Saturday, April 26, 2014

Love and Romance in the Regency Era

Love and romance certainly did not begin or end with the Regency era, which is generally known as the period when the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) became Prince Regent during the time when George III was too ill to manage his monarchical responsibilities (1811), until the latter's death in 1820. So why has this particular period become one of the—if not the—most popular setting for historical romances?

His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent
One could mention the arts, which enjoyed the patronage of the extravagant Prince Regent, or the exquisite manners and elegance of the social scene, the lavish ballgowns and stately residences, and even the beginnings of social, economic and political changes as promising fodder for romance novelists. But I think the biggest reason for this has more to do with Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1754.

Prior to 1754, young people could be legally married quickly and cheaply in taverns or bars near the Fleet Prison (debtors' prison) by defrocked ministers imprisoned for debt. The Marriage Act stated that the ceremony must be solemnized in an Anglican church or chapel after the banns (announcements) were published for three successive Sundays in the parish or parishes of residence of both parties. Minors under the age of twenty-one had to have written permission from their parents. This Act did not, however, do anything to remove the validity of a marriage performed “over the anvil” in Scotland, so our thwarted lovers did have a legal way of tying the knot if parental permission was not forthcoming.

An important provision of the Marriage Act was to do away with the whole idea of child betrothals being equal to marriage. While parents had other ways of pressuring their offspring to marry where they wished, a childhood betrothal was not one of them.

The Appeal of the Love Match

While the arranged marriage, i.e., marriage for property or connections, by no means disappeared, during the Regency period, it was acceptable to aspire to a love match, as long as such a match was acceptable to both families. Social events such as balls, card parties, routs, assemblies, and institutions such as Almack's increased in number to give upper-class young people plenty of opportunities to mix and mingle with others of like mind.

Society, after all, was full of dysfunctional and scandalous marriages contracted for family reasons. Divorce was pretty much non-existent. Why not marry some like-minded, compatible person if you could?

The Sacrificial Bride or Groom

Not everyone, however, could afford to marry for love. The heir to a title was often “encouraged” to seek a bride with aristocratic connections to boost the family name and fortunes. If the family happened to be impoverished, said heir would often have no choice but to marry an heiress whose proliferation of pounds could restore the family estate. Because of the whole primogeniture thing, where estates were left in their entirety to the first son, younger sons were required to make their own way in life, preferably not something that would reflect badly on the family, such as dabbling in trade.

And the daughters, well, they couldn't inherit such entailed estates in any case, so their best shot at continuing to live in the haut ton was to marry someone with high standing in society and a reasonable fortune. As long as they were provided with decent dowries, this was at least a possibility; if not, their chances were severely restricted.

So, while marrying for love was the ideal in the Regency era, it was beyond the realm of possibility for many. Which is what makes this era a fabulous setting for historical romances. Our impoverished heroine longs for a love match, but realizes she will most likely have to settle for less. Our hero must marry an heiress, but has fallen desperately in love with said impoverished heroine. What can they do? How can their love match be achieved when circumstances stand against them? (And no fair having them discover buried treasure in the backyard. Their success has to be due to their own efforts.)

Onions to the First Earl Spencers

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
Last year I visited Spencer House on St. James Place in London. It's a lovely Georgian home (open only on Sundays), and I highly recommend it. All over the house are symbols of love and devotion, since the First Earl Spencer married his childhood sweetheart, Georgiana Poyntz, a love match for the ages.

But what really got my goat was the realization that this lovey-dovey pair sold their seventeen-year-old daughter, also Georgiana, to the twenty-six-year-old, jaded Duke of Devonshire in a loveless marriage that became the scandal of the century. Really, guys? So much for loving parents, I guess.

Laudermilk, Sharon H. and Hamlin, Theresa L., The Regency Companion, Garland Publishing, 1989.

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About Susana

A former teacher, Susana is finally living her dream of being a full-time writer. She loves all genres of romance, but historical—Regency in particular—is her favorite. There’s just something about dashing heroes and spunky heroines waltzing in ballrooms and driving through Hyde Park that appeals to her imagination.

In real life, Susana is a lifelong resident of northwest Ohio, although she has lived in Ecuador and studied in Spain, France and Mexico. More recently, she was able to travel around the UK and visit many of the places she’s read about for years, and it was awesome! She is a member of the Maumee Valley, Central Florida and Beau Monde chapters of Romance Writers of America.

Susana’s Parlour (Regency Blog) • Susana’s Morning Room (Romance Blog)


Tina Donahue said...

Fascinating post, Susana. So glad now isn't like then. Having to marry someone you didn't love or respect must have been brutal.

jean hart stewart said...

Loved your column. I've always been a sucker for the Regency period and have written several. Researching them was fun but exacting. Good luck to you....

Susana Ellis said...

Thanks Jean and Tina! I'm obsessed by the Regency. Can't wait for my London trip in a few weeks!