I 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.
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.
In 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.)
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 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!
I do love a comfy bed. There are so many delightful things to do in between the sheets, some of which are sleeping, reading, writing, thinking, doodling; and some of which are…um, not. Ahem. Beds were not always the comfortable refuges they are today, but for opulence and beauty as well as comfort, the 19th century might have us beat.
While the middle and lower classes, and servants in large houses, had to make do with hardwood floors, unadorned furniture and hand me down rugs, the master or mistress of a great house slept in beds of rare woods furnished with feather mattresses and fine linens. The newly rich would purchase matching bedroom furniture like this rosewood suite from the 1860s. The armoire, washstand and commode on the left side were necessities in the days before built in closets, clothes hangers and bathrooms!
In a large house, the latter two items might have been placed in an adjoining dressing room. Still, a number of grand houses had commodes and washstands in the bedroom itself, due to the age of the house itself or to family custom. Retrofitting pipes into house built in the 18th century or earlier often resulted in the toilet or bath being tucked into a former linen closet or under a staircase – not something people wanted to wander down the hall to in the middle of the night!
The dressing table had some kind of cloth protecting its surface from dust. Girls and women often received matching sets of brushes, combs, hand mirror, and bottles or jars, all resting on their own tray. The materials for these ranged from horn or carved wood to elaborate silver. Ivory, plain or carved, was also popular in the days when people considered wildlife a commodity.
Victorians out of necessity used their bedrooms for a lot more than we do. A hundred and fifty years ago, most people were born at home and died at home. Medicine cabinets could be mounted on the wall for people suffering from chronic diseases.
The custom of separate bedrooms for wealthy couples continued throughout the 19th century in both Britain and America, giving the woman a refuge from household duties. If she was lucky enough to live in a really large house, she also had a boudoir, or small sitting room, as part of her apartment. Otherwise, wealthy women and their middle class sisters often had a writing table, chairs, and a chaise longue or sofa in their rooms.
One thing you would not find, even at the highest levels of society, is a bed table. Instead, a lady set her candle on a chair placed beside the head of the bed. Reading in bed was frowned upon, for what if one fell asleep before blowing out the candle? A good draft could send the flame into those lovely curtains, endangering the sleeper’s life. Gas jets came in before the end of the era, but their light was often dim and unsteady. It wasn’t possible to curl up in bed and read after sundown until electricity became common in the 20th century.
Just to end up, here is a link to a fascinating article on box beds, which I made use of in Her Scottish Groom.
What kind of bedroom appeals to you? Small and cozy or large and sumptuous?
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.
Last week, my husband and I drove with our youngest daughter to Louisiana for a college visit. It meant a lot of driving, but after years of taking our older daughter to out-of-state skating competitions, road trips are nothing new to us. While it’s nice to leave our daily routines behind and see new parts of the country (or revisit fun destinations), there are downsides to car travel. One of which is road food.
I love burgers and fries more than is good for me, but eating in fast food joints, or even nice chain restaurants, palls after the first few days away from home. After a frustrating morning that included two wrong exits and a stretch of road without even a burger place, we decided to stop at Isabella, in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Located in a house dating from 1880, the bed and breakfast also serves lunches at its Porch Restaurant. Lucky us!
Owners Bobbye and Phil Pinnix are only the third family to own the historic house, and their renovations include Victorian furnishings in the parlors and bedrooms. Even our lunch was served on a collection of vintage glassware and red toile plates. My husband enjoyed a huge roast beef sandwich with fresh fruit, while my daughter tucked into sliders and I tried a burger with a side of Bobbye’s potato salad. Yum! Did I mention they grow their own tomatoes?
Fortunately for us, we arrived at the tail end of lunch, so we were able to chat with the Pinnixes. Bobbye told me that while she is not fanciful, she is convinced that the house is haunted by some of the former owners. She and Phil, along with some of their guests, have heard the sounds of glass shattering in the butler’s pantry and furniture dragged over the wooden floors. The ghostly activity seems to be limited to making noise, as there is never any broken glass or rearranged furniture to be found. Bobbye even told of receiving a comforting squeeze on the shoulder while she was completely alone in the kitchen area. According to her, spirits in the house don’t mean any harm. “After all, it was their house before it was ours,” she said.
I am skeptical of most reports of paranormal activity myself, because I think much can be explained by scientific fact. However, I would love to risk a haunting if it means I can return to Isabella!
Isabella Bed & Breakfast
1009 Church Street
Port Gibson, MS 39150
601-437-5097 or email@example.com
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?
One of the biggest challenges of placing Her Scottish Groom in the Victorian era was the development of the heroine, Diantha. I had her basic characteristics from the start. Quiet and shy by nature, she prefers to avoid outright conflict in favor of tact. As the book opens, her attempts to assert herself have been firmly squelched by her social-climbing parents. Like many real-life couples in the late nineteenth century, they want only to mold their child into the ideal female of the time: passive, subservient and sadly, ignorant. I’m kind of proud of her growth as she takes responsibility for her new position as an aristocrat’s wife, and for her own happiness.
Like many females of that age, Diantha learned to keep her opinions and true nature hidden as she grew up. Ironically, wealth could limit a girl’s opportunities for education. For females on both sides of the Atlantic, society considered good breeding and a good education antithetical to each other. In reading modern biographies of women in the Gilded Age, along with essays and articles from that time, what struck me again and again was the emphasis on restricting women physically, mentally and even emotionally. Writers from straight fiction to mystery to romance successfully overcome this challenge by creating heroines with unusual backgrounds or unconventional personalities. But from reading parts of nineteenth century diaries and letters, I have learned that even women who conformed to social pressure harbored strong opinions and great passion beneath a docile surface. That is where Diantha came from.
In both America and England, girls were raised with the ideal of a ‘perfect lady’, too fragile for any activity more strenuous that horseback riding or dancing. The thousands of women who spent hours laboring as servants, in factories or mines and on farms and ranches were not, of course, real ladies. (Insert eyeroll here.) An upper-class girl’s education depended on the whims of her parents. Some encouraged serious study, but too many families subscribed to the belief that the rigors of a masculine education would undermine a girl’s health. Diantha studied mathematics with her brothers, but only because it pleased her father to permit it. Some young ladies attended finishing school, which provided no more than lessons in deportment and a smattering of music and languages. Even finding reading material on one’s own could be problematic. Men could and did forbid their wives and daughters to read newspapers and some books. Like Diantha, women read the forbidden material anyway, in secret.
One of the more tragic consequences of keeping young women in a state of almost total ignorance was their lack of knowledge about even the basic mechanics of sex. At most, proper courtship allowed a kiss on the hand and some meaningful glances under the eye of a chaperone. (I suspect there was a great deal of improper courting going on, however.) Some women faced a lifetime of marital rape at the hands of a thoughtless or indifferent husband. At best those restrictions led to some miserable wedding nights, and not just for the bride. In the first chapter of Her Scottish Groom, the lack of spirit he has observed in his fiancee so far has filled the hero with misgivings. Like many men confronted with the prospect of marriage with a poorly educated teenager, he assumes he will only find physical and emotional satisfaction with a mistress.
One of my favorite things about this book is Diantha’s learning curve. As she gains confidence in her abilities, she becomes braver, more assertive and even sexier — until she’s faced not only with her greatest fear, but with her husband’s impenetrable heart.