Friday, October 31, 2008

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Fate sits on these dark battlements, and frowns,
And, as the portals open to receive me,
Her voice, in sullen echoes through the courts,
Tells of a nameless deed.

Frontispiece of The Mysteries of Udolpho

October is fright month on many television stations here in the states, with every horror flick from the last 30 years darkening the small screen. We have a rule at our house: no scary stuff if Mom has to be in the room. My sons and husband sigh with exaggerated patience as I stick my fingers in my ears and hum while crossing their viewing point. I just don’t like to be scared.

But that wasn’t the case for many young ladies and gentlemen in the nineteenth century. Then as today, tales of horror sent delighted shivers down their spines. The first “Gothic novel” was published in 1764: Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (although the first edition was written under a pseudonym). Gothic novels combine horror and romance, but often romance in the older meaning of the word, what today we would call adventure. They featured castles in exotic locations, what the English considered romantic time periods (often the 1500s), and menacing villains threatening lovely young heroines, but not necessarily with handsome princes riding to the rescue. The haunting supernatural events were often, but not always, explained away in the end.

Some of today’s horror icons, Dracula and Frankenstein, were popularized by nineteenth century Gothic writers Bram Stoker and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, respectively. By far one of the most popular pieces, however, was The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Published in 1794 in four volumes, it has been called the first bestseller, and it was still a bestseller long into the nineteenth century. Jane Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey, which was written in 1798 but not published until 1818 after Jane had died, reads The Mysteries of Udolpho and begins to see the people around her in a whole new light.

So, are you looking for something scary on this Halloween? Or are you hiding out with a good book?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Her Crowning Glory

Ha! I’ll bet you thought this was going to be another post about Queen Victoria, didn’t you?

But today we’re going to talk about something completely different: hair.

The beginning of the 19th century coincides with a revolution in fashion that touched not only clothes, but personal style as well. Before the French Revolution in the 1790’s, hair was…well, weird. For formal occasions, women’s hair was made into enormous sculptures three and four feet high, supported by wire frameworks and additional hair (ew!) and decorated with everything from fruit and flowers and taxidermied birds to model ships engaged in naval battles. Oh yes…and don’t forget the powder. Everyone, men and women, wore grayish white powder that obscured their natural color. And even for everyday, hair was still dressed high and powdered.

But the Revolution helped usher in a reaction against this silliness. At first short, curly, tousled hair, called “mode a la Titus” (see right), became the fashion for both men and women—it was about as far from the old style as one could get.

This look remained popular for a long time, but within a few years was gradually modified by the rage for everything classical. Simple “psyche knots” (at left)—hair coiled or braided then pinned into a bun on the back of the head hearkened back to ancient Greek and Roman statuary.

These styles remained popular through the 1810s and 1820s. By the 1830’s more elaborate hair, once more to the point of silliness, like that of this demure young lady at right, became fashionable.

Walk into any supermarket or pharmacy today and you see aisles full of hair products. But supermarkets—and the shampoos and rinses and gels and foams there are a modern invention. What would a typical 19th century girl have used to keep her hair beautiful?

From Decorum, an 1877 publication:

“Vinegar and water form a good wash for the roots of the hair. Ammonia diluted with water is still better.

“Nothing is simpler or better in the way of oil than pure, unscented salad oil, and in the way of a pomatum bear’s grease is as pleasant as anything. Apply either with the hands or keep a soft brush for the purpose, but take care not to use the oil too freely. An over-oiled head of hair is vulgar and offensive….Those whose hair is glossy and shining need nothing to render it so; but when the hair is harsh, poor and dry, artificial lubrication is needed….

“For removing scurf
[dandruff] glycerine diluted with a little rose-water will be found of service. Any preparation of rosemary forms an agreeable and highly cleansing wash.

“The yolk of an egg beaten up in warm water is an excellent application to the scalp.

“Many heads of hair require nothing more in the way of wash than soap and water.”

Hmm. Why does this sound more like a cookbook than beauty advice?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Amusements in London: Exeter ‘Change

All right, I admit it. I am not a zoo person. The sight of animals in cages, however well designed, always makes me feel sad. So I don’t think I would have found the Exeter ‘Change very amusing.

However, thousands of Londoners disagreed. For a shilling, they gladly wandered through the Royal Menagerie at the Exeter Exchange on the Strand each year. The building, which sat where the Strand Palace Hotel is today near Covent Garden, was originally built in 1676 to house a number of shops, such as milliners, haberdashers, and perfumeries. You might say it was the early version of the malls we have today.

Beginning in 1773 until the animals were moved to the London Zoo in 1828, the little rooms on the upper floor were enclosed by iron cages to provide winter quarters for traveling circus animals. By 1814, the owner included a doorman who was dressed like one of the Yeoman of the Guard, no doubt trying to compete with the other royal menagerie, at the Tower of London. The animals changed over time, but included leopards, lions, tigers, monkeys, hyenas, peccaries, nylghau (Indian antelope), camels, ostrich, emus, and “the skeleton of a Spermaceti whale, sixty feet long.” (I have no clue on this one!)

One of the reasons you went to the Exchange was for the scare factor. These were dangerous beasties, just inches away from your tender flesh. Girls were delighted to cling to their escorts or swoon into their arms. Supposedly passersby on the street below could hear the lions roaring, and not a few horses also spooked at the sound. The most popular time to arrive was at feeding time. Rather blood-thirsty, eh?

But by far the star of the show for many years was an elephant named Chuny. Chuny was very clever: he took your shilling and gave it back, picked up gentlemen’s top hats from their heads, and opened doors with his trunk. However, as he grew older, Chuny became violent. His keepers liked to take him on a walk down the Strand every Sunday, and one sad day he ran amok and killed one of his keepers. Soldiers were brought in to destroy him. Legend has it that it took over 152 bullets. Ballads, pictures, articles, and at least one play were created in his memory, with his dramatic death the highlight. Some of the people who had paid a shilling to watch him perform paid another to watch him be butchered and later dissected by the Royal Academy of Surgeons.

Definitely not my taste in amusements. How about you?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Princess Charlotte, Part III: Till Death Do Us Part

As you could probably guess from the title, poor Princess Charlotte’s story does not have a happily-ever-after ending. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Despite her suitor William’s less-than-suave behavior at her father’s party, Charlotte was tentatively willing to consider marrying him. Anything that would allow her to escape from being caught between her parents and their eternal battles —even marriage with the aptly nick-named Slender Billy—had to be a good thing, right?

But Charlotte was very aware of her position as future Queen of England…and when she learned that William would expect her to spend at least a few months of the year with him in Holland, she balked. Leave England for Holland? Never! Furthermore, William’s family and her mother’s did not get along, and William would not allow Charlotte’s mother to visit them in Holland.

So with her resolve stiffened by the sympathetic visiting Tsar of Russia and his sister, Charlotte decisively broke her tentative engagement with William, thereby enraging her father. She herself had since fallen in love with a charming but highly unsuitable prince of Prussia named August…and at about this time, she just happened to meet a dazzlingly handsome young protegee of the Tsar, a product of one of the many little German duchies and principalities named Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield.

Over the next weeks Charlotte and Leopold got to know each other during “accidental” meetings while riding in Hyde Park…but Charlotte’s father had not given up his goal of marrying Charlotte to Slender Billy. He attempted to imprison Charlotte in a small house at Windsor until she gave in, but Charlotte managed to give him the slip and ran out into Pall Mall, caught a hackney cab with the help of a sympathetic passer-by, and escaped to her mother’s house. After a long night of negotiations among the Prince, his estranged wife, a couple of royal dukes, several prominent politicians and lawyers, and a Bishop or two for good measure, Charlotte capitulated and agreed to return to her father…but she still wouldn’t marry William.

More than a year passed, and Charlotte remained more or less a prisoner of her father. But Leopold continued to write to her faithfully (via a friend of Charlotte’s who smuggled in his letters) long after her other suitor, Prince August, had given up. Gradually enough excellent reports of Leopold’s intelligence, bravery and skill as a soldier, and high principles reached the Prince Regent that he slowly softened his attitude…and at last, after Napoleon was safely exiled to St. Helena and Europe was once more at peace, Charlotte and Leopold were allowed to marry.

What started out as something of a marriage of convenience for both—Charlotte escaping from her family and Leopold escaping penury as a younger son of minor royalty—quickly turned into an honest-to-goodness love match. The pair had a golden year and a half together, and in November 1817 were expecting their first child…a pregnancy that tragically ended in the birth of a still-born son and, a few hours later, the death of Charlotte herself.

Poor Leopold—and all England with him (this mourning dress appeared in Ackermann’s Repository in January 1818)—was devastated. And even though he went on some years later to be made King of Belgium and marry another princess with whom he would raise a healthy family, Leopold never fell out of love with Charlotte, as he told Charlotte’s young cousin (and his niece)—Queen Victoria.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Amusements in London: Astley's Amphitheatre

Okay, so my heroine didn’t jump out the window. She thought about it. She even opened the sash and sat on the sill, but the hero intervened before she could screw her courage to the sticking point. So, all is right with the world.

One of the suggestions from our birthday celebration for topics on Nineteen Teen was games and activities as well as cultural institutions for young ladies. I’m not entirely sure Astley’s Amphitheatre would be considered a cultural institution, but it was certainly one of the most popular places in London for young people.

Astley’s Amphitheatre, located on Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, was a magical place where amazing things happened, with horses. As you can see from the picture, it boasted an arena and, at 130 feet wide, the largest stage in England at the time. Built in 1784, it held its first show on Easter and its last in October or November each year. Surrounded by 16 small chandeliers, audiences in the three tiers of seating watched while the huge center glass chandelier with 50 lamps was lowered each night through an opening in the ceiling. And as the music from the full orchestra soared, out came the horses.

Astley called his events spectacles, and it certainly sounds like they were, with trick riders, clowns, troops of horses swirling in battle formation, even a horse race and a fox hunt staged in the arena to the calls of “Tally ho!” from the audience. In 1807, he taught eight horses to do country dances, a sight that was so astonishing to his audience that it was replayed in over 100 performances.

Sounds like my idea of fun.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Princess Charlotte, Part II: The Tarnished Tiara

Back before our birthday celebrations we had left Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent and second in line to the British throne, living in her own household…no parents or other relatives, only servants and those appointed to live with her as companions or tutors. Not a very secure atmosphere for a child to grow up in…and matters were worsened by her father’s occasional capricious hirings and firings, not to mention the fact that some of the people he hired had drinking problems or loose morals.

Charlotte grew to be a self-described tomboy, temperamental and mischievous, swaggering and coltish, a mixture of naivete and self-awareness of her high position. She was often naughty, especially towards a few particular staff whom she disliked, but just as often was contrite and apologetic for misbehavior. Her favorite subject was mathematics, and her favorite pastime was riding; she was a fearless horsewoman. At fifteen she was described as being, “…tall and very graceful….” but also “forward, dogmatic on all subjects, buckish about horses, and full of exclamations very like swearing.” Charming and natural, perhaps, but not very princess-like.

Her father as a young man had been a supporter of the Whig party and announced that the princess would be educated according to liberal Whig principles. But once he was made Prince Regent by the Tory government to rule in his mad father’s place, his Whig days came to an abrupt end and he became a supporter of the Tories’ conservative outlook. The fact that his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick, Charlotte’s mother, was supported by the Whigs only strengthened his new Toryism.

And so Charlotte unwittingly became a political football, kicked about by her parents and their supporters to suit their political purposes. Charlotte in time came to understand how she was being manipulated when private conversations she had with them at different times appeared in print in London newspapers. The Prince was doing his best to discredit her mother (she was indeed under parliamentary investigation for her reputed gross immorality) and Caroline returned the favor, trying to paint the Prince as an unnatural, unfeeling scoundrel who wanted to separate mother and daughter. But Caroline went one further, encouraging the impulsive, romantic Charlotte to flirt with an army officer (one of her illegitimate cousins, in fact!), going so far as to lock them in her room together—alone.

Is it any wonder that when a suitor appeared for her hand when she was seventeen, Charlotte sat up and took notice?

The suitor in question was William, Prince of Orange, a confirmed Anglophile but even more delighted by the idea of ruling both Holland AND Britain. His family was disliked by her mother, but Charlotte was willing to overlook that fact if she decided she liked him. Unfortunately, their first public meeting—at the Prince Regent’s birthday party—was a disaster: every single male member of the royal party apart from Charlotte’s favorite uncle got so drunk that all ended up, quite literally, under the table. Indeed, the last to fall, the Duke of York, pulled the tablecloth and everything with it down on top of him as he fell.

Hardly a prepossessing start to a courtship!

Next week: Princess Charlotte, Part III: Till Death Do Us Part

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Things Writers Worry About: Jumping Out a Window

A year ago, my first post on Nineteen Teen covered my musings on what a young lady did with her long opera-length gloves while she was nibbling at a midnight buffet. Writers of historical fiction worry about that kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons we do research (that and it’s just too much fun learning all this stuff!). And one of the reasons Marissa and I started this blog was to share the interesting things we come upon in our research.

This week was a case study in what writers worry about. There I was, working away on my latest novel, when my heroine decided to jump out a window. (She has ample motivation and the right character, but we won’t go there.) And right in mid-sentence, I thought, “Wait, can she do that?”

Seems like a straight forward action. I can certainly justify there being a window in the room. But immediately a whole host of issues arise. When was the house built? I’m guessing mid- to late-1700s. Okay, pull down Steven Parissien’s Adam Style (Phaidon Press Limited, London). Were the windows big enough to fit a person through? They seem plenty big from the pictures, and Parissien notes that some windows went all the way to the floor, so it’s feasible.

But did windows even open during that time period? Can’t tell from the pictures or his description, plus I know that at least some folks felt night air was noxious (and the daytime air was often full of soot in London), so maybe they wouldn’t want a window to open.

And then I found this. Isn’t it helpful? This is a painting of the artist Paul Sandby by Francis Cotes. It dates from the late 1700s, so it’s perfect for my story. Notice that dear Mr. Sandby is leaning OUT the window, so the sash must be open. And it would appear the opening is large enough for an industrious young lady to sit on the sill and shove herself out.

But THEN I wondered—wait, can she lift the sash when in a corset you can’t lift your arms over your head? Will her satin ball gown and petticoats really fit through the window? What’s below her? She’s on the first floor (which would be our second floor). Will anyone see her from the ground floor? What’s she going to land in? Is she just risking damage to her reputation or loss of life?

To jump or not? Who knew the decision would be just as difficult for the writer as the character?

So, would you have her jump?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Contest Winners, Blog Awards, and Thank You!

We had fun discussing our Nineteen Reasons Why We Love the Nineteenth Century, and we hope you did too...though we just may do a follow-up someday on why we're glad we live now, per Tia's suggestion (my votes go to modern medicine and plumbing!)

So after compiling the names of those of you who commented on your nineteenth century loves and putting them into my trusty Red Sox World Champions hat, the winner of an authentic early nineteenth century fashion print is Ashley Autumn! Ashley, please go to my website and use the contact form to e-mail me so we can get mailing that to you arranged.

We're also delighted with the wonderful suggestions you sent us for future posts on NineteenTeen. While we're unlikely to run out of material to discuss any time soon, sometimes we need a little guidance as to what YOU would like to hear please accept our thanks for the great suggestions, and look for them in future posts.

Again, after putting names into my hat, the winner of the $25 Barnes & Noble gift card is Kimmyl! Kimmyl, please e-mail Regina at to claim your prize.

We were also honored to receive an I Love Your Blog! Award from Amee at The Chick Manifesto this, shucks! While we love the recognition, we're both swamped and will postpone passing the award on at this time though there are some other awesome nineteenth-century-focused blogs out there like the wonderfully entertaining Risky Regencies...and my daily fix of non-nineteenth-century-related silliness, Disapproving Rabbits.

Anyway, thanks again for having fun with our contest! We'll be doing one or two more later in the year...don't forget that December brings the birthday of one of our nineteenth century faves, Jane Austen (hint, hint!)

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Final Three!

Reasons we love the nineteenth century, that is. Comment by 11:59pm Sunday, October 5, with either your own reasons or suggestions for blog topics and you might win a genuine fashion plate or a $25 gift certificate to Barnes and Noble. We’ll draw names Monday, and Marissa will announce the winners in her post Tuesday, October 7. Thanks so much to all those who have already commented. We’ve really enjoyed hearing your thoughts.

So, here are my final three reasons:

17. Fanciful food with friends. Lots of fine restaurants these days aim for food that looks as good on the plate as it tastes in your mouth. But dining by candlelight, the table adorned with fine china and draped in damask, silver utensils at your side, was definitely more romantic. And chefs vied to please: Oysters in aspic, apricot trifles, and peacock stuffed back in its own feathers. (Okay, the last one would probably gross me out.)

18. Inventiveness. The nineteenth century saw the birth of the industrial revolution, with new technologies, new ways of doing things. And while the design of some of it was pretty ugly, some of it was amazingly cool. Here’s what someone thinks a laptop would look like today if we still followed those design principles. Could someone please put that on my birthday list?

19. Colorful characters. From the scandalous antics of the royals to audaciously poetic highwaymen, the nineteenth century had more than its share of interesting people. Perhaps that’s why Marissa and I love to put our characters into the same elegant, romantic, inventive time period.

So, there you have it! Nineteen of our reasons why we love the nineteenth century and why we keep writing about it. Be sure to comment and come back next week to find out who won!

P.S. If you’re a school librarian, check out the contest on the Class of 2k8 web page!