The enduring popularity of the regency romance is one of those things that we take for granted as a romance community. I haven’t considered why, but a tweet from Lawless asking about why Regency was the default for historical romance got me thinking.
Yes, Heyer, Austen and Cartland are part of it. Anglo-centrism too. But as Lawless asks, why not the Victorian era? All of the above is unsatisfactory – it’s effect, not cause. While Austen was writing in her own contemporary time period, why did Heyer, Cartland, then numerous others choose the Regency?
I think there are four critical issues here: Reputation; Nationalism; Simplicity and Consistency.
The Regency is known as a time of excess. The extravagant lifestyle of the Prince Regent is infamous. This makes it a great time period for light, funny, easy stories with rose tinted glasses about the past.
The Victorians weren’t known for being raunchy. Google says the Victorian era was “characterized especially by prudishness and a high moral tone”. It’s certainly a time when moral campaigners concerned themselves as much about covering the naughty bits of statues and stopping the demon drink as improving working conditions. Of course, one of the reasons there was so much concern about saving people from vice was that there must have been plenty around.
Whatever the reality of the Victorian era, the extended mourning of Queen Victoria and her squeaky-clean emphasis on Christian and family principles has left Victorian as synonymous with boring. Not the right sort of thing for a raunchy romance.
Heyer wrote her first Regency romance in 1935 and continued to write one a year until 1974. Cartland was writing in the 1920s to 1960s. Notice anything notable about that time period? I know right? World War 2 and then the Cold war. In times of national danger, there is comfort (rightly or wrongly) in looking back at settled and successful time periods. And what better than the defeat of Napoleon?
It’s no coincidence that the regency features a war between the English and the French, in particular Napolean. The enduring interest in Napoleon and the importance placed on the victory against him can’t be underestimated. (There was a bad incident recently where Brits crowed about beating Napoleon, and the French didn’t think it was cool.) Although the main market for romance is Anerica now, the original category romance publisher was Mills and Boon, catering to a British market (there is a fascinating history of M&B and Harlequin, well worth reading). Cartland and Heyer were both English. Given the time and place historical romance developed in, it’s not surprising that historical romance has the tropes it does.
The early 1800s were a time at the end of the “idilic” pre-industrial period, before the industrial revolution really took hold and wrought major social, economic and technical changes. This was a time that can be thought of as simple, when Dukes were all-powerful, women fitted into defined gender stereotypes. Was it, really? Obviously not. But there are comforting absolutes which appear to be compatible with the Regency.
By comparison, the Victorian era is full of complications and contradictions. It’s a time of extensive change and industrial revolution. The paradigm of the woman’s sphere as the home is mainly founded at the same time that Victoria was Queen-Empress. You only have to read Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy to see the plethora of serious issues prevalent in Britain in this era.
The Regency is short, just 1811 to 1820, so fashions are clearly defined (except some variations, but sorry history buffs, they are small). In part, this was a result of the short time period, and in part probably the war prevented changes propagating from the continent. The result is that you have a very defined time period and readers know exactly what to expect from Regency.
By comparison, the Victorian period is enormous, spanning 1837 to 1901. It would take me 100 blog posts to scratch the surface of the changes that occurred in that time period. Early Victorian settings are totally different to Late Victorian, in every aspect, like dress, lifestyle and politics.
Romance readers chase sensation – the “feels”. They buy more of the same author to chase the same feels and they chase the same themes and settings to get the same feels. We see this in small town contemporary, vampire stories, etc. So consistency is key in this. Once Heyer and Cartland established Regency as a key historical romance era, it continued as readers and writers sought to recreate this.
So that’s my thoughts. Simplicity, Consistency, Nationalism and Reputation. What else do you think influences the prevalence of Regency in historical romance? What is it you like about Regency romance?