Many female writers in the 19th century took pseudonyms or wrote anonymously, because it was considered bad form for a lady or gentlewoman to write books. That’s why Jane Austen’s books were published anonymously as “By a Lady” or “By the Author of Pride and Prejudice,” etc. Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte wrote as Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell. Lady Caroline Lamb wrote Glenarvon about London society (and Lord Byron, her former lover) anonymously. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. But there were several women who did use their own names: Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and Elizabeth Inchbald. It depended on how radical they were and what their place was in society.
By the Regency, children’s books were starting to be more than educational or religious. This is when the first fairy tales appear in book form (Grimm’s Fairy Tales were first published in 1812 in Germany) and you start getting entertaining works like the ones I quote in Dance of Seduction. Of course, “entertaining” didn’t quite have the same meaning it does now. After all, even though the poem “Cock Robin” that Gabe reads in To Wed a Wild Lord is subtitled, “a pretty painted toy for either girl or boy: suited for all ages,” it’s about how Robin Redbreast dies and everyone mourns him.
Book covers were boring in the Regency; i.e., there weren’t any images on them. But there were lots of images in them. George Cruikshank did a thriving business in black and white etchings for books, notably the novels of Charles Dickens and Laurence Sterne. As you might imagine, color illustrations were prohibitive. In fact, books were pretty expensive, too, which is why private circulating libraries flourished, and why all those rich dukes and earls were the only ones with big libraries. To own a book was a mark of wealth. Thank goodness books are now much more readily available for everyone.
Letter-writing was a favorite Regency pastime — albeit a pricey one. The recipient bore the cost of delivery, which was calculated by the distance the courier had to travel. Long-winded epistles faced surcharges: the cost doubled for a second sheet of paper. People became quite crafty in using every bit of space a sheet of paper afforded. Some ladies were known to write horizontally, vertically and diagonally across the page. Envelopes didn’t exist, so letters were folded and sealed with a dab of melted wax.
The Regency contained little in the way of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) celebrations. Although the holiday is essentially descended from Celtic celebrations of Samhain, the period marking the end of summer and beginning of harvest, it didn’t have much place in Regency England. But the bonfires associated with Samhain became part of the Guy Fawke’s Day revelry, which occurred on November 5th and was meant to celebrate the arrest of an insurgent in 1605 England. So there was still plenty of trickery going on around All Hallow’s Eve.
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.”
The hanging of greenery was the most common Christmas custom practiced by folks in the Regency. Dating back before our era was the custom of hanging a “kissing bough.” It could include not just mistletoe, but holly, ivy, rosemary, bay leaves, and laurel leaves. It was essentially a big ball of greens. And every time a gentleman kissed a lady (or a maid or a dowager or any female), he had to remove one of the mistletoe berries. Once the berries were gone, no more kissing was allowed. What great fun! If you’d like to see some actual kissing boughs, as well as prints of the kissing going on beneath them, be sure to check out my Pinterest page for What Happens Under the Mistletoe.
One thing that comes from England is fruit cake (our version of plum pudding), and there’s both goose and turkey in Scrooge’s story. Also, the Yule log and the hanging of holly, ivy, and mistletoe are English. You can thank those ancient Celtic druids for mistletoe—they loved it in their winter celebrations. No one is entirely sure whether the Yule Log originated in Anglo-Saxon times or much later, in the 17th century (the first English reference to it is dated from then), when someone brought the custom over from Europe. But it tended to be a regional phenomenon in our period. Those in North England called it the Yule Clog, and it was generally started from a piece of the previous year’s log that was kept all year to bring good luck and protection from evil to the household.
You may think I’m beginning a bit early to think about the Christmas meal, but I’m right on time according to British tradition. I’m writing this on the Thursday before Stir-up Sunday (this year on November 22nd), which is the day everyone in Regency England would have been “stirring up” their Christmas plum pudding. I’m sure plenty of you already know this, but British plum pudding is more like our U.S. fruitcake in its consistency and ingredients. What we call pudding is what the Brits would call custard or blancmange … but I digress. Stir-up Sunday always falls on the Sunday before Advent Sunday. There’s a complicated reason for why it’s called Stir-up Sunday, having to do with the Anglican liturgy, but the upshot of it is that plum pudding has to be prepared and cooked well in advance, and apparently it takes a lot of people to stir it up. (It sounds a bit like churning butter to me, and that’s hard.) After all, you need to have some strength left in your arm for hauling Yule logs and a Christmas tree!
The Dickensian Christmas is pretty close to how a Regency Christmas was, since Dickens was born early in the Regency period. There are no trees or stockings in A Christmas Carol, just lots of food, dancing, Christmas carols, and party games as well as greenery. Much of what we think of as an English Christmas did not come into being until the Victorian age. Christmas trees come from Germany, and the Dutch brought Sinterklaus to America long before Santa ever showed up in London.
That’s true of stockings as well, which is why I showed them as an anomaly in ’Twas the Night After Christmas (set in 1826). After Lady Devonmont reads the American poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), she decides it would be great fun to make stockings. But the custom of hanging them was practiced in America long before it started being practiced in England, because it was brought there by Dutch and German immigrants. The first reference I can find to it in England is in 1854. Eventually it became a big part of a Victorian Christmas.
The whole “Twelve Days of Christmas” song comes from the twelve days between Christmas Day and January 6th (Epiphany). In the Regency, Christmas was more of a religious celebration but Twelfth Night (either January 5th or January 6th—no one seems to agree which “night” it is) was a party. They had Twelfth Night Cake or what we call “king cake” in New Orleans. There were parlor games and balls, and a good time was had by all. Maybe that’s why the last four days of the song are about lords leaping, ladies dancing, pipers piping, and drummers drumming. Partay!!