Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What’s Your Favorite (Historical) Comfort Read? (and Mystery Object Revealed!)

So...last week’s mystery object! I hope you all had fun guessing what it was, both here and on my Facebook page. And those of you who guessed that it was a butter churn were absolutely correct! I would definitely have preferred one of these to the dash-style churn—at least one could hold a book and read while churning. One does have priorities.

And speaking of reading...let’s talk about comfort reads.

Do you have books that you turn to whenever you’re feeling unhappy or blue, or just need to spend time in the company of a dear old friend who never lets you down? I expect most of us bookworms have such comfort reads. I certainly do...and of course, most of mine are historical. I thought it might be fun to talk a little about some of mine...and for you to share yours so that we can all enlarge our lists.  Are you ready?

The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken
These are the oldest comfort reads on my list, since I discovered them somewhere around age nine or ten. They’re actually historical fantasy, set in an alternate timeline in which the Glorious Revolution never happened and the Stewarts continued to rule England and weren’t replaced by the Hanoverians...but that doesn’t mean the Hanoverians weren’t scheming to seize the throne.  Fortunately a doughty crew of children and teens sees through their machinations and rallies the grownups against their evil plots. The series starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and continues with Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket, my personal favorite since it is set right near where I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. I’ve actually never finished the whole series (there are eleven books in all), and while they’re written for a middle grade reading audience, this adult found them perfectly enjoyable reading.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
I hesitated to add this book onto my “comfort read” list, because I’m not sure it quite qualifies...and besides, it’s not a book you lightly pick up on a whim to pick up your mood—not at just over a thousand pages! But I still reread it every year (usually in November, for some reason) because it’s one of my five favorite books of all time. It’s so...immersive is probably the word: it completely slurps me in and doesn’t let me go. It’s wildly creative, even though it takes place within the outlines of an entirely believable alternate Regency England where magic used to be part of the world (and may be making a comeback.) And it’s so full of sly humor (Clarke’s version of the Battle of Waterloo never fails to make me giggle) even when it’s also being rather melancholy or even occasionally angry. All I can say is read it (and don’t you even think about skipping the footnotes.)

           Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
More historical fantasy (are you seeing a pattern here?), this time set in a Regency England where magic is an accepted part of life and one of the events of the Season, along with dancing at Almack’s and visiting the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, might be attending the investiture of a new wizard at the Royal College of Wizards. Kate Talgarth (yes, the book is littered with Georgette Heyer references) is off to London for her coming out, leaving behind her best friend (and cousin) Cecelia Rushton, but there will be plenty of magical adventure (and handsome suitors) enough for the both of them. Authors Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer wrote this story as a lark in a series of letters one summer; there are books detailing the cousins’ further adventures, but this one is definitely the best.

And of course, the divine Miss Heyer
I don’t think it’s possible to read a Georgette Heyer novel and not find yourself in a better mood when you close the book. Although she did manage to write a few (in my opinion) duds, she wrote many more that were simply brilliant. The Grand Sophy, Cotillion, The Unknown Ajax, Sylvester, and Arabella are more or less guaranteed to put a smile on my face—how about you?

All right, NineteenTeen readers, now it’s your turn—what are your favorite historical comfort reads?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Not Quite Heroic Occupations?

Dukes, landowners, gamblers, pirates, and highwaymen. Romances set in early nineteenth century England have a host of intriguing occupations for a dashing hero. But there are three you don’t see so often, and I think you’ll understand why.

Sawyer. Remember, this is a time before the steam-powered sawmill. Loggers might bring down a tree and peel off bark and limbs, but it was the sawyer who cut it into planks and beams for use in buildings. Apparently, a suitable tree was dragged to span a pit or propped up high as in this picture. One sawyer climbed down into the pit, so he was under the tree. The other stood on top of the tree. Starting at one end, they worked a two-person saw up and down, cutting through the wood to create the desired width. The man on top might not have it too difficult, but woe betide the man below, who was shoving a heavy metal blade up over his head constantly. Says A Book of English Trades, published in 1802 to give youths career guidance, “This is a very labourious employment.”

Stocking weaver. Doesn’t sound so terrible, does it? You sat and worked a loom that created wool or silk stockings of all sizes. Unfortunately, there were a few challenges. One, the looms supplanted hand-sewing, replacing skilled labor with unskilled. Some folks took that badly, and, in some cases, violence resulted. For another, the work was long and boring, and you barely made enough to get by. But, notes A Book of English Trades, it was clean work, indoors. There was something to be said for that.

Ratcatcher. Did I notice a wince? Unlike our tech-savvy exterminators today, ratcatchers in the nineteenth century were more hands-on. While they did wield poison when needed, they were more likely to employ traps and deal directly with the vermin. And the vermin were particularly verminous back then. Remember, fleas from rats have been linked to the plague.

So, what do you think? Could you find it in your heart to root for any of these gentlemen as a hero in a romance novel? 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

It's Mystery Object Time Again!

All right, NineteenTeen readers, it’s time to play the "what the heck is that?" game! No contest or prizes—this is all just for fun. Here it is...now, what is it?

First, a little background. My husband and I acquired this from an “attic sale” held by our local historical society this past summer—in an effort to clean out their holdings of items that weren’t really locally important or otherwise worth keeping as part of their collections (and raise funds to help preserve what is important), they de-accessioned them and sold them off to the public. The DH and I purchased a few items that I’ll be featuring here in the next months, and this is one of them.

It stands fifteen inches high from base to the top of the removeable lid, thirteen inches wide across the cylinder, and nine and a half inches deep. The main cylindrical part, made of white cedar (it still smells heavenly!) sits on two sturdy rests; it is made like a barrel, bound with galvanized steel hoops. The overall craftsmanship is quite lovely; it’s s solid piece of work, with all its parts fitting nicely together. The patina of the wood is just beautiful, warm and brown.

In front is a galvanized steel and wood crank that turns both clockwise and counterclockwise. Removing the well-fitting lid at top from the hopper reveals that the crank turns wooden hurdles inside the cylinder. The other side shows a cross-bracing piece screwed across it, and at the bottom, a hole plugged with the remains of a shaped cork.

I don’t expect we’ll be using it for its original purpose (yes, I know what it is!); we just thought it was a handsome piece. There’s something very satisfying about it—I don’t know if it’s the mellow color of the wood or the purposeful shape or the craftsmanship or what. My understanding is that it dates from the second half of the nineteenth century—I haven’t been able to pin down a more specific year.

So, what do you think it is? Post your guesses! And have fun!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Put a Lock on It

File:Locks on the thames Teddington London.jpgI’m researching a new book (lovely, lovely research), and I found myself looking more deeply at navigation on the Thames during the nineteenth century. The River Thames was the lifeblood of London and every town upstream and down, carrying goods and people where they were needed. I spent nearly 30 years living on another great river, the Columbia, so I had some idea of how important a waterway could be. What surprised me were the number of locks, and how they were used.

The Columbia River is confined by hydroelectric dams that also serve as flood control mechanisms. These dams have locks to allow ship traffic passage. When I sailed on the Lady Washington, our state’s tall ship, we passed through the lock at McNary Dam, and the massive gates reminded me of the mythical Mordor of Tolkien fame. But the locks on the Thames weren’t designed for electric power or flood control. They were originally created for navigation purposes.

The Thames is an aged river. As such, its braided, curving channels make for a leisurely passage at best. So, in 1751, George II chartered the Thames Navigation Commission to ensure safe and efficient travel along the river. Through the Regency period, they oversaw the building of 25 locks to even out rough patches and speed transit. The City of London had jurisdiction of the river through its environs and built an additional set of locks.

File:Strensham Lock - 2 - geograph.org.uk - 1167190.jpg
Locks came in several designs, but the basic purpose was the same, to store up water that could be flooded downstream to make passage easier or faster. Some of the locks had sloping earthen sides, but most were lined with brick or stone. Gates of massive timbers marked either end and had to be cranked open and shut, often by hand. To facilitate the process, most locks were staffed by lock keepers, with a cottage to live in nearby. (Photo by Trevor Rickard)

The Thames Navigation Commission sounds like an interesting group. At the time of the Regency, it included as many as 600 people. Yes, you read that right—600. Care to envision that committee meeting? Every person with more than one hundred pounds to his name who owned land along the river was a member. So too was Oxford University and each mayor with a town along the river.

But with all these possibly competing interests, a quorum was only 11 commissioners. And if those 11 commissioners decided your land would be a good spot for a lock and cottage, you had no choice by law but to sell. They could also select land to be used for tow paths for barges and canal boats, so long as they didn’t take someone’s house, garden, or orchard.

Some interesting plot ideas there, eh? I think that’s a lock.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Such Language! Part 18

A bit of 19th century slang and cant silliness, courtesy of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Enjoy!

Belly Timber: Food of all sorts. (My little brother swore to Cook that unless he was provided with some belly timber at once, he would perish of hunger.)

Uppish: Testy, apt to take offence. (Cousin Lucretia is apt to be uppish whenever anyone mentions the fact that all of her suitors from last season are now engaged elsewhere.)

Znees: Frost or frozen. Zneesy weather; frosty weather. (It has been such zneesy weather these last weeks—do you think there will be a frost fair on the Thames?)

Baker-knee’d: One whose knees knock together in walking, as if kneading dough. (George thought he looked very fine in his go-to-Almack’s black silk breeches, but his being baker-kneed rather ruined the effect.)

Pogy: Drunk (We adore our Uncle Fred, but he does have a lamentable habit of crashing Mama’s dinner parties when he’s pogy.)

Waggish: Arch, gamesome, frolicsome. (But his waggish behavior when he does usually saves him from one of Mama’s scolds.)

Shabbaroon: An ill-dressed shabby fellow; also a mean-spirited person. (Cyril, who is fabulously rich, often affects the appearance of an utter shabbaroon to keep all the fortune-hunting misses at bay.)

*Cake, or Cakey: A foolish fellow. (I do wish George’s Oxford friends weren’t such cakes; it’s embarrassing to be forced to acknowledge them at our local assemblies.)

*Aha! Readers of Georgette Heyer will recognize this term, which she famously used in the expression "making a cake of himself" in The Unknown Ajax and The Nonesuch and others of her books.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Nineteenth Century Heroine: Putting on a Good Face

I’m researching a new series (lovely, lovely research!), and my first heroine is slated to be a cavalry officer’s widow. I wanted her to be well traveled—having followed him to Egypt, Flanders, and Portugal. I’ve seen the Sharp movies. I know the infantry’s enlisted men had ladies in the barracks and in their tents on occasion. So I wondered: Could an officer’s wife have followed him? Could she have bunked with her husband while on campaign? I found several sources that talked about army regulations and traditions, encouraging men 1) not to marry and 2) not to bring their wife and children with them.

And then I discovered this post’s nineteenth century heroine.

We know little about her, not even her name. She was the wife of a British infantry officer during the War of 1812, and she accompanied him to Canada with their infant daughter. She left behind a memoir that could well have been turned into a novel (or a movie!), though she only sent it to a trusted friend whose papers were provided to a museum on his death. Here’s what she said about arriving in Kingston on Lake Ontario:

“…we took possession of our tent by the light of a brilliant moon -- can you imagine anything more delightful or novel than there being at the end of a long day's journey in a very crowded waggon. I could not tear myself away from the door of my tent for hours. The encampment was on a quiet delivity sheltered from the winds by a green hill covered by a magnificent forest and before was the calm expanse of water in the Harbour, reflecting in the moonbeams, and all around us the snow white canvas tents with the bustling soldiers assembling their campfires for cooking their suppers, or resting on the grass, or posting sentinels. It was a beautiful scene and I enjoyed it thoroughly, fortunately without any presentiment of the change which was approaching.”
Ooo, the plot thickens. It seems her dear husband had been chosen for special duty, namely sailing upriver on a secret mission. If he succeeded, he could return to her. If not, the ship would continue to Niagara. Either way, she and their baby daughter Tilly would be left alone in a strange land. What was a lady to do?

Work out a way to go along, of course. She even convinced her husband to agree with the mad plan. He and his men went aboard, while she stayed on shore, waiting for her chance. She was shocked to find the ship a tiny thing with no sleeping accommodations. But she refused to give up.

“Our travelling bags were already on board and with Tilly in my arms I followed at a short distance, not wishing to make myself conspicuous as I would have been had I kept with the party. This, thought I, is one of the consequences for which I thought myself quite prepared. The moment was approaching when I must either be separated from my Husband or take my chances with him in actual perilous mission. It is exactly what I expected and wished and I tried to think it very exhilarating and kept up my spirits and my courage by talking to Tilly and telling her as we walked what a Hero and Heroine she had for a Papa and Mama and what a fearless girl she ought to be with such an example of valour.”
 At last, she made her way aboard, walking boldly past men and crew. No one seemed to notice her. Not even her husband!

“I suppressed the momentary conviction to ‘turn the white feather’ and putting my plaid mantle closely round little Tilly I quickly stept on board without raising any objections from any one so that the first glance of my Husband looking for us found me seated very comfortably in a corner of the deck upon a pile of greatcoats which I had arranged for my own accommodation.”
But alas, all was for naught! The officer in charge noticed her and demanded that she leave.

“I now thought to try the aspect of my pretty face which I have sometimes found a very powerful ally when all other means failed so I thereon gave the old gentleman the full benefit of my most insinuating smile while I pleaded for permission to stay where I was.”
Unfortunately, her attempts failed. The lady was put ashore. And what happened next? I would love to know! Only a piece of her memoir is available online, and for that we are thankful!

You can find the full snippet at the War of 1812 website, courtesy of Access Heritage.  

Friday, October 6, 2017

Must be the Season

File:Woodland path.jpgWe have a lot of seasons these days. There are the four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall. Then there’s the television season, which seems to fall in many different periods depending on the network, fill-in-your-favorite-sports seasons, and the holiday season, which is fast approaching. In early nineteenth century England, of course, there was only one Season. Or was there?

We’ve talked about the Season, that time between Easter and the beginning of hunting season (another season!), when the aristocracy flocked to London. Young ladies made their debuts. Marriages were contracted. Almack’s held its famous balls. And Parliament sat.

That, more than anything else, drove the Season. Your dear papa or older brother must take his seat in the Lords, and you came along to see and be seen. But you see, Parliament didn’t always sit just in the spring and summer months.
Older Regency romance novels talk of the Little Season, but many of us authors have looked in vain at period sources to discover what and when that might be. My theory is that the Little Season happened in the fall, when Parliament happened to sit later or arrive earlier than usual.

For example, in 1812, Parliament adjourned on July 30, but a general election was held in October. The newly elected in the House of Commons took their seats on November 24 and continued sitting with the House of Lords until July 22, 1813. Likewise, Parliament began sessions on November 4, 1813, and adjourned July 30, 1814. I cannot imagine every gentleman left family behind the entire time or huddled together over a pint without a ball or two to liven things up. This fall/winter time in London may have been what has been deemed the Little Season.

But at the moment, we seem to be in another type of season entirely. A sale season. Marissa mentioned Tuesday that her award-winning story, Skin Deep, is on sale through today. My publisher has put 500 of its books, including my A Convenient Christmas Wedding on sale for $1.99 from October 7 through 10.

It also so happens that my Art and Artifice, the second book in my Lady Emily Capers, parts of which were published as La Petite Four, is on sale for 99 cents through October 14.

Lady Emily dreams of joining the famous artists of the Royal Society for the Beaux Arts until her longtime betrothed Lord Robert declares his intent to marry her, immediately. What can the fellow be thinking! And why is handsome Bow Street Runner Jamie Cropper dogging Lord Robert’s steps, and Emily’s?  It’s up to Emily to use her art to uncover artifice and discover whether Lord Robert has something up his sleeve besides a nicely muscled arm. Along the way, a duke’s daughter might just form a perilous passion for a most unlikely suitor.

You know, it's always the season to read.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Recent Acquisitions: Bathing Place Assembly Ball Dress

Now, I ask you, dear NineteenTeen readers: is this print not perfectly wonderful?

I’m not absolutely certain of the date of this marvelous “Bathing Place Assembly Ball Dress” print from La Belle Assemblée. One source lists it as being from January 1813...but would anyone really be interested in “bathing place” attire in winter? On the other hand, the placement of description of the dress at the top of the plate is in keeping with other La Belle Assemblée prints from 1809-1810, so I’m going to go with August or September of one of those years.

It shows a young woman strategically posed before a full-length mirror so that the viewer very conveniently gets a look at the back of this delightful dress. I can’t begin to guess the materials used, but the style gives more than a passing nod to drapery techniques—the ribbon drawing up the overskirt and the peplum-like decorations  in back make me think of custom window treatments. Note the tops of the sleeves—strips of the green fabric, woven in a lattice—and the frill of lace extending all around the neckline, and the little lion’s head belt buckle.

And her hat! It’s a delightful cross between a Nelson bicorne and a Carmen Miranda head-dress and utterly made of win. Notice too how her hair is arranged, with a braid across the forehead ending in a fetching little curl!

We’ve seen another “bathing place” costume recently—the evening dress that was actually a walking dress, also from La Belle Assemblée. I’ve yet to discern what it is that separates an everyday ball dress (if there is such a thing!) from a Bathing Place ball dress. Perhaps a touch more informality than one might expect in a London ball dress?

And speaking of bathing places (but not ball dresses), my Cape Cod-set contemporary fantasy, Skin Deep, is on sale for 99¢ now through next Friday, after which the price will be going to $4.99—so now’s your chance! You can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, theApple iBookstore, and Kobo. Happy reading!