So, why Regency romances? Why on Earth does this, by far, dominate the historical romance field? Other than Austen and Heyer that is?
Well, part of it is Austen and Heyer. Giants tend to leave an outsized footprint in the fields they work in, even if the field (romance) was not exactly where Austen was working and even if the subgenre didn’t exist before Heyer.
But wait, there’s more!
I confess I don’t read much present-day romance. I browse them sometimes, and they seem to start and end in bed, with often most of the middle being in bed also.
Look, I really am not a prude, as anyone who’s sat around with me at a con or other informal gathering can attest. I might be the opposite of a prude. I’ve proof-read friends’ erotica, for the love of bob, and my highest payment for a short story was for an erotica magazine (alas, short lived, but 2k for 6k words? I’d do that again.)
It’s just that if I want to buy erotica, I buy erotica (rarely. My imagination is better than theirs). I don’t buy romance. Romance should be relationships which are mostly missing from these so called romances.
So, yeah, I don’t read much of them. (There are exceptions, as in romances that are more thriller or WIP or whatever. In my book Rebecca is a mystery (I first read it in a mystery anthology) and apparently a lot of people agree with me.)
I — now — also don’t read much in traditionally published regencies, but I used to — always skipping past the inappropriately placed and jarring sex scenes — but I do read a ton on line, that are more like Heyer than the traditionally published ones. They seem to do pretty well, too.
So why would they do well? Why read them?
1- Romance benefits from restraints. I think the reason contemporary romances go tumbling straight into erotica (at least absent the other structure like thriller or WIP) is that there are very few restraints to marriage these days. “You love her? Get married.” “You want him? Sleep with him.” “You’re divorced? Have kids? No problem. You can always start a new relationship.”
Absent those restraints, people have to invent the world’s dumbest things to bring conflict to the novel. For a while I read a bunch of contemporary because someone had given me a box of them. (Okay, the secret is out. No, I can’t keep my mitts off books in this house.) I got really tired of the “you lied to me” because the guy had forgotten to, or hadn’t disclosed his entire history the minute they met. I got tired of willful misunderstandings (no, Pride and Prejudice wasn’t one) etc.
The Regency has manners and modes of doing things, and barriers on what you can do. Regencies seem to succeed or fail depending on how close to the original manners and restraints they are. No, you can’t be exactly right. Look, if you read Austen, you come across situations where a character is being mocked, and you have no CLUE why. You know they did something wrong, but their manners and ours are so different, you can only guess.
Heyer soft-pedals that more. There might be some allusion to its being sinful to travel on Sunday, say, but she doesn’t go fully into the past, which, as we know, is a foreign country.
Most of the traditionally published regencies are more dress-up farces with thoroughly modern characters. These leaves them two options: haranguing the past, with main characters who are suffragettes or run shelters for abused women and generally show how informed they are by rebelling against the past they’re supposed to live in; and sex.
Yes, really good writers can make this work, but really good writers can make anything work. For the rest Regency is still slightly easier.
Even in dress up farces there are barriers they can invoke to happy ever after: previous marriages, being dishonored, etc. It keeps us from having the conflict descend to the level of kindergarten spats.
2- Women like me.
Okay, here’s the thing, sure, partly because of my older brother, but partly because I was a serious, over-thinking kind of woman (a blue-stocking in Regency terms) I didn’t read romance till my late thirties.
Sure there are tons of reasons for that, including that skimming my older cousins’ books put me off it. BUT the more important one is that romance seemed… senseless to me.
Sure, it’s a very important personal decision. And yeah, even when we’re dragged kicking and screaming into it, we too fall in love. BUT reading about it? Over and over again? When we know it ends in happily ever after? What is the point?
Regencies have the advantage of us knowing that in that time and in that place romance was as much a business arrangement as anything else. Who you married, certainly for a woman but to an extent for a man too, could make or break your entire life. Sure, it still can but it’s less obvious now, and these aspects are certainly not brought up in contemporary romances.
So you can read it and evaluate the love interest as “she’ll be the making of him” or “he’ll ruin her” and it raises the stakes on the whole thing.
There are other reasons for Regency to be popular too. The Regency era was very much a time when men were men and women were women. The class about whom these romances are (no, it wasn’t the majority of people) is comfortable enough that if you don’t dwell into matters of plumbing or lack of antibiotics, you can make it a “glitz romance” a place where people can spend time in their minds and enjoy being “rich” in fantasy. It was also, while still incredibly stifling by our standards, a time when restraint wasn’t as strictly enforced as in the preceding and succeeding era, so you can have saucy misses who do not pay the price for their sauciness.
There is kind of a structure that goes with them. These are told mostly in the woman’s POV (though Heyer, and some modern practitioners — Madeleine Hunter is a good one — interject the male POV too.)
Usually the idea is to start with the woman in her normal life, having some kind of problem that she can’t solve and might not be aware of. (In Venetia, for instance, it is obvious she is incredibly lonely. But she doesn’t know it.)
There are rumors/accidental meeting with a man. Almost always the man has a dangerous reputation — the field is littered with Dangerous Dukes and Rakish Rogues — which makes the woman distrust him.
Meetings continue happening and for a while she interprets everything he does as meaning he’s despicably rakish or a loose fish, or too proud (Really read Heyer’s Sylvester) but at the same time she feels inexplicably attracted to him. The writer needs to call attention to his acts of kindness to her, etc, which is harder if you don’t have his POV, but perfectly possible. If you also have his POV you need to show the same from his side. This is where a lot of modern regency writers have sex happen and the two be smitten by the glittery hoo ha and the man with the golden gun. But that’s not NEEDED. (All I can say is that after regencies started putting in sex, there was a brief uptick, because people who normally didn’t read them read them for the erotica, but then print runs headed straight down. Part of this is the net, yah. If we want erotica there are easier and cheaper ways.)
At some point, usually associated with a crisis in the woman’s life (in Pride and Prejudice it is Lydia’s elopement) the man comes through brilliantly, and for the first time she sees him in his true colors, and realizes either his character was maligned or, if you’re a really good writer, and Heyer does this a lot, his character really has these issues, but there is a reason to them, and he’s either realized and he’s trying to improve, or she can live with them.
And then it remains only to clear the debris of the plot: his fixing his mistakes; her deciding she can live with them and overcoming all opposition, etc, in order to reach the happily ever after.
Some of the traditionally published regencies bolster their back bone with mysteries or thriller elements. The best of the modern romances do too.
Upcoming: There’s a mystery in my romance!