Tuesday, March 6, 2012

GUEST POST Madeleine E. Robins on Regency Romance

I wrote Althea, my first book, because I needed something to read.  I think most readers know that feeling: you look around wanting a particular something and you cannot, in that moment, find it.  What I wanted was more Georgette Heyer, new Heyer; but Miss Heyer had recently died, and there would be nothing new from her any more.

I discovered Georgette Heyer's books in high school, and read her entire oeuvre, including her medieval books and her mysteries; what I really loved were her Georgian and Regency romances.  They were witty and sparkling and filled with nifty sense of the time and place, and unlike most of the period fiction I had stumbled over up to that time, they weren't Victorian; call it aesthetic preference or just cussedness--the Victorians don't speak to me.  But the Regency, as depicted by Heyer, was bright and frothy and delightful.

Then I encountered Jane Austen, and fell into an entirely different and deeper love; Austen writes of love and money but without Heyer's fascination with the nobility of the nobility (virtually none of the titled characters in Austen are admirable).  Austen is deadly funny, observant, and firmly rooted in a real time and place (my favorite line in Sense and Sensibility comes at the end, when the heroine and her husband are so happy that "they had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows.").  I went through a brief period where my passion for Austen kind of spoiled Heyer for me.  But I got better.

And I became curious about the Regency.  I knew there was a Prince Regent, but I wasn't really clear why, or why it mattered, or why there was a whole period named for him.  So in college I took courses in English history, and started reading around, and a whole world opened up to me.  The Regency has everything. Okay, I suppose all periods have everything--heaven knows the Georgian and Victorian eras on either side of the Regency had plenty going on.  But the Regency has the Napoleonic Wars, the Romantic poets, famine, the rise of enclosure, new science, new technology, a burgeoning middle class, the beginnings of a police force in London, a shift in attitudes from the passion rationality of the Enlightenment to a more romantic sensibility that would eventually find its peak of sentimental expression with the Victorians.  What's not to love?

So what was the Regency?  George III was still king, but had been afflicted off and on with a disease (it is thought to have been porphyria) which made him periodically irrational.  He had had one severe bout of madness in 1788, but recovered.  In the first decade of the 19th century he began to slide into insanity again; he was in his sixties (the average life expectancy in England 1800 was 40), half blind, and now mad.  Asking the heir to the throne to be regent--to act in his father's place--seems like a no-brainer.  But there were politics, both familial and national, that got in the way (I have a great sympathy for the man who would become George IV) and despite the King's infirmities, it wasn't until March of 1811 that a Regency bill was passed in Parliament and the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent. 
Technically, then, the Regency lasts from 1811 to 1820, when George III died and the Regent became George IV.  But for purposes of Heyer, and my own Regency writing, I'd say it's more like 1795-1825.  In costuming terms, roughly from the rise of the Empire silhouette and a more informal, more relaxed style (related very directly to the rise of the Romantic movement) to the beginnings of that odd top-heavy broad-shouldered look in the 1820s.

In terms of manners, the Regency is a fascinating mid-point between the earthier manners of the 18th century and the fetishistically refined manners of the Victorians.  But even with the more relaxed standards of the Regency, one thing did not change: the place of, and expectations of, women of the middle and upper classes.  Marriage was a tool for the preservation of property; it was virtually the only career open to a woman of good family; and if a woman had little money or property to bring with her, she'd damned well better bring virginity and a pristine reputation.

Austen and Heyer both, in their own ways, focus on this.  The rules and penalties were understood, and it was only a very naive woman, or a very privileged woman, or a remarkably strong-minded woman, who went against them.  It is hard for modern audiences to understand how devastating it is to the Bennet family when Lydia elopes with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice: not only does Lydia cast her own "virtue" aside; she calls into question the upbringing, moral fiber and marriageability of her sisters as well, and her sisters must marry or be reduced to grinding genteel poverty.  Heyer, who places most of her characters in the nobility or upper tiers of society, seems more concerned with the social costs of misbehavior or eccentricity.  Austen (who writes from her experience as an unmarried gentlewoman) knows just how precarious a woman's situation could be--she concerns herself with the clash between the need for money and the desire to love one's mate.

The older I get, the more interested I am in this stuff: convention and the punishments for transgression.  In writing Point of Honour, the first of my Sarah Tolerance books, I wanted to take a woman of good family who had (rashly) thrown away her virtue, and find a way for her to survive in a Regency society, unlikely to marry but unwilling to become someone's mistress or a prostitute.  Fusing noir mystery with Jane Austen (with a dash of Heyer) let me do that, and situate my stories in a London that is grittier and more dangerous than anything in either Austen or Heyer.

But when I wrote that first book I wanted glitter.  I wanted froth.  I wanted the glitz and pleasure of dazzling ballrooms and gorgeous clothes and being able to think of the perfect rejoinder before the other person leaves the room, and the comfort of an uncomplicated happy ending.  Much as I love Austen, when I wrote my first book I wanted Heyer's Regency.  Thirty years later, I still think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to want.

From Deborah: You can find Madeleine's delicious Regency Romances at Book View Cafe or Powell's bookstore online

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