Some of the nation’s top scholars on Romantic literature convened at Fordham on May 14 to question if the literature of the Regency period is substantial enough to merit classification as a literary era all its own.
The symposium, “Was There a Literary Regency?” was sponsored by the Fordham University New York City Romanticism Group in association with the Keats-Shelley Association of America.
Nineteen scholars from across the country were featured as presenters and moderators on the event’s four panels, each of which was followed by a lively conversation with the audience.
The British Regency refers to the period from 1811 to 1820 when the Prince of Wales ruled the country by proxy as “Prince Regent” after his father, King George III, was deemed too ill to rule.
Sarah Zimmerman, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Fordham, said the era is remembered not only for the instability created by an interim ruler—and the financial excess he practiced—but also as a time of tremendous patronage for the arts.
“England and France were at war, there was an economic depression, and it was a time of protest for political reform. At the same time, the Prince Regent completely remade the West End and Regency London with architect John Nash and supported artists in various fields. It was a period of decadence for the upper classes and of poverty for many others,” Zimmerman said.
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The symposium’s opening roundtable, “1816 as a Literary Year,” featured three of the field’s most well respected scholars, Stephen Behrendt, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska, Jerrold Hogle, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona, and Sonia Hofkosh, Ph.D., of Tufts University.
Hogle described the literature of 1816 as “Janus-faced,” suggesting that the writers of this period showed a lack of consistency in their attitude toward the changing times. They looked anxiously back to the past, at what was perhaps a simpler time, but also expressed excitement about a future full of enticing new possibilities.
Behrendt discussed publications and important events produced in 1816, asserting that while popular media would have us believe that books like Jane Austen’s Emma typify all the literature of 1816, the writers of the period in fact produced a much more varied body of work.
“Dozens of tales [from 1816]had been largely forgotten until recent recovery projects began to sift this dust pile for any tarnished silver hidden there,” Behrendt said. “Running through all of these materials is a sort of post-Napoleonic Wars ‘craziness’ that finds its counterpart in the widespread civil unrest among [a disgruntled populace].”
Behrendt said the era also featured a partisan mainstream press, a new stream of conservative Evangelical writing, and a not-so-subtle expression of Britons’ displeasure with the lavishly excessive Prince Regent.
“There begins to be visible in literature and the arts—and indeed throughout the culture—an exuberance that borders on the anarchic and the violent, and that delights in taking the ‘great ones’ down a peg or two,” Behrendt said.
Though the conversation about whether there was a literary Regency will continue, Zimmerman said she felt this was a particularly relevant time to be examining the question.
“People have suggested that we are in a period when there is an even greater divide between the wealthiest portion of society and the disenfranchised than there was during the Regency,” Zimmerman said.
“The British Regency had a tremendous focus on the arts, despite the economic troubles and social unrest of the time. In today’s society, where the case for the arts is increasingly harder to make, we hope that Fordham’s location in Lincoln Center and this group of people who are interested in the period’s work will help to generate a renewed interest in and excitement for the humanities.”
– Jennifer Spencer