I was reading a book the other day, set in a Regency land far, far away, and thinking what an odd thing it is, this composite faux Regency that’s been created. In the historical romance world, the Regency has spread to encompass everything from the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars in the late eighteenth century all the way up to the ascension of Victoria in 1837. That’s a pretty long stretch of time.
Even within the actual Regency, which spanned from 1811, when the Prince of Wales finally wrangled the Regency, to 1820, when George III shuffled off both this mortal coil and his throne, you get a wide divergence in attitudes, styles and mores.
Just look within the Hoydenage. My books, even though they get dubbed Regency, on the extended Regency-land principle, are really late Georgian or Napoleonic, or whatever you want to call them. They’re set in 1803 and 1804, on the earlier side of the Napoleonic Wars. My characters are, in many ways, still closer to the Georgians than to their Victorian descendants; Napoleon has yet to make himself Emperor, the struggle with France is still raw and new, and people are still wearing gowns that show off the lines of their legs.
Tracy (aka Theresa) writes books set smack in the middle of the actual Regency, from Waterloo on. That’s a very different world from the one my characters inhabit. The Congress of Vienna has reshaped the fate of nations, Napoleon is off on his island prison, and fashion and mores have become more constricting. That’s the vaguest thumbnail sketch of much larger divergences. (And I'm sure Tracy could do a better job summing it up than I can!)
What I’m really talking about is that elusive sense of period or feel. One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction is trying to get the “feel” of a period, especially when you’re dealing with sub-increments of sub-increments. It’s one thing to make generalizations about what mores were like during the Regency, but quite another to be able to pinpoint just how 1803 felt different from 1810.
In our time, we have a very keen sense—albeit, inchoate and somewhat simplified—of what makes the 70s different from the 80s and the 80s from the 90s. Even just within the Regency proper, to conflate 1811 with 1820 would be akin to someone blithely pretending that 1991 was just like 2000.
How does one winkle out those elusive distinctions? There’s no sure path, but clothing helps. What people wore—not just high fashion, which rarely trickles down, but the outfits of the average person on the street—tells you a lot about the current culture. Then there are contemporary novels, which, again, provide a biased view, but give you clues all the same. Letters and diaries are even more revealing, the unmediated product of the moment. Even so, it’s a daunting task.
Right now, I’m immersing myself in early Victorian fiction, fashion and social history for a new book set in 1849. One of the challenges I’m finding in the secondary sources is that tendency to conflate, to say, as we do of the Regency, “in the Victorian era….” Not very helpful when it’s an era that extended sixty-four years!