The Regency Era is named for the decade between June 1811 and January 1820 when the mentally ill King George III’s eldest son ruled in his place as Prince Regent before becoming King George IV, but the name also describes the historically distinctive period of art, literature, fashion, and popular culture between 1795 and 1837. For many people, the Regency Era is also synonymous with the works of one of Britain’s most influential writers, Jane Austen. If you see a modern actress wearing a Regency dress, it’s a good bet she’s been cast in a remake of a Jane Austen film.
Austen spent nearly her whole life writing, but it wasn’t until she was in her 30s (well into middle age for that time period) that she finally became a published (albeit anonymous) author. During her lifetime she got to see four of her books in print — Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). After Austen’s untimely death, which may have been from Addison’s disease, two more of her novels — Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published in 1818. Northanger Abbey was the originally bought in 1810, but the publisher hadn’t bothered to actually print it. It wasn’t until after Austen’s other books were popular hits and even praised by the Prince Regent (Prinny) and his only child, Princess Charlotte, that her early work was finally deemed worthy of public production.
Of course, for years after her death Austen’s books were lumped in with the other romances or sentimental novels that Nathaniel Hawthorn called “trash” produced by “a damned mob scribbling women”. Then, in 1869 her nephew published of A Memoir of Jane Austen and a few daring male critics admitted that gee-whizzers this chick lit was actually hella well-written. The public had been reading her books for years and adored them, but what do readers know about literature – right?
Ironically, many academics still don’t think the hoi polloi Austen fandoms really fathom the import of the works or understand Austen’s literary merits. No, we philistines merely read the books for pleasure – enjoying the wit and romance without deconstructing it for its sociocultural commentary from an scholarly perspective. We read the books just because we like them. We read the books because the characters speak to us, and because the tales continue to tell us something about our humanity.
Us readers are so NAUGHTY like that – ain’t we?