Of all historical novels, Regency romances seem to be one of the most distinctive genres, and although their popularity has waxed and waned they have never completely gone out of style. Set approximately during the period of the British Regency (1811–1820) they have their own plot and stylistic conventions. Many people think of Jane Austen when Regencies are mentioned and certainly her novels are set in the right period, but of course she was writing as a contemporary not as a historian.
It has always seemed to me that Georgette Heyer was the mother of the current Regency genre. She wrote more than twenty novels set during the Regency, between 1935 and her death in 1974 and her books were very much like a comedy of manners. There was little discussion of sex, understandable given the different views of her generation, and a great emphasis on clever, quick witted dialogue between the characters.
These days, Regencies seem to be divided into two sub genres. There are the traditional Regencies which are similar to Heyer’s originals, and a more modern Regency historical genre. Many authors do not seem to confine themselves to one of these two types but may move between the two. Both are currently popular.
Traditional Regencies emphasise the main romantic plot. They play close attention to historical detail and take care to replicate the voice of the genre. There is a good deal of research for writers of traditional Regencies. Heroes and heroines generally remain within the accepted rules and conditions of the period and although their may be some sex it is very likely that the action stops at the bedroom door, probably at the proposal of marriage.
The more modern Regency historical novels break more rules. They may be set during the time period but not necessarily in high society with an insight into life outside of the world of wealth and privilege inhabited by Georgette Heyer’s characters. They may also include characters who behave in a more modern way, particularly when it comes to sexual behaviour and moral values. The style can be very different to the more traditional works. There is another sub genre, the sensual Regency which has become very popular in recent years. These novels are far more explicit than the traditional Regency and the sexual relationship between the hero and heroine is key to the book.
There are some elements which are likely to crop up in all genres of Regency novels. Many are set in, or will refer to the Ton, which means the top layer of English society. They revolve around social activities such as balls, dinners, assemblies and other common pastimes. Men are often involved in sporting activities. There are detailed descriptions of fashion and a consciousness of social class and the rules of behaviour. The difference between them is that in traditional Regencies the heroine is likely to stick to them; in the modern genre pretty much anything goes.
The shift in the genre seems to have come about because of a slump in the popularity of Regencies in the 1990s. Some authors began incorporating more sex into their novels and while lovers of traditional Regencies disliked it, publishers and readers seemed to approve and the Regency novel got a new lease of life.
I grew up reading Georgette Heyer and owned every one of her books in paperback – I still have some of them and still read them from time to time. They are, for me, the ultimate comfort book – the only other series which comes close are P G Wodehouse’s tales of Jeeves and Wooster. These are the books I’ll turn to if I’m ill or miserable or sometimes just because my brain hurts and I can’t focus on anything else. They are written to entertain and with their quick dialogue and comedic moments they never let me down.
I wrote my first Regency novel for the Mills and Boon market during the years I was trying to find a traditional publisher. I’d tried several other novels, including at least two contemporary ones which are never going to see the light of day again, and had joined the Romantic Novelists Association new writers scheme. After very positive feedback on both A Respectable Woman and A Marcher Lord it was suggested that I try to adapt these to Mills and Boon. I did try, but it couldn’t be done. It appeared that I simply could not have a heroine who defended herself very capably against attack; it was the job of the hero to rescue her and Jenny Marchant simply wouldn’t wait. In fact she was more likely to do the rescuing. Philippa Maclay was even worse, she didn’t make it through two chapters without doing something so appalling that it put her beyond hope of redemption. If I rewrote these characters then I would be writing a different book. I gave it up and decided to start from scratch.
Out of that decision came Cordelia Summers and Giles Fenwick of The Reluctant Debutante. Once I got into the swing of it I really loved writing this book. It’s fun and fairly light hearted. I was already doing a lot of research into the period for my series set during the Peninsular war and that fitted very well with a Regency so it wasn’t that much extra work. And the fast paced dialogue and witty characters of the Regency genre exist in all my books, no matter which period they’re set in. I realise that those years of reading Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett have affected the way all my characters speak. They may have different accents and different levels of education, but most of them are smart mouths.
I had a lovely response from Mills and Boon on the Reluctant Debutante. It was a no, but a very detailed no. They liked the setting and the characters and even the plot, but once again my characters let me down. There was not enough internal conflict between them, it seemed; most of their difficulties were external and their way of overcoming them was not dramatic enough. Could I rewrite it to include more conflict between Cordelia and Giles?
I did try. I wrote a selection of scenes for them. The trouble was, trying to fit them into the book made no sense whatsoever. I’d already created these people and their responses to events grew out of their essential character. Cordelia might have flatly refused to see Giles after their quarrel and there could have been weeks of agonising and misunderstandings. But there wasn’t. Cordelia was as mad as a wet hen but once she saw him again, she didn’t have it in her not to listen to his explanation. She’s a practical girl with a wealth of common sense. She simply can’t behave like a drama queen.
So Giles and Cordelia remained as themselves and I published the book pretty much as I’d originally written it, with the removal of one or two completely gratuitous sex scenes which didn’t seem to add anything to the plot. I’ve been delighted with people’s response to it. So far it’s the best selling of all the books although the others are starting to catch up and readers seem to love it.
The amount of sex in my books varies a fair bit and for me that reflects reality. Everyone is different in how they feel about sex both in books and in real life. It’s not hard for me to write about sex; I used to be a relationship counsellor so I’m difficult to shock. At the same time I need my characters to develop their own attitudes towards sex and it needs to fit within the social norms of the time and one of the most important things to remember is that there was no reliable form of contraception available to any of my heroines which meant that there was an enormous risk involved in illicit sex.
Jenny and Will in a Marcher Lord are very compatible. He’s around thirty, never been married although knows he should be for dynastic reasons, and likes women. You have the sense he had a good relationship with his mother and adores his younger sister, so he’s likely to be fairly respectful around women although given his age and status there have definitely been a few adventures along the way. He’s not particularly a womaniser despite some of his cousins jokes about it and he knows how to behave. Jenny on the other hand grew up in a loving family where marriage wasn’t really an issue which has given her a very untraditional view on marriage and sex. Circumstances rather than morality dictate the progress of Jenny and Will’s relationship and they understand each other very well.
For Philippa and Kit, sex is a very different issue since at the start their entire relationship is based around his attempt to persuade her to be his mistress and her steadfast refusal. Their stances on this are very traditional for the time but there are a lot of other reasons why a sexual relationship is complicated for this couple and it was quite hard to write about at times. Certainly this was not a couple who were going to fall into bed every five minutes, that’s not what their story is about.
Giles and Cordelia are also fairly traditional. Giles might forget his manners from time to time but he understands what is expected of him. They are strongly attracted to one another but their relationship takes a fairly traditional course, for the first half of the book at least.
Paul and Anne are very different. Technically, An Unconventional Officer could be considered a Regency given the period but it is not; it’s a love story but it’s also the story of two very individual people and their experiences in the army during Wellington’s Peninsular wars and the Ton and Almack’s don’t really feature. When Anne and Paul meet there is no question of a romantic relationship between them; he’s married and she’s going to be soon. But of all of my characters, Paul and Anne are by far the most openly physical in their relationship. He is a shameless womaniser with a string of broken hearts behind him and she is young and inexperienced but neither of those things really matters. For Paul and Anne the chemistry is instant and undeniable and completely irresistible. It is also really obvious to everybody around them. It isn’t hard writing love scenes for Paul and Anne, the difficulty is trying to get them to behave with any degree of propriety at all.
I suspect The Reluctant Debutante falls somewhere between the old and the new when it comes to Regency. I do like my heroines to have something more about them than a pretty face and good manners, but on the whole I’ve allowed Cordelia to be fairly well-behaved in public although privately she’s a little different. She’s very grown up but she’s also led a sheltered life in comparison to all three of my other heroines and she behaves accordingly. It was nice to write something normal for a change…
My new Regency has the working title of A Regrettable Reputation and it’s early days yet but at least some of it is likely to be set in Yorkshire. Sophia Dorne is very different to Cordelia both in circumstances and in character. Nicholas Witham is nothing like Giles, having neither his fortune nor his arrogance although they do have some things in common. I’m looking forward to seeing how things work out for them.
Watch this space…