Man, Woman, Diplomat, Spy: The Chevalier d’Eon

Readers of historical romance have long assumed that the Georgian era, including the Regency, was a time of strict binary sexual identity. This view has been aided by romantic novelists from Heyer onward who rarely strayed from that perception. As a writer of Regency fiction, I am complicit. However, the last two decades have opened the door for a more realistic interpretation of the times: that the spectrum of human gender identity was no different then than it is now. No person of those times better reflects this reality than the Chevalier d’Éon.

Born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont in France, d’Éon defied limits from a young age. Though the son of a poor nobleman, he rose quickly to notice through his remarkable intelligence and insightful political writings. In 1756, he joined a network of spies called the Secret du Roi (the King’s secret), a clandestine organization reporting directly to King Louis XV and often subverting official French policy. Shortly thereafter, his androgynous features, skill at mimicry, and iron nerve allowed him to infiltrate the Russian court as a woman. Although this claim by his biographer cannot be absolutely substantiated, the remainder of d’Éon’s life provides ample evidence of its probability.

Upon his return from Russia to France, d’Éon resumed his male persona, joined the French dragoons, fought in the Seven Years War, and was wounded in battle. Not long after, he was dispatched to London to draft the treaty ending the war, a role that earned him the title of Chevalier – effectively knighthood. However, when the new French ambassador to Britain humiliated him on apparent orders from Louis XV, d’Éon fought back. He threatened to release publicly a slew of letters describing the Secret du Roi, a move that would have deeply hurt the king’s standing with an already disgruntled French public. The British people, meanwhile, supported d’Éon and ridiculed the French ambassador over his treatment of d’Éon.

In time, rumors began circulating in London that d’Éon was really a woman – a modern day Joan of Arc – despite the fact that he dressed in military uniform. A betting pool was begun and he was invited to settle the bet. d’Éon declined to participate, saying that the examination would prove dishonoring regardless of the result. In short, he left the question unanswered because he believed his gender should be of no consequence in how he was treated. In 1776, he returned to France after Louis XV’s death – as a man. However, soon after his arrival he claimed that he had been female at birth and was raised male so his father could inherit from his in-laws. He demanded to be recognized as female by the French court. The new king, Louis XVI, agreed but under one condition: that d’Éon dress according to the claimed gender. When the king offered significant funds for a new wardrobe, d’Éon agreed.

d’Éon returned to England in 1785 where she would spend the rest of her days. Identifying now as a woman, she reclaimed her popularity with British nobles and commoners alike. She participated in fencing tournaments until suffering a serious injury in 1796. Painter Charles Jean Robineau produced a remarkable painting showing d’Éon fencing in a gown against Monsieur de Saint-George at Carlton House in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

The chevalier’s fortunes waned when her stipend from the French government ended with the French Revolution. She slipped slowly into poverty and suffered partial paralysis after a fall before dying in 1810 at the age of 81. The surgeon who examined d’Éon post-mortem provided the long-awaited answer of d’Éon’s gender – but it was not what anyone of the time would have expected or understood. While possessing of fully-formed male organs, d’Éon had many feminine characteristics, including “breasts remarkably full.” As such, d’Éon was possibly intersex.

The Chevalier d’Éon teaches us many things in hindsight. She taught us that gender fluidity is nothing new, nor is the extent to which others willfully misunderstand it. She showed us that a society willing to label people as “other” risks losing contributions from some of its best and brightest. Mostly, however, d’Éon demonstrated that intelligence, courage, and accomplishment are not byproducts of gender or gender identity, but rather of the human spirit. As she might have said, gender and gender identity should be of no consequence in how we treat one another. We are all just human beings adrift on the sea of a boundless universe, and so should cling to one another with grateful appreciation for everyone’s unique story.

Weird Regency: The Hammersmith Ghost Murder

Everyone loves a good ghost story. People of virtually every society over the entire course of human history have told and believed ghost stories. The years surrounding and including the Regency era were no different. However, one particular story resulted in a series of fantastic twists that played out over the course of 180 years.

This particular ghost story began with apparent hysteria in the Hammersmith area of London in 1803. A man who took his own life had been buried in the Hammersmith churchyard, a move opposed by many who said that suicide victims could not be interned on consecrated ground. They feared his restless soul would haunt the cemetery. Not long after, two women, one elderly and one pregnant, reported being seized by a tall white ghost near the churchyard. Rumors spread that the women later died of shock (though this appears to be untrue). A brewer’s servant, Thomas Groom, reported that a spectral figure rose from behind a tombstone and grabbed his throat. Night-watchman William Girdler reported pursuing the ghost near Beaver Lane. Public hysteria mounted. Because London did not have an organized police force, local citizens formed armed patrols to find and perhaps exorcise the ghost.

Late in the evening of January 3, 1804, Girdler encountered a citizen patrolman, Francis Smith, who was armed with a shotgun and expressed his intent to find the ghost. Girdler joined him briefly before they parted ways. Shortly after, Girdler and another man heard a gunshot and hurried toward the sound. There they found an agitated Smith and a ghostly figure lying prone on the ground.

Twist #1: On closer examination, the ghost proved to be Thomas Millwood, a local bricklayer. He was clad in the clothing of his trade: white linen pants, a white waistcoat, and a white apron that covered most of his midsection. He had just left from a visit with his parents and sister when Smith challenged him: “Damn you. Who are you and what are you? Damn you, I will shoot you!” Smith fired his weapon and the shot to the jaw killed Millwood instantly.

Francis Smith was arrested and put on trial for willful murder. At stake was the question of self-defense. If a man feared for his life and took action, was he innocent, even if his life was never in danger? Substantial evidence was offered from both viewpoints. Millwood’s widow admitted that she had told her husband not to wear white, fearing he would be mistaken for a ghost. Many spoke of Smith’s good character. However, Millwood’s sister overheard the exchange, and reported that Smith shot her brother immediately after issuing the challenge, leaving no time for Millwood to reply.

Twist #2: After one hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. The judge rejected the verdict, telling the jury that they must find the defendant guilty of murder or acquit him. The jury eventually returned a second time with a verdict of murder, with a mandatory sentence of hanging and dissection. However, owing to the odd circumstances, the chief judge referred the case to the King. King George commuted Smith’s death sentence to one year of hard labor.

Twist #3: Due to the publicity of the case, the actual culprit stepped forward. Alas, it was not a ghost, but a shoemaker called John Graham. The shoemaker’s apprentice had been frightening Graham’s children with ghost stories. To exact revenge, Graham had dressed in a white sheet to frighten the apprentice and then others. The attacks near the churchyard were his doing. There is no record of Graham ever being punished.

Twist #4: In 1984, 180 years later, the courts heard a case where a man saw two men dragging another man down a street. He intervened to help the victim, where he injured one of those dragging the man. It turns out that the “victim” was a thief and the two men were dragging him to the police. The attacker was charged with assault. However, the court eventually ruled that the attacker was innocent of assault because he believed he was acting in good faith for the sake of the community. The ruling was written into law in 2008, and referenced the Hammersmith Ghost case as prior precedent. Ironically, the ruling would have saved Francis Smith from a guilty verdict – because he acted in good faith for the sake of the community.

Ghosts, murder, twists, and turns. The Hammersmith Ghost case featured them all, and took 200 years to resolve. A good ghost story, indeed!

Once Upon a Time…In the Regency

In his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino transports us back in time to an event that plunged the psyche of a nation into darkness, and then reimagines a better outcome. The stain of the Manson murders still lingers in the American public consciousness even fifty years later. The people of Regency Era Britain experienced a similar moment of collective descent into darkness: the death of Princess Charlotte. Her shocking demise left a mark on the public spirit that lingered for years.

Princess Charlotte’s extended family was the very picture of chaos. Her once-beloved grandfather had disappeared from the public eye as he battled the ravages of mental illness. Her father, the Prince Regent, had become a national joke. He entertained a parade of mistresses, spent a fortune on amusements, drinking, and gambling, and became obese and syphilitic. His marriage to Charlotte’s mother, Caroline, was a sham. The couple expressed mutual disgust for one another and came together only long enough to produce a single pregnancy. Charlotte grew up largely without her mother, who was the subject of one scandal after another (some hearsay, others not).

This dysfunctional family of Caligulan proportions somehow produced Charlotte, a veritable rock of normalcy and stability in that sea of chaos. By all accounts, she was intelligent, witty, vibrant, and warm-hearted. She energized every room she entered. As a child, she was an unabashed tomboy who rode horses recklessly and engaged in fisticuffs with the boys. Once, as crowds gathered to see the young princess, she slipped outside and joined the crowd unnoticed and unrecognized. Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to Caroline and a diarist whose writings have survived, described the Princess as a “fine piece of flesh and blood” who possessed a candid manner and rarely chose to “put on dignity”. Despite her father’s dismay, this array of characteristics made Charlotte immensely popular with nobleman and commoner alike. Deeply disappointed with their current rulers, the British public began greatly anticipating the day their beloved Charlotte would take the throne. Many referred to her as “Britain’s Hope and Glory”.

When Charlotte reached 18, the Prince Regent tried to push her into a political marriage with William, Hereditary Prince of Orange. Although initially agreeing to the arrangement, Charlotte came to despise William and decided she would rather marry for love. She broke off the engagement and fled Carlton House in a hackney cab (with the help of a passerby, because as royalty, she didn’t know how to hail a cab). Her escape became the talk of London, and everyone sided with her against the Prince Regent. Adoring crowds treated her as if she was already queen. Eventually, she convinced her father to allow her to marry the impoverished Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who earned his living in the Russian cavalry. It was apparently the love match she had sought. On the day of the wedding, May 2 of 1817, crushing crowds descended on London in perhaps the greatest social spectacle seen in that city before or since. True to her wit, she giggled during the wedding ceremony when the prince promised to endow her with all his earthly goods – of which he had none.

The happy couple soon set about to produce an heir. Charlotte wrote that Leopold was “the perfection of a lover”, and the two were rarely apart. He spoke to her tenderly and wrote of his love for her. After two miscarriages, Charlotte carried a baby to term. As the birth neared, she was attended by Sir Richard Croft, the equivalent of a midwife. When Charlotte’s labor neared the two-day mark, Croft forbade a doctor from intervening to save the life of both mother and child. After 50 hours of labor, Charlotte delivered a stillborn boy “of uncommon beauty”. Hours later, her health declined and she died at the tender age of 21, likely from internal hemorrhaging.

Her shocking death plunged Britain into deep mourning. The general populace felt as if all hope for the future of the kingdom had died with their princess. That sense of malaise would linger for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the Prince Regent’s brother, Edward, saw an opportunity. He abandoned his mistress, married, and produced an heir. That heir would become Queen Victoria, who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. Initially, Victoria was not nearly as popular with the public as Charlotte had been. Her isolated and repressed upbringing left her unable to relate to the common people. She evolved over time, and eventually won the kingdom’s loyalty through stubbornness and longevity. More importantly, she became the central icon of the new Victorian morality which established a dichotomy of proper public behavior but repressed private behavior, individual morality but national moral ambiguity.

But, what if?

What if Princess Charlotte had survived? What if she had ruled in Victoria’s stead? What if she had presided over the massive technical and cultural shifts of the 1800s? What if her vibrant personality had illuminated the path of that change? Would Britain have become a different version of herself under the auspices of a beloved queen? Would the wider world have become a different rendition of what it is?

These questions are unanswerable. However, I like to imagine an alternate reality where Charlotte’s labor was handled differently, she gave birth to a healthy boy, and she survived and flourished. A reality where Queen Charlotte ascended the throne and led her adoring subjects with the warmth, energy, intelligence, and passion she possessed in abundance. A reality where the world benefited from her singular leadership.

Alas, we are left with a nothing more than a ‘what if’. For such a reality exists only in a fantasy place – once upon a time in the Regency.

Saving Scotland: How a Regency-Era Writer Preserved Scotland As We Know It

When considering Scotland, one cannot help but imagine kilts, bagpipes, Highland games, and clan tartans. However, the Scotland as we know it nearly faded from history two centuries ago until a Regency-era writer saved it nearly singlehandedly.

To understand the context of Scotland’s fall and rise, we must travel back in time. Scotland warred with England for centuries, led by familiar heroes such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. During that period, Scotland devolved into effectively two cultures: Highland and Lowland. Highland culture featured the romanticized life of clans we associate with Scotland today. The more populous Lowlands largely reflected the culture of English cities, distinct from the Highland culture. During the 1500’s, Protestantism swept through England and the Scottish Lowlands. The Scottish Highlands remained staunchly Catholic. When young Mary Queen of Scots inherited the Scottish throne, the Lowlanders did not accept her Catholic roots. They eventually deposed her in favor of her infant son, James, who was raised Protestant.

When Queen Elizabeth I of England died in 1603 without heirs, James also inherited the English throne, making him the first king of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. His great-grandson, James II, converted to Catholicism while exiled in France during the English Civil War. When he finally ascended the throne, Protestant England rebelled and he fled into exile once again. His Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William, ruled jointly in his place. However, many in Scotland and England longed for the return of James II. Their reasons were diverse: religious, political, nationalistic, sexist, and economic. Regardless of reasons, this group called themselves Jacobites, taken from the Latin name for James. Over the course of the ensuing decades, Jacobites launched a series of unsuccessful rebellions to return James II or his male descendants to the throne. During that period, England and Scotland unified into the United Kingdom in 1707 under Queen Anne (of the recent film, The Favourite). This union further agitated Jacobites throughout the kingdom.

In 1745, the grandson of James II, Charles, arrived in Scotland to start a new Jacobite uprising. The charismatic “Bonnie Prince Charlie” amassed a loyal army and enjoyed surprising success. His army routed royal forces, invaded England, and drove to within 120 miles of London. However, expected Jacobite support in England never materialized, so the army retreated to Scotland. In 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Culloden, recently made world famous by the Outlander novels and television series. Prince Charlie escaped and was smuggled to the island of Skye by Flora MacDonald, an event immortalized by the Skye Boat Song (the theme song for the Outlander series, incidentally). Regardless, the rebellion had ended in failure.

In the aftermath, the British government took a hard look at what had caused the Jacobite rebellions. Despite the complex reasons and Jacobite support in all corners of the kingdom, the government wanted a simple answer with a simple solution. They decided that the Scottish Highland way of life was to blame for all the kingdom’s ills, and passed laws effectively banning Highland culture. Concurrently, the government began the Highland Clearances, a depopulation of the Scottish Highlands. This latter practice lasted a century, reducing the population of the Highlands from 1.5 million to 300,000 through starvation, forced emigration, and transportation. Many Highland Scots ended up in America and Australia, playing critical roles in the founding of those nations. The net effect, though, was the near-extinction of the Highland culture in Scotland. By the Regency era, Highland culture was perhaps a generation away from disappearing from the collective memory, and Scotland was on its way to becoming merely Northern England.

Enter Walter Scott. Already a famous poet, Scott harbored higher ambitions as a writer. While growing up in the Scottish borderlands, he obsessively collected stories of Scottish lore and desired to somehow novelize them. In 1814, he published the first of his Waverley novels. The story follows an English soldier during the Jacobite rebellion who falls in love with the Highlands and switches loyalties to the Jacobite cause. The novel became a smash success across Britain and romanticized the public perception of the Scottish Highlands and its people. Among the book’s most ardent fans was Prinny himself, the Prince Regent. The prince demanded to meet the “author of Waverley” and thus became one of the few to know the author’s identity.

When the Prince Regent was crowned King George IV, he quickly called for a state visit to Scotland, driven largely by his love of Scott’s novels. No English monarch had visited Scotland in nearly two centuries, so this was an astonishing turn of events. George appointed none other than Walter Scott to prepare Edinburgh for his visit. However, Scott faced a serious problem. The Scotland of his novels no longer existed due to the aforementioned laws to erase Highland culture. Not to worry. With a royal carte blanche in hand, Scott pulled together a Highland pageant the likes of which Scotland had never seen before, complete with clans, kilts, bagpipes, and Highland games. King George was delighted by the display, and even appeared in public wearing the kilt of his Stuart ancestors (at Scott’s convincing). Although British media lampooned his appearance in a kilt, the grateful Scottish people went wild for it. George found in the Scots something he failed to find elsewhere in his kingdom: adoration.

The aftermath of King George’s visit proved dramatic. The royal house and the beau monde began adopting Scottish traditions, particularly kilts and bagpipes at formal events. The people of England began viewing Scotland as a romantic place rather than a backwater. Most importantly, the Scottish people rediscovered their national identity. Not only did Highlanders resurrect their traditions, but Scottish Lowlanders embraced the Highland traditions as their own. In short, the Highland culture came to define all of Scotland and influence the nobility of the rest of the kingdom.

George’s niece, Queen Victoria, followed in her uncle’s footsteps. Also an avid fan of Scott’s Waverley novels, she wasted little time in making Scotland her favorite holiday spot, and purchased Balmoral Castle as a royal family hideaway. She is even said to have given the order to raise soldiers’ kilts from below the knee to above the knee. She claimed it eased their movement in battle, but you decide her motives. Victoria’s embrace of Scotland created an explosion of tourism from other parts of the kingdom. Soon, all of the British empire became enamored with Highland culture, a culture that defines Scotland to this day.

In gratitude to Walter Scott, the Scots built him a striking monument in Edinburgh. At 210 feet in height, it is the tallest monument to a writer in the world. The monument is appropriate for a best-selling author of the Regency era who had rescued his homeland’s culture from oblivion. After centuries of war, Scotland was saved not by a sword and the fire of a cannon, but by a pen and the fire of imagination.

Writing Regency Romance: Courage or Stupidity?

Compared to writers of other genres, writers of Regency romance as a breed are either more optimistically courageous or just plain stupider.

This is where I should mention that I formerly wrote science fiction novels. My initial thought was, “Hey, I write science fiction. How hard can writing regency romance be?” As it turns out, somewhere between incredibly difficult and ridiculously difficult. Why is that?

When writing science fiction, I started with an endless canvas on which to create a story. No idea was too odd. No scenario was too outlandish. No character was too unbelievable. The only cardinal rule was this: please attempt to adhere to plausible science. Failing this rule can cause science fiction readers to wrinkle their collective noses in disgust. However, the writer may break even this rule if she provides a reasoned explanation for why gravity causes one to fly away from the planet instead of toward it. The writer need only do a respectable job of not grossly violating the laws of physics. Everything else is forgivable.

When writing regency romance, I instead began within a very narrow framework of time, space, and acceptable rules. And maintenance of the rules is an immovable object! If a writer breaks the rules cavalierly, she will receive swift and deserved condemnation and correction from an audience that seems to know more about the social rigors of riding in Hyde Park during the year 1815 than how to talk to a modern teenager. To heighten the challenge, the list of rules is immense. This list includes rules for what to say, what not to say, how to eat, how to dress, how to dance, how to smile, how not to smile, how to address those of different social classes in the context of any other social class, and “how” just about everything imaginable. The rules mean knowing the difference between a chemise and a chemisette, a chaise and a curricle, a Quadrille and a Scotch Reel, a baron and a baronet, and … everything and everything else. The writer cannot, may not, must not break these rules. And, for the love of God, never, never refer to Jane Austen as Jane Austin. I nearly lost a hand once when I did so.

More difficult than abiding religiously by the rules of regency romance is maintaining the contract with the reader. With science fiction, the writer makes a contract with the reader to provide something sciencey and fictiony, and perhaps melt the reader’s brain in the process. The story may end however the writer deems fit. The protagonist may win, lose, or draw, live or die, change the world or move into a bunker, become enlightened or get eaten by aliens, find love or lose it forever. It’s all acceptable within the bounds of the science fiction contract.

The regency romance contract is much, much narrower. As in, keyhole narrow. In particular, the writer must provide the reader with a happily ever after. No. Matter. What. The implications of this contract are mind boggling. In particular, before the reader lays eyes on the first word of the first page, the reader knows how the story will end. Typically, within a few pages, the reader also knows which characters will experience that blessed happy ending. This means, then, that the strength of any regency romance novel is in the journey. The writer must take familiar characters through a familiar landscape and familiar situations to a familiar conclusion while keeping the reader on the edge of her chair wondering, “holy-cow-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened-what-will-happen-next?”

How difficult is it, then, to create a captivating story inside this narrow framework where literally tens of thousands of stories have been written? Difficult enough that only very talented or very naive people attempt it. As a new writer of Regency novels, I’m definitely in the latter category, but with hopes for future glory regardless of my inherent stupidity.

A Guy’s Guide to Regency Romance

Just as grunting, inappropriate scratching, and endless sports trivia long have been the domain of the male of the species, so historical romance novels have belonged solidly to the realm of women. Female authors (mostly), female readers (mostly), and female bloggers (mostly). It is the “mostly” that brought me to a starling conclusion. Some men enjoy – and even write – historical romance. I’m talking about guys who run jackhammers, hunt wild boar, and perform their own plumbing repairs. Even more astonishing is that recently those thin but proud ranks welcomed me. I have fallen down the rabbit hole of historical romance novels and don’t yet know how deep it goes. As a newcomer to the genre, I feel it my solemn duty to leave a trail of breadcrumbs along the way, not so that I may return, but that others of my gender may follow. If they are man enough.

Types of Romance Novels in General

Historical romance aside, there are basically three types of romance novels. The primary delineator among them are questions of sexual acts:

  • Do they happen at all,
  • If so, do they happen outside of the marriage bed,
  • If so, do you get to watch when they do happen.

The first category of historical romance basically consists of novels about sex with a minimal plot painted over the surface to set them apart from the magazines your uncle kept hidden in the backyard shed. In short, the plot is simply a vehicle for repeated and graphic sex scenes. Think “Fifty Shades of Amorous Congress” here.

The second category consists of novels having an actual plot where sex occurs as part of the story. There are two sub-categories for this: “fade-to-black” and “Mabel! Cover the eyes of the children!” In the fade-to-black sub-category, sex happens off-screen, so to speak. The other sub-category looks remarkably like the first category above during the time when sex is occurring. Graphic. And detailed.

The third category consists of novels where sex does not happen outside of the marriage bed, and when it does, you aren’t invited to watch, thank you very much. The shades remain drawn. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The Regency Romance Novel in Particular

In general, good historical romance consists of categories two and three only. Why? Because the level of research needed to produce a reasonably accurate historical novel typically forces an actual plot. With all that time spent researching, why just have the characters mate continuously? Nevertheless, category two can produce some blush-inducing scenes. Often. And in graphic detail. The audience for this category is enormous, as you might imagine.

That brings us to category three, and the special relationship it enjoys with Regency romance. The modern romance novel was invented by Jane Austen in the early 1800s, or at least popularized by her. If you don’t know by now who Jane Austen is, then you either slept through high school literature or have never actually talked to a woman. If either is the case, I suggest you go now and find a monster truck to drive. Through an explosion. To get to a fight.

For those of you still here, I would remind you that Jane Austen wrote her novels around the Regency period about characters that lived around the Regency period. I would also remind you that the Regency period, which lasted from 1811 to 1820, was the time during which King George battled debilitating mental illness and therefore was unable to serve as king. Meanwhile, his heir, the Prince Regent, was busy attempting to personally bankrupt the British Empire with his spending habits. As a result, Parliament kept a tight rein on the prince, which allowed him to party, philander, and spend even further. In other words, Justin Bieber.

The upper echelons of society somewhat mirrored the behavior of the Prince Regent through lavish parties, endless social maneuvering, and forbidden trysts. However, the good and hypocritical people of society never admitted such impropriety, and roundly condemned anyone careless enough to get caught and too poor to sweep it under the rug. Given that society’s ideal was that wives bring their virginity intact to the marriage bed, and given that Jane Austen was the daughter of a church minister, and given that she never married, she wrote to the ideal of society in terms of male/female relationship. No sex outside the marriage bed. Ever. And for heaven sake’s, don’t even hint about it. Given that approach, Regency romance novels occupying the third category are the most direct heirs to Jane Austen’s work.

The Male Archetypes

Now, then. This entire guide thus far has been about sex. Given that this is a guide for guys, it only seems appropriate. We typically start off thinking about it, finish up thinking about it, and manage to squeeze out a few rational thoughts in between. On a good day. This brings us to a discussion of the male archetypes that occupy Regency romance novels. There are three basic male hero archetypes. If you don’t know what an archetype is, shouldn’t you be looking for a monster truck by now? Anyway, the three male archetypes are:

  • The unrepentant rake.
  • The brooding wounded man.
  • The iron but dying man.

Rakes are smooth-talking, overtly charming ladies’ men who move swiftly through society from one conquest to another. Only the heroine can save him from his wicked and self-destructive ways, and bring on repentance and monogamy.

The brooding wounded man is, as you might guess, a man who suffers deep hurt from a past incident (usually at the hands of a woman), and broods relentlessly as a result. Only the heroine can heal him and draw him from his wounded shell into the land of light.

The iron but dying man is one who lets no outside force penetrate his emotional armor, but is slowly dying inside from lack of emotional contact. Only the heroine can find a chink in his armor and pour into him the love that will save him.

Regardless, all of the above are typically tall, broad-shouldered, and fill out a pair of trousers like a Russian gymnast. In addition, they are usually wealthy, titled, adept at societal functions, and surprisingly good dancers. Oh, and they are quick to jump to incorrect conclusions regarding the heroine, which they do with alarming repetition. Most heroes have an antagonist or two, regardless of the hero’s archetype. His antagonist is usually a lesser man who has more money, more power, or a higher title than does the hero. The antagonist often sets his sights on the heroine, and often only wants her for shallow reasons such as social standing, more money, and more power. The undeserving lout!

The Female Archetypes

There is only one female archetype for the heroine, really. The under-appreciated woman with hidden talent, beauty, will, title, or a combination of those, who fights bravely against male-centric societal conventions to break the shackles while winning the eternal affections of the hero. To know her is to love her, but getting to know her can prove a torturous journey filled with maddening pitfalls.

The antagonist of every heroine usually comes in the form of a woman whom the heroine sees as more beautiful, cultured, and/or connected than the heroine is. Said antagonist usually sets her sights on the hero and tries to win him with her charms while simultaneously discrediting the heroine in a very passive-aggressive manner. The hero is often either too brainless or too honor-bound to just tell the antagonist to shove off.

The Story Arcs

Story arcs usually go one of three ways.

  • Love or lust at first sight, complicated by a barrier. That barrier could be title (e.g. one is beneath the other’s station), a prior agreement (e.g. a marriage promise to a less worthy woman), a damaging act (usually, either the hero doing something stupid or the heroine running away, or both). Most often, though, the barrier consists of a series of misunderstandings that cause significant strife between the would-be couple before they sort it out in the final pages. These misunderstandings are often fueled by the antagonists. In between, there is a lot of flirting, touching, and kissing even when the heroic couple are at odds. In the more carnal categories, there is often sex. “I hate you. Now let’s have sex.”
  • Animosity or apathy at first sight. Animosity or apathy is usually brought on by the fact that some societal rule or faux pas forces the couple together, that their families are at war with one another, or that they simply get the wrong impression of one another. This story arc is basically the same as the first, but skips past the societal barrier straight to the string of misunderstandings. From there, the two arcs progress very similarly.
  • The slow burn. The couple experiences an initial interest that slowly builds into passion. This is again like the first story arc, but the barriers only manifest after the couple begins to fall for one another and believes for a brief moment that all will be well. Then the full weight of society collapses on top of them.

In other words, virtually every Regency romance tells the same story under differing circumstances. The characters, the settings, the actions, the historical context – all of this can differ dramatically. However, a good Regency romance is ultimately about a man and woman navigating the mine field of the very class-conscious and rule-bound world of Regency England in an attempt to find love with one another.

Five Rules

If this is all too much to take in at one time, then consider my Five Regency Romance Rules of Inevitability for understanding a Regency romance novel.

  1. If it is possible for the hero and heroine to jump to the wrong conclusion about the words or actions of the other, they inevitably will.
  2. If the hero and heroine have the opportunity to provide enlightening information that will resolve the incorrect conclusion of the other, they inevitably will be interrupted just before sharing it.
  3. If the couple attempts to avoid one another, they instead will encounter one another inevitably, repeatedly, and with nobody else around.
  4. If society has the opportunity to squash the budding relationship, it inevitably will try in rather ingenious ways.
  5. No matter what happens, don’t sweat the details, because the stories all end with a “happily ever after” – inevitably.

If, by this guide, you believe that I am mocking Regency romance novels, then you are sorely mistaken, sir, and risk a duel by insinuating so. In reality, I can’t get enough of the stuff, much to my everlasting bewilderment. After I finish reading a Regency romance novel, I feel the overwhelming urge to grow a beard, chop down a tree with an axe, or drive a monster truck through an explosion. However, I also experience actual, dare I say, feelings. I catch brief glimpses into the feminine side of my soul, and it blinds me. Somewhere, Jane Austen is smiling and shaking her head while I search for sunglasses.