So...in a fit of procrastination from the 6000 words I have to write today (yes, you read that right), I've decided to cover the books that I've got on my desk within a foot of my computer--because they're too valuable to my writing process to be any further away. If you're interested in the Regency (writing or reading about it) at all...these are essential adds to your own bookshelf. In no particular order:
Regency Era Fashion Plates: 1800-1819, A Collection of Fashion Plates and Descritpions by Timely Tresses. Quite literally, two hundred or so Fashion Plates from a variety of clothing journals published during the Regency. When you have to dress a character, this book--more arty than informative--is essential inspiration. Then, you can turn to,
English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by C. Willett Cunnington, which is invaluable. My copy is dogeared, flagged with little colored papers, highlighted, and filled with notes in the margins. Aside from pages and pages chronicling the fashion trends of every epoch in 19th Century fashion, it's filled with more than 1000 pen and ink sketches of everything from corsets to muffs to spencers to turbans to evening gowns. The book covers 19th Century fashion by YEAR...which is awesome...including fashionable colors, intricate changes like half-inch drops in waistlines, they types of fabrics and accessories that were en vogue...and, the best part? PRIMARY SOURCE material like quotations and references from of-the-time publications. I mean it when I say there is no better costume resource on 19th Century England than this one! If you have read The Season, I can tell you that the scene where Alex dresses for her first ball would not have existed without this fantastic resource.
Periodically, characters have to eat. Or shop. Or read. Or play games. And they didn't have McDonalds, Bloomingdales, US Weekly or Scrabble during the Regency. For those moments...check out Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist--the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England. While a better resource for the latter half than the earlier half of the 19th Century, I can't deny that this one is also dogeared and flagged and highlighted and scribbled in...this is great for overviews of things like country houses and sport and clothing and the layout of 19th Century London. It's got a fantastic glossary that helps with keeping dialogue sounding of-the-time and, in general, is a good go-to resource to get the beginning of an answer to a bizarre question like, "Where would Ralston's fencing club be?" No..you don't know who Ralston is yet...but give it a year and it will all be clear. ;)
You can't write about the Regency without acknowledging the fact that, for much of it, England--all of Europe, really--was at war. There are about 200,000 books about Napoleon and the the Napoleonic Wars, much of which is military history and not entirely what you need when you're writing lighter fiction about the era. I'd recommend two books which, together, provide a primer of both the history of the wars and a sense of the part high society played in them. The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Gregory Fremont-Barnes & Todd Fisher and Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo by Nick Foulkes. Now...the Fremont-Barnes and Fisher book is BY NO MEANS a comprehensive history. It's a quick primer, to bring you up to speed on what happened when and why, and to keep you honest when setting your book in place and time. If you're writing about a specific battle or a particularly historic moment, you're going to need more than this one. Foulkes's book is specific to Waterloo, and set mainly in Belgium--covering the Brits who lived there. It provides an excellent sense of how intricately intertwined society and the military were at the time, however, and it's worth reading for that alone.
Not everything about the Regency was lovely dresses and handsome gentlemen, though. The darker side of the time was rife with pickpockets and poverty and body snatchers and highwaymen. For a great primer on this more nefarious world, don't miss The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low. It's a great read, and filled with all sorts of sordid tales that make a writer's mind reel. Definitely worth a look.
Of course, there is one thing that is a constant struggle for anyone writing in Historical England. And that's titles. For the convoluted questions that come when you're wondering how to address the second son of the second son of the third cousin of a Duke, there is no book (that I've found, at least) as useful as this fantastic website. If you can't find your answer there, then you have no choice but to make it up. ;)
Finally, no Regency author should set fingers to keyboard without something nearby to give her a little inspiration. Which I why this book is prominently on display. Aunt Jane (and lovely Colin Firth) wouldn't steer me false.