It is a truth universally acknowledged that a modern woman, in possession of her own fortune, must be in want of a bit of good old-fashioned passion. Helen Harlotry is the goddess of all those who have an irrational longing to experience the lifestyle and passion of the Regency Era. A condition known to psychologists as “Austalgia”. She is a famed divine beauty, known for her pert opinions and fine eyes. She is a virginal goddess, as yet unwed. One prospective celestial consort declared that she was, “tolerable I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Helen Halrotry is the eldest of the sixty-nine sister goddesses of romantic fiction. (You may have heard of her slightly more mainstream sister, the erotic and racy Melisande Boon – The Goddess of the Ripped Bodice.)
Most people expect the temple of Helen Harlotry to be located in one of the renowned Regency towns, such as Bath, Buxton or Brighton. In fact, it is happily situated in a park in Mansfield. This hallowed hall has a graceful neoclassical white stone façade adorned with a cornucopia of columns, built in the style of the architect John Nash. Atop the roof sits a small cupola which houses the temple bell. When rung, this bell goes, “Bingley-bingley-bingley.” The temple has two doors. Above one it says, “Entrance”, above the other it says, “Other way Mr Collins.” Once you are inside, you will find over a hundred elegantly furnished sitting rooms where worshippers can partake of the holy afternoon-tea ritual or receive gentleman callers whilst suitably chaperoned. Past these salons, at the heart of the temple, is a capacious, chandeliered ball room. Helen Harlotrians like to hold big balls. If you also tour the arbours and bowers of the grounds, you may be lucky enough to spot their 224-year-old pet tortoise, Mary Shelley. No one is sure whether this sacred ancient beast really is that old, or if they just keep reanimating her.
Whilst within the temple, followers of Helen Harlotry must adhere to strict rules of dress and etiquette to ensure an authentic early 19th century ambiance is preserved. Ladies must wear elegant empire line robes and carry a parasol, dance card and fan at all times. Gentlemen must adhere to a minimum side-burn length and meet a mandatory breech-tightness requirement. There is a secret, heretical sub-sect known as the Bridgertonians who like to bend or even outright defy these laws. For example, by sneaking classical arrangements of modern pop songs into the Temple String Quartet’s repertoire. They are lead by the mischievous Lady Danbury, who considers this to be riotously funny. Devotees of Helen Harlotry take great pride in their authenticity and many nurse a violent prejudice against the Bridgertonians. In return the Bridgertonians consider the orthodox members of the faith to be rather “High in the instep.” To avoid persecution from these less light-hearted folks*, Bridgertonians identify one another by secret signs and symbols. Such as the covert wearing of synthetic fabrics or hiding bee motifs in their costume designs. You may wonder why these iconoclasts run the risk of being scorned and ostracised. Apparently, it is all worth it just to watch Regé-Jean Page slowly lick a spoon.
Should you wish to join the cult of Helen Harlotry, you must either be a single man in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wife, or an impoverished yet accomplished maiden with little but her charms to recommend her. Gentlemen who are prepared to give consequence to ladies who are slighted by other men are particularly welcome. The initiation ritual for gentlemen involves stripping off down to their shirtsleeves and going for a dip in the lake, whilst the female members of the sect stroll along the lake shore and loudly exclaim, “Mr Darcy!” when he emerges. The initiation rite is different for female neophytes. They must go for a walk, get thoroughly soaked in an unexpected thunderstorm, and almost die of the apparently inevitable fever.
The worshippers of Helen Harlotry are keen on ball games. That is, games played at balls. The most popular of these is known as “Lady Catherine’s Condescension”. The game is played to music. Players must take a turn around the room and use persuasion to dash the wood into the nether field. It is improper for ladies to partner the same gentleman for more than two turns (unless they have “an understanding”). If, during the game, virtue is lost by a female player, it is irretrievable. By contrast, gentleman players are allowed one opportunity to restore their reputation and continue play. Players who commit multiple fouls (known as indiscretions) are exposed as the worst of libertines and sent off (usually to fight Napoleon). The game ends when everyone is married.
No one is precisely sure why this period of history evokes such passion and nostalgia. Maybe it is because it is one of the few eras when high fashion looks not only stylish, but also wearable and vaguely comfortable. However, not even the most devout followers of Helen Harlotry want to live full-time in Regency mode. The general consensus is that, whilst era is nice to visit in spirit, you wouldn’t want to live there. Even if you were minted. After all, no matter how much money you have, you can’t buy penicillin if it hasn’t been discovered yet. Once their religious devotions are complete, they are happy to be able to return to their 21st century rights and freedoms, but with a refreshed appreciation of their modern privilege and a prayer for their sisters around the world who are yet to achieve emancipation.
*Helen Harlotrians are not totally humourless. They have a version of the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke which begins, “Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Susan Edmonstone Ferrier walked into the Pump Room at Bath…”
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