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Regency Period Literature: Characteristics & Definition

Instructor: Virginia Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

The Regency Period in literature gave us classics such as Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' and the poetry of Shelley and Blake. This lesson will explain what defines a work as 'Regency' and explore some of their characteristics.

Regency Period

The first difficulty in studying Regency literature is that you must be specific about the years in history that are involved. Technically, the period during which England was ruled by a prince regent instead of a king lasted only nine years, from 1811 until 1820. This happened because King George III was deemed incapable of ruling his own kingdom due to the mental problems he suffered.

George IV as Prince Regent
Prince Regent

The Regency Act allowed his son, George IV, to rule in his stead. In 1820, George III died, leaving his son to become king and rule in his own right.

So that is the official Regency Period as far as political and historical definition is concerned. Now let's look at a different definition applying to literature. For characterizing literature as Regency, the period is usually considered to begin just after the French Revolution (1790) and end around 1830.

Connection to the Romantics

If you are familiar with the Romantic Movement in prose and poetry (as well as art and music), you are probably now thinking that the Regency Period looks like a small pocket inserted into the longer Romantic Period. This is somewhat true, as Romantic writers like Shelly (both Percy and Mary), Lord Byron, Coleridge, and Scott fall into this span of years. Scholars of literature are usually working with prose novels of the era when discussing Regency literature.

Jane Austen

Probably the best and most recognized examples of the Regency Era novel are the works of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

The plots of her novels, like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility seem to the modern reader to be all about women finding a husband of the right social class. This makes sense if you think about the fact that, in this period of English history, options for women were extremely limited, and the decision of marriage dictated a woman's future.

Moreover, distinctions of social class were strictly observed - even distinctions so small that readers in the 21st century would not even take note. But remember that during this period, social class was a large part of what made society run smoothly: everyone filled a particular niche. And a man was expected to choose a wife with equal status. Breaking out of one's assumed place created scandal, romance, and often (in fiction) considerable humor.

Identifying Regency Style

In addition to the preoccupation with romance and social class, what else can we point out about the Regency Period? The novels of this era are intimate stories about the ins and outs of courtship and romance, laced with fashion, manners, and social graces. The heroine of the story is usually the spirited young woman who dares to marry for love rather than the dictates of convention.

Formal Gathering in Regency Style
Gathering in the Regency Style

For female readers of the time, the outcome of these stories served as an escape from the reality of contrived betrothal for the sake of social ties or financial gain.

The Regency style captures the imagination.
Regency Style

Even for later readers, the idea of defying social custom for the sake of love is quite appealing. Add to that the elaborate descriptions of fashion, social gatherings, and the beautiful people of high society, and you have a formula for an ever-popular literary genre.

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