The Regency Romance: How Jane Austen (Kinda) Created a New Subgenre

In Depth

Okay, I confess: I am not attending the Jane Austen Festival purely out of love for one of the greatest novelists in the history of the English language. I’m also driven by a deep and abiding love of the Regency romance.

Of course, there’s an entire wing of the publishing business dedicated to fiction somehow involving Austen. Sequels, rewritings whether straight or from the servants’ perspectives or with zombies, books starring Jane herself—you name it, somebody’s tried it. The Regency romance is something different. It’s a thriving variety of historical fiction set during or adjacent to the nine-year period from 1811 to 1820, when King George III was deemed incapable of ruling the United Kingdom, and his son was appointed to act in his stead. Not only did it see the publication of Austen’s novels but also the end of the Napoleonic War. It’s the moment when the eighteenth century slipped into the nineteenth, Georgian transitioning to Victorian. And over the last sixty years or so, it’s a setting that romance readers and writers have revisited again and again.

A Regency habit gives you a weirdly detailed level of knowledge about a very short, very specific slice of British history. You know that Hessians are riding boots that always seem to gleam, and you know that even Wellington himself can’t get into Almack’s wearing them, and you know that Almack’s is an assembly room where marriageable misses are paraded about by their matchmaking mamas. You go riding in Hyde Park, and and you go to Gretna Green for an elopement, and you go to Tattersall’s for horses—but only if you’re a man, of course.

But how, exactly, did this period become such a hallmark of the romance genre? The Regency was Jane Austen’s time, but it’s not a straight line from Pride and Prejudice to the modern-day paperbacks.

Austen, of course, was describing with her sharp eye a very specific slice of her own time. But it didn’t take long for her era to become a stock literary setting, providing fodder for the “Silver Fork” novels of the 1830s and Thackery’s Vanity Fair. It took Georgette Heyer to turn the Regency the period into the Regency the subgenre.

Heyer was born in Wimbledon in 1902. She published her first book—the rollicking Scarlet Pimpernel-style The Black Moth—at nineteen. She’d written it to entertain a sick younger brother, but her father helped her sell it. When her father died, she found herself helping support a number of family members, meaning she had to produce, and produce regularly at that. She tried her hand at literary fiction and did detective novels as well, ultimately writing more than fifty books total, but it’s the historical fiction set in the Georgian and specifically the Regency periods that really made her name.

These novels are very, very funny. She kept writing until her death in 1974, but her style would always retain that late 1920s, early 1930s vibe, like movies made before World War II. Farcical misunderstandings abound. Girls disguise themselves as boys. People slam into rooms and slam back out of rooms. There’s no sex, but certain couples—Charles and Sophy of The Grand Sophy, Deborah and Max of Faro’s Daughter—certainly give the sense they’d like to tear each other’s clothes off. People have names like “Ferdy Fakenham” and “Frederica Merriville.” She takes the thread of “can you believe these people” running through Austen and builds it into “my God, we, the hero and heroine, are surrounded by nincompoops and morons.” The plots generally culminate in absolutely absurd and hysterical set pieces. (One such scene involves a basket of ducklings.) She described her style as “a mixture of Johnson and Austen—what I rely on is a certain gift for the farcical.”

They read like larks, but these books incorporated a tremendous amount of research. Heyer built up a substantial reference library; Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, contains pictures of her notebook, which was filled with detailed sketches of various styles of bonnets, dresses, cravats, military uniforms. Her rendering of Waterloo in An Infamous Army is famously meticulous. She plumbed books like Pierce Egan’s Life in London, with its vivid (and wacky) illustrations by Cruikshank. She had a enormous vocabulary book filled with Regency terms and phrases she’d collected, hence she’s also able to play with the slang of the period, which is perhaps the most entertaining element of her books. This is particularly on display in Friday’s Child, where characters spout ramblings like: “You can’t call me out in my own house. Devilish bad ton! Besides, of course the Incomparable is a flirt! Nothing in that! I’d lay a monkey she did it to make Severn jealous. Don’t tell me he wasn’t there! You can’t humbug me, my boy!”

But even though it’s built with a deep understanding of the period, Heyer’s is still a highly artificial clockwork world, like some eighteenth-century mechanical cabinet curiosity. And she isn’t evoking the Regency purely for the sake of evoking the Regency. Rather, she’s created a highly fanciful backdrop that shows off her characters to maximum advantage. For instance, Sir Richard, hero of The Corinthian, is a perfectly turned-out flower of fashion, typical of his time, who carries a quizzing glass and cares immensely for his cravats. But Heyer is careful to note that, “no tailoring, no amount of studied nonchalance, could conceal the muscle in his thighs, or the strength of his shoulders,” and “Above the starched points of his shirt-collar, a weary, handsome face showed its owner’s disillusionment.” And that’s just one of her heroes.

“Heyer may set her novels in an historically accurate Regency world of glittering surfaces, but the characters she puts there, particularly the heroines, are not the historical norm,” explains Pamela Regis in her Natural History of the Romance, adding that, “Heyer does not write historically accurate heroines. Instead, they have unusual notions about how to behave (as the conventional-minded characters around them are constantly pointing out) and those notions are distinctly twentieth-century.” Hence you get the eponymous heroine of The Grand Sophy driving right down the forbidden-to-ladies St. James Street, past the gentleman’s club White’s, in front of God and everybody, which would’ve given sensible Eleanor Dashwood a heart attack—and Lizzie Bennet too, for that matter.

None of which is to suggest that Heyer was progressive through and through. It’s worth noting that she moved everybody up the social hierarchy from Jane Austen, that she’s got a distinct distaste for the “vulgar,” and the class dynamics of these novels will give you a migraine. There’s a nakedly, grossly antisemitic caricature in The Grand Sophy that ruined the whole book for me—and it was published in 1950, after World War II. The biography Georgette Heyer: Anatomy of a Bestseller quotes one of her letters: “I feel very much like an old man I once knew who ranked the animal creation thus: All Englishmen. Horses. Dogs. Foreigners.”

But her angle worked, and it brought her great fame first in the U.K. and then the U.S., where her sales really took off in the 1960s. Esquire did a piece about especially dedicated fans who’d dress up like in the style of characters—sound familiar?

With fame came imitators. Publishing hasn’t changed that dramatically in the last several decades—there’s always somebody chasing success. Heyer was particularly infuriated by Hazard of Hearts, the first historical romance written by Barbara Cartland—Princess Diana’s step-grandmother and noted wearer of outrageous hats. The overlap in names with Heyer’s Friday’s Child are pretty striking: Sir Montagu Revesby and Sir Montagu Reversby, Hero Wantage and Harriet Wantage, Viscount Sheringham and Viscount Sherringham. Heyer wrote:

Strange that Miss Cartland, so well-informed on such details as the most fashionable color for breeches, and one of the most fashionable tailors of the day, should fall down on the ABC of Regency dress. Hessians were worn with pantaloons, never with breeches.

Personally, I tried to read Hazard of Hearts for the sake of research and couldn’t get past the fact that the sugary, doll-like heroine’s parents are the Marquess and Marchioness of Vulcan. Vulcan. VULCAN! My God, have a care for my blood pressure! But Cartland sold a lot of books and undoubtedly helped pioneer the existence of “the Regency” as brand rather than just a setting. What’s interesting is what happened next. Turns out you can do a whole lot with just nine years of history.

Heyer influenced an entire generation of romance writers. Several years ago, over at All About Romance, they collected remembrances from a number of them. For instance, it was a battered, beloved copy of The Grand Sophy, on loan from a coworker, that first got Judith McNaught into the genre. A couple of years later she was writing Whitney, My Love. Author Mary Balogh first read Frederica while on maternity leave. “It was such a total aura of romance,” she told me. “I don’t necessarily just mean the love story, but the whole setting and the costumes and the countryside and the social activities and the people themselves just seemed so romantic and sort of remote from modern life, I suppose, in a way.”

Two basic types developed. “There’s Regency the time period, and Regency the style,” points out Smart Bitches Trashy Books’ Sarah Wendell. The Regency the style, or the traditional Regency, is packaged more like a category romance. It’s shorter, generally heavier on the banter, and less sex, more yearning. This type took a hit in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as the steamy historical romance boomed (those authors tried all sorts of settings, from the Middle Ages to the Old West), but returned in the mid 1980s in slightly sexier form. Longtime beloved authors Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase both started out writing this sort of book. Carla Kelly used the form to write about Waterloo veterans and to expand beyond wealthy aristocrats.

Then you have the Regency as a setting, where everything goes. Starting in the ‘90s, Amanda Quick used the time period as the setting for romantic suspense. Lots of spinsters and bluestockings and capable-but-innocent misses facing off with sexy, powerful men. Chase has written a whole stack of beloved, feisty heroines in the mold of The Grand Sophy, most famously in Lord of Scoundrels. Julia Quinn ramped up the humor and imbedded her protagonists in a loving family loaded with sequel opportunities. New York Times-bestselling author Tessa Dare writes wonderfully nerdy characters and once managed to work LARP-ers into a Regency setting. There’s a new series from Avon featuring ambitious women writers as heroines which kicks off with Forever Your Earl. Author Eva Leigh (a new pen name for Zoe Archer) includes a pretty explicitly feminist discussion about how men are encouraged to take up as much space as possible, while women are told to shrink themselves.

The lines selling Regencies as a style disappeared again in the mid-2000s, though you can still buy them in ebook form and you can get evangelical’d up versions through Harlequin’s Love Inspired Historical line. But meanwhile, the Regency as a setting has become perhaps the dominant catch-all for historical romance as a whole. People write Georgians, and they write early Victorians, but “Regency” gets the point across.

Many authors are dedicated to accuracy and period detail. But at this point, the wellspring is as much a decades-long tradition as it is the actual historical record. “Obviously what we’re looking at is a simulacrum,” says Leigh. Her husband, fellow romance author Nico Rosso, calls it Planet Regency, a place with its own set of rules and customs. “It’s not the Regency period. It’s a representation of the Regency period, which is extremely different, and that varies from author to author.”

Tessa Dare—who got her authorial sea legs writing Austen fanfic—sees Regency romance as, in a way, “this big collective fan universe that has come to have its own canon.” She adds: “It absolutely has connections to real history, but I like the fact that we’re able to play with it and we’re able to twist things or use and/or subvert the rules and the canon to tell the kinds of stories we want to tell.” Hence, she doesn’t shy away from writing characters like her heroine who wants to take an inheritance and start her own brewery. “I just look at it as writing a story of a woman who might’ve or probably did exist, you know? We just never got the chance to know about her.”

“There’s this drive toward accuracy and an authentic historical experience on the one hand, and then this interest in the Regency as almost an AU for things that modern people are thinking about,” says Rose Lerner, author of Sweet Disorder. “Those things are sometimes in conflict, but sometimes they’re not.”

So: why? Partly, it’s self-perpetuating. “We have Austen and Georgette Heyer as these two sort of matriarchal figures creating an interpretation of the Regency period in a way that we don’t necessarily have for other time periods,” said Leigh. Like Tolkien, Heyer created a fictional world so sturdy that people could play with it for decades, and now generations worth of readers are familiar with it. We know our pelisses from peignoirs. But that very familiarity means authors can take the setting and do any number of things with it. Want to double down on nostalgia? Sure. Want romance without explicit sex? Go ahead. Want raunchy fucking? Go to town. Want to work that feminist agenda? Have at it. “It’s a tabula rosa. You make it into whatever it is that you want it to be,” said Leigh. Though it would be nice to see more diversity—London has always been a port city and the linchpin of a global trading network with many, many kinds of people flowing through.

But it’s also the characteristics of the Regency itself that have made the time period so captivating. It’s just close enough, and just far enough away. “It is modern enough that the way that they saw the world was not so fundamentally different than we do, in that for example if you look at say the medieval, there was a much different type of mysticism and religiosity to life,” suggested Julia Quinn. “You are able to take characters who are more fundamentally modern and much more similar to us and put them in sort of a faraway fairy tale-ish setting.”

It goes deeper than that, though. The period was brief but momentous, capturing the imagination of decades of writers and readers, making it reverberate down through the centuries. “It was almost as if society paused and took a deep breath before going into another major era,” said Balogh. And so you get this bubble in time that disappeared so quickly, and yet has proven so surprisingly durable in the cultural imagination.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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