Ton (le bon ton)
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"The ton" is a term commonly used to refer to Britain's high society during the late Regency and the reign of George IV, and later. It is a French word meaning (in this sense) "manners" or "style" and is pronounced as in French ([tɔ̃]). The full phrase is le bon ton meaning "good manners" or "good form" – characteristics held as ideal by the British beau monde.
The term le beau monde (pronounced [bo mɔ̃d]), literally meaning "the beautiful crowd" (but here meaning "fashionable people," or "fashionable society"), was similar to le bon ton during the nineteenth century.
"The ton" has also been used to refer to the Upper Ten Thousand of later 19th-century society, including most of the peerage, aristocracy and wealthy merchants or bankers of the City (of London).
Ton society was intensely class-conscious and the social hierarchy was rigid. Class standing was determined by birth, wealth, titles, and other factors, such as:
- Peers and their families
- Middle Classes
- Artisans & Trades people
- Laboring Poor
Members of the ton came from the aristocracy, the gentry, and of course, royalty and monarch(s). Though some wealthier members of the middle classes might possibly have married into the lower ranks of the gentry, such unions would not have been completely accepted by the elite ton. Social positions could be altered or determined by income, houses, speech, clothing, or even manners. Climbing the social ladder could take generations, particularly into the aristocracy, who did not readily accept those perceived to be of inferior birth into their ranks.
Circles considered "best"
Fashion, etiquette, manners, social customs, and many other aspects of social life were all dictated by the ton. The ton's generally acknowledged leaders were the Lady Patronesses of Almack's who, during the Regency, included Lady Jersey, Lady Sefton, Lady Cowper, Lady Castlereagh, and Mrs. Drummond Burrell. As London's most exclusive mixed-sex social club, Almack's represented the best and wealthiest among the ton. The conventions of ton life were highly structured and complex, and difficult for anyone born outside of the highest circles to fully understand. Social acceptance was crucial and based primarily, but not exclusively, on birth and family. Acceptable social behaviours were different for men and women; these behaviours were based on an intricate system validated primarily by the patronesses of Almack's, who determined who could be admitted to the club's functions. Some of these behaviours were flexible– they adapted slightly with the fashions of each season– but they always reflected the current modes of manners, fashion, and propriety.
The privileged members of the ton could pursue an opulent, extravagant life of indulgence, but there were often double standards for its members. The flexibility of social rules was unofficially determined by an individual's status, wealth, or family connections. Royalty were forgiven for almost any transgression. For example, scandalous activities such as having illegitimate children or conducting extra-marital affairs might incite gossip, but were often overlooked for members of the aristocracy. However, such conduct among the gentry could destroy an entire family's social aspirations.
The Season was the name given to the months between late January and early July. It officially began when Parliament re-opened in London and was an endless parade of social entertainments – balls, theatre parties, dances, masquerades, military reviews, and many other social pleasures to be enjoyed by the ton. Families with marriageable children used the Season to present their children to the ton in hopes of arranging profitable marriages. For this reason, the Season has also been referred to as the "Marriage Mart" by notables such as Lord Byron. For marriageable girls, the Season was an intense period of social networking in which any misstep or breach of social etiquette could spread through gossip circles at Almack's like wildfire and have potentially ruinous effects on her marriage and social prospects within the ton.
- Hughes, Kristine (1998). Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England: From 1811–1901. Writer's Digest Books.
- Murray, Venetia (1998). High Society: A social History of the Regency Period, 1788–1830. Viking.
- Margetson, Stella (1971). Regency London. New York: Prawger Publishers, Inc.
- Kloester, Jennifer (2005). Georgette Heyer's Regency World. London: William Heinemann.