But we LIKE Stays

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!



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77 responses to “But we LIKE Stays

  1. “I’ve proof-read friends’ erotica, for the love of bob,”

    You misspelled “boob.” [running away laughing!!!]

  2. paladin3001

    Okay, you are making this sound really interesting. And plausible to write as well for me. After I research and dig through some of the authors mentioned.

    • Both Heyer and Austen are a delight to read. (Austen a bit tougher, on account of being a couple centuries old. But still a delight. Especially Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey–which is absolutely hysterical if you’ve ever been a fan of Gothic Romances is any form, old or modern.)

  3. 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.

    I don’t do romances, but Matilda the Muse suggested a modern one that not only starts and ends in bed, but most of it centers around the bed, all while remaining absolutely chaste. She’s an interior decorator and he makes customer furniture, and the infuriating client wants a special made canopy bed..

  4. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    One thing I think that could be a good regency story is where the “barrier” is that she “had a past” and she has to prove to the Society Matrons that she is now respectable.

    IE him marrying her doesn’t make her respectable, the approval of the Society Matrons make her respectable.

    Of course, without the approval of the Society Matrons, they (the couple) won’t be invited to the major Social Events (where plenty of business, political and otherwise takes place).

    • One of my favorites–although it’s technically a Victorian, not a Regency–has the heroine as a courtesan trying to get out of the life. Her previous patron–with whom she has a serious beef, for good reason–offers her a huge chunk of money to seduce a particular young man. This young man is a bit of a society sensation both for advocating that men should be expected to be just as virginal as women, and for being open about the fact that he is himself one.

      It was a nice flip of the usual–and really, the only time I’ve ever read a historical romance where it was the man who was the virgin and not the woman. Also a nice flip where it is the woman who is the ‘untrustworthy, shady’ one.

  5. You like stays? How about a romance-cum-murder-mystery where the murder weapon is a corset. That way, the victim could be killed by a stay, and the sentence could lead to a stay of execution. What’s not to like?


  6. Matthew

    “Romance benefits from restraints.”

    Uhh…. Phrasing!

  7. Zsuzsa

    I read an article once suggesting that modern romance has a problem because there just isn’t a lot at stake. In Austen’s time, choosing a Wickham over a Darcy meant basically ruining yourself for life; there was no way to undo that kind of mistake. In the modern setting, if you choose Wickham, okay the divorce is going to be nasty, if there are kids, that’ll be an additional complication, but ultimately, you can fix this and find yourself a better partner.

    As far as Heyer goes, she’s been recommended a lot now, and I think I might give her a try. Any recommendations on where to start?

    • Yep.
      Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle
      The Toll Gate
      Black Sheep
      Infamous Army
      Civil contract
      Or, you know, just start anywhere. Romances, though, not mysteries.

      • My mother started me with Cotillion. Great heroine, totally naive (but believably so.) “Must one learn to have principles?” And Freddy still cracks me up, the more so as I learn more of the allusions Heyer’s dropping. Mind you, Austen would be horrified at the whole plot, but that’s the difference between Heyer and Austen. It’s fun for us but ruin for then.

    • The Unknown Ajax
      One caveat: some start slow by modern standards. Keep going.

    • Any of the Heyers, really–but I especially love Frederica (younger siblings getting into HILARIOUS amounts of adorable trouble) and the Reluctant Widow (because it’s such a ridiculous situation. And a ridiculous dog. Also another hilarious younger sib on the scene–Heyer was really good at those.)

  8. Erk. Given the way Joschka and Rada’s story in the Cat books runs, I may have edged into Regency territory, except reversed roles (he could lose status and have an uncertain future if he marries her). Which is interesting, given that by the time the plot-arc had set itself, I’d never read a non “regency” Regency romance (i.e. one that wasn’t moderns in period dress. [My grandmother’s Harlequins. They were books, and available.])

  9. I like stays, too … especially under my period costumes … They make me stand up straight, and the bodices have a pleasing line … oh, that wasn’t the topic?
    Never mind.
    Carry on.
    Er. Metaphorically.

    • Corsets are actually comfortable garments IF they are fitted properly AND they are not laced too tight (“too tight” depends on practice; the times we’ve used corsets in shows, they were always laced tighter by the end of the run. (And on two-show days, all the actresses would have lighter in-between meals so as to not feel pained.)

      Note that if you’re making a period garment and you’re not intending to tightly lace, you should still put stays in so it looks correct. I’ve seen garments designed for corsetry that have no corsets and they look messy. You can make stays out of giant zip ties, BTW. Just round the ends at the needed lengths. Not nearly as durable as steel, but plenty enough to get the look right.

      • Yes. A properly fitted bodice or corset is quite comfortable. The key is having it fit your torso length. I have three dirndles that were customized for me, and they are wonderful to wear. A few others are looser, but the torsos are a little long, and they are not nearly as comfortable.

  10. No.
    I came into this circle as a reader of military sci-fi.
    Y’all persuaded me to try a little of the fairies and elves.
    And vampires.
    And I even read musketeers, furniture refinishing, witches, westerns, dragon killing, pixies and world-ruling gay clones.
    But I’m not gonna read no Regency.

    • Have you read Witchfinder???? (Waggles eyebrows)

    • But…but…GEORGETTE HEYER. (Whom Bujold dedicates A Civil Campaign to, along with Austen, Sayers, and…I think there was a fourth, but can’t recall who…)

      Also a number of hers might arguable be called ‘Georgians’ rather than Regencies, and nearly all of them involve zany and frequently hilarious hijinx of various kinds. (The world-weary nobleman becoming enthralled with the heroine’s science-experimenting and dog-rescuing younger siblings in Frederica remains one of my all time favorite things. I swear the man married the woman in the end just so he could see what her sibs would do next…)

  11. Draven

    So when are you gonna write a regency IN SPAAAAACEEEEE

    • Matthew

      Lois Bujold “A Civil Campaign”

    • Winter Prince is started and waiting to be finished. DUH.

    • BAS

      Working on it. Hit 15,000 words yesterday.

      It’s all Sarah’s fault. 😀 She gave me the idea, then fed my Heyer addiction so I had the period language in my head.

    • The late lamented Jack Vance wrote a lot of Regency-style stuff. Usually left out the romance parts, though. Sort of “science fiction meets Regency meets men’s adventure.”

      • Do you have a couple titles to suggest? I’ve tried Vance and not found him my cup of tea, but your description makes me want to try again.

        • That was my reaction, too, Laura. Maybe I started in the wrong place?

          • Basically everything but his early early work is a novel of manners. But yeah, with spaceships, mysterious shops, crime syndicates, and the odd bit of pew-pew and swordplay.

            Well, I really like The Gray Prince. Should an entire planet be given back to its indigenous population? This title is not for SJWs… no….

            Big Planet is a great adventure story. It’s a really big planet, full of different cultures, and the hero has to make his way around it to get to a spaceport.

            If you like something a little more Grand Guignol, there’s a series of five books (The Demon Princes) where a Count of Monte Cristo type guy flies around getting revenge on five supervillains.

            The Cadwal Chronicles were three of his later books that are very Regency-ish. The hero keeps running into all sorts of serious skulduggery.

            • Amazing varieties of alien races and cultures and histories. Seriously, this man tossed off ideas in a paragraph that could take a whole trilogy for other people.

              The thing is, his narrative tone is very much like Cabell, except… um… more skeptical? more apt to pretend he doesn’t see moral differences, even as he lays them out clearly for the reader? more world-weary? So sometimes you just won’t be in the mood for Vance, but other times you’ll laugh with delight. (And really, he’s not nearly as exasperating as Cabell, because his view of the world is much much more realistic.)

              But yeah, some of his books are very different from others, in theme and ultimate feeling, even though they often seem similar at first. (Mostly because Vance narrates like Vance.) There’s a lot of difference between The Dying Earth books (which of course are big influences for D&D thieves, spells, etc. but are actually SF) and the The Five Princes books, particularly in terms of whether the main characters can actually make a difference.

              • Oh, yeah, James Branch Cabell. American writer of a series of 20 or 30 historical (sort of) fantasy novels, as well as 10 or 20 Virginian historical and contemporary novels. All his books were tied together by a framing device. If you’ve ever heard of Poictesme, that’s what they were talking about. The famously banned in Boston fantasy novel, Jurgen, is in the public domain, as are some of the others.

                The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison is actually more medieval and/or Shakespearean fantasy rather than Regency, although his books share some of Cabell’s “eternal goddess woman” thing. It’s certainly mannered, though it also features some of the most brutal mountain climbing scenes in all sf/f. (Eddison had a hobby. Guess what it was.)

                • Anyway… Cabell is sort of anti-romance, although a lot of his books would have a great romantic happy ending if they stopped in the middle. Eddison is a romantic, but the eternal goddess woman thing kinda fights with it. And he’s totally okay with sad endings to love stories.

                • snelson134

                  He always hit me as Thomas Malory crossed with Dumas.

            • Sigh. I just finished Cornwell’s Waterloo. It’s kind of weird to finish a 21-books series. I feel like I’ve been living inside it. I think I started it a year ago, with only the occasional pause to read other novels. I’ve ordered Heyer’s Spanish Bride as some sort of methadone. That’s the theory anyway; but it’s not here yet, the shakes have started, and I’m staring out the window a lot. Vance is back on my list.

  12. Sarah, is Madeleine Hunter good?

  13. BobtheRegisterredFool

    But do you like Fate/Stay Night?

    (Japanese media property, originally a pornographic video game. One of the most iconic characters is a female King Arthur.)

  14. You could try novels with relationships in them (and love) which are NOT Romances (as the term is now used). Some of us write them. The memes of the Romance are taken from life, and don’t necessarily need to be so exaggerated.

    • I’ve always thought that the romance between Sam Houston and Margaret Lea was a perfect Regency-style romance … he was twice her age, twice-divorced, a hard-drinking reprobate and war hero … and she was this gently-raised Southern belle who fell in love with him after seeing him at a distance, and then pledged to marry him after a week of courtship.
      Against every expectation, they were a devoted and happy couple …

  15. mrsizer

    Most of the traditionally published regencies are more dress-up farces with thoroughly modern characters.
    I made it about 20 minutes through the first episode of some new Musketeers thing (Netflix, maybe). When I started screaming “but they wouldn’t do that!” at the screen I realized that it wasn’t for me.