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The best books on The Regency period

recommended by Stella Tillyard

The best-selling author says the 19th century Regency era was, apart from the duels and empire-line dresses, much like our own – a time of war and economic uncertainty

Stella Tillyard

Stella Tillyard is a British author who wrote the best-selling Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louise and Sarah Lennox 1740-1832, which was made into a BBC mini-series. She studied at Oxford and Harvard universities and has recently published a historical novel set in the Regency, Tides of War

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Stella Tillyard

Stella Tillyard is a British author who wrote the best-selling Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louise and Sarah Lennox 1740-1832, which was made into a BBC mini-series. She studied at Oxford and Harvard universities and has recently published a historical novel set in the Regency, Tides of War

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To the uninitiated how would you define the Regency era?

We tend to think of the Regency as running from 1810-1820. An act was indeed passed in 1810 in which King George III was declared unfit to rule due to madness and the Prince of Wales was declared Regent, but it only came into force in February of the following year, so technically the Regency ran from 1811 until 1820 when George III died and the Regent became King George IV. George IV, of course, reigns until 1830, then we have William IV and then, finally, the arrival in 1837 of Queen Victoria. Some think of the Regency as the whole of that time, before the Victorian era. But technically the Regency only lasted nine years.

When we think of the Regency we think of the dissipated Prince of Wales, Brighton Pavilion, Regent Street, Regent’s Park and the Nash terraces around it. It’s not an era that has a very strong historical profile, but we certainly have a strong picture of it from films and novels. We think of it as the time of Jane Austen; of [Bernard Cornwell’s] Sharpe; of [Patrick O’Brian’s] Aubrey and Maturin; frigates and curricles; duels and boxing. What interested me about the Regency was not so much the empire-line dresses, spas and chestnut boots, but instead, when I began to research it, I found it to be a very interesting time which, in a curious way, mirrors the time we are living in now.

“What interested me about the Regency was not so much the empire-line dresses, spas and chestnut boots, but the curious way it mirrors the time we are living in now.”

How was that?

For a start, war was the backdrop to everyone’s lives, as it has been to our own for the last decade. From 1793, with one pause, the nation had been at war with France. And that made for very uncertain economic times. There was rising government debt, and what happens during the end of the Peninsular War, which I write about in my novel, is that the government simply cannot supply the army with money. They can’t collect it. So the government has to go to the City of London and ask bankers to do it for them, which is a sort of sign of what is to come. At the same time there is very rapid industrialisation and unrest because of that.

And I am sure some of these books will give us some insights into the other aspect of that era. Your first book is the epic War and Peace.

The reason I chose War and Peace is because it is the greatest novel of all time and I still think it is even after reading it five times. It’s an historical novel, as are my other choices Vanity Fair and obviously the Georgette Heyer. Tolstoy is writing 50 years after the event. What he is writing about is the deliverance of the Russian nation from Napoleon.

As a novelist, when you begin to write in this era it is like the elephant in the room, especially if you love it as much as I do. Tolstoy isn’t just the great chronicler of what it felt like to be under fire, he also has the ability to make us feel the emotion of his characters with a single word or gesture.

How did War and Peace help with your research and writing?

Not at all. It’s impossible for a modern novelist to write at that length, especially about philosophical issues. I just don’t think readers would get through it. But I also decided that while I was writing I would not look at it. I was worried that I might start to take on Tolstoy’s style! I had the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and thought I would save that up for a treat at the end.

Did you think it was a good translation – because people get very hung up on which translation is the best, don’t they?

The Pevear and Volokonsky is interesting because it is more modern and flows better, but I suppose what you lose with a new translation is the period feel. With the old translation the translation already reads like an historical novel. It has this archaic feel which I always felt was fitting because it is an historical novel itself ­– but maybe in time the new translation will have that kind of feel.

Your next choice is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which has been described as one of the best science-fiction novels ever written.

Frankenstein was published in 1818 and for me it is the piece of British literature that best reflects the anxieties and concerns of the time, the fascination with and fear about science and technological advance. I think more than a science-fiction novel it is a book about morality. As someone who is concerned with feeling I suppose I would be more likely to interpret it in that way.

At the beginning of the novel, Doctor Frankenstein creates a monster who lives like a human being and has the heart of a human being too. But the monster is unloved and unlovable and he becomes what we would call nowadays a sociopath. That is a very modern way of describing someone who has been utterly neglected and unloved and therefore has no moral feeling. But he has the understanding that he wishes to be given affection and when he is not given it he sets out to destroy the world that made him. For me the book is therefore about the immoral forces that science might unleash in the world.

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And was there a great fear of science at that time?

I think there was a lot of excitement, as well as fear. People were particularly excited about chemistry and there were lots of people doing experiments. For example there was Jane Marcet’s book, Conversations on Chemistry, and Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution. So I think that, just as with the Internet today, there was excitement over the advancement of science but also a certain amount of trepidation. The great advances were in industrial processes, in chemical experiments and in geology. Biology was gathering its forces for the 1820s and the era of Darwin. But before that it was chemistry’s turn, with a huge craze for doing experiments at home and going to demonstrations of, say, the eruptions of volcanoes in theatres.

It sounds like an exciting time to be living in. Next up is Jane Austen’s Emma. What made you pick this rather than any of her other novels?

Emma is the Regency novel in the sense that it was written and published during the Regency. I think the feel of much of Jane Austen is really in the late 1790s – the beginning of the French Wars. Jane Austen wasn’t writing about politics. She is famously someone who writes about what she knows. Her world is essentially a provincial world of manners.

Yes, this book has been described as a comedy of manners. What do people mean by that?

It is a comic novel about becoming morally mature.

Which Emma, as the rather spoilt pretty girl, does in the end?

Yes, she does. And the book looks at the choices that people must make in order to become mature. She looks at the social order and how it works. It really couldn’t be further away from the kind of lonely alpine world of Frankenstein and the imaginary mindscape he lays out. Jane Austen’s genius is to write brilliantly about the world she lives in. She is a realist and I think she needs to be included.

Even though she doesn’t necessarily sketch out what is going on in Regency England?

Well, I think she does. She is drawing on the world she knows, which is the world of the provinces rather than the metropolis or the government. In Emma you come across the provincial gentry and the yeoman class. Austen is well aware of the money coming in from the wars and has a very good grasp of local economy, which is reflected in the book.

So really what she is doing is taking a different focus.

Yes, that’s exactly it – and to write about it with genius.

Let’s look at your next choice, Vanity Fair by William Thackeray.

Vanity Fair is another historical novel and a tremendous saga. I would call it the Whig version of the Regency. It is the tale of an adventuress abroad in a land where quick fortunes and metropolitan vices are very much in evidence. It is fantastically good humoured. I suppose it is the way that a liberal Victorian would look back on that time.

Because it was published in 1847 but set during the Napoleonic Wars?

Yes, so it is a fond remembrance of the time. I think Vanity Fair, more than any other novel, set the tone for how we think about the Regency before Jane Austen gained hugely in popularity.

And how do you think Becky Sharp typifies the Regency heroine?

She is a woman on the make in a time of change. To that extent I think she is historically accurate. She learns how to manoeuvre in a very fast-changing world and make her way with all the comic richness of that. And she understands the power of Evangelical religion and the old Whig rakish values. It is a classic and, for anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s tremendous fun.

“From 1793, with one pause, the nation had been at war with France.”

Your last choice is Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride.

This book is set during the siege of Badajoz. It is the retelling of a true story of Harry Smith, who was an officer at Badajoz, who saved a 14-year-old girl and eventually married her. In fact, in later life he becomes the governor of the Cape Colony and he founds the town of Ladysmith and names it for his wife.

It is a sort of nostalgia for me. It is what I grew up with, under the bedclothes in the middle of the night.

I love historical novels but for some reason have never read much Georgette Heyer – what for you is the great appeal?

It is an historical version of Nancy Mitford. It is very well researched and she is very good on dress. It is very light. It has that kind of dash and wit about it. It is very much not in the tradition of the way that we are now writing historical novels. I think we are now writing historical novels to be something much more literary and weighty. In a way we are using them partly to comment on our own time. If you look at historical novels now being written in Britain, religion features very prominently and that is partly because we have got very interested in religion again, in particular sectarian religion.

Historical novels are being written with a greater level of literary seriousness. I think the other thing is that historical novels give a licence to write about passion and romance – themes that are much harder to write about elsewhere, especially in modern times when people are quite cynical. These themes can still hold a real place. Perhaps the past is a place where you have more freedom, which is why I think there is something quite interesting going on in the historical novel.

What about the problems of being factually correct? How true are you to the facts, while still enabling your characters to come alive?

My rule of thumb is that you must be true to the facts. I did shift the odd scientific experiment a year here or there but I am certainly not as liberal as Hollywood with my dates.

I think the historical novelist has a licence to take a less even-handed view of the past that a professional historian does. But, on the other hand, I also think that even professional historians choose topics and arguments according to their own particular interests.

Yes, because there is always a spin on history books according to their interests.

Exactly. I think there is an ideology of impartiality in professional history whereas a novelist is seen to be able to be freer. My other really strong rule was never to use any language that wouldn’t have been used at the time for all those characters who were thinking and speaking in English. I had a couple thinking and feeling in a different language and at that point I thought I can cut loose a bit here. But for all the others I was very severe because I wanted to create that linguistic net they live in. And I was able to do that because of all the time I have spent studying this period. I have that language in my head. I made one or two little mistakes which a couple of readers picked up on but on the whole it worked well.

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