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!
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!
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.