When it comes to Regency Romance, there is one name that stands out as the paragon of the genre, at whose altar all other Regency authors and readers should bend in grateful homage. That one name is the intelligent, the prolific, the unparalleled…
And I sincerely hope you weren’t expecting me to say Jane Austen, because she didn’t even write Regency romance. She wrote contemporary social satire. (Chew on that one for a minute, if you please.)
Heyer single-handedly established the Regency subgenre of historical romance. Her heavy research of that fascinating era shows in her books, from her in-depth descriptions of lace and textiles to her era-inspired slang, to her casual mentions of assembly rooms, gaming clubs, and horse auctioneers. Jane Austen, in contrast, never so much as referenced the ton, let alone Almack’s, White’s, or Tattersall’s. She didn’t need to. She was writing to and about her peers, not recreating an era that none of her readers had ever witnessed.
Regency Genre Background
The term “Regency” refers to a period in the early 1800s, when Mad King George III of England was as nutty as a fruitcake and his son, also George, ruled as the Prince Regent in his stead. George III died in 1820, at which point the Prince Regent George became George IV and the Regency era ended. (And all of this occurred in a greater “Georgian” period, so named thanks to the Georges I – IV ruling consecutively.)
International events of note: the United States had already won its war for independence and established a constitutional republic. There was bad blood between England and the U.S. during this period (War of 1812, anyone?), so you’re not likely to find Americans hanging around London. The French, meanwhile, had Napoleon at their helm. The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the French dictator’s exile to Saint Helena, but its repercussions echoed into the years that followed.
The iconic fashion of this era, for women, was the empire waist so popularized by scores of Jane Austen film adaptations. Society behaved according to a very strict set of rules, and a decided caste system existed between the upper and lower classes.
And Georgette Heyer set the definitive benchmark for all of these elements in literature.
Drifting by Degrees
It seems like the further we get from Heyer’s writing, the further the Regency genre strays from its roots. Modern characters with their modern values creep into more recent works, spouting off anachronistic opinions that would likely boggle the early 19th-century minds they’re intended to represent.
And that’s to be expected, to some extent. Heyer’s main characters were fish out of water in the Regency era too. She wrote more than a century after that era’s close, recreating the bygone world as best she could, but in the end, her creations are still counterfeits; and counterfeits, by their very nature, bear smudges of the age and environment in which they emerge.
Perhaps that’s why many more recent works lack that “Regency” feeling for me—they lack Georgette’s distinctive touch. Sometimes, when I open a newer Regency novel, I feel as though I’ve stepped into a dark room, with only a spotlight on characters and no sense of any space that might exist beyond the boundaries of their meager setting. They don’t live in an entire world, but rather within a bubble, a Regency-themed island floating around in a nebulous ether.
And sometimes, that “Regency” theme only exists because the book jacket claims that title in its summary blurb.
Languishing in Austen’s Shadow
I adore Jane Austen. Persuasion is my favorite, but of course I love all her works. She deserves every accolade we pour upon her head.
For some reason that I cannot fathom, though, after 50+ novels and millions of books sold, Georgette Heyer still gets back-burner treatment in comparison. It seems like many Regency authors readily attribute their inspiration to Austen and only mention Heyer in passing, if at all, as though she’s the guilty pleasure that no one wants to admit they love.
And I’m not sure that she would care. She was happy to write and sell books.
As the pioneer of the genre, though, she deserve some credit. So hat’s off to you, Georgette. Your imagination sparked tens of thousands to follow.
Whether they acknowledge you or not.
PS—Heyer also deserves a couple dozen film adaptations. The rights have been sold, but the production companies that own them are, apparently, content to sit on them.