For all that it covers an amazingly short time span (1811 to 1820) the English Regency has a remarkable allure for writers and readers. Mystery writers, including the great John Dixon Carr, have chosen the era for a setting, and the Napoleonic wars offer the setting for the popular Sharp series by Bernard Cornwell and the Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian’s. In Romance writing, the Regency is perhaps the most popular historical time period, and has launched many best-selling authors. But why should such a short time span–nine years really, although the Regency influence extends over perhaps thirty years–prove so magnetic?
Answering that question could be the target of a scholarly book, but space is limited–and time fleeting–so perhaps the best course is to emulate the Regency in brevity as well as style.
It was a brilliant era. And an era of the extremes of rich and poor, and yet it was an era in which if you were good at something, you could gain fame and fortune. The prizefighter John Jackson (1769-1845) won fame with his fists, but went on make his real fortune by teaching boxing lessons to the cream of society. The status given Jackson makes him perhaps a forerunner of the modern sports superstars. In fact, the Regency could be said to be a time when much of our modern sensibility of admiring skill–rather than inherited status–seemed to take hold.
A full answer to the appeal of the Regency era, however, must look at not just the actual time period itself, it must take into account the fiction and films which have so greatly shaped our impressions. However, let’s begin with history itself.
George III first became physically and mentally ill in 1788. His family–and his ministers–feared he would die or be forever mad, and so the government moved to create a regency bill. The argument began then about whether the Queen or the Prince of Wales would act as regent, but the entire issue was tabled when the King recovered enough of his senses in 1789. However, the instability of England’s monarchy rather seemed to mirror the instability of the world.
The revolutions of the late 1700’s–political, industrial, and social–were changing everything in England. The American colonies won independence. Across the channel, France beheaded its hereditary rulers. After going mad within its borders, France dragged Europe into a war that threatened to engulf the world. In England, open lands were enclosed, industries were remade by inventions, and the right of the landed to rule no longer seemed a given. Cities grew at astonishing rates, and dramatic changes were reflected in fashion, and in talk of sweeping political reform.
In the midst of all this, people still found time and the urge to dance, to write, to love and to sing. Society carried on with its parade, seeming to forever be seeking the newest sensation and the latest gossip. The contrasts cannot help but intrigue as one looks at the frivolity and deadly serious issues, the wealth spent and the extreme needs of the poor, the peace of England and the war in Europe.
By 1811 when King George’s illness made it clear that a regency must be established, the Queen was an old woman, and the Prince a middle-aged man in an unhappy marriage. He was also, according to all accounts, charming, vain, and untrustworthy. He was certainly shrewd and spoilt. Royal scandals filled newspapers with sympathy for the Princess of Wales.
With all this, the Regency is blessedly in the past. Somehow these people who lived then found a way to happiness, to prosperity, to joy, to survival. And what more comforting message can a reader find?
The Regency certainly brings us an allure of glamour. The elegance shines in Wedgwood ceramics, in Chippendale furniture, in Nash’s architecture and through a thousand other artifacts from that time. Film versions of Jane Austen’s works show a world suitable for Cinderella or for the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel. Dirt might be added to Elizabeth’s cheek in the Kira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice, but everyone still has their beautiful ball gowns and elegant houses.
In fiction, as in fact, even the war in Europe was painted as a fight for a noble cause to thwart a dictator’s greed. So the struggle against Napoleon becomes a stag
e whereby the best of humanity can shine against the worst of war’s inhumanity.
But each author who takes that era for a setting is really building an artificial construct–a recreation that blends an appeal to the modern reader along with history. And perhaps this idea of world-building is one of the secret draws to the Regency—it’s a world close enough to ours to be familiar but different enough that offers a charming escape. But it all starts with building a believable world—which is what we’ll talk about in the workshop this January, Writing the Regency Romance.
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA award, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
Her latest Regency romance, Lady Chance, the follow up to Lady Scandal, is out on Amazon.com. In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes the Historical romances, The Cardros Ruby and Paths of Desire.
She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and has also written computer games and offers editing and writing workshops. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at shannondonnelly.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.