Regency Romance Novels: Authors & History

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry

Leslie holds a PhD in English and a M.A. in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University, as well as a B.A. in English and French from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She has experience teaching at the University level, and has taught courses ranging from science fiction and gothic horror to script development. She has multiple academic and non-academic publications, and work experience as a fiction editor.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the historical time period of the Regency and some of the novels that emerged from this period, specifically those which are known as Romances. We will look at the connections the Romance has with the Gothic novel and the historical novel and focus on Sir Walter Scott, the most important writer of Regency Romance.

Introduction to the Regency and the Genre of Romance

The Regency refers to a period in British history in which George IV, Prince of Wales, was regent for his father, George III, between 1811 and 1820. This means he ruled in his father's stead while his father was suffering from mental illness. When George III died in 1820, George became king in his own right and ruled until his death in 1830. The Regency period is known for its artistic output, given that George the Regent was a patron of the arts.

Young George IV
George IV

The writing of the Regency can be seen as a bridge between 18th-century writing and the full flowering of Romanticism. In the genre of the Romance, we see elements of 18th-century Gothic writing combined with new Romantic sensibilities and the beginning of the historical novel. When we use the term Romance, we don't mean a love story between two individuals. A Romance in the Regency context refers to fiction that looks back at a previous period in history. Although the historical Regency lasted about ten years, artistically the Regency can be said to range from roughly the 1790s to the 1820s.

The Regency and the Gothic Novel

The form of the novel was still relatively new at the beginning of the 19th century, and novel reading was often defined as for women only--men would read more 'important' nonfiction works. While there are a number of male writers who could be said to be authors of Gothic Romances, the genre was dominated by female writers. Gothic novels of this period share many characteristics with Romance. For example, two of the earliest Gothic novels, The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole and Vathek (1782) by William Beckford have elements of both: like a Romance, they look back to a previous period of history which is represented in rich detail; and as Gothic novels, their settings are feudal castles with plots full of murder, degeneracy, dastardly villains, and the supernatural.

Clara Reeve, author of The Old English Baron
Clara Reeve

By 1795, more than a third of all novels published were Gothic Romances. Readers enjoyed works by Clara Reeve, such as The Old English Baron (1777-8), and Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe popularized the Gothic Romance, and her works are synonymous with feudal castles, brave but emotional heroines, exotic Continental locales, family secrets, and terror that resolves into a happy ending. A Sicilian Romance (1790) even has Romance in the title and, like Walpole's and Beckford's texts, has the elements of historical Romance mentioned previously. Gothic Romances were so popular that Jane Austen parodied them in Northanger Abbey (1818), though Austen's work cannot really be considered Gothic or Romance since it deals with her own contemporary society rather than depicting feudal castles in rich historical detail.

Sophia Lee and William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley) were contemporary to the writers mentioned above and wrote novels that are more Romance than Gothic. The Recess (1783-5) by Lee and St. Leon (1799) and Mandeville (1817) by Godwin are examples of these. They share the interest in recreating a historical past but are less concerned with the trappings of the Gothic-- the eerie castles, fiendish plots, and the supernatural.

Sir Walter Scott - Life and Works

The most important figure in Regency Romance Novels is Sir Walter Scott. Scott, born in Edinburgh, was first a Romantic poet, and achieved much success in poetry, but he eventually turned to novels. In 1814, he anonymously published Waverley, a novel about Scotland in the 1740s, which was enormously successful. He went on to publish many novels in the Waverley cycle, all historical novels, including Rob Roy (1817). In 1819, he chose 12th-century English history as a subject in Ivanhoe, and he returned to English history, this time during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, with Kenilworth (1821).

Scott was made a baronet by George the Regent in 1820. He became the best-selling writer of his time, in both the U.S. and Britain. In 1826, Scott went bankrupt and spent the rest of his life working to pay off the debts.

A scene from Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

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