Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Six Must-have Accessories for a Regency Heroine

There are a number of objects which every self-respecting Regency lady had to hand - each of them very useful for a novelist.

The most important was probably her writing desk. It was the laptop/smart phone of the day and no lady would travel without it. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey has one. We know how much she valued it because, as she was setting off with the Tilneys to Northanger Abbey, such was the General’s impatience that ‘she had some difficulty in saving her own new writing-desk from being thrown out into the street.’


Wooden portable writing desk with brass fittings
The writing desk shown here has neat brass bands for strength and brass corners to save it from knocks; it also has a lock as well as two square wooden holders for glass ink wells and a longer container for quill pens and a knife to sharpen the nib. Catherine Morland would probably have kept her journal safely locked inside.
The hero, Henry Tilney, teases her about it. ‘Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenor of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion and curl of your hair to be described, in all their diversities without having constant recourse to a journal?’  
I’m sure we can all think of a modern equivalent!

Writing desk open with cut glass inkwell. Writing slope covered in green leather. Underneath are storage spaces and three very small drawers. 
Writing desks are not just for heroines; a competent villainess could make very good use of one, too. A writing desk could be quite big enough to hold a pistol, for example, and there are some small, discreet drawers inside which could hold billets doux, stolen jewels, an important document, any number of secret things.
Beaded reticule with draw-string

Then, our heroine will also, of course, have a reticule. I have chosen the larger of the two I possess to show you; it is U-shaped, 7 x 7 inches and has a draw-string. It was once lined in cream silk. I’m guessing that a heroine would keep more in it than just her purse.

Brass etui with tassel, about 2 inches long.

So, what else might be inside it - a handkerchief, perhaps, or a small notebook with a pencil? What about this pretty brass sewing etui? Inside, it contains a thimble which sits on top of a very small china tube with a brass cap. Various coloured cotton, or possibly silk lengths, are wound round the outside and, if you take the cap off, there are a few needles inside. However, the thought instantly struck me that you could put anything inside – smelling salts, say, or even poison.
Inside the etui: thimble, cotton/silk strands, needles

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the everyday objects a Regency lady owned could be used for other things. A villainess could make very good use of an etui, or a writing desk, I felt sure.  
Glass powder bowl with silver rim

The next object is a powder bowl with a silver rim – for loose face powder. It would have had an ostrich feather powder puff with a small ivory stick to hold it with. So why might a Regency lady need it?
Suppose our heroine has enjoyed a few stolen minutes in the conservatory with a delightful man. She knows that he’s a detrimental but … he has other talents which she is only just discovering. Horrified, she spots her mother coming across the room. Quickly she nips behind the curtains, races upstairs to her bedroom and looks at herself in the mirror. Her hair is a mess and her face is pink and glowing. This won’t do! She reaches for the powder puff, dips it in the bowl and frantically pats her face to restore it to its fashionable pallor. Whew!

China hairpin container 
But what about her hair? She has left several hairpins on the conservatory floor. Fortunately, she has a small china knick-knack on her dressing-table which holds her hairpins, so she can easily repair the damage the handsome Mr Detrimental did to her coiffure.
Little does our heroine know that the gentleman in the conservatory has picked up several of her dropped hairpins and is studying them thoughtfully. Could he be contemplating blackmail? Or perhaps the villainess finds one an hour or so later – it looks just the right size to pick a lock …. If the hairpin was distinguishable in some way, she might even use it to get the heroine into serious trouble, if it were discovered somewhere suspicious.

Ebony and silver spangled fan

Lastly, her fan. This one, with carved ebony sticks and discreet silver spangled design, is a mourning fan. In an age which demanded physical restraint from ladies, a fan could be very useful. From a body language point of view, a fan can be used as a 'body extension' tool. A lady cannot touch a gentleman but a touch of her fan on his forearm, or a light tap on his hand, allows her to touch him by proxy. Not to mention holding her fan to hide her face, but allowing herself to peep at him from over the top of it. What gentleman could resist?  
So there you are. Make sure that your heroine has the right accoutrements for the period and you will have all the props you need for a gripping story which will keep the readers turning over those pages.
Elizabeth Hawksley


Elizabeth Bailey said...

Oh, I love this. The story unfolding all the way through. Brilliant. The etui holding poison has given me an idea for a later book! As for the writing desk, I want one!!!!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I'm delighted that the etui has triggered an interesting possibility for a future novel.

I bought my writing desk at an auction about ten years ago. A physiotherapist suggested that a sloping writing desk might help my frozen shoulder. In fact, I found a Bowen Technique practitioner who sorted it out completely within a few sessions. So now my computer screen sits on top of the writing desk which raises it to exactly the right height.

Fenella J Miller said...

Love this post. My heroines haven't had an etui or a knick knack -but in future they will.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Fenella. I hope your future heroines make good use of both items. I was struck by the bullet shape of the etui. The pointy end could do quite a bit of damage if it was to hand - and the heroine was desperate!

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