For a time period that lasted only nine years (1811-1820) the Regency sure gets a lot of literary attention. Jane Austen is mainly responsible: she’s so good that everyone wants to read more, but she only wrote a few. Her contemporaries mostly weren’t writing anything like her. So people are forced to write their own Regency romances, to the point that eventually there will be more time described in novels than actually happened.
In theory, I enjoy Regency romances. And then in practice I hate most of the ones I read because they don’t do it right. It’s difficult! Austen doesn’t get enough credit for creating tension in the lives of people who mostly hang around all day; for conveying intense emotion without much in the way of kissing or crying or dramatics; for seeing the humor in the foibles of the rich. And it’s even harder for people today, who try to do all that while also bridging a gap of two centuries and using a dialect that’s passed out of use.
I haven’t written anything in the Regency. I think about it, and then I think about the research it would take to do it right, and I quail. I’m a person who wants meticulous worldbuilding in everything I write, which is hard enough when I get to make up whatever I want. I did, however, write a Regency-aesthetic space opera, for which I did way more historical research than was remotely called for.
With those (doubtful) qualifications thus enumerated, here are my
Rules for Writing Regency Romance
1. Learn the lingo. Adjust as needed.
People of the Regency often studied Latin, so you have long Latinate sentences with a million clauses. They knew how to use the subjunctive. (See in Bridgerton, where they throw the word “should” into almost every sentence. That’s, uh . . . not right.) If you don’t know how to do this or when, read as much writing from that time as you can–not just Austen, but lots of writers.
But then you’re up against two issues: first, modern readers don’t tolerate massively long sentences or archaic styles. And second, dialogue feels kind of artificial that way–Austen’s characters certainly aren’t always grammatical and fancy. So it can help to learn colloquial Regency phrases, to make things sound natural. And don’t try to imitate Regency style exactly–freshen it up a bit with some shorter sentences and less backstory.
2. Not wanting to get married is not a personality
It was a pet peeve of mine in my antifeminist days the way ladies in historical books always seem to be perfectly progressive on gender issues. Doesn’t matter if they were raised in 1200 AD, they’re feminist AF.
Later I realized that yes, in fact women would be annoyed by sexism in every era. Still, they wouldn’t necessarily be completely woke about it. They haven’t been exposed to all the stuff that raised my own consciousness, but they’d still notice the rules for their brothers were different and want a few more options.
That said, marriage was really the best deal for Regency women and they generally understood that. A woman who didn’t want to get married would be looked at like a modern person who didn’t want a job. Like, sure, maybe it isn’t the greatest deal in the world, but do you like being homeless? Or are you so privileged you can get away with it?
Marriage was the key to homeownership, to respect, to a little more freedom than girls got. A married woman could run a large country estate, do charitable work, and pursue her hobbies. Plus, she could have children, which a lot of women did want, despite the risk of death in childbirth. The challenge was finding someone you could get along with, preferably someone who wasn’t penniless.
Some women didn’t marry. Austen never did. If you had a father or brother who could support you, you might do all right for yourself. But most women still have a libido, so if you weren’t ace or lesbian, you probably wanted to get married to someone you were attracted to. Marriage was the only thing that could protect a woman who wanted to have sex. The main conflict of most of these romances is the fear of marrying someone you weren’t interested in.
Forced marriage wasn’t so much of a thing (unless it was a shotgun affair) but there’s force and force. If nobody you like has shown any interest, your dowry is not large, and you’re getting older, you’d kind of be nuts to say no. Elizabeth Bennett was a bit nuts to say no to Mr. Collins. It’s like turning down a job offer when you’ve been unemployed for a year. Like, great to stick to your principles, but what’s going to happen when Mr. Bennett dies? You have no means of support whatsoever! If Darcy hadn’t come along, she’d probably have had to be a governess or beg distant relations to take her in as a companion. In neither case was her treatment guaranteed to be good.
So, your heroine absolutely can not want to get married! (Especially if she’s gay; make her gay, I will give you cash money.) But if so, she has to understand what she risks that way. Does she have the privilege of a family that will still support her, or a little fortune of her own? Or is she going to end up like Jane Eyre?
3. Nobody liked an adventuress
Just as not wanting to get married is not a personality, being obviously desperate wasn’t standard either. These women wanted to get married, but they also wanted not to look too eager. A woman who made it apparent she was gunning for a rich man, any rich man, was despised.
Courtship tended to be very subtle. Nobody wanted to give away too much, to look too eager. Hence much of the plot in Austen’s novels is wondering if people are into each other, trying to find a way to signal that you are interested without being obvious, and so on. There were flower languages, fan languages, gift languages . . . subtle ways to send a message while still being plausibly deniable.
For a man to propose marriage to a woman was legally binding. So men, in particular, would be very careful not to commit to anything, especially in writing, or he could be sued for later not marrying the person.
4. They still liked sex
Even in Austen, people sneak off and have illicit sex sometimes. In real life it was probably even more common. Men often had mistresses, and so long as you paid for any children, it wasn’t considered a big deal. Women were expected to be chaste, and unlike men, they couldn’t sweep it under the rug if a child resulted. So they tended to be careful and well-supervised . . . but that doesn’t mean they were perfect. I bet lots of kissing happened in hedgerows.
Personally, much as I like the subtlety and slow burn of glances across rooms, fingers accidentally-on-purpose brushing together, and standing two feet apart while saying you ardently admire someone, I’m not opposed to some making out in my Regency romance. Just make it plausible, knowing women would be considering both their reputation and their pregnancy risk.
5. Servants existed
We don’t have to take the viewpoint of a Regency gentlewoman who sees servants as part of the scenery. Servants were real people, with names and feelings and history, and their stories are also relevant. Some higher servants, like the housekeeper or governess, might be considered friends of the lady of the house. Others could be mistreated. While they could leave, not everyone had a million options. I always like it when the servants have their own plot arcs.
6. Seriously just do some dadgum research
Nobody’s going to notice you didn’t describe whether the servants’ lodgings were upstairs or downstairs. They will notice if you make up some silly rule (e.g. “If a girl spends one single second with a man she is RUINED FOREVER”) that didn’t actually exist. The important thing is to get the mood right. Artifice, restraint, and quiet desperation are what you’re going for. But don’t forget the humor and foibles. That’s a huge bit of what makes Austen so appealing.
[…] said, it falls into a thing I have trouble describing, but have hated in many other historical books: it feels like a pantomime […]