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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Mad about the Regency

The third season of Bridgerton, Netflix’s smash-hit Regency romance series, launches today. To mark the occasion, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University recently offered some reflections on “why the years between 1811 and 1820 are universally acknowledged as the most popular British period in history in which to set a love story.”


Or, as literature professor Stephanie Russo restates the question: “What is it about the Regency Era, exactly, that makes it just so … sexy?” Or again: “What is so romantic about the Regency?” Or, alternatively: Here are the "many reasons" that “the Regency has long been the most popular historical period in which to set a romance.”


As you will guess from that telltale Pride and Prejudice allusion, Russo’s number-one explanation for this alleged phenomenon is . . . Jane Austen, “the greatest romance novelist of all.”


OK, the old Austen-is-a-romance-novelist canard made me cringe, but Russo quickly pulled it back by noting that Austen would have called herself a novelist of manners. (Then Russo irked me again by referring to Austen as “Jane," but that’s just me, so I’ll let it pass.) Her basic point is sound enough: Austen’s novels established some now-standard templates for the love story; Austen’s acolyte Georgette Heyer codified them in the twentieth century; Austen screen adaptations are ubiquitous; ergo, we have learned to equate period romance with the English Regency.


Russo’s other explanations for the popularity of the Regency-set romance are less convincing. She notes that there are a lot of Regency romances—which is true but just restates the premise. She points out that the repressive social norms of the Regency force emotion underground and thus ratchet up drama and sexual tension—which is also true, but hardly unique to the Regency.


And then she notes that the marital stakes were high for Regency women, because they had few other options and little access to divorce. Partly, this is a valid point: One reason Austen’s novels aren’t the trivial amusements of Austen-hating caricature is that each heroine’s choice of marriage partner determines the direction of her life. It’s a moral choice, a decision about what values to live by.


So these terrifyingly high stakes make the Regency marriage plot serious business. But do they make the stories “sexy” and “romantic”? Call me crazy, but I don’t consider limitations on female agency to be especially hot.


No, I think Russo had it right the first time. Regency romances aren’t popular because they’re popular, or because the English Regency cornered the market on sexual tension, or because high stakes generate heat. Regency romances are popular because of Jane Austen.


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