Category Archives: Ballgowns!: Regency and the Gilded Age

Spotlight on: Regency England and the Gilded Age in New York

19th Century Ballgown, Wikimedia CommonsTwo historical periods, separated by an ocean, and a few decades, have plenty in common, in terms of setting, tone, mood, and above all, appeal to YA readers looking for a character and relationship-driven story with plenty of lavish historical scenery.

What do the Regency and the Gilded Age have in common? The short answer: ballgowns.

A great frame for character-driven stories of social maneuvering and romance, stories set in both the Regency period and the Gilded Age feature opulent settings and plenty of gossipy social scheming. Readers in this genre may also be drawn to romance in general, and will certainly appreciate the close focus on social status and following or ignoring convention that plays out in this subgenre.

Often, the tone is breezy and light, and the pacing can be as measured as a stately minuet. Social drama and conflict, focusing on reputation and keeping (or going against) social conventions make for character-driven tensions.

Regency: The Regency period began in 1811, when King George III was deemed unfit to rule, and his son  the Prince of Wales became Regent, and ended in 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV on the death of his father. In terms of culture, literature and architecture, the Regency Period in England took place between 1735 and 1837.

Bewitching Season Marissa Doyle cover art image from GoodReads
Bewitching Season
Marissa Doyle
Square Fish
2008 352 pages Betraying Season Cover Art from GoodReads

Betraying Season
Marissa Doyle
Henry Holt 2009 330 pages

Bewitching Season and its sequel, Betraying Season, by Marissa Doyle blend Regency romances with fantasy and magic and lighthearted family humor. Penelope and Persephone are twins who are trying to keep their study of magic secret while debuting into London society… and possibly finding romance. In the first book, the sisters’ governess is kidnapped, giving them a mystery to solve. In the second, Penelope goes to Ireland to study magic, offering a glimpse of a slightly different historical city as setting. Both books are warmhearted and humorous in tone, as well as providing lush descriptions of the sisters’ social whirl.

The Twelfth Enchantment was published as an adult title, and it is situated at the later end of the Regency period, toward the start of the Industrial Revolution. Like Marissa Doyle’s books, The Twelfth Enchantment offers a sometimes humorous, generally upbeat tone, the promise of romance, detailed descriptions of setting and social structure, and a little bit of fantasy magic in the story of a young girl balancing social commitments with her skill in magic, and negotiating a role for herself in 19th century society. Lucy Derrick is about to marry a man she doesn’t love, in order to save her family fortune, when Lord Byron (yes, that Lord Byron) arrives with a message that sends her on an adventure of magic and intrigue.

Marissa Doyle has an interesting rationale for adding fantasy and magic elements to Regency historical fiction, and why it works better there, than other time periods.

From the Adult Shelf: Georgette Heyer is a classic writer in the Regency romance genre, though her language might feel stilted, dragging the pace down. For a snappy heroine, and a little faster pace than usual, give Black Sheep or Frederica a try.

The Gilded Age refers to American history between 1878 and 1889, after the Civil War. It was named for the sheer, opulent amounts of money “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie were pouring into the economy. And, like the Regency era, the social machinations of the upper classes, largely set against the backdrop of lavish ballrooms, make an excellent frame for a character-driven plot with a solid romantic element.

Book Recommendations

The Luxe Anna Godbersen cover image GoodReadsThe Luxe and its sequels, by Anna Godbersen, focus on an ensemble cast in turn-of-the-century New York, in a delicious whirlwind of lavish parties, opulent descriptions and social scheming. The first book begins with a main character’s funeral, and then works backward, untangling the web of who’s in love with whom, who’s sneaking around, and all kinds of secret jealousies. Irresistible. (This might be a good gateway into historical fiction for fans of Gossip Girl.) Read a full review of the series here.

Brooklyn Rose cover taken from GoodReadsBrooklyn Rose
, by Anne Rinaldi tells the story of newly married Rose, who barely knows her husband when she begins her life with him in a New York mansion, far away from her South Carolina home. Written as a diary, it lets readers see Rose’s surroundings and New York through her eyes, as she learns to love her husband. Anne Rinaldi has written a number of historical novels, and is a good author recommendation for YA historical fiction fans.

Age of Innocence poster, image from IMDb

The Age of Innocence, 1993. Rated PG for kissing and social scheming.

From the Adult Shelf: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is often held up as a classic that captures the time period. Teen readers might be put off by the stilted language. The movie might be a better bet, there.


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