In Search of the Real Regency

Regency In my search for good historical reading, I’ll admit that I’m sometimes guilty of something. I’ll moan about Regency-set historicals as a shorthand for “historicals with idiot twit leads, wallpaper settings and stupid gimmicks that make me crazy.” And I know that’s not fair of me. The Regency period itself has much to recommend it, and modern-day silliness dressed up in poofy gowns was certainly not what it was all about. I don’t dislike the Regency period as a historical era; it’s more that I’ve read too many books that claim this time period as their setting even though one would never be able to discern this from the text of the book itself.

The actual historical time period from 1811-1820 is actually pretty darn fascinating. It was a time of war, of changing social mores, the British Empire was on the rise and the transition from primarily agrarian to industrial societies was beginning to spread in Europe. If you’ve read much nonfiction history of the time, you’ve probably encountered a rich tapestry of stories. One thing that has always struck me when reading books such as Our Tempestuous Day, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, or any of a gazillions books about the Napoleonic War is just how complex and how alive this time in history feels.

Given the inherent conflict in actual historical events of the time such as struggles of over industrialization (landed gentry meets factory owner romance, anyone?), scandalous doings at Court or perfectly normal, non-James Bond wannabe military men coming back from war and trying to reestablish themselves, I feel somewhat cheated by many of the Regency-set romances I see today. Instead of this rich tapestry, I’m seriously supposed to settle for yet another Duke of Slut meeting his Duchess of Faux Skank and screwing off into the sunset together while they engage in dialogue that sounds like what I hear walking the hallways of a 21st century courthouse? I don’t need slavish historical accuracy in every single detail, but a sense of time and place would be nice. When I read a good book, I can close my eyes and imagine I’m there. And I can picture what “there” is because I have characters with personality and they function in a world that is far from generic.

For me, romance does not flame to life in a vacuum. As has been mentioned by many readers all over the internet, Roberta Gellis infuses her books with an excellent sense of time and place. Though she’s more famous for her medievals, she certainly doesn’t fall down on the job when writing of the Regency time period either. Filled with details of political intrigues, war and social conventions of the time, books such as the Heiress trilogy(which actually starts before the Regency period itself) and its followups, Fortune’s Bride and A Woman’s Estate, not only provide good romance, but they are about as far from the wallpaper 21st century “Regency world” as one can get.

And thankfully, there are more meaty Regency books out there. Part of what made Tracy Grant’s Secrets of a Lady (aka Daughter of the Game) such a romantic story was Charles and Melanie’s shared history during the Peninsular War and their deep involvement in events of their day. Their romance belongs to its place in time and the author uses some real worldbuilding beyond the occasional mangled title or mention of Almack’s to take us to a faraway place and time. Though very different in terms of content, this is likewise true of many authors of more traditional Regency romances that I have enjoyed, such as Carla Kelly, Amanda McCabe, Mary Balogh or Elizabeth Rolls. Their books tend to be very different in tone, and their characters’ dialogue rarely has the 21st century slang of some of the light Regency-set historicals.

So, with books like this out there, what’s the downside? Well, the downside as I see it is that we simply do not have enough of these books. The Duke of Slut and his fraternity of sequel friends pale in comparison to the real Regency world. Quite frankly, if we saw more of the real Regency and less of the wallpaper one, I think fewer of us historical fans would be taking to the internet bemoaning the flood of interchangable Regency-set romances. That’s not to say I still don’t want some variety in my settings (oh boy, do I ever!!), but if the Regency settings at least had some sense of time and place to them, I could find the period enjoyable in its own right.

– Lynn Spencer

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27 Responses to “In Search of the Real Regency”

  1. What a refreshingly interesting post!
    I write historicals set in the mid-Georgian era, the 1750′s, which I’ve loved from childhood up. It’s different to the Regency, but with enough similarities for readers to be able to pick the books up and feel at home, so to speak.
    Thank you so much for mentioning the scads of wallpaper historicals out there. You’re right, sometimes you can’t tell from the text what period they’re set in, and IMO that leads to characters as thin as the setting. No depth anywhere. I decided last year that I was going to embark on a search for a new to me Regency author to love, but sadly, I only found one, despite reading lots and lots of books. The one was Miranda Neville, who I read for the first time last year. I read lots of others recommended by sites and friends, and I couldn’t find one other. I came close with Julie Ann Long, but in the end, the inaccuracies (just about one per page) did me in.
    I would really love it if we could have more authors who cared about the history they’re writing about. I used to be a big reader of historicals, but now I stick to the authors I know can get it right, and sadly, there aren’t too many of those around. Some, like Jo Beverley, have reduced their output to a book a year, others are writing, but there just aren’t enough of them. Loretta Chase and Laura Kinsale, I want more!
    And kudos on using the original illustration for Georgette Heyer’s “Cotillion.” What a wonderful book, albeit featuring a miss, but who would mistake Kitty for anyone else! or her hero Freddy, come to that!

  2. Ell says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and I can’t think how many books I couldn’t finish because of this.

    Two things: One is although a well written story will pull me through in spite of it – I have trouble with the Georgian period because, however weak and lame my reasons might be, I loathe their clothes, and makeup. The men dressed in coats with whale boned skirts, and high heels, the women in absurdly wide skirts, and towering wigs, and everyone with white makeup and painted on red lips. Picturing a man come mincing into a room dressed like that makes me want to laugh, not swoon, certainly not rip his clothes off. Of course, that’s just me, but one of the things that I like about the Regency period is that Mr. Brummel came through and changed a lot of that. (not all, of course)

    Second thing is this: Emma Drummond has written what feels like some amazingly accurate historicals based in India around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. I think they are worth checking out…..

  3. Leigh says:

    I used to read a lot more historical books, but now not so much. And for many of the reason you list. Maybe it is because I cut my teeth on Heyer’s books but I pick authors that I know emphasize dialog over sex.

  4. Magdalen says:

    And now for the cloud around your silver lining, Lynn. I’m reading an anthology of Regency-set stories for my TBR Challenge book this month, and they’re all delightfully of their period. (The anthology was published by Signet in 1989, back when they published a lot of our old skool favorites: Balogh, Kelly, Edith Layton, etc.)

    What they also are is boring, simply because there’s precious little romance. In one story. The Duke’s Progress, by Edith Layton, it’s all about the Duke of Ennui (admittedly a pleasant change from his grace the Duke of Slut). In fact, it’s so much about the Duke of Ennui that the heroine shows up for the first time on the last page!

    Which makes me completely in agreement with you, but I’d like some romance to go with my historical elements. And if that means I have to suck it up and read about spies (as in Joanna Bourne’s books), I’ll do it.

  5. GrowlyCub says:

    I can’t stand what’s currently ‘in’. The Kramers, Dreilings and other purveyors of ‘high concept’ absurdities make me spitting mad. So I re-read a lot.

    Every so often there is a nice surprise, but they get fewer and fewer as the books with supposedly catchy titles and total lack of story or history seem to be all that’s bought by editors these days.

    A few I liked over the last couple of years: Susanna Fraser’s debut, Judith James Broken Wing and the 2 Restoration era novels, Rose Lerner’s debut, most of Miranda Neville’s titles, Sherry Thomas’ His At Night, Pam Rosenthal and a few more. This year I can’t even make a top 10 list because nothing made it past B level. Depressing.

  6. Hannah says:

    I have to agree with Magdalen. I don’t mind “wallpaper” historicals as long as the characters and situations are not jarringly modern. What’s important to me is the romance, and the historical setting, no matter what it may be, adds an important fantasy or fairy-tale quality.

  7. AAR Lynn says:

    Wow – more recommendations for Miranda Neville. I’m going to have to give her books a try.

    I’ve actually read (and really enjoyed) just about all of the books on GrowlyCub’s list. There are some bright spots out there; it’s just hard to find them among the wallpaper sometimes.

    In real life, I’m finding fewer and fewer people with a real working knowledge of history, and I can’t help wondering if that contributes to the lack of books out there with a strong sense of time and place to them.

  8. Melissa says:

    The kindle version of The English Heiress by Roberta Gellis is currently free on Amazon, so I’m going to try that. I was not familiar with this author. Thanks for including some recommendations.

    I agree with the post and most of the comments. I would like Regency romances with a real sense of history. Obviously readers have different thresholds for what kinds of inaccuracies they will tolerate. For myself, I am much less disturbed when a Regency-era heroine eats a scone that sounds like something you could get in Starbucks than when she is friends with her servants, flaunts rules of proper behavior without consequence, has some kind of anachronistic “career” and so on. Many of the heroines I come across in current Regency-set romances would only be credible as time-travel heroines. Sadly, many of these Regency-set romances are written by authors with lovely voices. I wish some of these authors would just switch to writing contemporaries!

  9. [...] with personality and they function in a world that is far from generic.Link to the rest at All About RomanceJust so you know where the PG household stands regarding the Regency period, Mrs. PG has been known [...]

  10. dick says:

    I’m sure it’s difficult to write about a relationship and a period in the past when the relationship must take center stage. Historical romances, in my opinon, need provide only the barest of historical flavor in order to fulfill the standards for romance fiction. It’s nice when they do, but really, why would one read romance for the historicity of it?

    • Melissa says:

      dick: I’m sure it’s difficult to write about a relationship and a period in the past when the relationship must take center stage.Historical romances, in my opinon, need provide only the barest of historical flavor in order to fulfill the standards for romance fiction.It’s nice when they do, but really, why would one read romance for the historicity of it?

      dick,

      I can, of course, only speak for myself. I don’t expect the same things from a historical romance that I expect from a non-fiction book by David McCullough. However, part of the pleasure of reading historical romance is getting the sense of life in a different era. If an author’s world-building is inadequate or inconsistent, it just pulls me out of the story. This is also true for other sub-genres, but lately I’ve noticed it most in Regency historicals. Since some of the books that have frustrated me have been quite popular, I guess they work for others.

      • chris booklover says:

        Melissa:
        dick,I can, of course, only speak for myself. I don’t expect the same things from a historical romance that I expect from a non-fiction book by David McCullough. However, part of the pleasure of reading historical romance is getting the sense of life in a different era. If an author’s world-building is inadequate or inconsistent, it just pulls me out of the story. This is also true for other sub-genres, but lately I’ve noticed it most in Regency historicals. Since some of the books that have frustrated me have been quite popular, I guess they work for others.

        Melissa:

        I agree with you entirely. We’ve had this discussion before in the forum – but what’s the point of setting a novel in the Regency era if the characters talk, think and act like 21st century Americans?

    • SHZ says:

      dick: I’m sure it’s difficult to write about a relationship and a period in the past when the relationship must take center stage.Historical romances, in my opinon, need provide only the barest of historical flavor in order to fulfill the standards for romance fiction.It’s nice when they do, but really, why would one read romance for the historicity of it?

      What is the point in setting something in the Regency era if you’re not going to bother with the Regency setting?

  11. Virginia DeMarce says:

    There are differences in the way people use the term “wallpaper historical,” I think. It used to be that it meant that the historical time period was mentioned enough to set an era, but that the historical events didn’t have much impact on the small-scale or day-to-day events of the plot.

    Now it seems to be meaning, more and more frequently, that the background is not accurate (as, for example, having the future George IV as the sovereign before the death of his father). It appears that the wallpaper is tattered, hanging in shreds, water-stained, covered with mildew, and generally in such bad shape that the reader can’t quite make out the scene that is being depicted.

    Both of those, I think, are distinct from errors in the “small plot” — those which lead to complaints about incorrect use of the titles of and forms of address for the imaginary characters, era-inappropriate dialogue, and activities by the hero and heroine which make no sense in the context of the time. Those aren’t really errors in the “wallpaper” (historical background setting) but rather errors in the process of fitting the characters into the time period depicted on the wallpaper.

  12. anne gallagher says:

    I appreciate your commentary here, which is why I have done my darndest in research to provide a better understanding of the time period in my books. I loathe wallpaper historicals, and like many other readers, cannot stand the newest incantation of offerings to the reading public. Historical accuracy is so important for a reader like me, that I will often stop reading if I find an inaccuracy.

    There is room, I think for a slight fudging of character, my example — MY Prince Regent is a caring compassionate man with a lot of excess baggage from his marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert, but his ascension to the throne, as well as his sister’s death, and his father’s madness, are true right down to the date. Just because the history books are filled with his gluttony and extravagance, doesn’t mean he did not FEEL emotions like a common ordinary man.

    However, interpreting a figure from history has its own challenges, and one must always be aware of the truth. Interpreting actual facts from history must not be ignored.

  13. SuperWendy says:

    I think people get hung up on the term “wallpaper” a lot. I don’t need every tiny detail in a book to be “historically accurate” – what I do “need” and like very much is a “sense of place.” When the Duke of Slut and the feisty miss could be put on a Texas cattle ranch, in outer space, or in the middle of a nuclear war zone, and the author wouldn’t need to make any changes to the story? Yeah, that’s wallpaper to me.

    I was burnt out on Regency for a long time, but have been able to start reading them again – and am discovering authors who have been around for ages. So far, Julia Justiss seems to work really well for me. I really enjoyed her last couple HH books (dippy, misleading titles aside). I’ve also enjoyed what Nicola Cornick I’ve read – but admittedly I’m so behind I haven’t read her last two series for HQN (I’m still buried in her HH work!).

    If you go for mysteries – I also really loved the Sarah Tolerance books by Madeleine Robins. I love my Regency-era books DARK, and the first two at least (had no idea a third was out!) were pretty darn dark, if memory serves.

  14. xina says:

    There certainly is something special about a book written by a writer who does research and is a talented storyteller. That second point is very important to me when reading in the romance genre. I’m not going to love a book that is true to the period if the story is boring. I’ve got to have both, and indeed Tracy Grant is the whole package. I might add Elizabeth Chadwick as well, although her specialty is medieval not regency. And I don’t mind a well done story that isn’t accurate. If the book is well written has an interesting relationship between the hero and heroine, I’m certainly good with that too. It’s all about the writing…mostly.

  15. Ella Quinn says:

    I write Regencies. I’ve had one publisher turn me down because she couldn’t wrap her mind around my dialogue. On the other hand, I’ve had two beta readers, one in the States and on in Germany, say my books are like Georgette Heyer with sex. A critique partner says my dialogue is very Heyerish.

    I also, cut my teeth on Heyer. I love her dialogue, settings and characters. Though, I don’t think I’m nearly as funny or witty, I am tremendously flattered when my writing is compared with hers. Now, if I can just get published.

  16. Susan/DC says:

    I’ve enjoyed some of the authors mentioned here, mostly for the characters and story but also because they place those characters in a believable time and place and have them act in ways that are believable for that setting. Time travel is real, and I do it all the time when I read a well-written historical novel.

    I want to add Imogen Robertson and Diana Norman to the list of writers who immerse you in their time periods. Robertson writes mysteries and so far only has 3 books to her backlist as far as I know, but I’ve loved each of them. I discovered Diana Norman when her “Taking Liberties” got a DIK review here. It’s set in England during the American Revolution, and it’s a tribute to her skill that while reading the book I, along with her characters, wondered whether the Americans would win their war or their leaders would be brought back to London to stand trial as traitors.

  17. mb says:

    I too heartily recommend Diana Norman’s books. They are wonderful! Hard to get, but SO worth it.

    (Going off to research Imogen Robertson now…)

  18. mb says:

    If you can find them, Rachel Summerson’s, Frances Murray’s, Sheila Simonson’s books are very good.

    • Suzanna says:

      mb: If you can find them, Rachel Summerson’s, Frances Murray’s, Sheila Simonson’s books are very good.

      You might be interested to know that “Rachel Summerson” was a pen name for Elizabeth Hawksley, who has written several books as EH. I had read the RS books years ago and always wished there were more. EH did an interview on the Word Wenches site, and when I looked at her website I found she was also RS.

      I second you on Frances Murray, too – “The heroine’s sister” is a gorgeous book.

  19. Rike says:

    Sheila Simonsen’s regencies, which are excellent, are available as e-books now.

  20. Susan says:

    I have the Roberta Gellis books, so I’m happy to hear that they are good. I got them on a Kindle sale a while back.

    Other historical romance authors with strong backgrounds (without becoming like a lecture) are Meredith Duran (Victorian), Mary Jo Putney, Loretta Chase, Jo Beverley (Georgian & Regency), Carla Kelley and of course, Mary Balogh.

    Rose Lerner’s In for a Penny was a very strong Regency which was fascinating in it’s premise. It even brought some of the tensions of the time into play.

    The good Regencies are out there. We just shouldn’t fall for every pretty cover that comes out. Most of those Prom Dress covers bear no resemblence to a historical costume anway (one of my pet peeves…).

  21. maggie b. says:

    The problem for me with historicals is that you must go through a lot of garbage to find the gold. That intense hunt eats up time I just don’t have. So I’ve come to read only what is highly recommended and that only if the book sounds really good.

    And there is a problem with recommendations. Many people like historical lite and rave about the books. So a recommended book may easily contain Duke of Slut/Instant flaming hot lover virgins. The end result is that I mostly read Balogh.

  22. maryann says:

    Excellent topic, and thanks for the reminder on Roberta Gellis. The English Heiress is also free on the Nook. I just downloaded it.

  23. Tracy Grant says:

    Thanks for the lovely mention of my books, Lynn! The Regency/Napoleonic era is so fascinating and multilayered – I think that’s why I love writing about it and never seem to get bored. There’s so much for a writer to explore – from the London ton to the underworld to country house parties and Luddite protests. And then there’s everything that happened on the Continent in the same era. I loved writing about the Congress of Vienna and Brussels at the time of Waterloo, and I’m currently immersed in Paris during the White Terror (post-Waterloo) for my WIP.