Friday, August 29, 2008

Nineteenth Century House Party

School’s started here, but many places are enjoying a last few days of summer before returning to the hallowed hallways of learning. For the aristocratic young lady in nineteenth century England, August heralded the start of the country house visit.

August in London was hot, sticky, and stinky, with the Thames wafting up all kinds of odors in the summer heat. With Parliament generally out of session, everyone who was anyone found an excuse to leave town for cooler climates, often in the north of England. August 1 was also the start of grouse season, so if your dear Papa was fond of shooting the little birds, you probably headed to Scotland, where the best hunting was to be found.

If you didn’t have a lavish country seat where you could retire, you angled for an invitation to someone else’s country estate. This was a chance to lengthen the Season, to be with a select group of friends in a different setting. You might visit a distant relative or the family of a dear friend. If one particular gentleman had shown his interest, he might invite you and your family to the ancestral pile to meet his extended family and have a little more time to get to know each other. Such invitations came with the expectation that the young man was going to offer marriage, and soon!

But even if you were the guest, going to house parties cost a pretty penny. First, you had to have sufficient outfits for breakfast with the family, tea in the afternoon, formal dinners at night, balls in the local assembly rooms, riding, walking to visit friends or nearby architectural wonders, boating in the nearby river or lake, lawn bowling, and many other interesting activities. Then, you were expected to provide vails (tips) to the servants who supported you while you were visiting—the groom who held your horse, the maid who cleaned your room, the cook who made your favorite raspberry scone, the porter who handled your baggage on your way to the estate, and so on. Some people even opted to stay in the stench of London rather than incur the costs of tipping every servant from here to there!

I haven’t been on a country house visit, but I did run away this week to celebrate my wedding anniversary. My husband and I spent the night at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel, which still looks much like it did when it was built in the 1920s. Famous early film stars Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow stayed here, among other luminaries. So it’s off by about a 100 years and on the wrong continent. It was still very romantic.

How are you ending your summer?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Where the Fashionable Bluestocking Shopped

“Summer reading, had me a blast
Summer reading, went by so fast . . .”

Sorry, wrong period! And forgive my liberty with the lyrics. I was thinking about my favorite summer pastime, which, oddly enough, doesn’t necessarily involve beaches or boys.


Reading was a popular pastime for the nineteenth century young lady as well, although she might not want to admit it for fear of being labeled a bluestocking, one of those ladies with more brains than social skills. Marissa’s previous posts mentioned some of the authors and stories. I, of course, am just as interested in the shopping aspects.

In the early nineteenth century, London had twelve good circulating libraries, where you could pay a subscription to borrow books; four French booksellers; one German bookseller; three children’s booksellers; and twenty dealers of rare books. If you were very fortunate, your family had a private library, or you knew someone with a private library. Marissa’s characters borrow books (with rather disastrous consequences) from the private library of a noted sorcerer in her Bewitching Season. Sir Joseph Banks, the noted botanist and president of the Royal Society, and Earl Spencer, the forefather of Princess Diana, were said to have the best private libraries. Spencer House is just off St. James’s, so quite easy to access on your way to the sensational shopping on Bond Street.

And just around the corner is Hatchard’s, one of the premier bookstores in London. It opened in 1797 at No. 173 Piccadilly. In 1801, it moved to No. 190. Later it was moved to No. 187, where you can still find it today. Hatchard’s was the social meeting place for those who loved literature. Being right across the street from the Albany, where the poet Lord Byron lived, it attracted any number of literary luminaries. Even Queen Charlotte shopped there. You could always find the daily newspapers set out on a table by the glowing fire, and your servants could wait on benches outside the door while you took your time perusing the many fine offerings.

Such as the handsome baronet thumbing through Shakespeare.

So, what are you reading this summer?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Thank God for the Beau

I intended to include this post in our “bad boys” series, but George “Beau” Brummell really wasn’t bad. In fact, he did a lot of good things — for men’s fashion, for interior décor, and for cleanliness. And he did it all with an amazing amount of style.

Beau Brummell was raised to be a gentleman, even though his father was only a government clerk who became a private secretary to a member of the aristocracy. Young Brummell attended Eton and made many influential friends. Once he arrived in London, his cool impudence made him a favorite in the upper levels of society, and before anyone knew it, he had become the leader of all things fashionable.

In fact, Brummell dictated men’s fashion. He threw off the lush embroidery and fanciful materials of the late 1700s and aimed for a sober but perfect dress. He was the first to wear evening dress of black coat and breeches. He ordered that cravats were only suitable if they were starched. He brought pantaloons (which became trousers) into fashion. The men’s suit today still follows the basic design laid down by the Beau. It was said that the Prince came to his house merely to watch him dress and begged him for advice.

He decreed that simple lines and lack of ostentation should rule inside the home as well. He encouraged the proprietor of White’s to install a bow window so he could sit and watch the ladies go by. I keep imagining him and his cronies using the Olympic style of rating.

“Ah, Lady Bessborough. 9 for execution and 10 for style. That’s 90 points overall. Perhaps I’ll deign to attend her ball next quarter day.”

He also started a craze for bathing. It was rumored that at least one royal duke could only be bathed when he was unconscious because he hated bathing so much. Brummell brought cleanliness and fastidiousness into fashion. And I’m sure a number of people breathed easier because of it!

Unfortunately, the Beau had two major failings: his love of gambling and his lack of skill at it. His mountain of debt forced him to flee for the Continent in 1816 before he could be arrested and thrown into Debtor’s Prison.

So, perhaps he was a bit of a bad boy after all.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Did You Ever Wonder About Bustles?

You would think that with the nineteenth century only 200 years past or less, we’d know all about how everything was done. Oh, certainly we have diaries and books written from the time that tell us how people traveled or made political decisions or baked a strawberry trifle. We know when battles were fought and kings married. But for an author writing about young people during that time, we’re left with a whole list of things to wonder about.

Like bustles. The farther you go in the period, the more elaborate they become. What started out as a small pad over your behind, tied on around your waist, became cages that stuck out behind or on the sides or all around. Did you ever wonder how people sat in those things? I mean, when you have a wire cage going from your waist to your toes, that can’t be easy, right?

Turns out it can. Those hoops may not have drifted sideways or down (or your dress would have collapsed), but they lifted up! So when you had to sit, you simply sat and they folded up behind you like an accordion. When you had to go through a narrow space, you picked up the top edge and lifted and everything folded up as well. Neat as you please.

I’m so glad to learn that whoever invented the things actually put a little practicality behind them. Pardon the bun er pun.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

She's Back!

As Marissa mentioned, we’re tag-teaming this summer to give each other a little more time with family and writing. She took the posts for July, and I’ll be posting in August. I’ll post this Friday on a scintillating nineteenth-century topic, but I didn’t want you to pop in today when Marissa usually posts and wonder why we’d disappeared!

And speaking of popping in, if you happen to be in Richland, Washington, between 3 and 5 this afternoon, do stop by Adventures Underground bookstore and say hello. I’ll be signing and having tea with Anne Osterlund, who writes fairy tale YA for Penguin. Gloria’s La Dolce Vita Bakery and Café was kind enough to cater. I’m addicted to Gloria’s cooking, so if my mouth is full when you stop by, you’ll know why. I shall try to remember my manners and not spray you with crumbs in my effusive welcome.

And to those who said hello at the Romance Writers of America conference last week, especially Santa, Sara, and Elizabeth, welcome home! It was lovely meeting you in person!

Until Friday, my dears!