Great Regency Book Sites
Definitive Fan Website for Georgette Heyer
Great Books Index--Jane Austen
An Appreciation for Gerogette Heyer
The Beau Monde
The Official Website for Elizabeth Mansfield
Regency England – The Enduring Drama and Passion
For many years I have heard of the impending demise of the regency novel. Amongst complaints of not being able to purchase these books at Wal-mart or even some big chain book stores, loyal readers and writers of the genre have long lamented how disrespected and how little appreciated these books are by the publishing establishment. Despite the dire prophecies and the disappearance of various lines, Regency novels have not gone away. They have been repackaged and redirected over the years to reflect the greater sophistication of the romance market, but this very narrow genre, which has for so many years, followed its own peculiar rules of structure and plot has refused to die.
Strictly speaking the Regency era in Britain encompasses the years between 1811 and 1820, but in more general terms can include the years from 1800 to 1830. What makes this short span of history so compelling? No doubt much of its fascination can be attributed to the talents of Jane Austen (1775-1817) who first immortalized Regency high society in such widely read novels as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Not only did these novels so explain and portray the meticulous moral and social code of the early 1800's, but they employed well-crafted plots, strong characterizations and witty dialogue. Similar expectations exist for the authors of today’s Regencies. Georgette Heyer, an English writer, is attributed the founder of the modern regency romance genre. As a great admirer of Jane Austen, she studied the Regency era, and beginning in 1935 with the best seller Regency Buck , continued to write these Regency novels until her death in 1974. Soon after her death, many other publishing houses and writers produced and marketed regency novels of their own, continuing both Austen’s and Heyer’s practice of suspending sexuality in favor of clever repartee between hero and heroine.
The largest factor, however, contributing to the popularity and endurance of the regency romance novel is the exciting period of history in which these novels take place. It was a time of war, violence and massive social upheavals, but also a time of great economic and cultural promise. In these days artists such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Sir Walter Scott produced great works of literature. Marvellous advances were being made in technology by such men as William Hedley, who built the little train known as Puffing Billy, and Charles Babbage, who built the first calculator. Before the end of the era, steam ships had come into usage, and photography and the telegraph had been invented. London was known as the most sophisticated and prosperous city in Europe. Overlaying these events was the Prince Regent himself, whose own life bore the paradoxes of intellect and indulgence which characterized the era named for him.
In 1793 revolutionary-torn France went to war with England. This war broadened into a massive European power struggle when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France, and most of Europe was soon drawn into the conflict. Hostilities between France and England were to last another 22 years, ending with Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. At the start of the war Britain’s incrasing isolation, as countries such as Italy, Spain, and Holland were brought under the French banner, served to unite the British population and gave them pride in the role of leading the resistence to French European domination. But this long, drawn-out conflict with its stifling of world trade and greater taxation brought about tremendous economic hardships for the lower classes of society and political instability for te country at large. After the war, conditions worsened with the homecoming of soldiers and a succession of crop failures. These pressures brought about the Corn Law of 1815 which made wheat unaffordable for the common citizen. On the other hand the law greatly enriched the large landowners while their workers’ rents increases and their wages decreased. Riots erupted throughout the country and led up to the Massacre of Peterloo in Manchester where eleven people were killed and 400 wounded.
The Regency era is remembered as a time where low morals and dissipation were cocooned within the weave of a rigid social code and high culture. During this time upper class society often judged another man’s worth by not only his title and linage, but also by the shine of his Hessian boots, the cut of his clothes, the quality of his horses, and how fast he could drive a carriage. Well-bred men and women enhanced their political or economic situations by advantageous marriages acquired through a London season, or what was more popularly referred to as “the marriage mart.” A marriageable young lady had to carefully mind her behavior and bone up her social graces lest any of the great society matrons term her “fast,” and therefore ruin her place in polite society. Most important to a girl’s chances of success was a voucher to Almacks granted by the patronesses, social leaders of high society such as Lady Jersey, Princess Lieven, Lady Cowper, Lady Castlereagh, Mrs. Drumond Burrell, and Princess Esterhazy. While these ladies demanded conduct beyond reproach from the young ladies they approved, some of these patronesses dabbled in extra-marital affairs. But shch behavior was forgivable as long as one were married and discreet. Society gentlemen gambled away huge amounts of money at exclusive men’s clubs such as Wite’s or Brook’s and openly cavorted with their mistresses at Vaxuhall Gardens or at balls hosted by members of the not-so-respectable demimonde. Society and fashion revolved around the Prince of Wales, who was a man of great charm and education, but who suffered from great moral and financial excesses.
The Regency of George, Prince of Wales, began officially in 1811 after King George III’s final bout with insanity. Since November of 1788 King George had suffered periodic bouts of a hereditary disease of the blood now known as porphyria which has several different symptoms and can affect its victims in a variety of ways. In King George’s case these bouts would render him demented, violent, and completely unable to perform his functions as king. Immediately following the death of his favority daughter, Amelia, in 1810, King George fell ill never to recover. He lingered on, hidden away from the public for another nine years.
The Prince Regent, known to his contemporaries as Prinny, had been in his youth a handsome and charming man much adored by society, but his social excesses, his wild spending, his strained relationship with his father, and his corpulent form later made him a subject of scorn and ridicule among both the aristocracy and the common people. In 1785 he had secretly and illegally married the Catholic widow Maria FitzHerbert and then because of monetary pressures abandoned her to marry his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The Prince was disguested by Princess Caroline because of her lack of refinement and bad personal hygiene. After a child, Princess Charlotte, was born to them nine months later, both the Prine of Wales and Princess Caroline lived apart, and later on, amid much scandal and a long, involved trial, the Prince tried unsuccessfully to divorce her. Unfortunately for the Prince, the public took Princess Caroline’s side.
The Prince Regent who was crowned George IV in 1820 ended up being one of the least cherished monarchs in English history. When he died ten years later in1830 he was little mourned. Despite his faults the Prince Regent was a man of great intelligence and refinement who did much to advance British culture and science. He employed the great architect John Nash to design a street between Carlton House to Regent’s Park. Nash also built the prince’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The Prince Regent also restored the Royal Collection of pictures and urged government to form a national collection of art. He was president of the Royal Institution of Science. He knighted such prominent scientists as Humphry Davy and William Herschel. The Prince Regent was also a great supporter of the war effort with France and used his political influence to see that those in Parliament who wished to compromise with France did not succeed.
The end of the Regency Era brought about many fundamental changes to Britain. Its industrial base was emerging and a new class of wealthy industrialists was being created. As the Nineteenth century drew on, ancient titles and peerage mattered less and less. Values in the coming Victorian age became stricter and family, hard work, and philanthropy held greater value. The Regency Era was aristocracy’s last gasp -- its finale where it flaunted not only its excesses, but its inconsistencies, and it is these inconsistencies that give the regency author endless fodder for conflict, intricate plots and colorful characters.