What’s So Addictive About Jane Austen & the Regency Era?

By Charisse Howard

regency ball drawing

Why are so many readers so fascinated by that small window known as the Regency which opened in English society two centuries ago?

As the author of Boom-Books’ new alphabetical “Regency Rakes & Rebels” series, I get this question a lot.  And it intrigues me, because for most of my life I thought I was the only Jane Austen fanatic out there.  (Well, almost the only one.  My friend Terry was hooked, too.)

What is the Regency, anyhow?

Madness_of_king_george-715444It’s the nine years when King George III of England lost enough of his wits that his son, the Prince of Wales, had to stand in for him.  Yes, that’s the George III we learned about in history class, who taxed his American colonies without representation and lost them in the Revolutionary War.  His 48-year-old son (also named George) took the reins as Regent in 1811.  His father made him King George IV by dying in 1820.  The Prince Regent was a rich spoiled carouser, neither loved by his people while he lived nor mourned when he died.  He’s best known for giving a title to the short, distinctive span between the Georgian and Victorian periods (he was succeeded briefly by his brother, and for much longer by his niece Victoria).

What intrigues me is that here’s an era which is defined, from where we stand, by two of the most opposite Brits imaginable: George, the fat, selfish, small-minded, big-partying Prince Regent; and Jane Austen, the modest, brilliant, large-hearted (albeit snarky) stay-at-home writer.

Another paradox:  While Austen was dissecting the complicated process of entanglement redcoats1between women and men dotted about the English countryside, what was up with those officers forever passing in and out of her picture?  George & Co. were dispatching them all over the globe to battle for Britain.  Napoleon, not content with ruling France and picking off large chunks of Europe, sold his Louisiana Territory to the Americans to fund a British invasion!  Spain, England’s enemy since before Sir Francis Drake, flipped to ally.  Who owned any particular Caribbean island was a toss-up from one year to the next.  And that’s not to mention Napoleon’s horrifically doomed invasion of Russia (see War and Peace), or Britain’s re-assault on America in the War of 1812 (see “The Battle of New Orleans”).

Meanwhile, the wastrel Prince Regent hadn’t learned much from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  While George squandered fortunes on amusements, his subjects were starving in the streets.  It wasn’t just him, though.  Jane Austen largely ignored them, too.  Call it a useful reminder of the power of modern media.  The ladies and gentlemen discovering the waltz or quadrille on either Austen’s or the Regent’s dance floor literally didn’t see their countrymen at the bottom of the barrel.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Luckily, Charles Dickens was born in 1812.

“Get Real” – Litquake & MIL Explore Reality vs Perception

Ceci n’est pas Sleeping Beauty’s Castle

Here in San Francisco, “reality” can be more fluid than elsewhere.  Last night Litquake, our week+ October literary festival, popped up at the Mechanics’ Institute Library for a vibrant and vigorous panel discussion entitled “Get Real: Perception and the Nature of Reality.”
Looking under every stone from particle physics to game theory were Robert Burton, MD, author of A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind; UC Berkeley psychologist and NPR blogger Tania Lombrozo; conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, author of Forged; and game designer Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken.  Their adept moderator, novelist and physicist Ransom Stephens, posed questions which encouraged a wide-ranging investigation.  Some highlights:

  • Stephens launched the quest with a physicist’s working definition — “Reality is a space where things move” — and noted that, perceptually, reality appears entirely different at different scales (vide the 1977 Eames film Powers of Ten).
  • Robert Burton used the double-arrow paradox to illustrate that perception is not only deceptive, but cultural: whether you see both arrows as the same length or as different depends partly on where you grew up, as do many other observations and beliefs.  He depicted the whole concept of reality as convenient more than factual.  He also observed that “language comes after feeling”: In our perpetual quest for purpose and value, we’re most likely to perceive our lives as having meaning when we feel that things (work, love, and other arenas of struggle) are going well.
  • Jane McGonigal debunked the popular idea that gamers are escaping from reality: in the first place, winning points turns out to be less of a motivator than the thrill of pitting one’s smarts and skills against a challenge; and, second, grappling with virtual reality has been shown to sharpen those smarts and skills as well as to boost other measures of health and success.  Far from making people dysfunctional, games can be valuable in treating dysfunctions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Tania Lombrozo, whose specialties include explanation/causation and moral reasoning, probed the mysterious human itch to explain reality.  What use is it?  Why are we so picky about what kinds of explanations satisfy us? — for instance, preferring one that includes a cause-and-effect story (preferably with us humans in the picture) to a simple observation.  She noted that explanations accomplish more than what’s on the surface: “Sometimes you can learn something new just by explaining to yourself.”
  • Jonathon Keats described some of his and others’ conceptual-art explorations, positing the goal as in effect stepping outside of everyday cause-and-effect consensual reality into “purposeful purposelessness” (e.g., the silent ringtone).  In keeping with his latest book’s subtitle, “Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age,” he toured the fuzzy border between art (e.g., drawing a dollar and trading it for a cup of coffee) and forgery (“Would a moron in a hurry mistake this for the real thing?”).

What about reality beyond the handsome book-lined walls of the Mechanics’s Institute Library?

  • Regarding the current 3-ring circus in Washington, Jane McGonigal disputed the common contention “This isn’t a —ing game!”  On the contrary: the problem is that different sets of participants are playing different games with incompatible rules and goals (e.g., winning re-election vs. alleviating poverty), which hugely complicates the challenge of achieving an outcome that’s acceptable to all the players.
  • Tania Lombrozo added that studies have shown that new evidence doesn’t always help contenders move toward agreement or harmony; instead, somewhat paradoxically, it can stiffen their original positions.
  • She also emphasized that there isn’t just one “reality.”  Robert Burton agreed that we are inclined and able, often seamlessly, to integrate multiple realities (e.g., a spiritual and a scientific explanation for an experience or phenomenon), rather than opt for a single consistent set of beliefs reflecting what Ransom Stephens called a Grand Unification Theory of reality.

Much more of interest was said during the panel discussion and Q&A which space prevents including here.  Congratulations to Litquake, MIL Events Director Laura Sheppard, the exceptionally fascinating panelists and moderator, their large and uncommonly astute audience, and MIL staff and volunteers for an outstanding evening!


Publishing and the Paradox of Promotion

DBW conf header

A few days ago, intrepid publicist Kat Engh reported back to San Francisco’s Book Promotion Forum (formerly NCBPMA) on Digital Book World’s recent conference in New York.  Two central themes emerged which, at first glance, appear contradictory.

On the one hand, publishers are recognizing that the twin core of their business is books and authors.  Readers don’t buy a book because of who published it, but who wrote it.  Forget the table at Locke-Ober, cocktails at the Algonquin, the gilt-edged expense account.  Publishers are service providers.  Their top priority is to reinforce the link between reader and author–i.e., help authors build a strong connection with readers–because that link, not the one between reader and publisher, springs the mousetrap.

36_258698_unbekannt_galley-slaves-of-the-barbary-corsairsOne is tempted to observe that we on the galley-slave end of publishing have known this for . . . what? about 500 years?  Still: better late than never.

On the other hand, how does this shape the way publishers approach their customers, AKA readers?  Are we talking warm and fuzzy?  Shared interests?  Being a good listener?

Not exactly.  Here are the marketing presentations.

Agile Marketing: How Data, Research and Analysis Can Help You Build Lasting Relationships with Readers – Peter McCarthy, Founder, McCarthy Digital

Making Meaningful Reader Connections: Defining, Building, and Using Your Known Customer Databases – Suzie Sisoler, Senior Director of Consumer Engagement, Penguin Group (USA), A division of Penguin Random House

Data-Driven Marketing and the Delicate Balance Between People and Machines – David Boyle, SVP of Consumer Insight, Harper Collins Publishers

Rinse and Repeat: Measure, Analyze, and Optimize – an Interactive Approach to Realizing Your Marketing ROI – Erica Curtis, Director, Marketing Analytics, Penguin Random House

How does an intense focus on data mesh with supporting authors as they nurture their personal connection with readers? Intriguing clues appear in the presentations. Whether those clues will solve the mystery of successful publishing, only time–and data?–will tell.