Category Archives: Victorian

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.)

Advertisements

Building Historical Worlds

World building is a familiar concept to writers and many readers of science fiction and fantasy. Writers from C.J. Cherryh to Marion Zimmer Bradley have written about the importance of pulling your readers into the world of a book, and the works of Tolkien are a primer for building an alternate world.

Historical romance is not in the business of building completely new worlds (that would be for the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal members of the Romance Writers of America), but historical romance writers still have to draw our readers in, so that they can feel themselves inside the story, wearing crinolines or a hoop skirt or a toga, traveling the high seas in a pirate ship or taking the air in Hyde Park on horseback.

World building, whether for sci fi, fantasy or historical writing, works best when the writer has done his or her homework. When building a world from scratch, that includes notebooks covering geography, history, languages, customs, religious or spiritual beliefs, the presence or absence of magic, and on and on. Lots of work!

Historical romance writers have it easier in that we can research times past to find out about the world our characters are going to inhabit. We also have giant binders full of information, of course. We just have to research existing knowledge, using the best research material we can find.

Even simple things were harder 150 years ago. Travel was a much bigger deal when Victoria ascended the throne. In an era when it’s possible to cross hundreds of miles in a single day by car, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the speed of carriage travel. Drive your car down your street at 14 miles an hour and try to imagine that as the absolute top speed you can achieve in a vehicle. The sensory description will be entirely different in the 19th century world. Hoofbeats, not the sound of tires, characterized traffic, for example.

To our modern sensibilities, the past is an alien place, not just physically, but in mental attitudes. Victorian England was a place of overt class consciousness, where people who moved from level of society to another (up or down) were viewed with suspicion, if not outright scorn. There was a strong impetus to keep to one’s place, and not only in the upper classes. This attitude loosened up as the 19th century wore on, but even servants preferred to work for a suitably aristocratic family to one with ‘new money’. America also had its unofficial aristocracy, with Ward McAllister’s decree that truly fashionable New York society was made up of only 400 people. (He was trying to keep out those dreadful Westerners, Midwesterners and Vanderbilts at the time.)

If a writer chooses not to have her characters reflect the social mores of an era, her characters need solid motivation to explain why they think differently.

What are your favorite details about historical romance? The clothing? The food? The customs? Let us know!

Advice to New Mothers: Victorian Style

With Mother’s Day coming up in many countries around the world, this historical romance writer thinks it might be interesting to take a look at motherhood during the Victorian era.  Strip away the sentimental gauze which covers the 19th century and you’ll find some alarming advice given to new moms.

A young bride could go from complete ignorance about sex to motherhood within the first year of her marriage. And in an age where widespread knowledge of contraception did not exist (and providing it was often a crime), the average middle class Englishwoman would give birth four more times over the course of her life. (Provided she did not die of puerperal fever or the effects of a complicated birth.) Then, as now, advice books to help her through the process of raising a family abounded.

However, attitudes differed from our day. For one thing, women were not encouraged to follow their own mothers’ advice or their own common sense. The (mostly male) writers of books on ‘the management of children’ urged their readers to defer to “the superior wisdom of medical experts.”  While the possession of a functional uterus does not automatically make a woman a good mother, some of the ‘wisdom’ offered is astounding. In a bad way.

New mothers who wanted to breastfeed were discouraged.  Even where the occasional doctor might acknowledge some advantage to the practice, nursing for longer than three months interfered with a woman’s perceived duty to her husband and household.  Also, advice books opined that breast milk was not nearly as nutritious as ‘pap’ — a concoction of bread soaked in water and sweetened with sugar. (And they wondered why so many infants didn’t survive to their first birthday!)

In the ideal painted by experts of that time, mothers did not spend excessive amounts of time with their babies and young children.  Instead a nurse, nursemaid, or nanny provided most of the care, with the mother in a supervisory role.  The old maxim is “Children should be seen and not heard.” While that is still an excellent piece of advice, especially when we take our kids out in public, in some families in the 19th century, children were barely even seen. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were considered model parents for visiting their two oldest children once a day.  Their younger children got much shorter shrift, as the Queen noted in a letter that she scarcely saw them more than once every three months.  While I believe that children are small wild animals that need to be trained in at least the appearance of civilized behavior before we let them loose on the rest of the world, this is extreme even for me.

So is the Victorian concept of proper food for growing children.  Meals were to be plain. Highly flavored food might arouse passions (especially dangerous in girls)! Fruits and vegetables were suspect, and even fresh bread and butter might lead young people astray. Mrs. Beeton suggests day old bread is good enough for the schoolroom. Jam was considered inappropriate for children.  One young woman only tasted marmalade for the first time after her marriage!

What about you? Would you have enjoyed raising children or growing up in this era?

Cover Me! at My Book Addiction

Today I’m guest blogging at My Book Addiction and More! The subject is book covers and what makes them work — or an Epic Fail. I’m also giving away a signed copy of Her Scottish Groom, so come on by.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The sexy Scot hero of my next book has an interview at SOS Aloha in honor of Valentine’s Day! Kim is giving away some fun prizes as well, so stop by and read what Kieran has to say!

An American Queen of Hearts

As readers of historical romance can tell you, beneath the buttoned-up corsets and coats of the Victorian era beat some very passionate hearts. Valentine’s Day as we know it originated in 19th century England. Before then, it was a date to commemorate feelings for loved ones, but it was not widespread or particularly elaborate. Printers in England developed cards varying from sentimental to bawdy in honor of Valentine’s Day, which quickly caught on with the public.  The idea of sending cards to loved ones spread to America mid-century, thanks to a teenage girl with a shrewd head for business.

Esther Howland was born in Wooster, Massachusetts in 1828.  The daughter of a prosperous bookseller, little is known of her life until 1847, when an associate of her father’s sent her a Valentine’s card from England.  The folded bit of paper intrigued her, less for its sentimental value than as a source of income for the family business.

I must digress here. Southward A. Howland, her father,  must have been a remarkable man for his era. Not only had he sent his daughter to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College), but when Esther suggested that she design a line of new merchandise for his store, he supported the idea. At a time when most men insisted their wives and daughters stay within the domestic sphere, he encouraged Esther to live up to her potential.

However, back to Esther herself.  After convincing her father to import paper lace and other materials to make the cards, her brother took up the task of selling them, armed with a few samples she had created.

She hoped for $200 in sales. He came back with $5,000 worth. This was more than she had bargained for, and she recruited friends to help her. Although Henry Ford would not conceive of the assembly line for decades, Esther divided up the process of making each card and assigned one person to each task: Cutting out and sorting pictures, cutting out backgrounds of different colored paper from a template, embellishing the backgrounds with paper lace, adding floral decorations and verses. The process eventually took over an entire floor of the family house, but a tradition was born.

Eventually, Esther’s sideline outgrew the house. Her New England Valentine Company would gross over $100,000 a year — in Victorian dollars. In modern dollars this is the equivalent of between 1.5 and 2 million dollars.  She took advantage of her income to indulge in facials and fashionable clothes, but she also paid her predominantly female workforce a decent wage. Ironically, the Queen of Valentines never married. The reasons are unclear. She was considered a handsome woman, but she may have been reluctant to give up a business she loved, as would have been expected of her at the time. She may have simply never fallen in love.

In 1881, she did sell the company to a competitor and devote herself to her father, whose health had deteriorated. She died in 1904, having brought pleasure to thousands through her cards.

Beyond Kilts and Claymores

The archetype of a Scottish romance hero is a Highland warrior wielding a sword in defense of his lady and his clan in the centuries before the Battle of Culloden in 1745.  Those are some of my favorite heroes ever! Take a look at Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the first Highlander movie.  Sooo masculine and yummy!

But what about Scotsmen from other times, or from the Lowlands? I have the blessing (or misfortune) of characters that arise in my mind with their era and nationality firmly intact.  This realization hit me while working on the book now entitled Her Scottish Groom.  Although I originally intended him to be English, the book’s hero would not stop speaking with a Scotsman’s burr.  (Obviously HSG wasn’t the working title of the book, lol!) Another challenge was that the characters for this book were creatures of the Gilded Age.

Her Scottish Groom takes place in 1875, when Kieran, Lord Rossburn is forced into marriage with the quiet daughter of an American shipping magnate.  Culloden is over 100 years in the past.  Aristocratic families all over Scotland sent their sons to school at Eton or Harrow. Throughout the Victorian era, Scotsmen served the British Empire in roles from soldier and sailor to Prime Minister.  (William Gladstone, who led Her Majesty’s government four times, was born in Liverpool but both his parents were Scots — a fact he pointed out with pride.)  Robert Burns‘ poetry and Sir Walter Scott‘s novels still preserved Scottish pride in its culture and history decades after their deaths, while in science and technology, Victorian Scots blazed many trails. At the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, Joseph Lister developed antiseptic methods of surgery and argued for the acceptance of the germ theory of disease.  James Clerk Maxwell formulated the electromagnetic theory of physics and predicted the discovery of radio waves.  Future founder of the Labour Party Kier Hardie was a 20-year-old miner in 1875, and Patrick Geddes, a pioneer of town planning and the study of ecology, was 22.

The steelworks and shipyards of Glasgow and the banking and mercantile business of Edinburgh provided most of Scotland’s employment opportunities in the late 19rh century, making life harder in north and west of Scotland.  After a brief period of prosperity during the Napoleonic Wars, when kelp burning, weaving and fishing provided jobs, the potato blight that ravaged Ireland entered Scotland in 1846.  This drastically affected the Highland crofters who depended on them for food and income.  Clearances, the forced emigration of tenants by Scottish estate owners, also continued in the 19th century, while other tenants left the area for jobs in the south.  While the fictional Rossburn estate of Duncarie is just east of the Highland line, it also suffers from the effects of famine and low employment.  It is his family’s only estate, giving the hero a close bond to its crofters.

Like any good Highlander, Kieran Rossburn knows he must honor his obligations to his people, even at the cost of his own happiness.  He just has to use a business plan instead of a blade.  And like any smart lassie, Diantha knows a true hero when she sees one.  Especially when he fills out a kilt as well as Kieran does. (Oh come on! You didn’t think I’d pass up a chance to put my gorgeous Scottish hero in a kilt at least once, did you?)

Thanks for stopping by to read about a different Scotland than we see in most romance novels. What unusual time period or place would you like to read about in a romance?

A Month in the Country

The London Season might have been the pinnacle of the social year, but a family’s showplace and the source of much its prestige (and income) was the country house (and the estate it sat on).  Even in America, Astors, Vanderbilts, DuPonts and Belmonts aped the British aristocracy by building lavish homes on Long Island and in Newport, Rhode Island.  Diantha, the American heroine of my March 2011 release, Her Scottish Groom, belongs to a family who aims to belong to this social elite.  Her husband, the aristocratic Lord Kieran Rossburn, already does.  Much of the action takes place during a country house visit hosted by Diantha and Kieran at his home, an estate near Scotland’s Grampian Mountains.

As my story takes place in 1875, the Scotland portrayed in it differs sharply from the many excellent portrayals of Highland life before and immediately after the Battle of Culloden over a hundred years earlier.  The social rituals involved are decidedly Victorian.  Having sent out invitations to their guests, both the host and hostess then have to think of ways to amuse them for weeks on end.

Travel in that era involved arranging transportation not only for the invitees, but for their maid and/or valet and their wardrobe.  Even after train routes developed, carriages often had to be hired at the station for further travel.  In the early 1800s, and for isolated locations later in the century, it didn’t make sense to travel only for a week’s stay. Nevertheless, invitations to a country estate were prized for the social cachet they bestowed.

Polite guests arrived in the late afternoon so their clothing could be unpacked and that evening’s dinner ensemble pressed and laid out.  Dinner was the grand event of each day of a country house visit unless a ball was planned.  Men and women dressed as formally as they would in London at the height of the season, including jewels and accessories.  No lady wanted to appear in the same evening ensemble more once unless necessity forced her to it.

The day began with breakfast, served for the female guests around 10 a.m.  The men might or might not breakfast earlier, depending on their activities.  For shooting parties and on hunt days, they left house early in the morning.  The opposite of dinner, everyone served him- or herself and sat where they wished.

While men engaged in fishing, hunting or shooting, the women seldom had any vigorous activity to look forward to.  Their day consisted of walks in the garden, letter writing, gossip, or for the really ambitious, reading or needlework.  At five o’clock, everyone gathered in the drawing room for tea.

In Her Scottish Groom, I took the liberty of allowing Diantha to arrange such genteel events as sketching parties and lawn tennis for the ladies, as well as a picnic by the seaside for everyone.  And with a Scottish setting I could even include a golf game.  (Naturally instigated by Kieran.)

Once the gentlemen had enjoyed their port and cigars, everyone mingled over tea and coffee for light conversation, or cards.  A lady was expected to have some musical accomplishment and might that time to demonstrate her skills (or her lack thereof) on the piano.  Victorians amused themselves by singing, so she might end up providing accompaniment to others.  Games like charades or twenty questions were not unusual.

House parties often revolved around events like a shooting party or fox-hunting.  In populous neighborhoods a hostess might plan a hunt ball for her guests and nearby friends, or a smaller dance for an evening’s amusement.  For political figures, a house party could function as a strategic planning conference.

Best of all for me as a writer, house parties are rife with possibilities for meetings, flirtations, making or missing assignations, mistaken bedrooms and countless opportunities for romantic mayhem.  What kind of activity do you would have enjoyed while visiting a country house?

Springtime is for Romance…Novels

My second-of-the-year, unscientific, and entirely subjective list of books in my TBR pile:

Desires of a Perfect Lady, Victoria Alexander:  Love disrupted by the machinations of others, and a profound sense of betrayal on both sides.  This one promises lots of angst, hopefully accompanied by touches of humor.  This one is at the top of my TBR pile.  March 2010

Shattered, Karen Robards: Although my first love is historical romances, this contemporary has several elements I enjoy: a heroine determined to take care of herself, an aloof hero who secretly lusts after her, a nice bit of mystery and a legal setting.  Having been raised by a lawyer and judge, I hold my breath about courtroom settings & legal procedures in fiction, but I’m willing to give Robards a chance.  March 2010

Mistress of Rome, Kate Quinn:  A romance novel placed in ancient Rome!  This book would catch my eye for the unusual setting alone, but a heroine who sounds courageous and resourceful is always worth reading about.  And lets not forget about the gladiator….ahem.  April 2010

Never Less than a Lady, Mary Jo Putney: Putney’s historical romances are an auto-buy for me.  Her characters are so real it’s as if I’m meeting new friends every time I read one of her books.  This volume is the second in her ‘Lost Lords’ series, and features a self-confessed murderess and a gallant, if over-particular hero.  Yeah, that got my attention.  May 2010

Sex and the Single Earl, Vanessa Kelly:  Despite a monumentally silly title, the actual plot of this book appeals to me. An arranged marriage where one of the characters harbors a secret longing for the other is one of my favorite plot devices.  May 2010