Writing the Regency Novel


I’m giving a workshop at the RWA National Conference this July (just got the times and it’s Friday at 4:30 – 5:30, so early enough to enjoy dinner Friday). And part of what I’ll cover is why set your fiction in the Regency era?

For all that it covers an amazingly short time span (1811 to 1820) the English Regency has a remarkable allure.  Mystery writers, including the great John Dixon Carr, have chosen this 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 now 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 in style, and carry things off with a high hand. Of all time periods, the allure of the Regency might well be that it was a time when style triumphed. The era sparkles with wit, gallantry and elegance in fashion, furnishings and frivolity. It was an era in which a man with no background–Beau Brummell–could become the leader of male society just because of his style and wit. At the same time, Turner was painting and shocking the world with his art, while Byron was writing and shocking society with his life. Charles Fox was being brilliant in politics, and shocking just about anyone who met him. And Sheridan was writing plays that still amuse with their wit.

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. For a gentleman to say he got the chance to spare with Jackson was considered a social coup. 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.

All this and some details of the history that you have to get right (and what can you fuss with or make up) will be covered in the workshop. But it’s worth noting that the Regency’s reflections to our era cannot be overlooked: change, uncertainty, but still the need for daily routine, and the relief of pleasure. The royal scandals filled newspapers with sympathy for the Princess of Wales, and this left the Prince unhappy about this. There were opportunities for those with vision, and at the same time great risk for those so unwise as to invest in the wrong future.  All of these qualities resonate with us. However, the Regency is blessedly in the past.  It is a world slipped into the past and therefore one with a safely known future.  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?

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