Black History Month

I’ve been kind of obsessed with the history of free Africans in Europe ever since discovering the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Imagine my delight when I found my favorite fencing master lurking in an amazing poster designed for schools (shared with permission of the artist). There’s something for author I know here. Something wonderful and inspirational. Pick any one of these people and do a little research. Their stories are so worth telling. And they give you absolute free rein to include similar characters in your own work.

Want a little more? Check out Abram Petrovich Gannibal. He was the great-grandfather of Puskin, a Russian general, and the godson of Peter the Great. So there’s a black, European nobleman for you.

Want a little more? How about Sara Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s black goddaughter.

Want something a little meatier? I also discovered that Black London by Gretchen Gerzina is FREE to download. This is the book that inspired the movie Belle (somewhat loosely inspired, but still!). It’s an absolutely perfect book to read for Black History Month.

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Deportment, Courtesy and All That

Manners maketh man. William of Wykeham, Motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford

Company Shocked at a Lady Getting up to Ring the Bell, by James Gillray (1805)

By odd coincidence, both my actor son Graham and Elena’s daughter Gaile are in rehearsals for theater productions of Jane Austen works going up in March. Did someone declare March to be Jane Austen Theater month? Watching one of Graham’s rehearsals recently made me realize one of the greatest challenges these young actors face in trying to capture the historical flavor is bridging the gap between modern and period social graces.

I was asked to attend the rehearsal to share my so-called “expertise” with the cast members about titles, incomes, what constitutes a “gentleman” and who are and aren’t peers, etc. We had a good conversation about the characters in Pride & Prejudice, including things like why Darcy would be friends with Bingley, and why we should have more sympathy for Mrs. Bennett, comical as she is. But once the rehearsal began, I was vividly struck by how modern everyone was on stage, evidenced by the small matters of deportment, manners, and courtesy. I lump those together in the category of “social graces.” Does anyone learn those things anymore? 

For example, the cast members needed coaching in how to stand and how to move. The girls needed to learn not to sit with their legs apart or crossed at the knees, and not to stand with a hip thrust out while talking. The young men needed to learn not to slouch, whether sitting or standing, and not to sit down when the women around them were still standing! At the end of the rehearsal, to her credit, their young director made them all practice walking with good, straight posture and a consciousness of how they placed their feet and made their steps. A few of the behavioral “faux pas” I saw seem to have been written into the script –perhaps not the best adaptation of Austen’s P&P out there.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, by Wm. Hoare

In past centuries, aristocratic children were taught the rules of society and polite behavior from an early age. Knowing when to show emotion, how to dress and move elegantly, the rules for when and how to make proper calls, behave at a ball, conduct graceful conversation and act courteously proclaimed them as members of upper society. In his famous series of letters to his illegitimate son on how to behave and succeed in society, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield wrote: “I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry.” (Full text of 400 letters: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3361/3361-h/3361-h.htm Edited version of “best letters”: https://archive.org/details/bestlettersoflor00chesiala)

High Change in Bond Street, James Gillray (1796)

Failure to master these codes of conduct could mean failure to make a good marriage, failure to be successful in government service or failure in other opportunities both social and practical. Such failure betrayed a lack of “good breeding.” The young learned from parents, tutors and governesses, dance masters, and schools. Of course, that doesn’t mean when they were among their friends that they always toed the line. Most of us have heard of the highly rude behavior of young bucks loitering on Bond Street in Regency London.

In considering our Regency period, it makes sense to recognize that those who were then teaching had learned their social graces in the late 18th century, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment era. One examiner of those ideas was the 3rd Earl of Shaftsbury, who wrote a series of essays on the subject in the early 1700s. He wrote: “Politeness’ may be defined as a dext’rous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.” Even across the pond, such worthies as Ben Franklin and George Washington wrote guidelines for proper deportment and courtesy. (Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation by George Washington). A well-known but later resource was The Mirror of Graces (1811) by A Lady of Distinction.

Gaining entrée to this world of special social rules was the ambition of many middle class hopefuls as they gained in wealth but not status. This ambition helped to fuel the popularity of such periodicals as The Spectator, which regularly published advice on polite behavior. The unauthorized publication of the Earl of Chesterfield’s letters in 1774 was something of a scandal, not only for the breach of privacy, but also for exposing to the general public the information it contained. Samuel Johnson, who had a jaundiced view of Chesterfield anyway, claimed the letters “taught the morals of a courtesan and manners of a dancing master.” However, because they were never written for publication, they are all the more valuable for reflecting the reality of the social codes of the time, moral double standards and all.

As Regency writers, we have to be careful not to overlay our period with the increasingly restrictive codes that evolved during Victorian times and are better documented. One such resource was “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society” written by Florence Hartley, published in 1860.

I am old enough that I was sent to “dancing school” as an after school activity, where we were indoctrinated with many of the same rules of behavior and courtesy more than a hundred years later. Did anyone else here suffer through doing that? I think it was during 6th and 7th grade. We generally hated it, but we not only learned how to waltz and cha-cha, we learned how to go through a receiving line, how to properly be asked to dance and how to respond, and a million other small tidbits of polite social behavior –much of which is outdated now, quite reasonably.

Yet I wonder, in becoming so relaxed, informal (and egalitarian) in our modern age, in tossing out many of the old rules of behavior, have we lost something that mattered? Or have we simply “leveled the playing field” socially by removing barriers and distinctions that in the past helped to separate classes (and enforce inequality between sexes)? I would love to know what you think!

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Shipwreck!

I haven’t begun a book with a good shipwreck since my 2008 Harlequin Historical, The Vanishing Viscountess, but, here, ten years later, my next two books begin that very way. They even begin with a shipwreck in about the same place, off the west coast of England.

Here’s the backcover blurb for A Lady Becomes a Governess, coming in June, 2018.

A most unlikely governess…
…with a shocking secret

Part of The Governess Swap: Lady Rebecca Pierce escapes her forced betrothal when the ship she’s on wrecks. Assuming the identity of a governess she believes has drowned, she enters the employ of brooding Lord Brookmore, who’s selflessly caring for his orphaned nieces. Inconveniently, she’s extremely attracted to the viscount, with her only chance of happiness tied to the biggest risk: revealing the truth about who she really is…

Shipwrecks were not uncommon occurrences in the 1800s. Wikipedia provides an extensive list for the year 1800, which can give you an idea of how often wrecks can occur.

I’ve read several accounts of shipwrecks in my set of Annual Registers for the years 1810 to 1820. Notably, they almost always stated that all the women and children on board perished.

Here’s an account I found from The New Annual Register or General Repository of History, Politics, Arts, Sciences, and Literature for the Year 1822.

The brig George Captain John M Alpin sailed from Quebec with a cargo of timber for Greenock on the 12th of September last with a crew consisting of nine persons besides three passengers. Early in the morning of the 6th of October she was overtaken by a violent storm which continued without intermission during the day towards sunset the gale increased and the vessel became quite unmanageable. At two o clock the following morning a tremendous sea broke over her and swept away three of her best hands with the companion binnacle, a cable, and boom, and greatly damaged the hull. All hands were then called to the pump, but only three were able to render any assistance. At six o clock they found the vessel to be water logged nothing then remained but to endeavour to gain the main top which with immense difficulty they accomplished, carrying with them one bag of bread about eight pounds of cheese two dozen of wine with a small quantity of brandy and rum. Before they had time to secure themselves in their perilous situation the vessel fell on her beam ends, but within half an hour the hatches blew up and she again righted. Their scanty stores were now examined when to their utter dismay all had been washed except the bag of bread. At this period a distressing scene occurred in the midst of their afflictions. One of the passengers had his wife on board and a child 15 months old, which he carried in his arms. The infant, however, he was compelled to abandon to the merciless waves in the view of its distracted mother. The mainsail was now let down to screen them from the severity of the weather which continued tempestuous until Friday the 11th when they were able once more to go upon the deck. Their thirst had now become excessive and nothing but salt water to be procured. Having found the carpenter’s axe they cut a hole in the deck near to where a water cask had been stowed but alas the cask had been stove and nothing was to be found either for support or convenience but an empty pump can which they carried with them to the main top. That night the female passenger became insensible and next day Saturday 12th she died….

The account continues, describing the extreme measures those remaining took to survive, but after 38 days, only the Captain and one seaman remained to finally be rescued, only to endure another shipwreck before reaching a port. This time, though, all hands survived.

My shipwreck described in my next two books is not quite as perilous, but, as too often happened, most on board perish.

Jane Austen’s World of August 22, 2009, quotes a poem by Wordsworth about the loss at sea of his brother, John, and describes two other shipwrecks of the era. In one, over a hundred people died.

Shannon Selin’s Imagine the Bounds of History blog, tells about the 1822 wreck of the Albion, a packet ship, like in my books. Only nine of the fifty-four on board survived.

As lovely as our beloved Regency period is, it was a time when life was much more precarious than ours today. I don’t often think about that aspect of the Regency. Do you?

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Regency-inspired decorating

Lately, I’ve been busy reworking some furniture to suit the new life I’m creating for myself. Although I’m more sure about my taste than I used to be, I’m still drawn to design that evokes something of a Regency or neoclassical feel.

A while back, I bought a set of dining chairs that are early 20th century reproductions of earlier styles. Here’s one of them, followed by the image of an English chair c.1780.

My newer projects include restoring some vintage items that I got inexpensively due to condition issues. Again, the lines remind me of late Georgian design. Here’s a dresser I got which I believe is in the style of Duncan Phyfe, an American designer in the Federal (neoclassical) style, who was inspired by English designer Thomas Sheraton.  For comparison, it’s followed by a Duncan Phyfe sideboard.

Although most of the dresser is in good shape, the top was quite damaged. Here, just for bragging purposes, are three of the stages of the restoration. I still have to do the final finish, but I’m happy with the progress!

I’ve also been remaking some furniture I already had, including this armoire. The nice people at the Purple Painted Lady helped me with materials and instructions. I had to custom mix the paint, and it was only after I was finished that I realized that it was Wedgewood blue, reminiscent of Jasperware created by Josiah Wedgewood.

Here’s a late 18th century jasperware scent bottle so you can see how close I got, without knowing that I was trying! In person, the color contrast of the blue and white is a bit stark, but I have to give it a dark wax glaze which should soften the contrast and bring out some of the details.

Anyone else find themselves decorating with elements of earlier styles? Anyone else try  refinishing or painting furniture, and how did it go?

Elena

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Artistic License and 12th Night Traditions

The English count the 12 days of Christmas as starting on Christmas Day itself, so Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas culminate tonight with Twelfth Night, ushering in the Christian season of Epiphany. Which customs did people follow to celebrate this during the Regency?

The more research you do to answer this question, the less of an answer you will find, for sources contradict each other and assumptions are made where information is lacking. Twelfth Night itself is ages old, and in earlier times eclipsed Christmas as a major holiday. The rituals and customs associated with it, and with the twelve days, are myriad.

Did people exchange gifts? On Christmas? On Twelfth Night? All through the Twelve Days? Evidence (newspaper ads for instance, and lists of gifts received kept by individuals) would suggest “all of the above”, despite some accounts that say the practice had faded out by late in the Regency. Did they still dress up as “12th Night characters” to entertain each other at parties? Jane Austen mentions this. Still celebrate with 12th Night cake, or choose a King and Queen of the Bean? Perhaps at least in the early Regency, and of course it depends on class, location, and other variables.

“…these venerable customs are becoming every year less common : the sending of presents also, from friends in the country to friends in the town at this once cheerful season, is, in a great measure obsolete: ” nothing is to be had for nothing” now ; and without the customary bribe of a barrel of oysters, or a fish, we may look in vain for arrivals by the York Fly, or the Norwich Expedition….” –Kaleidescope of January 1822.

Elsewhere in his article the writer says: “During the period which elapsed, between 1775 and the close of the 18th century, the periodical observance of old customs, festivals, and holydays, was much more attended to than at present. The recurrence of the time  hououred festival of Christmas, was commemorated in Liverpool, to an extent much beyond what is now the usage, though in a degree inferior to the manner in which it was observed in the age which was gone by.”

Were the old customs celebrated in Washington Irving’s fictionalized account of an English Christmas in “Old Christmas” from his larger work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.(published serially 1819-20) truly inaccurate, as claimed by the same writer?? His complaint about Irving’s work: “It is true that the Sketch Book is merely a work of imagination and not of history, and that it describes Mr. Bracebridge as an eccentric elderly gentleman, who was fond of keeping up or reviving ancient customs and old pastimes, but it is so expressed that a stranger to English habits, on reading it, can scarcely avoid falling into the error of imagining that such a mode of celebration, was observed at Christmas, in some parts of England, at the time when that book was written, or at least, in very modern times. Even if all the ceremonies, sports and observances which are there described, ever were commonly practised at Christmas, in English families, it was in an age long since past, and there is no reason to believe that the mode of observing or celebrating Christmas, described in the Sketch Book, ever occurred in England, within the last hundred years.”

The writer seems to ignore Irving’s own words in the piece itself: “I felt an interest in the scene, also, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion; and that this was, perhaps, the only family in England in which the whole of them were still punctiliously observed.”

My belief, as always, is that –humans being humans– not everyone did the same thing, so what may be true for one area of England, or even one village, or one family, might not be true for another. We also know that, especially in the countryside, memories in England were very long and tradition revered.

This is good news for us as fiction writers. We try to recreate an accurate sense of the time period we set our stories in –otherwise, why choose that period? But at the same time, we have a story to tell. Do we have leeway to bend the facts to serve our story?

I would say no, when the facts are definitely known and established. To me, that just undermines the believability the story needs to create. I’m a firm believer in the importance of research! But when the facts are not so definite, when sources disagree or are vague? When the variable eccentricities of human nature come into play? Then I say, bring it on!

I admit to creating a setting –a backwater village that clings to old traditions –in my yet-unfinished 12 days tale, The Lord of Misrule. Even the predicament of my hero, who is stranded in said village and quite accidentally (perhaps) selected to be the Lord of Misrule, is an anachronism, since for the most part as far as we know that custom of having a Lord of Misrule was abolished in the 17th century (and even that is subject to all sorts of variations, from ruling for 3 months, October-December, to the 12 days of Christmastide, to only ruling on the also abolished Feast of Fools, or only on Twelfth Night itself).

What do you think? Does a lack of solid information give us license to do what we please for the sake of a story? Whatever your opinion on this, I wish you a Happy New Year “and many of them” as one 1805 newspaper encouraged people to say. Happy Twelfth Night, too!

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Auld Lang Syne

I’m a day late but thought I’d celebrate the new year by sharing the origins of the song we sing at midnight on January 1. The lyrics are attributed to Robert Burns in 1788, but the Scottish poet said he merely copied down the old folk song from “an old man.” However the song originated, it is one that always stirs my emotions. It is commonly sung at the end of the year and at other times of endings, such as funerals, farewells, graduations.

Here’s the English translation of Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine†;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We at Risky Regencies are nostalgic for “auld lang syne” (old times). Maybe that’s why we write about it!

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Guinea Pigs in Georgian England

As most of you know, I love writing pets into my books. I’ve mostly stuck to dogs, but I think my current book is going to need a cavy. I know you’ve likely all seen the Elizabethan painting of the child with the guinea pig because it really makes the rounds, but there are quite a few from the 18th and 19th century as well, proving cavies didn’t disappear. In fact, they appear to have quickly broken the class barrier and become a popular pet for the middle class as well. We know they were kept in Spain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and England (so they were likely widespread across most of Europe).

This painting of a door-to-door salesman from 1789 depicts a man selling guinea pigs in England.

Morland, 1789, “Selling Guinea Pigs.”

And this charming miniature shows a boy with is pet guinea pig.

English School, Boy with Guinea Pig. c. 1800

Have any of you ever had a guinea pig, or do you have one now? I find their little chirps and grunts infinitely charming and entertaining.

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5th Annual Unusual Holiday Music Post

I took a look and realized that this will be the fifth year I’m posting about holiday music. So be it!

I love singing carols and attending holiday concerts. However, some holiday music (more what’s played in stores rather than the concerts I attend) strikes me as cloyingly cheerful, too materialistic, or just not in the spirit of light and love. Some of my least-favorites:

  • “Santa Baby” yes, I know it’s supposed to be funny. Oh well.
  • “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” ditto, and it traumatized my daughters when they were young.
  • “I Need a Little Christmas”–just a little avoidant?

As an antidote, I like to browse Youtube to find lovely and unusual music that appeals to me. Here are some of this year’s finds:

“The Coventry Carol” dates from the 16th century. It was suppressed for a time, but Coventry antiquarian Thomas Sharp published a transcription in 1817, so perhaps this may have been sung during the Regency. It is sad and incredibly beautiful. I’m going to be singing it with my UU church’s choir this Christmas Eve, likely with tears pouring down my face, but that’s just as it should be. Here’s a version by Anuna.

“Gaudete”, also from the 16th century, is one of the more popular of my favorites. Here’s an interesting arrangement from the Mediaeval Baebes.

I first heard “Riu Riu Chiu” at a Twelfth Night performance by the Binghamton Madrigal Choir and loved it. It’s also 16th century, but from Spain so it probably wouldn’t have been familiar to Regency characters. Later I found a delightful version by none other than the Monkees. This year, I found another delightful version performed by Dagilelis (“Little Thistle”), an excellent boys’ choir from Siauliai, Lithuania, which is not far from where some of my ancestors lived.

The other piece my choir will sing on Christmas eve is “Ding Dong Merrily on High”. Although the tune dates from the 16th century and it sounds like something people might have sung during the Regency, the lyrics (by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward) were first published in 1924. I like this version from London Contemporary Voices.

If you’d like to check out my earlier posts, here’s the list.

What are your favorite and least favorite holiday tunes?

Elena

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Winter in London, or All the Town’s a Slide

“All the town’s a slide,
And all the men and women merely skaters,”

rhymes PUNCH in 1850 (with a nod towards the Bard), and indeed, 19th-century Londoners were keen skaters: when during a strong frost in January 1850 all the ornamental lakes in the parks of London froze, people turned out in their thousands to slide or skate along the ice. THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS talks of 12,000 people assembling in St. James’s Park alone to enjoy the wintry spell.

The Serpentine in Hyde Park was another favorite with skaters, and one of Richard Doyle’s illustration from “Manners and Customs of ye Englyshe” depicts the crush.

The Serpentyne durying a hard frosteApart from the bodies of water, the streets themselves often froze over, no doubt helped along by the many child workers out and about, who, PUNCH suggests, took joy in turning the main thoroughfares of London into giant slides:

Skating in Fleet StreetBut of course, Mr. Punch has already come up with a brilliant solution to this particular problem: “As slides in public thoroughfares, during the frost, are now ‘great facts,’ which the police officially recognise, there is only one thing to be desired, namely, that some little order should be observed on the foot-pavements, so as to make a slide a convenient  and rapid mode of transit. […] By the present system, under which slides are merely tolerated, and are only partially carried out, some of the public who are unprepared for them, keep tumbling about in a very awkward manner. A well-regulated routine of slides, under the control of the police, would be an understood accommodation for all, and order could easily be preserved by sending policemen up and down each series of slides at proper intervals.” 🙂

After all, tumbling about is not nice, as some of the PUNCH contributors know only too well: this little initial letter is “drawn from experience”:

What about your town? Has winter already come to where you live? (Frankfurt turned into a Winter Wonderland on Sunday, and we’ll probably get more snow toward the weekend.)

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What To Give An Earl

At this time of year many of us are engaged in a holiday ritual–what gifts to buy that special man in our lives. I’m here to help. Of course, you must first transport yourself to Regency England to discover what you might purchase for that special Earl in your life.

You could go to Floris at 89 Jermyn Street in Mayfair and ask them to create a special scent for your man?

The Floris Shop was founded in 1730 by Juan Famenias Floris. England from his native island of Menorca to seek fortune. Shortly after his arrival in England from his native Menorca he secured premises in Jermyn Street, where the shop still uses the mahogany counter that was purchased directly from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851. Beau Brummel used to discuss scents with Floris. Mary Shelley sent an order to Floris to send her two brushes and a toothbrush during her time abroad when she wrote Frankenstein.

Perhaps your dear Earl is a studious sort of man. He might prefer a book from Hatchards, the oldest surviving bookshop in London. Hatchards, on Piccadilly since 1797, has served such famous historical figures as Wellington, Byron, Queen Charlotte.

What book would you buy him? Endymion: A Poetic Romance By John Keats, perhaps? Or something educational, like The History of England: From The Earliest Times To The Death of George II by Oliver Goldsmith.

Maybe you cannot give your dear Earl such a personal gift such as scent or a book of poetry. You can always fall back on the holiday standby. Food. He might delight in some tea or spices or preserves from Fortnum and Mason, right next door to Hatchards.

Fortnum and Mason have been selling quality foods since the 1700s, started by a footman to Queen Anne, who enterprisingly remelted and sold the candle stubs, supplementing his income.

I can hardly believe we have to start thinking of holiday gifts! I don’t know about you, but I wish I could be doing my Christmas shopping in London. I’d look in all three of these shops, which I never fail to do when in London, and then I’d visit the Buckingham Palace Gift Shop. Instead, I’ll probably settle for surfing Amazon.

Where in the world would you like to shop?

(a version of this blog originally appeared in 2010)

 

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