|The first quadrille at Almack's|
from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1850)
I love Regency romances. The Regency is a period ruled by elegance and etiquette. It is a romantic world full of balls and duels, Corinthians and debutantes, Almack’s and Vauxhall Gardens, and rakes reformed by love.
When I started to blog about Regency history, I was motivated by wanting to explore the historical background to the Regency romances that I love to read so that I could write my own. And yet I have often picked up a ‘Regency’ romance, only to find that it is set in 1823 and not set in the Regency at all!
The strict definition of the Regency period
The Regency lasted a mere nine years, from February 1811 until January 1820. In 1810, George III was taken seriously ill. He was declared incapable of ruling because of mental incapacity and the Regency Act was passed the following year making his son George Prince Regent to rule in his stead. The Regency lasted until George III’s death in 1820 when the Regent became King George IV and was able to rule in his own right.
So why is it that not all Regency romances are set in the period 1811 to 1820? And if they are not set in the Regency, why do we call them Regency romances?
I believe the answer lies in the ‘feel’ of the Regency. The term Regency has come to represent a much wider period of time than the nine years to which it actually relates.
from Huish's Memoirs of her late
royal highness Charlotte Augusta (1818)
The Regency period is epitomised by the Regent himself. As a young man, George IV was a handsome and personable figure, described as ‘the first gentleman of England’. The romantic figure of Prinny had almost disappeared by the time the long-awaited Regency started. He had become fat and his extravagant habits had made him unpopular and, as the years progressed, he became more and more reclusive.
But to the modern reader, the Regent in his youth represents the world of glamorous elegance, extravagant follies and romantic liaisons. It is this image of George IV as a young man that embodies the Regency, an image that was established long before he ever became Regent.
The Romantic Movement was well-established by the time the Regency started. This was a time that was rich in literature, both poetry and prose. It was the time of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley and the Romantic novelist, Sir Walter Scott. Constable and Turner were painting and Beethoven was composing. The Regency finished, but the Romantics went on.
The works of Jane Austen are inextricably linked to the Regency. All six of Jane Austen’s completed novels were published during this period, making them archetypal Regency romances. But they were not wholly written during the nine years of the Regency and although Jane died before the Regency had expired, her books lived on.
The Regency is associated with a style of architecture, furniture and design that spans more than a single decade. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Regency style as the
... decorative arts produced during the Regency of George, Prince of Wales, and the opening years of the 19th century as well as his entire reign as King George IV of England, ending in 1830.
Saul David in his biography of George IV describes the Regency ‘in its widest sense (1800-1830)’ as a ‘devil-may-care period of low morals and high fashion’.
A notice at the entrance to the Regency galleries in the National Portrait Gallery suggests an even wider time span:
As a distinctive period in Britain’s social and cultural life, the Regency spanned the four decades from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 to the passing of Britain’s great Reform Act in 1832.
from La Belle Assemblée (1816)
The Regency era is, by very definition, related to the life of the Regent. It is characterised by the freedom and extravagance of George IV compared with the ascetic lifestyle of his father. Although the Regency is a mere nine years long, I am inclined to think that the Regency ‘feel’ starts around the time that George IV came of age in 1783 and continues until his death in 1830.
Perhaps ‘Regency’ romances can be set in 1823 after all!
Sources used include:
David, Saul, The Prince of Pleasure (Little, Brown & co., 1998)
Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th edition (1994, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc)
Gronow, Captain, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1850)