History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

08 February 2007

Regency Romance: Notes of a Reluctant Rebel

Offering some musings from my inner litcrit groupie and theory slut, partly inspired by Kathrynn’s post last week of Major Sullivan Ballou’s beautiful love letter – and also, come to think of it, by Vikki’s lacemakers and the Cheryl’s St. John's wonderful piece on the Harvey Girls…

One of the things I love about the discussions on this blog is the willingness to question the conventions and prejudices of our genre. To wonder if historical romances might be able to illumine certain less-celebrated aspects of history, to imagine stories beyond the Vicar’s Daughter Marries Duke variety.

Which I’m all for in theory. And even sometimes in practice – I had great fun at the end of the first romance I wrote, when my French hero the Viscomte d’Auvers-Raimond proposes to my heroine and announces that he’s been offered a… position (which is the best his lovely aristocratic mouth can do with the concept of “job”), after which he also confides that he’s resolved to renounce his title.

A relatively easy shot. After all, in a few more years the French Revolution would come along and he’d have been pretty pleased to be able to introduce himself as plain Monsieur Raimond.

But I must confess that after The Bookseller’s Daughter, I began to set my books in the English Regency. And the sad truth is that I’ve never found a way to go beyond that subgenre’s class conventions.

I don’t think it’s only that I've been dazzled by the glamour of Regency high life, or the fact that it's not easy to think up viable, comfortable lives for people who lived on less than, say, a thousand pounds a year (though that certainly contributes to the difficulty). Nor do I believe that the romance readership won’t buy the prospect of modest happiness (think of Nora Roberts' down-to-earth heroes; and romance readers buy Nora in some number, as perhaps you’ve noticed).

In the case of the Regency, I think that the conventions are so strong because Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer have (each in her own way) created such coherent mythologies of a society that we want to escape to. Even if it’s a society based upon a stable, formidable system of class inequality, it’s also a coherent and highly moral universe.

I stammered about this topic on RomanceB(uy)TheBlog a few months ago. At that time I was working on the idea of what I called “natural aristocracy” as a romantic trope – the Edenic dream of a world where virtue and inheritance have a natural (instead of an ironic) linkage. Everybody knows that life doesn’t actually work by these rules very often, but everybody sort of wishes it did. And what's even better is that the romantic version of the myth of natural aristocracy places love at the center of the social and political world. (Unlike the royalty or the aristocracies of her time, Jane Austen’s pairs of lovers – the Darcys, the Knightleys, etc. – wind up exerting a kind of loving parental authority from the center of their respective worlds).

But since then I've found this wonderful quote from Jane Aiken Hodge’s The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which puts the case even better:

“…her private Regency world… had snobbery built in, historical, and therefore respectable. We are all snobs of some kind, and it is comfortable to find oneself in a world where the rules are so clearly established, where privilege and duty go hand in hand, and a terrible mockery awaits anyone who takes advantage of position. This is a world, like that of Shakespeare’s comedies, where laughter is the touchstone and the purifier; where exposure to the mockery of one’s equals is punishment enough equally for Montague Revesby in Friday’s Child or Parolles in All’s Well that Ends Well.”

I adore that bit about “a terrible mockery” awaiting “anyone who takes advantage of position”: not only is our romantic Regency Eden ruled by love, but by wit. A hard act to follow, and a hard tradition to buck, going all the way back to Shakespearean comedy.

And yet the rebel in me still believes that there’s room to spread out, to democratize, to find gutsy new ways to talk about old worlds, both actual and imagined. Which Regency (or other historical) romance writers do you think have done so?

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Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

And yet the rebel in me still believes that there’s room to spread out, to democratize, to find gutsy new ways to talk about old worlds, both actual and imagined. Which Regency (or other historical) romance writers do you think have done so?

I can't remember whether it was here or on another blog, but someone recently brought up the fact that Westerns are the one genre of historical romance where relatively ordinary, hard-working protagonists are the expected norm. Of course, we all know that Westerns are a tough sell, and I have to admit they're not my favorite as a reader, because I don't seem to be wired to fantasize about ranchers and lawmen. (Make it pioneers and explorers, and I'd be on board.)

From my personal perspective as an unpublished writer...I wrote a manuscript with a common hero where the ending involved him and the heroine defying convention and the wishes of a good chunk of their families to go off and seek their fortune together. And I've got a healthy stack of "this is well-written and I enjoyed it but don't think there's a market for it" rejections. Sigh.

Anyway, I decided I had a choice between writing closer to the genre conventions or trying a new genre, and I've decided to do the latter--I've got some ideas for Regency-set mysteries and military adventure stories that I'm going to try as soon as I finish my current manuscript, since there seems to be more scope for non-aristocratic characters in those genres. Plus, as an added bonus I get to write more than one book with the same protagonist. I'd *love* to get a good 20-book series a la Aubrey/Maturin or Sharpe going.

But I do wish there was more variety in the genre. To me, there are few things more fascinating and appealing than a self-made, hard-working man or woman fighting his/her way up on his/her merits.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yes, Susan -- westerns, absolutely. Which I have to admit don't interest me (except when they were about Bret Maverick -- any of you old enough to remember that TV show?). Admitting which, I fear, makes me a very reluctant rebel indeed.

Though the Harvey Girls were interesting too.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I just have to believe there were rebellious women of the ton (or lower class) who lived what we would consider a "bohemian" lifestyle, and they managed to do so under the period's social restrictions.

I haven't read too many traditional regencies, I admit. But the newer authors who are hanging in there with this time period seem to be writing anything but the traditional Regency Duke-and-the-Vicar's-daughter. The new Regency writers' voices are almost contemporary. The heroes and heroines often have contemporary mores. Have others noticed this?

Perhaps we are on the verge. Perhaps the tide is turning and Regency readers are starting to accept new stories of the old world told in a contemporary voice (about women and men who were a little ahead of their time).

1:58 PM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

The new Regency writers' voices are almost contemporary. The heroes and heroines often have contemporary mores. Have others noticed this?

Well...speaking for myself, I don't really want Regencies in a contemporary voice and characters with contemporary mores. When I want that, I'll pick up a good contemp by someone like Jennifer Crusie or Kathleen Eagle. I read historicals of any genre for a sort of mental time travel, so I'm disappointed when I read a book where the characters seem like modern people in fancy dress. What I'd like to see, and I recognize I may be in the minority, is greater variety in setting and character type within the era, but still realistic, well-researched, and specific to the time frame of the story.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree with Susan... well, actually I agree with Kathrynn, too. It seems to me that historical fiction always rethinks the past in terms of present concerns. (Hmmm... "historical fiction"... almost an oxymoron, isn't it?) And "historical romance," I think, is a way of using the past to spin out present-day fantasies.

We like to use the past because we know that certain of their problems (say like extending the voting franchise) could and would be solved, so there's a kind of implicit happy ending and time-travel on the macro level (especially in contrast to the current problems we have no idea how can or will be solved).

But as to HOW we use the past to build a satisfying fictional world... it seems to me that each writer does it for her own purposes, and that the purposes of a mid-twentieth century Tory like Georgette Heyer will differ considerably from mine.

What I do think is important is to have a sort of semi-conscious sense of purpose, of balance, of what's satisfying to oneself and not simply copied.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Of course there were rebellious women. Just think of Hester Stanhope, Mary Shelley, Caro Lamb, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (and her best-friend/successor, Lady Elizabeth Foster, Lady Mary Cook (sp?). I could come up with a ton more if I was at home and could flip through my books. LOL!

It’s a matter of selling unusual women to editors, and then to readers. And there’s also the problem of coming up with historically plausible/realistic love stories for these kinds of women, when their real counterparts so often had rather tragic lives.

Personally, these are the kind of women I want to write about. These are the women who inspire me. My first heroine is a wild widow, the queen of the Corinthian set, etc. I have no doubt that she’d never be allowed to cross the threshold of Almack’s. She’s got money and family connections, but she’s the very definition of mauvis ton (and she likes it that way!). My second heroine is a divorcee. She, too, is never going to Almack’s. And were she to have daughters, they’d probably never make it in to the holy-of-holies, either. The heroine of my third book (which is still in that amorphous proposal stage) is a courtesan (which I know has been done over and over again, but I think—hope!—mine will be fresh).

I guess my long-winded point is that it’s about the subset of people you choose to people your world with. I’m not writing about the upstanding virgins who parade in Almack’s and the Gentlemen who court them. I’m writing about the black sheep, the social pariah’s, etc.

I find them much more interesting.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In some way, I believe the rebels of an earlier period are realer to us than the conformists, because it's the rebels who make history move forward to where we take it up. But it's the conformists who build the worlds we want to return to. How to find one's own (writerly) place within...?

12:13 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

I've always been a fan of unconventional heroes & heroines in a Regency. Sadly, they seem to be a thing of the past on shelves today. Remember Lisa Kleypas's Bow Street Runners series? I think that would be a hard sell today, and we're a little poorer for it.


3:44 PM  

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