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.
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.
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.
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.
Sir Walter Scott - Themes and Legacy
Scott grew up in Edinburgh, where he benefited from proximity to some of the best libraries in Britain at the time, and this helped to make his novels among the most scholarly of historical Romances. His extensive travels through Scotland also influenced him. Scott's writing epitomizes the Romance because of its emphasis on stirring plots and recognizable historical settings while being less concerned with character development. In particular, Scott highlighted the Highlands of Scotland, celebrating their customs and folktales and elevating them into a national mythology. The Waverley novels are largely an argument for modernity-- Scott wanted a modern Scotland that moved away from the feudal tribalism of previous centuries-- but can be misinterpreted as a celebration of a nobler past. The message of Scott's Romances seems to be that we enjoy the historical novel from a safe, modern perspective.
Other Romance Writers of the Regency
Scott was influential for decades but became less popular in the second half of the 19th century, when realism, not Romance, became the favored way of writing novels. His contemporaries who contributed to the formation of the historical novel and the Romance included Maria Edgeworth, Thomas Love Peacock and Francis Marryat, though each spun off from the central influence of Romance to treat it in his or her own way.
Maria Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish writer, wrote Castle Rackrent in 1800, influencing Scott, and inventing regional Romance. Edgeworth's novels were written from the vantage point of her life in rural Ireland. Thomas Love Peacock wrote two satiric Romances, Maid Marian (1822) and The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), which deals with Welsh mythology. Frederick Marryat invented the military novel, a once-popular kind of historical novel, with The King's Own in 1830. Captain Marryat, as he was also known, entered the British Navy at a young age and incorporated his naval experiences into brisk, accessible, humorous novels.
Regency Romance bridges the period between the 18th century (Gothic) and Romanticism. Gothic writing uses a set of conventions (usually eerie plots set in remote castles) to tell a story set in a historical past. The historical Regency is also a bridge between eras (Georgian and Victorian), as it describes the Regency of George IV, Prince of Wales, who served as Regent while his father, King George III, was unable to rule due to illness. Regency Romance shares much in common with Gothic writing and is responsible for the birth of the historical novel. Sir Walter Scott used the Romance genre-- one which uses historical settings with strong emphasis on setting and plot-- to safely celebrate a historical past by mythologizing Scotland.
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