The long-standing fascination with Regency romance
COLLAGE: KAZI AKIB BIN ASAD
COLLAGE: KAZI AKIB BIN ASAD
I know it says “romance” in the title, but you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that romance is my least favorite genre in literature. It took me several months to go through the Shakespearean classic, Romeo and Juliet, simply because I was too bored to continue reading it in one go. Any attempt to read a Nicholas Sparks novel only resulted in me dozing off or flipping through the last chapter to see how the story ended.
But I ended up making an exception for Jane Austen Pride and Prejudicethat of Julia Quinn Bridgerton series (Avon, 2004-2006), Meg Cabot’s Nicola and the Viscount (HarperTeen, 2004), and quite soon, romances inspired by the high society of the British Regency period.
The real question is this: how is it that the privileged life of the British upper classes, in a period that lasted arguably less than a decade, managed to leave such an impressive legacy in English literature?
The literary works of Jane Austen would most likely be blamed for the birth of fictional novels set in the Regency era. We would be partially right. Although it was indeed Austen who wrote some of the oldest and most iconic romances of the Regency era, stories such as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma, it was the novelist Georgette Heyer who helped popularize the “Regency romance” subgenre in the early 20th century, her works borrowing heavily from Austen’s. Appeal to the literary subgenre declined sharply around the turn of the 20th century as readers focused their attention on the broader genre of historical novels. Regency romances picked up steam after the 2010s, with contemporary authors Martha Waters, Vanessa Riley and Evie Dunmore breathing new life into the subgenre by bringing modern ideas and concepts into the context of traditional settings. These days, the traditional aspects of a Regency romance – the sexist and racist undertones – are often dropped or skewed in favor of more modern perspectives, in order to appeal to a contemporary audience.
The stories, however, almost always begin as a complicated and heavily loaded heteronormative love story set in the years 1811 to 1820. Modern-day novelists have subjected this classic storyline to various treatments of their own, modernizing the subgenre over time. But there is so much more to a Regency romance.
Its real appeal lies in its ability to deliver absolute escapism, in the form of a period romance full of nearly endless drama. In the fictional world of Regency romances, there are always balls to attend and weddings to plan, with whispers of ensuing scandal around every corner. The days consist largely of daily walks or carriage rides and elegant dinners.
Amidst it all, the romance between the protagonists unfolds like a slow burn through heated banter and stolen glances across ballrooms and dining rooms. What begins as a battle of words between two equally headstrong individuals always ends in an almost fairytale happy ending. These accounts have nothing to do with the harsh reality of the time – the misery and poverty of communities outside the court circle, austere class and racial inequality – while reflecting the growing popularity at the time. “fashionable novels” that portrayed the upper classes in all walks of life. their charm. That’s what really appeals to a reader, the opportunity to take fictional accounts of the lives of a select few for what they are: thoroughly entertaining works of fiction, and nothing more.
The romantic tension in these stories stems not from “love at first sight”, but rather from an “intense dislike at first sight”. A Regency romance believes in finding a match between two people who challenge each other intellectually instead of sharing the same opinions on everything. The couple find their way to love upside down. This allows the plot to explore the underlying passion in disliking an individual and what such intense emotions might become. The reader thus attends the love between protagonists which is expressed less by physical contact than by subtle gestures: a sudden shortness of breath, a touch of the fingertips, a nostalgic gaze. There is something beautifully poetic about the idea that love is communicated entirely through small actions meant to go unnoticed.
Rasha Jameel is studying microbiology while pursuing her passion for writing. Contact her at email@example.com.