On Sabrina’s Dames and Dukes, I’ve been answering readers’ most pressing questions, and one that comes up time and again is about hygiene: How did women shave their legs and underarms? The answer is simple—they didn’t. Until the early twentieth century, having body hair was considered perfectly acceptable in Western cultures. Then sleeveless dresses with higher hemlines came along, and the fashion industry used that to preach that hairless equaled more beautiful . . . mostly so they could sell razors. We’re so used to shaving body hair now that we can’t imagine a woman having her underarm and leg hair intact, but in the Regency, no one thought twice about it! If you want to chat about fun Regency tidbits, join us on Sabrina’s Dames and Dukes.
In both The Secret of Flirting and The Risk of Rogues I mention that Hart sold his commission. In case you don’t know what that means, during the Georgian, Regency, and partway through the Victorian periods, the British army (but not the British navy, apparently) used a system by which gentleman could buy a commissioned officer rank, beginning at cornet or ensign, and then purchase commissions to rise in rank (up to the rank of colonel). These commissions weren’t cheap, by any means (go to this page about officer’s commissions to see the costs). A commission as a cornet cost 450 pounds in 1837, which is equivalent to 38,000 pounds now ($50,473.88). And you can well imagine how much it cost to become a major. So Hart, a younger son of a rich marquess, could easily go up the ranks to captain. That’s why you always hear about younger sons of rich men going into the military. Once they decided to retire, they could sell their commissions for the total amount of money they spent and have a nice nest egg. That’s what Hart did. It’s more complicated than I’m making it sound (some regiments, like the Royal Artillery, used merit for advancement, and there were other restrictions), but this is the system in a nutshell. Now you know why some of those officers were so young (and incompetent).
My heroine in The Risk of Rogues really loves big, elaborate hats. But I’ll tell you a little secret. She wasn’t that out of the norm for the times. In the 1830’s, the hats were outrageous! Some of these concoctions were three times the size of the wearers’ heads. Just go look at my Pinterest page for the novella if you don’t believe me. They’re replete with towering feathers, blossoming turbans that stick out like giant mushrooms atop their heads, and strange mixes of large hat brims atop tiaras with feathers sticking out all over. I think it just depended on who you were and how far you wanted to go. Honestly, Lady Anne would probably have been right in sync with some of society’s fashionistas!
The Risk of Rogues takes place partly on St. Valentine’s Day, which was celebrated even then. Before Christmas cards became a thing in the Regency, St. Valentine’s Day cards were exchanged with loved ones. These were usually handmade and decorated, although in 1815, companies started mass-producing Valentines. In the Victorian age, a class of cards called “mocking Valentines” (“vinegar valentines” in the U.S.) started to be produced. Essentially, they insulted the person who received them. Can you imagine getting one of those in the mail? Especially since, at this time, it was the receiving party who paid the postage. Talk about adding insult to injury! Anyway, you can see a variety of Valentines from the period on my Pinterest page.
Although the word “jigsaw” didn’t exist before the jig saw was invented in the late Victorian age, such puzzles did exist, cut out with marquetry saws. They were called “dissected maps.” Apparently, puzzles go back to the 1700’s, when they were primarily maps cut along the borders of the countries/counties, etc. You can see an example of two on my Pinterest page. I even saw them mentioned in a period account as a popular gift for loved ones on Valentine’s Day!
You probably know that “Auld Lang Syne” was written by Scottish poet Robert Burns, but you may not know that he was taking some of it from an older folk song. He’s the one who retooled it into its current version and popularized it in Scotland, and then, once he had it published, in England. Regency revelers sang his poem on New Year’s Eve just as we do, although it may not have been sung to the same tune. Still, it’s amazing how far back the sentiments go. One precursor to his poem that uses similar verses was published in 1711!
A prominent part of Hart’s story next July is his heroine’s love of hats and the feathers that adorn them. Lady Anne, who had a bit part in The Study of Seduction and wore outrageous hats, is his heroine, and he even gives her a peacock feather. Feathers were an important part of fashion in that period. Any young lady presented at court for her society debut was required to wear one or more towering plumes. Because of the expense, wearing a large ostrich plume showed that you were wealthy. But feathers could be found anywhere and incorporated into the design of hats, capes, reticules, etc. There were even professional feather-sellers called plumassiers, who ply their trade even today. So if you’re a lover of feathers, like me, you would be right at home in the Regency.
The truth about spying in the Regency is we know little about it. I’ve seen raging debates on author websites in which authors both proclaimed it didn’t really exist and proclaimed the opposite (see the debate here). I would imagine that the point of having spies is not to have them be noticed. Ahem. Anyway, aside from the book mentioned in the comments of the debate, there is also The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes about Sir George Scovell, who was knighted for breaking the French codes. Colquhoun Grant very famously sent intelligence to Wellington as he sneaked around Paris, having escaped his captors. There is some possibility that Mary Nesbitt, too, was a spy. As a courtesan and artist’s model who later became a merchant banker’s wife, she was supposedly sent to France during the Revolution to move in diplomatic circles and report back to English prime minister William Pitt. So, yes, there’s some evidence of spies. Enough for me to use in a book, anyway!
An apothecary box features prominently in A Talent for Temptation. Think of it as the Regency version of a home medicine chest. In addition to some of the things you might find there—like pain relievers, antacids, and tongue depressors—you’d find scales for measuring out powders, jars of potions that often included opium or alcohol (or even lead or mercury), and a lot of odd medical implements . . . whatever a doctor or housewife might have needed then. We saw one firsthand when we visited The Georgian House in Edinburgh, but my picture was so blurry, I’m not going to use it. Instead, here’s a link to an article with a great picture that details some “medicines” in the box, which also included an enema syringe (ugh) and a mortar and pestle.
By now, you may have already read The Secret of Flirting, so you might be curious about my depiction of Guy Fawkes’ Day, especially if you’re English. Nowadays, it’s mostly an excuse to set off fireworks and light bonfires and to celebrate with family, but that wasn’t true in our period. This was right before the Reform Act of 1832, when a lot of class conflict existed. The Fifth of November, the anniversary of when the Gunpowder Plot was thwarted, became an excuse for rioting, day and night. Asking a penny for “the Guy” was also popular as boys went around with their effigies of Guy Fawkes and collected money for fireworks that night. I tried to incorporate as much of that in The Secret of Flirting as I could. You know me—I love a holiday!
I found some fascinating research on Guy Fawkes Day. Check out this article I pinned to The Secret of Flirting board on Pinterest to find out more about this drunken and sometimes destructive “holiday.”