History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 August 2012

Regency Land


I was reading a book the other day, set in a Regency land far, far away, and thinking what an odd thing it is, this composite faux Regency that’s been created.  In the historical romance world, the Regency has spread to encompass everything from the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars in the late eighteenth century all the way up to the ascension of Victoria in 1837.  That’s a pretty long stretch of time. 

Even within the actual Regency, which spanned from 1811, when the Prince of Wales finally wrangled the Regency, to 1820, when George III shuffled off both this mortal coil and his throne, you get a wide divergence in attitudes, styles and mores.

Just look within the Hoydenage.  My books, even though they get dubbed Regency, on the extended Regency-land principle, are really late Georgian or Napoleonic, or whatever you want to call them.  They’re set in 1803 and 1804, on the earlier side of the Napoleonic Wars.  My characters are, in many ways, still closer to the Georgians than to their Victorian descendants; Napoleon has yet to make himself Emperor, the struggle with France is still raw and new, and people are still wearing gowns that show off the lines of their legs. 

Tracy (aka Theresa) writes books set smack in the middle of the actual Regency, from Waterloo on.  That’s a very different world from the one my characters inhabit.  The Congress of Vienna has reshaped the fate of nations, Napoleon is off on his island prison, and fashion and mores have become more constricting.  That’s the vaguest thumbnail sketch of much larger divergences.  (And I'm sure Tracy could do a better job summing it up than I can!)

What I’m really talking about is that elusive sense of period or feel.  One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction is trying to get the “feel” of a period, especially when you’re dealing with sub-increments of sub-increments.  It’s one thing to make generalizations about what mores were like during the Regency, but quite another to be able to pinpoint just how 1803 felt different from 1810.

In our time, we have a very keen sense—albeit, inchoate and somewhat simplified—of what makes the 70s different from the 80s and the 80s from the 90s.  Even just within the Regency proper, to conflate 1811 with 1820 would be akin to someone blithely pretending that 1991 was just like 2000. 

How does one winkle out those elusive distinctions?  There’s no sure path, but clothing helps.  What people wore—not just high fashion, which rarely trickles down, but the outfits of the average person on the street—tells you a lot about the current culture.  Then there are contemporary novels, which, again, provide a biased view, but give you clues all the same.  Letters and diaries are even more revealing, the unmediated product of the moment.  Even so, it’s a daunting task.

Right now, I’m immersing myself in early Victorian fiction, fashion and social history for a new book set in 1849.  One of the challenges I’m finding in the secondary sources is that tendency to conflate, to say, as we do of the Regency, “in the Victorian era….”  Not very helpful when it’s an era that extended sixty-four years!

12 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

True, it's even more egregious to conflate the so-called Victorian era, as so much changed, not only within England as the Industrial Revolution, well, revolutionized, so much (except laws where women were concerned), and globally as well as the British Empire continued to expand, annexing India, etc. But even the queen herself changed. The giddy flirtatious woman who married Albert in 1840 was not the post 1861-widow who vowed to rule Britannia as Albert would have done. The young girl who stole a peel at the package inside his tight white breeches (per her diary)when they had yet to become betrothed was hardly the dumpy and dour woman who would even become uncomfortable to any references to pianos having "legs" and therefore insisted on ludicrous frou-frou dressing. And of course the fashion silhouettes changed every few years!

10:38 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Oops, somehow missed my typo, above. Meant "Stole a peek," obviously. Freudian slip. Perhaps it looked like a banana. :)

11:31 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Leslie, it's driving me nuts because I'm currently reading a book about the home in Victorian England and the examples jump back and forth between the 1840s and the 1890s! There is some attempt to distinguish between mid-century and late century, but since the book is arranged topically rather than chronologically, it takes active effort to weed out the later from the earlier.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Exactly! As somebody who writes about Victorian America, I've found it surprisingly difficult to research. For one thing, the law affecting women rights were different than in Britain. (Well, duh - but try explaining that to a copy editor or reader.) But also everyday matters like the development of the hospitality industry was totally different, as were the attitudes toward domestic cleanliness. (Uh, generalizing broadly, that is.) Plus it's hard to research for the US without doing so by region. So that one area in one decade may look the same as another twenty years earlier.

On the other hand, it does give one much leeway for author's license. LOL

12:53 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Argh, Lauren, you're talking pre- vs. post-gaslight, even! And depending on the class of people in your novel don't even expect the servants to dress or live the same way in the 1840s as they did as you approach the turn of the century. Sometimes the best social/domestic clues come from indirect narrative within novels of the era written by English authors.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Oh, and don't forget theatre of the era. I am an expert in Victorian-era theatre and forgotten plays of the era from her entire reign. I founded and ran, as producing artistic director (and actress) a 501(c)(3) theatre company in NYC called Surivor Productions whose mission was producing neglected 19th c. British plays.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

I'm hitting the Bronte and Gaskell hard-- trying to stick to the ones that are as close as possible to the year of my novel.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree Diane that researching Victorian America is difficult. I'm writing a novel set in 1895 at a women's college, and I've found that reading novels set during that time period is incredibly helpful. Also, the Oxford American History series for young adults is great because it breaks it down by decade as well as a seperate series on women's history and African-American history.

Lauren have you taken a look at Liza Pickard's Victorian London which only goes up to 1870?

6:44 AM  
Blogger Lil said...

I suspect this is one of those things you can overthink.

How much things change depends to a great extent on where you are and what kind of life you live. Major events, the kind that impact the history of the world, are apt to have very little impact on most people's lives, or at least on people's conscious perception of their lives.

Was 2000 all that different from 1991? Not for many people in any way that was important to them. And I suspect that for many people 1811 and 1820 were not all that different. Unless they had a friend or relation in the fighting, Waterloo would just have been something they read about or heard about.

Attitudes change, but not at a uniform speed and not for all people. You could have six different people in 1849 of six different ages and backgrounds, and their views on proper behavior will all be different.

Just like today.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Books that jump decades with their examples drive me nuts too. The book I'm starting now is set in late 1817 and that's quite a change in Malcolm & Suzanne's world from the three previous books clustered before, during, and after Waterloo. The whole political landscape has changed, internationally and in Britain. Another thing I try to remember is that different forces shape characters in different decades. A character who's 30 in 1807 would have been world in 1777 in the midst of the late 18th century and would have been a teenager during the French Revolution. A character who's 30 in 1817 (as Malcolm/Charles is in my series) would have been born in 1787, would have been a young child during the French Revolution, and would have turned 13 in 1800, when the bawdier 18th century was giving way, Napoleon was an established power and war with France had had been going on for years.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Ah, I love this topic. I talk about life from 1880 to 1920 on my history blog, and write in that forty year period as well, but I can see the shifts even within the same decade (look at the split between fashion in 1901-1908 and from 1910-1915)! But yes, I echo Diane and Elizabeth about researching America! Once I move beyond major cities like New York or San Francisco, it's all Greek to me! I think the important way to understand the shift in mindset is to focus on it, to understand why things changed or didn't change.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Love this topic! Sad to have missed the major discussion while I was away at Burning Man. I know in my own worldbuilding, I spend a lot of time reading about the specific set of people that interest me most (the wild Devonshire House set, those on the edges of the ton, and those that caused big scandals or lived unconventional lives), so *my* Georgian world is not going to be the same as that of someone who prefers to concentrate on the people who lived by the strict mores of the Georgian gentry or who takes their cues from Austen or even Heyer.

10:08 AM  

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