How to Learn What
Regency Gentlemen Knew
By Cheryl Bolen
It is difficult for those of us in the twenty-first century to possess
the knowledge our Georgian heroes possessed. As members of the
aristocracy, they had studied with private tutors since the age of four
or five. They were fluent in Latin and most could read Greek. They knew
the ancient scholars as well as contemporary boys know baseball and
football. Regency-era gentlemen spoke French as well as they spoke their
native tongue. Most of them had undertaken the Grand Tour throughout
Europe, and many had ventured as far away as Turkey, India, or Egypt.
Few of us today connect with the ancient Greeks and Romans as did those
in Georgian England.
But it is now possible to — without laboring for years over Greek and
Roman classics — to gain a cursory understanding of the knowledge our
heroes possessed. For there is a succinct “cheat sheet” readily
available on the internet.
This cheat sheet (actually about 90 pages) is an appendix of Lord
Chesterfield’s Letters to Son, which has been digitalized by Google.
The entire collection of the peer’s letters, edited by Oliver H. Leigh
in 1901, is available by linking from Google’s home page, to the second
page, then clicking on books.
The letters to Lord Chesterfield’s illegitimate son and only offspring
were published upon his lordship’s 1773 death and were widely read.
To compensate for the disadvantages of the boy’s birth, the father
attempted to give the boy every advantage he could in education and
spent years writing long epistles to the poor lad, instructing him in
every phase of deportment.
What is especially useful to those of us who write about the era is the
information contained in the last section of the work, the appendix,
These letters covered the decade ending when the boy was fourteen. In
them, Lord Chesterfield provides instruction from which most of us can
The Trojan Wars — which raged for ten years and which are treated in
millions of words elsewhere — are encapsulated into a couple of pages by
Lord Chesterfield’s ability to simplify into descriptions readily
comprehensible to a young boy.
Likewise, Lord Chesterfield explains the founding of Rome and the
chronology of its early rulers. He does the same for the history of
England, giving a brief paragraph to each English ruler, as well as to
the island’s earliest inhabitants. For example, “The Romans quitted
Briton of themselves; and then the Scotch, who went by the name of the
Picts (from pingere to paint), because they painted their skins...”
The juvenile letters also list the twelve provinces of France and
briefly tell what the capital city is of each and what the province is
noted for. He similarly describes Asia, Germany, and many other
geographical regions so that the modern reader (us) will have the same
knowledge of 18th century geography that our heroes and heroines would
have had, ie., “Indostan, or the country of the Great Mogul, is a most
extensive, fruitful, and rich country. The two chief towns are Agra and
Delhi; and the two great rivers are the Indus and the Ganges. This
country, as well as Persia, produces great quantities of silks and
cotton; we trade with it very much, and our East India company has a
great settlement at Fort St. George.”
Here is another example: “The Lord Mayor is the head of the city of
London, and there is a new Lord Mayor chosen every year; the city is
governed by the Lord Mayor, the Court of Alderman, and the Common
Council. There are six-and-twenty Alderman, who are the most
considerable tradesmen of the city. The Common Council is very numerous
and consists likewise of tradesmen...The Lord Mayor is chosen every year
out of the Court of Aldermen. There are but two lord mayors in England;
one for the city of London, and the other for the city of York. The
mayors of other towns are only called mayors.”
Lord Chesterfield stresses that such knowledge as he is imparting to his
son cannot be found in books, nor can it be studied in school. Because
of his book of letters (never intended for publication), now we can
profit from his vast knowledge.
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in