Friday, February 26, 2010

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

I must admit—I debated whether to include Lady Caroline Lamb as one of our nineteenth century heroines. Sure, she was a real lady who lived in the early nineteenth century in England. She was in her teens when she started her meteoric rise to infamy. But most of our nineteenth century heroines were women we could admire. I find that harder to say of dear, passionate Caro.

It was Caro who called the poet Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but perhaps that’s because it takes one to know one. She was born Caroline Ponsonby, the only daughter of the Earl of Bessborough, and spent much of her youth at Devonshire House, being the niece of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She had a governess, then attended a finishing school in London. According to some sources, she spoke French, Italian, Greek, and Latin and dabbled in prose, poetry, and painting. In 1805, at just nineteen, she made what was considered an excellent match, marrying a rising political star, William Lamb, who would someday become Lord Melbourne and one of Queen Victoria’s closest advisors.

But Caro’s life was far more turbulent. She may well have been a bit mad. She simply couldn’t settle into being wife and mother, though that’s what everyone expected of her. She cut her hair into short curls (the first “pageboy”), dressed in boys’ clothes, and traipsed about London by night. When she did appear as a lady at balls and such, she invariably did something to draw attention to herself, like leaping over couches to reach the people she liked faster.

Or staring at gentlemen poets.

That’s one of the stories on how she and Lord Byron met. He was introduced to her by a delighted hostess at a ball, and Caro stared him down, then gave him the Cut Direct by turning her back on him without a word. A man used to having women fawn over him, he was immediately determined to pursue her.

But in the end, it was Caro who pursued him, and quite scandalously too. She truly was a bad girl. One account calls it the first celebrity stalking. For six months, he was the center of her world. She wrote him passionate letters. If he had been invited to a ball and she hadn’t, she’d stand outside until someone let her in too. She’d use her pageboy disguise to show up at his rooms and demand entrance. Byron was a man who lived large, but Caro was too much even for him. He was relieved when her husband took her to Ireland for a few months to cool off. When she returned to London, the poet made it clear their affair was over.

Caro rejected was Caro the most dangerous. Exiled for a time to the country, she made the village girls dress in white and dance around a fire while she burnt Byron in effigy. But that wasn’t enough to still her furies. If Byron could write epic poems, she could write a novel. And she did. Glenarvon, published in 1816, was a thinly disguised story of her life and lampooned a number of Society notables. Lady Jersey, one of the patronesses of the famous Almack’s, immediately rescinded Caro’s vouchers, and the rest of Society followed in turning its back on her. Only her family stayed loyal. Though she published other novels and poetry, she remained on the edges of Society until she died, in her early 40s.

So, what do you think? Should Caro be admired for being fiercely independent, for daring to flaunt Society’s rules to pursue her passions, for getting revenge for rejection? Or was she, as I suspect, truly a bit mad, bad, and dangerous to know?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fashion Forecast: 1813

What was the well-dressed young woman wearing in 1813?

She might be stepping round to Hatchard's Bookshop in Piccadilly in this Morning Walking Dress to pick up a copy of a certain newly-published novel called Pride and Prejudice, just released this month. Doesn't the ermine-lined pelisse look cozy? (Ackermann's Repository, January 1813):

Or maybe she's off to the opera in an elegant Opera Dress (Ackermann's Repository, January 1813). 1813 was a good year for opera, by the way--both Richard Wagner and Guiseppe Verdi were born this year. I love her tiny, box-like reticule and the ermine tippet.

Spring at last! Our fashionable young woman takes advantage of the milder weather to get out in an elegant Carriage Dress topped with "a Russian mantle of pomona or spring green sarsnet, lined with white satin, and trimmed with rich frog fringe and binding" (Ackermann's Repository, April 1813):

Fortunately court mourning for the Duchess of Brunswick, sister of King George III who had died in March, didn't last long enough to keep this charming Full Dress, with its white ruffled sleeveless overdress, out of circulation. (Ackermann's Repository, May 1813):

I love this Promenade Dress from September because of her lovely pose (reading a book, of course!) and the delightful deep knotted fringe on her sunshade. From the original text: "A white jaconet muslin high dress, with long sleeves and collar of needlework; treble flounces of plaited muslin round the bottom; wrist and collar confined with a silk cord and tassel. The hair disposed in the Eastern style, with a fancy flower in front or on one side. A Vittoria cloak, or Pyrennean mantle, of Pomona green sarsnet, trimmed with Spanish fringe of a corresponding shade, and confined in graceful folds on the left shoulder. A white lace veil thrown over the headdress. A large Eastern parasol, the colour of the mantle, with deep Chinese awning. Roman shoe, or Spanish slipper, of Pomona green kid, or jean. Gloves or primrose or amber-coloured kid." (Ackermann's Repository, September 1813):

October 1813 was an exciting month in world news: after the decisive Battle of Vittoria in June, Wellington forged on into France this month, winning a victory on French soil against Marshall Soult at the Battle of Bidassoa. Perhaps our young lady needed a quiet morning at home to catch up on reading the newspapers. Note the veil-like cap protecting her curls (Morning Dress, Ackermann's Repository, October 1813):
Later in October came the beginning of the end for Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. Maybe our young lady in this oh-so-pretty pale green evening dress is looking over music for a victory march! Note the bands of embroidery at hem, sleeves, and back of the bodice--and isn't her hairstyle pretty? (Ackermann's Repository, October 1813):

What do you think of 1813's fashions?

Friday, February 19, 2010

What Next, Young Bluestockings?

What a lovely discussion this week in the first ever meeting of the Young Bluestockings Book Club! Bethany set the mood appropriately. Yes, indeed, my dear, a book club is exactly the place to natter on about your favorite books. I’m so glad you, and Rachel, and QnPoohBear, and Sylvia, and ChaChaneen, and Tricia did just that! Heavens, Amy admitted she hadn’t read the book yet, but that didn’t stop her from posting! I hope the rest of you (I can hear you breathing!) feel more comfortable joining us next time.

And what about next time, you ask? Marissa and I are pleased to announce that when the Young Bluestockings next meet, on April 23, we will be discussing Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy by L.A. Meyer. As a plague wracks London, Mary can only pray for a way to escape. But after her gang's leader is killed, she dons his clothing, trading in the name Mary for Jack, and takes to the high seas aboard HMS Dolphin. What follows is a rollicking adventure, complete with pirates, sea battles, and romance.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice a similarity between Mary and Kim, the heroine of Mairelon the Magician. Like Kim, Mary knew there were benefits from pretending to be a boy in the early nineteenth century. Why?

A girl’s life was fairly constrained. We’ve talked about some of the outstanding examples of women, such as Caroline Herschel, Eleanor Coade, and Mary Anning, who rose above what was expected. But the lives of most young ladies were sketched on a much smaller canvas. Mairelon the Magician outlines several choices:

You could be work behind the scenes, doing your part to help your family advance in wealth or station. For a lower class young lady, this might mean working the land or helping in the family’s shop. For an aristocratic young lady, it generally meant marrying well, being a good hostess to help her husband’s political career, and avoiding scandal (hey, two out of three isn’t bad, Lady Granleigh).

You could be charming and sweet and swoon at the least sight of trouble so the young men felt appropriately manly. This was supposed to guarantee you a good husband who would treat you in the style to which you would like be become accustomed (although I’m not sure you made the best choice, Miss Marianne Thornley).

You could be savvy and dashing, look the fellows in the eye, and make your own way in the world. Note that you generally needed money or some form of income to do this (and income often meant taking money for favors to gentlemen). Even if you were an heiress, a young lady living this way was often thought to be somewhat scandalous (I’m looking at you, Rene D’Uber).

Or you could pretend you weren’t a girl and the rules for girls didn’t apply to you, like Kim and Jacky. I’ll talk more about a real nineteenth century young lady who thought the rules didn’t apply to her next week when we continue our series on nineteenth century heroines.

I’d like to think I’d be more like Rene D’Uber, with a flair and a mind (and inherited, not earned-the-hard-way money) of my own. But I suspect I’d be more likely to fall into Marianne Thornley’s camp. I’m terribly good at batting my lashes, and I tend to go weak at the knees at the first sign of chivalry.

What about you?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Young Bluestockings Book Club reads Mairelon the Magician

Welcome! I hope you were all able to find a copy of our first selection, Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede!

This is our first meeting, so we’re trying to figure out what will work best…this time around, I’m going to post some thoughts and talking points that I hope will spur conversation…please feel free to react to those and/or to post your own thoughts. Because this is a teen history blog, my comments are going to focus mostly on the historical aspects of the story…but you are certainly welcome to discuss any aspect of the book you wish. It’s a snowy day here so I’ll be sticking close to the computer today to help keep the conversation flowing well, but comments can continue all week!

So—here we go!

There’s magic in the streets of London,
there’s sorcery in the village lanes;
there’s a plot that has all of Society talking
in an England that never was,
but should have been….

That’s on the back cover of my copy, and in my opinion gives the perfect introduction to the story in Mairelon the Magician. I obviously love stories that combine magic and history. But what I love even more is when the history part is well done. Regina and I haven’t much discussed the underclasses in 19th century society because our books have featured aristocratic characters. MtM explores the underside of society with Kim, an orphaned street-kid doing her best to pass herself off as a boy in order to escape being forced into prostitution. She’s nearly 17, however, and it’s getting harder to keep up the masquerade. She’s a top-notch lock-pick and an accomplished pick-pocket, but a life of crime isn’t what she wants either…so her life is fast approaching a turning point.

It turns in an entirely unexpected direction when she is taken in by Mairelon, a street magician whose wagon she’s been hired to search for a mysterious silver bowl…and so we are launched into a lively, funny combination of mystery and fantasy, with a strong dollop of Georgette Heyer comedy leavening the whole.

Wrede makes good use of the colorful slang of the London poor, weaving it into Kim’s speech in a way that readers unfamiliar with it can still guess at the meanings (if there are any words you aren’t sure about, ask…and if you want to learn more about the language, check out The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue a portion of which can be viewed for free on Google Books.)

I'm also giving points for Wrede's depiction of travel. There's a lot of it in the story, done both on foot and by carriage--and Wrede makes it clear that getting anywhere takes a while, that horses have to be rested and not abused (note that on their way out of London, Kim and Mairelon and Hutch walk alongside their wagon for most of the trip in order to spare their horses). Yes, this indeed happened--even on stage coaches, where passengers would be asked to get out and walk on steep or deeply muddy roads, to prevent overstraining the horses.

I also deeply enjoy how magic is woven into this Regency setting: magic is an acknowledged, accepted part of the world, there's a Royal College of Wizards, and Mairelon, a.k.a. Richard Merrill, is one of several wizards engaged in spying on the French in the British fight against Napoleon (more recently Susannah Clarke has used a similar theme--magic in the Napoleonic Wars--to hilarious and wonderful effect in one of my favorite books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.) I think the combination of magic and the 19th century works so well because to us, the 19th century really is another world, and having magic operate there is easier to imagine than, say, magic in the post-world war era. What do you think?

But what I think I love most about this book is the homage it pays to Georgette Heyer's sparkling Regency novels. Lady Granleigh, Marianne, Freddy and his friends could all have stepped out of one of her books; Renee D'Auber sounds delightfully like Leonie in These Old Shades, and the final chaotic (but beautifully orchestrated) showdown in the Sons of the New Dawn's lodge could stand beside the equally chaotic but perfect ending in The Grand Sophy.

So--good historical detail, a finely crafted mystery with enough clues salted in to make it solveable by a careful reader but not too obvious, and plenty of sheer fun. That's what I think. What about you? What worked for you in this story? Did the 19th century world in MtM draw you in? Would you recommend this book to others, and why?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Talking Fancy

In a comment on my post last week, Marissa mentioned boxing cant, a colorful language that developed out of early nineteenth century pugilism. I wanted to follow up on that as well as my post. But first a little praise is due.

When I was writing my book, The Bluestocking on His Knee, I wanted my hero to box. I did some initial research, but I was drawing a blank, so I appealed to that bastion of all early nineteenth century knowledge, my colleagues in the Beau Monde, the Romance Writers of America Special Interest Chapter for Regency-set romances. A woman named Kate McMurry willingly shared volumes of research with me, and I will be forever grateful. I dedicated the book, and now this post, to her.

So, for a little more on what the boys were doing at Gentleman Jackson’s, here’s a piece, courtesy of Kate, from Vincent Dowling, editor of Bell’s Life (a gentleman’s sporting magazine), talking about boxing at Gentleman Jackson’s:

Here all the elite of the of fashionable world were daily assembled; noblemen and gentlemen of the highest rank did not disdain to take the gloves with the accomplished Jackson. . . In these associations there was none of the finnikin foppery [don’t you love it!] of modern times; there was no apprehensions of the derangement of well-cured locks or pretty faces; men, and noblemen too, met foot to foot and fist to fist, regardless of consequence, dealing such blows at each other’s heads as often deprived them of momentary sensation.

Sounds like a bunch of lads, doesn’t it?

Of course, those lads had a sound all their own. When playing at boxing, they often used boxing cant. The purpose of boxing cant isn’t much different than jargon and acronyms that litter professional disciplines today. Being able to speak in this special language indicated you were in the know, you belonged, you GOT it. And just in case you didn’t, but wanted to pretend that you did, a helpful chap named Pierce Egan starting publishing a series of books called Boxiana in 1812 that explained everything you could want to know about the fine art of boxing.

According to historians, boxing cant was a combination of technical sporting terms, cockney, and slang used by the criminal underworld. Here’s a few of the terms:

  • The Fancy—those who took a fancy to a particular sport, from the boxers themselves to the umpires and those who thronged the matches. Today, we might use the word “fan.”

  • Out-and-Outer—the perfect example of his kind

  • A Cross—a fixed fight

  • Chucker Outer—someone who cleared the ring after a prize fight

  • Cove—a common gentleman.

You may notice some similarity between boxing cant and thieves cant, which the heroine Kim uses at first in Mairelon the Magician. Marissa and I can hardly wait to talk to you more about it next week. Make sure you’re here on Tuesday, when Marissa calls to order the first meeting of the Young Bluestockings Book Club!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Txt, 19th c stl: Pt 2

So you’ve written (and possibly cross-written!) your letter. How did it get to its recipient?

Well, it very much depended on when and where you were.

If you were sending, say, a note of invitation to a friend who lived in the same town, the simplest way to get it to her would be to have a servant or family member deliver it. Footmen often served as messengers (and I’m sure appreciated a chance to step out of the house!)

If however, you didn’t have servants to deliver notes, what did you do? If you were in London, you were in luck: a postal system for the city came into being during the late seventeenth century, and through 1801 it cost a penny to send a letter (and with four to eight pick-ups and deliveries a day, it was speedy as well). Mail coaches started traveling scheduled routes in 1794, but by 1805 the price of delivery in London had risen to 2 pennies, and by 1812 a fee system based on distance was in place: fourpence for delivery within fifteen miles, rising to 17 pence for 700 miles. Charges doubled for more than one sheet of paper, which was why cross-writing letters was such a popular practice. And lastly, it was the recipient of the letter who paid the postage upon delivery, not the sender—so it was very important to consider to whom you were writing, and whether they could afford to hear from you!

Now, if you were lucky and had a good friend or family member who was a Member of Parliament or a peer, you could get him to “frank” your letter—sign his name and write his address on the outside of the letter—and it would be delivered free of charge. We still see this today in the US in items mailed by congressmen.

In 1837, Sir Rowland Hill (not to be confused with the Waterloo general Lord Rowland Hill) sponsored a parliamentary bill to reform the postal system: his recommendations included the use of envelopes and pre-payment of postage. An adhesive stamp affixed to letters was eventually agreed upon as the best method of proof that postage had been paid, and in May 1840 the “Penny Black”, the first postage stamp, was introduced. It featured the young Queen Victoria's profile, as you can see here.

The establishment of the penny post had a direct bearing on the establishment of another custom: Christmas cards. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole (who later became the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is one of my favorite places in London) decided he didn’t have time to write all the Christmas greeting letters that it was customary to exchange and hired artist and printer John Horseley to design an illustrated card that he could send instead. A thousand or so copies were printed, and what Sir Henry didn’t use, Horseley sold for a shilling each. This was a tad pricey, but the idea caught on the following year when a rival printer, W.C.T. Dobson, printed and sold his own Christmas cards, which sold reasonably well thanks to the fact that it cost only a penny to mail them. By 1862, large scale production of Christmas cards was underway.

And on a completely unrelated note, this is our 250th post!

Next Tuesday: The Young Bluestockings Book Club will discuss Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede. See you there!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Where the Boys Are: Learning Boxing from a Gentleman

Marissa and I tend to focus on what a gently bred young lady in nineteenth century England would be doing in various areas of her life. Makes sense—we are both gently bred ladies absolutely obsessed with the nineteenth century! However, another of your excellent suggestions for Nineteen Teen was to have us talk about the boys once in a while. So, today’s post inaugurates a new occasional series focusing on the life of a young gentleman. We intend to talk about those institutions and past times of keen interest to these gentlemanly lads, so who better to start us of then the Gentleman of Gentlemen himself: Gentleman Jackson.

“Gentleman” John Jackson was born in 1769 to a Worcestershire family of builders, but he decided at age 19 to become a boxer, much against his parents' wishes. At 5 feet 11 inches tall and 195 pounds, his body was said to be so perfectly developed (with the early nineteenth century ideal of "perfection" being the classical statues of the Greek gods), that artists and sculptors came from all around to use him as a model. He dressed well (although he favored bright colors) and spoke in cultured tones, making him the darling of the aristocracy. He was the acknowledged king of the boxing ring, although he actually only fought professionally three times, loosing once. Of course, as the other two times he fought men who were considered the top champions, he was considered in his time the heavy-weight boxing champion of England. He is credited with a scientific style of boxing, which he taught three times a week during the London Season from his rooms in No. 13 Bond Street.

And that’s where you’d find any aspiring young gentleman. They came to learn from him, and they came to try their hand at besting each other. Even Lord Byron was an avid student. Gentleman Jackson taught them to use nimble footwork and judge the distance between fist and target to achieve the most impact. They fought with slightly bent bodies, head and shoulders forward, and knees slightly bent and at ease with fists well up. He believed that that fighting with the entire body (what we might call street fighting) was ineffective against the power of a well-trained fist, proving his point by having his students attempt to attack him and fending them off with fists alone.

So our young lads of sixteen and up might be found hanging about the Gentleman’s boxing emporium, coats off, hands wrapped in mufflers (absorbent material wrapped around the hands—the forerunner of today’s boxing gloves, having a go at each other. You can see them in the above picture. The fellow with his back closest to us is the Gentleman himself. An enterprising young fellow is also weighing himself on the scales for pugilists. However, while they lark about at the emporium and even spare with the Gentleman, few would fight professionally.

Which is probably just as well. Professional boxing matches in the nineteenth century were far less civilized from what we have today. Even though true boxing gloves were invented in the late 1700s, they weren’t used. Up until the Marquess of Queensberry drew up the boxing rules in 1867, the fights could be brutal and long, sometimes going over 100 rounds! And you were allowed to hit your opponent anywhere on the body, gouge at his eyes, and pull his hair if you liked.

Now, that’s not very gentlemanly!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Txt, 19th c stl: Pt 1

Texting. Facebook. Twitter. E-mail. These days it’s almost too easy to stay in touch, too easy to know what’s going on everywhere and what everyone thinks of it, to easy to get sucked into the latest news when one ought to be getting some work done (she typed with a guilty grin.)

This was not a problem 19th century teens had to deal with.

Up until the telegraph, letter-writing was the only way to stay in touch with far-flung friends. We talked a bit about letter-writing some time ago here and I thought it was time we addressed the topic a little more closely.

Letter-writing really was an art form, I think: not only your words, but your choice of paper, handwriting, and more could carry a subtle message as well.

First, there was the choice of paper one wrote on: thin or thick? Plain or decorated with a heraldic device (your family’s coat of arms) or with some other emblem? Scented with your favorite perfume or not? Was your family mourning the death of a relative? If so, time to pull out the box of black-bordered writing paper like that shown at right. And using more than one sheet of paper meant the letter would cost more in postage.

One’s choice of pen and ink also mattered. No gel pens or even fountain pens yet—at least not until the mid-late 19th century, when improvements in materials and inks made them more common (forms of the existed as far back as the early 18th or late 17th century) century. No, you probably wrote with a quill pen: goose and turkey feathers were most commonly used, though swan feathers were much admired. Contrary to what you might think, most of the feathery part of the quill was stripped away from the shaft of the quill; a small, sharp knife was always kept at hand to trim quills when they began to fray (hence the “penknife”). The main type of ink used was iron gall ink, made from iron salts and vegetable tannins (often derived from oak galls); though it made a nice dark ink, it is also very acidic and chemically unstable—which is why most of the writing in letters and documents from the 19th century and earlier have faded to brown.

Then there was one’s handwriting. Writing an elegant hand was an accomplishment much admired. However, if one was trying to conserve space in order to cram in as much news as possible into one page, then the flourished capitals and sweeping ‘y’ or ‘g’ at the end of words was best kept to a minimum. If you wanted to cram even more words onto a page, you could fill the page then turn it ninety degrees and fill it writing in that direction as well. “Crossing the page” often made for difficult reading, but it did save postage costs. (That's a letter written by Jane Austen herself, by the way, showing not only crossing lines but also other ways to shoehorn as many words onto one page as possible.)

If you were being cost-conscious, elegance of phrasing might also have to fall by the wayside. 19th century letters are full of abbreviations like wd and shd for would and should, vy for very and yr for your…sound familiar? However, I do not believe I’ve ever seen gr8 for great.

So your letter is written, on one side of the page only: you might sprinkle it with sand to help dry the ink or blot it with thick, absorbant paper, or just wave it around for a few minutes. When it was dry, you folded it carefully to conceal the writing and sealed it: envelopes did not come into widespread use until the middle of the 19th century (see Jane's letter above and note how it's folded). To seal your letter, you might use sealing wax (red was a popular color) or a wafer, which was a thin disc of glue and starch which was moistened and used to glue shut the letter (a forerunner of the modern sticker, though some objected to having other people's saliva mailed to them!), or both wax and a wafer. And so your letter was ready to send.

Nest week we'll look at how letters were sent. And don't forget, in two weeks we'll be having the inaugural meeting of the Young Bluestockings Book Club, discussing Patricia C. Wrede's Mairelon the Magician. Have you all been able to get your hands on copies?