Friday, February 29, 2008

Where Am I Today?

Well, if everything goes as planned, today Marissa is posting this because I’m in London! My dear friend and critique partner Kristin is with me, and we’re running around like crazy people, trying to see and do everything I’ve always longed to see and do. There are so many things on the list that squeezing the most out of the 5 days we have on the ground will be a daunting task. However, I thought perhaps you might like to know some of the places we hope to hit:

The Wallace Collection: This amazing private collection of art, furniture, and porcelain was bequeathed to the government in 1897, with the stipulation that nothing be added or taken away. We can wander through the 25 galleries and imagine we are the daughters of a wealthy house, and all this wonder is ours.

The Thames Police Museum: I so want to write a story about these heroic men! They were one of the first organized state-sponsored police organizations in the world, founded in 1798 by two brilliant and charismatic visionaries. Our guide on this private tour tells me he’s just finished proofing his galleys for a book on the river police from that fateful day to 1830. I told him we’d have sooooo much to talk about!

Spencer House: This Mayfair mansion was built in 1766 for the first Earl Spencer, an ancestor of the late Princess Di. I want to wallow in the opulence.

St. Martin in the Fields: This is one of the churches favored by the aristocracy (the other being St. George’s Hanover Square) in nineteenth century London. We hope to take in a lunchtime piano concerto and eat in the CafĂ© in the Crypt. Really.

Bath: This town still looks remarkably like it did when our nineteenth century teens visited with their mamas and elderly relations to take the waters at the spa. We hope to take a walking tour with a guide from the Jane Austen Centre, where they’ll no doubt have to drag us kicking and screaming from the gift shop.

I promise to take pictures and soak up ambience and report all when I get back. Until then, happy reading!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cool History Resources No. 1

Because I like the idea of ongoing series in this blog (gee, could you guess?) I'm starting a new one.

As a writer of historical fiction, I'm deeply addicted to non-fiction books about my favorite times and places...and nineteenth century England would, of course, be at the top of that list. Recently I found a wonderful book perfect for anyone interested in how nineteenth century English children (and teens) lived: Making Victorians: The Drummond Children's World 1827-1832, by Susan Lasdun (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1983).

The Drummond family, though not noble itself, was nevertheless highly connected to several aristocratic families and comfortably wealthy--Papa Drummond was great-grandson of the founder of Drummond's Bank and a partner in his own right. His eight children (seven daughters and one son) were a lively crew, with somewhat odd names (most of the girls had hyphenated names like Emily-Susan and Agnes-Priscilla)...but most importantly, several of them loved to draw and paint. They left hundreds of charming sketches and water-colors of their daily life, showing everything from them at their lessons (and being reprimanded if they didn't know them!) to playing charades with such distinguished guests as Lord Palmerston, to strolling in the garden. We get to see the rooms of their house depicted over and over again in different scenes (and begin to recongnize the furniture, draperies, and rugs), the amazing dresses and hats of the era (remember some of those prints I showed you?), the servants and guests, the games they played and the dances they practiced with the drawing room rug rolled up close and personal, one hundred and eighty years ago.

The text, while a little outshone by the delightful sketches, nevertheless is lively and informative, and covers children's education, leisure time, clothing, servants, and even punishment and correction (several watercolors show several of the girls refusing to wear backboards to help improve their posture and being scolded!). An interesting fact to keep in mind is that these children were the exact contemporaries of Princess Victoria, as the text frequently observes (all eight were born between 1810 and 1820), and activities mentioned in her diaries can be seen in these sketches.

Where to find it: It's out of print, sadly. Try your local library, local used book store, or an on-line used book vendor. I recently found my copy on Amazon for just a little over ten dollars.

Friday, February 22, 2008

When It Rains, Drizzle

One of the areas you asked us to talk about was what the young ladies did for fun in the nineteenth century. There’s the usual card games, needlepoint, watercolors, which we’ll cover at some point, but I just couldn’t wait to share one of the more bizarre pastimes: drizzling.

When you drizzled, you took cloth that was embroidered with gold and silver threads and pulled out the threads. The cloth could be old tapestries, brocaded gowns, tassels and braids from military uniforms, or lace. See all the gold thread in the portion of tapestry to your left? You very carefully tugged and pulled and wiggled it out, winding it on spools. There were even lovely boxes, some of tortoise shell, made to hold your drizzling spools. Never mind that the cloth was irreparably ruined afterward. This was supposed to be FUN.

Of course, some people did it for money, because you could then sell the gold and silver thread to a jeweler. Emily Hendrickson, author of over 40 novels of nineteenth century England and the Regency Reference Book, says that drizzling showed off the graceful turn of young lady’s hands while she worked. So, I guess you could call it a flirtation device when you drizzled in front of young gentlemen. On the other hand, Prince Leopold on the right here, who Marissa mentioned as the beloved uncle who attempted to champion the young Victoria, was an avid drizzler, and he certainly didn’t have to show off his hands. He spent hours of his free time tugging away at the threads. I can only imagine it provided a focused respite from the affairs of court.

I could use a respite now and then. But if you see me tugging gold threads out of the gowns in my costume collection, I want you to grab my hands, no matter how graceful, and stop me immediately!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Queen Victoria, Part V: "She Must be Coerced!"

By the time she was in her mid-teens, Victoria was still tiny in stature (barely five feet), but the endless summer "progresses" she was forced to make all over England visiting hospitals and opening new railway stations and making little speeches at mayoral dinners had given her a self-possession and confidence that few of today's teen celebrities ever achieve. These were to stand her in good stead over the next three years of her life.

As the 1830s wore on, it became more evident that the kindly but goofy King William and his quiet and equally kindly Queen Adelaide were not going to produce an heir to the throne...which meant that our Vic was going to be it. Sir John Conroy knew this too...and along with Victoria's mama and aunt Sophie put increasing pressure on Victoria to declare him as her future private secretary. But even he realized that he'd miscalculated by not ingratiating himself to her, and changed tactics. He started a whispering campaign that Victoria was extremely immature for her age, of weak intellect and easily swayed by bad companions, and possibly even imbalanced, like her grandpapa George III. Since the Duchess of Kent rarely let Victoria go out in public without her to speak for her, the rumors didn't seem all that wild and unfounded. He then followed up with a second make the Duchess regent for Victoria even if she were to become queen after coming of legal age (18). And since there was no legal precedent for this, he began to dog Victoria, demanding that she sign documents declaring herself unfit to rule and requesting a regent (her mother) and a private secretary (Sir John) to run the country for her until she was at least 21...or more.

Victoria, of course, would have nothing to do with ANY of this. But Sir John would not give up. When Victoria was 16 and fell dangerously ill (possibly with typhoid, which would someday kill her husband and one of her children) he actually stormed her bedroom and tried to force her hand around a pen to sign while she was semi-delirious...but with the help of her devoted governess Lehzen, she resisted.

After this, it was all-out war. While the slowly failing King William publicly tangled with the Duchess of Kent over her appropriation of chunks of Kensington Palace that he'd forbidden her to take and over her keeping Victoria from visiting him (declaring in front of a hundred guests at his own birthday party that he was going to do his best to stay alive until Victoria was 18, just to make sure the Duchess never became regent), Sir John desperately scuttled behind the scenes egging the Duchess on in her efforts to browbeat Victoria. The affair took on international proportions as Victoria's beloved uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, sent his physician and advisor, Baron Stockmar, to try to mediate the situation, and Victoria's half-brother Charles, the Duke of Leiningen, also came over from Germany. Victoria'a 18th birthday came and went on May 24, effectively destroying any thoughts of a regency, but Sir John did not give up, telling Charles and the Duchess in mid-June that if Victoria would not accept him on her own as her secretary then "she must be coerced."


But two days later, the ailing and asthmatic William IV slipped away, happy that he had indeed survived past his niece's birthday, and Victoria became queen...on her own terms.

So what happened to the reprehensible Sir John and the easily manipulated Duchess?

Sir John tried to demand that for his years of dedication to the Queen he deserved to be made at least a viscount, to get other honors, and a pension of 3000 pounds per year...if he got those, he would be happy to withdraw from public life. In the end he made do with the title of baronet. He stayed on as the Duchess's comptroller for a few more years, making trouble where he could for Victoria before retiring to Italy in 1839. In time it was found that he had mismanaged the Duchess's money, and especially the money of Victoria's Aunt Sophia (daughter of George III) to a criminal degree, buying his family houses and property with it and leaving the old woman with a fraction of her once large fortune. Victoria saw him only once or twice again after ascending the throne, and remained estranged from her mother for a number of years. They were finally reconciled after Victoria's marriage in 1841 and eventually became close as Victoria's many children were born over the 1840s and 1850s. She (the Duchess, not Vic) died in 1861. Sir John died in 1854.

Now, how was that for a weird history saga? Don't worry...there are plenty more!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine's Day, Part II

Think Valentine’s Day was all hearts and romance for nineteenth century teens? Think again. You put a lot of effort in creating your own special valentine for your sweetie, from the design to the sentiment. Purchased valentines might include poems, but often they only had a spot for you to write in your own personalized verse. Being a wit was highly prized during the nineteenth century. What was the poor average lad or lass to do when faced with that blank sheet of paper?

Buy a Valentine Writer. Some enterprising souls actually stood on street corners or sold these little books to stationery stores. The books contained verses for sending a valentine, as well as verses to use to respond to a valentine sent to you. Some verses were highly sentimental. Other books contained comic or even lewd verses. There were verses for widowed folks, young people, older people, sailors, and soldiers. Here’s one for a widow:

A widower to a widow sues
And hopes his suit she’ll not refuse.
You have a child and so have I.
They may cement affection’s tie.
Our fortunes I believe are equal.
Let’s join to make a pleasing sequel.
At least such is my fond design
If you’ll consent, dear Valentine.”

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. During much of the nineteenth century, postage was paid by the recipient. In other words, if you send me a valentine, I get the privilege of paying for it. You can probably guess some of the problems with this practice. A pretty girl might get dozens of valentines, all of which her poor papa has to pay for. That might not be so bad, considering that one of those valentine senders could turn out to be a wealthy suitor and eventually son-in-law. However, there is a less romantic side to this practice. It seemed a grand joke to send insulting valentines to plain girls, telling them how ugly and ungainly they were, and their fathers had to pay the cost of seeing their daughters abused! The fathers frequently appealed to the Post-Master General or the Minister of the Post Office. In most cases, appeals were denied. However, when the valentine in question was found to particularly rude or lewd, postage was refunded.

I’d like to see a Valentine Writer come up with a poem to answer one of those! It might go something like this:

Dear sir, since you lack taste and wit
Your sad note mattered not a bit.
But if I see you in the street
Or if perhaps we chance to meet
I do advise you, pray take heed,
That your pompous self will likely need
The services of a surgeon’s skill
Or else the penning of a Last Will.
For your downfall I’d likely plan.
At least I would, were you a man.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Aw, That Was Too Easy!

So all of you who sent in a guess as to the identity of last mystery object are way too smart. It is indeed a shoe button hook, though a nice lady at my nearby antique shop thought it was a crochet hook. Unfortunately I couldn't find any pictures of buttoned boots in my collection, but I thought these slippers were adorable.

And now the important part...(cue drumroll)...the winner of this month's drawing for a review copy of Bewitching Season is...The Book Muncher! Ms. Muncher, I'll be contacting you off-blog about getting your mailing address.

In the meanwhile, this is going to be a short entry because I have some work that needs doing in the next day and not much time to do it I thought I'd take a minute to ask if there are any suggestions for topics that you'd like us to post on in the future. Do you want to hear more Weird History Stories? What about learning about guys' clothes? Or about the books people were reading? Or what exactly happened at all those balls where the fluffy dresses we post pictures of were worn? Or what girls did for hobbies or fun? Or what they snacked on?

Talk to us. We'd love to hear from you.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Beloved Valentine, Part I

Now, here’s a holiday to make the most hardened heart go pitter patter. Valentine’s Day was highly celebrated during the nineteenth century. Any young lady or gentleman could send a valentine to a sweetheart, either delivered by hand or by penny post. These weren’t cards as we know them today, but sheets of regular writing paper about 9 by 12 inches. Earlier in the nineteenth century they were mostly white (or cream—whatever color the paper happened to be), with a drawing in the center and a few words of poetry penned around the drawing. Sometimes the words would be above and below the drawing, sometimes around the edges of the sheet. Like the clothes we’ve been discussing the last couple of weeks, the deeper you go into the century, the more elaborate the valentines became.

An enterprising young lady could either make her own valentines or purchase them ready made. Many were hand-colored using colored pencils or water color paints. Flowers, doves, vines or trees, and hearts were common motifs. Another was the endless knot of love or True-Love Knot, something like what we call a Celtic knot, only words were written within the double lines, requiring the recipient to turn the valentine to read the sentiment.

The more artistic you were, the fancier the valentine. A few well-placed snips of the scissors and edges begin to look like basketwork. A few more, and you have silhouettes. The handwork was incredible. They also used pins to make tiny holes in sections of the paper to make it look embossed or bigger holes to make it look like lace.

The most elaborate type of valentine was known as a puzzle purse. The general idea is very similar to the “fortune tellers” children make where you slip your fingers up inside folded paper and move them back and forth in time to a rhyme or counting, then lift up flaps to reveal the answer to your question. Our nineteenth century young ladies didn’t ask questions, but they had to figure out how the flaps unfolded to learn the actual message of the valentine. The trick was to uncover the center flap, because that’s where your admirer would have hidden a secret message to you (unbeknownst to your watchful governess and parents). The center fold was just large enough to hide a lock of hair, a love note, or some other small token of affection.

Next Friday I’ll share some of the outrageous stunts pulled on Valentine’s Day. In the meantime, don’t forget that you have until Monday evening to guess Marissa’s mystery object and win an advance reading copy of her book, Bewitching Season. And if you just can’t wait to read more about the nineteenth century, you might want to drop by Belgrave House’s Regency Reads site, where another of my reissues is now on sale as an electronic book. The Bluestocking on His Knee tells the tale of charming fortune hunter Kevin Whattling’s quest to marry heiress Eugennia Welch, one of the most intelligent women in London. But will her disciplined mind overrule the dictates of her heart?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mystery Object Contest #2

Well, I had so much fun reading the answers you sent in for our last mystery object contest that I'm doing another one.

I think you'll find this one a tad easier... but even so, the folks in the antiques shop where I bought this mis-identified it. As in the last contest, this is something found on a nineteenth century young lady's dressing table, but would more likely be seen there toward the middle and later parts of the century. This item is made of sterling silver and is 6 3/4 inches long.

So...(cue drumroll...) What is it?

All correct guesses as of next Monday evening will once again be put into my 2007 Red Sox World Champions hat and the person whose name I pull out will win a review copy of Bewitching Season. So stop back in next Tuesday to see if you've won. And have fun!

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Allure of the Hand

As you look over the fashion prints Marissa and I have posted the last couple of weeks, one of the (few) things you’ll see in common is that most of our lovely ladies are wearing gloves. That’s because it was considered rather immodest to bare the skin of your hand. You could plunge your neckline so that it skimmed your breasts, squeeze your sleeves until they were nothing but a wisp of gaze across your shoulders, and wear few or damp petticoats to allow glimpses of your legs. But your hands, well, you only showed them to family and intimates.

When going out during the day, a lady wore kid-skin or cotton short gloves, died to match or contrast with her outfit of course. She might wear thicker gloves when riding or driving. She might also hide her gloved hands inside a muff, a huge pelt of fur or feathers.

In the evening, the young lady wore long opera gloves, sometimes coming up well above the elbow. Sometimes they were silk, but other times they were kid. White was most popular, but again the gloves could be died to match her outfit. Gloves were also embroidered, beaded, or overlain with lace.

I posted earlier about how difficult it was to eat in these. I imagine keeping them clean was another problem. A lady no doubt needed a number of the things so that some could be worn while others were soaking to remove stains.

Obviously when weather is cold or damp, gloves are quite useful. But why all the fuss to wear them at other times? My theory is that we use hands to touch, to caress, to feel. Doing that with anyone but your family and friends is a little risky, a little daring if you will. You’ll see in books where the hero tucks her hand in his arm, squeezes her hand, or, shockingly, rolls back the glove to kiss her wrist. Can you imagine the sensations when you weren’t used to having someone touch you there?

Where’s that fan when you need one?