The Reality of Regency Lore

s_The VyneThere is just something about stories set in the early 19th century English countryside that appeal to me. In my mind, I can see the setting: large manor homes with walking paths through well-manicured gardens (despite some areas being overgrown). I can hear the birds in the trees and the horses’ hooves beating on the ground, a perfect orchestra of nature.

My imagination runs wild when I read Jane Austen or other books set in this era. The intellectual discussions, the structured society, the occasional flame of passion that sparks between two people. It just makes me happy when I read these books, escaping back in time to an era that feels so rich with romance.

But despite the image of a dashing man strutting across the field, a morning mist rising beneath his boot-clad feet, I have a confession: I am glad that I did not live during that time.

Quite frankly, the restrictions placed upon women and the limited amount of choice that they had, especially in regard to their future, are two of the main reasons I feel that way.

lydia seroiusYou see, we love Elizabeth, Emma, Anne, Eleanor, Marianne, and Fanny for the unique stories that Jane Austen creates. But so often in these stories, we forget about the unfortunate women who try to display some level of independent decision-making and wind up with limited or even no future because of it: Lydia Bennet, Mary Crawford, Lucy Steele, Augusta Elton. There can only be a limited number of heroines like Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood because there can only be a limited number of Mr. Darcys and Colonial Brandons.

*Disclosure: OK, I know someone will comment that Marianne almost wound up in as much of social pickle as Lydia Bennet. Well, she managed to escape unscathed. Besides, my partiality to Colonial Brandon puts him second only to Mr. Darcy when it comes to romantic heroes in Jane Austen’s books. 😀

It is, indeed, the unusual circumstances of Jane Austen’s heroines that make them so popular. In reality, would Mr. Darcy have married Elizabeth Bennet? Such a defection from the social norms of Georgian Regency period England would have tarnished his name and reputation. But if Darcy and Elizabeth did not find their love, what fun would that be?

I write many books that are set in Lancaster and Holmes County, Ohio, the principle characters being Amish. Many times people write to me and ask if the reality shows about the Amish are true. I always respond, “Of course not! Filming actual Amish reality would make a very boring reality show in comparison to the Amish Mafia or Breaking Amish series.”

In my opinion, the same holds true for Jane Austen’s books. We love her books because we cheer on the heroines, urging Jane Austen to make right the typical wrongs of the day. We need Elizabeth and Darcy to wind up together because they belong together, at least in a literary sense. Perhaps that was one of the reasons that Jane Austen’s books have become timeless classics—her characters find their happily ever after in a period of time when practicality often won out over sensibilities. And, just like a novel without Darcy marrying Elizabeth, I really wouldn’t want to read that type of book. I much prefer reading about Jane’s heroines who pave the path to a world where, despite the pitfalls and stresses of life, we have the choice to make our own decisions…good, bad, or indifferent.

9 Responses to The Reality of Regency Lore

  1. But isn’t this all the point of fiction: to create a world as we’d like to see it rather than as it is?

    Sheila, according to my researches, men of the inner circles of the early 1800s did in fact bathe regularly. Beau Brummell declared that “for a gentleman to be properly dressed in society he must first be scrupulously scrubbed clean.” This also influenced women to cleanliness rather than covering body odours with perfumes. But again this was only the upper crust of society — bathing was far less frequent, and far less efficient due to “reused water,” the lower one went in society. (If you will excuse me for including a link to my own blog, here is the post in its entirety:

    One of my favourite scenes in Lost in Austen has the heroine back in her own time where she brushes her teeth with a toothbrush and paste (versus birch twigs and chalk) with a vengeance! While I wouldn’t mind visiting — as an upper-class guest! — I would not want to live in Jane’s time. I’m too concerned that I would probably have been a shop girl or wife of a tenant farmer rather than a Georgiana Darcy! And in any event would never have had all the choices we are blessed to have before us today.

  2. I believe you hit the nail head of one aspect of Austen fanaticism that drives me crazy, and that is the attitude that Austen wasn’t so much a “novelist” as she was a historian of her world. Indeed she was writing of her contemporaries and the settings were familiar, so in that respect readers are getting a glimpse into life in the first two decades of the 1800s. But, in the end, she WAS a novelist writing a fictional story!

    Writers today who set their novels in a contemporary setting will tell you that they too elaborate, enhance, spice up, or whatever term you want to use. Otherwise, how interesting would the read actually be? I hear great love stories all the time, I even have a lovely one of my own, but would they/it make a novel anyone would want to buy and read? No. At least not unless I embellished here and there, added some tension that didn’t actually happen, threw in a villain or love triangle, etc.

    Getting back to Austen, too many people, IMO, take her books as akin to divine revelation. As if each line is gospel fact as to how folks acted, spoke, walked, breathed, and so on. Then there is the firm conviction that what she wrote is a hidden message about herself, the “feminist” Jane who wanted to change the world! As those of us who write know, it is a fantasy we create. A love story, world building, heroes and heroines that are larger than life… all to delight our readers, and for our own enjoyment while creating… but not necessarily because we are that heroine, or even want to be her. Somehow I can’t imagine Jane being all that different than every other novelist down through time, in respect to writing books for pleasure to the reader, and, of course, to sell! And one can’t manage the latter, or the former, if simply putting on paper a basic reality everyone lived.

  3. I agree with you about living back then. I love my imaginations of that time and age, but even when I write I leave out things that would ‘break the spell’ of the story by pointing out the drawbacks. No one wants to think of Elizabeth having to take a bathroom break during a ball, or Mr. Darcy for that matter. And don’t get me started on the risks of childbirth!

  4. I’ve read and watched about life in the Georgian era and I agree with your thoughts. I could enjoy spending an afternoon using my time machine, but any longer than that would be unbearable. It would be very interesting to meet some of those seminal figures from that time, but I imagine Doctor Johnson and Erasmus Darwin would quickly make you scream.

  5. The reality is really so much worse that it is hidden somewhat behind what becomes of Lydia. Even though she “finally” is married to her seducer, the fact is that the type of man he is does bring her much closer to the horrors of the venereal diseases of the day. There were no antibiotics. Gonorrhea and syphyllis both could kill as well as maim. Both would kill a fetus and could make a woman infertile. Some of the treatments could kill you before the disease would because of the toxicity. This was a main reason why a Father was interested in who was courting his daughters. He knew far more about the reputations of the men of their social class than did the women.

  6. I totally agree with you (and have expressed that time and again) that I love to read of the Regency period but never would for a moment want to live then. It is not only the limited choices for women and sometimes those led to abusive situations, i.e., sexual exploitation, but also because of the lack of hygiene and medical advances we have today. In reading so many of these novels we read of Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy taking baths (…alone or together). However even in the beginning of the 20th Century frequent bathing was unheard of.

    But the authors do give us our HEA and I love to read about such. The heroines are usually brave and buck the expectations of that day and age.

  7. I’m with you about the HEA and as long as I have that, I can take our stories in just about any time or location. Thanks, Jen

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