What is a Regency Romance?

East Side Books owner Diane and I stand in the Romance section and look at a new display of books.

“These are called Regencies,” Diane says. She shows me the word “Regency” on the spine of a book she plucks from a wire rack. “I thought it was a publisher, but then I discovered that it is a specific type of romance novel written in the Regency period in England.”  She flips through the pages.

Feeling slightly ignorant, I ask, “When was the Regency Period?”

“Jane Austin’s time–1830 to 1850 or so.”  She straightens a couple books on the rack, and whispers, “When there is a woman on the front cover in an empire dress, I know they are a Regency.”

I look at the rows of books.  A high waisted dress, gathered just under generous breasts, on every single cover.

“Oh,” says a customer sitting not far from us, holding a couple romance novels in her hand.  “I use to read Regency novels all the time. I loved them! Especially Georgette Heyer.  She was absolutely wonderful.  Barbara Cartland wrote some Regency romances also, but Heyer was the best.”  She sighs happily and smiles.  “How I loved those books.”

Curious, upon returning home I googled “Regency romance novels.” It turns out that Regencies are actually a subgenre of romance novels. The requirement to be a Regency is that it be set during the early 1800’s and be a “novel of manners” in the tradition of Jane Austen. Of course, the heroines have to wear empire dresses.

And our customer was right. Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was the master of Regency novels.  In fact, she invented the genre of historical romances and the more specific Regency romances with the release of Regency Buck in 1935. It became a instant bestseller, and Heyer went on to publish over fifty more novels.

Heyer’s claim to fame was the enormous amount of detail that she included in her stories that aided in setting a mood and tone. Since Austen was writing within her time period, she could eliminate the minute details of dress and decor, but Heyer had to include great descriptions to set the Regency atmosphere. Attention to detail became her passion, and it is said that at the time of her death she owned over 1,000 historical reference books.  Despite the popularity of her books and accuracy of historical detail, Heyer was ignored by the critics.  She, herself once said, “I think myself that I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense…But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from the flu.”

Barbara Cartland (1901-2000), “Queen of Romance,”  is also well known for her Regency novels although she did not limit her romances to that time period as Heyer did. Cartland, who died in 2000, formerly held the Guinness World Record for the most novels written in a single year–23 in 1983 at the age of 82.  She published 883 manuscripts, and over a billion copies of her books have been sold.

Beginning in the 1990s, Recencies began to lose popularity among the romance reading set. These days only a handful of “traditional” Regencies are still published.  To help increase readership, current Regency authors throw in a bit more sexuality–an addition that would have shocked Heyer and Cartland, and definitely not fallen within the permissible boundaries of Jane Austen’s world.

But just within the last year or so, Regencies have made a big comeback.  Their popularity is on the upswing, and Regency writers such as Mary Balogh, Cathy Maxwell, and Eloisa James as well as Heyer and Cartland are being rediscovered and enjoyed. Since Regency publication has dwindled, the best place to find Regency romances is at your local used bookstore.

So all you romantics, come on down to East Side Books and browse our new Recency rack located in our Romance section.  You can’t miss it, just look for the empire dresses, but if you need help, ask one of our staff for assistance.

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