Regency/Gothic 1e: Romance vs Romanticism

The Regency is such an odd time. For most women, we think of Jane Austen. We envision balls and dances, manners, and courtship. Most men think instead of Napoleon and the Continental Wars; they see battle fields littered with bodies and men of the first order rising up through bravery and intelligence. The Regency was much more; it was also the era of the Romantics. In fact, the Romantic movement -- or Romanticism -- was one that dominated much of life during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, most people are unaware as to what Romanticism is.

When the word Romanticism is bandied about, most people will shorten the word into romance. And of course in modern parlance, romance is equated to a love story. It is perhaps a drama where the main figures overcome odds to express and experience love. Or there is the romantic comedy; a genre inspired by works like Pride and Prejudice that focuses on concepts of the cute meet and trying, but funny, obstacles that the lovers must suffer through to win in the end. These concepts limit Romanticism, and in doing so, limit the game Sean and I are trying to craft. Romanticism is so much more.

Defining Romanticism

I'll start with a simple definition. The development of Romanticism in literature was a response to the Enlightenment (a time when reason was made supreme). To counter the logic and reason that had been so popular, the Romantic writers began to explore the depths of their emotions. A good idea of what their emotions turned to comes from an essay by Michael Martin:
Romanticism, for me, is both a variety of natural religion and a humanism of an idealistic timbre. It is characterized by bittersweetness, itself a recognition, unspoken, that life is complex, but that there exists something profoundly significant in living, whatever it may be, however transitory and protean its forms. In short, Romanticism signifies the ability, intimately bound to the experience we describe as "love," of human beings to identify with transcendent qualities, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in the face of evidence to the contrary.
This means that Romanticism is love, as many people would think of when they think of Jane Austen, but it opens its doors much wider. The profound catalog of John Keats, another Regency example of this philosophy, considers a greater understanding and depth of feeling -- see "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Love transcends the traditional idea of romance; the love expressed in Romanticism has a number of forms.

In an early attempt to legitimize and define Romanticism, Edwin Berry Burgum collected a number of different definitions. For our purposes these definitions are important because, in the end, Romanticism is mufti-faceted. This movement offers more to us than a mere love story, it offers us insight into our emotional states. The question to be answered, though, is what sort of concepts engender and encourage romantic thinking (and of course, romantic game play)?


Romance seems natural; it is human nature to desire love. But Romanticism embodies the whole of nature (Burgum 480). Landscaping painting and nature poetry are major parts of the Romantic movement. Wordsworth and his clouds inspire man to search for his role in nature, to see his place in the greater world. But Wordsworth and his peers also ask us to admire and love nature. This is an era where people sought the natural world and linked it to the greatness of a creator -- Christian and otherwise (Blake best typifies this in his Songs of Innocence and Experience).

From Blake's Song of Innocence, "The Lamb"

For game play, this translates into a number of options. Exploration of new and wild natural environments -- especially the New World -- can provide action and adventure. And as the film version of Last of the Mohicans tells us, great love stories. However, it can be more, such as a greater emphasis of Jane Austen's and her characters' interest in their homes. This can allow characters to find the hidden joys and threats their own natural environment hide. If the supernatural and gothic comes in to play, a greater array of what can be found in the backyard increases.  In an early play test Sean and I did, the characters realized that they were fae nobility and the world around them was much richer than they imagined.

The Individual

Burgum notes that Brunetiere defined the Romantic movement as one of the ego (479). Before Freud, the Romantics decided that a good topic of study was the self. They tended towards introspection. For Burgum, he attributes this side of Romanticism to Victor Hugo and George Gordon, Lord Byron -- look for Byron in later posts by Sean and I (480). This is a time of individualism, inspired by revolutionary movements in America and France (think France's liberte', egalte', and fraternite'[482]).

This opens up Romanticism to a larger set of stories. We can now deal with an individual's journey, his or her self-discovery or success. This allows for characters of any social station to find success, in any form. Stories can be about characters overcoming the personal or the societal obstacles in their paths. What if Elizabeth wanted something more than to merely marry? What if she wanted to become a female heir and next caretaker of Longbourne? Or what about the orphan Casanova scurrying through the streets of Venice rising up to be the greatest lover the world has ever seen?

David Tennant (10th Doctor Who) as Casanova

The individual also has a political side. Considering the political structures that dominated the Regency, the individual was not an important part (only North America was seeing development of the individual; France had seen a reverse with the rise of Napoleon). The Regency's Romantic movement was a movement of political reform, often exemplified by Godwin and Wolstonecraft (Mary Shelley's parents). The average man, and now woman, sought to increase the individual's role in government.

Mary Shelley
This is yet another side of Romanticism. In game play, characters can be fighting the social and political order, striving to make the world a better place. What if Mary Shelly followed in her mother's footsteps and actually took control? What if she decided to study science and work towards solving the medical enigmas of the day, saving children rather than dwelling on the loss of such in her writing? What if characters wanted to start a movement to unseat the monarchy and form a new democracy and spread it throughout Europe? What about the secrets and excitement of the Illuminati?

The Rascal

An interesting aspect of the Romantic is the character of the rascal (Burgum 485). Writers like Robert Burns sought to elevate the rascal, the under-privileged, the figure at odds with society (Byron would be a real life embodiment of the rascal at odds with society). Leave it to a Scot to see man as something great, no matter his place. The so-called bad guy can now be more than the villain; he can now have motivation that may be more reasonable, even more relatable.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (Regency rascal)

This provides great opportunities for game play. Players do not need to be respectable figures, like Fitzwilliam Darcy; they can be rakes. For example, the thought occurs that George Wickham may be ill-intentioned when he runs off with the Georgina Darcy or the foolish Lydia Bennet.  He may not be so bad. In "Lost in Austen," Wickham now has reasons. He does none of these things to hurt others; these are not schemes for only his own satisfaction. He takes these actions to help others. This is not to say that he isn't selfish, a bit of a cad, and trouble, but he is not the black-hat wearing bad guy. But beyond that, we can enjoy the rake's journey and have fun along the way; this could make for a rollicking Grand Tour.
Tom Riley as Wickham from "Lost in Austen"

Final Thoughts

Romanticism is a large and diverse topic. There is no clear agreement on its exact meaning; most can only agree that it is a movement of the heart and soul, a movement that seeks to explore the world and allow it to inspire us to action. Yes, we often see the action as romantic love, but could it just as easily be be one of self-improvement, political action, religious fervor, etc. A Regency Romance has options and variety waiting to be explored.

Works Cited

Burgum, Edwin Berry. "Romanticism." The Kenyon Review 3.4 (Autumn, 1941): 479-490. JSTOR. 
Web. 13 July 2012.
Martin, Michael. "The Romanctics." The Midwest Quarterly 51.2 (Spring 2010): 285-. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 June 2012.


Popular Posts