Lucinda Elliot

‘Regency Hoax’ My New Article on the Popular Conception of the Regency Era Published by Public Books



Here’s my new article on the highly static and frivolous popular view of the UK of the Regency era, as taken from the twentieth century writer of historical romance Georgette Heyer, and her successors.

This is a topic that has perturbed me for a while, and I brought my thoughts together as concisely as possible for this article.

It might seem odd – at a time when global politics are particularly fraught, to trouble myself about this issue of the depiction in light genre fiction of a particular historical era.

After all, only a section of readers read historical romances and Georgette Heyer in particular. Still, a surprising number of people are influenced by the light in which popular fiction depicts a particular age, and in the last decade or so, with the rise of internet publishing, Heyer’s popularity has had something of a revival, with talk of several of her Regency Romances being turned into a television series.

Why do I think this matters?

For the reason that I always think that a consensus bound, romanticised view of the past will give us a distorted view of the possibilities of shaping the future. For those with little knowledge of  the real history of an age, the ‘historical knowledge’ gleaned from such a depiction as Heyer’s  may well contribute to a similar apathetic approach towards present problems.

It isn’t that I think it is wrong to enjoy a bit of light escapism.  Still,  I certainly think it is wrong to confuse it with historical reality, and Heyer’s influence has been sufficiently strong for the whole of the Regency era to be dismissed as an era of frivolity and high jinks where the common people as a whole are strangely invisible.

Interestingly, the Victorian age isn’t seen in the same light, and it just so happens that the most famous writer on and of  the Victorian era, Charles Dickens, did not portray a light and frivolous portrait of the age. When we think of Dickens’ Victorian age, we tend to think of workhouses and the shocking differences between rich and poor.

I wish I could make that picture of the boatman and the woman as large and splendid as it is in the article on Public Books,  here . Sadly, it wouldn’t respond to my editing.


Georgette Heyer is one of the most beloved romance writers. She is also one of the most reactionary. Her impact on the genre of Regency romances is indisputable; Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel says that Heyer’s “influence is felt in every historical romance novel written since 1921.” That influence has pushed “Regencys”—that is, romance novels set in early 19th century England—toward a static vision of the past: one in which conservative hierarchies and gender roles are celebrated, and the inequities of Regency society are seen through a roseate lens.

Born into a middle-class family in England in 1902, Heyer wrote novels set in Jane Austen’s era, filled with details of upper class life, earls, and balls. Heyer’s evocation of an earlier time was deliberate; she bitterly resented the rise of democracy and the social safety net. “I am getting so tired of writing books for the benefit of the Treasury,” she complained typically, “and I can’t tell you how utterly I resent the squandering of my money on such fatuous things as Education and Making Life Easy and Luxurious for So-Called Workers.

Wishing to write serious historical novels, but obliged to keep writing her bestselling Regency romances to support the upper class life style to which she aspired, in her novels Heyer transforms the Regency era into an artificial Golden Age.

Heyer’s fans defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?

Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change—no more than has the world of Bertie Wooster and his friends in the Drones Club to that of the early 20th century. Hopefully, few people would confuse the world of Bertie Wooster with historical reality. However, because of her thorough research on the Regency’s current events, topography, literature and, especially, the lifestyle of the upper class, Heyer’s depiction of the Regency UK is frequently held up as a standard of accuracy to emulate.

The American Regency romance writer Maggie Mackeever, for example, admits that Heyer’s Regency world never existed, but urges novice writers to “Immerse yourself in Georgette Heyer … Lots of people have written about Regency England since, but no one has done it as well. Read until you have the era fixed clearly in your head. Then sit down and start to write your own story.”

Heyer’s Regency population consists of the aristocracy and gentry, their devoted retainers, some vulgar, socially aspiring merchants, a handful of comic rogues, and a backdrop of contented peasants. That is hardly representative of the United Kingdom in that era. Heyer’s readers are encouraged to imagine themselves to be one of the 1.5 percent of the population comprising the gentry; or even as a member of one of the families of the approximately 300 titled men out of a population of maybe 9,000,000.

Of course, historically aware readers distinguish between “Heyer’s Regency England” and historical reality. However, many others do appear to believe that they can learn about history through the Regency romances. This article is typical. The poster discusses Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in the least “fluffy” of her “Regencies,” An Infamous Army, oblivious to the fact that Heyer’s emphasis is almost entirely on the officer class.

This obsessive focus on this tiny upper class goes arm in arm, unsurprisingly, with a strong status quo bias. Heyer’s untamed heroines and wild heroes are all rebellious and wild within a very narrow range, before they are reincorporated into society.


Charlotte Brontë’s Anger

By Anna E. Clark


One example of this ‘conservative resolution’ is her 1959 novel The Unknown Ajax. Lord Darracott’s heirs have died suddenly and accidentally. His relatives are appalled to learn that as a result, his grandson through a misalliance with “a weaver’s daughter” is next in line to the title.

This grandson is Major Hugo Darracott, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a seemingly uncultured giant with a broad Yorkshire accent. He has no valet and dresses unfashionably. Lord Darracott wishes to civilize him and marry him to the heroine Anthea, who is appalled.

Hugo horrifies the family by reminiscing about being “transported” and living in a hovel with a mud floor—only to reveal that he is referring to his army experiences. Later, he admits that his mother was in fact the heiress to a wealthy mill owner, while he attended the prestigious Harrow School. He confesses to Anthea that he adopted that Yorkshire dialect to tease. He promises to show Anthea’s younger brother Richmond all of the manufacturing processes. In this era, mills employed children as young as five in appalling conditions, but the humane Hugo seems unperturbed by this detail.

Heyer here does a clever sleight of hand: Hugo appears to threaten the status quo, but his true attraction is that he does not trouble class hierarchy at all. When a blacksmith from a family with “subversive” ideas—depicted as wholly contemptible—forces his way into the mansion, in what is presumably meant to be a parody of revolutionary uprising, it is Hugo who throws out his “filthy carcase.” Anthea and all the family are finally won over when Hugo saves Richmond from the law when he is shot in a smuggling venture. Here, he is shown to have a greater respect for the law than his grandfather, who has turned a blind eye to local smuggling.

Heyer’s aristocratic bias, and that of many of the Regency romances written in emulation of her style, is thrown into sharp relief by Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn. A 2013 revisiting of Pride and Prejudice—from the point of view of the servants—Longbourn depicts the hard facts of their lives, the bedrock on which the gracious living of Austen’s characters depends.

Baker’s heroine, Sarah, like Hugo in The Unknown Ajax, comes from a “family of weavers.” That family’s fate is tellingly different from that of Hugo’s relatives. Beggared when their village is destroyed through enforced enclosure of the land, they have to put Sarah in the workhouse, later to be sent to work as a housemaid.

Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change.

The life of unrelenting toil of the servants is brilliantly depicted. Much of it is sordid drudgery. Unlike Heyer’s heroines—whom Heyer herself commented “Lived only from the waist up”1the females in Baker’s novel menstruate, entailing unsavory washing. The family’s chamber pots have to be emptied. In the daily round of unceasing labour, a few moments of stolen happiness are a delight.

In Heyer’s novels, the ugly aspects of life in the Regency UK—poverty, disease, filth and feces in the streets; public torture and death, massively high infant mortality and the low status of women—are ignored. With the exception of some ridiculous subversives, everyone is content with his or her lot. Injustice and misery are rarely portrayed, and when they are, they can be put right by some charitable works.

Heyer’s fans heatedly defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?

Heyer has for too long been viewed as Austen’s successor. Hopefully, novels like Longbourn will inspire talented writers to abandon the weary clichés of “Heyer’s daughters” in Regency romance, and to aspire to follow Jo Baker’s example in writing about the real Regency England—that of the working people. icon

  1. Quoted in Jane Aiken Hodge, The Private World of Georgette Heyer (Arrow 1984.), p. 204.
Featured image: Edmund Leighton, Courtship. Wikimedia Commons



4 Responses

  1. I’m in two minds about this, Lucinda – part of me agrees that it is, indeed, just harmless escapism. I’m not the best person to comment, having never, to the best of my memory, read a Heyer novel, but … I am largely of the opinion that historical fiction is not obliged to be particularly realistic. Writers, obviously, write for a variety of reasons; some write specifically to the market (in which case undue realism may be something of a disadvantage), and some write mostly for their own amusement, which I think is as valid a reason as any. I’d be willing to bet that most readers read for entertainment and escapism rather than as an edifying and instructive pursuit and, again, I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Besides, an idealised portrayal of a particular historical era can create the kind of interest that spurs readers to investigate it in greater depth.

    I don’t know much about Heyer the woman, either, but the “I am getting so tired…” comment sounds to me like it was made in jest. I could be wrong about this!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Mari. Yours will always be a thoghtful approach.

    I’d say that the bit of your mind which takes the view that unrealistic historical fiction that makes no mention of the brutalities of former ages is harmless escapism, is the view of the majority who trouble to think about it.

    Yet, perhaps there’s a need to be killjoy enough to ask ourselves – what function does escapism in historical romance novels play with regard to a consensus based good-old-days view of history? How might that play into our approach towards the present? Why is this particular brand of escapist nonsense so popular – and why, as you say, does realism lead to poor sales, and why are novels such as Jo Baker’s so rare (leaving aside as wholly unkind the suggestion that most writers of Regency Romances could perhaps not write like that, anyway).

    In my researches, I have come to wonder if such escapism is as addictive and time wasting as living in a drug induced haze. Surprising numbers of quite young women spend much of their leisure time reading Heyer”s stuff. I have wondered if it has a symbiotic relation to the growth of porn culture.

    I might not find it to be a matter of concern if readers in general were well aware of the hoax which by a sleight of hand has them identifying with an upper class heroine in a sanatised version of the Georgian or Regency UK, or whatever. But unfortunately, there is a good deal of evidence online to suggest that many readers are not historically aware enough to see this, though protesting that they can distinguish between fantasy and reality.

    A depressing number of readers of Heyer and other historical romances have eager online discussions where they say, ‘I would have loved to have lived in those days!’ ‘ I was born in the wrong age; I would have loved to drive out in my carriage..’ and suchlike. Well, perhaps they would have indeed like to have been born then, when the chances are overwhelming that they would find themselves emptying the said young lady’s chamber pots if not as a peasant, labouring in her fields. Well, there is no accounting for taste.

    Seriously, I can see why you might think that quote from one of Heyer’s letters is a joke, because it is so outrageous. Sadly, it is clear from her biographies by Aiken Hodge etc, that Heyer meant that complaint in all seriousness, though she put it wittily. She deplored the welfare state and taxation, and classified people as ‘Englishmen, dogs and foreigners’. The Anti Semitism in her books is disturbing. She was a witty and intelligent reactionary who wished she had been born in an age where people knew their places.

    Of course, people with sense never did. Still, I find the influence of her world view with its Golden Age Regency positively sinister. Interestingly, so did the late writer MM Bennets:
    [[]] – watch that link fail to come out…

    ‘… I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century. Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers…’

    I so envy you, never having read any Heyer, and having missed those ahistorical online discussions.

    Great talking to you, as ever.

  3. Romance readers in particular, it seems, have an ethical blindness to problematic tropes, as if the romantic arc of the story excuses any and all collateral damage. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, but it’s only harmless so long as you understand that that’s what it is. Otherwise Georgette Heyer becomes an expert on the Regency, Philippa Gregory becomes an expert on Anne Boleyn, E L James becomes an expert on BDSM, and we end up with a world where classism, sexism and non-consensual sex are normalised.

    1. Thank you for calling in, Frank. Great to hear from you.
      I’m entirely in agreement over that. Romanticising injustice is purely wrong. The problem is, as you say, that so many readers of historical romances in particular, while insisting that they are fully able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, show by their comments that often they don’t make this distinction.
      On the rape in romance trope, unfortunately the genre has in the past -and in some cases, even in the present – deserved the nickname that its defenders resent, ‘bodice rippers’. Romanticising rape is obscene, and too many romance readers who agree that it is, still defend the would-be-rapist-who-is-stopped-by-something (sadly, never by a flux of the bowels) and-then-falls-deeply-in-love-with-the-heroine-and-is-reformed trope. Heyer features such a ‘hero’ in ‘Devil’s Cub’.
      One of the problems is that ‘historical’ romance is often a misnomer in a sub-genre where sordid facts are too often ignored as spoiling the reader’s fantasy of an artificial past. Perhaps it should be called ‘alternative history fantasy’?

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