Dieting is not an invention of the modern age. For as long as there has been food, there have been diet programs and aids, not to mention doctors who instructed their patients to lose weight. The aid that still horrifies me was popular in the Victorian period—swallowing tapeworms. That’s one way to lose weight, but not a particularly healthy one. Here’s a lovely diet program from a man named Banting in the mid-nineteenth century. The diet was essentially low carb, even if it did have lots of wine in it. The Ugly-Girl Papers suggested a diet of fruit, with occasional broth, in order to achieve the translucent skin and sickly look that was apparently popular. Or . . . you could just eat arsenic wafers or drink ammonia. But before you scoff, my mom told us that when she and her sisters had colds as girls in the 1930s and ’40s, they were given a sugar cube soaked in kerosene to suck on!
You may remember that Eliza Harper Pierce, the next sister to gain her hero in this series, is a widow. One member of Sabrina’s Dames and Dukes asked what privileges widows had that unmarried ladies didn’t, so I thought I’d answer that. For one thing, Society looked the other way when a widow took a lover, as long as she was discreet. Nothing illustrates that more than a biographical sketch in the February 1810 La Belle Assemblee (page 59; read it for yourself here). It touted the Duke of Devonshire’s new wife, Lady Elizabeth Foster. What it didn’t mention was that Devonshire had made an honest woman of Lady Elizabeth after she’d been his mistress, living in his household as his wife’s closest friend, for decades. The first half of that time she was separated from her husband, and the second half, she was widowed. La Belle Assemblee mentions her only living son by her first husband, but doesn’t mention her two additional illegitimate children by the duke. She must have been discreet enough. Or perhaps the fact that her new husband was a duke was the deciding factor!
Halstead Hall is inspired by Knole in Kent. Both are calendar houses, which means their elements come in numbers you’d find in a calendar. Knole has 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards. How does an owner even keep track of 365 rooms? Knole was once a palace, and many of its 17th century elements and furnishings have been preserved, which is understandable. While all the other lords were fixing up their grand country houses in the 18th and 19th centuries, I’m sure the lords who lived in Knole (there were several) couldn’t face the daunting task of renovating such a huge mansion! Anyway, I have pics of Knole on my Pinterest page for Hellions of Halstead Hall, if you’d like to see it. Or, since the National Trust now owns the place, you can go here to get a brief history and see some pics. Meanwhile, below are some lovely paintings of the house from the Victorian period.
You may not know this but my husband is a New Orleans Creole, with his family going back more than two hundred years in Louisiana. One of his ancestors is Bernard de Marigny, who lived in New Orleans during our beloved Regency period in England. A wealthy Creole landowner, Bernard had so many offspring by his mistresses that he named a street “Good children” (Rue Des Bon Enfants, later changed to St. Claude). He also invented craps, the dice game, which is based largely on hazard, the British dice game, which he learned while spending time in England. But my husband has the only blue blood in our family, I’m afraid. I’m a mutt with Cajun, Irish, and English (or possibly Welsh) blood, and who knows what else!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.