend the money on gas lights. “My ruling passions have been love, ambition, and avarice,” she explained near the end of her life. “Love ended in disappointment. Ambition was fleeting. Only avarice remains.” Marianne—who she’d tried to ruin with rumors—and her sisters lived out their lives in comfort, companionship, and prestige.

Yet Betsy lived to be 94, and I learned of her story about 15 years before I learned about the triumphs of the Carroll granddaughters. So, her fame has proved to be more enduring, at least in my opinion. That might count for something.