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