The English Regency and Me
by John Hertz
Fans have long been enchanted with the Regency (about the year 1800). By the 1960s there were Regency teas. By the 1980s, a worldcon questionnaire drew hundreds of replies that it wouldn't be a worldcon without Regency dancing. Although as we all know It's Eney's Fault, and indeed I did not start Regency mania, I must admit advancing it. A case could be made for blaming me. I blame Georgette Heyer.
A regent is a kind of pinch-hitter in a monarchy; if the monarch is alive (thus still reigning) but unable to rule -- young, sick, long away -- a regency is established. England has had only one since before Shakespeare, during the last years of King George III, so 'the English Regency' is relatively unambiguous now. George III's eldest son was made Prince Regent in 1811 and crowned George IV upon his father's death in 1820. But the curtains of history seldom go suddenly up or down. For many purposes, the Regency period may be considered to run from the early 1790s, or even before, until a few years after the Coronation.
Heyer, a 20th Century Englishwoman (died 1975), set three dozen historical romance novels in this colorful period. That's not too many. Deft, witty, lightly satirical, they speak to the fannish mind, like Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo, the Ernie Kovacs days of Mad magazine, or more recently Patrick O'Brian's novels of the seafarers Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. It helps that she is, in the language of the time, a friend to levity. I bow to Jane Austen, who had a superb sense of humor and counts among the greatest writers in English; I am her ardent follower, but in Heyer there is this special touch that resonates with us fans. Space Cadet ends, "Never lead with your right." The Lord of the Rings has Ents. Larry Niven. Book dealer Marty Massoglia says Heyer is his best-selling author at s-f cons. Among my favorites are Arabella, a neat introduction; A Civil Contract, mostly taking place after marriage; and Cotillion, whose ugly duckling is not the protagonist and is even a man.
Nor did Heyer choose amiss. The rhymes of Austen's contemporary Lord Byron in Don Juan can politely be described as breathtaking. George Bryan "Beau" Brummell led society by wisecracks; eventually he took to snubbing the Prince Regent, once asking Lord Alvanley, after more than the Regent's mind was broad, "Alvanley, who's your fat friend?" Foreign Secretary Canning kept the British minister in the Netherlands up till dawn deciphering an urgent message which proved to be:
In matter of commerce the fault of the Dutch
Is offering too little and asking too much.
The French are with equal advantage content.
So we clap on Dutch bottoms [ships] just 20 per cent.
(Chorus) 20 per cent, 20 per cent.
(Chorus of English Customs House Officers and French Douaniers).
(English) -- We clap on Dutch bottoms just 20 per cent.
(French) -- Vous trappere Falck [Netherlands minister in London] avec 20 per cent.
I have no other commands from His majesty to convey to your Excellency to-day.
Your Excellency's most obedient humble servant,
In Regency London, the indispensable club was Almack's. Fandom thus formed the Almack's Society for Heyer Criticism. At the 1972 Worldcon, L.A.Con, it hosted a tea attended by Astrid Anderson, Judy Blish, Charlie Brown, Elinor Busby, Terry Carr, Lester del Rey, Marsha Jones, Peggy & Pat Kennedy, Suford & Tony Lewis, Ethel Lindsay, Adrienne Martine-Barnes, Ed Meskys, Fuzzy Pink & Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Alexei Panshin, Bruce Pelz, Bob Silverberg, Bjo & John Trimble, Leslie Turek, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and a host of others. The December 1974 Esquire (not 1966, as was stated in J.A. Hodge's 1984 biography of Heyer) ran a delicious full-page photo of the Kennedys in an article "The Pleasures of Indulging Yourself," which also mentioned John Boardman and Forry Ackerman, but not fandom, another case of a tail wagging a dog.
Fuzzy Pink Niven no longer mixes the eggnog that inspired the first Georgette Heyer convention. We had all drunk at least our share on the New Year's Eve when someone proposed this clever idea. We took rooms at the St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, in 1975, that being Martine-Barnes' home country. I volunteered, or was volunteered, to research and teach period ballroom dances, such as would have been done by Heyer's characters. I am still not quite sure how it happened. I was then, as another hobby, teaching folk dancing (which I still do); perhaps with enough eggnog, the connection between village dances of the Balkan Peninsula and aristocratic dances of England, two centuries earlier, seemed obvious.
Anyhow, to everyone's surprise (including mine), the dances were a great success. S-F cons also seemed a natural occasion for them. I found myself in demand other than for my sensitive fannish face. Also to credit is Mary Jane Jewell, who over the years has tailored some of the best men's and women's costumes. Regency ladies wore what is now called the Empire-line gown (that's the Empire of Napoleon, ptoo ptoo ptoo); gentlemen looked like the man on a bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch. For dancing at s-f cons some people wear period dress; others wear hall costumes, and as I have written, until you've done the Figure of Eight with a large orange shaggy dog you haven't lived, but our usual flier says "Come in costume or come as you are." Enthusiasm is the salt of life, a little is good.
The 1979 Worldcon, Seacon `79, was the Nivens' 10th wedding anniversary. The con was at Brighton, a place almost as important to the Regency as Almack's. The Old Ship Inn had a play about the Prince Regent. This called for a party. Locals did not know what to make of the fans strolling in Regency garb. They trailed behind, commenting.
Jerry Pournelle was resplendent as a Colonel of 1st Hussars, King's German Legion, in a uniform Jewell made for him. It was dark blue with red facings, a fur hat, 152 brass buttons, and so much gold braid he was the Man with the Golden Ribcage. One Brightonian had the poor judgment to ask him, "I say, Governor, where's your horse?" Pournelle, who some of us forget has been in fandom a long time -- long enough to silp a Nuclear Fizz in the Insurgent manner -- drew himself up to his full nine feet three inches, looked freezingly down at the unfortunate fellow, and snapped, "In Wellington Barracks, of course." Clearly implying, without having to say, "you silly ass." The man turned pink and green, tucked his tail between his legs, and scuttled back to his friends where he was heard to mutter, "That one's real!"
At the 1984 Worldcon, L.A.Con II, three hundred people came to Regency dancing. The least bad time for it at a con seems to be Friday evening, but at a Worldcon there's so much to do that dancing is sometimes scheduled on Sunday afternoon before the Hugo Awards. I tried to persuade Pournelle, who was hosting the Awards Ceremony, to stay in his Regency costume for it, but he changed into a dinner jacket. He was right, of course. Since then I have judged Masquerades in Regency dress, most recently at the 2000 Worldcon, Chicon 2000, but for Hugo Night, our great event of the year, I put on white tie. L.A.Con II was also when Victoria Ridenour and the late Adrian Butterfield, whose costuming ability was known to Regency fans but not yet widely, 'challenged' the Master class in their first masquerade, i.e. entering as Masters although technically Novices, and won Best in Show as Titania and Oberon from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, spellbinding in gossamer, gemstones, superb presentation, and black, black.
At the 1990 NASFiC, ConDiego, I was standing in the lobby talking with Bruce Pelz in Regency clothes. From the bar came Sprague de Camp. After one look he turned to me and cracked, "Who's your fat friend?"
He'd never met me, but in seconds he recognized the costume, remembered Brummell's line to Alvanley, and figured that whoever I was, since I was with Pelz, it would be either all right or worth it. Later while waiting with Ben Bova for a panel to start, I recounted the story and marveled, "So Sprague de Camp really does know everything!"
Bova said, "That makes two people who think so."
"The other being you?" I asked.
He grinned. "No, Sprague!"
Three years later, at ConFrancisco, Regency dancing was in the afternoon again. Saturday night had been the debut of A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., the Association of Costumers, Related Others, Ninjas (in the Masquerade sense of stage helpers dark-clad for inconspicuity) & Yak Merchants, who won Best Novice as a set of chess pieces in black and white fantasy-style Regency costume, which they wore to dance in next day.
Unhappily, Sarah Goodman had scheduled Larry Niven's Guest of Honor speech at the same time, which vexed me, because I wanted to hear the speech, and him, because he wanted to dance. By the time we all realized, it was too late to cure. Goodman, who had first met him at Regency dancing, apologized. Perhaps I should apologize for telling so many Larry Niven stories. The Nivens are my friends; they've been to more of the annual Regency fans' conventions than almost anyone but me, and Larry seems to generate stories. In many ways.
At Westercon 45 in Phoenix, we were dancing in a kind of lobby outside the Art Show. A band of Navajo came by; they were Jane Austen fans. At Westercon 50 in Seattle, I went to the Locus Awards banquet in Regency clothes, the dance being immediately afterward. Andy Hooper came by and later said kind things in his fanzine, The Jezail. One Norwescon thought I wanted a panel, and helpfully put Martine-Barnes and Elinor Busby on it; like Tremaine of Barham in The Masqueraders, we contrived. Walter Jon Williams once arrived, apologizing for his mundane suit; he had been on pro business. "But I came in costume," he said, opening a matching fan. His wife beamed.
Marjii Ellers (speaking of The Masqueraders) sometimes came in gentleman's clothes, introduced as 'Peter Merriot', but even then, like the rest of us, not in the rôle of any particular historical or fictional person. It has not been only beer and skittles -- perhaps I should say Madeira and whist; at a Lunacon with just months remaining to Walt Willis, one speaking glance from Teresa Nielsen Hayden told me how he was. On the outside, at a romance writers' con that invited me to teach them (all women, a fact of which we heterosexual men should be deeply ashamed), Carolyn & Ashley Grayson were there as literary agents, also long-time Regency aficionados. These writers, while knowledgeable about the period, struggled painfully. Stop the music, stop the music. I unsnarled them, and started them again. At length they seemed able to enjoy themselves. I gave a troubled face to the Graysons. "What," I worried, "if fans really are slans?"
Cross-cultural contact is homework for s-f. We wonder in meeting an alien world. Heyer's aristocrats, wealthy, tasteful, polite, are alien to us fans even as she by skill and discernment rouses our interest in them. Their formalistic patterned dance, to music of Mozart and Haydn -- even Beethoven wrote ballroom music -- is so unlike the shape of things that came; but fans can find strangeness delightful. Since we do not have to live then (Roscoe forbid! The dentists! The plumbing!), we can play at it. And these aliens cherishing their foreign treasures happen to sound notes harmonic with ours.
For me there have been many fences to clear, understanding historical material (see George O. Smith's "Lost Art") and the art of teaching. Choosing and arranging what to offer and how -- I am sure half or better lies in the technique of application -- has taken hours, though under inspiration it can be moments. I have found new pleasures, and evidently given some. I have tried to keep a light touch. The Regency saying was "Always get over heavy ground as lightly as you can," and it seemed the fannish thing to do.
- - - - - - - - - -Some of our readers professed ignorance of the English Regency, even though it's been around for many years. One of them was Pamela Boal, who doesn't go to many worldcons; she wrote us that "To someone who has been around fandom for over thirty years, seen fads and topics come and go, it is good to know that there are parts of the richness and variety of fannish interests still to discover. The chances of my witnessing this courtly phenomenon are low, but long may it continue."
There was one other Chicon-related article we published in M26 -- a personal history of sorts by one of the Chicon 2000 attendees that could almost, in general, describe the path through fandom for many of us. Here it is again:
illustration by Julia Morgan-Scott