The New Waterloo:
The Historical Romance Set in the Regency versus the Regency Romance

May 10, 1999

Like many romance readers, I’ve read Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. When I first read them I was a pre-teen and found them in the library, shelved as general fiction. I can’t honestly say that I “got” Austen’s deadly accurate portrait of the economic reality of Regency England for women then, but I sure “got it” when I was older and reread it! Pride & Prejudice starts out with these words as its first two paragraphs:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

“However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Hardly a piece of fluff, this great grandmother of romance books is our prototype for the genre.

I did not find Heyer to be quite the social satirist and commentator that Austen was but she was a worthy successor to the foundation of the Regency Romance and is rightfully revered by a myriad of romance readers. There is an important distinction between Heyer and Austen: Austen wrote primarily about the gentry and used her secondary characters, generally, as the aristocracy. Darcy, although not an aristocrat, certainly had quite a “house” with Pemberly, however, that put us into that beautiful Regency world. Yet it was Heyer, in her Regency (and Georgian) romances, who took us into the aristocracy, using them as heroes and heroines. Probably the reason I personally preferred Austen to Heyer is that she satirized those with titles so wonderfully. I just howl over Lady Catherine, Darcy’s aunt, whether on the written page or on video.

Regency Romances – The Prototype

What these prototype Austen and Heyer Regency Romances do and do not offer the reader, lives up to the promise of their respective covers. Although there is a great deal of male/female attraction and falling in love in a highly civilized and refined atmosphere, there is no explicit sex. Instead there are beautiful clothes, carriages, mansions, and other elegant trappings. The novels take place in drawing and ballrooms and much of the action happens via conversation that is beautifully written and remarkable for its style. A style present-day women may well longingly wish to hear themselves but must usually settle for in a book. Let’s take a look at what their books are “dressed up” in to tempt us to buy them.

When Austen’s Pride & Prejudice was made into a series on the A&E cable network, a companion hardback book and video series were issued. On the cover of both is the picture of actor Colin Firth playing the hero, Darcy. Firth made probably the most popular Darcy ever to be put on the screen and this is a hard-to-beat cover image for the book. The artist/designer also used a very hot trend in the art world of combining a black and white image with a color image to make up one complete artwork and cover. The actress who played Elizabeth is the smaller figure in the pictured cover. Notice that Firth dominates the image, however, which is the way Darcy dominates the novel in our minds as romance readers.

Students are more likely to buy, however, this cheaper paperback version. That is when most people first read the novel. It features the painting of a woman who suggests Elizabeth, the heroine. Her image exudes respectability so that you realize it is a classic. No one wants to admit, after all, that you will be reading a romance as part of your formative educational course work. There are many different covers for Pride & Prejudice since Austen’s work is in the public domain, but they are all tasteful. Firth on the cover is as wild as it gets for her covers.

The Heyer cover is of Bath Tangle. It is an image of the hero imposed over the setting in Bath. It is as tasteful and refined as the Austen cover with the added inducement of giving us a glimpse of Bath, which had its own customs and season. Heyer gives to the Regency the feeling for societal norms and values. Readers believe her descriptions of aristocratic Regency society and dress are without compare. There are many different but tasteful covers for each of Heyer’s books because she has been reprinted by many publishers in various styles throughout the decades.

Many readers have told me that Regency Romances have a certain “feel” to them and they can tell just by reading one whether it is one or not. Certainly, they all agree that Austen and Heyer qualify and that they were the model makers.

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