Jane Austen ruined the whole genre; or, the great appeal of Regency romances
Posted May 21, 2009on:
This is an unpopular opinion, but I am not a huge Jane Austen fan. I read a lot of Austen when I was in high school, in part because all those movies came out around that time: IMDb tells me that the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma all came out in 1995/1996 (also Clueless). I liked all the books at the time, though I always thought they were so nice and polite. I find also that a lot of women, when you ask them what their favorite romance novels are, will site Austen’s books, but… I don’t view them as romances, really, not by the definition we give romances today.
I’ve never been a big reader of historical fiction, either, and I figured my tastes in the classics veered more towards the overwrought and the Victorian. (Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books of all time, and it came to my attention recently that some events in the novel would have had to have taken place at the tail end of the Regency period, given that the book was published in 1848. I think of the novel as more Gothic or Victorian, not as sentimental as the Austen novels are.)
A few years ago, I started reading romance novels again after a very, very long hiatus. I stuck mostly to contemporaries, as I was kind of turned off by the Jane Austen sensibilities (and the great, great majority of historical romance being published today is Regency, for reasons I can’t quite figure out). But then a friend gave me her copy of Flowers from the Storm. I’d heard from several places that Laura Kinsale was one of the best writers in romance, and I’m willing to give anything a try so long as the writing is good. And I devoured this book. I don’t recall exactly which time period it takes place in; I think it’s vaguely Victorian, mid-19th century. I was really surprised how sucked into this book I got. So I then read other Kinsale, and I started checking out other historical romance.
Ann Herenden writes in an essay at the end of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander that one of the reasons she (an American woman living in 21st Century Brooklyn) likes writing in the Regency period is that it gives her the opportunity to focus mostly on social niceties and witty banter. A lot of the Regency novels put out today have the same themes as an Austen novel. They’re mostly about society, about social castes and dukes and ladies and how one is supposed to behave at parties, etc. I thought that sounded boring until I started reading other Regencies. (I particularly like Julia Quinn, if you want a recommendation.) These modern books have modern sensibilities, though, and I think there’s an awareness to them that’s absent from the 19th century novels. Women of the Regency period were supposed to behave in certain ways, and Regency heroines created by contemporary authors tend to chafe at those restrictions. They also have sex out of wedlock in great detail (although invariably end up marrying the men they have sex with anyway).
My larger point is that, I was a reluctant reader of Regencies, but I’ve since come around. I think their appeal lies largely with the fact that these books tend to be comedies (if only in the Shakespearean sense) and they focus on the relationships between people without a lot of external conflict, usually (although these books—Kinsale’s in particular, for example—can also have a lot of swashbuckling heroics). They’re fantasies, also; they take place in a bygone era, or in a modern permutation of the bygone era. The books often have dukes and earls and lavish parties, and feature the upper crust of London society. It’s so far removed from modern life as to be appealing.
So, I toss it to you, readers of historical romance or others. What appeals (or doesn’t) to you about the sub-genre?