What’s the first word that pops into your head when you hear the word Regency? If you say Romance you have just made the most common word association, a reflection of the enduring popularity of the genre originated by Georgette Heyer in the 1930’s in homage to Jane Austen. Regency Romance books are instantly recognizable by their covers, invariably featuring pictures of young women in Empire line dresses and elaborately coiffed hair. But there was much more to the decade dubbed The Regency than romance, as historian Robert Morrison makes clear in The Regency Years, his fascinating account of the decade from 1811 to 1820 in Britain. By 1811 King George III was incapacitated by madness so his son (later George IV) replaced him, with the title Prince Regent. The book’s subtitle, During which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern, gives some idea of the scope of the revolutionary changes in politics, literature, the arts, science, architecture, fashion, and more that mark the period. I was reminded of the 1960’s, also a decade of radical politics, war, social change, and literary experimentation. Dresses showing a glimpse of ankle were just as shocking in their day as the miniskirts of the 1960’s. In other parallels, the 1812 assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval caused political turmoil, and protests for social justice were sometimes harshly suppressed, for example the Peterloo Massacre.
The Regency Years is an informative and entertaining overview of a tumultuous decade. To learn more about some of the leading personalities and events of the Regency check out these books and resources:
Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age by James Essinger.
Byron’s daughter, who grew up beyond the influence of her notorious father, was a brilliant mathematician who wrote what is now considered the first computer program. She worked with Charles Babbage who used to get all the credit for creating the first computer, but he couldn’t have done it without Ada.
Byron in Love : A Short Daring Life by Edna O’Brien.
A perfect introduction to the life of literature’s first celebrity, a man whose very name became synonymous with romantic heroes – Byronic. According to Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his lovers, Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” His many liaisons included an affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, a scandal that forced him to leave the country.
Elegy Landscapes: Constable and Turner and the Intimate Sublime by Stanley Plumly.
A study of the two greatest painters of the Regency period. Constable captured the romantic landscapes of England just before they were despoiled by the industrial revolution, while Turner’s innovative style prefigured Modernism.
Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly.
A leading Austen scholar shows how, beneath the social surface of her novels, Austen explored many of the most controversial issues of her day – slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, and evolution among them. In her hands the novel evolved from an entertainment to a serious art form.
The Lady and her Monsters : A Tale of Dissections, Real-life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo.
Mary Shelley was only 18 when she began Frankenstein while staying near Lake Geneva with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, who challenged the group to write a gothic tale. More than a horror story, Shelley’s novel explored contemporary anxieties about science and obsession with the workings of the human body. It is now considered the first work of science fiction.
Waterloo: Wellington, Napoleon, and the Battle that Saved Europe by Gordon Corrigan.
The 1815 battle of Waterloo marked the final defeat of Napoleon after over a decade of war and made Wellington a British hero. Waterloo is such an iconic event for both England and France that it can cause modern tensions. I visited England shortly after train service began through the Channel Tunnel. The trains arrived in London from Paris at Waterloo Station. Newspaper headlines screamed protests from the French that on arriving in England they were confronted with their national humiliation. Now the Eurostar trains arrive at St. Pancras. I’m not sure if the change was made to mollify the French.
The Regency period saw striking new fashions in architecture and design inspired by Indian and Chinese styles. The architectural crown of this new style was the Regent’s Royal Pavilion in the seaside town of Brighton. Designed by John Nash, it is a fantasy construction of minarets, domes, and pinnacles with sumptuous interior decoration heavy on chinoiserie. I lived in Brighton when I was a student at the University of Sussex and my graduation ceremony was held in this magnificent building! You can pay a virtual visit to the Pavilion at the Brighton Museums website including a video presentation, historical background, and photos.
Check out Jane Austen’s World for all things Jane and the Regency period with links to a wealth of online information.
In fiction a personal favorite is Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries series, for who can resist finding Jane and Byron thrown together in Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron? As far as we know they never actually met, though both were often in London at the same time. Jane read Byron,“I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do”’she wrote to her sister. But there is no record of Byron reading Jane. If he had perhaps he would have mended his ways!
The colorful Regency period came to an end with the death of George III in 1820. It lives on in the books, buildings, inventions, and ideas of some remarkable men and women. And of course in an enduring vision of Romance.
Now retired after 29 years at MCPL, Rita Tull was a founding member of our blogging team and known for creating the extremely popular Readers’ Cafe. We are excited to feature Rita’s whimsical musings on literature and libraries as a guest writer for our newly formed MCPL blog!