“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” So wrote the author Jane Austen, whose visions of Regency life have come to define the era, in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, dated 13 March 1817.


Austen was not wrong. Being a woman in the Regency era was far more than the balls, dresses and dashing gentlemen seen in her works, and a far cry from the world of Bridgerton. The intrigue, romance and glamour of the Netflix series has bewitched viewers across the globe with its Regency fantasia. There, two women deftly hold sway in different ways, one at court and one in society.

At the top sits Queen Charlotte, resplendent in wig and panniers as she presides over the ladies of the upper class, deciding their fate at court and the world of the elite with the merest of words. Lady Whistledown, however, exists as an anonymous writer whose must-read pamphlets sate the hunger for gossip among the ton. It has made for compelling viewing, but just what was it like for a woman at this time?

What was the ton in the Regency era?

Buckingham Palace, London, 1809, from 'Microcosm of London' by Rudolf Ackerman.
Buckingham Palace, London, 1809, from 'Microcosm of London' by Rudolf Ackerman. (Picture by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The ton was the pinnacle of Regency society. The term was used to refer to the refined world of the upper classes, which was governed by a bewildering and unwritten collection of rules. Here, women had specific roles: to marry, become a mother and establish themselves as successful society wives, to whom no scandal or gossip could possibly attach itself.

Of course, there are examples of women who kicked against these expectations, but they were the exception, and regarded by the ton as oddities. For the rest, from the moment of their birth little girls found themselves on a path that they would be expected to follow for their whole lives.

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What were upper-class women taught?

Ladies at the piano, from the Gallery of Fashion, 1796. Private Collection.
'Ladies at the piano', from the Gallery of Fashion, 1796. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Whilst education for boys was intended to create gentleman who might inherit the family estates or go into a respectable profession, girls were trained in ‘appropriate’ female skills. When it came to the humanities and sciences, they generally learned just enough to ensure they would be a sparkling and lively hostess or conversational partner, while never being one who questioned her husband’s judgement and opinions. There was a practical aspect to the education of young ladies, which hinted at what her life would become once she was a wife. Lessons in household management ensured that she understood the domestic accounts just as well as she knew how to sparkle at the society dinner table.

The emphasis was placed on more artistic pursuits, such as music and art, to show how accomplished a woman could be. Equally vital to a young lady’s education were her dance lessons. The dancefloor at a ball offered a place to be seen and, hopefully, enchant a good marriage prospect; it was also one of the few places where she might be able to snatch a few private words with a man.

How did women join high society?

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. (L to R) India Amarteifio as Young Queen Charlotte, Corey Mylchreest as Young King George in episode 103 of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story.
India Amarteifio as Young Queen Charlotte, Corey Mylchreest as Young King George in 'Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story'. (Photo by Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2023)

The skills and mannerisms that had been diligently learned would be put to the test once a young woman made her debut in society at the annual Queen Charlotte’s Ball. Debutantes would be presented to the queen in front of an audience of eligible bachelors and their families. She then embarked on her first season: a round of balls, parties and glamourous events, a time that was her prime chance to make a match.

All the dancing lessons and good looks counted for little, however, if they weren’t accompanied by a dowry and great family connections. The promise of a large pay out and the opportunity to join the Regency upper crust could make a lady immensely desirable. While not all marriages were for money and cash, love was far from the main ingredient to make a match. It could be anything but a fairy-tale beginning. Even the imperious Queen Charlotte was a mere teenage orphan when brought to England to marry a man she had never met.

For those who did not find a husband in her debut year, each season that passed without a proposal diminished a lady’s appeal and attractions in the eyes of the ton. In this well-dressed cattle market, reputation was everything and, once lost, could never be regained. Despite the heroines of Bridgerton dashing away to tryst in the moonlight, the real price for such an act could be immeasurably high. A stolen kiss was enough to ruin a woman and her chances of marriage; her beau, meanwhile, would return to normal life with his reputation unsullied.

What was marriage like for Regency women?

'Flirtation' by Henry Gillard.
'Flirtation' by Henry Gillard. (Picture by Glindoni/Fine Art Photographic/Getty Images)

Once a woman had married, everything she owned became the property of her husband, with the exception of any spending money that had been agreed in the marriage contract. In the case of things not working out, the man would keep whatever the woman had brought into the marriage. Not that she had recourse for divorce. A husband could divorce his wife with impunity, sure in the knowledge that only her reputation would be ruined. In this way, even the most celebrated ladies of the ton could find themselves marked as pariahs.

Regardless of the happiness of the marriage, a woman’s job was to manage her home. Every day, she met with her housekeeper to discuss the running of the household and its staff, before she went through the accounts ahead of a day of calls and visits to make sure that the wheels of society kept turning. It goes without saying that all of her responsibilities would have been more bearable with a loving husband with whom to share the gossip of each day during that evening.

Should a woman be widowed, she had better hope that a jointure was part of the discussions in the marriage settlement. This was a ringfenced income for a bride in the advent of their husband’s death to ensure that she would be still be supported. Yet even these settlements were administered by male relatives, meaning that a widow would rarely be in control of her own fate. She could remarry, of course, but then what small measure of independence widowhood had given her would, once again, be surrendered.

What was childbirth and pregnancy like in the Regency era?

For a wife in the Regency era – as with many eras in history – there was one requirement above all others: to keep the bloodline going. Queen Charlotte bore her husband an eyewatering 15 children. And this was no easy feat. Even for the wealthiest, who had access to the best medical care, pregnancy and childbirth came with great risks. The rates of mortality for mothers and babies were high.

Matters were not helped by the fact that pregnant women were subjected to a regime that modern women rightly rejected. Once the pregnancy had been confirmed, the woman underwent a lying-in period, in which they were sent to bed, fires were lit, windows and doors closed, and every possible source of fresh air blocked up. This was so they would not be subject to the perils of so-called miasmas (foul air believed to carry all manner of diseases). Instead, they were constantly breathing in stuffy, sooty air.

With exercise and any activities believed to cause excitement forbidden, many women understandably found the experience of pregnancy miserable, worsened by a meagre diet of bland foods and bouts of bloodletting for every minor ailment. Though the birth itself is often considered the most dangerous time for Regency women, merely getting to the point of labour could be an ordeal on its own.

Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales, (1796-1817).
Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales, (1796-1817). (Picture by GettyImages)

During childbirth, the expectant mother would be overseen by a midwife and doctor, but that did not guarantee that everything would go smoothly. Princess Charlotte of Wales, daughter and heir of George IV, died soon after delivering a stillborn baby boy. Months later, her doctor, unable to forgive himself, took his own life in what became known as the “triple obstetric tragedy”.

Did single women have it better off?

Although the prospect of an unhappy marriage would hardly have appealed, staying single offered precious little comfort either. Spinsterhood was deemed an unnatural state. Even worse, an upper-class lady could not get a job to support herself, so unless she could find a respectable role as a governess or companion, or perhaps give painting or music lessons, an unmarried woman was entirely at the mercy of her, sometimes reluctant, family.

It is a sobering thought to realise that most genteel women never even lived alone. And families would grow resentful at the burden of an ageing relative. Once in a while, an heiress might be able to break the mould, but even then she had to employ a female companion to prevent any whispers of irresectability.

Far from the romance and glamour of pretty dresses and trysts with smouldering dukes seen in Bridgerton, the life of a woman in Regency England came with crushing pressures and harsh treatment if not done properly. It was spent under the eye of others – whether family or spouse – and subject to rigid social rules and protocols that carried immense cost should they be broken.


That does not mean that no Regency women lived happy and fulfilled lives. For many others, however, even those with every privilege that money could buy, circumstances could be miserable and inescapable. Worse still, there was no Lady Whistledown waiting in the wings to guide you to a happy ending.


Catherine Curzon is a historian of the eighteenth century. She has appeared on Radio 4's PM and her work has been featured online by BBC News, BBC History Extra and The Daily Express.