Friday, March 28, 2008

Location, Location, Location

Imagine your family has decided to relocate to Bath before the Season (so it’s late winter, early spring). Your mother is certain taking the waters will return the bloom to her cheeks. Your father wants to sit around commiserating with his wealthy peers about the frightful state of hunting last year. Your older sister is angling to renew the acquaintance of a dapper half-pay officer she met last Season. And you’d like a little time to scope out the Eligibles before joining these handsome gentlemen in London after Easter.

Where do you stay? Take the following quiz and find out! (Hint, if you just want to see the pictures, click on the links at the end of each choice.)

A. The house is immaterial. You’re here to party! You’d like a decent house in a reasonably fashionable location, as close as possible to the fabulous shopping, festive assembly rooms, and crowded Pump Room. You intend to be busy, busy, busy while in Bath. You only need a place to sleep and eat, that is, when you haven’t been invited to some fabulous ball or other social event. If this is you, you’d be likely to pick this prime location.

B. You want an oasis away from the hustle and bustle. Yes, it would be nice to be in walking distance to the assembly rooms, but closer to the gardens of Sydney Park would be even more delightful, as would wandering the many hills surrounding Bath. Shopping is fine, as is a nice coz with a good friend. If this is you, you’d be likely to pick this fashionable spot.

C. You prefer that your family home, even a rented one, reflect your impeccable tastes. You intend to invite friends new and old to tea in your lovely garden, to literary events in your spacious library, to dinner in your elegant dining room. You prefer something solid, comfortable, distinguished, a cut above all that riff raff farther down the hill. If this is you, you’d be likely to pick this venerable neighborhood.

D. You want your home to make a statement about your prestige, your position in Society. You may be going to Bath, but you fully expect the rest of Bath to come to you. Your family has achieved the pinnacle of Society, and that must be reflected in where you stay. If this is you, you’d be likely to pick this famous sweep of property.

So, where are you staying? Complete our version of Bath’s famous arrivals book by leaving a comment and let us know! Me? I’m definitely a B.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Queen Victoria, Part VI: Party Animal

Imagine that you’re Princess Victoria…

You’ve spent years muffled away in Kensington Palace with only occasional contacts with other girls your age (apart from Sir John Conroy’s daughters). You’ve had to stand firm against the wheedling and blustering of not only Sir John himself, but your mother, aunt, and half-brother. Then, just three weeks after you turn eighteen, you wake up one morning to find that you’re now the Queen of England.

So what do you do now?

Well, I don’t know what you’d do, but I’ll tell you what Victoria did. The day that she awoke and found herself queen was a busy one, but she still found time to record in her diary what she did…and repeated five times (I counted) was the fact that she did many things ‘alone’--that is, without her mother hovering over her whispering directions. Remember, she hadn’t even been allowed to walk down stairs without being held by the hand. Can you imagine what it felt like to suddenly be free?

Victoria moved out of dreary, decaying Kensington and into Buckingham Palace. Her mother, of course, came with her…but her rooms were located at the opposite end of the palace. In fact, the Duchess had to make appointments to see her daughter--appointments which Victoria was often “too busy” to keep. She appointed her household with the help of Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister whom she would come to regard (for better or worse) as a father figure. And she partied.

Yes, really. I know you've got that image of the chunky, beaky-nosed old lady dressed in black in your mind...but that's decades down the road. And as for the conventional view of the queen as prim, proper, and narrow-mindedly be honest, that's more her future husband Albert than it was her. Despite her repressive upbringing, there was definitely a strong wild streak in Victoria's family and forbears--don't forget her even wilder uncles and her fifty-six illegitimate cousins.

So in 1837 Victoria was 18, full of energy, and ready to cut loose after years of seclusion. She went riding every day, and as a dinner guest (and prominent society diarist) noted, "A more homely [meaning natural and unaffected] little being you never beheld when she is at her ease, and she is evidently dying to be always more so. She laughs in real earnest, opening her mouth as wide as it can go...She eats quite as heartily as she laughs, I think I may say she gobbles....She blushes and laughs every instant in so natural a way as to disarm anyone." She went to the theatre, read novels, and danced at balls until 5 a.m.

But not all would remain rosy. Sir John Conroy remained in the background, ready to extract some revenge for having lost, and soon found an opportunity to contribute to one of the few scandals Victoria had to deal with during her reign (at least until her oldest son got busy). I'll tell you what happened in my next weird history post.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Regina Scott Tour of England, Part 2

And here we are in lovely Bath. Watch your step getting off the bus. Bath still has cobble stone streets in places. They say that Bath, perhaps more than any other English city, still exudes its Georgian charm. You can certainly see it on the side streets, like this approach to Sally Lun’s (the house at the end with the red tile roof).

Sally Lunn’s. Yum. This bakery and now restaurant has been famous since before the nineteenth century for delectable bun developed by a young woman named Sally Lunn. Sally Lunn buns are still enjoyed today, either with something hearty like a meaty stew or something sweet like raspberry preserves and clotted cream.

Down the street from Sally’s and around the corner you’ll find the entrance to the main baths. Yes, Bath is named for bathing pools filled with hot spring water. While the baths were used since Roman times, in the nineteenth century it was popular to come take the waters for your health, by bathing or drinking or both. Think of it as one of the original spa treatments.

Just on the other side of the baths is the Pump Room where people came to see and be seen. When you arrived in Bath you made sure to sign the book here so that everyone would know you had arrived and where you were staying, so you could meet them, perhaps . . .

at the assembly rooms just up the hill. Here you danced, promenaded, played cards, and gossiped about everyone else who’d come to town. Here a young lady might meet a young gentleman attending his aged aunt, strike up a conversation, and make plans to meet again soon.

Next Friday we’ll be looking at some of the homes in Bath, and you can decide where you’d live back in the day. Until then, have a blessed and happy Easter! Rejoice!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fun in the Sun...Not!

This parasol is not Victorian--I'm guessing it's early twentieth century--but the tassel and beautiful repousse silver handle ( I wish it showed up better in the photo) are a definite reminder of earlier days.

This week, thousands of college-aged teens are hitting the beaches of Florida in order to come home from Spring Break looking appropriately sun-kissed. If one of our gently-brought-up young ladies of 1810 or 1840 had gone on a trip to the shore, you'd better believe that coming home with a tan would have been regarded as a calamity.

The ideal of feminine beauty up until the early twentieth century was a fair, white complexion. To some degree, this probably had its origins in economics: if you were pale and soft-skinned, it meant you didn't spend your time out of doors working in the fields or taking care of farm animals...which meant your family could afford to have other people do that work for you.

Of course, that didn't mean you never stirred out-of-doors...but it did mean that when you did go out for a stroll around the garden or a gentle trot down the Ladies' Mile in Hyde Park, you used a parasol, wore a hat (and often a veil swathed over your face) and wore gloves to keep the skin of your hands equally white. Like this young lady of 1815, attired for walking.

And if (oh, horrors!) you were negligent and let your parasol drag behind or used it to keep obnoxious suitors at bay, then you rushed home to apply one of the dozens of commercially prepared lotions, like "Godfrey's Extract of Elder Flowers...To be had of any respectable Perfumer or Medicine Vendor in Bottles at 2s. 9d. each" which promised to "...communicate a refreshing coolness and softness to the skin, and completely remove Tan, Pimples, and cutaneous Eruptions...."

By the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, this attitude had changed. As more young women of the lower economic classes took jobs in factories and shops and offices, having a tan (a light one, mind you--just a glow) implied that you had the leisure time to engage in healthy outdoor pursuits like tennis or golf or riding and weren't stuck indoors all day.

And one final word for today: don't try to take pictures on the floor when there's a nosy rabbit around. I wonder if the orange fabric gave him hopes of a giant carrot?

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Regina Scott Tour of England, Part I

Today we’re going to tour the sites of London that the famous author (okay, the author) Regina Scott found interesting on her most recent visit, starting with London and then heading to Bath. No stragglers. Do try to keep up. And we’re walking . . .

Ah, here we are in Hyde Park, where the young ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century went to see and be seen, strolling, riding horseback, or driving carriages. And here is the marvelous bronze statue of Achilles. He stands as a tribute to the Duke of Wellington and was cast in 1822 from French cannons captured at the battles of Salmanca, Vittoria, Toulouse, and Waterloo. He’s anatomically correct, but a fig leaf was added to keep the passing ladies from blushing. Wouldn’t you know it? Someone chipped it off in 1870! If you don’t mind blushing and look closely, you’ll see it’s back in place today.

As we cross Mayfair, where the Fashionable lived, we come to St. George’s Hanover Square. The London aristocracy often attended this church (although I’d wager they didn’t have the handy traffic signal then). It’s only a block off the nineteenth century shopping paradise of Bond Street.

A short hop on the Tube brings us to the Russell Square area, where there’s a number of townhouses from the nineteenth century. Then there’s this intriguing little relic, which I can only conclude served to block the street behind it from emptying onto a busier thoroughfare. Many of the public conveniences like lampposts and post boxes are marked to indicate in whose rein they were erected. Not surprisingly, you’ll find any number marked IIER (the current Queen Elizabeth). This one, however, dates from the time of King George IV (the Prince George who led the Regency period) and must have been erected between 1820 and 1830.

Now on to the British Museum, home of any number of amazing antiquities from around the globe. See here one small portion from an end pediment of the Parthenon Marbles, brought to England in the nineteenth century by Lord Elgin. The panels of the main frieze take up the entire length, both sides, of a very long room. You may remember my previous post on these sculptures, how they were much admired during the nineteenth century. All I can say is that they make me sad. They are beautiful but nearly all damaged in some way (headless, armless, handless). Still, I can see why artists came from far and wide to view them (and still do today).

Now back toward Hyde Park we take a stroll down St. James’s Street, bastion of the gentleman, with clubs and shops for cigars, fine wines, and perfumes. And here is White’s! The famous gentlemen’s club looks as dapper today as it did in the nineteenth century. This is where a young gentleman might go if an older friend or father had membership to play cards, read the paper, take a bit of dinner, and generally breathe in all that masculine air. No ladies allowed. And see what I mean about that bow window?

Everyone still here? Very good. Next week, on to Bath!

Friday, March 7, 2008

What I Learned in England

Thanks for the warm send off! I’m back from jolly old England, but my head’s still spinning and my heart is overflowing. Lovely trip! I’m sure everything I’ve learned will make its way into the next few months of posts, but here’s some of the things that amazed me most:

Bath Water Doesn’t Taste That Bad. I’ve read where the heroines stick up their noses and gag down the waters in the popular Georgian spa town of Bath. Since Roman times the spring waters in Bath have been held to have healing properties. I drank from the pump used in the nineteenth century, and I’m here to tell you it didn’t taste bad at all. My husband says that’s because our local water is mineral heavy too so I’m used to it. The one thing that did surprise me is that it’s warm!

Portraits Really Are Kind of Cool. My heroine in La Petite Four sneers at painting portraits as beneath her skills as an artist, but I was really impressed with the ones I saw. The painter went out of his or her way to make sure you know something of the sitter by including little snippets from the sitter’s life: a sheath of music for a composer, a paint brush for an artist. The portraits are like little stories done in pictures.

It’s Not Possible to Collect Too Much If You Have the Right Architect. Architect Sir John Soane was an avid collector, and he managed to use every single inch of his small townhouse to good advantage. Still, it is a bit overwhelming.

Beau Brummell Was Audacious. I always imagined that judge of fashion taste, Beau Brummell, sitting in the famous bow window of White’s gentlemen’s club and staring down at the ladies passing on the street below. White’s bow window is at street level, which means that Brummell would actually have been about eye to eye with the ladies. How risqué that must have been to find yourself the object of his study. Ooooo!

More next week when I stop fanning myself and get my pictures properly in order.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Books, Part I

In the 19th century, when the only definition of “Amazon” was a mythological female warrior, books and reading were something of a paradox.

Remember, there was no TV, no game systems, no DVDs, no internet. The only forms of self-entertainment you could do when sitting quietly in a chair were needlework or reading (or drizzling!) Yet the actual number of books available to read was small: according to figures I’ve read, in 1830 there were only about 1100 new titles published in England, in editions of about 750-1200 copies. And their cost was in inverse proportion to their availability: by the middle of that decade the average three-volume book cost thirty one shillings sixpence…compare that to the average weekly wage of a laboring man, which was between six and twenty shillings. For the earlier decades of the century, books truly were a luxury item.

So what did anyone who wasn't extremely wealthy do for reading material?

Easy. They joined a reading society or subscribed to a circulating library. For a yearly fee, a subscriber could borrow books from these private libraries, which ranged from small side-line businesses run by shopkeepers in small villages to quite large establishments in larger towns. Jane Austen was an avid circulating library subscriber and had the pleasure of seeing her own (anonymously published) books available there: her niece’s comment on a new book at their local library entitled “Sense and Sensibility, by a Lady” was “It must be nonsense with a title like that.” Aunt Jane was vastly amused.

Books also differed slightly in form from what we know today. Walter Scott made the publication of novels in three volumes popular--one story, divided up into three books. Books were also commonly purchased without a binding: you got the title page and text, and then took them to a bookbinder to be bound in the leather cover of your choice, with or without gilt lettering and embossing. Once you finally sat down to read your book, you had to be armed with a knife. The pages of books were printed two per side on a long piece of paper, and the pages then bound--so you had to slit the pages apart with a paper knife, which is why the edges of the pages of old books are always slightly jagged and uneven. (Look closely at our ladies in the print at left--see the tongue-depressor-like thing in the hand of Pink Dress?) Even today you can run across antique books with uncut pages.

Next week: Fordyce’s Sermons, Mad Monks, and Silver Fork Novels