I have a soft spot in my heart for historical fiction novels set in England during the Georgian and Regency eras. Why? There are so many reasons, but I’ll condense them down to eight:
1. I love stepping back in time.
Reading a novel set in the past is like discovering your own personal time machine. I love being immersed in all the sights, sounds, and smells of a time gone by, and experiencing, through the characters’ eyes, thoughts, and feelings, what it was like to live in another era. The Georgian and Regency eras are particularly appealing to me because it’s the time in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Jane grew up during the Georgian era, which began in 1714 and spanned the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings of Great Britain who were all named George. The Regency (which we more readily associate with Austen) was a brief sub-period of the Georgian era between 1811 and 1820, when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent.
It’s such fun to read about the way people lived then, and to spend time with them in their country houses, where even the poorest of the gentry class had servants to wait on them. Nobody in Austen’s novels is ever seen doing anything we’d recognize today as work. They ride horses, drive in carriages, play cards, play music, sing, read, sew, embroider, draw, paint, hunt, take long walks in the shrubbery, and dance at balls. Of course, it took servants to make all that leisure time possible—but what fun it is to lose ourselves in what seems like a lovely, fairy tale existence.
2. They wore really cool clothes.
People rarely dress up anymore, and that makes me sad. The way people dressed in Austen’s time is delightful. During the Regency, women wore lovely, filmy gowns with empire waists in imitation of the ancient Greeks. In the Georgian era, when my novel Jane Austen’s First Love is set, the empire waist was still a thing of the future. Fashionable women wore evening gowns made from colorful fabrics (silk! satin! brocade!) in imitation of Queen Marie Antoinette of France. By day, a new style of gown was in vogue, constructed from a lightweight gathered fabric, often in white. At first the dress was mocked and called the “chemise gown” by critics who claimed it looked too much like underwear—but it quickly became all the rage, and was the harbinger of the airy gowns of the upcoming Regency era. Men dressed in brocaded vests, frock coats, and tight breeches fashioned in vivid colors that guys wouldn’t be caught dead in today—and they looked great! (Am I right in saying that there’s nothing sexier than a man in a cravat?)
3. The accessories.
Today, the only must-have accessories for women are shoes, a handbag, the occasional bit of jewelry, and a jacket. (Is a cell phone an accessory?) In the past, women decorated themselves with so much more élan! They wore wonderful long cloaks with magnificent hoods, sometimes trimmed in fur. They wouldn’t think of leaving the house without wearing a pair of gloves, often made of fine kid leather, and of course elbow-length for evening. They didn’t wear shoes—they wore slippers. Or elegant, lace-up boots. Don’t even get me started about the hats! Hats were so fabulous back then, especially in the Georgian era, when they were huge and decorated to the hilt with fruits and flowers and bows and ribbons and anyything you can imagine—I heard of one famous hat topped with a sailing ship! Fans were a basic necessity, they were hand-painted and gorgeous, and they had a language of their own. In cold weather women carried muffs. (Why don’t we use muffs anymore??) And they didn’t carry huge purses designed to contain every personal item they might possibly have a need for—rather, they stored things in pockets hidden in their skirts, or carried delicate drawstring bags called reticules which held only the barest necessities.
4. The hair
Aren’t you amazed by the intricate hairstyles that women wore in the past? They must have taken hours to complete. No wonder every fashionable woman needed a ladies’ maid! Having no maid myself, I am obliged to put up my own hair for the JASNA-AGMs and Regency balls that I attend in period attire—and my efforts, I’m certain, are but a poor imitation of that which Georgian and Regency ladies achieved.
I love the way women wore their hair in the Regency, drawing it up atop their heads in braids and Grecian curls, and embellishing it with jewels, ribbons, flowers, and feathers. For several centuries before that, men and women wore powdered wigs. I was so curious about this tradition that I researched it intensely, and made the topic a key element of my novel, Jane Austen’s First Love. In 1791 when my novel takes place, powdered wigs were no longer in fashion, yet older gentlemen such as Jane’s father George Austen still wore them, as did the servants. By that time, stylish young men and women had created a new fashion by powdering their natural hair. Georgian ladies generally wore their hair down, long, and curly, powdering it only for special events like a ball. Did Jane Austen ever powder her hair? Read Jane Austen’s First Love and see!
5. The houses.
Who can resist the grand, elegant manor homes and vast estates owned by the wealthy in Austen’s time? It must have been thrilling to live in such immense, beautiful dwellings and take long walks in their magnificent gardens. Yes, those houses must have been freezing in winter and hot in the summer, and it literally took an army of servants to run them— (who could afford that any more?)—but it’s a fun fantasy.
6. The language and manners.
British society was so elegant in Austen’s time. Men were gentlemen and women were ladies. Everyone bowed or curtsied when they met. The language was so beautiful and refined. I would love for a gentleman to come up to me and say, “Madam, may I entreat you—will you do me the great honour of accepting my invitation to dance?” Which leads me to:
7. The dancing.
As Jane says to Cassandra in Jane Austen’s First Love, “Dancing is such a glorious activity! It exercises both the body and the mind, all while moving with spirit and elegance to lively music.” I couldn’t agree more. I love to dance, and I’ll bet you do too! But how often do we get the opportunity? Only at weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. And let’s face it, unless we make the time to take ballroom, salsa, or swing lessons, the way we dance today is kind of lame. They had it so great back in Jane’s day! Someone in the neighborhood was always holding a ball. And from birth, you had to take dance lessons. I feel so fortunate that my husband and I belong to the Jane Austen Society of North America, and are able attend their annual Regency ball. Thankfully, English Country Dance lessons are provided. It makes for a magical evening. When I don my Regency period gown, put feathers in my hair, and take the arm of my own Mr. Darcy, I always feel as if I’ve stepped into a Jane Austen book or movie—and love every minute as we dance the night away.
8. It makes me grateful that I live now.
Although I adore writing and reading novels set in the past, I have to admit that once I put the manuscript or book down, I feel very lucky to live in the present. Nostalgia for a bygone era is sweet and thrilling, but I am truly grateful for antibiotics, antiperspirant, safer childbirth, the befits of modern medicine, women’s rights, indoor plumbing, hot showers, electricity, central heating, automobiles, airplanes, refrigerators, computers, the internet, telephone, television, radio, movies, foods not limited by locale or season—shall I go on?—and most of all, that women don’t have to wear corsets any more. J
Readers, what are your favorite things about the Georgian and Regency eras? Do you wish you could live back then? Why or why not? I look forward to your comments!
Jane Austen's First Love
In the summer of 1791, fifteen-year-old Miss Jane Austen is determined to accomplish three things: to do something useful, write something worthy, and fall madly in love. While visiting at Goodnestone Park in Kent for a month of festivities in honor of her brother's engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bridges, Jane meets the boy-next-door—the wealthy, worldly, and devilishly handsome Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons Park, and hopefully her heart! Like many of Jane’s future heroes and heroines, she soon realizes that there are obstacles—social, financial, and otherwise—blocking her path to love and marriage, one of them personified by her beautiful and sweet tempered rival, Charlotte Payler.
Unsure of her own budding romance, but confident in her powers of observation, Jane distracts herself by attempting to maneuver the affections of three other young couples. But when her well-intentioned matchmaking efforts turn into blundering misalliance, Jane must choose between following her own happily-ever-after, or repairing those relationships which, based on erroneous first impressions, she has misaligned.
About the author
Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.
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