Masquerade balls were every bit as popular in the Regency as our romances lead us to believe. Just take a look at R. Ackermann’s Repository of Fashions for 1829. He includes several different costumes for “masquerade or fancy ball dress,” most of which are demure historical costumes for various centuries and one for a lavishly gowned “Sultana” (but sadly, no scantily clad houris). Although there are no masks in his pictures, there are plenty of mentions of masks in other period literature, so clearly they were sometimes worn. That’s a good thing, because it makes for great fun to have a hero unmask a heroine in our books.
The “season” in London generally began officially after Easter, although some people were already in town for when Parliament opened in January. Imagine starting your day somewhere between mid-morning and noon, then going to pay calls, then riding on Rotten Row, then home to change and off to dinner somewhere, then perhaps to the theater, and then to a ball around ten p.m., where you danced until 3 a.m. or so. While that is exactly the kind of schedule I’m used to at conference, I can’t imagine doing it every day for a couple of months.
Jane Austen had some lofty fans in her day, once word got around who she was. Prinny actually put her between a rock and hard place by having his librarian, J.S. Clarke, suggest that she dedicate her next book (Emma) to the Prince of Wales. Why was that so difficult? Because she couldn’t stand Prinny! Unfortunately, ignoring a royal dictate was unwise, so she did as he wished. But she put her foot down when Clarke then suggested that she write a historical romance about the ancestors of Prinny’s son-in-law. She explained that historical romance was not her cup of tea. Thank goodness, because I much prefer her stories of love in English villages.
But I’m happy I don’t have to revise books the way she did in the Regency. Authors did have pencils, erasers, paper, ink, and quill pens, but I hated revising when I had to retype things (before the advent of personal computers—yes, I was alive then), so imagine what it would be like to have to rewrite everything whenever you wanted to make a major revision. Handwriting was a crucial skill for clerks—there were even books on how to improve your business handwriting. All I can say is, thank heaven for computers.
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.
May Day has been celebrated throughout the United Kingdom for centuries, although the festivities had started dying out a bit during the Regency. Still, Jane Austen mentions the neighborhood maypole blowing down in a storm, and the Hampshire Chronicle speaks at length about the celebrations in 1815, which involved couples dancing in or on a flower-laden bower (I couldn’t picture this from the description). See this blog for more about these citations. Other parts of May Day included crowning a May Queen, and the more obscure practice of leaving small May baskets of treats for people.
Recently, I was surprised to discover that Oktoberfest goes back to before the Regency. I had no idea. In fact, the first celebration was in Munich, Bavaria (now considered part of Germany) in 1810 (when Thorn’s book is set and a year before the official Regency period begins). It began as a celebration of the marriage of the Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The wine and beer flowed, and there were performances by choirs and children in costume. But the main event was a grand race of thirty horses. Those elements have been part of it ever since, along with other typical festival events, and it’s been canceled only twenty-four times out of the 209 years it’s been held (for example, it was cancelled in 1813 because of the Napoleonic wars, and in 1854 due to a cholera epidemic). So you would be perfectly at home if you celebrated Oktoberfest in your Regency costume!
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.