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Regency England

The time of simplicity, sly rebellion, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Home of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontė heroines who assert their inner strength and independence by marrying dark, obscenely rich mercurial men. Said rich men usually wear long frock coats, tight pants, wispy hair with sideburns and live in big stone mansions which take up nearly half the planet. Women wear Groman inspired muslin gowns, which are popular from France, with high waistlines which they can actually breathe in (but which tend to look like nightgowns or maternity gear in the hands of a poor costume designer).

In a strict historical sense, the "Regency era" only encompassed the years 1811 through 1820, during which time the future King George IV held the title of Prince Regent due to his father, George III's, growing mental instability. In its broader literary sense, the term can be used to describe any period in British history ranging roughly from the end of the Seven Years War (known to the Americans as the French and Indian War) to the coronation of Queen Victoria (approx. 1760-1840).

During the time of George III, the regency and the reign of George IV, public morals were a lot looser than in the Victorian age. Many famous men openly had mistresses and/or visited brothels. For instance, George IV's mistresses—note the plural—were openly living in Whitehall Palace in adjacent rooms to his actual wife. And George III's third son William, later William IV, lived with an actress for twenty years and fathered 10 children with her, and from whom much of the British upper crust is descended (including a rather lowly fellow named David Cameron). It wasn't until twenty years after William IV's death that his liaison was considered shocking enough to be censored. Fortunes were won and lost at cards, dice and the races. Duels were fought and bare-knuckle boxing was at its height with champions like Belcher, Gull and Cribb.

The Regency is also the era in which the Industrial Revolution got into full swing, so expect a fair number of industrial parvenus to show up. Also new is modern men's fashion—the idea that a man's clothes should be dark, sober, elegant, and tasteful rather than merely expensive comes from the Prince Regent's favourite dandy, Beau Brummell. Or to put it simply: this is where the granddaddy of the three-piece suit was born.

A quote whose origin has been lost describes a tomcat as being a Regency Gentleman on the grounds that he roisters all night, enjoys rollicking love-affairs and bare-knuckle fighting but always looks elegant.

A Nostalgia Filter during the late Victorian period, particularly with The Gay Nineties and The Edwardian Era.

Tropes associated in this period include:

  • The Dandy: The era invented the term. Notably, Beau Brummel, who was such a fashion icon that it was considered an unprecedented honour to be invited to watch him dress (which can take hours). Incidentally, he also inspired the modern business suit.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: This period clashed two idealistic views whether they would look onwards to a futuristic perspective or a revolutionary and simplistic life.
    • Notably, Regency England was an age of rapid social and technological change that kicked off the Industrial Revolution, but art was dominated with simple and idealised Roman and Greek classicism and the picturesque, a pre-impressionist art movement based on simplicity and rural and nature scenes.
  • Gothic Horror: Often a good setting to the period.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: those popularly white, high-waisted muslin dresses and riding coats. They were often criticized as "undress" and their children tried to forget that their mothers have ever worn them during the early Victorian era.
  • The later years of The French Revolution and Napoleon's reign might overlap the period, as neoclassicism stirs ideas, culture and Mediterranean revivals in full swing.
  • Opera Gloves: The Regency era was the beginning of the long stretch of history- which ended as late as the 1960s- in which gloves became a near-mandatory fashion item among upper-class women in the Western world. If you see a Jane Austen heroine depicted at a fancy dress ball and she isn't wearing them, then quite frankly the costume designer is doing it wrong.

Examples

  • Jane Austen's 6 novels, as well as the numerous film and television adaptations (including the ones with zombies and sea monsters).
  • Jane Eyre is meant to be the fictional memoir of a woman looking back at her youth; the main action is set in about 1810. In addition to the mention of Walter Scott's 1808 novel Marmion as a recently published book and the frequent mentions of politics more appropriate to Georgian than Victorian times, Jane's travels lead her to a coach house in an Expy of Leeds where a portrait of the Prince Regent is displayed prominently. Not only had the Prince Regent (or King George IV) been dead for almost twenty years by 1847, the coach houses had been closed for over fifteen years. Had Jane Eyre been set any time after 1835 or so, Jane would have taken a train, and the station would have held a portrait of Queen Victoria.
    • This of course doesn't stop writers and producers from assuming that the novel was set in Victorian times and dressing Jane in a governess's wardrobe more appropriate to the mid-Victorian era than the Regency.
  • Speaking of Regency England in the broad literary sense, this also encompasses Wuthering Heights, which spans from the 1770s to 1801.
  • Also in the broad literary sense, Anne Brontė's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall takes place in the 1820s.
  • Blackadder the Third. It's actually about the Prince Regent (specifically his butler), but it's not exactly a costume drama. It also includes many events that happened before the Regency era.
    • Well, the first episode only referred to George as the Prince of Wales, implying that the regency hadn't happened yet. By the final episode, for sure, though, the Regency has begun, as a mad George III betrothed his son to a potted plant and did not realize he switched places with his butler.
  • Two entire genres of Romance Novels. "Regency romances" are cerebral comedies of manners, usually rather brief, with scarcely a hint of sex (see: Jane Austen, as listed above). "Regency historicals" are bodice rippers that just happen to be set during the period.note 
  • Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fantasy novel written as a Jane Austen pastiche and set in the same general time period.
    • Several real life figures from the time period even provide cameos, most notably King George III and Lord Byron.
  • George MacDonald Fraser's Black Ajax is a fictionalsed account of the career of the first great black heavyweight, Tom Molineux, who fought in the bare-knuckle ring at this period and twice contested Cribb for the title. The Prince Regent himself makes two brief appearances.
  • The seaminess of the period is represented in the art of Thomas Rowlandson whose watercolours and cartoons range from picturesque to quaint to ribald to pornographic.
  • The Luck Of Dennis St Michel Viscount Stokington is set just before the historic Regency, in the 1790s. There's plenty of mentions of balls, fiery-spirited heroines, Byronic heroes, and frock coats. Lots of frock coats.
  • The Gardella Vampire Chronicles. Yup, vampires plus Regency.
  • On A Clear Day You Can See Forever has many flashback sequences set in England in the 1790s.
  • The various Sharpe works fit broadly within this era.
  • Both the Master and Commander film and the books that inspired it tend to look like this, especially in the film, where Stephen Maturin has the sideburns distinctive to the period. This is likely partly due to the Frozen in Time nature of the installments following seven, where 1813 went on for the next ten books. Justified in that the Napolenoic War ended in 1815, which would have made him unable to write the later books.
  • The Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik are set in the early 19th century, though the main characters are British and travel all over the place. What if the Napoleonic Wars were fought with dragons?
  • The Matthew Hawkwood novels are set squarely in this era. The ongoing war with Napoleon forms an important part of the backstory and drives several of the plots.
  • Shades of Milk and Honey, a gentle Regency fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal offers a much less intrusive but perhaps more thoroughly integrated view of magic in early 19th century English society.
  • Sorcery and Cecelia is a Historical Fantasy that tells the story of two cousins of the gentleman class as they navigate the social scene of the Ton and the politics of the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
  • In Honor Harrington, Manticore is this Recycled IN SPACE!.
  • Horatio Hornblower and its adaptations Horatio Hornblower (film) and Horatio Hornblower (TV mini-series) are set in wars during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.
  • Kat, Incorrigible takes place in an alternate Regency, with magic.
  • Caleb Williams by William Godwin, published in 1794, takes a look at the darker side of Regency England - including corrupt hierarchies, a broken justice system, and political oppression.
  • The last Sherlock Holmes short story features a character Holmes claims was Born Inthe Wrong Century- specifically, Holmes stories are set at the end of the 19th century, and this man would have been much more at home among the courting and duelling days of the Regency.

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