Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shedding a Little Light

I have been reading At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch, a fascinating review of what night meant for people from the middle ages to the late 18th century, a period when the small light man could produce served only to emphasis the darkness beyond.
Social life required a close eye on the phases of the moon to light you home at night, although in those days without light pollution starlight, when it was cloudless, served almost as well as moonlight.

In the home there was the light from the fire and candles, rush lights and oil lamps. Good candles were expensive – a job “not worth the candle” is one where the labour and the light outweighed the money that could be earned from it. But if one was set on extravagance you would “burn the candle at both ends.”

Beeswax candles were the most expensive. They smelled pleasant, they produced a good clear light and burning them was a sign of a well-to-do household. But even in the best homes it was considered wildly extravagant to allow the servants wax candles. Domestic staff and just about everyone else used tallow candles made from animal fat. The most common mix was mutton fat with some beef tallow. Candle-making was an autumn task, coinciding with slaughtering animals for the winter with plentiful supplies of fat to be rendered down.

Tallow candles stank of the fat they were made of and contained impurities which would stink and splutter. They needed constant attention and careful trimming of the wicks otherwise charred bits of wick, charmingly known as “snot”, would blow about and be a fire hazard.

Candles were sometimes taxed, especially during the 18th century and at times it was even illegal to make your own and avoid the tax.

If you could not afford even tallow candles you made do with rushlights. A rush would be dried and the peeled leaving just one thin strip along the length to reinforce it. The pithy core was then dipped time and again into kitchen fat and allowed to harden after each dipping until enough built up. Gilbert White the naturalist observed of one country housewife that “she obtains all her fat for nothing, for she saves the scummings of her bacon pot for this use.”

Even very frugal middle class homes would use some rushlights although they gave little light and burned relatively fast.

Oil lamps were less common in Britain than in continental Europe because there were fewer sources of vegetable and nut oils and the colder weather made the oil congeal in winter, but in the far north fish and birds oils were used and gradually the rose-coloured spermaceti oil from whales was availanble more widely.

It was considered the height of extravagance to use artificial light unless it was absolutely necessary. Some tasks such as knitting could be done virtually in the dark and women would gather in each others homes to share light and heat and gossip while they worked on mending, knitting or spinning – a habit that men mistrusted in case their wives were gossiping about them!

The gloom in even a quite lavishly-lit room seems very pronounced to modern eyes. Some National Trust houses are experimenting with it in a few rooms with the guides warning visitors to stand still for a few moments while their eyes adjust.

Candles burned at face height for those sitting so that wicks would easily be tended to and the light gave most help to the work in hand, or to cards or dice if games were being played. Cheating at cards, dalliance in dark corners and even a little “footsie” under the table could occur much more easily in these dim conditions.

In the 19thc more specialist lamps and lights began to appear, even before the advent of gas light in the home. The photograph is of a work lamp which is lit by a candle which rises up the column, pushed by a spring. The light is reflected off the polished brass of the inside of the hood and, during power cuts I find it quite sufficient to read by. A glass globe full of water placed between the candle and the person working was also used to magnify the light.

And finally one had to light oneself to bed, although servants were routinely forbidden candles in their bedchambers because of the fire risk. The fashionable young lady at the top of this post is making her way to bed is from an Ackermann print of 1823.

Louise Allen

Friday, February 17, 2012

Wreck and Rescue

It has been said that the Brison Rocks, pictured here and lying a short distance off Cape Cornwall, look like General De Gaulle lying in a bath - an accurate  if unflattering observation.  
During medieval times a prison was built on them.  In the 1960s an entrepreneur put forward plans for a luxury hotel. Perhaps it's as well nothing came of it for these rocks have a tragic past. 
In January 1851 a ship named the New Commercial, out of Liverpool bound for Jamaica, was caught in a violent storm. Gale-force winds and huge seas swept the vessel onto the Brisons where it was smashed to pieces. Six of the seven crew were swept to their deaths.  Only three people survived:  the master Captain Sanderson, his 34-year-old wife Mary, and a man named Isaac Williams.
Using bits of wreckage the resourceful Isaac built a small raft and managed to reach the sheltered waters of Whitesands Bay where he was rescued by local fishermen.  Word of the drama quickly spread as the captain and his wife remained trapped on the rocks by the raging storm. By daybreak on the second day almost five thousand spectators lined the cliff tops while the crews of several boats risked their own lives attempting to reach the stranded couple.
Mary Sanderson, wearing only a cotton nightdress, could not swim and her husband would not leave her.  A rocket line, a recent invention, was fetched and after several attempts one of the boats managed to fire a line onto the Brisons where the captain seized it.
Securing the rope around his terrified wife, Captain Sanderson urged her into the seething water. A tiny figure in the heaving waves, often lost to sight behind dense clouds of spray, she was gradually pulled to safety while the thousands watching from the cliff top roared encouragement. 
The instant she was safely aboard, the rescue boat  began to fight its way shoreward. But exhaustion, the bitter cold and the battering waves had sapped the last of Mary’s strength and she died before the boat reached land.  Her devastated husband was rescued later that day.
Mary was laid to rest in Sennen Churchyard.  Her brave rescuers received well-deserved medals. Three years later, in 1854, Sennen got its first lifeboat.   

Jane Jackson.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Regency Medicine

I've been under the cosh of a really horrible cold for weeks now. Not serious. Just a cold, even if it does make me feel h***ish some of the time.

It got me thinking about illness in the Regency period, though. It's fine for us -- we've got aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen and all sorts of other drugs. Besides, we've begun to understand what causes illnesses and how they can be cured.

The Regency, by and large, didn't.

Remember poor Jane, in P&P, who was laid up at Netherfield after being forced to ride there in the rain? Mrs Bennet wasn't worried that Jane would come to lasting harm, but people of the time did worry about colds, chills, and especially fevers. Think of Marianne in S&S -- Willoughby hears that Marianne is "dying of a putrid fever" which was, according to one of my reference books, another name for Typhus. Yet Marianne hadn't done much more than Jane. Both had been out in the pouring rain and had got thoroughly wet.

Fever cures were not great. And the term "fever" covered a wide range of illnesses. Dr Martin Howard (in his book Wellington's Doctors) says there were four types: typhus; malaria (intermittent fever or ague); and simple continued fever and remittent fevers including typhoid and dysentery. In places like the West Indies, there was also Yellow Fever which caused huge losses among British troops sent there -- possibly up to 70%.

Treatment was ghastly. This is treatment for Yellow Fever in the West Indies in 1801:

"The men on admission were conducted to a wash house containing warm and
cold baths. They were instantly bled to the quantity from 16 to 20
ounces. They were, on revival from fainting, which generally occurred,
plunged into a warm bath in numbers of 4 to 6 together and confined in by
blankets fastened over the machine till about suffocated. From hence they
were dashed into cold baths and confined until apparently lifeless.
Immediately after, a strong emetic was administered, they were carried to bed,
and a dose of calomel and James's powder given as a purge, which occasioned a
train of distressing symptoms for the relief of which they were bled again and
blistered from head to foot. They were bled a fourth and fifth time in the
space of 30 hours, and usually lost 60 to 70 ounces of blood."

I'm not surprised 7 out of 10 died. All that blood loss! Pints and pints of it!

Dr Howard cites an interesting trial of whether bleeding worked or not. In the 42nd Foot, during the Peninsular War, three surgeons managed a total of 366 sick soldiers; two surgeons did not bleed patients and one did. Of the two-thirds -- about 240 -- who were not bled, only seven died. Of the remaining 120 or so who were bled, 35 died. This was written up as a doctoral thesis in Edinburgh in 1816, not publicised, and so had no impact at all. The Regency kept on bleeding patients.

I'm going to stick to standard painkillers and the universal Scottish remedy for a cold -- hot toddy, with a good slug of whisky in it.


Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Suitable Husband

The digital version of A Suitable Husband has recently been released by AUK- an English company that is better known in the publishing world for producing digital books for mainstream publishers. They offer no editing, just preparation of the manuscript and a cover. However, the contract states that the author guarantees the manuscript has been professionally edited. I much prefer the digital cover - what do you think?
Robert hale Cover
Lots of writers are going down the self publishing route with varying degrees of success; some have sold many thousands others only a handful. Not being technical in the slightest I decided AUK could do the things that I couldn't and I wouldn't have to endure  hours of frustration or get a cover designed. I'll let you know whether I think my decision was a sound one.
AUK Cover

A Suitable Husband was my second book released by Robert Hale and was published in 2006. Reading it with hindsight, after having written more than thirty books, I could see several things I wouldn't do now. However, I still love my hero - an ex-soldier based closely on Sean Bean's betrayal of Sharpe - and there's enough action and romance to keep you turning the page. If you missed A Suitable Husband six years ago then you can now access it on your Kindle or other digital device.
All my books are available as e-books - either with Musa/Aurora or regencyreads.
Fenella Miller

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Happy Anniversary to Charles Dickens!

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Dickens is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the Victorian period but he was born during the Regency and spent the first 25 years of his life living under the reign of George III, George IV and William IV. His early years had a profound effect on the writer he became and provided many of the characters and experiences that he later used in his writing.

Dickens was born on February 7th 1812 in Portsea, Portsmouth. It was a momentous year, the year that the British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated and the United States Congress declared war on the United Kingdom. The Napoleonic War battles of Salamanca and Borodino took place. Lord Byron made his first speech in the House of Lords, defending the Luddite riots.

Dickens’ father was a clerk in the Navy Pay-Office and the family were comfortably off financially though John Dickens constantly lived beyond his means. His work took the family to London and thereafter to Kent where Charles had a few years of private education at William Giles School in Chatham. Dickens spoke nostalgically of his early childhood and the time he spent outdoors and also his voracious reading of authors such as Fielding and Smollett. This childhood ended abruptly in 1824 when John Dickens was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison and Charles was obliged to leave school and work in Warren’s blacking warehouse, pasting labels on blacking tins for 10 hours a day. The harsh working conditions had a profound effect on him and later influenced both his interest in reform and also his writing. The condition of the working poor became a strong theme in his work. He wrote of his own labour as a child:

“The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots.” He earned six shillings a week for a 10 hour day.

Memories of places such as the Marshalsea also stayed with him. The prison dated from medieval times and Dickens described it as full of "the crowded ghosts of many miserable years." He used the setting in his book "Little Dorrit."

To read Dickens is not only to read about the experience of the Victorian era but also to look back into his youth in the pre-Victorian age. It is full of the darker side of London life, the squalor and the poverty, drawn in vivid detail.

Are you a fan of Dickens' writing? Do you enjoy his descriptions? Which of his books do you enjoy? Or do you prefer the more glamorous side of the era?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

What's in a Name? The Top Fifty Male Names in 1800

Last month, I wrote about the top fifty female names in 1800. This month, I’m looking at the top fifty male names in 1800.

They are as follows:
1-10: William, John, Thomas, James, George, Joseph, Richard, Henry, Robert, Charles
11-20: Samuel, Edward, Benjamin, Isaac, Peter, Daniel, David, Francis, Stephen, Jonathan
21-30: Christopher, Matthew, Edmund, Philip, Abraham, Mark, Michael, Ralph, Jacob, Andrew
31-40: Moses, Nicholas, Anthony, Luke, Simon, Josiah, Timothy, Martin, Nathaniel, Roger
41-50: Walter, Aaron, Jeremy, Joshua, Alexander, Adam, Hugh, Laurence, Owen, Harry

These come from research into parish records undertaken by the Names Society who also researched the fifty most popular names for 1700. What is interesting, is that the very same names from 1800 are also in the top fifty for 1700, though the order changed slightly. (The same, incidentally, goes for the female names.) Continuity was everything. Sons were named after fathers, grandfathers, godfathers or patrons of the family and the same names were perpetuated.

The name I had expected to find, however, which wasn’t there, though it may, of course, be further down the list, was Frederick. It was a newcomer to the name pool, entering via the Hanoverian kings in the late 18th century. Jane Austen, who, incidentally, uses all of the top ten names apart from ‘Joseph’ in her novels, uses Frederick twice, for the obnoxious Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and for her energetic and likeable hero of Persuasion, Captain Frederick Wentworth.

So, where do the names come from? Over half come from the Bible; John, Thomas, James, Joseph, Peter, Stephen, Matthew, Philip, Mark, Andrew, Nicholas, Luke, Simon, Timothy, Nathaniel and Alexander come from the New Testament. Some of them are Greek variants of Hebrew names but others (Thomas, Peter, Philip, Andrew, Nicholas, Luke, Timothy and Alexander) are entirely Greek – a demonstration of how the early Christian church spread through Greek-speaking Asia Minor.

Samuel, Benjamin, Isaac, Daniel, David, Jonathan, Abraham, Michael, Jacob, Josiah, Moses, Aaron, Jeremy, Joshua and Adam are Old Testament names which came into the name pool with the Reformation. These names tended not to be used by the gentry and aristocracy. The only Old Testament name Jane Austen uses is ‘Samuel’ for one of Fanny Price’s brothers in Mansfield Park – not a family of much social distinction. It is interesting to note that many of these names rose in status as the 19th century went on.

Of the rest, William, George, Richard, Henry, Harry, Robert, Charles, Edmund, Edward and Francis are names used by royalty, many dating back to Norman or even Saxon times, as with Edward and Edmund. Other Norman names include Hugh, Walter, Laurence and Roger, which retained their social cachet, witness Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. And Mary Crawford, writing to Fanny in Mansfield Park comments on how well ‘Sir Edmund’ sounds.

Christopher and Martin, both saints’ names, came in during the Middle Ages and managed to survive the Reformation which discarded many saints’ names. Owen, though, is something of a puzzle. It was the name of the Welsh hero, Owen Glendower. It was also borne by Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry VII, who married Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V, but these scarcely seem adequate reasons for the name to reach the top fifty.

Personally, I like to give my heroes unusual names, though I make sure I use names that were at least known in the Regency. However, I usually use names on the above list for other characters to give an authentic ‘period’ feel.

Elizabeth Hawksley

Friday, February 03, 2012


Attending the recent celebrations in Rochdale for Byron's 224th birthday, I realised how little I knew about the man.  In that, I am probably at one with many of his contemporaries, those members of society who saw him as a celebrity.  They were only interested in the gossip about him, his scandalous love-life. But there was more to him than that. So I have put together here a few of the more unusual things I discovered about Byron.

Admiral Byron (Foulweather Jack)

For a start, I didn't realise what a wild family he came from. His grandfather was Admiral John Byron, nicknamed  Foulweather Jack. Some say this was because of his ill-luck with the weather, others claim it was due to his bad temper (and Byron is known to have had a temper, too). He was shipwrecked off the coast of Patagonia and he retrieved the Falkland Islands for Great Britain. 

Then there's Byron's father,  "Mad Jack" Byron. He was a Guard's officer  with "boundless sexual appetite and unburdened by scruples of any sort" (Benita Eisler, "Byron"). He preyed on rich women. He ran off with the Marchioness of Carmarthen  and eventually married her. They had three children together before she died in mysterious circumstances. Then he seduced and married another heiress, Catherine and began to sqaunder her fortune. She gave birth to George Gordon Byron in the cramped lodgings above a perfumier's in Cavendish Square in January 1788, but Mad Jack had already fled to France, where he was in hiding from his creditors.
Catherine Byron

We know that in 1798 he became Baron Byron of Rochdale, had a rip-roaring time at Cambridge, went off to Europe and wrote Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. By the time he returned to England he was famous. 

But before going abroad he took his seat in the Houser of Lords. He was in favour of social reform and was one of the few to defend the actions of the Luddites. He  spoke out against the Frame Breaking Bill (by which Luddites faced the death penalty).

Society wasn't interested in his championing of social reform. He was a celebrity,  cultivating the gloomy, brooding persona of Childe Harold. The women loved it, as his numerous affairs indicate. But he had a weight problem.  The Byronic hero had a tendency to be, well, chubby.  It is now thought that he had an eating disorder himself and he definitely did not like to see women eat.  He would often ask to be excused from joining society dinners, preferring to turn up afterwards. He also disliked dancing (understandable, with his deformed foot).

Anne Isabella Millbanke

He married Anne Isabella Millbanke in 1815, but things did not go well. The couple were plagued by debt and Byron was subject to fits of anger and irrational mood swings. His wife kept a detailed diary, afraid that he was going mad (and it has been suggested that he advised her to take their baby daughter and leave him).  She went back to her parents  and never returned. Rumours were already flying about his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta.

In  1816 Byron left England for ever.  He began contributing to the Examiner, a radical journal  that made frequent attacks on the monarchy and the government.  In 1822 he travelled to Italy with Shelley and from there they published a political journal called the Liberal, free from fear of prosecution by British authorities. The first edition included contributions by Leigh Hunt, Byron, William Hazlitt and Mary Shelley. Only about four editions were published before Shelley's death in August 1822 brought an end to the publication.
Teresa Guiccoli

It is well known that Byron was a champion of the Greek liberation movement, but before travelling to Greece he was actively involved with the Carbonari, a group determined to free Italy from Austrian rule.  When the Carbonari were defeated in 1821 he moved to Pisa with his lover, Teresa Guiccoli, and promised her he would discontinue writing what is now possibly he best known work, Don Juan.

He travelled to Greece, determined to join in the fight for freedom there, but he caught a chill and died of Marsh fever in  April 1824, without ever seeing action. 

His body was brought back to England but the major churches refused to hold a ceremony for him and he was buried in the family vault in Nottingham.
His memoirs, which he intended for publication after his death, were burned by his friends.

He had to wait until 1969 for his memorial  in poets' corner in Westminster Abbey.

So there you are.  I think he was definitely mad, bad and dangerous, but did anyone really know the man? Perhaps you know a few more snippets of information about Byron - I'd be delighted if you would share them.....

Melinda Hammond
e-book pub by Robert Hale.