Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Over the River and Through the Woods

I rather doubt this pair are on their way to grandmother's house, but doesn't it look like fun? That's a type of carriage known as a Tilbury, by the way, and this one was made by Thomas Baptiste at 33, rue Vivienne, Paris. Natty little thing, isn't it?

Regina and I, on the other hand, are on our way to other houses for the holiday, and would like to extend our hope that all of you traveling over rivers and through woods for Thanksgiving have a pleasant and expeditious trip and reach your destinations safely, be it grandmother's house or elsewhere...and that your holiday is filled with grace and gratitude for the blessings in your lives. We know what we're grateful for--you, our gentle readers!

Happy Thanksgiving, all. Enjoy the holiday, and we'll see you next week.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Today's Characters, Yesterday

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that nineteenth century young men and ladies looked very different from people today. I disagree. Or, sure there are stylized portraits that make them look rather unworldly, and some artists have more skill than others. I’ve heard the arguments that poor dental care made mouths look sunken, or people were afraid to smile because of their teeth. Then there are those who insist that because some ceilings were lower and surviving clothing is smaller that people were a lot shorter than we are. (I shudder to think who lived in the remarkably high-ceilinged rooms of some of the country estates!) Certainly hairstyles and fashions have changed over time.

People had their portraits painted for a number of reasons: to commemorate a major event like a military victory, to announce their success in their careers, or to document their family. Recently I’ve come across a number of portraits that seem to me to be straight out of Hollywood today. See what you think.

This is the French miniaturist Francois Jean Baptist Isabey and his daughter, right around 1800. Compare him to Keanu Reeves. Ancestor, perhaps?

How about this one? Young Mr. Fleetwood is dressed for riding to the hounds, his knee hooked up over his saddle, around 1803. Shia LaBeouf, anyone?

And then there’s Elinor, either the 1810 version in this miniature or Emma Thompson’s version from Sense and Sensibility.

So, what do you think? Have we changed so much in 200 years?

Oh, and just so you know—we will have one post next week, Wednesday or Thursday, so we can spend more time with our families over the holiday. Carpe diem, my dears!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Ennui is Killing Me!

The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, a popular weekly magazine published in London between 1822 and 1847, ran the following short piece in its November 26, 1825 issue which got me giggling--I hope it will do the same to you!

The Journal of an Indolent Lady

"I know a young lady who has very pretty pretensions to idleness, but who has no objection to dancing the livelong night, and who would work at a ball-dress fifteen hours at a stretch, rather than not go to the assembly. Of this young lady’s life, the following specimen...may afford some idea, and it proves her to be a real amateur:

Rose at ten. Regretted not being able to lie an hour longer. Lamented the necessity of cleanliness. Dressing a great bore. Dogs in this respect happier than men. Watch-boxes still better.

Breakfasted till eleven. Sauntered for half an hour, and played with the cat. She scratched both my hands.

Half past eleven. Sunk in an arm-chair, with a novel, read the same page three times over, and fell asleep. Got up to walk to another chair, and was told I’d a hole in my stocking. I wonder why the maid does not mend them.

Twelve. Played half a lesson on the piano. What can Rossini mean by writing such difficult music?

One o’clock. Took up a needle and thread, and looked out of the window at the cattle feeding for three quarters of an hour. Cows lead happy lives. I wonder why man does not ruminate.

At two. Luncheon.

Three. Forced to walk out. I hate exercise. Was told my petticoat is longer than my gown; but what does that matter?

Half-past four. Very tired and hungry. Played again with the cat. Made Fidelle, the French poodle, fetch a stick three times out of the water. Fidelle tore my glove to pieces. I wish my brother had been by to take it from him.

Five. Played at scratch-cradle [cat's cradle], and then three games of Trou-madame [an early table game that was a cross between bar billiards and pinball] till dressing time. Can’t think why mamma does not allow me a maid to dress me. Scolded for throwing my hair papers about the room. What has the housemaid to do but gather them up? It’s monstrous tiresome to be scolded.

Six. Dinner. After coffee sat still doing nothing till bed time. Thought half-past ten would never come. Went to bed very tired. Doing nothing is extremely troublesome, and I hate it exceedingly.—But then what can one do?"


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Boxing Day, Sort Of

Okay, so Boxing Day is well over a month away, but this week I discovered some absolutely lovely nineteenth century boxes, and I thought you’d want to see them. Why was I looking at nineteenth century boxes (you need a reason to research? Gasp!). You see, the heroine in the book I’m writing hid some very important papers in a box, and then someone stole the box. She thought he was after the papers, but what he really wanted was the box.


Oh, those kinds of questions keep writers up late into the night! It isn’t enough that I need him to steal the box to further the plot. He wants a motivation for stealing it. Why does he care? He’s just the villain’s flunky! But oh, no, he must have a reason for stealing the box. Which set me off searching for a box that would inspire the theft.

What about this one? Mother of pearl trimmed with ivory, lined with blue silk set in accordion pockets. Very useful for storing small diamond pins and earbobs. Ah, but it’s from the late 1800s, and my heroine resides in 1803. And I don’t think my villain cares for such things.

Or perhaps this. Amethyst glass and ormolu (gilded bronze), from France. Could have served as a jewelry box or merely a decoration. Hm, would it not give things away when you could see right through it?

Oh, why not this? A porcelain candy box hand-painted with couples lounging in pastoral splendor, surrounded by guilt, er gilt and lined with lavender silk. Well, at only 3 inches long, that might be too small for my heroine’s purposes.

No, this! It’s French porcelain, from the premiere factory at that time, Sevres, and in their signature cobalt blue. Very romantic scene on the lid, so my very romantic heroine would favor it, and it’s a good 8 inches long so she could stuff in a few mysterious documents without anyone being the wiser. And why does my villain want it? The fact that he can get French porcelain reserved for kings and princes says something about him, don’t you think, particularly when England and France are at war? And France is threatening an invasion along the very shore where his estate is located? Perhaps he dispatched the flunky to retrieve it before anyone noticed it.

Take that, unrepentant flunkies! Thought you had me boxed in, eh?

Now, on to the scene where the heroine’s best friend hides the vicar’s wig.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If it's November, this must be Balmoral

Queen Victoria, footloose and fancy-free?

Well, yes. As Queen of the United Kingdom, Victoria either had use of or personally owned dozens of houses and palaces. While the official home of the kings and queens of the UK is Windsor Castle, Victoria spent her childhood at the royal palace of Kensington and the early years of her reign at Buckingham Palace, both in London. Wanting a summer getaway home for her growing family, she purchased an 1100-acre estate on the Isle of Wight, where she and Prince Albert built Osborne House (that's it at above right). But Osborne wasn’t the real getaway she’d hoped it would be, so she later purchased a large estate in the Scottish Highlands named Balmoral.

So what did QV do with all these houses?

Amazingly, she lived in them, traveling from house to house several times over the course of the year, much to the dismay of her servants and staff.

Here's how it generally went: Christmas and New Year’s were spent at Osborne; some time in January she would usually return to Windsor (shown at left) and remain there for February. March and April could be spent at Windsor or abroad, in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, or the south of France (the Queen liked to travel “incognito”, calling herself the Countess of Balmoral). Mid May generally saw a quick month-long jaunt to Balmoral, then back down to Windsor or Buckingham Palace if necessary for receiving debutantes at Drawing Rooms during the Season. Mid July saw her back to Osborne for the yachting season at Cowes, then late August sent her to Balmoral till mid-November for the shooting season. Mid-November meant a return to Windsor, then back to Osborne for Christmas and the start of the cycle once more.

Phew! If I’m exhausted just writing this, just imagine how her children, household and servants felt! The queen did not travel lightly; entire trains were required to ferry her and her household and luggage about the countryside. And even up in the remote Scottish Highlands at Balmoral (shown at right), she was still queen: a member of the cabinet always had to accompany her as a representative of the government (they squabbled endlessly about whose turn it was, as few enjoyed the Queen's frigid Scottish home); in addition, the prime minister in office frequently journeyed the roughly 500 miles to consult with her as well. In addition, the special red dispatch boxes containing reports and documents requiring her consideration were sent up daily from London.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Nineteenth Century Heroines: No Bones About It

It has been suggested (twice QnPoohBear, cough, cough) that we talk about some real life heroines in the nineteenth century, young ladies who distinguished themselves in the sciences, arts, or other areas. I can think of no one finer to inaugurate this series than Mary Anning.

Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast of England. Her father Richard was a cabinetmaker by trade, but he loved to spend his free time collecting fossils and he took Mary and her older brother Joseph with him. The cliffs near Lyme Regis are riddled with remains from the Jurassic period; they’re also legendary for landslides and sink holes. Mary spent her youth clambering over these dangerous cliffs and collecting “curiosities” that her father sold to tourists in front of his shop on Bridge Street. Jane Austen even visited.

Sadly, Richard Anning died of consumption when Mary was only 11, and the family struggled to eke out a living by selling the fossils they found. That same year, Joseph uncovered a massive head of what he thought was a fossilized crocodile. Between tides and the weather, it was another year before the children could get back to it, and it was Mary who uncovered the entire skeleton: the first complete ichthyosaur!

Now, you’d think such a find would attract considerable attention, but Mary only earned £23 when she sold the fossil to the Lord of the Manor of Colway. He in turn exhibited it in William Bullock’s Museum of Natural History, and it wasn’t until 1814 that the Royal Society (the premiere scientific organization in England at the time) published a description in its Transactions (with little mention of Mary, thank you very much). The Annings were doing so poorly, in fact, that a professional fossil collector, Lieutenant-Colonel Birch, auctioned off his collection and donated the proceeds to them. The total amount raised was £400 (enough for a family of three to live on for a year or two).

By the time Mary was in her twenties, she was the head of the family’s fossil collecting business. In 1824, she discovered the skeleton of a plesiosaurus. She sold it for over £100 to the Duke of Buckingham himself. That discovery put her on the map, so to speak, but many scientists were skeptical that Mary was the person making these spectacular finds. For one, she was a woman, and for another, she had only attended school a short period in her life. Yet when they came to talk to her, they could only scratch their heads at her vast knowledge of the creatures she was uncovering. One of her visitors credited her skills to divine providence.

Even though Mary discovered a pterodactyl in 1828 and an even larger ichthyosaurus in 1832, it wasn’t until 1838 that the scientific community was willing to grant her any official standing. That year the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded her an annuity. In 1846, she was made an honorary member of the Geological Society (honorary because women were not admitted until 1904). She died in March 1847 from breast cancer. Only after her death did the Royal Society acknowledge her, by donating a stained-glass window to her memory to the Parish Church at Lyme Regis.

It’s never easy being a nineteenth century heroine.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fashion Forecast: 1810

What was the well-dressed young woman wearing in 1810?

Well, perhaps she was a dutiful daughter and willing to spend time with younger siblings. Here's a morning dress she might wear whilst doing so, from the August 1 edition of Ackermann's Repository:

After that, she might go out shopping or to pay calls, dressed in this Walking Dress (Ackermann's Repository, May 1):

or maybe in this "Morning Walking or Carriage Costume" (Ackermann, December 1):

This "Promenade or Opera Dress" (gotta love the multi-purposeness here!) is "A round robe of jaconet muslin, with high French ruff, and appliqued border of narrow lace round the feet. A cassoc coat or demi plisse or cerulean blue shot sarsnet, finished round the bosom with a basket border, extended on white satin, confined at the bottom of the waist with a silver or steel clasp, and to the bottom with three regular, divided silk cords and tassels. An Austrian tippet of white satin, with full floss binding, and tassels to correspond. Arcadian hat, composed of the same materials as the coat, and ornamented with full curled white feathers." (Ackermann, May 1):

Another evening or opera dress is here--note the dress on the right, which probably has removeable long sleeves (Ackermann, April 1):

I love the rich color and hat on this "Evening or Full Dress (Ackermann, February 1):

And of course, we must see a ball dress too, don't you think? The net and tassels on the overdress of this one from the March 1 edition of Ackermann's Repository are particularly whimsical:

1810 ended on a somber note with the death of King George III's youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Amelia. It's thought her death precipitated him into his final madness and paved the way for the Prince of Wales to become Prince Regent at last. Interestingly, when a family member of the monarch died, all society was expected to go into mourning. Here's an "Evening Mourning Dress" from the December 1 editions of Ackermann's Repository; note the symbolic funerary urn with a tiny portrait of the dead princess on it: