Wednesday, April 17

Beyond Bridgerton: what Regency romance was really like | Books

It doesn’t require Lady Whistledown levels of surveillance to work out why Regency romance has been getting so much love of late. When Bridgerton, Netflix’s phenomenally popular period romp, first exploded on to our screens in 2021 we were in the dark days of a winter lockdown. Starved of human contact and fed up with staring at our own (woefully un-gilded) four walls, the show’s decadent costumes, swoon-worthy stately piles and timeless love-v-duty storylines were bound to win us over. Bridgerton – now in its second season -is – the ultimate in frothy, escapist entertainment, transporting us away from our real-world concerns in less time than it takes to say “indeed, my Lord”. It is much as one contemporary reviewer said of Georgette Heyer, without whose Regency novels there would probably be no Bridgerton, “you don’t buy a book, you buy a world”.

Some of the appeal of the genre lies in the Regency era’s strict rules of romantic engagement. At a time where matches are made via the swipe of a screen and flirting is less about lingering looks than exchanging one-liners over WhatsApp, the early 19th century looks like an idyllic age for courtship. Everything seems more romantic: it was a time when the pursuit of a partner involved ballrooms bathed in flattering candlelight, crammed full of singletons seeking not just a brief encounter but a companion for life; when sparks flew because couples could do little more than touch hands or lock eyes. But it’s worth remembering that most of our favorite Regency romances are several parts fantasy. In reality, looking for love in “the ton” (the Regency term for high society) could be as tough as searching for Mr or Mrs Right in the digital age, as I discovered when I began delving into letters and diaries from the period for my book on its real-life romances.

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‘Sparks flew because couples could do little more than touch hands or lock eyes’ … Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice. Photograph: Alex Bailey/Working Title/Kobal/Shutterstock

For women especially, with a flurry of new, younger debutantes emerging into the marriage-market every year, it could be just as hard to stand out in a ballroom as it is on a dating app. Money helped, and consequently – just as some singletons lie about their age when dating online – some families felt compelled to massage the exact amount of a son’s income or daughter’s dowry. “They gave out last year that she was a large fortune,” a real-life disgruntled mama, Lady Uxbridge, moaned after the real extent of her new daughter-in-law’s riches were revealed.

Seeking a spouse required a lot of effort then, too. For anyone trying on a match, the season entailed an exhausting rush to and from as many balls, meeting as many eligible partners, and dancing at as many dances as possible. One Earl’s daughter I read about dubbed it “spring campaigning”, so bored was she by the endless exchange of platitudes about the weather and size of the crowd.

Don’t think that dates “ghosting” or “playing the field” are new, either. Learning of a nobleman’s engagement, Lady Harriet Cavendish (a distant cousin of Diana, Princess of Wales) having watched him flirt and flatter his way through a couple of seasons, remarked tartly, “I hope it will not make Lady Maria unhappy or Miss Napier , or Miss Crewe, or Miss Beckford, for if report is to be believed, one’s compassion must take a very wide range upon the subject.”

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Nor was the world of the ton really all glamour. In the 1820s, the wealthy Mr George Cholmondeley made a foray into the marriage-mart to look for his third wife from him at the age of 73. He found one more than 40 years his junior from him. And it was thought that one of the biggest matrimonial prizes of the 1810s, the heir to a coal-mining fortune, John Lambton, would be well-looking, “if he had not lost his teeth” – a not uncommon consequence of early 19th -century dental care.

Of course, it’s doubtful if anyone would want to watch a toothless Viscount Bridgerton swaggering his way from ballroom to bedroom. And does it really matter if novelists and TV producers lean a little more heavily on romance than reality? Courtship, Regency-style, may not have been quite as covetable as glossy costume dramas and compulsive reads make us think, but just as love can blossom in the time of Tinder, so it did in the social whirl of the Regency season. That part is not just the stuff of fiction.

Loved Bridgerton? Here are five recommended reads for Regency romance fans

1 Cotillion by Georgette Heyer
The original and still the best, Heyer’s regencies are packed full of meticulously researched period detail, romantic but not sentimental. Cotillion’s hero is a fan favorite.

two Passion by Jude Morgan
A riveting fictionalized retelling of the stories of four women whose lives were entangled with those of the Regency’s romantic poets – Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Leigh and Fanny Brawne.

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3 The Angel and the Cad by Geraldine Roberts
The true story of the ill-fated Regency-era romance between one of Britain’s wealthiest women and the wastrel she picked for her husband. As gripping as any novel.

4 The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer
An immersive journey through Regency Britain that takes the reader far beyond the drawing rooms of Mayfair, shedding light on everything from duelling to drug taking.

5 Walking Jane Austen’s London by Louise Allen
Not much remains of the ton’s London habitat, but for anyone inspired to call for the carriage and take a Regency-themed tour of the capital, this is essential reading.

Felicity Day is the author of The Game of Hearts: The Lives and Loves of Regency Women, which will be published in September by Bonnier.

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