My blue and white collection

Lately, I’ve been downsizing, but as well as donating things, I’ve been replacing a few of them with pieces that I like better. This weekend, I found this cute teapot at a local Thrifty Shopper. It’s from Grindley, an English pottery, and is part of the “Scenes After Constable” series.

It’s a nice addition to my growing collection of intentionally mismatched blue-and-white transferware. Since I don’t care about the age and want everything to be in good, usable condition, the vast majority of my pieces are relatively new and inexpensive. I like that because I don’t want to have to worry about it if someone breaks a dish, but I also love that many of my finds are reproductions of patterns from around the Regency era.

Wanting to learn more about transferware, I found the Transferware Collectors’ Club. According to their website, transferware is “the term given to pottery that has had a pattern applied by transferring the print from a copper plate to a specially sized paper and finally to the pottery body.” It was developed in the middle of the 18th century as an alternative to the more expensive hand-painted ware that was also popular at that time. So it could easily have been used by characters in our stories.

The earliest patterns were copies of Chinese blue and white designs, but soon the English potteries began producing other designs including florals, English landscapes, classical scenes, and the like, and have continued to do so. For instance, Enoch Wedgwood came out with a “Liberty Blue” series in 1976. Although most of my collection is of English scenes, I have a few of these, as well as some of the popular “Blue Willow” pattern.

Blue and white is still very popular (and my favorite) but transferware can also be found in red, green, purple, and brown.

Here’s one of my plates that is of Regency interest. It’s one of the “Byron’s Views”, part of the Spode “Blue Room” collection. This design came out in 1833. Mine is a reproduction, of course.  You can learn more about transferware and other types of pottery at the Spode and Wedgwood museum sites.

And here’s where I keep my china and crystal inventory, so I know what I have and what I’m still looking for (cereal and soup bowls, mostly).

What do you enjoy collecting?



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In the Time of Her Flowers

Documentation! At long last. Every time I give a workshop about historical clothing, I get asked “what did they do when they had their periods”. And to date I’ve always had to say, I’ve never seen any documentation before the 1850s (rags and belts). But that there’s LOTS of theories out there, ranging from “they bleed onto their clothes” to “clouts” and “pessaries”. Well, today twitter has come through again. The lovely Sarah MaClean linked me to an amazing bit of research by Dr. Sara Read (I must now have all her books!!!) where Dr. Read goes into all kinds of depth about records of menstruation. I highly recommend everyone just read the whole thing themselves, cause it’s amazing, but for those who are uninclined, I’m going to hit some of the highlights of “Thy righteousness is but a menstrual clout: sanitary practices and prejudice in early modern England” here.

Dr. Read quotes from everything from Greek Mythology to the Bible to the poetry of the Earl of Rochester. She also covers Galen and my own personal favorite source, Aristotle’s Masterpiece. The best part, however, in my opinion are two smaller bits from the eighteenth century. Firstly, where physician Malcolm Flemyng is quoted as saying “some women have no symptoms to alert them to the start of a period, so that they ‘they scarce have warning enough to provide for decency.’” Which implies that women are doing SOMETHING (most other info indicates “clouts”). At least women of the middle class and upper class, because later there’s an amazing firsthand account from a trial where a working class woman makes it very clear that she’s freely bleeding onto her clothes, with the addition of an apron worn behind between her shift and petticoat to try and keep up appearances:

“In what might prove to be the only account of her menstrual practices by a woman in this period, the normality of bleeding into one’s shift is corroborated. In a notorious case in 1733, Sarah Malcolm was arrested for the murders of three women, one of whom had her neck slashed, the others having been strangled. Malcolm’s employer, John Kerrel, confronted her about the murders and testified:

‘The next Thing I took Notice of was a Bundle lying on the Ground; I asked her what it was, she said it was her Gown. And what’s in it says I. Why Linen, says she, that is not proper for Men to see; and so I did not offer to open it.’

A search of Kerrel’s house revealed that the handle of the “Close-stool” door was covered in blood, and the room itself contained some dirty linen and a silver tankard. Malcolm claimed that the tankard was her own, inherited from her mother, and that it and the door handle had blood on them because she had cut her finger “and as for the Linen, she said, it was not Blood upon it, but a Disorder.”

That this blood was menstrual was borne out by the testimony of a fellow prisoner, Roger Johnson, who claimed to have had orders to search Malcolm. He says that Malcolm asked him not to examine her: ‘she desir’d me to forbear searching under her Coats, because she was not in a Condition; and, to prove that she was menstruating, Malcolm “shew’d me her Shift, upon which I desisted.’

In an extremely important and unusual account of menstruation through a woman’s voice, Malcolm argues in her own defence: ‘Modesty might’ compel a Woman to conceal her own Secrets if Necessity did not oblige her to the contrary; and ’tis Necessity that obliges me to say, that what has been taken for the Blood of the murdered Person is nothing but the free Gift of Nature.

This was all that appeared on my Shift, and it was the same on my Apron, for I wore the Apron under me next to my Shift …. [A]nd Mr.Johnson who searched me in Newgate has sworn that he found my Linen in the like Condition.

If it is supposed that I kill’d her with my Cloaths on, my Apron indeed might be bloody, but how should the Blood come upon my Shift~ If I did it in my Shift, how should my Apron be bloody, or the back part of my Shift~ And whether I did it dress’d or undress’d, why was not the Neck and Sleeves of my Shift bloody as well as the lower Parts.’”

So there we have it. Basically everyone’s speculations are correct: clouts/rags, free-bleeding, there’s even some evidence in there for sponge tampons if you’re curious. For those of you writing US-set books, there’s also this dissertation shared with me by Emma Barry: Menstrual technology in the United States, 1854 to 1921 by Laura Klosterman Kid.

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A Re-Look at the Bronte Sisters

I went looking through old postings of mine for a topic for today and came across this one about the Bronte sisters, first written in 2010. I thought it was worth a second look.

My latest Netflix find (it’s available on Amazon Prime now) is The Bronte Sisters, a documentary about Emily, Charlotte, and Ann. I knew very little of the three sisters except that they all lived at home and their father outlived them. As it turns out, the story of the Bronte sisters is a story of how difficult life could be without modern medicine and sanitation.

Howarth, The village where the sisters grew up in Yorkshire, lacked proper sewers. Its dead were buried up on a hill which contaminated the water supply. This problem was not identified until 1850 and even then was not immediately rectified. Lots of people died as a result.

Disease was a fact of life. The Brontes had six children and all of them contracted scarlet fever at an early age. Mrs. Bronte developed cancer and died a slow and painful death. Her last words were, “Oh, God, my poor children.” Ann, the youngest, was not even two years old when her mother died.

In 1824 when Charlotte was just eight years old, she, her older sisters Marie and Elizabeth and Emily, only six, were sent to the Cowan Bridge school, a cruel and harsh place immortalized by Charlotte in Jane Eyre. A year later there was a typhus epidemic and all the girls became ill. Marie, then age 11, was the first to come home, ultimately succumbing to the illness. Elizabeth soon followed her. Charlotte and Emily survived (think of what we would have missed if they had not!)

Later, when Charlotte was teaching at Mrs. Wooley’s school (a much better place than Cowan Bridge), she arranged for Emily, then age 17, to attend. Emily, a shy and complicated person, was extremely homesick for Haworth. She went into a decline that sounded a lot like clinical depression and went home after three months.

The family’s hopes for good fortune rested on the Brontes’ one brother, Branwell, considered to be the most intelligent, most artistic, most creative. He was sent to London to attend Art school, but instead squandered his tuition money and indulged in alcohol and opium. After this, his life just slid into worse and worse addiction, embarrassing his family with bouts of public drunkeness. He died of tuberculosis at age 31 after a wasted life.

Without Branwell to depend upon, it was up to the girls to make money, but they were not very successful at anything they tried. Ann was able to keep a job as a governess longer than Charlotte’s attempt at that profession, but the young man she fell in love with died of cholera.

Charlotte decided they should set up their own school, but that attempt failed. Desperate, she came upon a set of poems Emily wrote and got the idea to have them published. Each of the sisters contributed poems, but the volume only sold a few copies. After that, Charlotte, Ann, and Emily each wrote novels and sent them to publishers. They each published books in 1847. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was the runaway success. Emily’s Wuthering Heights was considered unconventional. Ann’s Agnes Grey was based on her life as a governess.

A year later Emily died of tuberculosis, and a year after that Ann died of the same illness, leaving only Charlotte. Charlotte kept writing and in 1854 she married, finally having an opportunity for some security and stability in her life. A year later she died of tuberculosis complicated by typhoid fever and pregnancy.

All I could think of while watching this documentary was how prevalent disease and death must have been in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Can you imagine watching your wife and children dying, one after the other? How very awful!! We don’t usually dwell on the prevalence of disease and death of the Regency in our books. For good reason. It’s depressing!

I also couldn’t help but wonder what Charlotte, Emily, and Ann might have produced if they’d lived longer.

What other diseases can you think of that so easily took lives in the 1800s and not now? Do you think Charlotte and Emily could have topped Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights if they’d lived longer?

Here is another Risky Regency posting about the Brontes and Jane Austen



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Thoughts and Excuses

I was supposed to put up a new post today, March 2 (I’m the “First Fridays” Risky) but I just couldn’t get one written. I’m facing a medical procedure next week that has me a bit nervous, and I am scrambling to arrange my over-busy life so I can be laid-up for 6 days for the recovery time –which my doctor only mentioned to me on Wednesday! (I work in a one-person office for my day job….) Meanwhile, we haven’t been seeing many comments or indications that our faithful readers are still reading our posts, and we have been discussing making some changes –possibly doing more with our Facebook page and changing what we do here. Maybe this blog needs a medical procedure, too? Mine is supposed to help my blocked circulation, and I can see kind of a parallel here….

If you are here, reading the blog, do you have any thoughts to share with us about changes we might make? If we start posting more short bits on Facebook, would you follow us over there? Or if you aren’t on Facebook, would we be leaving you out? I guess I am wondering, would you miss us?

We’ll certainly keep everyone posted about whatever changes we decide to make. My apologies for not posting an actual article today!!

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I’m into comfort TV. To me, that includes series with likeable, quirky characters who rub against each other in interesting and funny ways—series like Northern Exposure, Parks & Rec, Grace and Frankie.

My most recent go-to comfort TV is an older comic mystery series called Lovejoy, which I watched on BBC while I was living in the UK. It was also on A&E.

The title character, played by Ian McShane, is a shady antiques dealer who is also a “divvy”—someone who can spot a genuine treasure amongst less valuable items. Lovejoy is the quintessential charming rogue, a bit of a con man but with redeeming characteristics. The series is based on books by John Gash (which I haven’t read) but I’ve read that the books were darker and Lovejoy less likeable.

For much of the series, he works with Lady Jane Felsham (Phyllis Logan), lady of the manor and interior decorator. They are professional partners and dear friends. There’s also an ongoing sexual tension, but they don’t end up together (and shouldn’t). He has other love interests, but it’s even stated at one point that he is more in love with the idea of romance than any one woman.

Here’s a clip of his first meeting with Jane.

The appeal to me and possibly other Regency romance fans is more the British setting, the stately homes, the countryside, the language, and of course, the antiques. Many of the items featured are pre-Victorian so they are things Regency characters might have possessed. I can call it research!

A deeper theme is that of the genuine versus the fake. Lovejoy has a deep appreciation for beauty, history, artistry, and craftsmanship. He may scheme to make money, but it’s not just about the money. He also has that appreciation for people. His affection for Jane is, I think, in part because he recognizes that she is what an aristocrat is supposed to be: cultured and honorable. He also values good-hearted people of any social status. Sometimes he gives up profit in order to help such people. The ones he usually cheats are either shallow and pretentious or coldly materialistic—people who value antiques only for their monetary value or status appeal.

In one of the episodes he says you can’t con an honest person. I interpret this as meaning a person who doesn’t expect a deal that is too good to be true.

I like shopping at shows and stores that feature antiques, collectibles, and secondhand items, but to me, a treasure is a reasonably priced item that will make me happy when I look at or use it. Provenance doesn’t matter to me.

I’ve already blogged about my attraction for Georgian and Regency era inspired furniture. I’ve collected some nice reproductions made in the early 1900’s—elegant and better made than most new furniture is now, and I don’t mind a few signs of wear.

I feel the same way about dishes. I’m downsizing, so I want to get rid of the rarely used “fine china” set that I never really liked that much, and my rather tired everyday stuff. I am replacing it with a growing collection of mismatched, used blue transferware. I had a few pieces already and it’s been a blast to find more. Here’s a picture of my haul from the Madison Bouckville Antique show last August.

Such dishes are often reproductions of designs from the Regency through Victorian eras. They are inexpensive (I’ve been averaging about $3 a piece) and I think they look more interesting mismatched. So I can have friends over and if someone drops a plate, we can just laugh about it and I can have fun hunting down a replacement.

How about you? Do you like shopping for antique and vintage items and what do you look for?

Have you seen Lovejoy? What do you think of the show? What is your comfort TV?


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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.

Posted in History, Isobel Carr, Plot bunnies, Research | 4 Comments

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: Edited version of “best letters”:

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!

Posted in Jane Austen, Regency, Research, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments


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?


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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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