Jane Austen’s Sardonic Wit

The following article muses about the wit and subtleties of Jane Austen’s writing, as shown in Austen’s own writings.

LR BurkardThere are times when I think Jane Austen and her character Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) are more similar than one might at first think.

In letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane reveals instances of caustic observations and remarks (aimed at provoking a few gleeful snickers) which are reminiscent of Miss Bennet, and almost downright nasty.

Jane was not only a family wit, however, but subscribed to THE ” family wit”–the justification behind the tongue-in-cheek observations that we all so love in JA. This justification, I believe, found its expression in Mr. Bennet and Lizzie–but I get ahead of myself.

It is not surprising that Jane disliked some of her acquaintance– don’t we all? But the degree to which she is unsympathetic makes us wonder if it was just to garner a laugh, or if her antipathies ran even deeper-a surprising conjecture for one who showed such great depth of understanding of human frailty in her novels. Let me share a few of the little pokes she took at others, which, mean in nature or not, do make one laugh. Jane, ever the wit, is fabulously expressive.

“Lizzie Bond is just apprenticed to Miss Small, so we may hope to see her able to spoil gowns in a few years.”
JA 1 Dec, 1798 to Cassandra”Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

“I believe I never told you that Mrs. Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news.” [Mary was Jane’s sister-in-law, who was expecting at the time. Not to tell her was a kindness, but the way she words it here is definitely a “poke.”]

Note that she doesn’t say, “sad news”, or “poor Mrs. Coulthard and Anne.” This is the real Jane, speaking unguardedly to her sister and making no effort to “sound nice” for anyone else. She would probably have told the news quite differently to other ears.

But this is the point: that within Jane’s family, one was quite expected to be a bit, well, cynical. Would the word, ‘jaded’ be going too far?

Perhaps.

Jane wanted to amuse her sister in her letters, and no doubt Cassandra is shaking her head with us, a knowing smile on her lips as she reads, but there is a very real streak of unrepentant glee in JA’s treatment of some people.

Here’s another snippet:

“Charles Powlett gave a dance on Thursday, to the great disturbance of all his neighbours, of course, who, you know, take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in hopes of his being soon ruined.”

In this case it is Mr. Powlett’s neighbors that Jane takes a stab at, but it must be noted that she does so with such sarcasm as to underscore her exaggeration.

She is having fun while she writes, and one can only imagine all the little such gems and observations the two sisters shared when together in society, that are not written down.

Many of Jane’s letters were destroyed after her death by well-meaning relatives, leaving us bereft of perhaps hundreds of juicy quotes that should have both appalled and delighted us. This is an unmitigated shame.

But here are more:

“I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there; Lucy is to go…”

” I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

On another occasion Jane is writing some very welcome news regarding the future promotions of her and Cassandra’s two brothers who are serving in the Navy: She starts with: “I have got some pleasant news for you which I am eager to communicate,….” and then shares the news.

Her next sentence is just so, well–Jane. She says, ” There! I may now finish my letter and go and hang myself, for I am sure I can neither write nor do anything which will not appear insipid to you after this.”

It was important to her to be amusing, informative or entertaining, besides merely keeping in touch with her much-loved sibling.

The Austens were intelligent people, and goodness of character, though expected, was not emphasized to the point where it would discourage such delectably sassy thoughts. To some degree, this was a reflection of the times, as letter writing was considered an art, and wit a virtue.

But Jane is not trying to form the perfect letter; she is writing to her sister with whom she was intimate and honest.

Intimations of Eternal Wit
Intimations of the Austen’s familial influence of attitudes are seen in the Bennet family when Lizzie is in her father’s study, and Mr. Bennet is vastly amused by a letter which purports that Mr. Darcy is planning to offer for Elizabeth.

“Are you not amused?” he asks, expecting his daughter to join in his appreciation of what he believes to be ignorant misinformation.

Listen carefully to his next words: “Is that not what we live for?” he asks, completely in earnest. “To laugh at others and in our turn, be laughed at as well?”

Lizzie nods weakly in agreement–she has always agreed with this in the past–but she is not at all in the state of mind to either laugh or be laughed at, anymore.

This penchant for garnering a laugh at other’s expense is so ingrained that when Mr. Darcy visits Lizzie (after the scandal involving Lydia and Wickham is famous), she guesses that he has come “to triumph over her.” No other motivation seems possible to her, when in fact, Mr. Darcy is there to do anything but.

Back to our author. At the end of a letter to her sister which she has written on Christmas Day, 1798, Jane says, “You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…. God bless you!”

And yet, Jane, we love you anyway.

Regency romance divider

 

Linore Rose Burkard is the author of what she describes as “Spirited Romance for the Jane Austen Soul,” as well as articles on Regency Life, Homeschooling, and Self-Improvement. She publishes a monthly eZine “Upon My Word!” which you can receive for FREE by signing up at her website [http://www.LinoreRoseBurkard.com] quickly and easily. Ms. Burkard graduated from the City University of New York with a Magna Cum Laude degree in English Literature, and now lives in Ohio with her husband and five children.

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Regency Romances – Why Now?

Why are Regency romances gaining in popularity? There may be many answers.

Regency romances seem to trend every 30 or so years. In the past, they peaked in the mid-1950s and mid-1980s. We’re due for another surge.

Regency Romances - Why Now?In general, historical romances have gained recent interest thanks to the popularity of shows such as Downton Abbey.

And, as Chip MacGregor reminded us, “In a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals were doing well.”

Currently, whether we look at some areas of the economy, or the political scene, or even recent weather patterns, we see reasons people may want to escape to a happier time.

Most Regency romances are set in a world where economic woes may be resolved by an advantageous marriage… always for love, of course.

Social rules in Regency romances tend to emphasize politeness to an extreme.

Will the current trend last? As a surge of interest, probably not. One need only skim the 2008 Popular Fiction Report to see how quickly popularity can shift.

However, a casual survey of popular romance subgenres will show a steady, loyal readership for Regency romances.

I doubt that it will ever dip as low as 1000 True Fans, but the audience is there.

Always.

Regency Romances – One Category, Two Subgenres

Amazon.com often combines two main sub-genres intohearts one category: “Regency Romance.”

However, many readers are looking for a particular kind of romance set in the Regency (1811 – 1820).

Writing styles can separate regency romances into two broad camps. In fact, I’d consider them sub-genres.*

  • Many Regency romances are carefully patterned after Jane Austen’s stories. That’s especially true of Austen “sequels.”
  • Others are more like Georgette Heyer’s novels. In recent years, many of them have spun-off further in the direction of “comedies of manners” or erotica, or both.

Austen-ish Books

Jane Austen’s books are iconic. They’re set in her own time and place: Regency England. Her stories regularly include elements of romance and wit. They also cast a harsh light on the challenges and inequities of her time, especially for women.

Many “sequels” to Jane Austen’s books — the ones written in a style similar to hers — are in this category, as well.

However, some sequels are far more comedic. Others, such as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” are closer to parodies.

Regency Revisited – Georgette Heyer

A second sub-genre from the Regency period include romantic “comedies of manners.” They may have subplots that involve mystery, intrigue, and suspense, but – first and foremost – wit and banter (especially between hero and heroine) are essential.

While sexual intimacy might be part of Heyer’s stories, it rarely occurred on center stage. Her books sometimes featured adult premises, but — in general — her Regency period romances were “clean” by today’s standards.

Georgette Heyer is the iconic author for this subgenre, and some fans insist that she invented it.

Other novelists were inspired by Georgette Heyer, including prolific author Barbara Cartland (723 novels).

It’s after those books, perhaps more than Austen’s, that many of today’s Regency romances are styled.

Heyer Revisited – Retro Regency Romances

Like most fiction, Regency romances are popular in waves, and each of those waves brings changes. Starting in the 1970s, some (not all) Regency romances included explicit sex. At the time, they were described as “spicy” regencies.

Chaste romances set in the Regency era were called “sweet.”

Those labels are still in use, but many publishers also use terms like “clean” or “sexy” to make differences clear.

What’s Your Style?

For some authors, the line blurs between Austen-ish books and Heyer-like romances.

Many authors struggle to define their works. For example, D. G. Rampton coined the phrase “Retro Regency Romance” to describe her historical romances, which lean more towards “the retro-esque Georgette Heyer part of the spectrum.”

While developing your own writing “voice,” decide your influences before putting virtual pen to paper.

Study them carefully, deciding what you like best about each. Read reviews of their books, especially at Amazon and Goodreads. Take notes, and use them when plotting and writing your own books.

Most successful Regency romances draw from both Austen’s inspiration and the more modern “comedy of manners” style, but lean heavily in one direction or the other.

If you have a clear, consistent, and reliable voice in your regency romances, you’ll attract readers who’ll buy everything you write.

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*Sub-genre, or Subgenre, per Wikipedia:

“A subgenre is a subordinate within a genre. Two stories being the same genre can still sometimes differ in subgenre.

“For example, if a fantasy story has darker and more frightening elements of fantasy, it would belong in the subgenre of dark fantasy; whereas another fantasy story that features magic swords and wizards would belong to the subgenre of sword and sorcery.”

Heart graphic courtesy GraphicStock.com

Regency Romances – Fan Fiction and Expectations

Are Regency romances fan fiction? It’s a challenging question, but I believe regencies fit the definition.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes fan fiction:

Fan fiction or fanfiction (also abbreviated to fan fic, fanfic, or fic) is fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator.

After Jane Austen, many Regency romances – perhaps most – could be called “fan fiction.” Well… maybe.

  • Most of us are fans of Austen’s stories and characters, if not her actual books.
  • Most Regency romances authors — including me — are using characters or settings based on the world created by Jane Austen’s novels.
  • Some of us are writing fan fiction that’s one part Jane Austen, two parts Georgette Heyer, and seasoned with inspiration from more recent Regency romance authors.

Successful fan fiction usually meets the expectations of existing fans.

That’s why – as an author – you should be aware of those expectations, and meet as many as possible.

  • If you’re already a fan of Regency romances — especially the kinds of romances you plan to write — you can list your own expectations in that subgenre.
  • If you’re new to this subgenre, or you need a quick review, you can see my own list of Regency romance conventions and obligatory scenes.
  • Or, you can read popular, award-winning, and well-reviewed Regency romances, and take notes.

What are your thoughts about Regency romances? Are they fan fiction or not? Leave a comment, below.

Regency Romances – Conventions & Obligatory Scenes

Fans of genre fiction – including Regency romances – have expectations. To be a successful Regency romance author, you should be aware of those expectations and meet them as much as you can.

Author Shawn Coyne (The Story Grid) describes two kinds of expectations: conventions and obligatory scenes.

Here’s my own, informal list of Regency romance expectations.

Conventions

Conventions in Regency romances may include:

  • An aristocratic hero. He can be rich or poor, but he must be well-educated and at least aware of society’s expectations of the aristocracy, even if he doesn’t respect them. In most cases, he has an inherited title. In other words, he’s a duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron. (Today’s “Lords” also include appointed lords, such as some who sit in Parliament.)
  • A heroine – usually somewhat headstrong – who’s either artistocratic, or has been educated to blend seamlessly into the ton.*
  • Stock characters including a second romantic interest for the hero. She’s usually flighty, a gold-digger, or merely using the hero for other purposes. She may be a mistress he’s fond of, but without romantic entanglement. (If the heroine has an alternate romantic interest, he’s soon shown to be unsuited to her, often in appalling ways. By the end of the story, he’s likely to be exposed as a villain, or remove himself to a distant county.)
  • At least one social setting that is familiar to readers, such as a ball, a posting house (if they’re stranded for some reason, often weather), or a country estate (and house party).
  • Gambling between gentlemen. Often, it’s a bet that begins as something frivolous, but has an impact on the plot. Or, the heroine may be financial difficulty due to a father who’s lost everything through gambling. (Example: The Daughters of Mannerling series.) Also, an antagonistic woman may host card parties (for other women) and cheat to humiliate, blackmail, or ensnare her victims.
  • Social rules too numerous to list here. (I recommend Gayle Buck’s How to Write and Market The Regency Romance, or Emily Hendrickson’s The Regency Reference Book. Preferably both.)

*Ton is a Regency word, short for bon ton. Literally, it’s French for “good taste.” In Regency romances, the ton is the fashionable world, generally the realm of the aristocracy and those who socialize with them.

More Conventions: Intimacy

  • “Sweet” (aka clean) Regency romances have absolutely no sexually explicit scenes. The couple may covertly hold hands, and indulge in a few stolen kisses and brief embraces in private settings. However, in many “sweet” stories, the first kiss coincides with the marriage proposal.
  • Many “somewhat spicy” Regency romances suggest sexual intimacy without explicit descriptions past passionate kisses and exploratory caresses.
  • In traditional Regency romances, even “spicy” stories keep explicit sexual encounters to a minimum. They’re clearly secondary to the romance. (That is, a “spicy” regency romance is not erotica set in Regency England.)

Obligatory Scenes

  • A surprising meeting between the hero and heroine. If they’ve never met before, they either hate each other on sight, or there’s a startling flash of attraction between them, or both. If they knew each other in the past, their respective (internal) emotions are usually turbulent, mixing dislike (or even raging hatred), intense attraction, and perhaps wistful regrets.
  • Either the hero or heroine does something to annoy the other one, and the latter uses this as a springboard for resentment or outright disdain. In most books, this happens repeatedly. (Example: Darcy’s unfortunate snub when meeting Elizabeth Bennet results in her growing animosity towards him… while also finding him increasingly attractive.)
  • The difficult relative or friend.
  • The “save the cat” scene, where hero or heroine does something kind and usually unguarded, that causes the other person (hero or heroine) to look at that person in a new light. (Unlike traditional “save the cat” story beats, a Regency romance “save the cat” may appear late in the book.)
  • A happy ending. Unlike most romance subgenres, Regency romances rarely have a “happy for now” (HFN) ending.
  • Optional, but commonplace: The rescue scene. At some point, the hero will rescue the heroine from a difficult situation, or vice versa. The difficulty could be anything from a social faux pas to a runaway horse. In some stories, this is the scene that allows them to trust each other (or trust each other again), at least a little.

As a Regency romance fan, do those expectations match yours? Can you add more of your own?

Leave a comment. I’m interested in your opinions.