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Film adaptations of Jane Austen’s works may be our favorite movies set in the Regency era, but there is a vast array of others set in or around that same period that merit attention as well.
For this list, we look at a few TV shows and movies set in the Georgian era, from 1770 onward (since Austen was born in 1775) and primarily set in England.
‘The Duchess’ (1770s)
Released in 2009, this biopic stars Keira Knightley as the titular Duchess of Devonshire and follows her rocky marriage to her husband, played by Ralph Fiennes. Available for streaming on Netflix.
‘The Scandalous Lady W’ (1770s-1780s)
Another unhappy marriage leading to scandal: This 2015 mini-series stars Natalie Dormer as Lady Seymour Worsley, who leaves her awful husband for his friend. Based on the true story of Lady Worsley and Hallie Rubenhold’s nonfiction book, “Lady Worsley’s Whim.”
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was a real person: the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy. His uncle, Lord Mansfield, raises Dido alongside another great-niece. The 2013 film partly follows the landmark case Lord Mansfield rules on, which is seen to contribute to the abolition movement. Available for rent on multiple streaming platforms.
There have been multiple adaptations of these historical novels by Winston Graham, the most recent of which started airing in 2015 and recently ended with its fifth season. Ross Poldark, upon returning to Cornwall from fighting in the American Revolutionary War, finds a very different place — his sweetheart having married his cousin. Drama ensues. Available on Amazon Prime (1996, 2015-) or Acorn TV (1977-).
‘The Madness of King George’ (1788)
In this 1994 movie, Nigel Hawthorne plays King George III, whose mental health declined dramatically in his latter years. Those closest to him have to try to prevent his political enemies, including his own son (played by Rupert Everett), from usurping his power. Helen Mirren also stars. Available for streaming on VUDU or rent on other streaming platforms.
‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (1792)
Another entry with multiple adaptations, including one released in 1982 with “Austenland” alumna Jane Seymour: The novels feature an English nobleman, Sir Percy Blackeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, helping French aristocrats escape the guillotine in France. The 1934 version is available for streaming on Amazon Prime; the 1982 version on Acorn TV.
‘A Royal Scandal’ (1795)
This short 1997 movie almost feels like a docu-drama, complete with voice-over narration. Richard E. Grant (who also happened to play the titular hero in a 1999 “Scarlet Pimpernel” mini-series) plays the Prince Regent, who has just married Caroline of Brunswick. The movie follows their disastrous marriage, a common theme apparently. Of Caroline, Austen said: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.” Sisterhood! Available on Amazon Prime.
‘Vanity Fair’ (1800s)
William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel has been adapted at least a dozen times on the small and silver screens. The story’s heroine (or anti-heroine?) is Becky Sharp (played on the big screen by Reese Witherspoon in the Mira Nair-directed 2004 movie), an unapologetic social climber and heartbreaker. The 2018 version is available for streaming on Amazon Prime; the 2004 version on various other streaming platforms.
‘Mary Shelley’ (1815)
One of the more recent entries, this 2017 film depicts Mary Wollstonecraft’s elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley and the writing of her magnus opus, “Frankenstein.” The film stars Elle Fanning as Mary. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime; for streaming on various other platforms.
‘Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister’ (1815 -)
Based on the diaries that Anne Lister wrote partly in code, this BBC movie, released about 10 years before HBO’s 2019 series “Gentleman Jack,” covers a larger period of her life and starts in 1815 (as seen in her writing a diary entry and the Regency clothes). What is perhaps especially notable about her diaries is the account of her relationships with women. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime.
‘Bright Star’ (1818)
Another movie about writers: “Bright Star,” written and directed by Jane Campion and released in 2009, is about the tragic love story between poet John Keats (played by Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
Director Mike Leigh’s two-and-a-half hour epic released last year depicts the Peterloo massacre — Peterloo is a portmanteau of St. Peter’s Field and Waterloo — when the cavalry descended on tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding parliamentary reform. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Keto, paleo, low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian. … What would Jane Austen make of all our various diets and regimens? Not to mention all the prepackaged, processed food nutritionists tell us to avoid by sticking to the margins of grocery stores?
Food, in the Regency period, or indeed, any period before the modern era, tended to be more seasonal, fresher (since you couldn’t refrigerate or freeze things easily) and definitely less sweet, given how new sugar was to people’s palates and how expensive it was.
So what did they eat?
- Meats we would recognize, such as beef, pork, fish and various fowl, but Georgians made full use of the animals, including beef tongue, cheeks, and tail (beef was so popular that it gave the French mockingly referred to the English as “les rosbifs,” i.e. the roast beefs).
- Meats we tend not to eat much, especially game meat, such as hare, pigeon, partridge, and venison to name a few.
- Vegetables and fruit, preferably from one’s garden, such as potatoes, berries, plums, and currants. Wealthier landowners, like the Darcy family in “Pride and Prejudice” could afford to keep hothouses and grow even more varieties, such as the grapes, peaches, and nectarines Elizabeth and her family are offered while visiting Pemberley.
- Bread and pastries: no such thing as low-carb! But given the cost of sugar, pastries and cakes were more of a treat. Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s warning not to eat too much wedding cake in “Emma,” people still partook. Breakfast in particular relied on tea and bread (toast) and “muffins or hot rolls, with good butter,” according to American visitor Joshua White’s observations. At great houses, breakfasts could be grander affairs, with plum cake, pound cake, varieties of rolls, tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
As mentioned above, freezing food was no small feat. Before the advent of electricity and refrigerators, people had to rely on blocks of ice to keep food cold. And with that, rooms to keep the blocks of ice cold. Not everyone could afford that kind of space, but it could be done, and ice cream became popular in the late 18th century. Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra about her stay at her rich brother Edward’s home where she could “eat Ice & drink French wine, & be above Vulgar Economy.” The Regency version of “Treat Yourself”!
Mealtimes as we know them were very different in the past, one main difference being the relative novelty of the lunch. In previous centuries, dinner was the main meal of the day and eaten much earlier than it is now (in 1789, Jane Austen would dine at 3:30 p.m.). As dinner moved to a later time (about 5 p.m.), it became necessary to have a bit of a snack between breakfast and dinner, hence lunch. Supper was later still, eaten after one returned from the theater or opera or other late-night entertainment.
Since Thanksgiving is next week in our corner of the world, we couldn’t let you go without letting you in on this: the over-the-top turducken feast (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken) is neither new nor is it the most extravagant sort. From the Jane Austen Centre’s post on the Yorkshire Christmas Roast: “In his 1807 Almanach des Gourmands, gastronomist Grimod de La Reynière presents his rôti sans pareil (“roast without equal”)—a bustard stuffed with a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, an ortolan bunting and a garden warbler.” Now pass the Tums!
Cheers for drinks
Although Jane Austen perhaps did not have access to the variety of microbreweries of our time, she did have plenty to choose from. Fortified wines – such as sherry, madeira, port – and cordial waters (liqueurs) were popular, and punch recipes were varied and mouthwatering. Wine and cordial waters were often used for medicinal purposes, however misguided, such as when Elinor brings her ill sister Marianne some wine in “Sense and Sensibility.”
Sources: Jane Austen’s novels, “Jane Austen’s Letters” by Deirdre Le Faye, “Tea With Jane Austen” by Kim Wilson, “The Jane Austen Diet: Austen’s Secrets to Food, Health, and Incandescent Happiness” by Bryan Kozlowski, Jane Austen’s World, the Jane Austen Centre
Here’s a selection of additional resources you might want to peruse, including recipes you can try.
On the Web
- Find a whole host of recipes at the Jane Austen Centre’s website.
- A variety of posts on 19th-century food on the Jane Austen World blog.
- Information on Georgian ices at HistoricFood.com.
Books on Regency food
- “Dinner With Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels of Jane Austen” by Pen Vogler
- “The Jane Austen Cookbook” by Maggie Black
- “Cooking With Jane Austen (Feasting with Fiction)” by Kirstin Olsen
- “The Housekeeping Book” of Susanna Whatman
- “Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”
- “Gin Austen: 50 Cocktails to Celebrate the Novels of Jane Austen” by Colleen Mullaney
All books are available on Amazon.com. Support JASP through smile.amazon.com.