History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 May 2007

A Darker Shade of Regency

There's recently been a flurry of discussion among Regency romance writers about beginnings and endings -- not of our books, but of our era.

Because strictly speaking, the English Regency only extended from 1811 through 1820, the period when Prinny was actually Regent. (That's him over to the left, of course, looking very stuffy.)

And yet the majority of Regency romances are set either earlier or later than that narrow time-slice, when social life was articulated by recognizeable Regency or Empire style, and political life by the war with France and its aftermath.

Elena Greene wrote an excellent post about this at Risky Regencies a week or so ago. And at least according to the discussion there, most Regency readers and writers prefer a broader definition, sometimes beginning as early as the 1790s or going as late as the 1830s, though by then the clothes get pretty awful.

And everyone agrees that the clothes are important. And that you can't beat the women's clothes of the first decade of the 19th century for sheer adorableness -- or even just for the sheerness of the muslin.

But somehow I've thus far always found reasons to set my books later -- post-Waterloo or even into the 1820s, which necessitates apologizing for the women's clothes, or at least finessing my way around them. (The cross-dressing heroine of Almost a Gentleman avoids the lower waistlines of the 1820s by wearing gowns that are several years old, the contrivance being that she doesn't dress as a woman very often, and then only in the country, where fewer people keep up on fashion.... You can't imagine how much agonizing went into setting all that up; I hope that readers didn't catch all the authorial huffing and puffing, but I'll be there were some sympathetic romance authors out there who knew exactly what I was doing.)

The time-frame of Almost a Gentleman mostly had to do with when the waltz was introduced at Almack's. But lately I've been realizing that there are other, more far-reaching, reasons why I'm attracted to the closing years of the period. Call it a kind of fascination with the later period's anxiety about change and the widespread social identity crisis. If ever there was a time, I find myself thinking, when people needed to fall in love...

I've already written about the "silver fork" novels of the 1820s, that pretended to educate the newly-rich mercantile and manufacturing classes in the ways of the ton -- even as the rules for admission and behavior at Almacks became tougher and fussier, to keep the "mushrooms" and bourgeois arrivistes excluded. Silver fork novelist Benjamin Disraeli (the same Disraeli who'd become Victoria's Tory PM) satirized the situation in his 1827 The Voyage of Captain Popanilla:

so that when the delighted students had eaten some fifty or sixty imaginary dinners in my Lord’s dining-room, and whirled some fifty or sixty imaginary waltzes in my lady’s dancing-rooom, there was scarcely a brute left among the whole Millionaires...

This is Becky Sharp's Regency, Thackeray's rather than Georgette Heyer's: a mirrored glasshouse surrounded by gathering clouds of Victorian doubt, and populated by women in dreadful dresses with "imbecile sleeves," (yes, that's what they called them, and, as you can see, quite rightly so).

For my part, I'd say the Regency sputters out by the time of the first Reform Bill in 1832. But you could also make a case for its coming to its unattractively bloated close when George IV dies in 1830, at least as reported in the journal of a Mrs. Arbuthnot (a confidant of Wellington, and I gather a trustworthy chronicler of events):

I went yesterday to Windsor to the funeral of the late King...to see the Lying in State. It was in one of the old State Rooms in the Castle. The coffin was very fine and a most enormous size. They were very near having a frightful accident for, when the body was in the leaden coffin, the lead was observed to have bulged very considerably & in fact was in great danger of bursting. They were obliged to puncture the lead to let out the air & then to fresh cover it with lead. Rather an unpleasant operation, I should think, but the embalming must have been very ill done.
Though I suppose you wouldn't want to put any of that into a romance novel.

So what do you think are the Regency's time boundaries? Do you know of similar problems in defining other historical eras? And do you agree with me that there can be something interesting, compelling, or even romantic about a fraught and in some ways not so pretty period?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great topic! I tend to thnk of the Regency in its broader terms--some historians even define it as up to 1837 (becuase there isn't really a term for William IV's rein). But of course, there are lots of changes within the period. And it overlaps with the Napoleonic era, which of course ends sooner (so that I've found myself describing some of my books as "Regency/Post-Napoleonic" ;-). One of the things that has always fascinated me about the era is the tension between the pretty, decorous side (the light dresses and elegant gentleman's clothes, the delicate porcelain,the paintings and watercolors) and the dark undercurrent of seething forces of change which some elements are trying desperately to suppress. The lingering echoes of the French Revolution, the start of the Industrial age. The stuff of conflcit and conflict always makes for good romance!

9:56 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I am sort of fascinated by the transitional periods, which is why I write very early Victorian (1840's) despite the dreadful clothing. (I get around that, because I like to think the women WEARING the dresses don't think of them as dreadful, so I don't have to describe them as such.)

I'm waiting for a lot of admonishment about my books lacking Victorian mores, but the truth was that these developed over time. There is still a lot of the Regency mindset in 1840. Mourning hasn't become an Olympic sport yet, for example.

But research is very, very tough! Every book about "The Victorian Era" is clearly speaking of the late Victorian. So I often have to start with the Regency and figure out how things evolved from there.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What I find interesting about the latter part of the Regency was how many commentators at the time (and during the next decade) seem to find it a specially interesting era. Not an especially good one -- George IV was considered one of the worst kings the country had ever had. But a specially glamorous and unique one, a kind of watershed before the country gives up its coaches for railroads and settles down to the business of industrialization.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

For me the Regency starts with the aftermath of the French Revolution. I usually cite 1795. It is a period of change in mindset that encompasses optimism, worry, even fear: for those few who want change, those few who do not. The majority go along for the ride, largely because they have no choice (vote).

My books are set between 1809 and 1815 because political conflict is overshadowed by the need to defeat the Emperor. With communication so limited I can pick and choose how much the war impacts my characters lives.

Once the war is over politics comes fully to the fore, a maelstrom of change, repressed for fifteen years by the need for a united front. Change (and the need for change) influences everyone. When you add trains and the industrial development they both symbolize and facilitate, the Regency world I love ends. Finding a date for that eludes me. Certainly by 1830.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This discussion reminds me to tell you guys about The Dickens Universe, a week-long reading event, summer-camp-for-grownups held every August at UC Santa Cruz, about 70-100(?) miles south of San Francisco.

I learned about it last year when My Son the Victorianist was one of the grad-student discussion group leaders there. He found it a remarkable, fun meeting ground of professional academics and smart, enthusiastic common readers -- with the occasional sumptuous buffet spread provided by local supporters of the project (authentic Victorian punch, amazing chichi California everything else).

This year they'll be discussing The Pickwick Papers, which was written in the 1830s and takes place in the 1820s. I'm sure it'll be hugely helpful to me, though I'm trying to convince myself to spend the money (it ain't cheap).

9:16 AM  
Blogger lacey kaye said...

I think I'm going to pick up and read a book that appeals to me, regardless of what it says on the spine.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

....And do you agree with me that there can be something interesting, compelling, or even romantic about a fraught and in some ways not so pretty period?...

I do, Pam! I love the not so pretty, but often very complelling historical details that add period sparkle in a good romance. I look for thos bits in a book, as much as I look for the romance, the conflict and the chemistry between the hero and the heroine.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I've had the opposite problem Victoria! When I pick up books about the Victorian era, they tend to focus on 1850s-1880s and pay scant attention to the 1890s(which is what I need), so I focus on anything dealing with the Prince of Wales/Edward VII.

But I consider the "Regency" to end at 1815--after that, the Industrial Revolution began its ascent that changed the political and social mores that led to what we consider "Victorian".

And going back to my period *G*, the Edwardian era is a somewhat difficult era to write because it is both modern and "Victorian" at once. Modern novelists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce wrote their early books in the 1900s, yet the sentimental, cloying romantic notions of the Victorian writers(as seen in novels by Ouida and Marie Corelli) lingered, while despite our assumptions, the tension caused by the Great Powers' maneuvering and double-dealing were acknowledged back in the 1880s. So as you see, that sliver of time(1901-1910) bursts from its "seams" much like the Regency era.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Ha! That's funny, Camilla.

I think what I need to do, personally, is spend a lot more time on literature written in the 1830's and 40's. I must have some time around here somewhere. . . Or maybe one of my boys flushed it down the toilet, never to be seen again!

10:13 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Here are some books I know of at my public library:

Charles Dickens and early Victorian England by Cruikshank, R. J

The Pageant Of Early Victorian England, 1837-1861 by Burton, Elizabeth(I HEART this book so much even though I'll only go as far as the Crimean War if I set anything prior to 1880)

The early Victorian woman; some aspects of her life, 1837-57 by Dunbar, Janet

Disraeli's Reminiscences by Disraeli, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield

The Greville Diary : Including Passages Hitherto Withheld From Publication by Greville, Charles

4:05 PM  

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