Thursday, September 27, 2007

'Twas the Season

Around the country, students are either working away at their first quarter of school or about to start it. In fact, our daily lives often revolve around the school year calendar and its holidays. Not so in 19th century England. Among the upper classes in those days, the year revolved around the Season.

The Season—when everyone who was anyone packed their bags and headed for London. To hear some tell, it was one endless party: balls, musicales, Venetian breakfasts (which are held in the afternoon, but that’s another post!), soirees, routs (can someone please tell me the difference?). On any given night you could also choose among events at the many theatres, such as a famous actor reciting Shakespeare, a diva singer at the opera, or a plucky pantomime. During the day, you’d make morning calls (also in the afternoon) on anyone you’d met the nights before so you could wrangle invitations to more balls, routs, the opera, etc. And of course, you’d visit your tailor or a seamstress for new outfits, ride in Hyde Park, tour the sights, enjoy a horserace or, if you were really daring, a boxing match, and do a thousand other things only a large city like London can offer.

So when did all this revelry happen? The Season wasn’t a specific set of days, like December 25 is Christmas. This whirlwind of activity generally started spinning after Easter Sunday, which can be anywhere from the middle of March to the end of April, and ended when Parliament adjourned for the summer, somewhere between early July and mid-August. Some people think there was also a “Little Season” in the fall, but no one has been able to pin it down. It may be that the Little Season was only held when Parliament decided to sit during the fall, which happened six times from 1810 to 1820.

Even today, prices for hotel rooms in London go up after Easter and come down in the fall. How do I know? I’m going to London! (Picture me doing a little happy dance at my computer.) Yes, it’s shocking—I’ve written 18 books set in England and I’ve never been able to go there. Thanks to a whole lot of frequent flyer miles and Marriott hotel points, I’m heading to London with my wonderful critique partner in late February/early March.

Before the Season starts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Queen Victoria...Teen Idol?

"Teen Idol" are probably not the first two words that pop into your mind when you think about this lady, are they?

But if you go back about fifty years from when that photo was taken, she would definitely have won a “Most Popular” or “Most Talked About” or “Top Teen Celebrity” award back around 1840.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) is Great Britain’s longest reigning monarch--she was on the throne for 64 years. She’s one teen diva who really got her tiara: she became queen in 1837, just a few weeks after her eighteenth birthday.

Some people call Victoria the first royal media idol, way pre-dating Princess Di or Prince William. There’s a reason for that.

For the 120 years before Victoria, England had been ruled by a bunch of old guys, all but one of whom were named George. The early Georges didn’t even speak English when they became king--they came from Germany--and were fat and ugly, or had weird or disgusting habits, or were insane (poor George III had a rare blood disease that affected his brain), or didn’t even bother spending much time in England. And at that time, royalty was kind of it for media stars. There were few singers or actors with huge popular followings because only the wealthy usually got to see them perform, and there just weren't all that many wealthy people…but everyone knew who the King was at any given time.

So the 1830s roll around, and everyone realizes that the next ruler of England is likely to be a girl. Okay, she’s not drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s lively and charming and very English (though her mother was a German princess). In other words, totally different from the Georges.

There was no television or Internet or radio or even photography at that time, but there were magazines. And the magazines loved to publish pictures and stories about the girl who would presumably be queen some day, because issues with anything about Vic sold really, really well.

In addition, Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, was probably the first stage mom. Once Victoria turned 13, Mom took her on a series of trips around England during the summers, visiting schools or factories or wherever else she’d draw the biggest crowds. You’d better believe the English public lapped it up…the Georges had usually avoided going out in public.

When she actually became queen, it got even crazier. Suddenly everything was named “Victoria.” If a manufacturer wanted to sell a new pattern of china, or a milliner (maker of ladies’ hats) wanted to sell a new style of bonnet, or a candymaker a new kind of bon-bon, all they did was call their product the “Victoria” and it would sell like crazy, because everyone was so excited about having a pretty young girl on the throne instead of a George. (Incidentally, not one of Victoria’s nine children was named George, at least as a first name. Interesting.)

I’ll be writing more about Victoria and her early years in future posts.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Judging a Book by Its Cover

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you . . . my cover! My editor at Penguin Razorbill tells me that they’re still “tweaking,” but that I have permission to post it. You’re the first to see it, outside my family and a few select friends.

Judging my book by its cover, the story is about pink. And pretty dresses. And elegance. And those yummy little petit four cakes.

Actually, it’s about four friends who make their debut in London Society in 1815 and run afoul of a handsome lord who might have more up his sleeve than a nicely muscled arm.

At least one of the girls wears pink, though not Lady Emily, their leader, who as a budding artist finds it an insipid color. They do have pretty dresses, though not Ariadne, the bluestocking, because she’s the youngest and her mother insists on dressing her in white whenever they go to dinners and such. And they try to be elegant, although not Daphne so much, because she’s the Amazon and much better on horseback than in the withdrawing room. And they never do eat petit fours. The London gentlemen call them “La Petite Four” because they are so sweet. To which Priscilla, the reigning beauty of the bunch adds, “Oh, pooh!”

And all I can say is that I want that dress!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hand in Glove, or Not

Long, lovely, opera gloves. Is there anything more elegant? Made from supple kid leather or fine silk, they embrace your arm from fingertips to elbow and higher. Well, okay, on me they have a distressing tendency to fall down. And what was a girl to do when she wanted to eat something from the midnight supper buffet?

The answer to that little question has made for avid discussion among those of us who write about the nineteenth century. Certainly if you’re eating a formal dinner, you’d just keep them on and use your fork. But supper buffets are notorious for having the nineteenth-century equivalent to finger food. I’ve tried eating petit fours with white gloves on (oh, the lengths we go to for research!); the gloves don’t stay white.

Unthinkable that a young lady would take them off. Why, your skin might actually touch the skin of a gentleman! Scandalous! And where would you put the gloves if you did take them off? Everyday gowns and cloaks might have pockets, but you’re unlikely to find one in a ball gown. I suppose you could stuff them in your reticule, but you probably would have left the little bag, if you’d brought one, with your cloak.

So, how do you eat with gloves on? One theory is that you unbuttoned the tiny pearl buttons at the wrist of your glove and pulled the portion off your fingers and hand to bare them. Then you tucked that portion inside the glove that still covered your wrist and arm so you could eat. This actually works fairly well (yes, I know from research), until you want to put the things back on. Ever tried buttoning pearl buttons wearing a silk glove?

It’s excellent research. You should try it. If you get it to work, let me know.

So, I guess I’ll never be certain what they did with their gloves while they ate. It’s one of those things that keep me up at night. Along with great books.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fan (non) Fiction

It happens in dozens of historical novels: the heroine is at a ball and has been accosted by the (a) the future hero after one too many glasses of champagne (b) the villain or (c) some other guy just in there to give the heroine the opportunity to show how plucky she is. A, B, or C says something rude or suggestive to the heroine or, even worse, tries to kiss her, so she pulls out her fan (closed) and raps him smartly (it’s always “smartly”) across the knuckles. The hero/villain/other guy is vanquished and slinks away, nursing his throbbing hand.

Uh huh. Yeah. Sure. Ever tried it? You can barely mush a mosquito with the average fan you can find at, say, a party supply store. No heft at all. Utterly useless as a weapon. Were these chicks really trying to protect their honor, or was the tap with the fan just a tease?

Just recently I got my hands on a real nineteenth century fan (I’m not quite sure of its age, but it’s definitely old.) It’s about a foot long when closed--good sized, but not outrageously huge. The ribs of the fan are made from either bone or ivory, carved, and the upper part is made of satin backed with a layer of paper (to stiffen it) covered with fine muslin. That's it, opened, in the photo above.

So in a spirit of investigation after thinking about intrepid heroines laying about them with their accessories, I rapped myself on the knuckles with it…and darn, it hurt!

The reason? The fans you can buy today are all mostly made of plastic. Plastic doesn’t weigh much. And it didn’t exist until later in the nineteenth (celluloid, the earliest plastic, was invented in the 1850s but didn’t begin to come into general use until the mid 1870s). Earlier on, they used bone and ivory where now we use plastic. And bone is much denser and heavier than plastic.

So yes, being hit on the knuckles with a closed fan would hurt. Those heroines weren’t being coy or fluffy-headed females trying to defend themselves with something about as threatening as a popsicle stick--they meant business. Sorry I doubted you, girls.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Welcome to the Nineteenth Century

When you write books, you do a lot of research. It's an occupational hazard of writing. And when you write books about other times and places, you do even more research.

It's a good thing we like research, because we write historical fiction for young adults. Our books take place in the early part of the 19th century (1800-1900) and feature teen characters. Which means we had to do a lot of research about teen life in the 1800s.

But we're writing stories, not a lot of that research doesn't make it into our books. The thing is, most of it is really interesting, and some of it is funny, and a surprising amount will seem familiar to people in 2007.

So we're going to spend most of our time here talking about what we've learned about how teens lived in the 19th century, and what they wore and the music they listened to and how they shopped and went to school and did their hair and whatever else we've run across that's interesting. We'll sometimes also talk about writing and our books and other stuff if we feel like it. We may even invite the occasional guest to talk along with us. We hope you'll join in. If you have questions, we hope you'll ask them.

And we hope you'll come back often and have fun. We plan to.