Regency Romance Bingo
Confession: over the last year, I’ve become a serial skimmer of historical romances. When I first found authors like Lisa Kleypas, Judith McNaught, Julianne Donaldson, Julie Garwood, and Loretta Chase, I lived in fear that I’d be discovered and forced to give up my “intellectual” card. (And yes, part of this fear stemmed from internalized misogyny, and the illogical and nauseating desire to not be like “other women.”) But from a literary perspective, I regularly criticized the literary fiction I read for any stale characters or recycled plot points, and yet here I was, gorging myself on a genre that positively embraces clichés. To top it all off, I’m about as romantic as a vuvuzela – so what was the appeal of these books?
I’ve since determined that anyone who can’t appreciate witty dialogue, emotional sincerity, and deliciously ridiculous plots is missing out. These romance authors know their audience like no other authors I’ve ever read, and they deliver book after book that allows readers to gasp, swoon, and roll their eyes at the characters’ shenanigans. To criticize these stories for a lack of originality is to miss a fundamental point: More than any other genre, romance offers security in an uncertain world. In real life, there is no guarantee that the man or woman you’re eyeing across a room is attracted to you. In a romance novel, the protagonists are guaranteed to be attracted to each other, and not just in a casual, I-guess-you’ll-do-for-tonight fashion – one look at the right woman can engineer a male protagonist’s chemical destruction. The reader feels no anxiety on this front, so that when a character frets, “I couldn’t possibly be beautiful enough for him/her,” you think, sweetheart, you’re the protagonist – he/she will find you irresistible. Of course, this security extends to the ending, which will undoubtedly be blissful, both financially and emotionally (and no author is going to go George Eliot on you to make you think otherwise).
I’m a fan of romances with a Scottish Highlands theme (the lines about kilts practically write themselves), but it’s really the Regency period (Britain in the early 1800s) that’s caught my fancy. All those earls and dukes strutting around with their square jaws and chiseled noses, brooding about the boring primness of all the young ladies they know, when a fiery woman parachutes into their lives and awakens their latent passion. The balls and the country manors and the gossip of “the ton” (the elite social circle of the day) – I find it all beautifully, brazenly fun. And no matter the time period, you can count on most of these authors to deliver coy repartee and funny one-liners. I often highlight Kleypas in particular, for lines like this (from Tempt Me at Twilight): “The fact that such a despicable human could be so handsome was proof that the universe was vastly unfair, or at least very badly organized.” Or this, from the same novel, and delivered by a Frenchman: “Oh, yes, Americans and romance. It’s like watching a bird try to fly with one wing.”
When I discovered these books, I read them cover to cover, like the dutiful reader I considered myself. But I’ve learned that some judicious skimming can make the reading experience even better. For example, I don’t need to know what color dress/gloves/boots/breeches everyone is wearing, so I now happily gloss over those descriptions. I couldn’t care less about the specifics of a character’s tortured backstory; it’s enough to know that it is tortured, and that the nurturing influence of the new love interest will nullify the sins of the past. And I could probably go the rest of my life without fully reading another description of an experienced man tutoring his lady love through her first passionate kiss.
But as I discussed earlier, part of the joy of these books is their predictability: anticipating which narrative element is going to pop up next. And so I offer you my particular version of Regency Romance Bingo:
In the wake of another ho-hum Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to curl up with a Regency romance, scream “Bingo” repeatedly (or by all means, convert this into a drinking game), and let yourself fall under the spell of these talented writers.
Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer and EFL teacher working in New York.