Some people have asked my why I love the Regency period and why I wanted to write books in it. And so, in response to popular demand, here is a non-exhaustive list of reasons why I find the Regency period in British history to be fascinating:
Let’s face it. This is a big draw. And there are a few reasons why. First of all, the men’s clothes: white shirts, waistcoats, judiciously starched collars, cravats, tight pants (not so big a fan of the pleated pantaloons, I’ll admit) and tall boots all combine to produce results that are… well, self-explanatory (or should be). And not a powdered wig among them. Guys looked good in this period–and frankly, you can’t say that about many other periods in history. That’s a fact, pure and simple.
BUT, even more significant a draw are the women’s clothes. For a few golden years, in the early 19th century, women of means got out of the tightly laced corsets and stays, out of the big skirts and the restrictive garments. They could move. Do stuff. Eat. Live life, without any threat of fainting. This is exciting. Plus, of course, they looked pretty and elegant, with their curls, their simple dresses, spencer jackets and all the trimmings of the period (I favour the simple, Classical lines of early Regency over the frills and furbelows of the later period, but that’s personal taste).
The Times they were A’Changin’
Another reason that I love the Regency is that at the time, Britain was poised at the nexus of three significant, world-changing revolutions: the Agrarian Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
The Agrarian Revolution began sometime before, in the eighteenth century, with innovations like selective breeding and the shift from the broadcast method of seeding fields (throw them and hope they land on good soil, just like in the biblical parable) to the invention, by the original Jethro Tull, of the seed drill (whose mechanism was based, rather fascinatingly, on the internal action of a pipe organ!). These innovations, begun years earlier, took time to gain acceptance in the farming and landowning community. It also took time for their benefits–better harvests and plumper cattle–to be felt, in the form of lower mortality rates. The population grew, and within a generation or two, there was a workforce–more than the farms had need of–ready to migrate to the cities to work in the nascent mills and factories.
The Industrial Revolution, of course, reached its height during the Victorian period–another era that I like and find fascinating. But, one of the appeals of writing about the gentry and nobility during the Regency era is that it’s on the cusp of all those changes. It is the last time in British history when the economy was largely agrarian and the landholder was king. With the rise of industry, the pace of life changed, the power dynamics of society shifted, and the world became a darker place–literally, as the coal-fired factories generated the sooty air, gloomy prospects and dark-limned palette of the Victorian era.
The French Revolution represented a third harbinger of change–in conjunction with the rise of industry, it marked the shift away from the hereditary titles, classism, and hierarchies of the earlier periods. While I’m all in favour of the shift towards something closer to meritocracy that began then, when it’s fiction, and we can all be part of the gentry, it’s fun to indulge in a little bit of escape, and go off to a make-believe world where wit and repartee prevail and courtship is both romantic and titillatingly cumbersome–and where the stakes were higher, as the consequences of a misstep involved both personal heartbreak and shunning by your peers.
The English Countryside
As a related point to my comments about industrialism, the Regency was the last time when the English countryside was still agrarian and untouched by the modern encroachments of infrastructure–and by this, I mean the railway, of course. The infrastructure of the railway was revolutionary as well–it brought travel and migration to a far larger segment of the population. Now you didn’t have to walk for days nor buy an (expensive) spot on a carriage. It still wasn’t cheap for many of the farming and soon-to-be working classes, but it was far more accessible. It also meant that the country was more accessible and the pace of life changed. While this brought many good things to the country, again, it meant that the Regency was the last distinct era in which the pace of life was unhurried, and many parts of the country were exotically remote. I love this idea of leisure (again, for escapist narrative–I know life was much more difficult for many before the rail, economies were more localized and vulnerable to bad harvests etc., but as a setting for fiction, it’s immensely appealing).
The Season and the Ton
In part because of the earlier points–the remoteness of regions and the difficulties of travel, the Season of the Regency carried with it extra sparkle and excitement (again, in my mind at least). It was expensive and difficult to get to London for a Season. You had to rent a place (preferably in the fashionable part of town; renting in a district associated with trade was just not done); buy a wardrobe of clothing and accessories for the family (made by London seamstresses rather than the country ones, if you didn’t want to seem hopelessly provincial); entertain lavishly (and hope that people came to your “do” rather than to one of the competing ones elsewhere in Town); and pay tips to servants at every other event you attended. It all added up, and for some, it was out of their reach. But for those who could go–who could just barely manage to afford all these expenses, a Season was extraordinarily exciting and often the only one they would ever experience.
I find this–and the overall phenomenon of the Season itself–fascinating. I’m also intrigued by the insularity of it–how everyone was watching everyone else. It’s all about navigating a closed society that was often very different to the people one associated with in the country, at home. People judged constantly, often on the most trivial of things, and gossip was the primary source of entertainment. So while the prospect of a Season was exciting, it was also immeasurably daunting (I suspect that my novel most overtly deals with this facet of my fascination with the Regency: the Season and the challenges it presents).
There are, of course, many more reasons to love the Regency–and I’m obviously not the only one who does. I was at Costco a couple of days ago, picking up a copy of the BBC adaptation of Persuasion ($8.99 CDN!!) and a number of women remarked on how much they loved it. A few saw me with it and went over and got their own copies. Ah yes–the Regency!