Category Archives: Great Britain

Dress Shopping, Victorian Style

january1843fashionsI do love a good makeover: That scene where the heroine discovers the perfect clothes to bring out her best features. They make me want to fist pump and say ‘Go girl! Bust out that bustle (or crinoline or redingote, depending on the era)!’

As in life, women in literature dress for other women – namely their female readers. But how did one actually go about putting together that killer outfit guaranteed to turn the hero’s head and bring him straight to one’s side? In 1840, the internet did not exist, Mr. Selfridge’s father was still a boy, and Mr. Harrod, having given up on the linen draper’s business, wouldn’t move his grocery and tea enterprise to Knightsbridge until 1849. Mr. Harvey did sell linens, but he had only hired clerk James Nichols the year before.

Until sewing machines were invented, every last hem, flounce, tuck and bead was stitched by hand. Ready to wear clothing consisted of shawls, simple hats and bonnets, smocks and the shoddiest of work clothes for the poor, referred to as ‘slop-ware’.

It amuses me when romance novels feature female characters going to the dressmaker’s or sending for one, as if buying several gowns at £200 – £300 apiece is no big deal.

 

Fashion Plate A

In an age where middle class income ranged from £100 – £1,000 a year, believe me, for most women this would be a big deal.

 

What you wore depended on what you could afford combined with what you knew how to make. The ‘slop-ware’ mentioned above was worn by the poorest working classes, for dirty jobs. As England had no compulsory education during the early Victorian era, girls in the poorest families could not count on coming into contact with textile crafts in sewing classes. They might learn to sew at home provided their mother or another female relative had picked up the skill. To avoid widespread public nudity, families depended on charity, or used clothing vendors.

Large numbers of Victorians wandered the streets in second-hand clothing. Even in the best families, new clothes were time- and money-intensive. Children customarily wore hand-me-downs. Even oldest children could find themselves in a cousin’s outgrown suit or dress. If the family had a trunk of grandma’s old dresses, that might be raided for free cloth.

A woman at the pinnacle of society, whose family income stretched into the tens of thousands of pounds or more, could afford new wardrobes of the latest fashions every year. She would customarily give her outmoded gowns to her lady’s maid to dispose of. The privilege of claiming her mistress’ cast-offs was a valuable benefit of that servant’s employment, and was often included along with her wages.

Once in possession of a second-hand garment, a lady’s maid could keep it, refurbish, or wear it. (Ideally not where her employer would catch her.) If she sold it, dealers would come to the mews or servants’ entrance and buy them for their shops or stalls. After going through multiple owners, used clothing ended up in places like Petticoat Lane, where vendors would pull goods out of enormous bags to present to working-class customers. Men and women alike found gowns, trousers, mantles, frock coats and more for a few shillings each. When a common laborer could expect to put by maybe one or two shillings a week for clothes, outfitting a family even in these dirty and worn clothes took a chunk out of his savings.

Daytime BodiceIn the middle class, women often did learn at least basic sewing, which enabled them to take advantage of new-fangled paper patterns, introduced in the 1830s. The wives and daughters of artisans and middle class perused fashion prints as enthusiastically as wealthy women did, though with the intention of using cheaper material and simpler decoration. Patterns often came with one skirt design and two bodices, one high-necked and with longer sleeves for a respectable daytime appearances, and one with a lower neckline and shorter sleeves for evening events. Thrifty women would make up both bodices to get more wear from their garment.

Once they had a design and a pattern, there were several steps between the page and the finished product. They would start at the linen draper’s (seller of general dry goods) or mercer’s (seller of textiles only). In the 1840s, the choice of dress materials ranged from wool and cotton to silk, velvet, satin, and lace. Within types of material, quality varied. ‘Wool’ encompassed everything from merino to cashmere; cotton ranged from cheap calico to fine batiste.

It was not unusual for a dress to require 20 yards or more, so once all that cloth was cut, it had to be hand-stitched.  Sewing women could be hired for this, some of whom might have workshops of their own. Some establishments could deliver a gown the day after it was ordered, for during the London Season, they would employ a workshop full of seamstresses that were required to work up to 20 hours a day.

Do you have any favorite makeover scenes in movies or books? Some of mine are Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Penelope Featherington in ROMANCING MR. BRIDGERTON by Julia Quinn, and just to keep in mind men can benefit from The Makeover as well, Philip Jettan in Georgette Heyer’s POWDER AND PATCH. (It takes place in the 18th century, not the 19th, and the heroine is decidedly childish, but it’s still entertaining.)

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Cross-Training for Writers

I was asked in an interview once what I’d write if I couldn’t write romance. I didn’t have to think twice; the answer is fantasy. As in Old Skool, Middle Earth, build-up-your-alternate-universe-from-the-Void fantasy. I devoured the works of Tolkien, C. J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Isaac Asimov, among many others, years before I attempted writing a word of my own books. I loved the chance to escape into another world while I read those books. The best of the romances I gobbled up by the pageful provided the same effect. My entirely unscientific theory is that good writers care passionately about their own creations, whether it’s a planet or a pair of feuding lovers.

I write romance because I enjoy offering hope in the form of happy-ever-afters. I love writing smart heroines and the hunks they deserve. (And okay, this is the only genre that allows me to look at man candy and say with a straight face, “It’s research.”) But I do engage in a form of world-building. Mine is different from speculative fiction writing because I am constrained by the laws, customs, technologies and events of actual past eras. I can tweak the rules and bend them, but if I break them, the reader will be jerked right out of the story and might not be able get back into it.

Fantasy readers are familiar with maps, spaceship diagrams and/or genealogical charts in the front or back of books. I use those tools too, as do most other writers serious about their craft. Maps are a sticky issue for me. The posh area of London isn’t large now, and it was smaller in the 19th century. If we had to squeeze in every London mansion, gaming hell, bordello and alley devised by historical romance writers, the metropolis might have taken up as much space as it does in 2012. On the other hand, I do write fiction. It’s kind of my job to make stuff up. While scholars may howl if I place someone’s home where a tobacconist’s shop existed according to the census of EighteenWhatever, if I make the rest of the street historically accurate, and the furnishings and design of the house, most readers will be okay with that.

Along with hunting for man candy, I do research actual maps, and furnishings, and when people stopped using quills and started using pens, and the beginnings of railway travel in England. Most of the time, I enjoy research, but when I can’t find a crucial piece of information, I wish I could make up my own rules!

I do get to make up my own genealogy charts at least, and that’ s another part of writing prep I enjoy. Speculative writers have to come up with naming systems, and I don’t envy them the task. It’s hard enough to find the exact match of first, middle and last names that scans well and conveys the character’s status as hero or supporting character. Throwing in issues like spaceship allegiance or Elvish naming customs would make my brain explode. Genealogy tells us a lot about family culture and values, personal traits that may be encouraged or not and even diseases that can affect a character. Take a page from fantasy writers and make a family tree or two for your manuscript.

I learned about the importance of creating a historical background for one’s books from the Appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. They fascinated me; I would go back and forth from them to favorite passages. I realized that such a deep background gave Middle Earth its breath-taking vision. My history is based in fact, not speculation, but it’s crucial for writers to understand the places and times in which they place their stories. Timelines and calendars are an essential tool of all writers, either to track fictional events or intertwine fictional with real events.

So, writers and readers out there…what do you enjoy about your second favorite genres?

It’s All About the Hall…

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire

…or the manor, castle or house. I live in suburbia, but I learned my love of old houses early thanks to aunts who lived in homes built in the early part of the 20th century. My aunts’ houses had features like huge screened in porches, high ceilings, socket doors and sleeping porches, all terribly exotic to my youthful mind. The kleenex-box sized bathroom on Aunt Bert’s first floor that had no insulation and was always freezing cold in winter and the old fittings in Aunt Helen’s kitchen struck me as insignificant. Mind you, Aunt Bert and Aunt Helen, and their families, probably felt differently since they actually had to live with these inconveniences. But I loved those houses. I can still recall the layout of each of them.

Apethorpe Hall interior

One of the most important parts of my process is figuring out where my characters live. I could never be an architect, as my math skills stop at basic geometry; nor do I have a great eye for interior decoration, but I study floor plans and hunt down drawings and descriptions of historic houses, furniture and textiles. Here is a Jacobean interior, similar to some you’ll find in To be Seduced.

When a house was built influences its exterior, but how it’s furnished and decorated inside is a matter of the owner’s taste. I had great fun in Her Scottish Groom comparing the tastes of Diantha’s family with their new money and Kieran’s much older house. I used photos from visits to England, Scotland, and France to get ideas for details of the Rossburn seat. To emphasize the ‘old money vs. new’, I also looked for ways to make the Scottish house sound older than the book’s 1875 setting. Their antiques, for example, would date from 1775 to 1825. And they did not, to the heroine’s dismay, have indoor plumbing. (I don’t have plans for a sequel to HSG, but if I ever do, I will find a way to mention that one of the first improvements made with Quinn money was the addition of bathrooms. Lack of modern bathrooms would be a huge drawback to time travel.)

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

For the Quinns, I studied mansions in Newport to see how ultra-rich Americans of an earlier era spent their money. Opulent, dripping with gold leaf or frivolous fake oriental details, they provided an idea of the mind-set of people who could buy whatever they wanted, including an aristocratic bloodline for their descendants.

For my current WIP, I’ve gone online to explore English Heritage houses, London townhouses and the homes of the working poor. As always, I am fascinated by the different designs and styles, each lovely in its own way. I am quite happy in my suburban house, since it contains my family, but the pleasure of creating dream houses for my characters never fades.

What about your dream home? Is it a modern loft or an 1800s Queen Anne mansion or a 16th century farmhouse? If you need inspiration, visit http://www.english-heritage.org.uk to find more house like Apethorpe Hall, pictured at the top of this post.

Gardens Great and Small

English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bri...

One of the things I noticed most during a springtime visit to Great Britain several years ago is the national passion for gardens. From palatial English Heritage sites to terraced houses with yards the size of hankie, flowers, plants and trees overflow.

From Elizabethan knot gardens to the modern Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Britons love their gardens. And with good reason: they are sources of beauty for everyone who sees them. However, before supermarkets and drugstores, households great and small depended on their gardens for food, medicine, recreation and ironically, privacy.

Evidence from Egyptian tomb paintings indicate that humanity was planting ornamental gardens by the time recorded history began, but the most practical use for gardens has always been to grow food. In 1631, William Lawson in The Country Houswife’s Garden advises careful housewives to plant  artichokes, cabbages, kale, carrots, garlic, leeks, onions, pumpkins, radishes and strawberries in the kitchen garden, bordered by “herbes…comely and durable”.

The herbs weren’t used just in seasoning food. In Lawson’s day, medicine depended on herbs and most women had a store of recipes for everything from arthritis (a paste made of rose petals) to worms (horseradish or powdered fern root). The physician, if you were lucky enough to have one at hand, would also prescribe such things as lavender oil for faintness, or, I suspect less successfully, for heart palpitations or dissolved in water for ‘palsy’.

As well as medicines, the lady of the house would make cosmetics and personal grooming aids in the still room (so called from its use distilling oils and extracts from plants). Oil of rosemary was used both to prevent baldness and in a ‘hair-wash’ considered especially good for dark-haired women. Their blonde sisters used an infusion of chamomile. Apparently redheads were out of luck, unless they chose to dye their hair brown with the extract of boiled walnut shells.

Despite their practicality, the kitchen and herb gardens were generally planted out of sight if at all possible. Even the middle classes much preferred attractively planted parterres of blooms, if possible with a lawn beyond. One could stroll among the flower beds or read, and exchange confidences with trusted cronies away from the ears of household servants.  The lawn could be used for outdoor meals (served on tables with the good china and silverware, of course) or perhaps a pick-up game of cricket.

In cities, this urge for green was answered with public spaces by the Victorian era, such as Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London or Bath’s Royal Victoria Park (now the Bath Botanical Gardens). Then, as now, city dwellers could enjoy open space filled with grass, trees and flowers, perhaps before going home and enjoying a fresh tomato from a container garden!

In spite of my black thumb, I enjoy visiting all kinds of gardens with my honey, who is pretty good at growing plants and flowers. What’s your favorite kind of garden – large and stately or cozy and full of flowers (or veggies)?

The Gentlewoman’s Guide to Coach Travel

Cambridge stage-coach (Howden, Boys' Book of L...
Image via Wikipedia

Let me preface my remarks by observing that the most preferable mode of travel is always the latest model of Private Carriage, pulled by a team of prime horseflesh. Nothing matches the comfort, privacy and convenience of one’s own well-sprung vehicle! Or one’s father’s. Or one’s husband (even a husband acquired for the purpose of placating one’s father). Even the personal conveyances of handsome, if overbearing, strangers met on the road often prove superior to stagecoaches, provided one demonstrates suitable breeding and does not engage in any Improper Activities suggested by said handsome stranger. At least not right away.

However, let us proceed on the assumption that no personal carriage is available for one’s journey. In that case, a Lady must decide between Speed and Comfort. If her destination involves a Sickbed, Preventing an Execution, or Escaping an Unwanted Marriage, one can only choose the Royal Mail. The whirlwind speeds attained by these maroon wonders whisk the intrepid traveler from London to York — a distance of two hundred miles — in a mere eighteen hours!! Truly astounding compared to the days it normally takes to travel this distance!

The cautious gentlewoman should be warned that a seat on the Mail requires a certain amount of Fortitude. For one thing, Mail coaches often travel at night, when there is less traffic. And as instruments of His or Her Majesty’s government, these vehicles make only a few stops, of most Unchivalrous Brevity. A lone female in a passenger load of four to six (often ill-bred) persons, with even more on the roof, is advised to arm herself with a Winsome Manner so as to encourage the others to allow her the first chance at the hasty meals provided by inns and posting houses along the route. Sadly, even the most charming airs fail to impress the drivers themselves, so a Large Purse is useful in convincing these hard-hearted individuals to allow one sufficient time to eat and use Certain Necessary Facilities. (The writer dares not go into more detail here, other than to bitterly note that ladies are at a Severe Disadvantage in this area due to the encumbrances of fashionable dress.)

If Illness, Death or Immediate Disaster does not figure into one’s reasons for taking to the road, or Limited Funds do, the stage coach is a reasonable alternative to the Mail. Indeed, this choice offers many advantages over the Mail. For one thing, stages nearly all run during daylight hours. And besides the decreased cost, stage coaches stop more frequently, and for longer periods of time. True, the passengers are at the mercy of each hostelry in the manner and quality of food and beds (for overnight stops), but many inns take pride in offering tasty meals and comfortable lodging.

A lady with any kind of breeding guards her behavior when visiting even the most respectable establishment, even if forced by circumstance to travel without a chaperone. She will not visit the taproom unless carried into one in a dead faint, preferably by a strapping male from a Good Family. It is to be hoped that in such a case, the inn’s host will offer the use of either a private parlour or at the very least a bedchamber for one’s recovery. Although the male in question cannot, with propriety, enter either of these rooms with her, it might be acceptable, if he speaks like a gentleman and is quite good-looking, for her to join him for dinner. Particularly if it seems likely that he owns a carriage and horses of his own.