Friday, April 30, 2010

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Above Calculation

We talked about Lord Byron, the famous poet, during our “Bad Boys” series a while back. He sired one legitimate daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, who could have ended up just as tormented as her father, but instead turned out to be a true nineteenth century heroine.

Ada grew up knowing OF her father (he was one of the most noted figures of the time, after all), but not knowing him. Her mother had separated from Bryon in January 1816, scarce a month after Ada was born. He left England not long after and died in Europe when Ada was nine. Her mother was determined that no taint of what she considered her husband’s madness should touch Ada, so she insisted that Ada be schooled in something foreign to poetry and fine literature: mathematics and science.

Ada had the best private tutors. Her mother had been the favorite student of William Frend, the social reformer educated at Cambridge, who taught her astronomy, algebra, Latin, and geometry. She made sure Ada had a similar education. Unfortunately, Ada was ill much of her childhood. By the time she was eight, she had developed terrible headaches. At 14, she caught the measles and had to stay in bed for nearly a year. Afterward, she had to walk crutches for awhile.

When Ada was 17, she met Mary Somerville, a Scottish mathematician who had had to struggle for the right to obtain her own education. They became great friends, and Mary encouraged Ada’s interest in mathematics. Through Mary, Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage at a dinner party. He had wild ideas of an Analytical Engine, a machine that would calculate the future. Though others at the party found the idea too far-fetched, but nineteen-year-old Ada was entranced.

So was Babbage. In Ada, he found an lifelong friend and pen pal. He was so impressed with her abilities in mathematics that he called her “The Enchantress of Numbers.”

But Society demanded a different life for Ada. At 20, she married a baron who became the first Earl of Lovelace and promptly set about filling the nursery, with three children in four years. Babbage, however, was also busy. He’d developed a plan for his Analytical Engine and presented it at a scientific gathering in Italy. Another scientist published a commentary on the idea in French. Babbage turned to Ada to translate it into English.

She translated it, all right, but she more than tripled the article by adding her own “notes,” suggestions for how the engine might work on something practical. She even developed an algorithm the engine might run. She felt the engine could be used for such things as composing music, drawing pictures, and conducting scientific investigations.

Ada died young, at 36 from uterine cancer. Today, Babbage’s Analytical Engine is recognized as the first computer, and Ada is given the title of the first computer programmer. March 24 is Augusta Ada Lovelace day, an international day of blogging in memory of the woman who helped pioneer the sciences and technology that drew the world through the industrial revolution and into the future.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bloody Jack, Jane Austen's Brothers, and Future Reading

Well, I have to say that I agree with Publisher's Weekly, which called Bloody Jack "a rattling good read."

I have to agree with a lot of the posters from last week that at times, it did go a bit over the top...but mostly I was just so absorbed in the story that I was able to suspend any twinges of doubt...and absorbed by the details of 18th/19th century shipboard life that Mr. Meyer included. I didn't mind Jacky's character lapses, either, chiefly because as a writer I (a) find flawed characters are more interesting and (b) think that being flawed gives them the opportunity to grow. I'm curious about Jacky's further adventures in Boston, and whether she'll stay in that girls' school. :)

On a slightly different note...Regina mentioned that two of Jane Austen's brothers went to sea, which helps account for her very positive portrayal of Navy men in Persuasion. Frances (also called Frank, 1774-1865) and Charles (1779-1852) both prospered in the Navy. They attended the Royal Naval College as boys; Frank headed off to sea at 15 and rose rapidly through the ranks. He served throughout the Napoleonic Wars and just missed fighting at the Battle of Trafalgar; eventually he rose to the position of Admiral of the Fleet. Charles followed behind his brother, but saw much action and was by all accounts a remarkably brave officer. It was Charles who, with prize money he received from helping to capture an enemy ship, bought topaz crosses for his sisters Jane and Cassandra (that's them in the picture above. Notice the crosses Jane and Lizzy wear in the A&E Pride and Prejudice mini-series? I always thought this a delightful touch.) He rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral.

Now, concerning future Young Bluestockings Book Club meetings... Our next meeting will take place on Tuesday, June 8, when I'll be presenting one of my favorite Georgette Heyer books, Cotillion. It's recently been re-released by Sourcebooks in trade paperback format. From the back cover:

A most unusual hero

Freddy is immensely rich, of course, and not bad-looking, but he's mild-mannered, a bit hapless--not anything like his virile, handsome, rakish cousin Jack...

A heroine in a difficult situation

Young Kitty Charing stands to inherit a vast fortune from her irascible and eccentric guardian--provided she marries one of his great-nephews...

A sham betrothal

No sooner does Kitty arrive in London than the race for her hand begins, but between confirmed rakes and bumbling affections, Kitty needs a daring scheme.

Cotillion covers a lot of familiar themes I thought it would be interesting to discuss here on Nineteenteen: courtship and marriage, inheritance, fashion, and bad boys versus good ones. It's quietly funny and surprisingly moving. But I hope, if you choose to join us, that as you read it you'll think a little bit about how historical fiction is sometimes as much about the time in which it's written as it is about the past.
We hope you'll join us then!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Young Bluestockings Book Club Reads Bloody Jack

Today I have the honor of calling our esteemed club to order. I hope you’ve all had a chance to read Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. I noticed that the publisher recently issued a new paperback edition, so if you haven’t read it, perhaps this will be your chance!

As before, I’ll start off the discussion with my thoughts, and then you get to jump in with comments. I’ll be monitoring the blog today and through the weekend and will try to respond whenever appropriate. Marissa will close the discussion on Tuesday. We really love to hear your thoughts! You suggested the book club—please join in!

I enjoyed reading Bloody Jack several years ago, but I found it all the more interesting to read this time around because, since then, I’d been sailing on a tall ship. The descriptions of the ship and activities seemed even more real now that I had an experience to align with them. I love the attention to detail, the wonderful explanations of Jacky’s daily life. I’ve always wanted to run away to sea in search of pirates; Jacky allowed me to run away with her!

Those of you who read our first club book, Mairelon the Magician, probably also noticed several common themes. One was that, if you want upward mobility and adventure, it’s easier being a boy than a girl in the nineteenth century. The Navy in particular provided opportunities. Many of the “middies” were there because their families paid for that position with the idea that their sons would advance. Though Jaimy’s parents couldn’t afford to pay for a position, it’s expected that the lad, with courage and hard work, will advance to an officer’s post. Even Jacky, by showing sufficient courage and ingenuity, is promoted to a midshipman position.

The Navy represented a dangerous, difficult life, but one with a chance for something better. While a sailor’s salary wasn’t much (and as you saw was just as likely to have been spent before the poor fellow even reached home!), there was the chance for prize money, which could amount to thousands of dollars. In a society based heavily on wealth and family privilege, no other position could legally offer such riches for those at the bottom of the heap.

Another common theme was that language, dress, and manners make the person. I particularly loved Jacky’s thoughts on why people don’t notice The Deception. Having acted the part of a nineteenth century dandy for many years as an ongoing joke among my sister authors of nineteenth-century fiction, I completely agree with Jacky! If you dress the part, if you take on the mannerisms, if you use the right language, and if nature has blessed you with the right shaped-face and short hair (and, ahem, a less than ample upper half or at least one you can keep concealed), you too can be mistaken for a bloke!

So, what did you think? Did you cheer for Jacky along the way? Did you cringe over some of the more beastly things that happened to her? Do you believe she’ll be happy in a girls’ finishing school? (I haven’t read book 2, so don’t spoil it for me!) Do you want to run away to sea with me? Come on, fess up! Do you have a little pirate or pirate-catcher in your blood?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Intriguing Item

Whilst doing research on tooth powder for last week’s entry, I ran across a fascinating item in the March 1, 1807 Monthly Compendium of Literary, Fashionable, and Domestic Advertisements from La Belle Assemblee. The ad reads as follows (see it at right, second item on the left):

The delicate and restrained condition which custom imposes on females, subjects them to great disadvantage,—Mrs. Morris offers to remove them. Ladies or Gentlemen who have formed predilections may be assisted in obtaining the objects of their affection; and those who are unengaged may be immediately introduced to suitable persons; but she cannot assist applicants in any marriage if their characters are not irreproachable, and their fortunes considerable and independent. She will not admit any others.

Apply or address (post paid) at the Bow-window, next door to Margaret Chapel, Margaret-street, Cavendish-square. Ladies who require it, may be waited upon at their own houses.

Well! Talk about intriguing! I'm going to investigate this further, because it inspires dozens of questions: did anyone take advantage of this lady's services? Who were they, and what situation might have led them to seek her help? How much did she charge, and when did she get paid--for making a successful introduction, or just attempting to? How did she operate--did she have a network of friends who helped her track people down so that she could effect introductions for her clients?

Can you picture it? A young girl driving in Hyde Park espies a handsome young man in a Hussar's uniform strolling absent-mindedly down the footpath. No, her friend driving with her has no idea who he is...but she asks her brother, who is slightly acquainted with a few fellows in that regiment, and gets a name...does our smitten young lady sneak a note off to Mrs. Morris in Margaret-street seeking her help?

I'll let you know what I find the meanwhile, what situations can you dream up where the mysterious Mrs. Morris might ply her trade?

Friday, April 16, 2010

One Week: Mark the Date, Mates!

That’s right, my dears! In one week the Young Bluestockings Book Club will be discussing Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer, here on Nineteen Teen. Marissa and I do hope you’ll join us.

To get you in the mood, I’m doing a little “show and tell” today, this time around naval uniforms.

First a little warning: I am NOT well versed in things military during the nineteenth century. I’ve actually avoided them when at all possible. Napoleonic war uniforms and accoutrements have been thoroughly studied by historians, re-enactors, costumers, and gamers. They know where of they speak. I just whisper softly in comparison.

So, to start us off, here’s a great Ackermann print from 1849 showing the various levels of officers. Bear in mind that Bloody Jack actually takes place about 50 years before this, but overall uniforms did not change a huge amount during that time (at least to my unpracticed eye). Also bear in mind that these are the dress uniforms — in the middle of a storm or a battle, these gentlemen wouldn’t look nearly so spiffy.

The Admiral stands on the right — notice the star on his chest and the amount of braid at his cuffs and waist. Saluting him is the captain, still impressive but rather less gilded up. The fellow with his back to us is a commodore, above a captain but lesser than an admiral. The little fellow in the rear is a midshipman. Notice the sheaf of papers under his arm to indicate he is still studying.

And here’s the commodore again. This time he’s holding papers to indicate he has the orders; he’s the one in charge. A lesser officer stands next to him on the gun deck (odd place to be examining your orders, but certainly picturesque!), with your ordinary seaman behind, ready to snap to duty. Notice that the lesser officer only has one epaulet on his shoulders.

Here’s another set of lesser officers and an able seaman. The artist did an outstanding job of showing his swagger. He’s had years at sea, seen the world and over. He’s the best of the lot, and he knows it!

If you’d like another take on the naval uniforms of the early nineteenth century, this time by a noted costumer, check out this post on the authenticity of the costumes in the movie Master and Commander: Far Side of the World at Clothesmonaut.

So, were these the way you imagined them as you were reading Bloody Jack? Jane Austen, with two brothers in the navy, was said to be taken with naval men. Is it true there’s something about a man, or woman, or Klingon, in uniform?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Keep it Clean! Part 4: Gotta Brush those Pearly Whites

It’s always interesting to read the descriptions of beautiful women from past centuries and see how they might compare to today’s beauties. One of the common attributes often noted is their teeth: having white, even teeth was a definite attribute of especial attractiveness (Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was often cited as beautiful despite her bad teeth, which caused her to assume a close-mouth smile. However, Napoleon himself seems to have done a better job of taking care of his teeth--see his toothbrush above!) Breath, too, was often cited, particularly when it was bad. So what did young women do to achieve these signs of beauty?

Dental science, like other medical science, was in its infancy in the 19th century. Even so, it had been understood since ancient times that keeping one’s mouth clean would help prevent tooth decay (though not why--the idea that tooth decay is caused by bacteria was not proposed until the 1890s). Two common methods for cleaning teeth were rubbing them with a damp rag dipped in salt and ashes, or using a cleaning stick, a twig (often of some aromatic wood) chewed at one end until it was fibery and brushlike, which would then be used to clean tooth surfaces (the other end was often sharpened to a toothpick-like point to remove matter from between teeth). Of course, not everyone bothered; the situation was exacerbated by the increasing availability and dropping cost of refined sugar in the 18th century…which is why white teeth and good breath were noteworthy.

The Chinese created the first bristled tooth-brush in the early 1600s using bamboo handles and pig bristles, and some of these made their way to Europe, where the design was modified to use softer horsehair. But the idea didn’t really take off until the 1780s, when an Englishman named William Addis, while serving a temporary jail term, created a toothbrush containing rows of bunches of pig bristles set in tiny holes drilled into the end of a bone handle—essentially the modern toothbrush (see above). After his release he began to sell his brushes, now made with horsehair, which caught on and became very popular. William died in 1808, leaving his thriving toothbrush business to his son (and by the way, the company is still in the toothbrush business 230 years later) By the 1840s the modern three-row brush had been invented, and toothbrushing became widespread.

Toothpaste has a more recent history. Ancient peoples including the Egyptians, Greek, and Romans used various compounds to clean the teeth: ingredients included iris root, chalk, ground oyster shells, or pulverized charcoal. As mentioned above, a combination of salt and ashes was sometimes used as a sort of polish to rub on teeth.

The first commercially sold preparations used for cleaning the teeth were 19th century in origin. I have several advertising supplements from La Belle Assemblee containing ads for such products as “Chevalier Ruspini’s Dentrifice” (“most salutary during the winter season, the effects of cold and damp air on the Teeth and Gums being repelled and counteracted by its balsamic and astringent qualities.”) and “Trotter’s Oriental Dentrifice or Asiatic Tooth Powder” (“Patronized and used by Their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of Clarence and Kent, and Gentlemen in the Navy and Army, who have found the good effects in long voyages.”) It sounds as though toothbrushes were dipped in the powder, rather than the powder being made into a paste with added water; from what I’ve been able to find, actual toothpaste didn’t supplant tooth powders until after the first world war.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Qualifications for Being an Amphitryon

Isn’t Amphitryon a lovely word? I came across it this week while doing research so of course I had to follow the path where it beckoned and see where it led. While the word is the name Hercules’ father in Greek mythology, in early nineteenth century England, it meant a person who was an exceptional host or hostess. Every young lady of quality aspired to being an Amphitryon.

Unfortunately, it appears that few succeeded. Take this diatribe from the editor of La Belle Assemblée, the premiere ladies' magazines, in March 1807:
“It is the opinion of the vulgar, that to be rich and liberal is the only requisite to become a good Amphitryon; but those who have weighed this matter, and reflected on the qualities that are indispensable to merit this title, in all its extent, are soon convinced that Heaven bestows this gift on very few persons, and that a good Amphitryon is almost as rare as a good roaster of meat.”

(I’m not sure how rare a roaster of good meat would be—and isn’t that a pun in itself—but apparently they too were few and far between!)

So what did it take to be a hostess without? La Belle Assemblée suggests the following:

  • Money (note to self—so that’s my problem!)
  • An excellent cook (do husbands count?)
  • Good tradesmen (hey, I can shop with the best of them)
  • An intelligent housekeeper and a clever butler (um, not at my house)
  • A long study of the elements that create a good table (are we talking Master’s degree or doctorate?).

However, the most important criteria for being an Amphitryon, according to La Belle Assemblée, was to select the right guests and place them appropriately at the table. I must admit that's not my forte. I must admit that’s not my forte. I tend to seat people from more practical considerations (left handers where they won’t feel cramped by bumping into right handers, mothers near children, children where spills are easily cleaned, etc.). But apparently there is a fine art to arranging people at table.

Here’s an example of what happened when a nineteenth century host invited 24 individuals from various walks to life to dinner and took no care as to where they sat:
“During the repast, nothing scarcely was heard but monosyllables, and the noise of plates and covers was almost the only conversation at this misplaced dinner. The poet attempted to speak of his tragedy that had been damned to the minister, who entertained him with an account of his last sermon, and who comprehended nothing of what the actor had been saying on the intrigues of the stage. One of the authors had commenced a grammatical discussion with a merchant, who answered him by complaining of the stagnation in the sugar and coffee trade. The artist was describing to the contractor an historical picture which he had in contemplation, while the contractor was regretting former times and complaining bitterly. All the guests rose from table disgusted with each other, and consequently with themselves.”

Now certainly, at some high dinners, rank dictated where one sat. At a dinner among acquaintances, however, the guests needed some clue as to which seat was theirs. The Amphitryon was careful to orchestrate seating, either by sending prearranged couples in together or putting name tags of some sort at each spot at the table. The result? People enjoyed themselves more, praised their hostess, and even ate more.

So, my dears, what are your qualifications for this exalted title? Do you have what it takes to be an Amphitryon?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mystery Object: What is it?

It’s time for another Mystery Object! In past rounds I’ve posted pictures of things like glove stretchers and vinaigrettes for you to identify. This time, we’re going to try something a little different…because I don’t have any idea what this Mystery Object is! Do you?

Here it is:

From the end of the jump ring (which makes me wonder if it’s something that might have been carried on a chatelaine) it measures 2 ¼ inches. It’s marked “A.M. Co” and “STERLING SILVER.” The main length of the body is machined in tiny ridges, and there’s a slot running its length. When you turn the knob on the end, a sort of tongue protrudes through the slot:
The object easily comes apart into two pieces--an inner core and outer shell--and has a little catch so that I think it’s made to pull apart. The inner core with the tongue pretty much fills the outer--there's not a lot of space in there:
Unfortunately I don’t have a date for this item: an on-line search for “A.M. Co” didn’t turn anything up about the manufacturer, and neither did searching on silver hallmark identification sites. I’m not even sure if it’s American or British.

I have a couple of theories…but I want to hear what you think. No theory too crazy! And anyone who can provide a positive identification for this object will win a signed copy of your choice of Bewitching Season or Betraying Season.

Let the guessing begin!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Interesting Uses for Easter Eggs

This Sunday is Easter, Resurrection Day for those of the Christian persuasion. At our house, this means spending much of the morning celebrating at church. For many households here in the U.S., however, it means baskets of candy and colored hard-boiled eggs. Colored eggs were also popular among young lads and ladies in nineteenth century England, although how they used those eggs might surprise you.

Then as now, the family would boil the eggs and color the shells by dunking them in concoctions. The most commonly used colors were red for the blood of Christ, blue for the water of baptism, and purple for royalty. On Easter Sunday, the eggs might be given as gifts to friends and family.

They might also be used to start a war.

Egg wars were a favorite among the lads (are you surprised?). You picked an Easter egg and your opponent picked an Easter egg and the two of you smacked them together. The least cracked egg was declared the winner, and the owner could receive a forfeit such as a small coin or piece of candy.

You could also roll your eggs. You picked a grassy hill, lined up at the top with each person holding an Easter egg, and pushed them off so that they rolled down to the bottom. You might also push them along with a spoon. Depending on your family tradition, the winner was the owner of the egg that reached the bottom first, lasted the longest among several rolls, or rolled between two goals.

Me? This Easter the only boiled eggs I’m dealing with will be those that are devilled and part of the menu. However, my mother gave me a lovely faux-nineteenth century porcelain egg. Reminds me a bit of Wedgwood, but it’s pink. What do you think?

Happy Easter, all!