by Stephanie Laurens
To someone unfamiliar with the genre, the question fairly leaps to the eye–why, of all the time periods in history, is the British Regency (1811-1820) and its flanking time periods so frequently used as the setting for romances?
As a longtime reader of Regency romances, and as an author of 14 romances all set in the Regency, I have some inklings as to why that might be so–why romance authors and readers both find the Regency so rewarding.
First–and for a romance author very definitely foremost–the concept of love as an appropriate, useful, and perhaps even desirable element within marriage within the upper echelons of society evolved and gained acceptance during the Regency.
Prior to that time, while the concept of romantic love between a man and a woman had been recognized for centuries, among the upper classes, it had not been considered at all necessary in marriage. Indeed, in the minds of many who had lived primarily in Georgian times and were old in the Regency, the new-fangled fashion for ladies to wear their hearts on their sleeves was shocking. And even more shocking when the objects of their affections were their own husbands!
While there were rebels to this prevailing view, both in Georgian times and earlier, they were the exceptions, very definitely not the norm. While much milder “affection” was considered a felicitous circumstance within marriage and entirely appropriate, love was something else again.
The attitude against love (as distinct from affection) in marriage in all likelihood sprouted from the view that love was a potentially dangerous force, one too powerful to be allowed to influence such vital contracts as marriages then were. Marriages were the primary means of merging and
furthering familial estates, many of which were huge, politically powerful and wealthy. Divorce, and all the potential legal difficulties which could arise, or any form of marital disruption or instability, were to be avoided at all costs. Love is a force not amenable to the control of men and
their laws, it was considered too dangerous to be allowed to touch the institution of marriage. Marriage was, indeed, a civil contract blessed by the church, and as such should not be subject to emotional urges. Thus ran the prevailing wisdom.
Thus, until the Regency, marriage within the upper classes had very little to do with love. It was not only not required, but actively disapproved of. During the Regency, this changed.
What caused this fairly fundamental shift seems buried in the mists of time. But the romantic poets certainly heard the bugle call, and lent their strong and at the time highly influential voices to the push for change.
The waning of French influence on British society was one factor which not only contributed to, but was essential for, the emergence of the acceptance of love within marriage. When it came to love in marriage, the French were even stricter and more disapproving than the English (that was where the attitude had originally evolved from). While very strong during the Georgian era prior to the French revolution, and in the years immediately after, French influence on British society waned and then was eclipsed during the Napoleonic years. During this time, English fashions mirrored the change in English society, as it evolved beyond centuries of French influence, into something distinctly English.
So change came, but it came slowly–even in the 1820s and later, it is likely the majority of marriages within the upper classes were still arranged on the basis of other, unemotional criteria. But love had become acceptable–and having been let into the equation, as it were, love within
marriage was always destined to become the ideal. Very much along the lines of monkey see, monkey like, monkey do.
It could be said that the Regency is the first time we see love within marriage as we now know it, and the very fact that this circumstance was unusual–not the norm–makes it easier to highlight, easier to showcase its desirable qualities.
One aspect useful to the romance author which directly derives from this “newness” of love within marriage, is that the characters know this is not the “required” state–they could just as well marry without it. So there is also an element of “choice”–at some point our Regency hero and heroine
must actively choose to accept and pursue love, rather than do without it. This is a natural consequence of the fact that in the Regency, love was not an automatic given in marriage.
During the Regency, time was also on love’s side. For a young lady of good family, of course, there was no other desirable career–anything less than marriage was considered a failure. So young women were encouraged to spend all their waking hours considering matrimony, and their entrance to that state. As for the gentlemen, both within the ton, and in the wealthy families in the shires, there were men aplenty who did not have to work for a living, but could spend serious time pursuing the objects of their desire–or their heart. Partly as a reflection of this, the Regency was a
the time when gallantry and elegance still held sway, and where such characteristics remained the yardstick of gentlemanly behavior.
Furthermore, society considered it wise to spend time choosing and negotiating the best matrimonial alliances–hence, there was plenty of time to be legitimately devoted to courting rituals, and a plethora of suitable social events at which eligible parties could meet and explore their mutual situations. In the upper classes during the Regency, marriage was a serious business, pursued with due consideration.
By the dawn of the Regency, society itself had become distinctly English in a highly recognizable way–rules abounded. It was an extremely strictly-mannered society. At no other time in history, before or after, were there so many things that were “simply not done!”
Etiquette ruled. Period.
A lady’s reputation could be destroyed through some simple and harmless, quite inadvertent action. There were rules for this, rules for that–even rules for the exact degree of depth of curtsies, which varied according to who one was curtsying to. If you got it wrong, either too deep or too shallow, you might very well never see the inside of Almack’s.
But, like all things English, for instance, the English language, all the rules of the Regency had their exceptions.
So while there were countless rules about just about everything, there were always exceptions–this creates a very dynamic situation, where virtually every case has to be considered on its merits. If a lady walks down a street alone, is this reprehensible, or perfectly acceptable? It depends on the street, on the lady, her age and station in life, her clothing, who was potentially watching, on the time of day–and on a host of other variables.
While such a rigid but exceedingly variable social structure imposes and requires a great deal of care to be exercised by the author, it simultaneously presents untold opportunities for all sorts of situations guaranteed to a) bring our hero and heroine together, b) put them in circumstances where they have to act, or are impelled to act demonstrating their characters and c) to create satisfyingly exciting scenarios through which they move as their love develops and evolves into a grand passion.
Where, you ask, do the exciting scenarios come from?
Ah–that’s the other side of the Regency that makes it so beloved of romance authors. For beneath the glitter and glamor of the ton’s balls, behind the elegance and wealth of the upper classes and their indolent and hedonistic lifestyles, England was changing dramatically. It would never be the same again. The Regency was one of those rare times in history when an old order was being put aside, superseded, by a new order–but it all happened peaceably.
The Regency was a time of social revolution, culminating in the Great Reform Bill of 1832. This extended voting rights to the majority of adult males and restructured representation in Parliament in the most sweeping social reform of the century. It changed Britain forever.
And it’s seeds were sown and nurtured during the Regency.
It is beyond the scope of this short essay to go into the depths and breadths of the social changes, but the interested reader will find no better source than J.B. Priestley’s The Prince of Pleasure.
Suffice to say there was an awful lot happening during the Regency. And it happened against a backdrop of war, victory, an extravagant Prince Regent, a fabulously wealthy and powerful elite, an emerging middle class and an upper echelon of society who could waltz while the cannons rolled past. Indeed, as Priestley intimates, throughout the Regency there was a sense of waltzing while London burned–of living on the edge of great upheaval–of living through times that were rapidly and fundamentally changing, when the very ground of society shifted–of living life to the limits, as if there was no tomorrow.
All of this resonates with the here and now–and is, I believe, deep down, one of the reasons the Regency continues to fascinate–because, from nearly two hundred years’ distance, it holds up a mirror to our lives today.