The Devil is in the Detail, or How Not to Write a Regency Novel

If you decide to write a novel set in the Regency you have one real labour of love before you, and that’s to negotiate a veritable minefield of complex etiquette. There were so many rules governing social interaction – particularly between men and women – that it’s very easy to get the details wrong, and commit an unintentional howler.

I became very much aware of this when writing my Jane Austen pastiche, The Mansfield Park Murder. You would have thought that simply mimicking what Austen does would be a sufficient guide, but even if you manage to do this without mishap, there are some delightful nuances that Austen employs, which we’ve since lost. For example, a man could not shake a woman’s hand unless she first offered it to him, and when you understand that, there’s an added poignancy to the scene at the end of Emma, when Frank Churchill speaks to Emma for the first time after his secret engagement has come to light:

“I have to thank you, Miss Woodhouse, for a very kind forgiving message in one of Mrs Weston’s letters. I hope time has not made you less willing to pardon. I hope you do not retract what you then said.”
“No, indeed,” cried Emma, most happy to begin, “not in the least. I am particularly glad to see and shake hands with you–and to give you joy in person.”

I employ this same convention in my own novel, as a way of signposting the subtle shifts in the relationship between my heroine, Mary Crawford, and the detective ‘thief-taker’, Charles Maddox, whom she first dislikes, then fears, and finally comes to respect. This scene marks the lowest point in their relationship:

“He would have taken her hand, had she offered it, but she remained seated, and would not catch his eye. He said nothing immediately, but took a seat on the bench beside her.
“I see we do not meet as friends, Miss Crawford. I am at a loss to know how I have so far forfeited your good opinion.”

Of course you might reasonably say that very few readers will pick up on such a fine distinction, but those who do will gain an added pleasure from the scene. More to the point, the more things like that you get wrong, the more the reader’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ comes under threat. I may be a purist, but I firmly believe that you can only create a viable illusion of authenticity by remaining completely faithful to the conventions of the period. In fact one of the most telling measures of the vast social distance between my thief-taker and the Mansfield family is his willingness to use the precise niceties of social convention to his own advantage – to observe them when it suits him, and flout them when it doesn’t, as in this Regency version of an ‘interrogation scene’:

“It appears you have little regard for the niceties of common civility, Mr Maddox,” Maria replied archly. “I dare say you will sit down whether I give my permission or no.” “Ah,” he said with a smile, as he sat down beside her, “there you are wrong, Miss Bertram, if you will forgive me. There are few men who are more watchful of what you term ‘niceties’ than I am. Many of my former cases have turned on such things. In my profession it is not only the devil you may find in the detail.”
Maria replied only with a toss of her head; she seemed anxious to be gone, but unable to do so without appearing ill-mannered. Maddox smiled to himself – these fine ladies and gentlemen! It was not the first time that he had seen one of their class imprisoned by the iron constraints of politeness and decorum.”

Much fun was had in the writing of scenes like this, as I’m sure you can imagine. But it’s not only custom and practice you have to observe as a Regency writer, but the ‘iron constraints’ of contemporary diction.

I spent an enormous amount of time studying Jane Austen’s style, in an effort to pull off what is – admittedly – a rather presumptuous act of literary ventriloquism. Some of that was about catching the rise and fall of her sentences – a difficult thing to describe, but every author has their own unique ‘rhythm’, and Austen more than most. Some of it was also about the tone she uses – the mix of ”playfulness and epigrammatism”, as she herself described it. You see this most obviously in her characteristic ‘balanced’ sentences, where the first half appears to be perfectly straight-faced, only to shift suddenly into delicious irony. This example comes from Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice: “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”

The other area that can be a bear-trap for the unsuspecting is the vocabulary. Many words we use now were also common in Austen’s day, but the context in which they appear has sometimes radically changed. So even if you word-check everything you want to say against Austen’s novels (which I did), you can still make a faux pas if you don’t check the context as well. For example, you might want to refer – as I did – to the ‘atmosphere’ in a room, and be relieved to find that the word does indeed appear once or twice in Austen. However, if you look at these references more closely you’ll see that they all refer either to the weather, or to the physical nature of the air (‘poisonous atmosphere’), and never in our more general sense of ‘mood’.

Another snare for the unwary is ‘assume’ and ‘presume’. Austen only ever uses the word ‘assume’ in the sense of ‘taking on’ or ‘putting on’, and not in the modern sense of ‘making an assumption’. She uses ‘presume’ in the latter case, so I had to do the same (though one instance of ‘assuming’ did slip through the net, so it just shows you how stern you have to be with yourself!).

My own personal favourite here is the word ‘intriguing’. I had a wonderful sentence in my mind in which my thief-taker refers to one of his (female) subjects as “intriguing in both senses of the word”. But when I dutifully forced myself to look the word up, I found that while ‘intriguing’ in the sense of ‘plotting’ is perfectly acceptable in 1811, ‘intriguing’ in the sense of ‘fascinating’ does not come into use until 1909. It cost me dear to press the delete key on that one!

Like I said, you can call me a perfectionist, and I’m sure that there’s hardly one reader in a thousand who would have noticed. But if an author’s worth pastiching, they’re worth pastiching properly. Or at least I think so!


This post was originally written in 2011 for Lesley-Anne McLeod’s Regency blog, and updated in 2022

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