It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Thorn is secretly a playwright. But the plays he’s writing are loosely based on a novel by a man named Pierce Egan. Egan’s Life in London or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the Metropolis spawned not only a theatrical adaptation (Tom and Jerry, or Life in London by William Thomas Moncrieffe), but had all of polite London society using the lowbrow slang of its characters. The Tom and Jerry cocktail created by Egan to publicize his work is still drunk by people who probably don’t even know where it originated. And the book was the inspiration for the Tom and Jerry cartoons more than a century later. How’s that for author longevity?
In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d talk about something rather grisly: embalming. Although it wasn’t popular in the Regency, the rich did tend to do it, especially since it enabled them to have open caskets for public funerals. So Olivia has a legitimate concern when she worries that if Grey’s father was embalmed, she might not be able to tell if he was poisoned. Every undertaker had different embalming methods at this time. How do I know? Because I stumbled across a very interesting source—Civil War era undertakers who shared their “recipes” for embalming fluid in The Era formulary: 5000 Formulas for Druggists! Most of the embalming ones contain arsenic in the form of arsenious acid. Eventually, formaldehyde replaced arsenic in embalming fluid, but that happened after the Civil War. You can find the entire formulary here.
One question I get asked a lot is where I get the names for my characters. Mostly, I get them from a book: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (Christian names are first names, the name given at the baby’s baptism/christening). I consider myself fortunate to have been able to buy a copy years ago, since it’s now been long out of print. In addition to telling the origin and meaning of the name, it gives the periods when the name was popular and makes it clear when a name didn’t come into being until later.
But I also use the book to check a name’s suitability after I’ve picked a name for some other reason. For example, in Thorn and Ophelia’s story, I picked Mr. Juncker’s name from a Danish girlfriend I had in graduate school named Juncker. I wanted it to be German-sounding, and Juncker originated as a German surname. I also have a tendency to use Shakespearean names since I like Shakespeare’s works. Sometimes, a name just leaps into my head, and I use that one. But before I make it permanent, I always check for it in—you guessed it—The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names!
It’s a bit early to talk about the holidays, but since my Christmas story is coming out any day now (and decorations are already showing up in places), I figure y’all will forgive me. Most people are unaware that many of our most popular Christmas carols don’t date back very far. “Silent Night” was first composed in 1818 and didn’t make it to other countries until decades later. “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Away in a Manger” are mid-Victorian. All of our secular carols are from the 20th century and on. So instead of putting a carol in my Christmas story, I put phrases from an assortment of carols from all periods into the mouths of my unwitting characters. There are nine of them. Have fun finding them!
Although the U.S. has several New Year’s Day traditions, especially involving certain meals eaten for good luck, there was no such equivalent in most of Regency England. For that, we have to go farther north. While most of the English were engrossed in the countdown to Twelfth Night (on January 6th), those who lived up north joined the Scots in having big parties on Hogmanay. Hogmanay is New Year’s Eve and also spills over into New Year’s Day in its traditions. You may have heard of first-footers, who vied to be the first person to cross the threshold of a friend’s house in the New Year, and thus were bringers of good luck for the year. Gifts were carried in and distributed—salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, black bun (food and drink for the guests), and other items that might bring luck. But you probably don’t know about local customs—people bringing a decorated herring into the house (Dundee) or roaming the streets swinging fireballs (Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire) or baking special cakes (St. Andrews). I could go on, but suffice it to say, the Scots really knew how to celebrate the new year!
According to William Hone’s period tome, The Every Day Book, New Year’s Day in London was primarily celebrated with small social gatherings and the wearing of new clothes (out of a superstition that not doing so was unlucky—which Mr. Hone disparages). He also says, “The only open demonstration of joy in the metropolis, is the ringing of merry peals from the belfries of the numerous steeples, late on the eve of the new year, and until after the chimes of the clock have sounded its last hour.” I think I’d prefer that to fireworks.
I learn something new every day. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before, but Regency era theaters were fully lit during the entirety of performances. There was no turning down of the lights, because the “house lights” were candles in sconces and chandeliers! Can you imagine lighting all those, and then blowing them all out, then lighting them again, etc.? It would take forever and be utterly impractical. As for the stage, they had foot lights, which were also candles but set in reflectors. Here’s a drawing I found of them on Pinterest. I collect tons of Regency era images on my various boards, so follow me on Pinterest so we can journey down the historical picture rabbit hole together!
Regency era women of the ton wore beads (glass, not plastic) all the time . . . but on their dresses and reticules and even shoes! There’s a lovely example of a Regency beaded gown here. Just imagine how much time it took to sew all those colored beads on, not to mention drawing out the design in the first place. Years ago, I made my own wedding dress and sewed tiny pearls on just portions of it, and it took hours of work for my simple decoration. This is far more complex. So I would imagine only the rich could afford such a gown.
You were probably unaware that the study in Armitage House in London (Sheridan’s townhouse) looks out on a courtyard with a garden Sheridan stares at when he needs solace. The English have enjoyed gardening (and gardens) for centuries, to the extent that some of their landscape gardeners became celebrities. Lancelot “Capability” Brown comes to mind, although it was his successor, Humphry Repton, who coined the term “landscape gardener.” They were known for “creating” charmingly informal vistas, where there were fake ruins (which exist at Armitage Hall in the country), manufactured ponds and lakes, structured slopes, and ha-ha’s (hidden ditches that prevented animals from grazing near the house, essentially), all of it intended to look utterly natural. The style was popular for a century or more. If you want to be impressed, look up Capability Brown and you’ll discover the sheer volume of parks and gardens he designed in his lifetime. It has its own category on Wikipedia!
My favorite part about doing research is stumbling over real stories of people. We tend to have misconceptions about the past: Everyone married only once and died young is a popular one. The last part in particular isn’t true, because the data used to determine life expectancy factors in all the many children who died of illnesses that we now vaccinate for—polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, etc. Here’s a case in point. The Duke of Leinster and his wife, one of the famous Lennox sisters, Emily, had 19 children. Of them, only 10 survived to adulthood. One died on the day of her birth although I couldn’t discover if she was stillborn. The last child was actually Emily’s illegitimate son by William Ogilvie, the tutor to her eldest son, although her duke husband claimed him. After her husband’s death, she married Ogilvie and had 3 more children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. She lived to the ripe old age of 82 and he died at 91. He was 18 years younger than she, but they lived happily together for 40 years. She must have been one amazing woman, and he must have been an amazing man. The woman bore 22 children in all. How incredible is that?