Posted November 29, 2007
Some months back I wrote a column about Georgette Heyer, who re-imagined Jane Austen’s Regency era and popularized it for modern audiences. The Regency period, 1811-1820, refers to the years of King George III’s insanity, when his son, the Prince of Wales, was Regent of England in his father’s stead. Given the similarity of style and tastes (and the continuing figure of the former Prince as King) the period is often extended to mean the years between 1800-1830.
The Regency is still the most popular historical period for romances, in part, I think, because so many writers grew up reading it. But also because it was a broadly influential time. Modern European borders were redrawn. Napoleon’s changes to France included its laws, which influenced the way Canada’s own laws were written. George Brummell, known as ‘Beau’, is the reason men still wear black and white on formal occasions. He also elevated the craft of the ‘bon mot’ to art, and was known for saying exactly the right thing at the right time. And, because newspapers devoted a great deal of time to gossip back then (and were highly popular thereby), his witticisms were widely read, and repeated.
Wit is one of the main ingredients of the Regency romance. Sadly, it’s often misunderstood. ‘Argument’ is not the same as ‘banter’, and many a promising romance novel has been made tedious by the author’s inability to distinguish between the two. One writer who truly understands the difference is Loretta Chase.
Loretta Chase was raised in New England, and got her B.A. from Clark. She held all the jobs a young writer is expected to as she sets out to write the Great American Novel: administrative assistant, file clerk, retail jockey, etc. She also had a stint as a meter maid that she refers to as ‘Dickensian’. At the same time, she wrote scripts for corporate video shoots, and it was there that she met a young producer, whom she later married. Her husband encouraged her to write what she truly wanted to write, rather than what she thought she should, and the romance genre as a whole is very grateful to him.
Her first novel, Isabella, published in 1987, played against some of the tropes established in modern Regencies. Instead of falling for the dashing Basil, the titular character chooses his cousin, the proper and upright Lord Edward Hartleigh. Basil, in fact, turns out to be the villain of the piece. When, in her next book, The English Witch (1988) the devilish Basil became the hero, discerning readers knew that a rare talent had arrived on the scene.
Chase expanded her reputation with her next few novels, but solidified it in 1992 with The Lion’s Daughter. Set in late trailing edges of the extended Regency period, it is the first in a series of loosely connected, non-sequential books, several of which won RITA awards (the RITA is the OSCAR of the romance genre, except that it’s awarded by jury). My favourite book in the set, Lord Of Scoundrels, will be reissued next month, which thrills me, as I cannot for the life of me find my original copy (also, it will have a better cover. Yeesh). The clash between Jessica, a very proper lady, and Dain, a lord steeped in debauchery, is the stuff romance legends are made of. For all that it is witty and delightful, the story is also about the deep and lasting pain that only parents can cause, and the ways in which one has to overcome that kind of damage.
After Lord Of Scoundrels came The Last Hellion in 1998, and then… nothing. There was a pause in Chase’s career. During the hiatus, several of her earliest novels were reissued in omnibus editions, but there wasn’t a new novel until 2004. Then, in rapid succession, she wrote four books detailing the exquisite adventures of the sons of the Earl of Hargate, the Carsington brothers: Miss Wonderful; Mr. Impossible; Lord Perfect; and Not Quite A Lady . I’m not certain if the fourth book breaks with the title tradition because she just couldn’t find one to fit, or just because it was released by a different publisher.
My personal favourite of the four is Mr. Impossible, about Rupert Carsington, the irrepressible fourth son who is the family’s favourite disaster. As Benedict, the eldest brother muses: “He was aware that his father had told Alistair, his third son, and Darius, the fifth, to find well-dowered brides, because he refused to keep them forever. But Rupert, who came between them, was excused, on the grounds that no rational person would give a fortune into his keeping.” Good natured, but absolutely unmanageable, Rupert is sent to Cairo, where he raises havoc and meets Daphne Pembrooke, a bookish widow who requires his aid. Her brother has been kidnapped, and she needs someone big, strong and stupid to help her track him down. Rupert, big, strong, and vastly less stupid than he lets on, is happy to join her adventure. Set after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone but before its translation, Mr. Impossible is full of the flavour of Britain-in-Egypt, but it’s not without a time-appropriate awareness of the colonial cost of that incursion.
I’ve no idea what’s up next from Loretta Chase. No one does – that’s part of her appeal. She may go forward, and enter the Victorian era; she may instead go back. But her readers will follow in hot pursuit, certain of one thing: a great read.