THE BEST OF TIMES; THE WORST OF TIMES

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“May you live in interesting times.”

This line sounds like a blessing, but I’m told it was meant as a curse and had its origin in Ireland—or China—or India—or ??? Regardless, “interesting times” resonates as a description of both the Regency and our own period. The parallels, which are not particularly positive, are astounding.

During the Regency, England was embroiled in distant wars that had already gone on for years, drawing resources from domestic matters. Urgently needed social and political reforms—e.g., child labor and broadening the electorate—were delayed for decades by a fearful, increasingly conservative Parliament that was more interested in its own power and personal wealth than in serving the people. Think immigration and election finances. England’s “rotten boroughs” were not unlike the gerrymandering we see in America today.

England was then entering a period that would see it as the richest, most powerful nation in the world for the next hundred years. Yet that wealth and power did not “trickle down” to any degree. It remained with what amounted to the top 1%. The contrast between the obscenely rich and the desperately poor became even more stark. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer. Let them eat cake.220px-BrummellEngrvFrmMiniature

Public attention then, too, was diverted to such important matters as the elaborate wardrobes of the social elite. People were as obsessed with certain purveyors of style as some are today with whom (not what) Kate or Michelle is wearing. Never mind their good works—what is in their closets or on their backs? Afternoon promenades in a London park must have been very like the “red carpet” circuses we see monthly (weekly?) now—only without the gushing of a Joan Rivers. Beau Brummell was surely the fribble equivalent of the Kardashians.

The industrial revolution changed where, when, and how people worked—and played—just as profoundly as technology is changing our lives today. Displacement and uncertainty were side effects then, too.

May you live in interesting times . . .

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