Jannat Ahmed, ‘The Men of Regency Romance’

Jannat Ahmed, a third-year English Literature undergraduate at Cardiff University, adapts her paper from the inaugural CRECS Conference for the CRECS blog.

Jeffrey Weeks in his book, Sex, Politics and Society (2012: 49), writes:

From the 1860s there was a new cult of masculinity in the public schools. Thomas Arnold’s emphasis on spiritual autonomy and intellectual maturity in the first half of the century was increasingly replaced by a new stress on physical characteristics, on the demonstration of pure willpower. […] The model of the early public school was the monastery. The model of the later public school was definitely military. While women were increasingly associated with weakness and emotion, by 1860 men no longer dared embrace in public or shed tears, precisely because it was a mark of femininity. A variety of male clubs sprang up which emphasised the elements of male bonding. And with the new stress on games and militaristic training came transparent chimes of imperialism. Sexuality, race and empire were inextricably bound together.

In light of Weeks’ distinction between the judgement of men pre- and post-1860, I read Jane Austen, a lauded novelist of the long eighteenth century against Georgette Heyer, an overlooked novelist of the twentieth century.


Fig. 1. Jane Austen (1775–1817)


Fig. 2. Georgette Heyer (1902–1974)

Georgette Heyer primarily wrote historical fiction: neo-Georgian and neo-Regency novels, written in the style of eighteenth-century novelists. Drawing from Weeks’ passage, I explore the significance of Austen and Heyer’s heroes in replicating the difference between these thinking men of sense and spirituality, and men of action. Weeks suggests that men before the 1860s and men after the 1860s were valued differently; military capability became of primary interest, and this escalated dramatically during world war one, after which Heyer began writing.

In much the same way that we can analyse Austen’s protagonists and their respective love interests in light of Austen’s contemporary social, political and cultural values, Georgette Heyer’s novels also reveal her own social, cultural preoccupations through her characterisation of men. In her historical fiction, Heyer’s system of valuing of women and men is anachronistic because it uses her post-First World War understanding of gender roles to construct anew men’s relationship to sense and action.

However, focusing first on Jane Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, I posit that Austen elevates men of sense and maturity as the ideal. Mr Knightley and Mr Darcy are notably men of sense, concerned with morality and seen in contrast to other kinds of men: clergymen, like Mr Elton and Mr Collins, who border on the nonsensical; and military men, such as Mr Wickham who is rakish and selfish. From her evident juxtaposition of men, Austen elevates Mr Darcy and Mr Knightley as embodiments of the gentry and men of sense.


Fig. 3. Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, in Emma, dir. Jim O’Hanlon (BBC, 2009)


Fig. 4. Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, dir. Simon Langton (BBC, 1995)

To complicate this reading slightly, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, features both the military man, Colonel Brandon, and the budding clergyman, Mr Ferrars, against Mr Willoughby, the heir to Allenham, with the Colonel and Mr Ferrars represented as the ideal heroes. The preference may seem unusual, but most of the military men we might go so far as to respect in these three novels are Colonels: Colonel Brandon, Colonel Fitzwilliam and perhaps even Colonel Forster.


Fig. 5. Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon, in Sense and Sensibility, dir. Ang Lee (Columbia Pictures, 1995)


Fig. 6. Anthony Calf as Col. Fitzwilliam, in Pride and Prejudice, dir. Simon Langton (BBC, 1995)

Colonels, in contrast to their Captain counterparts, are men who lead, administrate and handle money, rather than participate in action. A colonelcy was a career of transaction, rather than action (Dickinson, 2002: 475; Basset Rogers, 1977: 45). The Colonels are then regarded as men of sense. As Darcy is labelled ‘a man of sense and education’ by Elizabeth Bennet, Emma’s Mr Knightley is the epitome of sense and Colonel Brandon is the sensible choice for Marianne Dashwood, sense is the common characteristic of Austen’s heroes (Austen, 2012). Austen interrogates the contemporary expectations for men through romance and arrives at a promotion of sense.


Fig. 7. Paul Moriarty (r) as Col. Forster, in Pride and Prejudice, dir. Simon Langton (BBC, 1995)

But Georgette Heyer’s men are different. They are men of action, and fashion, and are notorious rakes who are surprisingly good at hunting, shooting and fighting, which is manifest in novels like Venetia and Regency Buck.


Not only that, but her heroes ultimately recover their own great moral sense by the end of a novel as a result of marrying the ideal woman. Heyer’s heroes represent an amalgamation of the ‘sense and education’ of Georgian men with post-first world war skilled, fighting men. Her novels use this trope of rakishness to demonstrate subverted expectations for men, but the men share a common feature of action, of an appropriately ‘male’ interest in skills such as fighting and riding. Many of her men are specifically connected to Weeks aforementioned ‘male clubs’ emphasising the relevance of male bonding. The rakishness poses no problems as it is the husband’s respect for his wife that is redemptive in Heyer’s novels.

311127From this cursory analysis of men in Jane Austen and in Georgette Heyer, I propose that Georgette Heyer’s novels represent relationships between men and women at a remove from the two world wars, but in parallel with the Napoleonic wars that changed the scale of the British Army, and ultimately that Heyer combines the reverence of sense in men of the eighteenth century, with an admiration for military action, with Austen’s novels as a primary example of these enduring idealisations of men. Writing romance is a project of constructing the (eventually) ideal man or woman for both author and audience. This idealism is informed by a consideration of social and cultural values, and this is precisely what Austen and Heyer both provide.

— Jannat Ahmed

Works cited

Austen, J. (2012). Pride and Prejudice. Kindle edn. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk on 13/04/2016.

Basset Rogers, H. C. (1977). The British Army of the Eighteenth Century. London: Allen & Unwin.

Dickinson, H. T. (2002). A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Weeks, J., ed. (2012). Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, 3rd edn. Oxford: Routledge, 2012.

Image sources

Fig. 1. Jane Austen. Image sourced from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.

Fig. 2. Georgette Heyer. Image sourced from http://www.sussexlife.co.uk/out-about/georgette_heyer_private_life_un_earthed_1_1568840

Fig. 3. Mr Knightley in BBC adaptation of Emma (2009), dir. Jim O’Hanlon. Image sourced from http://naomiblog15.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/why-mr-knightley-is-my-favourite-hero.html.

Fig. 4. Mr Darcy in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), dir. Simon Langton. Image sourced from http://s1281.photobucket.com/user/anonyuletide/media/firth_zpsbba6cdaa.jpg.html

Fig. 5. Colonel Brandon in adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995), dir. Ang Lee. Image sourced from http://img.allw.mn/content/2013/10/02162932_1129.jpg

Fig. 6. Colonel Fitzwilliam in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), dir. Simon Langton. Image sourced from https://crecs.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/c07a4-colfitz7204hunsford.jpg

Fig. 7. Colonel Forster in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), dir. Simon Langton. Image sourced from http://www.indiejane.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Forster.png

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