A look under the bonnet: why our fascination with the Regency era endures

Whether it’s the new Persuasion adaptation or the counterfactuals of Bridgerton and, er, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, we just can’t seem to shake Jane Austen’s world of dances and drawing rooms

The Regency, that narrow slice of history between 1811 and 1820, occupies a vastly disproportionate place in the British, and increasingly the global, imaginarium. Those nine years – when the future George IV reigned as prince regent owing to his father’s incapacity – have recently birthed a second series of the frothily preposterous Netflix series Bridgerton; a second series of Sanditon, based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel; and a new film version of Persuasion, with Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot. The “Regency romance” literary genre, a bottomless well of Austenesque love stories, has produced a summer bestseller this year in Sophie Irwin’s A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting. Another, Suzanne Allain’s Mr Malcolm’s List, has been adapted into a film starring Freida Pinto, also out this summer.

You may think that the general favourite of Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, would be owed a rest from adaptation after Greer Garson, Jennifer Ehle then Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet; after the zombie version; PD James’s crime version; the Bollywood version; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones version; the gay podcast version; the hilarious Scottish stage version (Pride and Prejudice* [*Sort of], a West End hit that’s returning home to Edinburgh this autumn). But no: The Netherfield Girls, a new Netflix series, is due to be released later this year, with teen comedy star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan the latest actor to tackle Elizabeth. That Austen’s novels endlessly generate fresh versions, though, is not a sign that her adapters have nothing new to say – quite the reverse. The Regency has become, according to Jenny Davidson, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Reading Jane Austen, “a blank space where you can wrestle with whatever you want”.

Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury and Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton,
Shonda vision … Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury and Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton, Photograph: Liam Daniel/Netflix

The popularity of the Regency is nothing new. In fact, it is the sheer familiarity of the tropes of the Austenesque (dances and drawing rooms; curricles and curtsies; frocks and froideur) that allows it to occupy such a dominant position in popular culture. (Don’t you feel that you’d know what to do if you found yourself in a Regency drawing room, forced to make polite conversation about the doings of the local militia – which was the premise of 2008’s Lost in Austen, in which a Pride and Prejudice fan found she’d switched places with Elizabeth Bennet.)

Under such circumstances it is easy to forget that our received picture of “the Regency” is itself a confection and an invention. Bridgerton, with its counterfactual vision of a Black Queen Charlotte and Black ducal families, as well as its stylised production design, seems more self-consciously artificial than, say, Andrew Davies’s Austen adaptations for the BBC in the 1990s. But, argues Olly Blackburn, director of Sanditon, those earlier adaptations “were a product of their age too. Historical adaptations are like science fiction films: they tell us more about the concerns of the time they’re made in than the future (or past) they’re depicting. It’s quite rare that a historical piece is only interested in what the past actually felt like. Bridgerton’s focus on multiculturalism and gender equality is a reflection of what’s important to us now. It uses the Regency - where there were many black and female public figures but at nothing like the highest levels of power - to fulfil our own social and cultural needs.”

Indeed, our vision of “the Regency” is a highly partial, visual interpretation of a historical moment that was itself ruthlessly delimited by Austen for her own artistic purposes. Raymond Williams’s classic 1973 book The Country and the City offers a useful reminder of just how selective Austen’s fictional backdrop was through his comparative reading of three authors – Austen, the journalist and politician William Cobbett and naturalist Gilbert White – who all lived within a generation and few miles of each other in Hampshire. Each saw the world quite differently: White was engaged in close scrutiny of the non-human, and Cobbett offered passionate political commentary alongside accounts of the poor and dispossessed beyond the pale of Austen’s rectory gardens and handsome estates.

Cast back to earlier screen adaptations of Austen, and the fact of their speaking to the moment in which they were made becomes much more visible: the mise en scène of the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, with Laurence Olivier as Darcy, and its screenplay co-written by Aldous Huxley, feels jarring now, with its costumes of the 1830s (rather than 1810s) and its strong southern‑belle energies. The film’s giant bonnets, its enormous acreages of silk (and goodness, does the film rustle) bespeaks a fascination with antebellum finery; it feels more part of the world of Gone With the Wind than England in 1813. Some adaptations, of course, modernise things completely. Clueless (1995) still stands as the best and funniest of screen Emmas, its Beverly Hills high‑school setting turning out to be the perfect 20th-century backdrop for the social snobbery and misguided matchmaking that play out in Austen’s Highbury.

The Austenesque has tended to enjoy larger waves of popularity during economically difficult moments: the first great revival of popular interest was in the 1930s, when Georgette Heyer began to publish the first of her fun, Austen-inspired romances, such as Regency Buck and The Corinthian. The second came on the heels of the recession of the early 1990s, bringing the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, Roger Michell’s Persuasion, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (scripted by Emma Thompson), and, a little later, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park. The last, intriguingly, forced audiences to examine the source of the eponymous estate’s wealth, adding scenes alluding to the exploitation and abuse of enslaved people on the Bertram family’s Antiguan plantations. (The scholar Edward Said, in his 1993 essay Jane Austen and Empire, had argued that the novel is based in an England dependent on those discreetly mentioned plantations, despite the fact that the narrative is largely engaged in “resisting or avoiding that other setting”.)

Suki Waterhouse, Lily James et at in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Bodice snatchers … Suki Waterhouse, Lily James et at in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Screen Gems/Allstar

The appeal of the Austenesque when the chips are down is, partly, straightforward. Austen’s niece Caroline was once asked by a reader what her aunt had felt about the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. “It was a question that had never before presented itself to me,” wrote Caroline, “and tho’ I have now retraced my steps on this track, I have found absolutely nothing.” Austen’s fictional world, in short, is a place walled off from the distressing facts of politics, war and violence – and necessarily, of course, from pandemics, social media, racist police shootings and the climate crisis. The real Regency was a time of Corn Laws, economic problems owing to huge spending on the war, the Peterloo massacre and the failed harvest of 1816, which caused widespread hunger. Such events are so rigorously excluded from Austen’s fiction that Mike Leigh’s 2019 film, Peterloo, about the radical politics of the era, hardly reads as “Regency” at all.

The particular nature of the 1930s Regency revival casts light on how we receive the Austenesque now. Heyer was writing in the wake of the first critical editions of Austen’s novels, by the scholar RW Chapman, published in the 1920s. As Davidson points out, these editions are especially mesmerised by the materiality of Austen’s world; they include reproductions of Regency illustrations of carriages and “Parisian headdresses”, AKA bonnets. Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances amp up this fascination further, providing almost fetishistic descriptions of hats and dresses. These draw not on Austen – who is usually reticent on details of attire or objects unless advancing a specific point about a character – but on the hectically detailed contemporary accounts, in journals such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, of attire worn by the rich and famous. When Austen adaptations hit the screen in the later 20th century, this material world, already so cherished by Heyer, took on an even greater significance, simply by virtue of the change of medium from page to screen. This vocabulary of settings and things – wonderful Georgian houses and parks, elegant costumes – has by now become an aesthetic and a style, one that implicitly but insistently tells us, Things Were Better Once.

The most obvious characteristic of the Regency dramas of the current moment is their diverse casting: a different pool of talent has stepped into corsets and breeches, from Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury in Bridgerton, to Pinto and Sopé Dírísù in Mr Malcolm’s List. Bridgerton does more than employ a wider selection of actors; it sets up a speculative-fictional relationship to the historical record that demands the suspension of disbelief, akin to how one might accept the premise of intergalactic space travel in Star Trek. (It is exceedingly hard to imagine a way history could be counterfactually engineered to come up with its multiracial English beau monde – the real wealth of which depended on the labour of enslaved people in the Caribbean.) By drawing attention to its fictional status so boldly, its historical adviser Dr Hannah Greig argues, Bridgerton invites conversation about the actual status of Black and south Asian people in Britain in the long 18th century. Others are less certain. Blackburn believes that, for audiences, while “the effect of seeing aristocrats who look like them on screen is joyous and empowering, TV is a very potent medium and if people walk away thinking somehow that’s how it really was then critical questions - like where all the wealth came from (the colonies) - disappear.””

A film that in some ways takes a very different tack from Bridgerton – the new Persuasion, directed by Carrie Cracknell – is also explicitly anachronistic. In the script there is talk of “downsizing”, a “playlist” and of marriage being “transactional”, as if modern women have been parachuted into a Regency setting that they must negotiate and can comment upon (Dakota Johnson gives quite a lot of eyeroll to the camera, Fleabag-style). Laura Wade, in her recent play The Watsons, a witty adaptation of Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name, comes up with another solution: she inserts herself (that is, a character named “Laura”) into her Pirandello-flavoured drama in order to grapple with the problem of how a 21st-century writer might or might not reconcile herself to the constrained world occupied by Austen’s heroines.

This is a new turn in the Austenesque. It follows a general change in the contemporary relationship with history, in which the moral and ethical shortcomings of the past, as seen from the present, are less likely to be forgiven. These new dramas solve the problem by becoming ahistorical. Or else they employ a knowing tone, such that, to use Cracknell’s words, we are somehow “watching people trying to break out of their time”. She adds: “We are drawn to Anne Elliot because she is very gently testing, and slightly mocking, the world around her.”

The kind of playfulness seen in works such as Cracknell’s Persuasion and Wade’s The Watsons is to be expected at this particular point in the development of the Austenesque. The implicit rejection of the idea of the “authentic” is possible because the screen version of “the Regency” is so familiar it has become a form in itself, or even a species of British mythology – a set of tropes that can be endlessly reinvented and reinterpreted. For the British, only two other historical periods have a similar status in popular culture: the second world war, which is used to fantasise about a quite possibly illusory, and certainly long-gone, moment of national virtue and greatness; and the Tudors, where ideas about sex, power and politics can be enjoyably worked through.

The 21st-century version of the Regency offers something else to our particular moment: a way of thinking about display, incredibly fine social distinction, ethics in relationships and status anxiety – all of which seems well suited to our Instagram-saturated culture. And if it is a hallmark of Austen’s world that her heroines have extremely limited decisions to make, that may after all be the perfect metaphor for a generation in their 20s and 30s who see their life choices equally limited – not by marriage prospects, but by a set of economic circumstances that seem just as uncontrollable and arbitrary. In the end the stories written by Austen and by her many progeny are about women surrounded by artificial, sternly judgmental and deeply constraining patriarchal systems, who struggle to break through them to find human connection, and love. That struggle, as they say, continues.

Persuasion is on Netflix from 15 July. If you would like to hear this piece narrated, listen to the Guardian’s new podcast, Weekend. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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