Some years ago I wrote a novella (being reissued this May in an anthology) set in England in the late 1820s. The heroine of “The Mad Earl’s Bride” wanted to be a doctor. That was not going to happen. The medical profession was closed to women. Men had even moved into midwifery, traditionally a feminine occupation, and pushed women out. It would be a long time before women obstetricians/gynecologists (re-)appeared on the scene. There was a time not at all long ago when it was hard to find a woman doctor of any kind, even in a large city.
Which makes Elizabeth Blackwell’s achievement all the more impressive. She had tried teaching and it didn’t agree with her (oh, I can relate!). Then a dying friend inspired her to become a doctor. Unthinkable! Even her strongest supporters told her the only way she could get into medical school was to disguise herself as a man. I don’t doubt that this is a route a few other women took—we do know of women who got into the military that way. But imagine the complications. You have to stay in disguise all through school, and then you get a diploma in someone else’s name, which means you’re not legally a doctor??? So you pretend to be a man for the rest of your life??????
Not Elizabeth. She stuck to her guns, eventually got accepted into a small medical school, and in 1849 became the first woman to complete a course of study at a medical college and receive the M.D. degree. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing after that. But hers is an amazing story of a dauntless woman. You can read all about it at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The presentation, “That Girl There Is a Doctor of Medicine,”
includes pictures of many original documents.
Her story appears on Harvard University’s Women Working 1800-1930 as well. I’d also recommend a very interesting, late 19th century book, Our famous women: An authorized and complete record of the lives and deeds of eminent women of our times. Giving for the first time the life history of women who have won their way from poverty and obscurity to fame and glory...Superbly illustrated —and it is, actually. Dr. Blackwell’s story includes the dramatic illustration at right of an incident at medical school.
Among ourselves as well as with you, Susan & I have talked about which fashion eras seem to be more flattering to one time of life than another. We’ve agreed that the fashions of the Regency era were more flattering to slender, youthful figures than to more…er…mature, curvaceous ones. Bosoms were in fashion, though, and generously displayed in the evening.
In the 1920s, too, a youthful look ruled. But it was a boyish look. I didn’t fully realize how boyish, however, until the latest posts arrived from one of my new favorite blogs, the FIDM Museums & Galleries. The dress on display, Rachel points out, has no darts! That’s when it really sank in.
Today, while the “ideal” is tall & skinny, women are also supposed to have cleavage. You know: the Barbie look. It’s so important that some of us who don’t own that sort of real estate go out and buy it.
But not back in Clara Bow’s day. Interesting that the It Girl (at left above) offers us a very sexy display of back instead. I’ve put Greta Garbo up as well (at right below) because hers was that ideal figure.
But few of us possess the ideal figure, for then or now. I will never be as tall as Frances Stuart or the Countess of Castlemaine, let alone a runway model, and it’s a good bet that my skinny days are behind me. While I can appreciate beautiful clothes on the right body, I do fantasize about a greater variety of “right body” in designers’ repertoires. And so I couldn’t help cheering when I followed Rachel’s suggestion and took a look at Prada’s fashions for fall.
King Charles II (1630-1685), left, of England loved women, and women in turn loved him. From high-born peeresses to humble orange-girls, literally hundreds of women enjoyed the royal person during his lifetime. Only one lady of his court is known to have refused him: a beautiful nineteen-year-old Maid of Honor named Frances Stewart (1647-1702), lower right.Although Charles pursued her for months, Frances clearly had other interests. This is an excerpt from the Memoirs of Philibert, Comte de Gramont, one of the greatest gossips of the 17th century.
It was near midnight: the king met [Frances's] chambermaids [at her bedchamber door], who respectfully opposed his entrance, and, in a very low voice, whispered to His Majesty that Miss Stewart had been very ill; but that, having gone to bed, she was God be thanked, in a very fine sleep.
"That I must see," said the king, pushing her back...He found Miss Stewart in bed, indeed, but far from being asleep: the Duke of Richmond was seated at her pillow, and in all probability was less inclined to sleep than herself. The perplexity of the one party, and the rage of the other, were such as may easily be imagined upon such a surprise. The king, who, of all men was one of the most mild and gentle, testified his resentment to the Duke of Richmond in such terms as he had never before used. The duke was speechless, and almost petrified...Miss Stewart's window was very convenient for a sudden revenge, the Thames flowing close beneath it..and seeing the king more incensed...than he thought his nature capable of, [the duke] made a profound bow, and retired, without a single word to the vast torrent of threats and menaces that were poured upon him.
Miss Stewart, having a little recovered from her first surprise, instead of justifying herself...said everything that was most capable to inflame the king's...resentment; that, if she were not allowed to receive visits from a man of the Duke of Richmond's rank, who came with honourable intentions, she was a slave in a free country;...if this was not permitted her...she did not believe that there was any power on earth that could hinder her from going over to France, and throwing herself into a convent, to enjoy there that tranquillity which was denied her in this court. The king, sometimes furious with anger, sometimes relenting at her tears...nearly was induced to throw himself upon his knees, and entreat pardon for the injury he had done her...when instead she desired him to retire, and leave her in repose, at least for the remainder of that night....This impertinent request provoked and irritated the king to the highest degree: he went out abruptly, vowing never to see her more.
Ladies who refuse kings, let alone berate them in their bedchambers, seldom fare well in history. But Frances won. Soon after this night in 1667, she eloped with her duke, and the pair were married – much to the displeasure and disappointment of the King.
Above: Charles II, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by James Michael Wright
Our readers may have noticed the two new book covers at right. Yes, we are the Two Nerdy History Girls, but when we're not writing blogs, we're writing novels, and these are our newest, scheduled to appear in your look bookstore around summer's end. Loretta's Last Night's Scandalarrives in August, and Susan's The Countess & the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester & King James II in September. We'll have more to say about them over the next few months, but we couldn't resist showing off our covers now.
As for both covers having a purple-theme...we have no idea how that happened. Completely different genres, stories, and publishers. Must have been something in the air or the stars. Or maybe purple is this year's Gemini color.
Left: Detail from Southwark Fair by William Hogarth, 1733
There was a time, not so very long ago, when a woman (or man) wouldn’t think of leaving the house without a hat. Some of us may remember the collection of hatboxes in our mothers’ or grandmothers’ closets—or the thrill of going out to buy a new outfit for Easter, complete with hat. But nowadays even the Easter bonnet has become an endangered species.
Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum dealing with life in a New England village of the 1830s, wants us to know that it didn’t matter whether one lived out in the sticks in a community that didn’t really celebrate Easter. The ladies still cared about what went on their heads, they were far from immune to fashion, and with spring’s arrival, they burst out in new or at least spruced-up bonnets. You can read the story here.
According to the newspaper article that caught my attention, “Mid 19th century women typically owned four types of bonnets: a decorated silk or straw one for spring, a folding cotton calash* for rain or travel, a winter velvet-lined bonnet or quilted hood, and a cotton or linen bonnet for outdoor work.” This took me completely by surprise. I’d no idea they went in for ribbons and feathers. Just goes to show the assumptions one makes about New England country folk.
For a short time—because the items are so fragile—some of the museum’s collection of bonnets will be on display. On Easter weekend, costumed interpreters will hold bonnet-making demonstrations. You can take an online tour of their bonnets here on the website.
Above left is a Straw bonnet with silk pleated lining, circa 1830, from the Old Sturbridge Village collection.
If you were an Englishman or Irishman of the past with quarterly rents to pay, you'd better know what today was. March 25 marks the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic Church, but it's also an old British Quarter Day, commonly known as Lady Day.
From at least the 12th c. to the mid-18th c., Lady Day was the beginning of the new business year. Lady Day was the day when annual contracts between landowners and landlords and their tenants would be renewed, rents fell due, and servants were hired.
Despite its Christian name (the "Lady" honors the Virgin Mary), the day's roots are more agricultural than religious. March 25 is the equinox, the day when day and night are the same length. To ancient pagans more in tune with nature's cycles, this seemed to be a fit place to begin the new year, and much more convenient than in the middle of snowy winter. It was also a good day for farmers to take time to tend to business matters, falling as it does neatly between plowing and harvest.
When England switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars in 1752, the first of January became the official beginning of the new year, and Lady Day lost much of its significance. It does, however, linger in the minds of modern English taxpayers. April 6, or Old Lady Day (adjusted with the days that were "lost" by the calendar change) is the English Tax Day.
Above: The Annunciation, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
For most of us, the notion of an English garden is pleasantly idyllic, with nodding roses and sweet-smelling annuals. King Henry VIII (1491-1547), however, seems to have had an entirely different idea. Judging by the newly recreated Chapel Garden at Henry's palace at Hampton Court, His Majesty expected his gardens to be something more than places for quiet reflection and relaxation.
Opened in 2009 to honor the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne in 1509, the garden is not an exact replica of a specific historical garden, but a historically based plausibility. In other words, it could have existed, and all of the aspects of its design are accurate to the Tudor era. With bold color and geometry as well as imaginary creatures, this garden makes a brave statement about power, male aggression, and royal lineage among the Tudors.
Bordered with green and white striped enclosures, the beds are filled with plants and herbs common to 16th c. gardens. The garden is the work of well-known historical gardener Todd Longstaffe-Gowan (click here for a splendid overhead photo of the garden, complete with Henry himself in the middle, and more examples of Mr. Longstaffe-Gowan's work.)
But what most people will remember about the garden are the "Kyng's Beestes" that guard it. These fantastical carved male figures (and imaginary or not, they are all very obviously male) are drawn from Tudor heraldry, and would have been instantly recognized by members of Henry's court as representing the royal family. Even the paint colors were carefully chosen to reflect heraldic traditions, and are appropriate to the time. The Tudor Court was not one known for subtlety, particularly in design; even stone statues were often brightly painted.
The three beasts shown here are the Red Dragon of Wales, the Panther (shown as "'incensed', with flames coming from its mouth and ears, which represent its fragrant breath"), and the Golden Lion of England. Others include the White Greyhound of Richmond, the White Hart, the Black Bull of Clarence, and the Silver Yale of Beaufort. And no, I didn't know what a Silver Yale was, either –– it's a beast with "the body of an Antelope, a Lion's tale and horns which can swivel round to counter attack from all quarters."
Whether these beasts feel the need to counter attack present-day tourists to Hampton Court remains to be seen. But considering Henry's nature, I'm sure he would have loved this gaudy, bellicose anniversary "gift."
These photographs come courtesy of the blog of Patrick Baty, a master painter who specializes in historically accurate paints for projects ranging from these Tudor garden ornaments to Georgian churches and Victorian bridges. For more about this garden and photographs of the other "beestes" as well as examples of his other projects, check out Mr. Baty's blog here.
UPDATE: Even better! I just found this video on YouTube--a tour of the chapel court garden and an explanation of the beasts by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who designed it.
It's not 1810 and we're not miserable objects, most of us, but I wonder whether there's anyone out there who doesn't recognize this doctor-patient scenario.
I have been carried to one of the hospitals of this great town, supported by voluntary contributions. I shall relate what I saw. The physician, seated at a table in a large hall on the ground-floor, with a register before him, ordered the door to be opened; a crowd of miserable objects, women, pushed in, and ranged themselves along the wall; he looked in his book, and called them to him successively. Such a one! The poor wretch, leaving her wall, crawled to the table. " How is your catarrh ?" " Please your honour, no offence I hope, it is the asthma. I have no rest night nor day, and "—" Ah, so it is an asthma! It is somebody else who has the catarrh. Well, you have been ordered to take, &c." —" Yes, Sir, but I grow worse and worse, and—" —" That is nothing, you must go on with it,"—" But, Sir, indeed I cannot."—" Enough, enough, good woman, I cannot listen to you any more ; many patients to get through this morning,—never do to hear them talk,—go, and take your draught, &c."—The catarrh woman made way for a long train of victims of consumption, cases of fever, dropsy, scrofula, and some disorders peculiar to women, detailed, without any ceremony, before young students…
… There is, however, more indifference than ignorance here; for in no part of the world is the art of medicine carried farther than in London ; and, without being at all qualified to judge, the mere circumstance of this art and those who practice it being so much more respected here than in France, is sufficient to convince me of their superiority. In France, surgery is honoured, while medicine is slighted. Moliere has much to answer for this; and if Shakespeare had taken it into his head to laugh at physicians, there is no knowing how they would fare in England at this day.
Illustration above left is an 1820 view of Guy's Hospital. Below right is Middlesex Hospital from Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808). You can see a larger, sharper image at Motco. More about the Microcosm here.
I love the backs of 18th c. gowns. The drapery, the pleats, the tapered, tailored waists above extravagant poufs of gleaming silk: can there be any more graceful or figure-flattering style? Seeing these gowns on the ladies of Colonial Williamsburg shows how just as much care was lavished on the back of gown as on the front – a viewpoint not often seen in portraits or fashion plates of the time. Also interesting, too, is how clearly the stiff, conical shape of a lady's stays shows through the bodice of the gowns.
The orange and green gown, lower left, is a mantua in the style of the late 17th-early 18th c., while the other three are all fashionable for the 1770s. The two gowns to the right have their skirts caught up with buttoned loops a la Polonaise.
The grey silk sack gown with the flowing pleats, upper left, is now often called a Watteau gown, because of being so frequently painted by the French painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). The CW lady, standing here in the milliner's shop, does remind me very much of another lady shopping in Watteau's painting, lower right, of the gallery of the Parisian art dealer Gersaint. (Here's a link, since blogger is being testy, and refusing to enlarge the picture today. )Even off in the provincial backwater/tidewater of 18th c. Virginia, Paris set the fashion.
In his memoirs, George Elers devotes loving attention to his clothes:
1790 “…among other fashionable parts of my clothing was a pair of leather unmentionables* that I had the greatest difficulty of getting into—a feat I accomplished not without assistance. Our servant, I recollect, fairly lifted me off the ground in the operation. And then the buttoning of them, and, when once buttoned, the difficulty of undoing! After passing a sleepless night and encasing myself with the utmost difficulty, the chaise arrived at the door. I shall never forget the lashing on of the trunks and the piling up of the bandboxes, hatcases, etc., all belonging to the ladies, to astonish the country folks with the last London fashions ; and my poor, unfortunate little person wedged in between two (to me) large ladies in my tight leathers. Oh the misery I endured in a hot, broiling day in the month of June travelling seventy-two miles !
1796 “I was taught to expect that I should see my name in the Gazette very shortly, when to my great joy one Saturday in the month of March I saw : 'George Elers, gent., to be Ensign without purchase in the 90th Regiment.' I was highly pleased, and read it over and over again—the first time I ever saw my name in print.
“No officer, with the exception of Colonel Aston, had such a kit. I had six regimental jackets, besides dress-coats, great-coat, shirts about twelve dozen, and everything in the same proportion. My lieutenancy was dated April 12, 1796. I waited upon my Colonel, who at that time was living at Nerot's Hotel, King Street, St. James's. I was aware, even in those days, of the effect of first impressions, and took great pains to be dressed well on my first appearance before him. His features and fine figure I knew perfectly by sight. I was dressed in black coat and waistcoat, white worsted pantaloons, and neat Hessian half-boots, with a crape hat-band. I was ushered into his dressing-room, where he was putting the last finish to his toilet. I told him who I was. He shook me by the hand, eyed me most critically from head to foot, said I turned out well, and finished by asking me the name of my tailor. I was ashamed to confess it was an obscure one by the name of Weston, then not known, but afterwards the celebrated artiste for the Prince of Wales.”
*By the mid-1700s, the word "breeches" was starting to be considered impolite in mixed company. They became "small-clothes," and later (as times grew more prudish still) "unmentionables" and "inexpressibles."
Memoirs of George Elers: Captain in the 12th Regiment of foot (1777-1842) to which are added correspondence and other papers, with genealogy and notes. Editors Sir George Granville Leveson-Gower, Augustus Debonnaire John Monson Monson (9th baron) PublisherD. Appleton and Co., 1903. You can dip into this delightful book at Internet Archive or Google Books.
Alas, no portraits of him. Above left is Ingres' Monsieur Riviere. Below right is Rowlandson's caricature of a Royal Navy Officer.
Last month I wrote about the large pearl that King Charles I wore in one ear. It seems only fair to write about an equally famous pair of pearl earrings worn by his queen, and several others besides. Many legendary jewels of the past have disappeared through wars and revolution, or have been broken up, re-cut, and reset until they bear no resemblance to their original design. But these magnificent earrings, left, have miraculously survived with both pearls and diamonds intact, and with a tantalizing history to match.
The earrings first appear as part of the dower jewels of Marie de' Medici (1575-1642), an Italian princess who left her native Florence to wed the French king, Henry IV(1552-1610).The de' Medici family was old, powerful, and very wealthy, and the jewels that Marie brought with her astonished the French court. At this time, pearls were the most valuable of precious gems, rare accidents of nature. The two almost perfectly matched droplet pearls in the new queen's favorite pair of pendant earrings were of a quality not been seen before in Paris. Other women at the court wore pearl drops (many ladies in 17th c. portraits are shown with them) but most of these pearls were coated glass. Marie's were real, and fit for a queen. She was painted wearing the earrings, right, in 1616 by Peter Paul Rubens.
When Marie's youngest daughter, the princess Henriette Marie (1609-1699), married the English King Charles I (1600-1649) in 1625, Marie gave the pearl earrings to her as a wedding gift. Henriette, too, was painted many times wearing the earrings, including this portrait of her as a young wife in 1632 by Sir Anthony van Dyck. Her marriage was a happy one, and blessed with many children. But the earrings brought Henriette no luck as the English queen. Her husband's unpopular politics eventually led to a disastrous civil war that cost him his life. Henriette was forced to flee the country in 1644 soon after giving birth to their last daughter, leaving the baby behind. In exile in France with her sons, she was forced to gradually sell all her jewels first to help support her husband's army, and then, as a widow, to keep herself from poverty. Mementos of happier times, the pearl earrings were among the last jewels to go, finally being purchased by her nephew, the French King Louis XIV (1638-1714) in 1657.
The nineteen-year-old Louis had fallen desperately in love with eighteen-year-old Marie Mancini (1639-1715), the Italian niece of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the king's primary minister. At first the match was approved both by the cardinal and Louis's widowed mother, and Louis presented the pearl earrings to Marie as his future queen. Marie's portrait, left, shows her wearing the pearls along with flowers in her hair. But politics intruded and the match was broken off, with Louis instead marrying the Spanish Infanta Maria Theresa, and Marie wed to the Roman Prince Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna. But Marie kept the king's pearls, and the earrings were by now so associated with her that they became known by her name, the Mancini Pearls.
No one is certain whether she left the earrings to one of her children, or sold them herself during her long and tumultuous life. In fact, there is no record of the pearls at all for nearly 250 years, until they appeared at Christie's auction house in New York in October, 1979. There they were sold to a private collector for $253,000, a price that almost seems reasonable considering all the history attached to them. They remain among the most famous jewels sold by Christie's, and are still featured on their website.
Now I know that pearls, however beautiful, are inanimate objects, and no more than the work of an irritated oyster. But don't you wish these earrings could tell their story, and repeat even a few of the confidences and endearments, promises and secrets once whispered into the ears that wore them?
Though I’ve never collected it, I’ve always liked blue and white pottery, and will gaze in delight at specimens in the display cases of museums—even though, as is often the case with objects in museums, I don’t know much about it.
One thing I didn’t know was that Lord Byron inspired a china pattern. It’s called Byron Views, and was made by Copeland & Garrett about 1834. “The views are adapted from Finden’s ‘Landscapes and Portrait Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron’, published by John Murray in 1832 and after in three volumes.” Turns out there was also a series based on William Coombs’s “Three Tours of Doctor Syntax,” with illustrations by Rowlandson.
Like other Shire books in my collection, this is a wonderful little volume packed with a great many pictures and tons of information. I’ve used these books time and again in my research—sometimes for facts, sometimes for inspiration. This one offers plenty of both, starting with a Glossary and History and going on to detailed photos of the manufacturing process, and proceeding to discussions of the patterns and colors (including a chart of the tones of blue). IOW, perfect for Nerdy History Girls and Boys. Like other Shire books, it offers an extensive bibliography and suggests places to visit.
What I especially liked about this volume was all the surprises it held. Along with the Byron and Doctor Syntax series, I discovered a Regency-era vegetable dish in a Spode pattern called Sunflower and Convolvulus—which I could have sworn was modern.
The Blue and White Museum has some examples of the Byron Views pattern (on the Museum page, type “Byron Views” in the Pattern Name section). Here’s one. Other examples of the pattern, but in green, are here.
The illustration at right, which was used on one of the plates shown in the book, is Rowlandson’s "Doctor Syntax and the Bees," from The Tour of Doctor Syntax Vol 2,available online at the Internet Archive.
Many young English gentlemen from the 17th c. onward completed their formal education with a Grand Tour. An extended journey across the Continent usually made in the company of a tutor, the Tour was supposed to give that extra polish to a young man through the appreciation of art and ancient architecture, and by exposure to the more refined company to be found in France and Italy. In theory, anyway. For a good many of these young gentlemen, the beauty to be viewed was often in the opera house chorus, and the company wasn't very refined. But oh, the tales that must have been told when they returned home!
Here is one such story from Paris in 1711, gleefully detailed in a letter that probably wasn't shared with young Mr. Dixon's mother:
"I cannot omit setting down here an adventure that happened to Mr. [Thomas] Dixon at the Comte de Douglass assemblee. After he had played at cards some time with Madame de Polignac, a very handsome lady, she profered to set him at home in her coach: which he very willingly accepted of. This young gentleman (who was a man of pleasure) finding himself alone with a fine young lady, could not forbear putting his hand where some women would not let him. After he had pleased himself thus for some time and she had bore it with a great deal of patience, she told him (in a pleasant manner) that since he had been so very free with her, she could not forbear being familiar with him. Upon which she handled his arms, and finding them not fit for present service, she beat him very heartily. He said all he could for himself, telling her that he had been upon hard duty for some time in the Wars of Venus, and if she would give him but one day to recruit on, he would behave himself like a man: she minded not his excuses but turned him out of the coach, and gave him this advice –– 'Never to attack a young handsome lady as she was when his ammunition was spent.'"
Most of my Regency era heroes attend Etonand Oxford, even though I know a great many men of the time passed through both institutions with little effect on their intellects. In fact, I have often wondered how much the Eton experience contributed to the stunning number of occasions of Men Behaving Badly. There was the fagging for one thing, and the Spartan living conditions and—oh, yes—there was the flogging.
“George Heath, known to the boys as ‘Ascot Heath’ after the racecourse with which they were no doubt familiar, was appointed Head Master in 1792. He was a strict disciplinarian, and on one occasion is said to have flogged seventy boys at one session, if that is the word, administering ten strokes to each. As a result ‘ he was laid up with aches and pains for more than a week.’ In 1798 he gave fifty-two boys ‘a round dozen each.’ Despite these severities he quite failed to suppress the driving of tandems around Eton and Windsor, and on two occasions during Scrope’s* time at Eton virtually the whole school failed to appear for Absence.** On the first occasion they preferred to attend the first ever cricket match between two public schools, Eton against Westminster, and on the second they made an excursion by boat up the river to Maidenhead…
“The occasion is still recalled at Eton when Keate confused the list of those to be confirmed with that of those to be punished, and flogged the confirmands with a will reinforced by their apparently blasphemous protestations.”
He was about five feet tall.
*Scrope Berdmore Davies, a great friend of Lord Byron
From The Rise & Fall of a Regency Dandy: The Life and Times of Scrope Berdmore Davies, by T.A.J. Burnett.
Like most women of the past, Susanna Bosanquet Whatman (1753-1814) led a life that history would regard as unremarkable: she married well and happily, bore several children, and died after a long, industrious life. (She also had her portrait painted by George Romney, left.) She would be completely forgotten today except for a small volume she wrote for her own use that has miraculously survived.
The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman was written in 1776, soon after her marriage to James Whatman, the prosperous owner of several paper-making mills. At twenty-four, she was now the mistress of Turkey Hill, her husband's substantial estate in Kent. Despite her youth, Susanna had been well-trained by her mother, and knew how to run a large household and manage a staff of servants, and like a modern-day CEO, she kept a manual of job descriptions, responsibilities, and how exactly she liked things done.
It's a happy myth that the grand households of the past were maintained by an unchanging staff of loyal servants. In reality, servants frequently came and went for many reasons, and most ladies kept books like Susanna's to make such transitions as seamless as possible. Few other such housekeeping books have been preserved, however, which makes Susanna's so important, and also so informative. As a sample, this is only the beginning of the Cook's responsibilities:
When a new Cook comes, much attention is necessary til she is got into all the common rules and observances such as the care above mentioned: filling the hog pails: washing up butter dish, sallad bowl, etc.: giving an eye to the scowering of saucepans by the Dairymaid: preserving the water in which the meat is boiled for broth: keeping all her places clean: managing her fire and her kitchen linen: making good bread, etc. Such things are material points, and of more consequence to be first attended to than any part of the cookery, except the quite common attentions of cleaning the fish properly, roasting and boiling in a proper manner, and warming up the servants' breakfasts.
The Cook should see that heavy things are not set in the Scullery upon the plates and dishes. She may always call back a servant whom she sees do it, or if they leave bones or hard things such as spoons etc. in a dish, and then put other dishes on it.
The Cook should have all proper kitchin linen and keep it good and mended....
A certain order or method is necessary at dishing up, and there is no excuse for waiting for a second course, the Kitchin being so near, as the Housekeeper may always have any of the maids to assist the Cook at the going in of the dinner. This teaches the Cook to contrive, and be quicker....
There should be a place in the Kitchin for everything kept there, otherwise it will be lost or mislaid without being missed, and [this] holds good for every other department and saves many things and much trouble.
And all this is only from the first page regarding the Cook! More to come about Susanna's other servants in future posts....
This being Fashion Week in Paris, I think—somewhere in the world, it always seems to be Fashion Week—it’s an appropriate time for the monthly look at fashion of other eras. I see the dresses that appear in La Belle Assemblée as the haute couture of their time, though it was not yet the era of big-name designers.
Then as today, only a very small minority could afford the kinds of attire my fashion posts have featured. And today, while designer names are household words, and the clothes are equally if not more costly, and there’s a good supply of one-of-a-kind, even high fashion is no longer exclusively made by hand, as it was once upon a time. I recently watched Valentino: The Last Emperor. I was very interested to learn that, yes, a sewing machine had been purchased for his seamstresses. One sewing machine. And no one would touch it. Every last stitch was done by hand—and the women work in the way the milliners at Colonial Williamsburg explained and demonstrated: draping and cutting.
It’s good to keep in mind that then as now, privileged women wore these fashions. And none of them had jobs to go to. Practicality wasn't a high priority. Display was.
Regarding the gigantic sleeves of the 1830s, readers have asked how women avoided getting the "Falieri" sleeves in their soup, and how much room the monstrosities took up at the dining table and elsewhere. I think the situation is analogous to wearing very high heels. Fashion models do it all the time and mostly manage not to break their necks. You wear them all the time, you learn how to deal with them.
For instance, in the 18th century, women knew how to manage hoop petticoats because they’d grown up wearing them.
Where people got into trouble was wearing fashions they weren’t used to—as at Court in the Regency era, when ladies were required to wear hoop petticoats generations after they’d gone out of fashion. Cruikshank offers a lively view of a Royal Drawing Room, in which both men and women in court attire encounter difficulties their grandparents probably would have handled more gracefully.
The print is George Cruikshank's "Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room," 1818.
Yet one more film version of Lewis Carroll's 1865 fantastical novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been launched upon the world, and in this incarnation, it's the Mad Hatter who takes center stage, on the screen and in the advertising. While being portrayed by Johnny Depp probably has something to do with it, the Hatter remains one of the more memorably irrational characters in a book that is full of them. He's also one of the first characters in English literature whose actions are driven by the power of fashion combined with the effects of occupational bio-hazards.
Beaver-felt hats for Western European gentlemen were one of those rare fashions that didn't linger just a season or two, but instead lasted for centuries. First appearing about 155o, the hats did change shape over time, from the tall-crowned ones worn by Elizabethan courtiers, to the wide-brimmed cavalier hats with floating plumes in the 1630s, to the ubiquitous black three-corner cocked hats of the 18th century, and, finally, to the tall-crowned styles favored by the Victorians (and Abraham Lincoln.) All were created from felt made of beaver fur, and all were the work of the hatters' trade.
Beaver hats were expensive. Not only was the raw material – beaver pelts – imported from North America (Scandinavian beavers were largely extinct by 1600), but the manufacture was a lengthy and complicated process, with the finer details closely guarded by the hatters themselves. Beaver hats were the mark of a gentleman, a status symbol that, once purchased, was carefully tended.
But the real cost wasn't to the customers' pockets, but to the hatters. Here's a complete explanationof the hat making process. Several steps involve the use of a "nitrate of mercury" to help transform the fur, which disastrously also transformed the hatters themselves. Constant exposure to the fumes attacked their nervous systems, leading to uncontrolled twitching, lurching, stammering, general strange behavior, and, too often, an early death.
Yet the prevailing logic wasn't that being a hatter made a man mad, but that only crazy men became hatters. As long as beaver hats remained in fashion, the trade was regarded as a good, prosperous one to pursue, and there was seldom a shortage of willing apprentices.
The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would certainly have been aware of the strange behavior of hatters. He was born in Stockport, a town in Greater Manchester that was historically a center of hat making. The expression "mad as a hatter" was already in common usage by 1857, when the boys in Thomas Hughes'Tom Brown's Schooldaysrefer to a classmate as being "mad as a hatter" – interestingly, a boy with a scientific bent who nearly blows up the dormitory with his "mad" chemical experiments.
While modern medical historians claim that Carroll's Hatter doesn't really display the clinical effects of mercury poisoning, it still seems likely that Carroll intended his readers to see the character as the irrational embodiment of an everyday expression. As for Tim Burton interpreting the Hatter as having bright orange hair: well, why not?
So what about the madness of the March Hare, another guest at Alice's tea party? His goofy expression has a much more innocuous explanation. March is the mating season for wild hares, who do indeed go crazy in pursuit of one another. The straw tucked into his ears is supposed to represent a recent amatory conquest in the field: the bunny version of a role in the hay. Ah, spring!
Above: The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
When my heroes buy jewelry for their mistresses or the heroine, they always go to Rundell and Bridge, goldsmiths familiar to readers of Regency-era stories. I did find No. 32 Ludgate Hill, where the shop once was, and had my picture taken there, and closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would have looked like in, say, 1818 or 1828. Not easy. Rundell & Bridge is mentioned frequently in books and magazines, fiction and non-fiction, but illustrations are very thin on the ground.
Too, one sees pictures of objects the Prince Regent/King George IV bought from the firm and reads about the amounts of money he spent, but this Nerdy History Girl’s nerdiness was never fully satisfied: What exactly did the shop look like? How about an interior? What kinds of little trinkets did the Regent buy for his favorites? Here's a cartoon interior . And here are further glimpses. But I wanted more.
Then one day I discovered Christopher Hartop’s Royal Goldsmiths: The Art of Rundell and Bridge 1797-1843. I don’t remember what led me to it, but I do remember my NHG jump-up-and-down excitement and complete lack of hesitation in ordering it. It’s a wonderful book, a beautifully detailed and splendidly illustrated catalog that accompanied an exhibition. Among other wonderful things, it includes a large 1790s illustration of Ludgate Hill and the shop front. You can find out more about the book at the Christopher Hartop site.
Then, the other day, I came to a dead stop in my perusal of the Wall Street Journal , riveted by an advertisement with a picture of a fantastically ornate silver thing with gods and goddesses flailing about. "That looks familiar," thought I.
“Fit for a King…and a Queen,” the copy read. And so it was.
It turns out that you, too, can own an actual Rundell and Bridge sterling silver ice pail made for the Royal Family in 1827. You’d probably better hurry and put it in your shopping bag before Her Majesty does, but for a mere $1,500,000 you, too, can cool your wine in the same cooler King George IV used. Or his brother, the Duke of Cumberland. Somebody royal, at any rate. You can read more about it under “Item Details,” at the M.S. Rau Antiques site.
Bottom right illustration is The Crimson Drawing Room of Carlton House (pulled down in 1826-27), a watercolor by W.H. Pyne. It gives an idea of the rich furnishings supplied by Rundell & Bridge and others.
Since Susan and I write books dealing with England and the English, we’re constantly reminded that English is a foreign language. And a minefield. Among other things, there’s pronunciation. Now I grew up knowing something about tricky words because I was born in Worcester, which most people pronounce incorrectly—including, I was stunned to discover, one actual English person actually speaking on the phone to me from England. It’s pronounced Wooh (like the sound in wool or full)-ster—except by a large segment of its populace, who pronounce it Wis-tah. You can hear it with an English accent here.
One of my Regency dreamboats, Granville Leveson-Gore, was another name tease. It’s Loo-son-Gaw according to Black’s Title and Forms of Address and Lewson-Gorr according to the 1936 Whitaker’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage. But if you're talking about Gower Street, it’s pronounced the way it looks.
A marquis in England, one soon learns, is a mar-kwiss or a mar-kwess but not a mar-kee.
[Illustration: Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, England from Morris's Country Seats (1880)]
In researching my latest book, Last Night’s Scandal, I learned that Alnwick, Northumberland, loses a few consonants in pronunciation. It’s An-ik.
Lady Cowper, one of Almack’s patronesses was Lady Couper according to Manners and Rules of Good Society. But Black’s Titles and Forms of Address offers both Koo-per andKow-per.
Another name familiar to Regency aficionados is King George IV’s mistress Lady Conyngham. She was Lady Kun-ingam. Meanwhile, Cholmondeley shrinks down to Chum-li (Click on the symbol to hear it here.) Cockburn is Co-burn, and Colquhoun is Ko-hoon.
Lord Elgin—of the famous Marbles—is said with a hard “g.”
Knollys is Knoles.
Mainwaring is Man-nering.
Marjoribanks is March-banks.
Ponsonby is Pun-sunbi.
Pontefract is usually Pum-fret but sometimes said as spelled.
Ruthven is Riv-ven or Ri-then.
Slaithwaite is Slo-it, except when it’s said as spelled.
Urquhart is Erk-ert.
Villiers is Vil-lers.
Waldegrave is Wawl-grave. This is definitely audience participation, so feel free to add your favorite doesn't-sound-like-what-it-looks-like names.
Top left is a detail of a full-length portrait of Granville-Leveson Gower by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It hangs in the Yale Center for British Art, along with an astounding collection of other beautiful paintings.
Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait--at bottom right--of Lady Conyngham is dated 1821-24, when she was the Marchioness Conyngham.
While much of the U.S. is still burdened and buried by winter, spring does seem a long way off. But it's easy to forget that for people of the past, this truly was the most difficult time of the year. All the food that had been stored away in the fall was mostly gone by now, and the few lone onions and moldy turnips remaining in the cellar must have looked unappetizing indeed.
In many parts of Europe and North America, the earliest new plants to sprout in the spring were stinging nettles, right. The young, tender leaves were carefully gathered and boiled to neutralize their sting, then relished as a "fresh" vegetable, the first on the table in many months. It's a healthy vegetable, too, full of protein and iron, with the taste of spinach. Still, when our modern groceries can offer us strawberries all year round, I doubt anyone today joyfully greets the first stinging nettles as a true harbinger of spring.
I took the pictures, above, of the formal, 18th c. style English gardens in Colonial Williamsburg very early one morning last April, 2009. The leaves were new and feathery in the trees and the grass had that first sharp green of the season. Proof that, even after this particularly nasty winter, spring WILL come!
Given the state of medicine in the early 1800s, it’s amazing that anybody survived into his or her nineties, let alone to a hundred or more. But my Annual Registers offer proof that a handful of people did live to 100 and beyond. They also offer sad proof of the high rate of infant mortality.
The illustration is from a page of the 1820 Annual Register (a lot happened that year, and it goes to two volumes, of which I have only one). For easier reading, I've retyped the top part below.
A GENERAL BILL OF ALL THE CHRISTENINGS AND BURIALS, WITHIN THE BILLS OF MORTALITY*, FROM DECEMBER 14, 1819 TO DECEMBER 12, 1820.
Christened—in all 23,158….Males 11,993….Females 11,165
Buried—in all 19,348....Males 9794.... Females 9554
Whereof have died under 2 years..4758
Between 2 and 3 years………………….1795
5 and 10……………………………………….. 887
10 and 20……………………………………… 667
20 and 30……………………………………..1484
30 and 40……………………………………..2006
40 and 50……………………………………..2069
50 and 60……………………………………..1878
60 and 70……………………………………..1632
70 and 80……………………………………..1208
80 and 90……………………………………… 662
90 and 100……………………………………. 119
The causes of death make interesting and puzzling reading. “Stoppage in the stomach”????
*“within the bills of mortality” means London. You can find additional interesting statistics here.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.