Officially, the Regency period extends from 1811, the year George III was finally deemed unfit to rule, to the date of his death in 1820. In common practice, the term is used to refer to the era between the first Regency crisis of 1788 and Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. Poor William IV, alas, is quite forgotten – but more of this in a future post.
When we imagine the Regency we often paint a glittering, exhilarating picture – a breathless whirl of duels and dandies, balls and fast carriage rides. If you look for a work of fiction set in the period, you are more than likely to find a light, skippy, Heyer-esque romance. What has given us this misconception of a turbulent, difficult period in history? These were years of war and political upheaval with the monarchy and country in a state of dangerous flux. Yes, there may have been young women who based their worlds around sprigged muslin and ices from Gunter’s, but there are as many heedless teenagers today. Does that make our time one of peace and never-ending fun? Hardly.
Historical fiction seems to have carved out a particular “mood” for each era. The Tudor novels I have read are full of threat and illicit sex – dark, brooding pieces. Victorian works focus on the poor or the seedy underside of London; those that deal with the higher classes tend to focus on women’s oppression. If we can see the threats and struggles of these other periods, why do we waltz through the Regency as if such things never existed?
True, you were less likely to get beheaded by a capricious monarch in Regency England. But the death sentence still stood and the jails were still filthy pits of hell. The last burning at the stake took place as late as 1789, while quartering and disembowelment were only removed from the punishment for High Treason in 1814. Soldiers came back from the Peninsular war poor and limbless to beg on the streets of London. The Industrial Revolution was putting many out of work. As for women, although they were not yet expected to be “the angel at home” of Victorian times, they were still very much the property of men. They could be legally kidnapped by their husbands and beaten, so long as the stick was no thicker than a man’s thumb.
Perhaps we base the “spirit of the age” on the literature of the times. There is no doubt that the Regency was the golden age of satire. If we only read the comic novels of Fielding and look at the caricatures of the day, it is easy to imagine a period of romping joy. Many people, I know, blame Jane Austen for carving out a tidy little world inside her novels, but this is unjust. Although Austen was a gifted wit, her books are about impoverished women in the power of snobs and men. Moreover, if you look at Austen’s life, you will see more of the “real” Regency: two spinster sisters making shift with their elderly mother, reliant on the protection of their brothers. It is the same with the Romantic poets – Byron and Keats hardly made it to happily ever afters. It is worth noting that popular books of the period were not all careless, happy pieces: we have Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic horror novels, Richardson’s women under constant threat of rape and Sir Walter Scott’s historical yarns, looking back on other times as better days.
The more I consider, I begin to believe we base our view of an era on the reigning monarch. Henry VIII was both powerful and turbulent, an unpredictable force – hence the constant state of uncertainty and danger lurking in Tudor novels. Most people remember Victoria as the unsmiling widow, never amused (a great tragedy, in my opinion) – so most Victorian pieces are equally sombre. For the Regency we have the overly-emotional, extravagant, often ludicrous George IV. His parties, no doubt, were carousels of absurd games and indifferent morals – which is why we suffer from the illusion that one could get away with pretty much anything. But we have to remember dear old “Prinny” was widely condemned in the press for his actions. Only aristocrats with the influence of money and a title managed to polish over their misdemeanours and keep appearing in society, although many of them were still ruined.
So who has written a Regency novel that is not a romance? Worryingly few people. I have highly enjoyed Gregory’s A Respectable Trade (I am yet to read the Wildacre trilogy), Miller’s Pure, Griffin’s The House of Sight and Shadow and Banbridge’s According to Queeny, but most of the action takes place in the earlier Georgian period. Morgan’s Passion is worth a read – although, as you can see from the title, it is a love story, it is based on fact and not whimsical jaunts. The only book that really and truly, for me, manages to combine the tragedy and frivolity of the era in one full swoop is Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Even this starts and ends a little early – 1775 to around 1794 (?) – but it has the right feel to it. Both sides of the Janus-face time come to the fore: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”