Examining trends in fanfiction.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
33,000 words of a fake/pretend relationship set in the Cyberpunk 2077 universe. 200,000 words of heavy angst Aziraphale/Crowley set as a British “above and below stairs” drama . A 40k Lady Chatterley’s Lover inspired story between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. Across fandoms, what all of these stories have in common is that they’re Regency Era AU’s.
The Regency Era is a period in British history which ran during the early part of the 1800’s. As this article from Deborah Aschkenes puts it “The Regency officially began in 1811, when King George III went permanently insane.” When fanfiction writers say that the fiction that they’re writing is a “Regency Era AU” they basically mean it’s set in the era of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (and honestly they tend to basically describe the 2005 Kiera Knightley adaptation specifically). The Jane Austen novel came out in 1813, and Austen is likely one of the only authors from the era that people still read (sorry Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy wasn’t as wildly successful 200 years later as Sense and Sensibility or Emma). With that in mind, Mary Shelley is a contemporary but her work isn’t really what people are talking about when they say “Regency Era AU” which is unfortunate, there should probably be more grave robbing in romance stories. That isn’t to say that fic writers are beholden to the Austen narrative, or even to the era. As mentioned before, there are unrelated works of classic literature that occasionally get brought in, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and frequently writers will pull from the Bronte sisters, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, both of which are Victorian novels.
Regency Era AU’s are frequently romances; the most common introduction that most fic writers would have to the genre of Regency fiction is through romance writing in the form of authors like Austen and her peers. They’re usually about one member of the pairing “debuting” into society or having to marry into society through some sort of contrivance. As such there’s a lot of discussion of the British peerage and generally class system that was a part of life in the early part of the 19th century.
Generally speaking the works are deeply anachronistic; they kind of have to be. As an example take Yuri!!! on Ice. The primary pairing for the YoI fandom is actually its canon pairing, between Katsuki Yuuri and Victor Nikiforov. Neither of these characters are British, but Regency Era AU’s are almost always set in England even if the characters are not. Yuuri is Japanese, and Victor is Russian. Fans will write in different explanations sometimes — they are traveling to England for some sort of deal (maybe Yuuri works in the silk trade, usually Victor is in the military), they’ve settled here a few generations before, etc. But frequently the fic will get a little handwave-y about the entire situation because the fact that they’re not English but are in England during the early 1800’s isn’t really why someone is reading a 60k, slow-burn Regency romance fic. The bigger question is frequently how do you handle the fact that they’re both men.
Not all Regency Era AU fics are gay, but a lot of them are. Of the top five under the tag, only one of them is a straight pairing (Kylo Ren/Rey from Star Wars) and the rest are gay — the aforementioned YoI pairing, Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier from X-Men, Derek Hale/Stiles Stilinski from Teen Wolf, and Castiel/Dean Winchester from Supernatural. There were gay people during the Regency Era, but it wouldn’t have necessarily meant for an advantageous match for the Lord of the finest Manor in the region to marry the disgraced son of another family, and not just because the other family was poor but because he was a son. There are basically two ways to work with this: either write it in as “the done thing” or don’t. There’s a tag for this on AO3 (“Period-Typical Homophobia”) and some fics go that way — but just based on tagging, most of them don’t. Only 2% of posted works at the time of publication featured the “Period-Typical Homophobia” tag (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the other fics did not have their own encounters with bigotry, just that they didn’t tag it that way). After all, these are works ultimately about society and societal acceptance.
It’s probably not a huge surprise that Regency AU’s are occasionally Omegaverse; around 10% of works on Archive of Our Own on the tag are also tagged as featuring alpha/beta/omega dynamics. For one, Omegaverse lends itself as a handy solution to the question of what to do with period-typical homophobia — by adding a secondary sexual characteristic it opens up the sphere for what becomes socially acceptable in the fictional Regency period the author creates. Additionally, Omegaverse worlds can be written as being highly regimented due to the extreme stratification caused by the sexual characteristic dynamics, which works well with the additional social hierarchy that is usually at play with Regency works. They’re handy bedfellows.
Regency Era AU’s are an excellent framework for pining and angst, the foundations of most non-fluff romances. The slow burn. There are societal norms that have to be upkept – people’s reputations must be maintained after all – and there are dances and balls that have to be attended. There is a framework there to lay characters on and see how they interact, standard stories that people expect from the Regency genre; what changes if Dean Winchester is from a wealthy family and decides to throw off the relationship with the heiress of a textiles company to instead marry Castiel, in this world a servant? What if orphan heiress Herminone Granger, newly debuted this season, has been paired by rumor to known rake Duke Sirius Black? Lady Rey has debuted several seasons ago but has never found her match because of a childhood romance with Ben Solo, how will she fare when he returns home from war? These are all standard tropes of the genre and solid frameworks on which to build from and the authors of fics like these have built multi chaptered stories that take these well worn tropes and combine them with the characters from stories that would have otherwise never seen the era, let alone peerage England.
Amanda Hudgins is an occasional writer, former rugby player and wearer of incredibly tall shoes.