At home with the Austens

13th February 2004 at 00:00
A new reality TV programme into Regency society life offers fascinating insights. Heather Neill reports

Jane Austen makes no secret of the necessity in her society for anyone not born to wealth - women especially - to secure a fortune by marriage. She lays bare the rigid social hierarchy and the dire consequences of transgressing accepted codes of behaviour. But what of the everyday needs of people in early 19th-century England - the food, the purity (or otherwise) of drinking water, toilet and bathroom facilities?

Channel 4's Regency House Party - a series of eight programmes, along the same lines as Edwardian House Party - places 10 marriageable men and women in Kentchurch Court, a 14th-century mansion in Herefordshire that has been restored in Regency style. For nine weeks last summer, the group lived under the watchful eyes of chaperones, their host and the supposed owner of the estate Chris Gorell Barnes, and a professional hostess, the formidable Mrs Rogers. The house had no electricity, modern plumbing or means of communication. Footmen and maids - mostly trained students on an informative working holiday - came in daily and helped to keep their "betters" on track.

The Regency characters (each of whom is accorded a status, according to wealth and title, approximating to that of their 21st-century selves) are constantly watched by television camera crews and the experiment is something of a game. Essentially, it's up-market reality TV.

Producer Caroline Ross Pirie, a former art and English teacher, is passionate about education. She says: "Television is not a good information medium, but it can be inspirational. It can make another period relevant and show us that the people were not very different from us. Think what a difference this understanding of behaviour could make to a reading of Jane Austen. My hope is that it will send people back to the literature of this particularly rich period."

Some of the participants found adjusting to the contraints of class and gender well-nigh impossible. Great care has been taken over accuracy in clothes, furnishings and mores. Everyone had to become accustomed to using chamber pots, eating carnivorous meals in the early evening, avoiding the drinking water, and dressing carefully for dinner in the requisite layers of linen and lace. The men even had ale for breakfast. The ladies bathed modestly in floaty muslin and the lowliest might well have to make do with someone else's water.

The women were obliged to live a very restricted life while the men learned to hunt, fight and compete in the Regency version of athletics. If the Regency characters made little attempt to match the gracious language of the period (some scenes are dotted as copiously with expletives as Big Brother), a helpful voice-over constantly puts things in historical perspective.

The male house-guest considered to have the poorest financial prospects is newly qualified teacher Mark Foxsmith, of the science department at Writhlington School, near Bath. He is cast as his near-equivalent in Regency England - a younger son obliged to make a career in the Church and as a tutor.

Mr Foxsmith (everyone is formally addressed at Kentchurch) comes into his own during a science-themed programme. He even makes a prototype bicycle - a velocipede - for the men to race (no brakes, no pedals - very dangerous and great fun), and transforms the guests into a human orrery by placing them in the relative positions of the planets. He enjoyed learning from special guest Professor Gunther von Hagens (famous for preserving bodies by plastination). Anatomy was much discussed at the time, as dissection was beginning to be allowed. "They used to think the human liver had three lobes because the pig's has," says Mark.

The house guests received no training and were not required to act: Caroline Ross Pirie says the participants learned more by watching someone fumbling with unfamiliar ways of doing things.

Mark found the experience had a profound effect: "After nine weeks I was horribly more polite. I was very frustrated at the lack of scientific information - I missed the internet - but I learned to slow the pace of life. I missed shampoo - I use less now - and I liked using sealing wax. I put it on my Christmas cards and now I use it in lessons as an example of a non-reversible reaction."

The accompanying book is packed with information for anyone studying the history or literature of the period, whether or not they watch the programmes.

Regency House Party Channel 4 at 9pm, Saturdays from February 14www.channel4.comregencyhouseRegency House Party by Lucy Jago Time Warner Books, pound;18.99.

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