Regency Romance–still new after 200 years

Regency painting

Regency romances have been a “thing” since the Silver Fork novels of the 1830s, which I suspect Georgette Heyer grew up reading.

I started reading Heyer as a teen, which taste combined with my love of the Hornblower series by C.S. Forester and Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree  , sparked my interest in early modern Europe. That was cemented when I discovered Jane Austen.

Before long I began to discern the difference between Austen’s Enlightenment-era comedy of manners and Heyer’s unabashed glory in Silver Forkness.

desiree

And that was okay, because both writers were doing different things with escapism: Austen envisioned an ideal of human behavior imbued with Christian principles and forbearance, reserving her satire for those who fell short, and Heyer an idea social hierarchy where birth will always tell, but one must play by the rules to win happily ever after amid title and riches, and satire was aimed at the audacity of the social climber.

As a high school student, I found my solace at the library. When I’d read all of Heyer’s work, I, like so many of my age-mates, went on to look for more like that, and discovered Clare Darcy, Sandra Heath, and Barbara Cartland (my dip there didn’t last very long; I thought her book were awful, though her life turns out to have been fascinating) and others.

fridayschild

As the seventies wore on Regency romances, despised as they have been by pretty much everybody in the literature world (Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was written as an anti-Silver Fork novel; P.G. Wodehouse pokes his quill more gently into them in one of his Bertie and Jeeves novels written in the thirties), began modernizing, too.

That is, Regency romance writers began moving away from the manners toward the sexy adventures gaining so much popularity in the romance world. Unfortunately for readers like me, many of them read like the authors were not doing period research at all, but relying on Heyer for their world-building.

I took a decades-long hiatus from Regency romances when I encountered three in a row whose errors were painful on the first page: in the first, the young lady said that she didn’t want to gain a voucher to Almack’s Marriage Mart because, and I have never forgotten this quote in nearly forty years, “I want to actualize my personhood.”

It’s hard to imagine how Lizzie Bennet would have responded to that.

regency buck

The second one introduced the hero as nearly seven feet tall, powerful build yadda yadda, his name something like Lord Blayze or Lord Blayne, the leader of fashion, wearing “a flowing green silk suit.” What? No. Men did not wear silk leisure suits to balls at the height of the Regency. Nor did they address young ladies by first names, or introduce themselves. Those mistakes were all in the first two pages.

The third one began with an arranged marriage, and went straight into wedding night rape-fantasy.

I’d rather not get sidetracked into the ravishment/rape issue, especially as so often the loudest critics haven’t actually read a romance in forty years—if at all. The fainting virgin clinging to her purity while the Evil Slut tries to steal her brutally-kissing lover is a thing of the past. Thank heaven.

The Harlequins of the seventies and the historical bodice rippers for my mother’s generation functioned basically as a free pass for enjoying sex, that is, if the good girl didn’t consent she wasn’t bad for enjoying it “in spite of her traitorous body.” You saw that phrase a lot in seventies Harlequins.

Anyway, aside from the Regency romances with sketchy world-building, I also encountered one too many that went in the direction of Sandra Heath, at the opposite extreme: Heath’s books were meticulously researched, and very well written in a readable approximation of period style, but the stories were moving increasingly farther from the Silver Fork fantasy into grim and gritty territory.

drawing room caricature

When I am in the mood for a Silver Fork romance, I want wit and the elegant lifestyle that a mutt like me would otherwise never get a sniff of. That means I am not in the mood for grim and gritty ultra-realism. I get a far better sense of the real life of the time by reading period letters, memoirs, fiction and non-fiction; people of that time were very well aware of the beau monde‘s shortcomings.

Anyway, for these various reasons, I stopped reading Regency romances for at least a couple of decades.

So it was only a few years ago that I discovered that with the rapid growth of the internet, and Regency readers who still liked Heyer and the Silver Fork comedy of manners vociferously pointing out errors in etiquette, titles, fashion, etc, the range of Regency romances has been evolving. In both directions—that is, world building (manners) and romance tropes (hero and heroine meet, fall in lust, hustle to the sheets ASAP).

I think of today’s Regency romances falling on a spectrum, with Jane Austen at one end: writing comedy-of-manners that happens to have a romance, Georgette Heyer in the middle, writing a mix of comedy-of-manners in the Silver Fork style, but with passionate kisses before the curtain fades, and at the other end of the spectrum, basically modern people doing a sort of Regency cosplay—you get the silks and stately homes, dukes and the ton (a word that seldom shows up outside its original meaning of ‘style’ in actual period, but which Heyer made de rigueur), but the titles don’t always follow the strict-but-convoluted rules, and the young ladies have more freedom, and more modern outlooks, and a whole lot more bedroom adventures, than Fanny Burney or Jane Austen or Eliza Haywood ever dared give their heroines.

I see Susannah Clarke on the Austen side of the spectrum, for example, closer to Catherine Grace Gore, one of the earliest, and best, Silver Fork romance writers. Jo Beverley near Heyer, but on the side toward the modern end, as the narrative voice follows the hero and heroine into the boudoir.

The comedy of manners derives out of knowing the rules of society. It could be that today’s reader doesn’t care much for the more old-fashioned comedy of manners—on the Austen side of the spectrum—as examples of these are getting harder to find. (It’s interesting to see what my two get paired with on book sites with “If you’re read . . ” algorithms) At Book View Cafe here, Madeleine Robins offers several in the Heyer mode, and Patricia Rice, who has been writing as long as Jo Beverley, is midway between Heyer and the modern mode.

what I did for a duke

That end of the spectrum is flourishing. In many books the complex social rules blur, and are in some cases are outright lost, but what writers like Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan drop in the precision of period language and custom they gain in getting their titled heroes and silk-gowned heroines bantering with a mix of modern and Heyerian humor between passionate bedroom scenes, a bewitching combo for their dedicated and enthusiastic readership.

An example I read last week is Julia Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke, which opens with the heroine’s brother climbing into the bedroom of a duke’s fiancée—to be caught in flagrante. The duke shows up at the brother’s country house, forcing a visit on his parents, in order to exact revenge by seducing then dumping one of his relatives . . . a plot that could have sunk fast into melodrama, except Long gives us a savvy heroine who, despite being in love with another guy, is onto the duke fast.

The banter (and the duke’s style of revenge on the brother) is absolutely delicious, and of course the second half ventures into the bedroom for long and passionate scenes. There were period bobbles—for example, the duke continually addresses one young lady by her mother’s title—but the readership is either unaware, or just doesn’t care. They’re in it for the fun of the story, and the veneer of a lifestyle none of us will ever attain.

Mixing Regency romance with other genres has also been taking off. The magical Regency is not new: Sorcery and Cecilia, which came about as a letter game between writers Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, has stayed in print over twenty years.

magic-manners

You have to pretty much accept the juxtaposition of magic and England’s complex social structure at the outset, though five minutes’ contemplation would suggest that had England had magic, European history would have gone in very different directions. Something that Naomi Novik did take into consideration with her Temeraire  series, but then she wasn’t working from a Georgette Heyer model so much as Patrick O’Brian mixed with dragons.

Jane Austen has also been getting her share of genre mixes as well, the latest one I know of being C.E. Murphy’s Magic and Manners, which just came out a few days ago. She’s using Pride and Prejudice as a model here for her magical Regency romance.

Anyway, here’s a place to talk about the variety and why they work for you, if you like reading these. And as always suggestions and recommendations for other readers to find.

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Regency Romance–still new after 200 years — 16 Comments

  1. Fascinating essay, Sherwood!

    I was forced to read Jane Austen in high school (and am consequently of the opinion that teenagers should be forbidden from reading her work). Never picked up Georgette Heyer (not enough horses). My gateway back to Austen was the first film adaptation I saw, and after that I dove into the novels.

    I have mixed feelings about the various Austen mashups. Most of them are dreadful, and I say that in blissful ignorance of historical inaccuracies. They’re dreadful on their own terms. Occasionally, though, I find one that generates the same endorphin release as do the originals, and I wish Austen herself had lived another 50 years.

    Perhaps in the Hidden Library of Alexandria…

    • I sometimes wonder what she would have thought of who her work has reached and why. Like Kipling’s very strange story “The Janeites.” And one of the fiery revolutionaries in Paris translating one of her works as solace, while in prison.

  2. I remember being So Very Disappointed during a Regency craze in the ’80s at how inaccurate and ill written the Heyer imitations were. At least Georgette was good for a laugh. Miss Jane Austen repays repeated reading. Echoing Deborah J. Ross’s wish that we had had fifty productive years more!

  3. Judging by her work though, Austen would have remained an entrenched Tory, as she and her family always had been, through those 50 years if she got them. (As, of course was Charlotte Bronte and her father — one sees this particularly in Shirley — oooofff, the class prejudices in that one, as in Emma!)

    It would have been so interesting though to see what she’d have made of George Eliot, who was anything but Tory, and certainly not CoE. One could no more imagine Austen writing a Silas Marner or Adam Bede than a Mill on the Floss. Students, compare and contrast Scenes of Clerical Life with the curates’ scenes in Shirley — which are the best in the confusion that is that novel. When it came to social commentary, observation and sympathy, Bronte was no Gaskell, and no more was Austen.

  4. Mary Robinette Kowal also writes Austen-esque fantasies. From what I’ve read in her articles about it, her research is fairly meticulous and she only uses words found in Jane Austen’s original novels.

    • I only read the first one, which had some problems (mostly the borrowings from Austen without the wit, and some customs fumbles), but others I know have really liked this series. Say it gained as she became surer of the period.

  5. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell contains elements of Austen, as well as O’brian, but, oh, I’m too tired tonight to sort through my thoughts on it.

  6. Had an author to recommend but got distracted immediately by Jonathan Strange reference.

    Ah I remember. CARLA KELLY did a run of extremely good, faithful-to-period, self-researched Regencies, with more grit, yes, but as much absorbing charm as Heyer, and with much more fascinating, fast-driving plot lines. I have actually forgotten to get up from the table and go to a doctor appointment because I was reading a Kelly novel. SUMMER CAMPAIGN is the grittiest I read, and also the most heart-stoppingly good. Her shorter Regency novels (title example Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind) are charming and much lighter. Kelly stopped writing Regencies when the Signet “category” (no sex) Regency line was cancelled…got lured back to do some fatter (though still no sex) Regencies with another publisher…and gave up Regencies again for, sigh, Amish romance. I’m sure I’ll love one when I start reading it. Because it’s a Kelly.

    But Jonathan Strange was a really odd book. Susanna Clark’s novel came out the year my first novel Trash Sex Magic came out; it was all over Book Expo, which was where I got my copy. The author came under fire for leaving out the women, to the point where she wrote her next book, they say, all about women characters, but I haven’t got around to it yet. It’s written in intensely Austinian style, which is in my heretical view pretty turgid. That said, I LOVED this book, and was enchanted by the ur-magic hinted at throughout the story and revealed at the end, practiced by the most famous of ancient British magicians. It’s a form of nature magic, of course, with that peculiarly British twist of being deeply, deeply married to place.

    • It is written very close to late eighteenth century style. Sentence structure was so different then, with punctuation considered wrong now, dangling modifiers left and right. I think one has to get used to that to see the wicked-sharp humor–wit, really–that makes Austen still readable today.

      Jonathan Strange was a tour de force in marrying that style to contemporary rules.