Why Jane Austen Would LOVE Contemporary Regency Romance
It is my personal belief that Jane Austen would have LOVED contemporary Regency romance, the steamier the better. If there is an afterlife, Jane Austen is there right now reading Lisa Kleypas and drinking Madeira. No one can tell me different.
I say this because I often encounter statements that work to distance Austen from contemporary Regencies and the modern romance genre in general. A good example is this recent Vox article: https://www.vox.com/culture/22970932/georgette-heyer-novels-movies-adaptations-folio-venetia. The majority of this article agitates for adapting Georgette Heyer for the screen (and I agree with those on social media who have called this idea terrible due to Heyer's bigotry, anti-Semitism, imperialist worldview, etc.), so it is flawed in more ways than one, but it also serves as an example of how writers and critics often separate Austen from the contemporary romance genre and historical romance particularly. In short, the article suggests that Austen’s novels aren’t “romances” in the sense that we understand them now. In this take and those like it, Austen is acknowledged as an influence on contemporary historical romance—only to then be quickly opposed to and excepted from the genre.
This argument drives me BONKERS. For so many reasons. First, I hate when this move is used to imply that Austen’s work is literature and contemporary romance novels aren’t (in my experience, that is the most common purpose of this line of thought). Second, I hate what this argument suggests about Austen and her work. The claim that Austen's novels aren't really romance novels very much corroborates the narrative of her life released by her family in the Victorian period. Years after her death, Austen's nephew put out a biography of his aunt that deliberately depicted her as a respectable, talented spinster who had an unimpeachable reputation. Responding to continued interest in her work, the Austen family wanted to ward off any scandalous intimations that might be attached to a single woman known for writing love stories (and whose work included risqué jokes and characters who have sex outside of marriage). Those who separate Austen from the romance genre reach back to this portrayal and use it to authenticate Austen as a restrained, lofty artist—not a writer of love stories that draw on both mind and body to depict the intense connections experienced by their central characters.
I’m not going to go through every reason here why the suggestion that Austen's novels aren't romances is ridiculous or detail the clear historical reasons why Austen couldn’t have penned novels franker about sexuality. Instead, I wanted to turn to one of my favorite quotes from Pride and Prejudice to show the vibrancy of Austen's interest in sexual fantasy and erotic fulfillment. This quote does not concern Elizabeth or Darcy (!!), but another young lady poised to follow a certain militia to Brighton:
“In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”
Six officers at once!!! Fantasizing about attentions from "tens and scores" of men "at present unknown"!! How could anyone argue that Austen’s novels are not deeply about passion and sexual desire and rapacious, irrepressible appetites when you read a passage like this one? Sure—you can call this passage satirical free indirect discourse, but, even if Lydia is being mocked, her imagination is real and Austen is giving life to a woman's erotic fantasies on the page. I read this passage as setting the stage for contemporary Regency romance. Lydia's innumerable erotic fantasies turn into the amazing Regency romances written in the 20th and 21st century.
I picked my pen name because of this passage—and because I think the insatiable erotic appetite that Austen gives Lydia is one of her most important contributions to the contemporary romance genre. (Lydia’s untamable desires are also in many ways an expression of the same fascination with female sexual appetite that powered much of Austen’s juvenilia—which, for anyone who hasn’t read it, is much more explicitly scandalous than her six complete published novels).
There has also been some great scholarship on sexuality in Austen’s novels and how her novels abound in dirty jokes and double entendres. I’ve put a list below for anyone interested who hasn't had a chance to read these articles yet!
Alice Chandler’s “‘A Pair of Fine Eyes’: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Sex”
Deidre Shauna Lynch, “Jane Austen and the Sex Positive Novel”
Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, “Pleasure is now, and ought to be, your business’: Stealing Sexuality in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia”