Regency romance

Case Study: Austen vs. Heyer | Liar, Liar

When we encounter the term “worldbuilding,” instinct points us to the fantasy genre. All fiction requires worldbuilding in one form or another, though. In the realms of “Too Much Information,” we have a wonderful case study within the Regency sub-genre: Jane Austen vs. Georgette Heyer.

Austen lived and published during the Regency period. She wrote characters who lived in that setting for an audience who lived in that setting, a circumstance that gives her authenticity by default.

Roughly 120 years later, Heyer recreated the Regency setting for an audience who had no experience with it. She published the original Regency romance, Regency Buck, in 1935.

This novel contains All The Things.

Austen vs. Heyer

If you compare the language in Regency Buck to that of Jane Austen, many stark patterns emerge. We see the striking difference between Austen and Heyer in something as simple as their mentions of horse-drawn vehicles:

Austen vs. Heyer carriage terms

Austen’s generic terms (carriage, chaise, coach) account for 83% of her vehicle references. Heyer’s generic terms amount to only 42%.

My sample size included all six of Austen’s complete novels, plus Lady Susan and Love and Freindship. In all, I found 431 vehicle references: 283 carriage, 43 chaise, 32 coach, 24 barouche, 21 curricle, 13 phaeton, 11 gig, 3 chariot, 1 landaulette.

In contrast, Heyer’s Regency Buck (1935) has 291 vehicle references on its own, more than half of what Austen stretched out over 8 distinct works. And the breakdown: 80 curricle, 52 carriage, 45 chaise, 36 phaeton, 26 coach, 24 gig, 15 tilbury, 7 barouche, 4 hackney, 2 whisky.

All in a single novel.

Special Use

The comparison doesn’t end with mere numbers, though. Austen uses her specialized vehicles as a means of subtle characterization.

For example, the 7 references for “barouche” in Emma all refer to Mrs. Elton’s sister’s “barouche-landau.” If the term is not in Mrs. Elton’s dialogue, it’s either the narrator or Emma making a tongue-in-cheek reference to this carriage.

The barouche-landau never appears in the story, except in reference only. Austen uses it as a running joke to highlight how vulgar and pretentious Mrs. Elton is. The woman is trying to position herself as the most sophisticated person in the neighborhood. She believes that “things” prove her better worth, even when those things belong to her relatives and not herself.

Similar affectations emerge in Mary Musgrove’s jealous observation that her newlywed sister has a “very pretty landaulette,” and in John Thorpe’s ridiculous assertion that his gig is “curricle-hung.” Horse-drawn vehicles were a status symbol and a sign of wealth—or poverty, as the case may be. Austen uses them intuitively as such.

(For further detailed insight on this topic, see this lovely blog post. The writer goes far more in-depth than my analysis of Austen’s usage, but I was delighted to find my thesis held true.)

Now compare Heyer’s usage in Regency Buck. There’s no subtle characterization involved. Instead, the narrator slaps the reader with these specialized names and references over and over and over again: “Don’t. You. Know. We’re. In. A. Regency. Setting?”

Irrelevant Details

Regency Buck further offends our sensibilities with passages such as the following, about the Duchess of York:

Heyer quote about the Duchess of York

Now don’t get me wrong. That paragraph is hilarious, and basically true. The Duchess was crazy-cakes and the Duke was a piece of work, and anyone who visited them had quite the spectacle to observe. But here’s the very next sentence:

“The Duke, who never saw his wife except at Oatlands, had naturally not brought her with him to Belvoir.”

Because Belvoir Castle is where the narrative actually is. The Regency Buck characters never travel to Oatlands, the Duchess of York never gets another mention, and the whole long description is, for any plot-minded reader, 100% skim-worthy, if not entirely skippable.

I can only imagine that Heyer came across this info in the course of her research and was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s going in the novel.” And while it was fine for a first draft, the book would be stronger without it and other similar asides.


Heyer sample people places

A sample of the famous people and places mentioned in Heyer’s Regency Buck

Over the course of Regency Buck, Heyer name-drops 100+ historical people and 200 geographical points of interest. But not without anachronism. Among them,

  • We meet “Princess Esterhazy” at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, in an 1811/1812 setting. Her real-life counterpart, Princess Maria Theresia of Thurn and Taxis, didn’t marry Prince Paul Anthony Esterházy of Galántha until June 1812. In Bavaria, no less.
  • Countess Lieven is also present at Almack’s, but her real-life counterpart didn’t arrive in London until 1812 and wasn’t a patroness of Almack’s until 1814. (She also introduced the waltz there, so no waltz-dancing before then, I guess?)
  • Thomas Cribb is manning his saloon, Cribb’s Parlour, within six months of his infamous prizefight against Tom Molyneaux. By all accounts I could find, the real Cribb tended bar for two other establishments before settling on the one that would take his name. He only started bartending after his retirement from the ring. Even if he could do all that within six months, Heyer frames Cribb’s Parlour as a well-established haunt for the male half of London.

So, in her haste to include a glut of Regency details, she undercuts her reliability.

But the over-information goes beyond an onslaught of place names and people. The plot includes detailed accounts of a prizefight, a cock fight, and a curricle race. There’s a duel, an attempted murder, more than you ever wanted to know about snuff, two kidnappings, and a grand reveal. The characters have a London season, a Brighton season, and two separate country manor house visits, one of which includes a Hunt.

Basically, if people in the Regency era could have participated in an activity, Regency Buck’s characters did it.

A Trailblazing Legacy

But then, Heyer couldn’t have known she was establishing a sub-genre of historical romance. She wrote an additional two dozen Regency novels over the next 30+ years, and her style tempered with her familiarity to the setting.

In fact, if you compare the mention of horse-drawn vehicles of her first Regency novel to her last (Lady of Quality, 1972), the contrast is startling.

Heyer vs. Heyer

Regency Buck (1935): 291 vehicle references (80 curricle, 52 carriage, 45 chaise, 36 phaeton, 26 coach, 24 gig, 15 tilbury, 7 barouche, 4 hackney, 2 whisky)

Lady of Quality (1972): 42 vehicle references (23 carriage, 7 chaise, 5 gig, 4 coach, 1 chair, 1 curricle, 1 phaeton)

As you can see, we’re back in Austen-esque ratios. In fact, the more generic “carriage, chaise, and coach” make up exactly 83% of the Lady of Quality pie.

Heyer will always be known for being wordy, but she learned from her mistakes with Regency Buck. And we can learn from them too. Less is more. Don’t undermine your narrative with too many details.


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Julian St. John Audley: A Character Defense

Regency Buck quote Julian St. John Audley

If my most recent works haven’t been clue enough, I’ve been doing a lot of writerly experimentation with point of view and perspective. Hence the Lyric 1st Person Present in Namesake, the “other woman” focal character in Brine and Bone, and my current WIP, which has a protagonist who my readers already hate.

(Whether they’ll finish the novel hating her remains yet to be seen.)

One of the side effects of this experimentation: it spills over into the rest of my life, including the books I read.

Which brings me to a point I never expected: defending the seemingly indefensible.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Julian St. John Audley: A High-Handed Cad

I recently re-read Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck (1935). My purpose was for linguistic analysis rather than pleasure, but in the midst, that penchant for alternate points of view reared its head.

At first glance, the hero of this novel, Julian St. John Audley, the Fifth Earl of Worth, is a controlling, manipulative jerk. Handsome, arrogant, wealthy, and high-handed as the summer’s day is long. But it’s okay because the heroine, Judith Taverner, is his equal in all these points. Awful people deserve each other, y’know?

But the story is told from Judith’s perspective. Although we get scenes that center on Lord Worth, Heyer frames them in ambiguity rather than sympathy. Does he like Judith, or does he only like manipulating her? Is he secretly plotting to kill her brother? Does he want their fortune for his very own?

They meet under adverse circumstances, and he behaves with enough rudeness to raise anyone’s hackles. If you’re sympathetic to Judith, that is.

But what would the story look like from his perspective?

Motives and Motivations

The key to Worth’s behavior lies in his words at the end of the book: “Nonsensical child! I have been in love with you almost from the first moment of setting eyes on you” (Chapter XXIII).

So this guy, barreling down a country road, almost plows into a shabby gig in the middle of a poorly-executed u-turn. He avoids the collision but, like anyone in such a situation, he’s annoyed. That was the worst possible spot to turn. The other driver must be a moron.

The gig is blocking the road. Its passenger, as sharp-tongued as she is beautiful, says they don’t need his help, but he can’t drive on until they’re out of his way. So he doesn’t help. He has his servant do it.

Which, all things considered, is a mercy. Judith and Perry’s pride is hurt, but it would’ve been worse if Worth had sat waiting for Perry to get his act together. Worth doesn’t even instigate any rude remarks. His great sin lies in preventing an accident, rendering help to the other party, and answering in sarcasm when spoken to ungraciously.

I mean, I’ve been guilty of worse.

So then there’s Meeting #2.

When Worth pulls in beside Perry at the prizefight, it’s Perry who draws attention to himself by, again, failing to control his horse. Their exchange goes sour because of Perry’s reactionary nature. Worth makes some sarcastic remarks, but he never demands that Perry leave. Perry decides that on his own.

The second meeting with Judith is more damning. Upon finding her on the side of the road, Worth picks her up, carries her to his curricle, and forces her to let him put her shoe back on. When she refuses to accept his offer to hit him, he kisses her in provocation.

But he knows he’s crossing social boundaries. Why else would he encourage her to punch him in the face?  What struck me in this reading: he treats her like an equal, not a damsel in distress. Yes, he teases, and he takes liberties, but he acknowledges his poor behavior and agrees to accept punishment for it.

And really, is he supposed to leave her by herself on the roadside when fifty or more carriages might be traveling behind him? He’s coming from a prizefight. Hundreds of hot-blooded men are now dispersing into the countryside, and she’s out walking by herself because she couldn’t bother to bring along her maid.

According to his end-of-the-book account, he’s already in love with her. He ain’t leaving her there for someone else to find.

As for the kiss, she compares it to her father or her brother kissing her, so unless her family is gross beyond measure, it’s nothing more than an impertinent peck.

(Yeah, yeah. He shouldn’t have done it.)

But there’s a piper to pay.

His comeuppance happens at the inn, when Judith and Perry reveal who they are and who their guardian is.

Him. He’s their guardian.

And that’s the “Oh, crap” moment for Julian St. John Audley. It’s bad enough that he was mooning over a pretty country girl, but that pretty country girl turns out to be a wealthy heiress whose fortune he technically controls.

Bad ton, Julian. Bad ton.

From here on out, everything he does—and I mean everything—is for Judith’s benefit. He’s in love with her, and she’s determined to take London by storm.

So he gets her a fashionable house. He provides her a chaperone who can introduce her into all the exclusive circles (which her cousin in Kensington had no clout to accomplish). He gives her a fast-pass into high society and supports her ambitions, and the whole time, everyone is ribbing him about bagging the heiress before she gets out of his control, and that mealy cousin of hers hangs around talking smack, and Judith herself determines to be obstinate even to the sacrifice of her own reputation and social success.

And the further I read, the more I pitied this stupid, lovesick hero. The complaints against him?

“He doesn’t tell her someone’s trying to kill her brother.”

Yeah, because she point-blank says that if she thought there was a plot against Perry she “should be quite out of [her] mind with terror” (Chapter XIV). Essentially, he takes her at her word and keeps her in the dark to preserve her peace of mind.

“He lets her cousin kidnap her instead of warning her the dude is rotten.”

All the evidence he has against Bernard is circumstantial, and Judith likes the guy. What’s more, Bernard has sown enough discord that she might not believe any accusations Worth levels at him. He needs irrefutable proof and, more importantly, he needs Judith to see it firsthand.

“He berates her for being alone with the Prince Regent.”

I’m charting this one to stress. When he finds her fainting in the Prince’s arms, he’s already taken his life in his hands by barging in on them. He then has to walk the tightrope of not offending the most powerful man in the country even though he’s itching to wring the guy’s royal neck.

Also, at this point in the story, he believes that Judith hates his guts and that she acts against propriety to stick it to him. Plus, he’s just secretly kidnapped her brother to save him from yet another attempt on his life.

Under the circumstances, I can forgive Lord Worth for being out of sorts. We all have our moments.

Only Human after All

In short, the instant I examined the story from his perspective, he became human and his faults shifted into focus. He has them, and I don’t mean to excuse them, but by and large, he’s acting for Judith and Perry’s interests, often against his own.

Boiled down, they’re country rubes. They don’t know the first thing about London society. Much as they despise Julian St. John Audley, if he had left them to their own devices, they would have met with failure and, in Perry’s case, certain death.

So I don’t dislike him anymore. On the contrary, I’d love to read a version of the book from his point of view, the poor sap.

The Frenzy of Running for the Border


Trope #1: Elopement

Let’s talk about unintended consequences, shall we?

In 1753, the British Parliament passed Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, with the intention of curtailing marriages performed in secret. Prior to this act, English clergymen could perform marriages without the couple having to procure a license or post banns. They would be fined for performing the ceremony in a parochial church house (thanks to an earlier Marriage Act), but the marriage was still valid.

And if they performed the marriage in London’s Fleet Prison, there was no fine at all (because of that earlier Marriage Act’s unintended consequences, hahaha).

Romantic, isn’t it? “Come, darling! Let’s run away to the prison house and get married amid the beggars and debtors!”

But that line must have worked. By the 1740s, roughly 12.5% of English marriages were Fleet Marriages, and their participants came from all walks of life, both rich and poor, upper and lower class.

The Marriage Act of 1753 was supposed to close this prison loophole, and it did.

Only to open another one: the Act didn’t apply to foreign marriages—including those performed in Scotland.

Cue a grand rush for the northern border, and the eventual emergence of a UK marriage icon: Gretna Green. This little border town lies along the road from London to Edinburgh. If a Regency romance talks of elopements, Gretna Green is the most likely destination, the nearest point where couples fleeing north could marry one another without the pesky need of parental consent or government sanctions.

(It’s kind of like the safe space in the game of Tag. Once you’ve crossed the line you can look back at the people chasing you and call, “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo! You ca-an’t catch me!”)

The journey was long, and the woman’s reputation would be in shambles before the couple arrived, but a quick ceremony would remedy all. So too for those who fled across the Channel from Dover to Calais, France: spend a night on a boat, get up the next morning in a foreign country, and all your marriage obstacles have magically disappeared!

Isn’t elopement wonderful?

The ease with which a woman’s reputation could be ruined in this period, though, provides an alternate and more salacious window for drama.

Trope #2: Abduction

When you pick up a Regency romance, you can lay odds that someone within those pages will get abducted. Because of the era’s social constraints, the heroine’s virtue can be used against her as leverage for forcing her into an unwanted marriage, and without the perpetrator ever having to lay a finger on her. Passing a night unchaperoned in his near vicinity is enough to seal the deal.

If she’s a beautiful heiress, the chances of this scenario skyrocket. The abduction motif is almost built into the template alongside the devastatingly handsome hero and the array of social events.

And, more recently (i.e., post-Georgette Heyer), the guy performing the abduction is never quite up to snuff.

Maybe he’s crazy or deluded. He might be a fop, trying too hard to play the part of a Regency beau and falling short in his attempt, or he could be anywhere from dull to horrid in the looks department. One way or another, he’s defective, a social outlier framed in such a way that he poses no allure for the heroine or the reader.

Because the hero has to save her so they can finally confess their lurrrve to each other.

Yes, we’re playing literary football again, and Girl-as-Object is alive and well. In this scenario, however, no one’s rooting for the away team. And, true to his less-than-desirable image, the off-beat abductor never triumphs.

Which is a good thing. No one picks up a Regency with the desire to get depressed.

I would like some more competent abductors, though. It would be okay if the guy was a handsome, cunning sociopath instead of a desperate, penniless fop. There’s no need to frame him in a way that makes him completely unsuitable as a love interest before the abduction ever occurs.

The abduction can do that job well enough on its own.

(And really, that seems like the best reason for including an abduction in the plot at all.)

The Joys of Literary Beauty Pageants


Oh, those opportunistic rakes. Whatever would we do without them?

In Regency romance, any female rival is most likely a “diamond of the first water”: beautiful, poised, rich, accomplished, beautiful, well-dressed, beautiful. Did I mention that she’s beautiful? There’s a reason for that. Such stunning rival characters up the ante on a plain-Jane heroine, thereby making the heroine’s eventual triumph with the hero all that much sweeter.

Hero: My dear, you underestimate your beauty. You have the radiance of a thousand suns.

Heroine: You cannot mean it. I am so very plain.

Hero: No.  You are infinitely more beautiful than any other woman in the world.

Heroine: *swoons*

Destined Couple: *smoochy-smoochy-smoochy*

Freckle-faced Reader: The ordinary girl won out over the beauty queen? Maybe it can happen to me, too! *SQUEEEEEEEEEE!!!*

This motif is not restricted to Regencies, of course. It runs rampant through the broader Romance genre, including YA novels with a romance side-plot. It all hails back, once again, to the Girl with Low Self-Esteem (that wretched, pervasive trope).

The emphasis on physical beauty demonstrates how shallow any set of characters are. Which is why it’s so at home in Regency novels: it’s the hallmark of an era where image is everything. Women are chattel, and their main objective is marriage, so of course the prettier packages will fetch a better buyer.

(The men can be as ugly as all get-out as long as they’re rich or humorous to make up for it. Different standards for different sexes.)

In a novel where the heroine has self-esteem, it doesn’t matter how pretty a rival might be. The heroine won’t make comparisons because her worth doesn’t hinge on outshining anyone else. She might even admire the other woman’s looks and acknowledge her superior beauty.

Because it’s not a threat.

It seems as though general literary preferences tip towards the plain-girl-defeats-beautiful-rival scenario, however. Maybe it’s because we instinctively want to root for an underdog. Maybe we each see ourselves as an underdog standing against the vast and oppressive world, and such stories bolster our confidence to go out and conquer. Maybe we all have inferiority complexes and like to see those who are “superior” made to eat crow in the end.

Maybe we all think of ourselves as plain.

(I mean, I’ve been looking at this same face in the mirror for decades now. How boring is that?)

Popular literature reflects a culture’s psychology. You want to know what the people of a certain era or area value? Examine the art and literature they produce. In it you might discover their hopes, their fears, their expectations on life…

And you might discover that they have a shallow obsession with image.

(Perhaps the Regency era is not so far removed from our own after all.)

The Benefit of Bucking Traditional Values


There’s this age-old lie in romance novels that truly eligible men are looking for something new, something fresh in the woman of their dreams. Often this translates into a heroine who breaks social boundaries as a sign of her individual merit.

Don’t buy into it. In real life, he might like your sass while you’re dating, but two months into your marriage he’ll start complaining that you’re too outspoken and that your hamburger casserole tastes nothing like his mother’s. To some extent, I think, men are conditioned into assuming they want a woman who breaks boundaries. Then when they get one, they wonder why she can’t tone it down and be normal.

(Or so I’ve observed.)

Regency romances are particularly egregious at perpetuating this stereotype. For example:

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer: Judith Taverner drives her own curricle through the park in London. She takes snuff like a man (in a variety mixed for her by her love interest, and IMO, if there’s anything more disgusting than a man taking snuff, it’s a woman doing it in the name of fashion). She finally gets a good scolding when she participates in a carriage race through the countryside, but she’s been allowed to run so far off her leash that it doesn’t occur to her before this how extremely improper her actions are.

The Wooing of Miss Masters by Susan Carroll: Audra Leigh Masters swears like a man. She hates fox hunting so much that she’ll put herself in harm’s way to save the creatures, like any modern dedicated PETA member might do—except that she lives in the early 1800s, not in the twenty-first century. (Confession: this book is one of my guilty pleasures, but when you step back and look at Audra and her love interest as human beings, they’re both kind of awful. That might be why I like it so much, though.)

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson: Marianne Daventry loves to twirl, despite the disasters that happen every time she does it. She also loves to pretend she’s a dairy-maid in training both with her respectable grandmother and with slightly obnoxious gentlemen she meets by chance in country inns. But it’s totally charming of her, of course.

All of these traits make for “different” or “unique” heroines. And, admittedly, I’ve only highlighted their aberrant characteristics (though honestly, Judith and Audra are kind of lost causes when it comes to conforming to social expectations; Marianne at least has a sense of shame and tries to conduct herself with decorum in mixed company). The men who adore these women, though, are completely fictional as well.

So what kind of story would exist if the hero reflected society’s usual reaction toward a heroine with non-traditional behavior?

I present to you Fantomina by Eliza Haywood. (No, no. Don’t thank me. You haven’t even heard what it’s about yet.)

Published in 1725 (still the Georgian era, but almost a century before Regency times), this fascinatingly atrocious novella tells the story of a lady of good birth who, so taken by a fine gentleman, embarks on a course of intrigue to enjoy his intimate company. She disguises herself first as a prostitute who charms him into visiting her house for, oh, like a good two weeks. Then he gets bored and goes to Bath, so she follows him, dresses up like a servant, gets a job where he lives, and continues to enjoy his amorous company there for a month. And he gets bored again and returns to London. But she dresses up like a widow and meets him along the way, and again they share each other’s company. And so it goes. Back in London she plays three different people at once (the prostitute, the widow, and a third mask-wearing mystery woman) to keep his attentions engaged.

And because she’s been performing these illicit activities in disguise with false names, her reputation as a lady of quality remains intact.

Until she goes into labor at a very public ball and gets rushed home to deliver a strapping baby girl.

Disgrace! Ruin!

The ending really takes the cake. Forced on her delivery to confess her sins, she names the baby’s father. He gets dragged there, professing the whole time that he’s never had designs on her much less followed through on them. The full extent of her deceit emerges.

Her mother apologizes to him and sends her off to a convent for the rest of her life.

The End.

Because it’s totally fine that this fashionable gentleman was sleeping around with four or five different women at the same time (who all happened to be the same person, haha). That he unwittingly fathers a child with a lady of quality is nothing to hold against him. Certainly he shouldn’t have to take responsibility for his actions with someone who was acting outside of societal boundaries.

(Even recounting the story makes me want to… Oh, how does the Internet put it? KILL ALL THE THINGS.)

Yes, give me your lies, Regency romance. I’ll take your adorable, aberrant heroines and their dashing amours any day of the week.

I’ve seen the alternative. It’s not pretty.

Gentlemen Fine and Dandy


Amid the plethora of Regency social rules is the expectation that young ladies entering Society be presented by an established friend or relative of high reputation. There’s no showing up to the party on your own here, girls. Any unchaperoned miss will be turned away at the door.

And then gossiped about for weeks afterwards, the hussy.

This wise female protector is only one gatekeeper that guards a lady’s path from the schoolroom to social success. Other established women will determine whether she remains in good standing, whether she is admitted to certain assembly rooms, and even whether she’s allowed to dance the waltz. (Such a scandalous dance, you know. Practically the Regency equivalent of twerking.)

And it’s all a great big joke, because the morals of this period were non-existent. The façade was all that mattered.

The fictional dukes, earls, knights, counts, viscounts, etc. that have been created in the name of Regency and other Georgian-era romances quite possibly outnumber the nonfictional noblemen from A.D. 1066 to present by now. A rich, handsome lord is the big fish when it comes to romantic heroes in this genre, even though the quintessential Regency-era hero was a mere “Mr.”

(Paging Fitzwilliam Darcy. You’re wanted by women everywhere.)

You can usually tell from the onset of the story which gentleman is meant to be the romantic lead. If he’s handsome, titled, and possibly brooding, that’s your guy. The simple Mr. gets to take a back seat unless the Lord is distinctly unsuitable (like old, or fat, or dull, or ugly, or married).

The fashion of the gentleman is another clue to his suitability. We can blame Beau Brummell for that one. Or thank him, as the case may be. This is an era where a bystander could tell a man’s tailor by the cut of his coat against his shoulders. Or so the Regency genre would have us believe. The fit of the coat gets mentioned an awful lot, along with whether or not the man’s Hessian boots are polished and how his cravat is tied. (Because apparently there are multiple variations for how to tie a cravat, and one receives greater status depending on how intricate and well executed the final result is.)

Variables to this Standard Regency Hero Template can be a breath of fresh air. Miles Calverleigh in Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep, for example, doesn’t dress the part of a high-fashion gentleman because after two decades in India he doesn’t give a rip what Society thinks of him. His lack of fashion is as much a character trait for him as obsessive cravat-tying is for any other Regency hero, though.

Compare him to Julian St. John Audley, Earl of Worth from Heyer’s Regency Buck, who is a paragon of fashion without hardly trying. Worth carelessly makes up cravat styles that his fanboys immediately want to copy. He is not a dandy (heaven forbid!), but he gives such particular attention to his dress and grooming while projecting an air of indifference towards it because it’s fashionable to be fashionable while pretending not to care.

Calverleigh’s the better man in more ways than one, even if he is a mere Mr rather than a Lord. But they’re not in the same book vying for the same heroine, so it doesn’t matter.

Overdressed gentlemen, those dandies with their padded shoulders and multitude of seals and fobs, fall firmly into the “unsuitable” category. These are the uber-trendy characters, Regency hipsters perched on the cutting edge of fashion and executing it just a shade too severely for good taste. I’ve yet to read a Regency romance where an overdressed dandy plays the hero; they are typically an object of comic relief or outright scorn.

Crushing Debts and Incorrigible Rakes


Yeah, Average, think of the children!

A number of literary tropes occur in the Regency genre, but I’m only going to hit on a couple of them in this post (as foreshadowed by today’s comic).

Trope #1: The Family in Penury

Regency novels typically focus on the English upper class and nobility. Money in those ranks meant everything. This was an extravagant era led by an extravagant man. (Seriously, Prinny’s debts were astronomical enough that Parliament had to intervene, and yet he still continued his profligate lifestyle.) For much of the ton, excess luxury was treated as necessity. The upper classes had to be seen as living like upper classes. Men and women alike sought to marry into fortunes. Estates were mortgaged to the hilt to maintain lavish lifestyles.

A family in penury was a family in disgrace. Jane Austen’s social commentary confirms as much: we see it reflected in Sir Walter Elliot’s disgust at retrenchment, in Mrs. Bennett’s despair at her daughters’ lack of dowry, in the Dashwood family’s quiet retreat to the countryside, in Fanny Price being deemed little better than a servant, in the natural contempt that Emma Woodhouse displays towards Miss Bates, in how quickly General Tilney ejects Catherine Morland from his home.

Finances are a running motif of the era. Thus, when you pick up a Regency romance, you can pretty much bet that someone in those pages is penniless and desperate to hide and/or correct that detestable condition.

For Regency England, money equals status even when the ruling figurehead is hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt and racking up even more by the minute.

Trope #2: The Heiress and the Rake

The morals of this era were ridiculously lopsided. Upper class women adhered to a strict, virginal code of conduct while men could choose a life of debauchery (following after Prinny’s debauched example, no doubt). There were rules, of course. Mistresses came from the middle or lower classes, often selected from the caste of actresses and dancing girls that entertained the elite in more ways than one, and the men who kept them earned reputations as rakes. Such reputations did not get them shunned from good society, though. (In contrast, a woman’s reputation once tarnished was destroyed forever.)

Regency romance rakes have two settings: wealthy or poor.

If the rake is wealthy, his indulgences are excused; often he will reform for the heroine; sometimes the reputation is “exaggerated” (i.e., the author pulls their punch at the end of the book, à la “See? He’s actually a nice guy who let everyone think the worst of him!”).

If the rake is poor, however, he’s a scheming cad out to hoodwink an heiress into marrying him. Sometimes the protagonist is the heiress. Sometimes she’s the guardian of the heiress. At all times, those in the know agree that the prospective match is a deplorable mistake.

Keep in mind that as the reader you are supposed to love the first type of rake and despise the second. No, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s part of the rules.

The many, many rules.

The Grandmother of Guilty Pleasures


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…

Georgette Heyer.

And I sincerely hope you weren’t expecting me to say Jane Austen, because she didn’t even write Regency romance. She wrote contemporary 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.

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, get smudged by the age and environment in which they are designed.

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 that is poured 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.

The jerks.