Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ might be the latest Regency Romance hit, but how well does it represent the genre?
In a previous article (see A Bridgerton Too Far) I expressed my reservations about the Netflix series Bridgerton and why I object to this kind of ‘historical’ fiction. My main objection to it is that it not only distorts history, but it gives impressionable young women a false sense of security in the freedoms they have now, but could get taken from them at any time.
My other objection to Bridgerton, and the kinds of novels it is based on, is that they do a disservice to Regency Romance, which is a genre I was very fond of in my youth.
I first discovered the period through Georgette Heyer, whom I read avidly as a teenager. However, above and beyond the pleasure she gave me, I have also her to thank for introducing me to her major influence, probably the greatest women novelist in the English language, Jane Austen. As I have observed, when I read what purports to be Regency Romance by authors like Julia Quinn and her ilk, all I can think of is that Georgette and Jane would be spinning in their graves if they knew what had become of the tradition they began.
The historical English Regency occurred between 1811 and 1820, the period in which the future George IV stood regent for his father who was insane for the last years of his life.
The Prince of Wales was renowned for his extravagance and dissipation. His world was one of luxury and high fashion. It was a time when the overly elaborate fashions of the previous centuries gave way to simplicity of line for both men and women. Wigs had been discarded. Women wore straight high-waisted gowns, and men dark, fitted coats, plain breeches and white cravats. But what the fashions had lost in decoration, they made up for in elegance.
Its mores ranged from the pragmatic morality of the Georgian period to the sexual constraint of the Victorian era. This is also the period of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath, political upheaval and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
However, the literary Regency as we know it today is a world of its own, created and mediated by the writers in a genre that was begun by Jane Austen, established by Georgette Heyer, and fostered by Barbara Cartland.
Jane Austen (1775–1817)
The first and the greatest writer of Regency Romances was Jane Austen, whose stories and characters we all know well, on the screen, if not on the page. Jane Austen’s novels were set in this era, but, of course, she was not writing historical fiction, but about her own time, place and class. She was a scrupulous observer and gave us a meticulous representation of the, admittedly, narrow world she knew, the world of the English country gentry of the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Jane Austen’s characters are not titled, but they do have long and honourable pedigrees, own large estates and command comfortable incomes. However, in this world, birth is not the only qualification. What makes a man a gentleman or a woman a lady, is not just their birth but their behaviour. They live by a strict moral code that applies to both men and women.
Jane Austen makes quite clear what kind of behaviour is acceptable, what she calls, the proprieties. There can be no intimacy, physical or otherwise, between unmarried young people. Jane Austen’s young lovers call each other by their surnames until they are engaged and do not as much as kiss even then. A young lady does not engage in private correspondence with a man unless she is engaged to him. A promise to marry must be a public declaration, so secret engagements are frowned upon and always lead to unhappiness. Elopements are a disgrace and a tragedy.
Of course, these rules are broken — even the virginal Jane Austen knew about the temptations of the flesh — but it is never her main characters that succumb and the characters that do either suffer the consequences, or prove to be morally deficient.
Jane Austen’s heroines might be sexually innocent, but they are not weak, blushing flowers. Although confined to the home by their social position, they have great intelligence and moral strength. However, their intelligence is not engaged in challenging their social milieu, but in understanding and respecting it. Their strength lies not in fighting against their lot but in appreciating and keeping to a moral code which protects their dignity and integrity. To abandon this code leaves a woman open to sexual exploitation and ruin. It is this strength and intelligence that they bring to a relationship, rather than submission to sexual desire, either their own or the man’s.
Jane Austen’s heroes are not necessarily dashing or handsome. In fact, she rarely bothers to describe them. She is much more interested in how they act and their values. They are sometimes reserved, but always well mannered. They may be flawed, but at bottom they must be honourable men. The women who grow to love them must be able to see past these flaws and accept them as they are.
We also have the anti-hero, the attractive man who charms our heroine, but who proves to be false. These men are held up as a contrast to the hero who might not be as plausible, but who will prove to be much more worthy.
And, of course, it doesn’t hurt if he can also command a few thousand a year!
Georgette Heyer (1902–1974)
Georgette Heyer regarded Jane Austen as a model and emulated her ironic tone. However, while Austen wrote about the gentry class, Heyer wrote about aristocrats who, secure in their social position, were not as closely tied to Austen’s proprieties. (see also Why I love Historical Fiction.)
Although Heyer denied she was a feminist, Austen’s demure heroines were not for her. Heyer’s central female characters are independently minded women, with a physical freedom Austen’s women would never have dreamed of. The typical Heyer heroine is a young woman with a great deal of character, who, having been brought up more as a boy than a girl, tends to have mannish habits.
Neither do Heyer’s heroes owe anything to Jane Austen, but are influenced rather by Charlotte Bronte and the Baroness Orczy. Heyer has two main hero types modelled on Mr Rochester and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The first is dark and swarthy, compelling rather than handsome. Proud and arrogant, he is brusque, cutting and savage with a foul temper. Heyer herself called him ‘a horrid type whom no woman in possession of her senses could endure for more than half a day’.
The second is a deceptively elegant man with iron beneath the silk. He is rich, suave, extremely fashionably dressed, with a drawling, ironic turn of phrase and an affectation of cynicism and boredom.
Heyer’s plots turn on the ‘merry battle’ between two strong characters as they inadvertently fall in love. Although her novels share many elements — such as the marriage of convenience, long unacknowledged passions, heroines dressed as boys, the attempted elopement, the dramatic abduction — Heyer expertly manipulates these elements in inventive, well-constructed plots.
Like Austen, however, Heyer is not really a romantic, and often the sub-plot, which may end in an ineffectual attempt to elope, will mock the romantic theme of the main plot in which two more mature people are seeking a meaningful relationship. Also, like Austen, Heyer leaves sex behind closed doors. It is not entirely denied, as more often than not the battle of the sexes is resolved in physical contact, but it is kept in its place.
Barbara Cartland (1901–2000)
Barbara Cartland, the doyen of romance, might not be the greatest exponent of Regency Romance, but she is surely its most prolific. By no means a gifted or stylistic writer, Cartland made the most of her limited talent through her ferocious energy and single-mindedness.
Obsessed with setting records, she made her rate of production her only important criterion. During her career she published 723 books, which were translated into some 40 languages and on her death left behind 130 unpublished novels wrapped in pink ribbon. Dictating at the rate of over 3,000 words an hour, two hours a day, she could produce a book a fortnight.
Although Cartland occasionally wrote contemporary romances, she preferred the idealized world of the nineteenth century and is best remembered for her quasi-historical Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian romances. She took great pride in her conservative values. Her heroines are virgins and heroes dashing. There is no sex before marriage, but each kiss is an ecstatic experience.
Her novels tend to follow a formula in which a Cinderella character meets a saturnine, handsome, rakish and cynical aristocrat who is reformed by her virtue. And unlike her predecessors, Cartland was a sentimental romantic so that even her most disreputable characters are capable of true love.
Cartland’s books suffer from the speed with which they were written. They are short, their plots weakly structured and the characters undeveloped. However, Cartland’s conviction, her sincerity and her romanticism keep her readership loyal.
My aversion to the so-called ‘Regency Romance’ we see today, may be pure nostalgia, but isn’t that the essence of Regency Romance?
© Pauline Montagna 2021