Cloak Room at Clifton Assembly Room, Rolinda Sharples, 1817. This painting is no doubt familiar to many Regency Romance readers as it is to found (at least in part) on over twenty book covers.
August is Romance Awareness Month, but what exactly is “romance?”
As a noun, romance is defined as the excitement associated with love, and can be everything from exquisite feelings of nostalgia and tenderness, to unrealistic expectations, exaggerations, and fantasies. Romance books and romance movies are considered idealized and sentimentalized presentations of love. As a verb, romance means to court or woo through means of love or flattery, or to engage in a love affair.
That’s a broad perspective for one simple word. No wonder Oscar Wilde swung so to and fro on the pendulum that is Romance.
To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.
They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever.
Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.
So if romance lends itself to both idealization and nostalgia, perhaps it is fitting to search out some desirable male specimens from the Regency Period that set hearts aflutter. In celebration of Romance Awareness Month, of course. It’s time to examine the “swell.”
Portrait of an Artist, Michael Martin Drolling, 1819.
A gentleman, but particularly a well-dressed gentleman. A family man with plenty of the ready who cuts a genteel figure is said to be in swell street. Sometimes, when speaking of a particular person but without drawing attention or naming names, the gentleman is styled the swell.
In modern, American slang, swell has come to mean excellent or very good. For your delectation, I present my interpretation of swell, both vulgar and modern American.
The prolific portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence (13 April 1769 – 7 January 1830) was a very dab hand at painting several swoon-worthy swells. Whether literal facsimiles or idealized interpretations, I leave it for each romantic heart to decide.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, date unknown, Sir Thomas Lawrence date unknown
Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Broughan and Vaux (1778-1868), Detail, 1825, Sir Thomas Lawrence
Portrait of Hart Davis Jr, date unknown, private collection, Sir Thomas Lawrence
The 4th Earl of Aberdeen, 1829, Sir Thomas Lawrence, private collection
And two distinguished older gentlemen, swell swells, if you will.
Sir Graham Moore, 1792, Sir Thomas Lawrence
Portrait of Sir Harford Jones Brydges, Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Lucas-Scudamore Collection
For more portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence, considering visiting ABC Gallery.
The definitions for romance were adapted from the American English version of the Oxford Dictionaries. All definitions and/or examples for swell were taken from Online Etymological Dictionary, Cant: A Gentleman’s Guide, and/or 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.