My agent, Kevan Lyon, loves historical fiction, but the Regency isn’t one of the periods she usually gravitates towards. After telling me about some books about the Elizabethan era that she’d been loving recently (Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir), she asked if I had any recommendations for her. However, at that moment my brain was mostly jumping up and down screaming “I CAN HAZ AGENT! I CAN HAZ AGENT!” so I said I’d get back to her. Narrowing it down was tough, but here it is, my personal Regency starter pack:
1. Jane Austen. Obviously. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are the most famous and the best, but Northanger Abbey is probably my personal favorite. It’s a hilarious parody and critique of Gothic novels, and more good-natured than some of her later books. Also, it contains a defense of popular novels which will never not make me chair-dance with delight. Here is an excerpt from the first page:
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine. […]She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without color, dark lank hair, and strong features;–so much for her person;–and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief–at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take.”
2. Georgette Heyer, inventer of the Regency Romance genre. To be honest, I tend to prefer her Georgians–The Black Moth is one of my favorite romances of all time. But my other favorite of hers is the Regency-set The Grand Sophy (which seems to be currently out of print! The link goes to the new edition from Sourcebooks, which is coming out this summer, but if you don’t want to wait there are used copies everywhere).
Unlike in a lot of Heyer’s books, the hero and the heroine in this one are complete equals. In fact, Sophy frequently gets the best of Charles. She gets the best of EVERYBODY. She is awesome, funny and bossy and good-hearted and independent and brave and smart. Stuffy, honorable, macho Charles is quite lovable as well. An excerpt:
“You will scarcely drive yourself about the town in a curricle!” he said. “Nor do I consider a high-perch phaeton at all a suitable vehicle for a lady. They are not easy to drive. I should not care to see any of my sisters making the attempt.”
“You must remember to tell them so,” said Sophy affably. “Do they mind what you say to them? I never had a brother myself, so I can’t know.”
[…]”It might have been better for you if you had, cousin!” he said grimly.
“I don’t think so,” said Sophy, quite unruffled. “The little I have seen of brothers makes me glad that Sir Horace never burdened me with any.”
“Thank you! I know how I may take that, I suppose!”
“Well, I imagine you might, for although you have a great many antiquated notions I don’t think you stupid, precisely.”
3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Not a romance, but an alternate history novel. Magic has long been gone from England, although legend says that one day the Raven King will return to bring it back. Then two men develop the ability to do real magic. Very long but completely absorbing, with a huge and endearing cast of characters (which includes wonderful female characters and a black character without ever softening or ignoring the social realities of the time). The ending of this book is one of the most satisfying conclusions to a novel I’ve ever read.
The historical voice in this book is AMAZING–and not just the Regency part, although that’s when the action takes place. There are footnotes that include “excerpts from historical accounts,” “folk songs,” &c., and the tone and diction of each one is note-perfect. Here’s the pseudo-folk ballad, “The Raven King”:
“Not long, not long my father said
Not long shall you be ours
The Raven King knows all too well
Which are the fairest flowers
The priest was all too worldly
Though he prayed and rang his bell
The Raven King three candles lit
The priest said it was well
Her arms were all too feeble
Though she claimed to love me so
The Raven King stretched out his hand
She sighed and let me go
This land is all too shallow
It is painted on the sky
And trembles like the wind-shook rain
When the Raven King goes by
For always and for always
I pray remember me
Upon the moors, beneath the stars
With the King’s wild company.”
4. The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. The first one is the brilliantly-titled His Majesty’s Dragon. They’re generally marketed as “Patrick O’Brian with dragons,” which is more or less accurate, and I personally didn’t need to hear more to be completely sold. I mean, PATRICK O’BRIAN WITH DRAGONS. But the label doesn’t quite capture the uniqueness and inventiveness of the books. Novik’s historical voice fills me with envy and the books in the series build on each other in a really interesting way. And since they’re alternate history, she’s able to include some female fighters in a believable, appropriate-to-the-time way.
5. Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase. Chase is probably my favorite Regency romance author and this is one of my favorite romances ever. Her books are character-driven, well-researched, witty, sexy…I could go on but I’d probably embarrass myself. She also experiments with time and settings a little more than I’m used to–for example, Lord of Scoundrels isn’t technically Regency since it takes place in the late 1820s, and a number of her other books take place in India, Central Europe, Italy, &c. An excerpt:
“Every man at the party had examined, at leisure and close quarters, that curving whiteness [the heroine’s bare shoulders and cleavage].
While Dain, like the Prince of Darkness they all believed him to be, stood outside lurking in the shadows.
He did not feel very satanic at the moment. He felt, if the humiliating truth be told, like a starving beggar boy with his nose pressed to the windows of a pastry shop.”
I love that passage, but I realize that perhaps it doesn’t capture the book’s brilliance or the hero’s incredible appeal. However, on trying to s
kim through the book to find a better one, I…read about thirty pages before realizing what had happened. So.
6. Brighter than the Sun, by Julia Quinn. I love marriage of convenience stories, and this is one of my favorites. The hero and heroine are just both so charming, and the story is sweet and romantic and funny.
“Charles began to struggle against his bindings. ‘If you harm a hair on her head…’
‘Charles, I just told you I’m going to kill her,” [SPOILER: villain’s name redacted] said with a chuckle. ‘I shouldn’t worry too much about her hair, were I you.'”
7. Sorcery and Cecilia, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. An epistolary Regency with two awesome heroines and magic. I read this book when I was maybe ten or eleven, because I was obsessed with Wrede’s children’s books, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I had never yet read a Regency romance and didn’t get a lot of the jokes, and I still soul-bonded with this book at first reading. Re-reading it later was like the icing on the cake of awesome. My first attempt at writing romance was actually writing in-character letters with a friend in imitation of this book. Plus, it has one of my favorite cravat jokes in it:
“The Marquis listened politely to my commonplaces about the weather, but I thought I detected some amusement in his reserve. At first I assumed the wind had done something to my hair. Then I realized Oliver was not merely standing, mute as a block, at my elbow, but was staring–positively gaping–at the Marquis.
The Marquis glanced from me to Oliver and said, almost too solicitously, ‘Are you feeling quite well, Mr. Rushton?’
‘Oh–quite well, thank you,’ replied Oliver, coloring up. ‘Only–I was admiring the way you tie your cravat. What do you call that fashion?’
The Marquis regarded Oliver with bland composure. ‘I call it “the way I tie my cravat.”‘”
8. The Pink Carnation series, by Lauren Willig. The first one is The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Chick lit/historical romance/Scarlet Pimpernel fanfiction, with the framing portions narrated by Eloise Kelly, a history Ph.D. candidate doing dissertation research in England; every book gets a new historical hero and heroine, with each couple somehow connected to the English spy, the Pink Carnation. I knew I would love these books from the very first chapter of the historical part of the book:
“When Amy was ten, the illustrated newsletters announced that the Scarlet Pimpernel had retired upon discovery of his identity–although the newsletters were rather unclear as to whether they or the French government had been the first to the get the scoop. SCARLET PIMPERNEL UNMASKED! proclaimed the Shropshire Intelligencer. Meanwhile The Cosmopolitan Lady’s Book carried a ten-page spread on ‘Fashions of the Scarlet Pimpernel: Costume Tips from the Man Who Brought You the French Aristocracy.'”
I also recently discovered Joanna Bourne and Elizabeth Hoyt–two relatively new authors who write well-researched, fresh, and satisfying historical romance with strong, unique heroines and amazing sexual tension. I’m excited to catch up on their books.
(I was going to include non-fiction, too, but then I realized that the non-fiction I read for my books tends to be too specialized for general recommendations–for example, one of my favorite research books for In for a Penny was the out-of-print title The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, by Sidney Pollard. If you need to know about contemporary accounting practices, I recommend it highly!)
What are your can’t-do-without Regency books? What would go in your starter pack?