A Regency Romance (2)

At last, 11 days late, THE CAPTAIN’S WALLFLOWER has been released in the UK, but what do I care, I’m happy riding a hobbyhorse until I fall off….

journaldesmodesFrench fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797, showing a lady riding sidesaddle, wearing a red and black “spencer” jacket with matching bonnet. Image from the irresistible Dames a la Mode

The Victorians and Edwardians revised Regency style for a contemporary audience, fed up with stuffy Victoriania, and in doing so drained the real Regency of its blood and guts, replacing Romanticism with romanticism, sense and sensibility with archness.

Maguerite,Countess_of_Blessington

 Supremely self-aware, the Countess of Blessington shares a candid moment with her portraitist Thomas Lawrence (Oil on canvas, 1814. Image: WGA) While enjoying her sexual charms, he notes her vitality and intelligence (she was a novelist, journalist and literary hostess). There’s nothing arch or simpering about the woman or the artist.
Lawrence was a celebrity flirt: every portrait session with him, whether you were a man or a woman, was a Regency Romance in itself.

Fictional Regency heroes, like their historical models, incarnate the classical ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. They are likely to have been trained on the playing fields of Eton, or Harrow, and fought at Trafalgar or Waterloo.

Snobbery is inherent to Regency Romance, but it is pervading film and theatre nowadays, too,  answering an atavistic patriarchal need whether we like it or not..

An actor of over 50 years’ experience remarked to me the other day, after we’d rolled our eyes at all those Old Etonians monopolizing the best acting parts: “They teach charm at Eton”.  It recalls the “Company of Youth”, the notorious Charm School of the Rank Organization in the 1940s and 50s. It is the equivalent of mass produced “antiqued” or “chateau” furniture.

Class-consciousness separated Keats from public school-boys Byron and Shelley, causing a gulf that only Shelley tried to bridge.

It’s reassuring to know that both the poetic rebel Shelley and the military hero/reactionary Conservative politician Wellington hated being at Eton.

The myth of the perfect English hero was consolidated in late Victorian fiction, partly by the Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and explains the success of public school type actors today.

Sir Percy Blakeney is an invented 18th century, not Regency figure, but his characteristics are the same: masculine strength under a  metrosexual exterior.

Ambivalence is essential to the Regency hero’s sex appeal – and a sense of humour.

Sexual attraction combined with rom-com plot is essential to Regency Romance, but so is an arcane, or snobbish, element contained in the jargon, which you have to understand if you are to master the etiquette and be accepted into the ton along with the always charmingly unconventional heroine. Regency Romance palliates the reader’s own social anxieties. If you can succeed at that assembly room ball, you can succeed anywhere.

Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of the first great historical novel about the period, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847 – 48) went far beyond the limits of conventional feminine behaviour in her ruthless climb to the top of society. For the early Victorians, the Regency already had the glamour of unfettered self-expression, like the 1920s and 1960s had for the late 20th century.

Regency Romance that emerged in the 1930s is a fantasy game, dressed in sprig muslin, sweetened with polite sex, spiced with duels and lightly sprung curricles.  The mix of light comedy, privilege, romance and suspense has much in common with the classic English country house mystery story, still a mainstay of modern TV.

It was only a matter of time before death would stalk Pemberley, and zombies crash the Netherfield Ball.

The real Regency was full of A-list celebrities – rock star poets like Byron, Shelley and Keats, action heroes like Wellington and Nelson, an international superman like Napoleon – who have never lost their broad appeal, bestriding history book and popular fiction.

They lived in an era that self-consciously defined itself as different from the past. Writers and artists attached equal importance to analysing themselves and their times. It was an age of grand passion and understated wit. A stiff upper-lip was a sign of good breeding, not to be mistaken for lack of feeling.

A man could cry at the theatre if he wanted to, and make a dry joke during the bloodiest of battles. “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me” said the Duke of Wellington in an unscripted soundbite.

(He was witty in defeat, too. After Parliament passed the Reform Act he had opposed: “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life” which makes one sorry that MPs don’t wear hats nowadays.)

It was one of the few times in cultural history when you could be accepted as both camp and sincere.

Favourite poses of the Regency Romantics while they explored their own mental landscapes were on the edge of volcanoes, overlooking mountain peaks or listening to “eternal whisperings” on “desolate shores”.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_023A Scandi comi-tragedy about a hat dangerously close to blowing off Chalk Cliffs on Rügen by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. Image: WGA.
A sense of the sublime combined with a sense of the absurd characterized the Regency mindscape.

Heightened self-consciousness and sensibility did not preclude fashion and commercial sense. A weight-conscious self-publicist like Byron was careful to have his hair curled and shirt collar open at the sexy part of his neck for red carpet appearances, and fussed about the best frontispiece portrait to boost sales of his books.

Ahead of everybody, Byron commodified his own charm, his entire ego, creating an international brand which still sells.

A true European, without national or sexual boundaries, Byron died at Missolonghi at the start of a military campaign he had helped fund and organize to liberate Greece.

George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall

The self-made archetypal Modern Romantic hero: Lord Byron by Richard Westall. His scandalous love-life inspired a thousand romantic fictions, which have usually expurgated his pansexual incestuous and gay affairs. He cultivated his own image, putting himself on a strict diet, and selecting portraits for advertizing his books.

The Byronic hero informed 19th century literature, from Mr Rochester to Dracula, from Heathcliff to Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name”, answering male and female erotic desires, reincarnated for recent times in the permissive society, the studied libertinism and androgyny of rock stars, Goths, vampires (they were his idea, spelt with a”y”) and metrosexuality.

Byron slept with women and boys; he is all the more attractive to us for it; Shelley’s fragile beauty was almost feminine, his sympathy with homosexuality expressed in verse and prose essays. Keats’ sexual orientation was towards women, but his writing is full of homoerotic awareness.

Byron’s combination of serious intellect with sardonic humour, of athleticism with emotional sensitivity are all common attributes of conventional Regency Romance heroes.

Even the brooding though well-behaved Mr Darcy, born in Jane Austen’s head several years before the poet published his first book, has traces of Byronic DNA in his sex-appeal.

Unlike Byron, Mr Darcy was, and is forever, the ideal husband…..

to be continued…..

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