I have long harboured a raging contempt for Jane Austen novels. While I appreciate that they have a certain humour and plot structure to recommend them I just cannot get past the fact that they are peopled with folks who have no concerns other than finding the socially and economically “right” marriage. Oh, sure, there’s the occasional parson or schoolmaster who serves as a figure of fun and/or a match for one of the secondary characters. But the bulk of folks in what I have now discovered is called “Regency Romance” are members of the upper classes to whom jobs are an anathema.*
I blame my upbringing, really. And it’s ironic because both my sister and mother enjoy Austen immensely. But I just find the whole “I have to find a rich husband” thing kind of off-putting.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying a Regency Romance this weekend.
I came upon Georgette Heyer accidentally. She was an author who had been published in the mainstream, her books were inexpensive ($1.99) on the Kindle and highly-rated. Since they were written in the 1940s I assumed they’d be about the Edwardian era, kind of like Downton Abbey. Ooops. Apparently Heyer is a queen of Regency Romances and her books, although written well after Austen are direct descendents of dear Jane’s style and themes. I decided to stick with Grand Sophy, in part because I like stories about iconoclastic females who shake up society and in part to see if my antipathy for Regencies was an Austen thing or a Genre thing.
I now think that it’s probably a bit of both. I enjoyed Heyer far more than Austen. The story I read seemed more designed for pure entertainment and less about making statements. Austen was cranking her stuff out at the height of the Victorian empire, when class distinctions were very rigid and England was the ruler on which the sun never set. Heyer, on the other hand, was sending her stories into the Blitz.** She said in one interview that her books were meant as an escape for people to read in bomb shelters–and read them they did.
I don’t think Heyer will turn me into an unabashed fan of Regency Romances. I may read the other book (Cotillion) of hers that I bought in my ignorance, but I’m in no hurry. But I do appreciate that she’s cemented in me the knowledge that I don’t like Austen for Austen’s sake. If YOU do, that’s fine. You’re not any sort of bad person. I mean, I don’t like peas either. Or meatloaf. It’s just a personal taste thing.
*This isn’t strictly part of today’s post as far as themes go, but it’s stuck in my brain so I think I’d do better to get it out there now. I have a theory that the growing popularity of YA novels is based on the same need in readers as the Regency Romance. Because today’s teenagers are in many ways our version of the idle rich. Sure there YA novels that address “real” issues like getting into college, being in love with the “wrong” person, having cancer at a young age, etc. But many of the more popular ones feature kids with a credit card bestowed on them by their Disappearing Parent and a lot of beach parties, cookouts, proms and other amusements. People whose method of reading-escape entails focusing on a whirl of gaiety are drawn to such stories.
**I read several reviews of The Postmistress last year when it was one of the Hyped Books of the summer. I was floored by how many grown women mentioned that until reading that book they had no idea about The Battle of Britain. I could understand if it were a WWII event more removed from our cultural consciousness–a lot of the South Pacific battles and social upheavals don’t register–but this is the freakin’ Battle of Britain. For crying out loud, it even figures in the Chronicles of Narnia. It comes up in high school history class. Or it damn well ought to. I’m stymied at the level of ignorance.