Meet the Mad and Bad Women of Regency England

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Bea Koch, author of Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency, a work that unearths the triumphant stories of the women living and breathing during Regency-era England who were, until now, lost to history.

The cover of Bea Koch’s Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency features an 1817 British painting called “Cloak-Room at the Clifton Assembly Rooms” showing high-society men and women in stiff collars, long dresses, and white gloves. There’s a modern addition, however—namely, that the men’s faces are spray-painted out in pink, leaving only the women looking across the room, to the viewer, and at each other.

The Regency looms large in books and movies, where the era’s beautiful and dressy but still basically wearable fashions and archetypal characters (the spirited young miss! the fussy chaperone! the Napoleonic war hero! the rake!) remain perennially popular. But its actual timespan in British history was very short—9 years, to be exact. The era gets its name from Prince George assuming the role of Prince Regent, a proxy ruler, in 1811 after his father (also George!) was deemed unfit to rule due to illness. His father’s death in 1820 marked the formal end to the Regency era as far as history was concerned. But popular culture was far from through with it.

That short time period is immortalized in the works of author Jane Austen and poet Lord Byron, has an outsized presence in the universe of costume drama, and is wildly popular in the romance genre, as you may recognize from the covers of paperbacks you’ll see everywhere you look. As Koch, who is also the co-owner of the romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice and a Regency romance novel lover herself, puts it: “Austen, plus Regency Romance, equals the Regency is very popular forever.” While balls and dukes might draw some fans in, Koch argues there’s more to the Regency than wealthy white aristocrats falling in love. “We don’t talk about the other people who were existing in the same space as them in England itself,” says Koch. “If you don’t want to acknowledge that there are people of color and LGBTQ people during the Regency, people of different religions, you will hate this book.”

In Mad and Bad, Koch profiles the lives of women of color, different religions, and sexualities who achieved great success during the Regency and were all too often left out of the history books. One of her favorite chapters highlights the Jewish women of the era, like Judith Montefiore, who is believed to be the first author of an English-language Kosher cookbook. “The hero in my book is the women themselves,” says Koch; for her, the biggest takeaway of Mad and Bad is this: “You don’t have to write the history book that’s been written before.”

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