Regencies and the modern girl

Three women in Regency dresses walking down a street
Ruth, "Jane Austen Festival 2010," Flickr, 2010.

I consider myself a modern woman, with a modern mindset and modern sensibilities. I vote every election (even the primaries!). I’m a homeowner. I have a professional, full-time job. I drive three hours to New York City to party with my best college girlfriends, leaving my husband at home to take care of our son. Yes, I’m truly modern.

If I weren’t allowed to vote, if I couldn’t own land, if I could only shop in women’s bookstores or had to live off the pin money my husband decided to give me, it wouldn’t float. In fact, I—being a modern woman—might give someone a black eye over it.

Sadly all these things were de rigueur during the early 19th-century in England—a period referred to as the Regency. Yet I, along with readers across the globe, love reading Regency-set historical romances. (Any trip to the historical aisle of Barnes and Noble will show you that Regency romances take up more room than any other historical romances.)

Why? Why do we love novels set during a time of great feminine repression?

On first glance, most would write it off as a fascination with the fairy tale notion of nobility.

Look at recent magazine covers and their sales numbers and you’ll see we can’t get enough of royalty. Regency romances give us more of those royal love stories. Dukes, duchesses and earls, oh, my! Think Kate and William, except circa 1814. It’s heaven!

Interestingly, even though we enjoy the nobility and their affairs de coeur, the royalty and fairy-tale grandeur isn’t the thing we love most.

I did an informal and anonymous survey of romance readers. 77% of those who responded said what they enjoy about the Regency genre is the caste system. Consider some of the responses I got.

“I like the language of the period and the etiquette observed by the upper classes.”

“There’s something soothing about the clearly articulated rules of the time, and the ceremony and ritual that kept (upper class, anyhow) life running smoothly.”

“[I enjoy] the idea of a caste system and the intrigues and maneuvering to get around it.”

The Regency well-to-do, or the Ton, lived under rigid set of rules. Decorum and propriety dictated the best time to visit, how to enter a dining room, and when you were allowed to address someone by their first name.

Modern life is chaotic. Rules are wishy washy. When I read Cosmo magazine, it’s filled with “the new rules” of dating, working, dressing and even exercising. And these new rules change almost monthly. Should my husband wear a sport coat to a midday wedding? Can I be Facebook friends with my ex-boyfriend’s mother? Don’t get me or my friends started on when it’s socially acceptable to call a man you’ve just met. Do you wait three days? Do you call right away? Should you follow him on Twitter?

The Regency offers us protocol, and that system gives us comfort. Even if our heroine breaks with protocol (gasp! SHE went to visit HIM instead of waiting for a call!), the variables are so much smaller and more contained than what we face on a daily basis.

That comfort alone is enough to make us fall in love. With Regency romances.

Natalie Duvall

Natalie Duvall holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and is currently working on a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University. She cohabitates with a husband, a toddler, and cats in a big old house in a charming little town in Central PA. When not writing Regency-set historical romances, she enjoys walking as much as possible, unless it's cold out. Her real jobs involve waking up way too early to teach high school English and staying up way too late to write feature articles for Fine Living Lancaster.

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