A Regency Romance

What explains the enduring appeal of the Regency Romance? (Question arises from the latest audio book I’ve narrated, already successfully released in USA 10 days ago, by a subsidiary of over-mighty Amazon).

Why has that period in history lent itself more than any other to our fantasies about courtship and social acceptance? The origins of its potency lie older and deeper than the comedies of manners written prolifically by Georgette Heyer, the doyenne of Regency Romance fiction, and the costume rom-coms of the film and movie industries of the last hundred years.

Regency Romance is written to a winning formula nowadays, some of it blissfully unconcerned with syntax or history, but millions of women had fallen in love with Classic Literature’s Mr Darcy for nearly two centuries before the BBC got him wet.  Members of all sexes have obsessed over the period’s dead poets with a sense of connection that felt stronger than many real relationships. Many a girl and boy have thrilled to Byron’s “mad, bad and dangerous” celebrity, or pined to be the one to soothe Keats’ fevered forehead, rather than inadequate Fanny Brawne.

We are all touched by the Regency, even those of us who have never read a romantic novel or would know a pelisse if it arrested us.

John_Arthur_Douglas_Bloomfield,_2nd_Baron_Bloomfield_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield, already a career diplomat at the age of seventeen, a pillar of the Establishment trying desperately to look like poet, libertarian political writer and social outcast Lord Byron, painted at full Romantic throttle by Thomas Lawrence, 1819. (National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia).
The Regency created its own romantically sexy myth long before it was appropriated by later generations.

The Regency period looks more modern to us than either the preceding 18th century age or the following Victorian age. The style of clothes and short hairstyles are still around – even the men’s tight-fitting trousers have been revived as jeggings.

Regency architecture, interior and garden design still provide some of the most elegant home improvement options available today.

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Edmund Leighton: On the Threshold (1900). Manchester Art Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Love the wrought iron and lead roofed porch. And his boots….

A late Victorian nostalgia for Regency style packaged the romance of consumerism, in which props and set dressing are more prominent than feelings. You’d never guess from later illustrations that there had been a war going on, in fact several wars, about ideology, trade, territory and ideas.

Women’s clothes in the neoclassical Regency period, for three decades after the French Revolution, were more comfortable, more symbolic of personal freedom, than later 19th and early 20th century fashions. By the late 1820s, tight lacing was back and got tighter. (Traditional stays had never really gone away for every woman in Regency times, and were superseded by the much-maligned corset which, correctly fitted, is far more comfortable and good for posture than its reputation allows. And some of us are comfortable and happier in high heels, just as some people have sea legs – but that’s for another battle at the Last Post.)

The female body of the following four generations was squeezed in and padded out, satisfying somebody or other’s fetishes, some of them as weird as Comic Con costumes.

At the time Edmund Leighton was turning out his chocolate box historical genre scenes, and C.E. Brock was producing his fairytale illustrations to Jane Austen, fashionable women’s bodies were trapped in S-shaped cages which they only started getting out of shortly before World War I. The Regency looked like a time of rationality and enlightenment in comparison.

Bingley&Jane. Brock

One of the later (1907) watercolour versions of C.E. Brock’s original 1895 illustrations to Pride and Prejudice: the sugary colours signal the export of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory” world to the arch land of Regency Romance.

to be continued

The AUDIO VERSION of THE CAPTAIN’S WALLFLOWER – A Regency Romance by Audrey Harrison, read by Pippa Rathborne – is available now on Amazon, Audible and iTunes.

“A life larger than the sentence” or The Audio Version

BeguilingofMerlinThe Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne Jones, 1874. Oil on canvas. Image source: Wikipedia
“You couldn’t even get my name right”, explained the Lady of the Lake to Merlin, as she started reading the audio version of his own spellbook to put him to sleep, imprisoned in a hawthorn tree, for eternity.

Who is the witch who binds us with other people’s stories? She, or he, beguiles us with their voice, conjuring characters, passions and landscapes as vividly as CGI while they read novels and manuals aloud. Try selling that to the teenager, or spouse, playing GTAV in the room next door.

The storyspelling power belongs to actors when they narrate audiobooks. Does it always work? Probably not. I turn off BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime as a barrier between me and imagination, and, sometimes, sanity.

Once upon a time there were a couple of actors whom I loved who enchanted me when they read to me in bed at night. That was long ago.

I loathe narration in movies, which, except when used ironically or to heighten emotional effect (Sunset Boulevard?) mitigates experience by explaining information to audiences which they or the film-makers are too stupid to share through images and dialogue.

It’s reassuring for me that Harrison Ford objected to the voice-over imposed by the studio on Blade Runner. As he said, “it was simply bad narration”.

But – “but” being the most important word in peaceful communication and the most laborious in fiction – there are other testimonies. When the spell works, you are transported to other worlds through your headphones:

Without fail, the time I spent in your storyspell upgraded the quality of my day. – A. A. Attanasio, author of The Dragon and the Unicorn, describing listening to the audio version of his novel.

Is the audiobook merely a modern convenience for assimilating information already available in print, or can it enhance the listener’s imaginative experience in a sensory way? Whose voice or voices do we hear when we read to ourselves?

I got to looking forward to the next installment, for the aesthetic rush of your performance that invariably left me feeling uplifted, strengthened. Somehow – magically! – your artistic élan brightened my own mundane history. That’s the authentic power of art! Thank you for bringing that power to my novel. –  A. A. Attanasio

Do we prefer the voices in our own heads, or the insistent voice of the witch trying to enthrall us?

I am mesmerized by the voice you have given this novel.

The siren’s magic works for some aurally sensitive people – but not for all of us, fed up of other people’s intrusive voice-overs when what we really want is to live in the moment ourselves. Do I really find the witch’s voice more enchanting than imaginary ones?

Can the witchiest of readers transport me away from my everyday dullness and anxieties to take part in “a life larger than the sentence?” (A. A. Attanasio again – he’s got a way of putting awesome concepts into words.)

Am I promoting an audiobook, or sabotaging it?

Am I for the witch, or against her?

Consider Merlin – a genius, a philosopher, a sage with superpowers who could see into the future. Look at him, in your mind’s eye or in Burne Jones’ painting, voluntarily surrendering to the nymph Nimue/Vivien/Ninianne  – hardly anyone in Arthurian legend knows for certain what they want to be called or spelled, as if they are resigned to their symbolic significance being more important than their individuality – whom he had foreseen would enchant him into eternal sleep by turning one of his own spells against him.

In the end, people gave up calling her by a name: we know her as the Lady of the Lake. He could have avoided her; he could have carried on reading the print edition of his spellbook to himself, as he had done for hundreds of prosaic years, but instead he gave himself up to the voluptuous blossoms and pleasurably piercing thorns of enchantment by choosing the audio version.

Words – those impish logoi – only carry the human spirit so far … and then not always where the writer intends; so, [the actor’s] narrative power, [their] skillful communion with those words, makes them live a life larger than the sentence. – A. A. Attanasio.

The Dragon and the Unicorn: The Perilous Order of Camelot (Volume 1) by A.A. Attanasio is now available as an audiobook on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. The author blends Arthurian myths and legends with philosophy, history, theology and science fiction. At the heart of the book is the story of Ygrane, who triumphs over adversity in multiple roles, as maiden-sacrifice, witch-queen, wife and mother, whose emotional life seems so vividly real to readers that she rises out of fantasy as a real woman, a once and future heroine.

I feel privileged that my text now wholly partakes of the larger life of performance art through your talent.
A.A. Attanasio writing about the audio version of his monumental novel, read by Pippa Rathborne, on sale at Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

Portrait of a young woman gilbert stuart

Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.

All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.

Audio: Till this moment, I never knew myself

Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?

Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.

Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.

Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.

They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.

They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.

They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.

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 The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.

Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Continue reading