Best of the Blog: The Romance of the Regency

Editor’s Note: Sherwood Smith’s posts always draw a lot of conversation in the comment section, but this on regency novels was particularly popular. It first appeared in 2010.

I discovered Georgette Heyer in high school, after reading an entire issue of the fanzine Niekas devoted to it, somewhere around 1967-8. At that time I hadn’t yet read Jane Austen, though I’d loved historical novels ever since I checked out Mara, Daughter of the Nile in grade school. My favorite by ninth grade was Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree, based on real people during the Napoleonic period (though I was to discover it was every bit as romanticized as most of the memoirs penned by the surviving principals later on) so I was instantly intrigued.

The first Heyer I read was A Convenient Marriage, and as Horry was a year older (she was all of seventeen) I had no problem with her romancing a world-weary Earl in his mid-thirties. From then on I had to read them all. My library only had four or five, so for several weeks I walked the three miles to the stop for the downtown bus, which was almost a two hour ride one way, to check the Los Angeles Main Library, where I found a gold mine—they had everything, even the ones she later suppressed (though I could immediately see why, young as I was).

I was thoroughly entranced.

When I was done with those, I looked around for anything like them, encountering (as did many of my agemates) Barbara Cartland, then Clare Darcy, and others. Regency romances took off in the wake of Heyer’s popularity, which zoomed when her books began to appear here in the States in paperback. Those seventies Regency romance writers seemed to be doing their research in Heyer’s novels, often not only reproducing her plotlines, her character types and dialogue patterns, specifically the slang. It got so that when the young heroine admonished her best friend, or her scamp of a brother, or a tall, sardonic handsome hero not to make a cake of themselves, you knew a Heyer plot was coming. The question was, which one?

In college I discovered Jane Austen, and it was as if a door had opened where before I’d had a peephole. I devoured those novels, I devoured her letters, then I devoured all the novels she must have read, and the plays, and publications like Spectator, and moved on to collections of letters and diaries. When I came back to Heyer, which I often did as a comfort read, I began to perceive the differences not just in dialogue, but in paradigm.

The Regency Monde

Gradually I worked past Austen’s era, and discovered that the Regency bucks, beaux, and dangerous ladies became objects of fascination in the 1830s, in spite of Lady Blessington’s interview with Byron, who by that time had been away from England so long she found him quaint and slightly peculiar in his old-fashioned Bond Street beau clothes and his out-of-date idiom.

There is something about the Regency period that has remained fascinating down to today. Such events as the Cyprians’ Ball of 1818 could take place, at which people of high degree mixed with low, capturing the imagination with a bewitching mix of arrogance, raffishness, style, and glamor. The London of high society during the Regency was graced by buildings and furnishings of brilliant artistry, without being scarred (unlike Paris and the rest of Europe) by twenty years of war. High society during this period was looser than the days of stiff crinolines and satin coats, yet language was somehow more refined: by 1818, ‘mistresses’ or ‘women on the town’ (such as was mentioned in Pride and Prejudice) were ‘tender connexions’ and ‘Cyprians’, words like ‘bowels’ and ‘cholic’ were no longer acceptable in the drawing room, and women were no longer ‘breeding’ but ‘in the family way.’ This refinement was not so much of moral nicety as of social boundary. Above all, the time was filled with remarkable personalities, captured not only in various romans à clef, but in the anecdotes of Captain Gronow and others.

One of these personalities was Lady Caroline Lamb, who penned a roman à clef of her own, called Glenarvon, in which she enthusiastically skewers every one of the high ranking people she knew personally, to their gasping dismay and fulminating rage when the book came out—and sold out. Her chief target was Lord Byron, with whom she’d had an affair as brief as it was stormy. The novel includes his last letter to her, a high-handedly pointed effusion making it crystal clear she was being dumped. Harriette Wilson insists she discussed this letter with Byron, and he said he deliberately made all those letters as ridiculous and melodramatic as possible. Maybe it’s even true!

In Glenarvon, Lady Caro gleefully inserted herself as a classic Mary Sue not once but twice, first as the helpless innocent with whom everyone is in love, and so who gets to die a tragic and beautiful death of consumption, throwing the world into mourning, and also as the Byronically tragic female war leader, who gets a Byronically dramatic death as she rides off a cliff. (Modern audiences will feel sorry for the horse.)

Silver Fork Novels

The first Regency novels were launched by Henry Colburn, who made his name in publishing by instituting such well-known works as Burke’s Peerage. He made a killing in fiction by schmoozing bored aristocrats and aristocratic wannabes into writing novels. Since in those days most novels, especially by women, were published anonymously, he just had to let gossip get out that someone “high” was coming out with a roman à clef. Not only was that an assured sell for the middle classes, who apparently had an endless appetite for the high life and the low life, but it also assured sales among the beau monde who wanted to see who was caricatured in it—after they made sure their own name wasn’t there, either in easily penetrated cipher, or by the coy em-dash, as in Duchess of D——e.

Propelling taste for insider info on the high life was courtesan Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, published after she systematically blackmailed all her former clients, saying “pay up or I’ll put you in a book.” When Wellington, among others, said “Publish and be damned,” she was as good as her word. Those memoirs are entertaining now, though hardly what modern audiences would consider scandalous. Like all lady memoirists of the time, Harriette strove to present herself as ever young, frail, largely innocent, and of course of impeccable ton.

Lady Charlotte Bury, Henry Luttrell, Lord Normanby, Robert Plumer Ward, and T.H. Lister were among Colburn’s lofty authors, and Theodore Hook and Benjamin Disraeli among the wannabes. Hook’s lavish, admiring descriptions of dinners among the high and mighty prompted a critic to mock him, giving birth to the “silver fork” label; Thackeray later lambasted Bulwer-Lytton’s penchant for lionizing high society, calling him a “silver fork polisher.”

Silver fork novels might contain an element of satire—there were two novels about Almacks, both called Almacks, castigating it as nothing but a marriage mart for aristocrats—but underneath the caricatures was a sustained and unquestioning admiration for birth, riches, and exclusivity. The most risible satire is bestowed on instances of mauvais ton; otherwise, authors hadn’t a thing to say against flagrant consumption, as long as it was done with style.

Country house parties, risqué behavior, gambling, and duels filled the pages, though central was always an edifyingly “good” heroine and if the young hero began his life with careless abandon, he was sure to repent just enough to marry and settle down by the end of his three volumes. It is true that there were exceptions. Lady Charlotte Bury, in A Marriage in High Life, sees to it that the immoral Lord Fitzheury, who marries a banker’s daughter and then rejects her on her wedding night in favor of his mistress, dies of consumption after too late recognizing his wife’s purity.

But none of these reached the pinnacle of popularity of Edward Lytton Bulwer’s Pelham, the Adventures of a Gentleman, which came out in 1828, and firmly established the silver fork subgenre.

In the first chapter, Henry Pelham’s mother is about to run away with her lover, the most popular rake in London, when she flits back to get her overlooked china dog. There she meets her husband on the stairs.

“I have observed,” (says Henry Pelham), “that the distinguishing trait of people accustomed to good society, is a calm imperturbable quiet, which pervades all their actions and habits, from the greatest to the least; they eat in quiet, move in quiet, live in quiet, and lose their wife, or even their money in quiet; while low persons cannot take up either a spoon or an affront without making such an amazing noise about it.”

The couple carry on as if nothing happened, except that Mr. Pelham senior introduces the rake to Brooke’s Club, and invites him twice weekly to dinner for a year.

People nowadays who have only heard of Bulwer (or Bulwer-Lytton, as he soon styled himself, acknowledging his mother’s wishes) via the contest for the worst opening sentence, assume that he was a terrible writer. Bulwer-Lytton was actually extremely popular throughout the nineteenth century, and had far more influence than one might think.

His influence begins with this novel. In a move that I suspect was influenced by Goethe’s Werther, Bulwer has Henry Pelham’s stylish mother tell Henry in an impishly Chesterfieldian letter that he looks better in black than blue. Henry (who of course has the ideal slender, aristocratic physique) instructs his valet from now on he will wear black coats day and night, and without any padding. Thus, the Regency tight, padded blue coat with its golden buttons, made fashionable by Beau Brummel, overnight became outmoded. For pretty much the next hundred years, men wore black coats for formal wear, and without padding.

It took me many years to get a copy of the 1828 edition, which he later smoothed a bit to make it more family friendly, when he rebranded himself as a writer of great fiction. And his contemporaries considered him a great—in his autobiography, Anthony Trollope discusses the prominent writers of his day. Bulwer is fourth after Thackeray, Elliott, and Dickens, and before Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins, and others.

In his early twenties, full of wit and eagerness to please the great hostesses of the day (early in the novel there is plenty of praise for Lady Caroline Lamb, one of the hostesses who launched Bulwer into society), Bulwer set out to make a name for himself. And he did, with his insouciant wit that must have been an influence on Oscar Wilde:

“There was also Mr. Wormwood, the noli-metangere of literary lions—an author who sowed his conversation not with flowers but thorns . . .he had never once been known to say a civil thing. He was too much disliked not to be recherché; whatever is once notorious, even for being disagreeable, is sure to be courted in England.”

And this famous line, spoken by the Brummel character whom Pelham meets, “Give me the man who makes the tailor, not the tailor who makes the man.” Georgette Heyer later made use of this line.

Shortly after Bulwer hit the bigtime, the silver fork novel reached its pinnacle with the works of Catherine Grace Gore, in which high life was brilliantly mixed with wit and an eye to complexity of character, and sympathy for women trying to make a place in the dangerous world of what by then became known as the haut ton. Silver fork novels continued to be popular, though later in the century, writers shifted them up to contemporary times. A couple of examples are E.F. Benson’s Dodo and Anthony Hope’s Dolly Dialogues.

I don’t think Jeffrey Farnol fits into the silver fork tradition except at the edge, but he was definitely an influence on Heyer with his adventurous historical novels. Finally, I think Nancy Mitford’s work is in the silver fork tradition, glorifying the lifestyle of the Bright Young Things, which is another influence I see in Heyer’s work.

So when Heyer began zeroing in on the Regency period, I think she took all these influences and reinvented the silver fork tradition. I don’t know if anyone else sees the connection; one of the reasons why I write these riffs is to check my ideas against others’ perceptions. But when I went back after some years of reading all these novels, I was struck by a resemblance between Mitford’s work and Heyer’s, specifically the cadences of language, and the outlook: Mitford wrote about Bright Young Things with the charm one remembers of one’s youth. Heyer wrote about them with the charm of one who admired that life, only she sets them in Regency garb, and gives them Regency era slang instead of the distinctive twenties “too-too sick-making” idiom. But, like twenties Bright Young Women, Heyer’s heroines show a tendency to use male slang, specifically that from Pierce Egan’s popular works, which you don’t actually find much of in Austen or her contemporaries. They also show the twenties freedom from constraint, though they are still ladies of birth and breeding.

In Austen’s Northanger Abbey the Thorpe sisters speak in female idiom, which is quite different from that employed by the Thorpe brother. The latter uses a few terms familiar from Pierce Egan’s work, and Austen shares her contemporaries’ disgust for the habits of some teenage boys of otherwise good birth who loved acting like coachmen, boxing the watch, and behaving like ruffians. In Heyer’s novels, the younger brothers take this behavior sometimes to an extreme degree while remaining lovable, like the wild young men of the Bright Young Things; also during the twenties, young women of birth adopted male dress, and male habits like short hair, smoking, driving, the wearing of trousers, and young men of their class found that attractive. Heyer’s heroes seem to find male slang and outlook attractive in her heroines, though in Austen’s contemporaries, females behaving similarly are universally made fun of. (Austen writes about all kinds of women, but none ever drive a perch-phaeton, fire off a pistol, or dress in breeches.)

Ton: Austen vs. Heyer

Whether or not my theory about Bright Young Things holds any water, the element that truly places Heyer firmly among the silver fork novelists is her persistent theme that Blood Will Always Tell. This is very much in the silver fork tradition, going right back to Pelham. Though one could call Bulwer’s witty prose Austenian at times, I think Jane Austen would have objected to the matter-of-fact way that the narrator ridicules his host, while accepting his generous invitation, in a passage like:

“Sir Lionel Garret was a character very common in England, and, in describing him, I describe the whole species . . . It was no wonder, then, that to this set belonged Sir Lionel Garrett . . . pinched in, and curled out—abounding in horses and whiskers—dancing all night—lounging all day—the favourite of the old ladies, the Philander of the young . . . He cared not a straw that he was a man of fortune, of family, of consequence; he must be a man of ton; or he was an atom, a nonentity, a very worm, and no man. No lawyer at Gray’s Inn, no galley slave at the oar, ever worked so hard at his task, as Sir Lionel Garrett at his.”

Pelham then goes on to ridicule the company that he will triumph over with his social finesse. Austen would have despised such hypocrisy. The only two aristocrats she presents in a good light are Mr. Darcy (not Lord; he is the nephew of an earl through his mother) and his cousin, Col. Fitzwilliam, the latter being the earl’s youngest son who must follow a profession. We know how Darcy has to change before the daughter of a country gentleman will agree to marry him. Without exception, the rest of Austen’s aristocrats are stupid, vulgar, boring, and arrogant. Heyer reserves that kind of opprobrium for social climbers.

I think that Heyer’s Bright Young Things in Regency dress succeed so well because they bridge the gap between the Regency paradigm and that of the twentieth century. I just don’t see any of Heyer’s favorite heroine types in the actual Regency, though there are some shared traits. For an example of the most radical Regency young women—the closest to modern times—one might turn to Claire Claremont’s journal or letters. She doesn’t even remotely talk or behave like a Heyer heroine. Even less does Mary Shelley. Reading their journals, one is struck by how much female attitudes have changed in 200 years.

Heyer’s great strength is her plotting and humor, but her characters are pretty much types (she even admitted it, calling her heroes Mark I and Mark II) with superficial differences. They seldom have depth: her attempt at a ‘serious’ Regency, including middle-class people (A Civil Contract) reads (at least to me, though I know many readers disagree) like melodrama, with a lot of just the sort of ranting that Austen pillories in a couple of her books.

That is the most telling difference between Heyer and Austen for me: Austen disliked tonnish behavior. She certainly knew the word, but in all her novels she uses it just once, in chapter nine of Mansfield Park, when the tonnish Mary Crawford is twitting Edmund Bertram on his determination to become a clergyman. Miss Crawford says such men are nothing. Bertram retorts that they are hardly nothing, though “A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress.”

Here, as in Bulwer-Lytton’s work, and indeed, most letters and literature of the actual Regency period, ton means ‘tone,’ or style. Heyer’s novels refer to the haut ton, a noun comprising her upper ten thousand, a change in the meaning of ton that I don’t see widely adopted until well into the silver fork period.

Jane Austen is accepted as a genius. Is Georgette Heyer a genius? If she is, it is a different kind than Austen’s. I think Heyer’s genius was in successfully creating an alternate Regency that is the epitome of the silver fork novel, that skillfully blends past with present so that character, story, and even paradigm are easily accessible. Heyer was a meticulous researcher, immersing herself into literature of the period, down to every detail of dress, something again that you do not find in Austen, who, in writing about her own time, assumes that everyone knows those details. There are few hints about clothing in Austen’s novels, outside of Fanny being complimented on her white gown with the glossy spots in Mansfield Park. Heyer gets rid of what she doesn’t like about that period, and gives her reader what makes Jane Austen so popular for so many readers: the agreeable life of the upper reaches of society, the tranquil existence that never sees the horror and anguish and squalor of the manufacturing cities.

Heyer created the ideal Regency haut ton—that is, ideal for aristocrats. When she does permit the ugliness of early industrial life and the grinding misery of the poor to enter a novel (Arabella), or the nastiness of economic underpinnings (any book that mentions Jews) she wisely confines it to single instances that she can have her heroine or hero solve, then she whisks the evidence out of the way so that the reader stays firmly in her secondary universe, and does not start thinking about the tragedies of reality.

Heyer’s reinvention of the silver fork novel was so convincing, enchanting, and pervasive that Regency romance readers for many years expected the plots to follow the same general lines as Heyer laid down, the characters to resemble her types, and Heyer’s distinctive slang to be faithfully reproduced. And it is still pretty much the case. Readers who love Heyer’s novels know that there can never be any new ones, and so they turn to authors who write similar books in order to extend the pleasure they find in the originals.

Besides discussion among those who know Heyer, Austen, and the period, what I hope this riff might spark is an interest in the real Jane Austen and her contemporaries, if one has enjoyed the various Austen-related movies and mashups. Jane Austen invented the modern novel, by quietly but effectively breaking through the eighteenth century stereotypes and writing about real people, with real reactions, with insight, and wit. If a person has read enough Heyer and others who emulate her, he or she ought not to find Austen’s language impenetrable, and will probably be able to comprehend the wit. Anyone who loves, say, Friday’s Child ought to laugh out loud at the absurdities of Mrs. Norris, or enjoy the sly selfishness of Isabella Thorpe—or recognize how John Dashwood, so continually worried about his position in society, becomes more servile than his servants.

Sherwood Smith’s Book View Cafe books can be found here.


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4 Responses to Best of the Blog: The Romance of the Regency

  1. Mary says:

    women were no longer ‘breeding’ but ‘in the family way.’

    Ah, yes. I still remember the Victorian writer fulminating that women were no longer “with child” or “growing round-wombed” but that pretty little euphemism “pregnant.”

    I remember it particularly because I had read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, where when the children are read the Christmas story about Mary being “great with child,” one class trouble-maker shouted “Pregnant!” to much consternation at such blunt language.

  2. pilgrimsoul says:

    I enjoyed Georgette Heyer and suffered great disappointment looking for similar enjoyment from other Regency Romances. I realized that she was imitating the originals and largely got away with it. Those who merely imitated her fell flat.
    But no one can imitate Miss Austen.

  3. Cindy says:

    Georgette Heyer was unique. Her books were interesting and humorous. So many romance, especially Regency romances, take themselves way too seriously. In that respect, she was similar to Austen. And thank heavens she did take the effort to describe things from the Regency era because thanks to her we can visualize a dress, carriage or party from that time. I found Heyer in high school and I’m eternally grateful I did because it was the 70′s and in the midst of all the insanity and changing morals, there was this writer who talked of a place that was different and interesting and with humor. There was too little of Austen for us and I would much rather read Heyer than most of the modern knock-offs of Jane Austen.

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