My imagination is a fickle thing. You would think that, as a voracious reader, it would be well developed and up to the task of imagining character’s faces, clothing, and homes. Sadly, no matter that I’ve spent most of my life exercising this muscle, I rarely manage to do more than produce a vague, blurry image in my mind of whatever is happening in my latest novel. I don’t know what other people imagine when they read—I sincerely hope that they have clearer images than I do.
Of course, it’s much easier to picture everything when you have a point of reference, when you’ve actually visited the location in question. Ever since I moved to New York City a few years ago, my entire experience of reading books set in the city has improved. I know what Central Park looks like now, can picture the sidewalks characters are walking on, etc. This is why, when the opportunity arose for me to take a two month study tour in London, I jumped at the chance. Finally, I thought. Finally I’ll get the chance to actually see for myself all of the classic Regency London sights.
You know what I’m talking about. It seems to me that most every book about Regency London includes the very same venues: Almack’s, Hyde Park, White’s Club are probably the main three seen in almost every Regency romance. Beyond that, though, it seems that every couple getting married without the benefit of a special license (which, honestly, isn’t many) gets married in St. George’s, and everyone with a town home seems to live in Mayfair. Women all go shopping on Bond Street, men all buy their horses at Tattersall’s, and most people seem to make it out to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens at some point in time.
I’m generalizing, of course. I don’t mean to say that every book set in Regency London is the same, or that there are no authors who do research and provide extra details about the locales their characters are visiting. It’s simply that I’ve lately realized just how many books I’ve read have mentioned these same locations and that I seem to know far too little about them.
Did you know, for instance, that Almack’s began as, essentially, a version of White’s that allowed women in? Did you know that White’s Club is still open today? Have you ever stopped to ponder exactly how it is that so many people were able to squeeze entire houses complete with ballrooms into Mayfair? (To be honest, I still can’t wrap my head around that concept.) I’ve read a number of books where authors simply mention these generally accepted sights of Regency London, barely even describing them and essentially assuming we readers just know what they are already. It’s my understanding that the appearance of such sights in Regency romances can be attributed to Georgette Heyer—as a pioneer of the genre, she set an important example for all subsequent authors.
I do like it, though, when authors manage to mention other interesting parts of London, presumably from their own research. In Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, for instance, the heroine makes a trip to a little-known church in London called St. Bride’s. Simple details like this make the setting feel more real and less like the generic, blurry London of my imagination. Maybe I’ll even stop by St. Bride’s if I’m in the area, just to see if it looks like Ms. Quinn described it.
For now, though, I’m busily preparing to explore as much of the city as I can. I intend to walk down Rotten Row in Hyde Park and imagine lords and ladies driving by those same trees in their curricles. I will walk by White’s Club and the site where Almack’s used to be (it was destroyed in 1944), and maybe I’ll meander down Bond Street to see if there are any interesting shops still there.
What about you? Are there places you think authors should mention more when writing about Regency London? Are there any sights you’ve read about and now dream of seeing?