Why Regency romance still reigns, 200 years after Jane Austen

Every few years, the Austenites have to feed. Netflix’s adaptation of “Persuasion” and revival of cult show “Sanditon” are the latest offerings from Jane Austen, whose memory must be regularly soothed by new odes to her groundbreaking romantic novels.
However, the appeal of Regency-era romance extends far beyond the works of Austen and other forebears of the subgenre. On screen and on shelves, new tales constantly reinvent and reinhabit the world of 1800s England – the film ‘Mr Malcolm’s List’, the phenomenon ‘Bridgerton’ and countless best-selling novels command legions of Regency fans.
It wouldn’t be so remarkable if the present moment weren’t so… unsexy. What is generally considered to be Novel “Regency” takes place in Great Britain in the 19th century. (The regency period itself was very shortfrom 1811 to 1820. “Period” or “historical” novels are more accurate, but less used, descriptors for some stories.)

Aesthetically, these stories are marked by lavish clothing, pastoral settings, bustling balls, and noble families with too much money and too much free time. However, they take place in an era characterized by deeply restrictive social rules and great inequalities. What’s so romantic about a world where a young woman can be forced into marriage just because she’s alone with a man? What could inspire less ardor than a time when women could neither vote nor own property?

History and fantasy collide

Left to right: Lydia Rose Bewley, Richard E. Grant, Dakota Johnson and Yolanda Kettle star in the 2022 adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel, “Persuasion.” Credit: Wall Nick/Netflix

The first and most obvious answer is that of heritage. Regency romances are popular because the Regency period that’s when the romance novel became popular. Pride and Prejudice, a titan of the genre, was first published in 1813. The works of Austen, the Brontë sisters and Georgette Heyer, who helped solidify the genre of historical romance in the 1900s, are still very influential on new works of historical romance and to wider pop culture.

Then there is the fantasy of it all. To watch a period romance or read a novel is to get lost in a world of silk ballgowns and walled gardens. Even works focused on lower-class characters carry the romantic allure of an era without the internet or Instagram — even if it was also an era without, say, penicillin or equal rights.

These fantasies manifest in fashion and social media trends, where one dreams of rejecting society and fleeing to a cottage among the mushrooms, a filmy dress flapping around the ankles. The period pieces also emphasize witty, subtle dialogues and meaningful, non-sexual encounters that nevertheless simmer with tension. In these stories, expressions of love and desire become an art form. (It’s no wonder the female gaze is so often demonstrated with The unique flex of Mr. Darcy’s second hand in the 2005 remake of “Pride and Prejudice”.)

Not to mention, while Regency heroines can rail against social systems that leave them with no purpose other than to be pretty, calm and still, in overworked and overworked modern minds, such torpor is starting to sound pretty good.

Real conversations emerge

Rose Williams and Theo James in

Rose Williams and Theo James in “Sanditon”. Credit: Simon Ridgway/© Red Planet Pictures / ITV 2019

However, none of this really explains why the Regency era continues to inspire unique stories, rather than the 800th remix of “Pride and Prejudice.”

For writers, readers, and genre watchers, there is a surprising amount of possibility within the restriction. In his book “A natural history of the romance novel“, Pamela Regis points out that the 1800s were a time of great social change in Britain.

“For centuries, choosing a husband has been the crucial decision for more women,” she writes. “The romance novel emerged as a dominant form of the English novel just as a husband’s expectations changed. Emotional individualism added to choice a desire for freedom.”

In other words, women paid more attention to themselves and their needs. If marriage was a type of bondage that granted even very few rights to wealthy women, marriage with love—marriage on a woman’s terms—was ultimately a goal of freedom.

Emerging class consciousness and the throes of the Industrial Revolution meant that social opinions were also changing. The most successful works of Regency romance explore some aspect of this, and the lessons they contain are universally applicable.

“An axiom of the genre is the idea that all romance, regardless of the actual time period, is actually a conversation about the present,” says Jennifer Prokopa romance critic and editor who co-hosts the “Fated Mates” romance podcast.

New voices join

Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu star in the 2022s

Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu star in “Mr Malcom’s List” in 2022. Credit: IMDB

The historical constraints of Regency-era romance suggest a homogeneity, both of possible narratives and of characters that are predominantly white, young, straight, and well-to-do. But more and more authors and creators are charting more diverse paths in the genre. Vanessa Riley’s Bestseller”A duke, a lady and a baby“features a West Indian heiress heroine, just like the ITV/PBS show”Sandton,which is based on an unfinished Austen manuscript.
Works by Olivia Waite and others tell tales of odd characters, older heroines, and women who devoted themselves, for the time, to “unwomanly” pursuits like science and engineering. “A lady for a duke“, by Alexis Hall, was released this year and features a transgender woman who survives a war and falls in love with her best friend. Even in Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” based on a book series with no explicit racial diversity, Kate Sheffield becomes Kate Sharma, and her Indian ancestry has historical roots.
It seems almost unfair to highlight this small collection of books and shows, since there are so many more that exemplify the evolution of the genre. According to a 2017 survey by Romance Writers of America, historical romance is the third most popular genre of romantic fiction. More recent hits show that the lure of Regency romance is strong enough to inspire readers and writers to keep exploring incredibly – sometimes chilling – modern stories.

“Once you delve into historical romance or period dramas, you realize that people were then struggling with the same human concerns that we are struggling with now,” says Prokop. “Personally, I find it deeply heartwarming: For generations, people have been fighting to make the world a better place. Now it’s time for me to come out and fight too.”

In this world, under the Aubisson carpets and the layers of underwear, blows the wind of social change. Love is not something frivolous, but something to fight for – something to fight for. Although we now have indoor plumbing and universal suffrage, romance lovers seeking solutions to real-life challenges often find the past can be a fertile, and perhaps less painful, place to imagine them. .


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