Monday, October 30, 2017

A lady’s sketch paintings reveal the realities of Regency life

Among my research books is a delightful book called Mrs Hurst Dancing, which is a collection of watercolours by one Diana Sperling, who lived at Dynes Hall near Halstead in Essex. This large country house along with its surroundings is the setting for the sketches she made between 1816 and 1823 where she lived with her parents, brothers and sister Isabella.

What I love about it is the insight it gives us to the reality of how people lived in those days. There are a great many outdoor scenes which show how the countryside must have looked then, and Diana has drawn her family and acquaintances riding, driving, walking, fishing, skating and a great many other activities, in all kinds of weather.

The sketches are often amusing, as well as telling, with people falling off their mounts – donkeys and horses both, carriages coming to grief, people falling into mud and streams, leaping ditches on horseback. The family might go to an evening party on foot, braving the mud and carrying their indoor shoes, or they would go divided among a single carriage and several horses. Even the ladies went on horseback to a party!

The title of the book comes from one sketch called Mrs Hurst Dancing, but almost all of the sketches have hand-written notes to say who the people are and what they are doing. Interestingly, Diana writes of her mother as “Mum” and her father as “Pappy”, but the Sperlings were local landowners and, as it says in the introduction, “might be said to belong to the ranks of the substantial gentry, the sort of well-to-do squires who dominated village affairs”. These families were “untitled but locally prominent”. They might originate as younger sons of greater families or spring from “cadet” branches of the aristocracy.

Leaving the outdoors for another day, I’ve chosen some indoor sketches that show unusual activities on the domestic front. They also depict the rooms as they must have been, fairly open and without much furniture. Rugs rather than carpets, and the pet dog and cat usually present.

Right at the top, we have the hilarious “Mrs Sperling murdering flies – assisted by her maid who received the dead and wounded. Dynes Hall.” I love the mirror and the looped curtains at the windows.

Here we have “Papering the saloon at Tickford Park, September 2nd 1816”. The Van Hagen family, who were relations, owned this house and Diana was clearly helping to paper the walls while on a visit.

Here we are again at the Van Hagens with “Mrs Van murdering a spider, September 10th 1816, Tickford.” The ladies are dressing when the spider interrupts the proceedings.

Finally, I could not resist putting in this one, with the splendid staircase and lovely balusters. But the action is wonderful.

“May 25th. Henry Van electrifying – Mrs Van, Diana, Harry, Isabella, Mum and HGS. Dynes Hall.” I gather the object was to turn the electrifying machine strongly enough for everyone who joined hands to get a shock! Fun for all, no doubt, though I suspect the sensation was a mild one.

Elizabeth Bailey

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Was The Season all it was cracked up to be?

When Georgette Heyer talked about “The Season,” she referred to the spring. In her books everyone lives in London for a few months every year, and then go to their country houses for the rest. As we’re discovering, the truth was very different. And what Heyer referred to as “The Little Season,” the months in the autumn before Christmas, didn’t exist at all, or rather, was never referred to as such.
The truth was a lot less defined and very different. It depended a lot on who you were and what you wanted.
The Season, the period between the end of Lent and the beginning of the summer, late June at the latest, was the time when young women made their “come out.” The word debutante only came in later in the Regency, so for most of the Georgian period, it’s not really appropriate. The young girls, sometimes as young as sixteen, but more often seventeen and eighteen, were brought to London to show them off, celebrate their young womanhood with lavish balls and parties, and with any luck, snag a husband.
But everybody knew everybody else. It wasn’t as if these women were “fired off” as total strangers. The networks had already introduced them. For instance Georgiana, who became the Duchess of Devonshire, was spoken for long before she had a chance to look around her. The dynastic arrangements were made, and she had to put up with it. She symbolized an alliance between two influential families, a bit like a company merger these days. A few young women made spectacular successes of their season, notably the three Gunning sisters. The two oldest made dazzling marriages, Maria becoming a duchess twice. She was the inspiration for my “Triple Countess” series, but I passed the stories on to her children, the products of her marriages to three very different earls.
The Gunnings, daughters of a family with noble blood, had worked briefly as actresses in a semi-professional theatre in Ireland, but they didn’t continue in England. Actresses were seen as little better than prostitutes, but the Gunnings’ part-amateur status and their astonishing beauty made them the talk of the town in 1751. Not satisfied with her natural beauty, Maria, who became the Countess of Coventry, died, it is said, of the lead and mercury based make up she used on her face. But before you condemn her, consider that botox is a deadly poison, and women have it injected into their faces all the time.
These exceptions apart, the parties and gaiety during the spring months drew people to London. But some avoided it. Anyone who didn’t want to meet the young women eager for a husband tended to avoid it, for instance!
The Georgian House of Commons

Many aristocrats came to London in the autumn, when the Parliamentary year began. The actual date varied from year to year, but it was usually at the beginning of November, or even late October. So London was pretty full just before Christmas, which was traditionally celebrated in the country. The pleasure-gardens and theatres weren’t always open, and other entertainments like Astley’s Amphitheatre weren’t open, either. However, the gentlemen’s clubs were open and so were the shops. This was a quieter time, but that’s only relative, but there are accounts of frantic activity at this time of year. It would tend to the more serious, since many attended Parliament. And the gentry from the countryside, Jane Austen’s people, would come up if they were Members of Parliament. The dining rooms, inns and clubs were full, but there weren’t as many balls and flashy affairs. That isn’t to say there were none. The older gilrs might fare better at this time of year.
After Christmas, some people returned to London. Some would prepare for the season ahead, order new clothes, hire a house, and others would return to  Parliament. Until recently the pattern Georgette Heyer described was adhered to, but it wasn’t at all that way. And the court had its own pattern again. Since the royal family mostly lived in London, their life and the life of the people around them tended to centre in London.
Everything stopped for Lent. Social parties were less frequent, and there weren’t any balls, or overt celebrations. During this period churches were unadorned with flowers or any other form of decoration. Lent ended at Easter, and after the church festivals, sometimes as soon as the Tuesday after Easter Sunday, the season really got going.
In June families would filter away to the country. In August the Glorious Twelfth marked the start of the hunting season, and then, in late October and November, Parliament started up again.
And so it goes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Richard Sharpe - the history behind his life.

 I came across a companion book for the Sharpe series written by Mark Adkin. I didn't know such a volume existed – it was published in 1998 when the Sharpe series was being written. I wish I had known about it when I first read these wonderful books by Bernard Cornwell.
It goes without saying that Cornwell's books are impeccably researched and when you read one, whatever era it is set in, you know the facts are correct.
Richard Sharpe, the hero of these books, was born in the slums of London and spent his life in the service of King and country.
It was rare for a man to be promoted from the ranks, but it did happen, and Cornwell had Sharpe save Wellington's life and so get his officers' stripes. From this point on an actual hero is followed by a fictional one. No rifleman served in the ranks of a redcoat regiment buSharpe and his men do because otherwise they could not take part in the battles and excitement of the war. The South Essex Regiment is fictional but the others mentioned are real. Cornwell himself states that he made Sharpe's unit dodge from brigade to brigade, division to division, all so they could be manoeuvred into maximum danger.
To be so historically accurate is quite remarkable considering there are seventeen books in the series.
Adkin's book is a fascinating read full of maps, pictures and diagrams and it is given me the enthusiasm to start reading the Sharpe series again, but this time with The Sharpe Companion open so I can follow the actual history at the same time as the fictional hero.
Richard Sharpe (I always visualise Sean Bean even though he was fair-haired and the real Sharpe had black hair.) was not just an exceptional soldier but also lucky one. At forty-two he had killed sixty-five men in close quarter combat. There were probably a hundred others killed in the mayhem of a battle. He was 6'1" tall and weighed about twelve stone. This was all bone and muscle. I have read all the Sharpe books at least once but can't remember ever reading this information – Adkin must have gleaned this from comments made about Sharpe by other characters.
Reading The Sharpe Companion is like reading the biography of a real person. Adkins talks about this fictional hero as if he actually did all the things in the books. Every page has a boxed text with facts that relate to the fiction which makes it a perfect read for anyone writing about the Peninsular War.
My work in progress is the fifth book in my series, The Duke's Alliance, and tells the story of Lord Peregrine Sheldon,  who is an intelligence officer in Wellington's army and goes missing behind enemy lines. The duke,  head of the family, goes in search of his missing younger brother.
I am engrossed in Adkin's book and have learnt so much that will be useful. I can highly recommend it even though it is almost 20 years since it was first published.
I have just finished writing the second book in my World War II series, Ellen's War, which follows Ellie from 1939 to 1945. In the first book she was a member of the WAAF but then joined the ATA. I've read every book I could find about the female ferry pilots and have tried to stick as closely as I could to actual events. I want my readers to finish my World War II  books having learnt more about the period as I do when reading Cornwell's books. The first in my series is available on Amazon and the second, An ATA Girl will be out in January or February next year.

Until next month,

Fenella J Miller

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Starting Again. Melinda Hammond ponders the next book.....

Having just published my 25th book with Harlequin/Mills & Boon, I suppose I can now call myself an "established" writer, but the truth is that every book is a new challenge and I feel the same worries and anxieties about my latest book as I felt with my very first. I am also very pleased to say I feel the same excitement about planning each new story, when I have just the germ of an idea and have to think of settings and characters etc.

So where does one start? It can be anywhere, from a visual image that might eventually be a scene in the book (such as these Waterloo re-enactors, inspiration for A Lady for Lord Randall)

... or a visit to an ice house, like this one (below) at Stourhead, which inspired a scene from my Melinda Hammond Regency adventure, Winter Inheritance.

Then there are the characters. Often, their appearance is based on real people in the media, such as Rufus Sewell, or Vivien Leigh, but this is just to help me visualise the characters while I write, and  their personalities can vary greatly – my heroes can be dark and moody or wickedly sexy, while the heroines vary from head-strong and spirited to the quiet but forceful type.

Places, too, are important. I set the opening scenes of The Duke's Secret Heir in Harrogate, which made it necessary to take a few visits there. Of course it is very different now from how it looked in the Regency, but there is still some evidence of how it used to be, if one looks closely.
For example, one of the old inns that was popular during the Regency was the Queen's Head (above) although it has now become Cedar Court, and there is also the Crown, in Low Harrogate (below), where my characters dance at the ball on a Wednesday evening.

Just now I am in the very pleasant position of planning my new book, so what shall it be, a military setting, or perhaps a comedy of manners set in Bath. What would you choose?

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Ladies' Pocket Magazine (1824-1839)

My copy of this must-have book for the fashionable lady in 1831 is conveniently pocket-sized and comprises 244 pages of short stories, poems, articles on famous women, dozens of ‘preceptive distichs’, fashion advice and twenty-seven illustrations, including some ravishing hand-coloured fashion plates. Unfortunately, a number of the plates have been torn out. Still, enough remain to give a good idea of what The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine would have looked like.

Blue ball dress, 1831

The fashion advice discusses the fashion plates in the pages following their illustrations; for example, with regard to the picture above, we learn that the ball dress is ‘etherial (sic) blue tulle over satin; the corsage is cut very low… Beret sleeves finished en manchette, with blond lace. The skirt is trimmed with six rouleaux… The hair is arranged in bands, and bows on the summit of the head, and in curls at the sides of the face, and adorned with light sprigs of blue and rose-coloured fancy flowers…. Swansdown boa tippet. ’

It’s also obvious, from the model’s elaborate hair style, that a lady’s maid is a must. ‘Manchette’ means cuff or ruffle; personally, I’d have called them frills, but, doubtless en manchette sounds more haute couture.

The fashion section continues with news on what’s in and what’s out – 'Dunstable straw bonnets are in and this Season’s colours are emerald green, azure blue, lilac, rose and canary-yellow. In Paris, blond lace is very popular and, for jewellery, it’s gold and emeralds.'


Reading lady

There are a number of small black and white ‘embellishments’ in the magazine and the magazine opens with this print of a reading lady. Underneath is written: Richard Ryan to a Young Lady: on seeing her reading a volume of his poems . This is followed by the poem itself. The poem ends: Say, what avails it, when I’m gone / What future ages think of me? /Oh, dearer far to know that one / Approves me now, and that is thee.

The ‘preceptive distichs’ mentioned in the List of Contents are moral maxims, e.g:

Avoid voluptuous pleasure in your prime ­–

   Your days will last and you enjoy their time.


Avoid the dice, destruction’s net and snare;

   The rich man’s prison and the poor man’s fare.

I’m not sure what the second line means but the general sentiment is clear enough.

Violet evening dress

The written description of this violet-coloured satin is illegible in places. The illustrations are hand-coloured and occasionally, as here, the paint was still a touch wet and left a smear on the opposite page which obscured some of the description.

However, I can read some of it: 'The border is trimmed with crepe ruches to correspond with the dress, they form wreaths of a singularly novel and pretty appearance; one is arranged near the lower edge of the hem, the other considerably higher.  The head-dress is a green velvet beret, the brim formed en coeur is decorated with white gauze ribbon, disposed en tulippe on the inside; five white ostrich feathers, which fall in contrary directions, are placed in front of the crown.'

I have to say that I'm not a fan of those absurdly wide shoulders.

Lady Jane Grey solicited to accept the crown

There are a also number of articles on famous women. The Lady Jane Grey engraving is accompanied by a poem by a Miss Leslie which begins:

Oh, not for me, oh not for me, /That fatal toy of gems and gold…

Some of The Lady’s Pocket Magazine’s comments on famous women are, frankly, bizarre. Take this one on Anne Boleyn: ‘We think she remained a girl after she was a wife – a pretty, tittering partner in a dance, but devoid of the mind and steadiness suited to the conjugal state.’

Not a view of the forceful, intelligent and sophisticated Anne we hold today!

Charles Barford with Lucy and Emily

The short story, Flirtation – a Tale of Modern Times has interesting echoes of Lydia Bennet. When the regiment comes to town, the lovely Emily’s attention wanders from the eligible Charles, who adores her, to the fascinating Colonel Darlington … Will Emily come to her senses before Charles runs out of patience? Or will Charles turn to her sensible older sister, Lucy?

Alas, poor Lucy doesn’t even get a look in; at twenty-seven, she’s far too old. Though, if I were editor, I’d demand that Charles dumps the tiresome Emily and goes for sensible Lucy instead.

Pink evening dress, 1831

This is what the magazine has to say about the above garment. ‘A dress of rose-coloured crepe over satin to correspond; the corsage is cut square, of a delicate height, it is draped à la grecq (sic), and bordered with blond lace. Beret sleeve, surmounted by an epaulette, composed of square ends of rose-coloured ribbon … The trimming of the skirt consists of nœuds (knots) to correspond… The hair is dressed in a few loose ringlets at the sides of the face, and in full bows on the forehead, and on the crown of the head; it is ornamented with rose-coloured fancy flowers.’

The hair looks fiendishly difficult to do, though, from the way it’s described, one feels that any half-competent lady’s maid should be able to do it in a trice. And what on earth does ‘a delicate height’ mean?

The birthplace of Robert Burns

Occasionally, the magazine allows a small article about more serious literature, see the illustration above. Underneath it is a short description of Burns’ birthplace; the cottage was actually built by the poet’s father, and we have the description of it in a quote from Burns' The Cotter’s Saturday Night. The article ends with the note that ‘the house has been turned into a snug public house’ and the landlord has pinned up the following inscription by the door: Halt, passenger, and read; / This is the humble cottage, / That gave birth to the celebrated /Poet, Robert Burns.

The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine tells us a lot about the period: what ladies wore, what they read and how they thought. Or, perhaps, it might be more accurate to say, what the, presumably, male editor thought they should be reading and thinking.

Elizabeth Hawksley