Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Teeth are not the most romantic of subjects, but bear with me, because they give today's romantic novelist quite a problem.

A trip to the dentist today has made me think about teeth, and how we portray them in our Regency novels. When one considers the lack of hygiene and poor diet of the time it is hardly surprising that most writers of that age rarely mention teeth. There were of course chewsticks and hogshair toothbrushes, with salt, burnt bread or charcoal used for cleaning (I have also come across a recipe for a toothpaste made of dragon's blood, cinnamon and burnt alum, but this was the age of Enlightenment, so I hope our Regency forebears would have seen through this scam!). In all likelihood very few adults would have had a full set of pearly white teeth, and it is noticeable that no one ever smiles in portraits (George Washington is a good example – he had a set of wooden teeth, so he kept his mouth firmly closed!) There is one exception that I have found, a French lady, Madame VigĂ©e Lebrun (above). She exhibited her self-portrait in the Paris Salon in 1787 and was widely condemned - she broke the convention that western artists only painted open mouths to display bad teeth or subject that were mad, bad or of low birth!

Of course, for the sake of Romance we must be allowed to indulge in a little fantasy: our heroine sees a flash of white as the rakish hero grins at her across a darkened carriage, or she may laugh and display her white, even teeth. Occasionally we allow our characters to have bad breath, or rotting teeth, but these are usually out and out villains.

Today we can have our teeth filled, cleaned, whitened, straightened and a host of other treatments designed to give us that dazzling smile. In Regency times the best they could do was to have someone else's teeth screwed in to their mouth. The poor who were blessed with a good set of molars would often sell them and after the Battle of Waterloo, women (and probably men too) scoured the battlefield, pulling teeth from the corpses: these were sold on to dentists for use by the rich in the capitals of Europe. It was a lucrative trade, and even if we sometimes mention this darker side of history in our books, I doubt if it will affect my heroes and heroines. They will of course be very strict about their oral hygiene and consequently have beautiful smiles!

Melinda Hammond


Anonymous said...

I agree it's not likely they'll have straight, white teeth, but I think healthy teeth aren't an impossibility, especially if the people are young and not particularly fond of sweet foods. And if someone's got a suntan (which is possible for a hero, if he's been in the navy or the army, but not at all likely for a regency miss) then even if the teeth are more of a normal ivory colour, the contrast will make them appear bright. If, as you say, the showing of teeth was considered vulgar, then we can't take the lack of teeth in portraits to indicate that people had bad teeth. And probably the people who had false teeth were a bit older - teeth do tend to decay more with age, and women in particular are more likely to have tooth problems during/after pregnancy.

I'm just not going to accept that all these heroes and heroines have dreadful teeth. ;-) Mind you, if they're like Colonel Brandon, as played by Alan Rickman, bad teeth won't impair their appeal.

Eva said...

Wonderful post, Melinda! A decidedly different view of the Regency era.

Anonymous said...

I am sure that some people had good teeth, but sugar was expensive and therefore popular with the idle rich. But of course, all our heroes and heroines are extremely healthy people with no bad habits :)

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