Even with a forthcoming romance novel whose characters could promenade the same ballrooms as Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, Anna Harrington, author of An Inconvenient Duke, doesn’t lower her voice when she says it: “I hate Jane Austen.”
In a certain circle, that admission would land like an Anglo-Saxon oath at a society ball—the kind of gathering that has become a familiar set piece for Regency romances. But Harrington contends that the cult of Austen overlooks contemporaneous authors—“I love Fanny Burney,” she says—who explored the politics of female identity with equal wit.
In its strictest definition, the Regency era lasted just a decade, 1811–1820, when King George III was deemed unfit to rule his empire due to mental illness and his son and ministers acted as England’s regents. If your mental image of historic England involves couples mincing through highly choreographed dances, making morning social calls, or buying horses at Tattersalls, you’re thinking of the Regency—but your view was almost certainly shaped, and in some ways limited, by Austen and, a century later, Georgette Heyer.
“Jane Austen is a contemporary writer—we think of her as historical, but she was writing about her own era,” says Vanessa Riley, a veteran Regency author for whom Pride and Prejudice and its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, are important templates. “When people talk about heroines having goals beyond showing up in a beautiful dress in a ball gown, she’s one of the heroines we all should model. She understands from the beginning who she is and what she wants. She may be misguided, but that adds room for growth in the heroine’s path.”
But for Riley, whose novels are inspired by real figures from the era, Austen’s last book was the real revelation. “When I got to Sanditon, I’m reading about Miss Lamb, a wealthy mulatto woman from the West Indies,” she says. “She’s so wealthy that people are scheming to marry her. They’re ignoring her race because money trumps race. For Austen to write a woman of color—a woman of means—means that we are missing a huge piece of history and that era.”
So where did it go?
Beginning in the 1930s, Heyer caused a sensation with a series of witty, slang-filled novels packed with deep research, down to the smallest ruffle or idiom that was allowed into her meticulously rendered, glamorous Regency world. It was also a world that was white, polite, and wealthy (give or take an orphaned heroine).
What followed was the sincerest form of flattery or, as some authors have noted, a form of fan fiction, with armies of readers who are steeped in the source material and prepared to do battle over the details. Heyer’s heirs offer one way of looking at that world, but a new generation of writers has slowly, deliberately, and often hilariously worked to expand the definition of a Regency romance.
“Get the heck out of England,” advises Jo Goodman, who has written across a range of eras including the Regency. “Set your book at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Set it in Venice at Carnival. There were English explorers in Egypt during the Regency.”
PW spoke with these and other authors of forthcoming Regencies and other historical romance novels about the durability, and the difficulties, of the enduringly popular subgenre.
Defending the Crown
“Readers are infatuated with the Regency; let’s give them something more,” says Nikoo McGoldrick, the storytelling half of the married duo behind the pseudonym May McGoldrick (Highland Sword, St. Martin’s, Mar. 2020). “As writers, you take a popular period like Regency, lure the readers in, and then do what Charles Dickens did: you show them life.”
That means stepping out of the ballrooms and escorting their heroes and heroines into the middle of the struggles of the era.
Nikoo’s husband, Jim McGoldrick, who holds a doctorate in literature and is the team’s chief researcher, is the kind of person whose contacts list includes the head of the Inverness Botanical Garden. The pair’s recently released novel Highland Jewel, second in the Royal Highland series, is set amid the Regency suffrage movement. Its characters are based on “historical figures who weren’t romantic enough for Jane Austen to write,” Jim says—such as Mary Fildes, a suffragist who appeared before crowds during a political rally and was nearly killed by a volunteer militia in the ensuing Peterloo Massacre; her dress caught on a nail as she and others were fleeing the scene. “They had blood on their white dresses,” he notes. “It was such a problematic period.”
The Regency also suffers from a chronic problem that plagues historical romance in general: “One of the struggles I have is finding a profession, for lack of a better word—something that the heroine can do,” Goodman says. This is one of the trickier points for writers who are trying to balance historical accuracy against characters that connect with modern readers. After a wide-ranging series of historicals, including Regency books, Goodman’s next novel, Stages of the Heart (Jove, May 2020) takes readers to post–Civil War Colorado, where the heroine controls a stagecoach outpost.
The lack of realistic options for writing interesting heroines is where the Regency loses a lot of authors. The choice can feel stuck between anachronism—planting a modern sensibility into an historic setting—and gender politics that leave modern readers cold.
“You get a lot of these feisty heroines,” says Christina Courtenay, a writer of Regencies and other historicals whose forthcoming Echoes of the Runes (Headline, June 2020) is partly set in ninth-century Sweden. “Then you have to have a hero who is understanding of that and allows her to be like that. With the Viking women, you don’t have that problem. They had things like divorce—a marriage didn’t have to be for life. They definitely had a lot more say—at least the free women.”
Shifting time periods, or simply digging deeper, can yield surprises even for those steeped in historical romance. “We have a variety of characters of color across the series line—from ancient Egyptians to Moorish princesses, as examples from just a few recent books,” says Harlequin executive editor Bryony Green, who notes that solid research can produce storylines that look anachronistic, but aren’t. “Quite often I might question something in a novel that didn’t seem historically accurate to me, and the author will usually have the facts to prove me wrong. One time we had a story that featured a heroine who dressed up as a man in order to be a physician—something that actually happened in Regency England. A few other examples of things I’ve queried include surgical procedures, journey times to and from London by horse and carriage, wedding laws at the time, women fighting in battles—all sorts.” The author was right nearly every time, she adds.
“For me it’s all about the author’s skill at creating real, relatable characters where you feel like you are there with them, walking and talking alongside them,” Green says. Above all, she’s looking for “heroines with spirit, guile, wit, charm, grit and determination, so contemporary women can relate to them.”
Evie Dunmore was also interested in writing historically accurate but independent women when she conceived her debut series. She found the heroine for book one of the League of Extraordinary Women, the recently released Bringing Down the Duke (Berkley), in the first class of women admitted to Oxford in 1879, more than 50 years after the end of the Regency. PW’s starred review called the novel “charming, sexy, and thoroughly transportive,” adding, “This is historical romance done right.”
“I didn’t want her to be a pirate leading an armada,” Dunmore says. “I didn’t want her to be born into a position where she’d be extraordinary from the start. I wanted her to be an ordinary woman doing something extraordinary but relatable. Going to university in 1879 was very extraordinary. Doctors and educators spoke openly about how education would shrink a woman’s brain and shrivel her reproductive organs and make her a bad wife and mother.”
As history solved one problem for Dunmore, it created another: because her hero is a member of the aristocracy and a presumably conservative supporter of the Tory Party, he had to oppose women’s suffrage, at least at first. Though he comes around at the end, a few disgruntled readers mentioned that the hero’s politics left them cold—a case study of fans demanding heroes and heroines that reflect modern values, however anachronistic.
“Of course, in the day, every duke was automatically going to be a Tory,” Dunmore says, and that conflict was crucial to the plot. Book two, A Rogue of One’s Own, is planned for late 2020 and follows a leader in the suffragist movement.
Rethinking What’s Regency
The market still loves the Regency. But the market loves novelty, too. For authors who see both the challenges and the opportunities of the subgenre, the question is how to expand its boundaries while remaining true to its origins.
“When you put together a proposal to sell a series, they want a high-concept sale,” Harrington says. “A lot of times, it means tying into some modern pop culture reference.”
Harrington’s An Inconvenient Duke (Sourcebooks Casablanca, Mar. 2020) kicks off the Lords of the Armory series, which is inspired by Marvel Comics and includes a secret lair and a shadowy organization called SCEPTRE. Likewise, Vanessa Riley’s
A Duke, the Lady and a Baby (Zebra, July 2020) launches Rogues and Remarkable Women, a series loosely inspired by the film Three Men and a Baby, with a twist: the women who step in to help the hapless male caregivers are supported by the Widow’s Grace, a secret society created to “help ill-treated widows regain their status, their families, and even find true love.”
At a certain point, most authors PW spoke with say, anachronism is unavoidable, and perhaps it was never a concern, anyway. The Regency of romance “is a fantasy world,” Harrington says. “It never really existed the way it’s portrayed in these books, or the way Austen portrayed it in hers.”
Readers and editors also have less patience for the kinds of meticulous description—pages worth—found in Heyer’s books. Betina Krahn, whose various historical romances span centuries, understands the particular draw of the Regency. She notes that Heyer’s rich setting was fortified, in part, by the appetite for expansive historicals in the 1980s and ’90s. “It seems like it was easier to get lost in the time period in those days—in those large, sprawling books that had marvelous description,” she says. “Today, we don’t have a lot of patience for a full page of description, or half a page.”
The lush representations of that era—beloved by some, called “the information dump” by others, including Krahn—have given way to leaner plot-driven books that favor dialogue over description.
Even dialogue can be tricky. Where Heyer peppered her prose with charming but puzzling Regency slang, modern authors are trying to hit a balance between accessible language and historical accuracy.
“‘It can go both ways,” Harlequin’s Green says. “Words that were not invented yet can be jarring in a Regency or historical novel and it can make the reader doubt every aspect of the historical accuracy. However, if the story were written completely in the language of the time, it would be too inaccessible, not to mention pretentious, to be enjoyable anyway. So it’s about finding a convincing balance of the two.”
Those who prefer a Regency world that honors tradition are finding ways to freshen things up. Often, that’s by getting to know the era better and adding to, rather than abandoning, the Austen and Heyer mythos.
“What’s missing are servants in the household who are people of color,” Riley says. “Walking down the street, you would see interracial couples more often than you would ever see a duke.” It’s a matter of simple arithmetic, she notes. “There were only 28 dukes. There were 10,000–20,000 free blacks living in London. But we’ve all bought into this. I call it duke math. In theory, 28 dukes have spawned over 10,000 novels in the Regency. So if I find one person of color doing something interesting, that’s 357 books, right there.”
Like Riley, Goodman, and others, Jim and Nikoo McGoldrick believe there’s much more to say about the dramatic events that shaped the Regency era. These issues may have been discussed at Almack’s and other social clubs, but they’ve generally been avoided in the genre.
“You have revolutionary forces at work and colonialism is running rampant, and it’s driving governmental actions,” Jim McGoldrick says. “People are fighting in the streets. The industrial revolution is in full gear. Rape and pillage is the order of the day.”
Though ballrooms provide a glittering backdrop, many Regency authors are acknowledging that the people dancing there were ruled by a mad king and a licentious prince, were confronting a politically active middle class that vehemently opposed the concentration of wealth and privilege, and were just beginning to see the cracks in their empire.
“In our Regency,” McGoldrick says of this new wave of romances, “we love Jane Austen, but Pemberly is in danger of being burned to the ground.”
Betsy O’Donovan is an assistant professor of journalism at Western Washington University.
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