La Rendición de Bailén (Casado del Alisal)
During much of the Regency, England waged war with France–more specifically, with Napoleon Bonaparte who seemed bent on taking over the world. The Napoleonic War spanned roughly sixteen years–from 1799 to 1815 (including one-year of peace after which fighting broke out again.) Battles raged across much of Europe which meant thousands of men and boys of all ages (and yes, even a few women) left their homes to fight a war overseas to stop the “Corsican Monster.”
My son left his home, wife and infant daughter, and deployed to the Middle East for an eight-month tour of duty–his second in two years. We’ve been emailing him and corresponding with him via FB and instant messages, but I recently learned from his sweet wife how important physical letters and packages are to soldiers serving overseas. Those brave men and women who serve their country want desperately to connect with friends and family, to feel as if they are still a part of the life they left behind. Mail call becomes the highlight of the day, with each member serving in the armed forces anxiously awaiting a note or letter or package from home.
As a history nerd and historical romance author, I did some reading about rules and conventions of sending letters to soldiers during the Regency. Normally, a lady and a gentleman did not write a letter to one another unless they were married or engaged to be married. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Elinor assumes her sister and the rascally Willoughby must have an agreement akin to a formal engagement because they write letters to one another. Jane Fairfax’s letters to Frank Churchill was a clue they were engaged. Her frequent trips to the post office led people to assume they were corresponding and that they had a formal understanding.
However, as noted Regency researcher Nancy Mayer pointed out, Miss Milbanke carried on a correspondence with Lord Byron as friends before marriage was thought of and continued to correspond after she refused him.
Apparently, parents decided to whom a young lady could correspond. That may have been partly because the recipient paid for
the letter. I’m sure the parents’ opinion of the gentleman’s character and merit as a prospective spouse for their daughter influenced their decision. They might allow letters between the young lady and the gentleman in question if they hoped for a good match, or if they trusted his intentions.
Even a determined young lady might find it difficult to write a secret letter. Letters were put out on a tray to be mailed, so anyone could see the addresses on the outside. Also, servants delivered incoming post to the father and he distributed it. Additionally, it was customary for parents to open the letters addressed to their children. They probably stopped when the sons were of age, but often continued to do so for daughters. Letters received were generally read to the whole family. Only after a formal engagement might a girl be allowed to have her letters to herself.
I like to think that the rules might have been more flexible with writing to soldiers. Letters from home are important to a serviceman and woman’s morale, and I’m sure that truth was as important 200 years ago as it is today. Perhaps a parent during the Regency might be persuaded to break convention and allow a correspondence in the name of supporting the troops, as it were. I certainly hope so.
If you know someone serving overseas in any branch of the military, I hope you’ll take a moment to send a letter. Don’t worry, it probably won’t start any rumors of romantic involvement.