Friday, October 10, 2008

The Things Writers Worry About: Jumping Out a Window

A year ago, my first post on Nineteen Teen covered my musings on what a young lady did with her long opera-length gloves while she was nibbling at a midnight buffet. Writers of historical fiction worry about that kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons we do research (that and it’s just too much fun learning all this stuff!). And one of the reasons Marissa and I started this blog was to share the interesting things we come upon in our research.

This week was a case study in what writers worry about. There I was, working away on my latest novel, when my heroine decided to jump out a window. (She has ample motivation and the right character, but we won’t go there.) And right in mid-sentence, I thought, “Wait, can she do that?”

Seems like a straight forward action. I can certainly justify there being a window in the room. But immediately a whole host of issues arise. When was the house built? I’m guessing mid- to late-1700s. Okay, pull down Steven Parissien’s Adam Style (Phaidon Press Limited, London). Were the windows big enough to fit a person through? They seem plenty big from the pictures, and Parissien notes that some windows went all the way to the floor, so it’s feasible.

But did windows even open during that time period? Can’t tell from the pictures or his description, plus I know that at least some folks felt night air was noxious (and the daytime air was often full of soot in London), so maybe they wouldn’t want a window to open.

And then I found this. Isn’t it helpful? This is a painting of the artist Paul Sandby by Francis Cotes. It dates from the late 1700s, so it’s perfect for my story. Notice that dear Mr. Sandby is leaning OUT the window, so the sash must be open. And it would appear the opening is large enough for an industrious young lady to sit on the sill and shove herself out.

But THEN I wondered—wait, can she lift the sash when in a corset you can’t lift your arms over your head? Will her satin ball gown and petticoats really fit through the window? What’s below her? She’s on the first floor (which would be our second floor). Will anyone see her from the ground floor? What’s she going to land in? Is she just risking damage to her reputation or loss of life?

To jump or not? Who knew the decision would be just as difficult for the writer as the character?

So, would you have her jump?


Anonymous said...

Good question. Perhaps your young lady can lower herself out the window with curtains or sheets or something? I think it would be hard to manage with all those skirts though. Can't wait to find out if she jumps!

Nina said...

Yes, I think she could. If she is recency lady, her corset wouldn't be so restrictive, and skirts so wide.
If she would, peopably not if she could avoid it. It could destroy her reputation.

Tia Nevitt said...

I'm not sure why it would destroy her reputation. Presumably she could do this when there are no witnesses? Or is there a gentleman waiting to catch her?

Given all the problems she has (skirt, corset, unsuitable shoes), I would say she would have to be absolutely desperate to attempt a jump. And her ankle would very likely snap.

I agree with a previous commentator--maybe she could use a rope? Didn't curtains come hung on ropes in those days? She could take the ropes out of the curtains, secure it to the curtain anchor or a heavy bedpost, and with some difficulty, lower herself down.

Gillian Layne said...

Oh, I can see her jumping. What shoe is she wearing? With those little satin slippers, she might turn an ankle.

And WERE curtains hung on ropes? Because I just used a mahogany curtain rod in a manuscript I'm working on. It is in the library of a very stately town home .... Yea Gads, the details to worry about....:)

Regina Scott said...

Very good thoughts, my dears! Sorry I didn't chime in sooner. I'm on travel again, but finally reached a hotel with good internet access.

Something I learned this spring when I toured England--in company rooms (withdrawing room, sitting room, ballroom, dining room) sometimes they didn't have curtains at all! Look at the picture again. See the little nob on the wall behind him? That's the handle to a shutter box. Inside are solid wooden shutters, sometimes highly craved or inlaid with gold, that pull shut over the windows, on the inside (unlike the decorative or functional shutters you see in America). If there are curtains too, they are most likely decorative. She's actually in a library, with shutter boxes, so no curtains or bedsheets to help her. And yeah, I agree that if she did it in front of people, her name would be mud. She might not lose her reputation exactly, but they'd probably think she was insane!

Katherine of Egypt said...

I'm really late and I don't have much input, but I just had to say: this is first post I read and I love this blog already. It's so nice to know that people besides me are sweating the details of historical fiction...though I'm not writing any at the moment, I read a lot, and nothing tees me off more than lazy fiction. The fact that this is an entire post about how a lady of the 19th century would leap out a window (or even if she would!) and whether the curtain rods are mahogany or not warms the cockles of my heart. Thank you!

Oh and for the record, I think our lady would consider leaping out the window but her good sense and propriety would win in the end and she wouldn't be able to go through with it. Let alone the problems if skirt/petticoat/gaiters/satin slippers, what would she DO once she was out?

Augustina Peach said...

I agree with the previous comment. I love the fact that you are thinking this through so carefully - that's the kind of attention to detail that makes a story LIVE, even if the detail never actually makes it into the story. Good for you!