Although some fairs had started to die out, some still provided popular entertainment in the Regency. You may have heard of Bartholomew Fair, which took place in London in September, or Scarborough Fair, which occurred in Scarborough, Yorkshire, around the same time (although it closed for good in 1788). Both were among a group of several “charter” fairs, established by Royal charter centuries before our period. Like most of them, they combined sales of things like cloth, rugs, or farm tools with entertainment like games, puppets, acrobats, rides, and dancing. You can see the swings in the image below. A few fairs still go on! So we’ll try to replicate one at the Historical Romance Retreat.
Why must I not bitch and moan about my back and neck pain? Because a big superstition connected to New Year’s Day in Regency England was that whatever you did on New Year’s Day, you were doomed to repeat for the entire year. Our Regency foremothers would particularly suggest that you avoid cleaning your house (you might sweep out your good luck, not to mention having to spend the coming year sweeping), getting into debt, leaving your cupboards bare (which might foretell poverty in the new year), and crying (which means you’ll be sad all year—duh!). Definitely do kiss your beloved (well, that one is probably more modern). And be sure to open your doors and windows just before midnight to let out the old year and beckon in the new one.
I believe I’ve written about how ladies dressed for their debuts (with pictures), but I don’t think I’ve talked much about how the guys who went to these things (and there were some accompanying the ladies) had to dress. Although I did describe it in The Bachelor, I go into more detail in A Duke for Diana. It’s fascinating, really, since they were all expected to dress in 18th-century attire, down to their powdered wigs and outdated coats! It would be sort of like having to wear jackets with big shoulder pads and Flock of Seagulls hair to a dressy event today. Oddly enough, they also had to carry ceremonial swords. Imagine dealing with those when normally if you carried something for protection, it was a pocket pistol. Below is a print that shows exactly how both sexes were expected to dress.
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!
Lady Diana Harper, the heroine in my new Designing Debutantes series, is statuesque (which I always wanted to be, but I’m too short). In her case, it means she’s not only tall but shapely. We have many misconceptions about history, but one of the biggest ones is that people were, as a general rule, thinner than we are. As Loretta Chase pointed out in a talk at a writer’s conference, we look at period garments and think, “Oh, how thin they were. Look at how small their waists were.” We extrapolate from that to assume that all Regency women were that small. What we don’t consider is that the gowns most often kept by women were their debut or wedding gowns, which come from periods in our lives when we’re at our smallest. Their everyday gowns were repurposed to make them more fashionable or handed down to the servants, who handed them down to the rag and bone shops. So we don’t get as many examples of the typical gowns of a matron. But all you have to do is look at a few satirical prints from the period to see plenty of women of all sizes, with big bottoms or thick waists or small breasts. (Check out this famous one by Thomas Rowlandson.) People are people, regardless of the historical period.
Did you know how fashion dolls began? They go back to the 14th century, but were mainly popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a way for dressmakers and tailors to demonstrate their fashions to their customers. Dolls could be used to demonstrate a new fashion in various fabrics or to show how variations on a particular fashion could work. They could also show what the latest fashions were in France . . . at least until Napoleon banned them during the Napoleonic Wars. He was afraid they’d be used to send secret messages to his enemies in England! They were still used a while longer in England, but eventually fell out of favor when fashion magazines became popular. But if you want to see an antique one, just check out this doll with a whole trousseau from 1810.
Here’s a fun addition to my A Yuletide Kiss story. To enhance the Christmas Eve celebration at the inn where he and the others are snowbound, Juncker plays an angelic organ, also known as a glass harp. The instrument was well-known by the time of the Regency, and consisted of several glasses (Juncker uses wine glasses) filled to different heights, so that when the harpist wets his finger and rubs it around the rims of the various glasses, it makes music (angelic music, I gather). Interestingly enough, the Brit who first mastered the instrument—an Irishman named Richard Pockrich—played his with sticks, which I would imagine created a slightly different sound. He played Handel’s “Water Music” on it (pun intended, ha ha)! Juncker settles for using his fingers. He doesn’t know how to put the sounds together to play actual songs, but he figures the melodious, random ringing will add to the festive air. And it does!
Many country houses had conservatories, but they could be as different as the families who lived there. The one pictured has lots of plants and plenty of space for socializing. Some had only a few plants; some were like inside forests. It was a way of nurturing exotic plants year-round, since essentially conservatories were greenhouses attached (sometimes) to the main houses. We’d probably call them sunrooms now. If you’d like to see a large detached one, check out the pics on my Pinterest page (Regency Tidbit board) for the one at Syon House. I’ve been there! It was built right around the Regency period.
Today I’m going to talk about pencils, because the quill gets all the attention for Regency writing implements. But seriously, I had to do so much research to figure out why people lick the tips of pencils before they start writing (because I wanted my heroine to do it, naturally), that I figured I would fob some of my knowledge off on you. The answer to that question is complicated, but the fluid does make certain kinds of pencils write better. Anyway, you may already know that the writing part of pencils isn’t made of lead, but of graphite. The pencils in the Regency were probably from graphite sawn from a large deposit discovered in Cumbria, England, in the 1500’s. Pencils in England continued to be made from that deposit until the 1860’s. The pencils in Germany, however, were made from a mix of graphite powder and clay developed by a German at the end of the 1700’s. Fun fact: during the Napoleonic Wars, the French couldn’t get pencils from England or from Germany (both were their enemies), so a French officer in Napoleon’s army independently invented his own graphite powder and clay mixture to enable the French to have pencils. Who knew that pencils were so important?
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!