Quick! Look at the last five historical romance novels on your bookshelf or e-reader. If you’re not a big historical reader, mosey on over to the new releases section of your local bookstore or e-retailer. Now, what are the settings? Is there at least one Regency? More than one? More than three? Are they all Regency? It’s quite possible, but why? We’ve got a few theories.
Once upon a time, it was common for a writer of historical romance to be somewhat of a temporal nomad. While there was an entire genre, the Traditional Regency, or “trad,” devoted solely to the years when the Prince Regent actually reigned, 1811-1820, with maybe a grace note of wiggle room, if absolutely needed, the historical romance, as a whole had a broader scope. A writer might present readers first with a western, then the next book would be pirates, then medieval France, eighteenth century Scotland, Gilded Age New York, then perhaps off to Australia, then the American Revolution, US Civil War, and so on. These would usually be standalones, but that’s another story, pun intended.
Not so today. On the bookshelves Regency rules, even what is known in some circles as “extended Regency,” covering anywhere from the 1780s to the start of the Victorian age in the 1830s. Bit of a wider scope there, and sometimes written as “regency,” with a small r, so we’re moving away from the strictest definition of the word. Were we back in the age of the Traditional Regency, there would be words had over this matter. Back then, trad devotees, readers and writers both, were known for painstaking attention to the minutiae of the period, and woe betide the author whose dates didn’t line up with historical record, or who had hero or heroine in the next or previous year’s fashions without good reason.
Today, it’s a little different. As with any historical romance, Regency historicals can span from the lightest examples of wallpaper historicals to dark and meticulously detailed, so if it’s not the attention to precise detail that has readers coming back for more, what is it?
Some suggest that the Regency (and extended Regency,) especially when at least the hero (Dukes are the leaders of the pack on this one) is of the upper crust, is prime territory for maximum fairy tale appeal. Others posit that it’s popular because it’s popular, that readers buy Regency historicals because Regency historicals are for sale, so those are the ones that sell, so those are the ones publishers wish to acquire, so those are the ones writers have the best chance of selling, and round and round we go. Some will argue that it’s the Jane Austen effect (though when she wrote in this era, she wrote contemporaries,) or cite the seminal works of Georgette Heyer (who also wrote in other periods, including Tudor and Georgian.)
Some consider that it’s what the market is used to, a kissing cousin of the popularity possibility, citing some readers who have read very few, or even no historicals outside of this setting. Do such things even exist? Of course, they do. If we’re counting “historical” as anything between the dawn of time and the start of living memory, which, for the sake of argument, we will say is roughly around WWII, there’s a lot of room in which to stretch out, so why stay cozy? For some, it’s the difference between staying in one’s hometown versus striking out for the big city, opposite coast, or other side of the ocean. When one has grown up in the same town, one knows where everything is, who’s manning the ice cream stand on Saturday evenings, and when it’s safe to jog past the house with the dog that barks like it’s the end of the world. Staying in one place allows one to dig in deep, if one desires, and learn every nook and cranny. No need to mention which ice cream stand, for example, because everybody knows which stand it is.
It’s been said that the only constant is change, and that is definitely true within the world of publishing. Whereas variety in settings was once the norm, and one era is currently ruling the roost, there’s no telling what the future will bring. On either side of the Regency, we have the Georgian era (1700s) and Victorian ages, each with their own distinctive style and tone. The success of historical films and TV programs, such as Vikings or Downton Abbey crosses over to the historical romance market with varying degrees of success. Some of us are still waiting for that pirate boom that was forecast after the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise first hit the big screen.
While some readers couldn’t be happier for an eternal Regency, others are quite vocal about how much they would love to read books with more diverse settings, if they could only find them, a sentiment echoed by writers who would love to write them, but can’t find a market. There’s a disconnect here. Odds are, it’s not an easy puzzle to solve, which, for some, makes it all the more appealing a task.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Is Regency your preferred flavor of historical? Why, or why not? Is it familiarity, a common language, Austen, Heyer, the fairy tale effect, or something else? What other eras, including our own, do you like to read? If you don’t care for historicals, period (pun unintended, but we’ll let it stand) we’d love to hear about that, too. Pull up a seat in the comment section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.