The Year Without a Summer, Part 2 : Consequences

 

"Two Men by the Sea," by Caspar David Friedrich. Painted in 1817,
 it shows how much the Mt. Tambora eruption darkened the European sky.

The effects of the Mt. Tambora eruption in 1815 weren't felt in Europe and North America until 1816 and lasted for a number of years. At the time, no one understood that the change in weather patterns was due to a volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies, almost 10,000 miles away. It wasn't until the last half of the 20th century that scientists conclusively demonstrated the global cooling effects of volcanic eruptions. 


"Landscape with Rainbow," also by Caspar David Friedrich. Painted in 1810,
 this picture shows how clear the skies were before the volcanic event. 


Immediate effects of the 1815 eruption

The earliest indication that the weather patterns were changing came in December of 1815, with the changes becoming obvious by the time spring and summer arrived. Though Asia experienced an abnormal monsoon season and there was a famine in China, the most dramatic effects of the Mt. Tambora eruption were observed in the U.K., Western Europe, the Atlantic regions of Canada, and New England. 

Europe 

July of 1816 was the coldest on record in England, and the year itself was the 11th coldest, with the third coldest summer, since 1659. These temperatures contributed to August frosts in England and Europe, and the flooding of major rivers, including the Rhine, due to abnormal storms and unusually heavy rain.

In December of 1815, red and yellow snow fell in record amounts near the Adriatic coast. Fearing that  event was an ominous sign from God, the residents held a religious procession. That winter also saw unusual amounts of snow and freezing rain in the Abruzzo region. Intense blizzards blanketed Hungary, and because of the ash in the atmosphere, the snow that fell was brown.

People were already experiencing food shortages across Europe in the aftermath of the long Napoleonic Wars. But the lowered temperatures and heavy rainfall resulting from the Mt. Tambora blast caused the oat, wheat and potato harvests to fail, resulting in famine across Britain and Ireland. In Germany, the lack of food was especially acute. 


For Jane Austen, the summer of 1816 was rainy and miserable. Writing to her nephew about the weather that summer, she said “It is really too bad, & has been for a long time, much worse than anybody can bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again.”  She also recounted a conversation with a neighbor where she noted “of its’ being bad weather for the Hay – & he returned me the comfort of its’ being much worse for the Wheat.”

Across Europe food prices skyrocketed, and not knowing the cause of the spike, the hungry protested in front of bakeries and grain markets. Riots followed, with arson and looting. Though riots during times of food scarcity weren’t uncommon, the food riots of 1816-17 were some of the most violent since the French Revolution. 

And that wasn’t the end of the miseries. Famine and malnourishment breed disease, and between 1816 and 1819 major typhus epidemics broke out across Europe, especially in Italy, Switzerland, Scotland, and Ireland. As the disease spread throughout Great Britain and Ireland it killed more than 65,000 people. 
 
North America

Abnormal weather afflicted the newly minted United States of America as well. A “dry fog” hung over the eastern states in the spring and summer of 1816. It reddened the sky and darkened the sun, and neither wind nor rain could disperse it. But the real problem was the summer cold and drought that damaged and killed crops, especially corn, causing widespread food shortages.

Frost, snow and ice made an unseasonable appearance that summer in the U.S. Similar to Italy and Hungary, Maryland’s snow was discolored  –  brown, bluish and yellow. In Lebanon, New York, the temperature dipped below freezing nearly every day during May, and in early June the ground froze. In Pennsylvania, there was ice in the rivers and lakes during July and August, and Virginia saw frost in August. Across the new country, the unusual cold was accompanied by lack of rain.

“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend. “The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter.” 


Long-term effects 

The summer of 1816 made a deep impression on those who lived through it, and led to the development of scientific and technological innovations, cultural movements and the birth of  a new literary genre. 

Here are a few examples of how that year affected society in lasting ways::

Science

Justus von Liebig was only 13 years old and living in Darmstadt during the summer of 1816. He saw first-hand the famine-caused suffering, especially severe in Germany. The starvation he must have witnessed as a child surely influenced his life and inspired his work in agriculture to prevent future famines. 

 As an adult, Liebig became a scientist, studying biological and agricultural chemistry, and today he is considered one of the founders of organic chemistry. Because of Liebig's innovations in plant nutrition and mineral fertilizers, the famine of 1816 was described as the "last great subsistence crisis in the Western world" by John Dexter Post in his 1977 book.

Another German,  prolific inventor Baron Karl von Drais, observed the crop failures caused by the disrupted weather patterns of 1816 and pondered their effect on the horse-based transportation system of the time. Due to scarcity, the price of oats climbed, and since oats were needed to feed horses, the cost of travel increased as well.

Karl Drais on his invention in 1819



So, Drais went to work and invented his “Laufmaschine,” (also called a velocipede, draisine, hobby horse or dandy horse), a simple two-wheeled machine that has evolved into today's bicycles and motorcycles. 

Von Drais' machine didn't have pedals but it was one of the first examples of mechanized personal transport. His first ride, on Baden’s best road in June of 1817, covered a distance of 4.3 miles and took a little more than an hour. Nevertheless, that ride was a major milestone in the development of horseless transportation. 

The settlement of the American West

Some Americans fleeing the dire consequences of the unpredictable summer of 1816  (including crop failures, famine, forest fires, flooding, drought, frost  and snow) left their New England homes and migrated to the Northwest Territory. As a result of this population influx, Indiana became a state in 1816 and Illinois followed two years later.  Looking for a better life, these farm families were the beginning of the settlement of the American West, and helped establish what became known as America's Heartland. 

One such family, led by Joseph Smith, left Vermont for Palmyra in Western New York, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to the Book of Mormon being published and the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Literature

Image from the 1831 edition of
Frankenstein
Lord Byron and his friend John William Polidori, who was Byron's personal physician and also a writer, passed the summer of 1816 in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. In June they were visited by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with his 18-year-old wife Mary, and Claire Clairmont, Mary's step-sister and Byron's mistress.

Kept indoors by the incessant rain, the group decided to hold a contest to see who could create the best scary story.  

Mary's story became the first draft of the horror classic, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, which she published in 1818.

Byron told a story about a vampire, which prompted Polidori to write The Vampyre in 1819. Polidori's novella has since inspired countless vampire romance stories, including The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, creating a new sub-genre of gothic fantasy fiction - the romantic vampire.

Also that during that cold and rainy summer, Byron wrote a poem titled "Darkness." It is perhaps the most evocative contemporary account of what that summer must have felt like to the people who lived through it: 

The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread 
Of this their desolation . . .

The poem goes on to great detail describing global devastation, including forest fires, famine, and widespread death resulting from this darkness, ending with these lines:

The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.


The aerosol veil that covered the earth after the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 eventually dissipated, letting the sun's rays once again shine through the earth's atmosphere. However, today our heavy use of fossil-burning fuels, which started with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and has been intensifying ever since, is creating its own climate change with potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Unlike 1816's volcano-caused aerosol veil,  today's climate changes won't go away by themselves.



Can we reverse the effects of our man-made climate change? I believe if we come together as inhabitants of Planet Earth, putting aside our superficial differences and employing our human determination, resourcefulness and intelligence, we can solve this problem for ourselves and the benefit of future generations. 

We have to. We can't afford to fail.

**

Sources for this post include:

  • The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013
  • The Regency Years, During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern, by Robert Morrison, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2019 
  • "Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer," UCAR Center for Science Education

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

"The Year Without a Summer, Part 1: Cause of a Major Regency Climate Change


Who doesn’t love warm summer weather? Summer is the perfect time for walking barefoot in the grass, outdoor picnics and going to the beach. 

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, summer has turned from a friend to a foe. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon, reached an unbelievable 116 degrees in June, and at least 200 people and about a billion marine animals died in the Pacific Northwest during our historic heat wave.

And across the U.S. this summer, wildfires are raging and heat records are shattering. 

Climate change, due to the “greenhouse effect” caused by burning fossil fuels, is the most likely culprit for these climate abnormalities. 

But climate change can have other causes and effects. For example, one year during the Regency people suffered when the sun wouldn’t shine and temperatures plummeted. The sky was dark and the world was cold. 

It was 1816, known as the year without a summer.

The Eruption of Mt. Tambora

The reason for the “year without a summer” was another climate disaster – a massive volcanic eruption. And this disaster had lasting repercussions. 

Sumbawa, a small island in Indonesia (known as the Dutch East Indies during the Regency) is approximately 10,000 miles from Boston, Massachusetts, and almost 8,000 miles distant from London, England. I’d guess that most people living in the United States and the United Kingdom at that time were scarcely aware of the island's existence. 

But on April 5, 1815, a volcano on Sumbawa, Mt. Tambora, erupted violently with a series of blasts. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Lt. Governor of Java, was at his post 800 miles away when he heard what he thought was a volley of cannon fire.  

Sailors onboard ships at sea heard the blasts, and believed a battle was taking place. Fields composed of pumice, some as large as three miles wide, covered the South Indian Ocean like icebergs.

Then, five days later Mt. Tambora erupted again, and this time the blast was even worse. Three huge columns of fire rose in the air, coming together at the top, spewing ash, debris and molten rock while lava streamed down the mountainside. 

Estimated radius of volcanic ashfall in 1815 from Mt. Tambora 
(Taken from a NASA image, CC BY-SA 3.0)

About 12,000 people lived close to the mountain, and almost all were dead within 24 hours. Twenty miles away from the blast site, villages were covered in ash that was 40 inches thick. Hundreds of miles away, layers of dust ruined crops, killed cattle, fish and other wildlife, and poisoned water. 

Famine and disease came next, causing even more destruction, until the death toll in Indonesia reached at least 90,000 people. 

All told, the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 killed hundreds of thousands of people, either directly or indirectly. It is still the largest volcanic eruption ever witnessed or recorded, ten times more violent than the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in 1883. The Mt. Tambora eruption released a burst of volcanic energy equal to exploding 33 gigatons of TNT. 

Climate Effects

When Mt. Tambora blew, about three to four thousand feet blasted right off the top of the mountain. Ash and tephra (fragments of magma and other minerals) from the eruption shot into the earth’s stratosphere and were dispersed by winds around the globe, forming an almost invisible aerosol veil that scattered sunlight, effectively blocking the sun’s rays and lowering temperatures around the world. 

Map showing European temperature abnormalities during the summer
 of 1816, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 
(authored by Giorgiogp2, CC BY_SA 3.0)

Although the aerosol veil reflected only about one-half to one percent of the incoming energy of the sun, that percentage was enough to cool temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere by approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit. And that 3-degree reduction was enough to change weather patterns and wreak agricultural destruction on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. 

But the effects of the Mt. Tambora eruption were not felt in Europe and North America for many months. It wasn’t until the spring and summer of 1816 that the change in climate began to become quite noticeable. 

Popular beliefs 

Persistent rain, flooding, frost and snowfall during the summer months in Europe and North America were some of the climate abnormalities caused by the volcanic blast. 

Other effects included drought and raging forest fires, crop failures and famine. To people living in the Northern Hemisphere in 1816, the world must have seemed as though it were turned upside down. 

Unaware of what was causing these climate abnormalities, some people, especially in New England, saw it as the work of witchcraft, or a punishment from God, or at the very least, signs of a coming apocalypse. 

And these beliefs, along with the frightening change in climate, set off a chain of events and innovations that still affect our lives today.


Come back next week for Part 2: The long-lasting effects that “the year without a summer” had on science, literature, and the settling of the American West.


Sources for this post include:

  • The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013
  • The Regency Years, During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern, by Robert Morrison, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2019 
  • "Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer," UCAR Center for Science Education

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

Jenner's Legacy: Part 3 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine



Jenner advising a farmer to vaccinate his family



Jenner’s development of a vaccine in the 1790s was only the beginning, not the end of the story of the fight against smallpox. It took the work of many other scientists to test and create a smallpox vaccine that was uncontaminated, stable and could be safely transported to countries around the world.

In 1853 Parliament made smallpox vaccinations mandatory for infants in Great Britain. By the 1860s two-thirds of all British babies had been vaccinated and there was a resulting drop in the number of infant deaths caused by the disease.  

However, vaccination remained controversial and anti-vaccination leagues formed in Britain and the United States. Fortunately, vaccinations continued and the disease’s grip on mankind weakened.

Success at last

Following a series of global vaccination campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, success came at last. In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated. 

Smallpox is still the only human disease that has been exterminated by vaccination.

It took 180 years, but Jenner’s dream of wiping smallpox off the face of the earth finally became a reality.


Jenner’s Legacy

Edward Jenner died in 1823. A humble man, he was considered a hero in his lifetime and still is today.

While he may not have been the first to realize that cowpox could lead to immunity against smallpox, his work made smallpox inoculations popular. 

Jenner's efforts also laid the groundwork for the widespread vaccinations that eventually defeated the disease.

In addition, his scientific inquiries became the basis of the modern science of immunology. 

Jenner’s work put him ahead of his time – so much so that it took almost another century before French chemist Louis Pasteur developed the next vaccines, for rabies and anthrax, in the 1880s.

Vaccines today

But why is that we call all inoculations “vaccines”? Jenner’s name for his discovery came from the Latin word for cow, “vacca.” So, technically, it should apply only to his cowpox vaccine. 

But Pasteur wanted to pay homage to Jenner’s creation of the first vaccine by naming all inoculations, including the ones he developed, “vaccinations” even though cows had nothing to do with them.

Pasteur’s tribute to Jenner caught on and that’s why now we have “vaccines” for influenza, tetanus, shingles, pneumonia and many other potentially deadly diseases.

And now we can add COVID-19 to the list of diseases that can be prevented by vaccination. The vaccines, whether manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, can be traced to Jenner’s pioneering work over 200 years ago.





Additional information

For more information on this topic see this article, “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination,” available from the National Institutes of Health.

Also, read this article on smallpox vaccines by the World Health Organization. (It’s a relief to know that despite the disappearance of smallpox there are still stockpiles of vaccine in existence.)

The Genius of Jenner: Part 2 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine

 

Jenner performing his first vaccination, in 1796,on James Phipps

The solution to safer smallpox inoculations came from English physician Edward Jenner. And surprisingly, he got help from a cow.

Jenner’s early life

Edward Jenner was born into a big family (he was one of nine children) in 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. Because his father was a clergyman, young Edward and his siblings got a good basic education. But getting variolated as a teenager had an even greater impact on his life.

Jenner was grateful that he avoided smallpox by his variolation at a young age. But he was also aware of the risks of the procedure. Variolation carried potentially dire consequences. The patient could die from the procedure, or contract a mild form of the disease which could then spread and cause an epidemic. 

Prince Octavius in 1783
Victims of variolation could be found at all levels of society. Even King George III endured a loss due to the procedure; one of his sons, Octavius, died of smallpox at age 4 in 1783 after being inoculated with the virus. His sister Sophia, just a few years older, was variolated at the same time as her brother and recovered fully with no problems.

As it turned out, little Prince Octavius was the last British royal to die of smallpox.

Cowpox

As he grew older, Jenner studied both zoology and human biology. That’s how he learned of a possible link between an animal disease and the dreaded smallpox that could be the key to safer inoculations.

The disease was cowpox. And it’s no wonder it attracted attention. Cowpox was a much milder disease than smallpox, and it didn’t cause as much scarring and death in the humans who contracted it. In fact, cowpox fatalities were less than one percent.

 


By the time Jenner began his career in the 1770s, there was growing evidence through observations by other doctors and even farmers that getting cowpox could be a way to avoid getting smallpox.  

But these observations lacked solid proof. So when Jenner noted that dairymaids who worked with infected cows rarely got smallpox, he began to study the phenomenon in a disciplined and scientific way. He hypothesized that not only did contracting cowpox result in immunity to the disease, but also that a method could be developed to transmit this immunity. 

To test his hypothesis, he found a cowpox-stricken dairymaid and used her infected blisters to inoculate 8-year-old James Phipps. Phipps fell briefly ill but recovered. And when Jenner then exposed Phipps to smallpox and the boy didn’t contract the disease, Jenner concluded his experiment worked. 

The Inquiry

Jenner tested his newly developed vaccine on many people, including his own son, before publishing his findings. When he did self-publish his Inquiry in 1798 (its full title is An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the name of the Cow Pox) it was an immediate hit and he quickly became famous. Other scientists validated his observations, and by 1799 more than a thousand people had been vaccinated.

Jane Austen
Such was his fame that even Jane Austen knew about Jenner. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she describes a dinner party where guests took turns reading from “Dr. Jenner’s pamphlet.”

Napoleon was another fan. Despite waging war against the British, Napoleon had Jenner vaccinate his troops and awarded him a medal, calling him one of the “greatest benefactors of mankind.” 

And in 1821 Jenner was named “physician extraordinary” to the newly crowned King George IV, the monarch formerly known as the Prince Regent or Prinny.

Regency Anti-Vaxxers

So, at last there was an effective way to prevent the deadly disease of smallpox. But not everyone was enthusiastic about Jenner's new vaccine. Just as there are anti-vaxxers today, there were those in Jenner’s time who strongly opposed vaccination. 

 Religious leaders objected both because the vaccine was derived from an animal and was therefore "unchristian," and also on the grounds that by preventing the disease and its death toll the vaccine thwarted God’s will. 

Then there were those who didn't trust the science behind the vaccine. They were afraid of side effects, didn't believe the vaccine would work, and feared it was too risky. Others protested that vaccination was an attack on their freedom of choice. (That argument intensified in subsequent years when vaccinations, especially for children and infants, became mandatory.)

Anti-vaccine sentiment wasn't confined to Jenner's time and place. In Colonial America, Puritan minister Cotton Mather became a target of outrage in the 1720s for his outspoken support of smallpox inoculation via variolation. One protestor even lobbed a bomb through a window of the minister's Boston home in an effort to stop Mather publicizing his pro-inoculation arguments.

With this much resistance, the battle against smallpox was far from over.


1802 James Gillray caricature illustrating fears concerning Jenner's
cowpox vaccine. Note the cow-like appendages erupting
all over the bodies of those receiving the shot! 

What happened to this dreaded disease? See Jenner’s Legacy, Part 3 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine, for the answer.


**

Sources for this post include:

  •  "The History of Anti-Vaccination Movements," The History of Vaccines an Educational Resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, updated January 10, 2018
  • "History Shows Americans Have Always Been Wary of Vaccines," by Alicia Ault, The Smithsonian Magazine, January 26, 2021
  • "Smallpox: A Great and Terrible Scourge," U.S. National Library of Medicine, USA.gov, article last updated July 30, 2013

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine - Part 1

Edward Jenner


As I write this, much of the world is beginning to emerge from the quarantines and restrictions caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. And that's because for the past several months vaccines have been available and distributed widely.  As a result, COVID-19 cases and deaths are sharply declining.

But this isn’t the first vaccine success story. During the Regency era, an English scientist and physician named Edward Jenner pioneered the development of the world's first vaccine, the smallpox vaccine. 

This three-part series tells Jenner's story, which is still inspiring and relevant today.

The Scourge of Smallpox

Jenner's tale begins with the disease itself. It's impossible to overestimate the horrors of smallpox. For over a millennium it was rightly feared for the way it killed, disabled and disfigured people on a massive scale. 

Ploughing in Ancient Egypt, circa 1200 BC
No one knows exactly when smallpox first appeared to plague mankind, but there's evidence it was around as early as 10,000 B.C., in African agricultural settlements. 

It wasn't long before the disease showed up in Egypt, India and China. Throughout the Middle Ages there were intermittent, and devastating, smallpox epidemics.

By 18th century Europe, smallpox killed about 400,000 people every year, and blinded one-third of its survivors. The number of infected people who died from smallpox (case fatality rate) ranged from 20 to 60 percent. 

The disease was especially brutal to children. According to data collected in Glasgow, a city famed for its careful record-keeping, from about 1783 to 1800 approximately half of all children who were born died before they reached the age of 10, and smallpox was responsible for 40 percent of those deaths.

Other statistics show that during the same time period the mortality rate among infants who contracted smallpox was nearly 80 percent in London and 98 percent in Berlin.

Imagine those figures – absolutely heart-breaking!

The disease did other damage, too. Survivors were usually left with disfiguring facial scars. Plus, before the vaccination era, smallpox was the chief cause of blindness throughout Europe.

The First Inoculations

Also by the 18th century it was common knowledge that if you could survive smallpox you’d be immune to it. In fact, we know that as early as 436 B.C. smallpox survivors were the ones who took care of those suffering from the disease.

Armed with this knowledge, some people decided to tackle smallpox head-on by deliberately exposing themselves to it. They developed a process called variolation, from the Latin word variola that was used at the time for smallpox.

Variolation was done by piercing the skin of an arm or leg, usually with a sharp lancet dripping with fluid from an active smallpox blister. Another method involved rubbing a piece of fluid-soaked cloth over a scratch on the skin.

This practice was used widely in Asia and the Middle East, and while it sounded barbaric to Western ears it often worked – the rate and the severity of smallpox infections dropped significantly when variolation was performed.

Lady Mary in Turkish dress, 1756


Variolation Goes West

Variolation came to England in the early 18th century. It happened soon after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, saw the procedure performed in Istanbul.

If anyone had a reason to hate smallpox, it was Lady Mary. Not only had her brother died from it, but a bout with smallpox in 1715 left her, once a celebrated beauty, with a badly scarred face.

 While living In Turkey, Lady Mary had her 5-year-old son variolated by embassy surgeon Charles Maitland. But when she got back home, she discovered English doctors opposed this foreign practice.

That didn’t stop her. When a smallpox epidemic loomed in 1721, she insisted her 4-year-old daughter be variolated. Once again Dr. Maitland performed the procedure, but this time Lady Mary made sure royal physicians saw him do it. When Maitland also successfully variolated two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722, variolation became acceptable in English society. 

But variolation had its downsides. The biggest drawback was the risk of the procedure going spectacularly wrong. If that happened, variolation could give someone smallpox or make them a carrier of the disease.

The concept of inoculating someone against smallpox by introducing a small amount of it into their bodies seemed to work. But how could this procedure be made not only be safer, but easier to administer to lots of people?

The answer to that question is in my next post, The Genius of Jenner, Part 2 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine

**

Sources for this post include:

"Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination," by Stefan Riedel, MD, PhD, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 2005

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Regency Fashion on Film: How Does Bridgerton Rate?


Last Christmas Bridgerton, the Netflix series based on the best-selling Regency romances of Julia Quinn, took the viewing public by storm. It’s quickly become the most popular show ever streamed on Netflix with a record-breaking 82 million households watching it. Season 2 is now in production, and the streaming service has renewed the series for Seasons 3 and 4. 

Like many who love the Regency Era, I have mixed feelings about the show’s success. This is no gentle comedy of manners. The steamy sex scenes go far beyond anything Jane Austen ever wrote about in her novels. What's even more problematic, the show contains many anachronisms.

Fashion anachronisms

Ever since Bridgerton's debut, there's been debate about the costumes, focusing on how accurately they do or do not reflect the period. 

From what I can tell, fashion historians can forgive most of the show's anachronisms, such as women going about town without proper headgear, or wearing clothes dyed in vivid colors that simply weren’t available during the early 19th century (think Penelope Featherington’s vibrant yellow gowns). 

However, corsets as shown in the series are another matter. 

Corsets

To begin with, Bridgerton's actors don't wear chemises under their corsets to protect their skin, like corset-wearing women in the past have always done.

But a real sticking point for many fashion historians is how these Regency women are portrayed wearing tightly laced corsets - corsets that look suspiciously Victorian.

That's a problem, because Regency fashions mostly didn't require boned undergarments.

During the this period, especially the years Bridgerton is set, fashionable women wore loosely fitted gowns, tied under the bust. 

This Neoclassical style was inspired by a revival of interest in ancient Greco-Roman art, and prompted by statues depicting women wearing unstructured, draped tunics. Empress Josephine, a big fashion influencer of her time, made this style all the rage. 

Interestingly, the urge to dress like the ancient Greeks didn’t affect men – you don’t see fashionable Regency bucks wearing togas! 

Tight-lacing

It's not just the appearance of corsets that seems wrong in Bridgerton. What raises the hackles of fashion historians are corsets shown being laced tightly to create small waists.

Regency gowns in 1813 didn’t show the waist, so despite what we see in the series there was no need for a tight, waist-cinching corset. 

The scene where Prudence Featherington is laced to the point of pain into her corset prior to being presented at court makes no sense as soon as Prudence dons her elegant high-waisted gown. 


Proper court attire 

That scene makes even less sense given the dress code women at court had to follow in 1813. Queen Charlotte required all the ladies to wear hoop skirts -- the fashion of the Queen's youth in the 18th century. 

Though willing to obey the Queen's dictates, these affluent aristocratic women were also eager to wear the latest fashions. 

So, they just put hoops under their empire-style gowns. The result was often an unflattering mish-mash of styles. The court gowns totally obliterated the natural waist line, making their wearers look, in my opinion, like they were in the late stages of pregnancy. 

If you think I'm exaggerating, just look at the print of the Princess of Wales in 1807 wearing her court dress.  

Imagine sylph-like Daphne Bridgerton or any of the Featherington sisters wearing such ridiculous gowns. No wonder the Bridgerton costume designers took liberties with history when it came to the scenes at Queen Charlotte's court.

Stays

Corsets the way we know them today weren’t even worn during the Regency. If a woman wanted or needed support or smoothing under her gown, she wore an undergarment called stays, which were a precursor to the corset. 

Regency stays were longer than a corset, covering more of a woman's body. See the image in this post depicting a woman being laced into her stays by her maid circa 1810, and note the garment's long line.


In the centuries before the Regency period, stays were sometimes laced tightly to give a woman a small waist. Padding the hips with wide side hoops called panniers also made a women’s waist look comparatively tiny. 

Many women, especially the younger ones, dispensed with padding or constrictive undergarments altogether in the early 19th century. Others, though, kept wearing stays to help them achieve the fashionable slendar silhouette under their columnar gowns. 

Exceptions

With those loose gowns, tight-lacing was more or less unnecessary during most of the Regency Era. However, that doesn’t mean the practice was unheard of. 

Here’s a contemporary account (1810) describing the use of stays. First, the writer observes that stays were no longer made with whalebone or hardened leather, but instead contained iron or steel bars that were 3 or 4-inches wide and 18-inches long iron. 

That sounds like a torture device. But there’s more. 

The writer adds that it was by “no means uncommon to see a mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and placing her foot on her back, break half-a-dozen laces in tightening her stays.” 

What a vivid image! Perhaps poor Prudence’s corset-lacing scene in Bridgerton isn’t so far-fetched after all. 

Tight-lacing makes a come-back

By the end of the Regency period defined waistlines were creeping back into fashion. It didn’t take long for small waists to become a fashion obsession once again and tight-lacing a concern, as this satiric cartoon, titled "A cutting wind," from the 1820s demonstrates:


Creative vision behind the series

Fashion historians have a valid point about the anachronisms on display in Bridgerton. However, the series was never meant to be a painstakingly accurate view of Regency styles and manners, so I think it’s unfair to hold its costume designers to a rigid standard.  

If you want to see the Regency dress portrayed on film more accurately, look no further than the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Bridgerton is an entertaining Regency-set fantasy, taking place in an parallel universe where racial diversity exists at the highest levels of British society. Its resounding success with the public is due to the bold and creative way producers Shonda Rimes and Betsy Beers interpreted Quinn’s novels, on several levels, for Netflix. 

The genius of Rimes and Beers collaboration has been recognized in their industry. Just last April they were awarded the 2021 Distinguished Collaborator Award by the Costume Designer’s Guild. 

For a more detailed historical analysis of Bridgerton's costumes here’s fashion historian Raissa Bretaña for Glamour:



So, you won't find period-appropriate bonnets or underwear in Bridgerton. It's the alternative world view and passionate  relationships, not historically accurate costuming, that's made the show so popular with viewers.

In fact, when it comes to proper Regency attire, some of the characters doff their clothes so often it’s hard to remember what they're wearing in some scenes.

But even Bridgerton's severest costume critics have to agree that despite any anachronisms, the series  has introduced a host of new fans to our favorite time period. 

After all, never has the Regency Era been so much fun to watch!

**

Sources for this post include: 

  • Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh, Theatre Arts Books/Methuen, New York, copyright 1954.
  • Bras: A Thousand Years of Style, Support and Seduction, by Stephanie Pedersen, a David and Charles Book, published in the United Kingdom, 2004. 


Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)


Regency thrills and chills: Jane Austen's "horrid novels"




Do you think that the popularity of dark, scary thrillers is a recent phenomenon? If you do, I’d like to introduce you to the “horrid novels” of the Regency era – just in time to add to your Halloween reading list.

If you read Austen’s Northanger Abbey you’ll find a discussion of seven "horrid" novels that the worldly Isabella Thorpe insists that Catherine Morland, the naïve young heroine, read straight away. Not only were these stories familiar to Jane Austen, she satirizes them in Northanger Abbey. 

In Austen's story, 17-year-old Catherine is heavily influenced by the Gothic novels she reads. As a result  she believes she sees evidence of sinister deeds,  including murder, when she visits her friend's home, Northanger Abbey. Before we can get to a happy ending, Catherine must mature, rein in her imagination and appreciate the difference between fiction and real life. 

The Horrid Novels

Here are the seven Gothic novels (with their actual publication dates) that Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland in Austen's sprightly tale. For over a century scholars thought that Austen made up some of these book titles, but further research proved that all of these books actually did exist. 

  1. The Castle of Wolfenbach, by Eliza Parsons (1793)
  2. Clermont, by Regina Maria Roche (1798)
  3. The Mysterious Warning, by Eliza Parsons (1796)
  4. The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest, by Ludwig Flammenberg (1794)
  5. The Midnight Bell, by Francis Lathom (1798)
  6. The Orphan of the Rhine, by Eleanor Sleath (1798)
  7. The Horrid Mysteries, by Carl Grosse (1796) - translated from German by Peter Will

Austen also has her heroine discuss two other books that were wildly popular at the time: The Italian (1797) and Catherine's favorite, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), both by Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe, an English author whose lifetime encompassed the Regency, is considered a pioneering Gothic novelist, and her five bestsellers made her the highest-paid professional writer of the 1790s. 


Some Characteristics of 18th-19th Century Gothic Novels


Though the storylines and the settings varied somewhat, Gothic fiction during Jane Austen's time had several common characteristics. 

An atmosphere of mystery was a given, along with plenty of drama, fear and suspense. Here are few other important elements that crop up often in these tales:

  • A crumbling, gloomy manor house or castle, preferably haunted, with a mysterious and dark history
  • Paranormal events and/or supernatural manifestations- i.e. ghosts
  • A dastardly villain (dark and brooding, but somehow compelling)
  • A brave hero (who may also be dark and brooding) 
  • A beautiful, persecuted heroine who is also virtuous and brave
  • And, of course, Romance (with a capital R)

Later Gothic fiction also featured monsters, such as Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, and the titular vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula, written in 1897. 


Gothic Fiction and Film Today


Gothic fiction, and especially its sub-genre Gothic horror fiction, is every bit as popular today as it was during the Regency era. Vampires are espeically well-received by the reading public. Notable examples include the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, and Charlaine Harris's  The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which was adapted for television as the HBO series True Blood

Gothic-inspired novels, like many of those written by Stephen King, translate especially well into film and also appeal to modern-day horror fans. So do the marvelously weird and creative films of Tim Burton, including Beetlejuice, Dark ShadowsThe Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and his version of Alice in Wonderland.

I guess it all comes down to whether, or how, you like to be scared, especially on Halloween. As for me, I like humor with my frights. So, on that note I'll leave you with a funny scene from the modern  Gothic film classic Beetlejuice, when a dinner party in a haunted house goes horridly astray. 

Happy Halloween!






Images courtesy of Pixabay

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