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Why Regency romance still reigns, 200 years after Jane Austen

Published 31st July 2022
Credit: leah abucayan illustration/getty/imdb/netflix
Why Regency romance still reigns, 200 years after Jane Austen
Written by AJ Willingham, CNN
Every few years, the Austenites must feed. Netflix's adaptation of "Persuasion" and the revival of the cult-favorite show "Sanditon" are the latest offerings to Jane Austen, whose memory must be regularly appeased by new odes to her groundbreaking romantic novels.
However, the allure of Regency-era romance stretches far past the works of Austen and the subgenre's other foremothers. On screen and on shelves, new tales constantly reinvent and reinhabit the world of 1800s England -- the film "Mr Malcolm's List," the "Bridgerton" phenomenon and countless bestselling novels command legions of Regency fans.
It wouldn't be so remarkable if the time at hand weren't so ... unsexy. What is typically thought of as "Regency" romance takes place in Britain during the 19th century. (The Regency period itself was very short, from 1811 to 1820. "Period" or "historical" romance are more accurate, but less used, descriptors for some stories.)
Aesthetically, such stories are marked by sumptuous clothing, pastoral settings, lively balls and noble families with too much money and too much time on their hands. However, they take place in an era with deeply restrictive social rules and wide-ranging inequality. What's so romantic about a world in which a young woman could be forced into marriage simply for being alone with a man? What could possibly inspire ardor less than a time when women couldn't vote or own property?

History and fantasy meet

Left to right: Lydia Rose Bewley, Richard E. Grant, Dakota Johnson and Yolanda Kettle star in the 2022 adaptation of Jane Austen's 1817 novel, "Persuasion."
Left to right: Lydia Rose Bewley, Richard E. Grant, Dakota Johnson and Yolanda Kettle star in the 2022 adaptation of Jane Austen's 1817 novel, "Persuasion." Credit: Nick Wall/Netflix
The first, and most obvious answer, is one of heritage. Regency romances are popular because the Regency period was when the romance novel became popular. "Pride and Prejudice," a titan of the genre, was first published in 1813. Works by Austen, the Brontë sisters and Georgette Heyer, who helped solidify the historical romance genre in the 1900s, are still highly influential to newer historical romance works and to pop culture at large.
Then, there is the fantasy of it all. To watch a period romance or pick up a novel is to lose oneself in a world of silk ball gowns and walled gardens. Even works focused on lower class characters carry the romantic allure of a time without the internet or Instagram -- even if it was also a time without, say, penicillin or equal rights.
These fantasies manifest in fashion and social media trends, where people dream of rejecting society and absconding to a cottage among the mushrooms, a billowy dress lapping at their ankles. Period pieces also put a focus on witty, subtle dialogue and meaningful, nonsexual encounters that nonetheless simmer with tension. In these stories, expressions of love and desire become an art form. (It is no wonder the female gaze is so often demonstrated with Mr. Darcy's single, second-long hand flex in the 2005 remake of "Pride and Prejudice.")
Not to mention, while Regency heroines may rail against social systems that leave them with no purpose other than being pretty, quiet and still, in over-worked, over-stressed modern minds, such torpor begins to sound kind of nice.

Real conversations emerge

Rose Williams and Theo James in "Sanditon."
Rose Williams and Theo James in "Sanditon." Credit: Simon Ridgway/© Red Planet Pictures / ITV 2019
However, none of this really explains why the Regency era continues to inspire unique stories, rather than just the 800th remix of "Pride and Prejudice."
For writers, readers and watchers of the genre, there is a surprising amount of possibility in the restriction. In her book "A Natural History of the Romance Novel," Pamela Regis points out that the 1800s were a time of great social change in Britain.
"For centuries, choosing a husband was the crucial decision for more women," she writes. "The romance novel emerges as a dominant form of the English novel just as the expectations of a husband shifted. Affective individualism added to the choice a desire for liberty."
In other words, women were paying more attention to their individual selves and needs. If marriage was a type of bondage that afforded even wealthy women very few rights, a marriage with love -- a marriage on a woman's terms -- was ultimately a goal of freedom.
Emerging class consciousness and the throes of the Industrial Revolution meant social views were changing as well. Most successful works of Regency romance explore some aspect of this, and the lessons therein are universally applicable.
"An axiom of the genre is the idea that all romance, no matter what the actual time period, is actually a conversation about now," says Jennifer Prokop, a romance critic and editor who co-hosts the romance podcast "Fated Mates."

New voices join in

Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu star in 2022's "Mr Malcom's List."
Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu star in 2022's "Mr Malcom's List." Credit: IMDB
The historical constraints of Regency-era romance suggest homogeneity, both of possible narratives and of characters who are overwhelmingly White, young, straight and well-to-do. But an increasing number of authors and creators are forging more diverse paths in the genre. Vanessa Riley's bestseller "A Duke, a Lady and a Baby" features an heiress heroine from the West Indies, as does the ITV/PBS show "Sanditon," which is based on an unfinished Austen manuscript.
Works by Olivia Waite and others tell stories of queer characters, older heroines and women dedicated to, for the time, "unladylike" pursuits like science and engineering. "A Lady for a Duke," by Alexis Hall, was released this year and stars a transgender woman who survives a war and falls in love with her best friend. Even in Netflix's "Bridgerton," based on a book series with no explicit racial diversity, Kate Sheffield becomes Kate Sharma, and her Indian ancestry is given historic roots.
It almost feels unfair to highlight this small collection of books and shows, as there are so many more that illustrate the genre's evolution. According to a 2017 survey from Romance Writers of America, historical romance is the third most popular genre of romantic fiction. More recent successes show the attraction of the Regency romance is strong enough to move readers and writers to continue exploring stories that feel incredibly -- sometimes scarily -- modern.
"Once you dive into historical romance, or period dramas, you realize people then were struggling with the same human concerns we are struggling with now," says Prokop. "I personally find that deeply comforting: for generations, people have been fighting to make the world better. Now it's my time to get out there and fight, too."
In this world, beneath the Aubisson carpets and layers of undergarments, the winds of social change blow on. Love isn't something frivolous, but something to fight for -- something that needs fighting for. While we may have indoor plumbing and universal suffrage now, romance lovers searching for solutions for real-life challenges often find the past can be a fertile, and perhaps less painful, place to imagine them.