Regency Romance: Notes of a Reluctant Rebel
One of the things I love about the discussions on this blog is the willingness to question the conventions and prejudices of our genre. To wonder if historical romances might be able to illumine certain less-celebrated aspects of history, to imagine stories beyond the Vicar’s Daughter Marries Duke variety.
Which I’m all for in theory. And even sometimes in practice – I had great fun at the end of the first romance I wrote, when my French hero the Viscomte d’Auvers-Raimond proposes to my heroine and announces that he’s been offered a… position (which is the best his lovely aristocratic mouth can do with the concept of “job”), after which he also confides that he’s resolved to renounce his title.
A relatively easy shot. After all, in a few more years the French Revolution would come along and he’d have been pretty pleased to be able to introduce himself as plain Monsieur Raimond.
But I must confess that after The Bookseller’s Daughter, I began to set my books in the English Regency. And the sad truth is that I’ve never found a way to go beyond that subgenre’s class conventions.
I don’t think it’s only that I've been dazzled by the glamour of Regency high life, or the fact that it's not easy to think up viable, comfortable lives for people who lived on less than, say, a thousand pounds a year (though that certainly contributes to the difficulty). Nor do I believe that the romance readership won’t buy the prospect of modest happiness (think of Nora Roberts' down-to-earth heroes; and romance readers buy Nora in some number, as perhaps you’ve noticed).
In the case of the Regency, I think that the conventions are so strong because Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer have (each in her own way) created such coherent mythologies of a society that we want to escape to. Even if it’s a society based upon a stable, formidable system of class inequality, it’s also a coherent and highly moral universe.
I stammered about this topic on RomanceB(uy)TheBlog a few months ago. At that time I was working on the idea of what I called “natural aristocracy” as a romantic trope – the Edenic dream of a world where virtue and inheritance have a natural (instead of an ironic) linkage. Everybody knows that life doesn’t actually work by these rules very often, but everybody sort of wishes it did. And what's even better is that the romantic version of the myth of natural aristocracy places love at the center of the social and political world. (Unlike the royalty or the aristocracies of her time, Jane Austen’s pairs of lovers – the Darcys, the Knightleys, etc. – wind up exerting a kind of loving parental authority from the center of their respective worlds).
But since then I've found this wonderful quote from Jane Aiken Hodge’s The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which puts the case even better:
“…her private Regency world… had snobbery built in, historical, and therefore respectable. We are all snobs of some kind, and it is comfortable to find oneself in a world where the rules are so clearly established, where privilege and duty go hand in hand, and a terrible mockery awaits anyone who takes advantage of position. This is a world, like that of Shakespeare’s comedies, where laughter is the touchstone and the purifier; where exposure to the mockery of one’s equals is punishment enough equally for Montague Revesby in Friday’s Child or Parolles in All’s Well that Ends Well.”
I adore that bit about “a terrible mockery” awaiting “anyone who takes advantage of position”: not only is our romantic Regency Eden ruled by love, but by wit. A hard act to follow, and a hard tradition to buck, going all the way back to Shakespearean comedy.
And yet the rebel in me still believes that there’s room to spread out, to democratize, to find gutsy new ways to talk about old worlds, both actual and imagined. Which Regency (or other historical) romance writers do you think have done so?