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.
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 fashioned an ideal 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.
As the seventies wore on, Regency romances, despised as they have been by pretty much everybody in the literature world since the very beginning (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. I remember encountering one written in the late seventies, whose heroine on the first page stated proudly that she didn’t want to gain a voucher to Almack’s Marriage Mart because, and I have never forgotten this quote in all these years, “I want to actualize my personhood.”
It’s hard to imagine how Lizzie Bennet would have responded to that.
Others tended to go 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, a staple of Harlequins in the sixties and seventies, is a thing of the past in the romance world. I never understood why my mother and her friends read those by the truckload until I realized that those books actually served a purpose, surprising as it may seem, in permitting the older generation of women to read about sex guilt-free, despite a lifetime of shame-training.
There was a third type that appeared for a while: meticulously researched, and very well written in a readable approximation of period style, but the stories moved increasingly farther from the Silver Fork fantasy into grim and gritty territory, earnestly depicting the horrors that actually existed in Napoleonic era London . . . laudable for their determination to be realistic, while completely forgetting why readers choose romance in the first place.
Speaking purely for myself, when I am in the mood for a Silver Fork romance, I want wit and the elegant lifestyle that a low-born mutt like me would otherwise never get a sniff of in real life, either then or now. 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 era were very well aware of the beau monde‘s shortcomings.
I think of today’s Regency romances falling on a spectrum, with Jane Austen at one end: writing comedy-of-manners about everyday life among country gentry, 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’s first novel on the Austen side of the spectrum, for example, closer to Catherine Grace Gore, one of the earliest, and best, Silver Fork romance writers. Bridgerton and the books like it weigh on the side of the scale toward the modern end, as the narrative voice follows the hero and heroine into the boudoir.
This end of the spectrum was flourishing even before Julia Quinn penned the first Bridgerton novel (which purists held their noses over and vilified for its many historical howlers when the popular and sumptuously filmed series hit television). The complex social rules blurred, and are in some cases are outright lost, but what writers like Julia Quinn and Tessa Dare 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.
Mixing Regency romance with other genres is not new: Jane Austen has become a detective in a popular series, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had zombies interspersed into the actual text of Austen’s novel, an unlikely mix of horror and Regency comedy of manners. And as for fantasy and Regency mixes, 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.
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.
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 Patricia Rice has been publishing Regency and Victorian romances for decades. Marissa Doyle offers Regency with magic. These books offer romance and beautiful gowns and the glamour of the Regency, while being sheer fun to read.