Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ring my chimes, Campanile

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Loretta reports:

One marvelous thing about setting a book in Venice is that so much hasn’t changed. True, today there are far fewer gondolas than in Byron’s time, and the few are for tourists. He would not have seen a gigantic cruise ship bearing down on the fragile city or heard motors. Still, he would have found today’s Venice far more recognizable than today’s London. This made my research for Your Scandalous Ways quite a bit easier. I could read his letters and the entries in his friend Hobhouse’s diary, peruse other contemporary travel guides and accounts--and, for the most part, find every location mentioned, even when the names of places had changed or, as in the case of La Fenice opera house, when it had burned down.

But when I decided to set a climactic (ahem) scene in the Campanile, I was on my own. The building had fallen down early in the 20th century and been rebuilt; now it has elevators, and no one climbs up, apparently, and so it took some digging to find out what the interior was like in 1820. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it wasn’t hard to find pictures of the view from the top. And most important for my love scene were the bells. In that case, Byron couldn’t help me. A bit of video is worth a thousand words, even by him. So if you want to know what Francesca and James heard that morning, turn up your speakers and listen here and here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Betsy Debunked

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Susan reports:

There's history, and then there's history legends. Most Americans learned their share of the legendary stuff in grade school. The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln as a rail-splitter. Sure, there's a grain of truth in these stories somewhere, but over time they've become so well-varnished by successive generations that they just beg to be debunked.

Step up, Betsy Ross.  You're next.

Most of us Americans can recite her story: the humble seamstress who sewed the first stars-and-stripes flag for General George Washington, a noble heroine for the cause of freedom. Here in Philadelphia, Betsy's house is one of the most visited tourist attractions in a city filled with them. Only trouble is, Betsy's story probably didn't happen.  Seems that most of the "proof" of Betsy and her flag-sewing skills came via a 19th century descendent who claimed to have the scoop. Modern historians doubt it, even as the curators of Betsy's house scramble to defend their woman by saying, "Well, it could have happened."

We NHG do want them to get the history right, especially when telling it to kids on field trips. Really, we do.  But we're also in the story-telling biz ourselves, and the Betsy Ross story is a dandy, complete with a strong, resourceful heroine.  There aren't many of those in any country's history. So is it worth trashing the legend for the sake of purifying history? Or is a good fictional story loosely based on the truth worth keeping around for its entertainment value alone?

Above: The legend (and more anachronisms per pixel than you can shake a cursor at): The Birth of Old Glory by Percy Moran, c. 1917, Library of Congress.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The price of service

Monday, September 28, 2009

Loretta reports:

Imagining Byron in the Palazzo Mocenigo, "working" on his poetry, got me thinking about money. Like other Englishmen, he found most of continental Europe easier on his pocketbook. (It's believed that one of the reasons for his crazy behavior, which led to the dissolution of his marriage, was money, a prime cause of marital turmoil today.)

Let us contemplate the wealth of the Regency era upper classes. Browsing in The Complete Servant, by Samuel & Sarah Adams, Butler & Housekeeper, first published in 1825, we find that a "Gentleman and Lady with Children" in possession of an annual income of £3000-4000 could afford "Nine Female and eleven Male Servants; viz.--A Housekeeper, Cook, Lady's-Maid, Nurse, two House-Maids, a Laundry-Maid, Kitchen-Maid, and a Nursery-Maid; with a Butler, Coachman, two Grooms, Valet, two Footmen, two Gardeners, and a Labourer.”

What's £3000 worth today? Depending on the measure you use, the amount varies from around $225,000-550,000. If you want to know why it varies, here's the place to investigate. One less finicky way is to simply multiply by 60 and then convert pounds to dollars. It takes you to the same general vicinity.

The housekeeper would be paid about 24 guineas. A year.

A guinea was twenty-one shillings (old style shillings, before the switch in 1971 to a decimal system), or one pound plus one shilling. Do not ask me to explain British money. At least not in this post. I only wanted to give a little basis of comparison, between our gentleman's annual income and the incomes of his various servants.

The butler would be paid about 50 guineas a year.
A nursery maid would be paid 7 guineas per year.

Hardly princely sums. But let's bear in mind that the household servants were fed, housed, and clothed at the employer's expense. He paid their medical bills and, usually, an annuity when they retired. As jobs went in those days, service wasn't a bad job.

But of course, it was better to be the master or mistress, and when I think of time-traveling, I do not picture myself as the scullery maid.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Department of Quotation: Casanova in Paris

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Susan reports:

Paris, 1757

"The youngest daughter of my landlady Madame Quinson often came to my room unsummoned, and having perceived that she loved me, I should have thought it strange in me if I had taken it into my head to be cold to her -- the more so as she was not without qualities, she had a pretty voice and rattled away about everything with a vivacity which was charming. Her age was an ambrosial sixteen.
"For the first four or five months there was nothing between us but childish trifling; but happening one night to come in very late I found her asleep on my bed. Curious to see if she would wake, I undressed myself, got into the bed, and the rest goes without saying. At daybreak she went downstairs and got into her own bed. Her name was Mimi....
"[Later that morning] in comes Madame Quinson with Mimi to make my bed. I sit down to write, and I hear her say: 
"'Oh, the sluts!'
"'To whom do you refer, Madame?"
"'The riddle is easily answered; these sheets are ruined.'
"'I am sorry; excuse me; say nothing and change them.'
"'Say nothing? Just let the hussies come back!'
   "She goes downstairs for fresh sheets, Mimi remains. I reproach her for her imprudence, she laughs and says that Heaven has protected the innocence of our doings. From that day on Mimi stood on no ceremony; she came to sleep with me when she felt the need, and I, no less unceremoniously, sent her away when I did not want her, and our little household was as harmonious as possible...."

The History of My Life, by Giacomo Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt, Vol. Three, Chapter Twelve

Above: Le Verrou (The Lock) by Jean-Honore Fragonard, c. 1776, Musee du Louvre

Friday, September 25, 2009

Department of Quotation: Byron in Venice

Friday, September 25, 2009

Loretta reports:

Venice, January 28th, 1817

"...in walked a well-looking and (for an Italian)
bionda girl of about nineteen....we had some talk ... when lo! in a very few minutes, in marches, to my very great astonishment, Marianna S[egati],* in propria persona, and after making a very polite courtesy to her sister-in-law and to me, without a single word seizes her said sister-in-law by the hair, and bestows upon her some sixteen slaps, which would have made your ear ache only to hear their echo. I need not describe the screaming which ensued. The luckless visitor took flight. I seized Marianna, who, after several vain efforts to get away in pursuit of the enemy, fairly went into fits in my arms; and, in spite of reasoning, eau de Cologne, vinegar, half a pint of water, and God knows what other waters beside, continued so till past midnight...."

"After about an hour, in com
es--who! why, Signior S[egati], her lord and husband, and finds me with his wife fainting upon the sofa, and all the apparatus of confusion, dishevelled hair, hats, handkerchief, salts, smelling-bottles--and the lady as pale as ashes...." "It is very well known that almost all the married women have a lover; but it is usual to keep up the forms, as in other nations. I did not, therefore, know what the devil to say....I thought the best way would be to let her explain it as she chose (a woman being never at a loss--the devil always sticks by them)--only determining to protect and carry her off, in case of any ferocity on the part of the Signior."

Byron's Letters & Journals, Volume 5, 'So late into the night'

*Byron's mistress of the moment in Venice

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lord Rochester, Johnny Depp, Ladies, & Footmen

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Susan reports:

I'm currently finishing a historical novel based on the life of Catherine Sedley, the notorious Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717.) One of Catherine's father's good friends was the infamous poet, gallant, rogue, and all-around wastrel John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) – not exactly the best company for an adolescent girl.  By hanging around with Dad and his playboy pals, Catherine had an interesting upbringing, to say the least. In my book, sixteen-year-old Catherine is very nearly caught sharing a copy of one of Rochester's scurrilous poems, Signior Dildo. 

And yes, Signior Dildo is about what you think it's about.  

In one of the poem's endless verses cheerfully trashing the ladies of the court, I stumbled over this bit of historical enlightenment.  Remember Loretta's recent blog about how certain Regency-era ladies prized their footmen for ALL their talents, and indulged them with costly livery? Here, thanks to Lord Rochester, is proof that certain ladies in 1673 felt much the same way:

The Countesse of Falmouth, of whom People tell
Her Footmen wear Shirts of a Guinea an Ell;
Might Save the Expence, if she did but know,
How Lusty a Swinger is Signior Dildo.Text Color

If you'd like to read the whole poem – purely for the sake of literary curiosity, I know – here it is.  No coffee in the mouth whilst reading, ok?

Johnny Depp?  Well, he made you look, didn't he?  He also played Lord Rochester in The Libertine, so his appearance here really is justifiable.  But to play fair, here's a portrait, right, by Sir Peter Lely of the real earl, too, looking more than a little louche.  Who says research can't be fun?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sex, drink, and poetry

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Loretta reports:

The drunken, promiscuous crowd at Almack's were the same people who read poetry and argued about it and wrote letters to the papers about it. Poetry was the rock 'n' roll of the Regency era, and for a time, Lord Byron was the Elvis of his generation. Like so many other rock stars, Byron lived hard and died young. He had a disastrous marriage and a noisy, ugly divorce. Too, like your typical rock star, he had a little problem with overindulgence. In his case, it wasn't drugs but sex. But then, sex was the drug of choice for his crowd. Instead of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, it was sex, drink, and poetry. He even had groupies, like Lady Caroline Lamb. He had sex with either sex and sometimes with relatives. (That's him to the left.)

Sex hasn't gone out of fashion, nor has drinking. But poetry has a hard row to hoe these days. Bright Star, the new Keats movie made us NHGs wonder about Lord Byron. Given his extravagant life and wild adventures, you'd think he'd be prime film material. But we came up with two, count 'em, two. Susan found this gem, Bad Lord Byron, from the 40s. And I was wondering how I missed the 2003 Byron. I'm going to put it on my Netflix list, but I'm not getting my hopes up. His life is in my encyclopedia under Truth is Stranger Than Fiction. It's a real challenge to take a life that was so extravagant, so theatrical, and make it believable on screen. All the more amazing that he lived that life and wrote poetry that's still deliciously readable today. Try Don Juan or Beppo, if you want a taste of great Regency era rock 'n' roll. (To the right is Keats, who died young not of extravagance but of consumption, aka tuberculosis.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tudor Bling: The Cheapside Hoard

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Susan reports:

Raindrops on roses are all very nice, but to really make the hearts of the TNHG go pitter-pat, just show them old jewelry.

Now everyone knows about the famous jewels like those royal baubles kept in the Tower of London or the legendary pearl "B" necklace of Anne Boleyn (left), but non-royal people in the 16th century loved fine jewelry, too. Renaissance London was famous for its goldwork, with one astonished visitor counting fifty-two goldsmiths' shops along the merchant's street of Cheapside.

This would be only one more dry history factoid except for something inelegantly called the Cheapside Hoard. In 1912, workmen demolishing a 17th century building discovered a decaying wooden box beneath a brick floor, stashed there by some long-forgotten goldsmith. Inside the box were over 500 pieces of 16th-17th century jewelry: gold and silver, enamel-work and precious stones, rings, pendants, chains, earrings, and watches. No wonder it's regarded as the greatest cache of Elizabethan jewelry in the world, and that there's already a major exhibition in the works to celebrate the centennial of the discovery in 2012.

These aren't huge Marie-Antoinette style diamonds for court wear, but things a NHG could imagine easily wearing for everyday. While the Hoard is now scattered among three museums, including the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum, the majority of the pieces are in the London Museum, which also has the best pictures on line.

Go ahead, browse a bit. Does the emerald pendant carved into a parrot catch your eye? Or is the diamond-studded hat ornament in the shape of a salamander more to your taste? We have our favs, and you probably will, too.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Drunk at Almack's

Monday, September 21, 2009

Loretta reports:

As I mentioned last time, American Richard Rush in 1818 saw an Almack’s where youth by no means predominated. He was thirty-eight at the time, rather older than all but three (depending on who the source is) of Almack’s hostesses: the ladies who decided who was allowed to buy tickets to the famous Wednesday night assemblies. (At left is one of them, the Countess Lieven.) We of the Regency persuasion have learned to think of Almack’s as the Marriage Mart. Rush’s comment about the age groups made me wonder about this.

Other things make me wonder: So many of the attendees were already married--and cheating on their spouses, in some cases to a phenomenal degree. Lady Cowper, one of the patronesses, was not only unfaithful to her husband but to her lover, Lord Palmerston, who got even with her infidelities by sleeping with (among many others) the courtesan Harriette Wilson. Whom the Marquis of Worcester slept with, too (see Gotta Dance for a picture of Worcester sort of dancing with his wife).

Then there’s this: “Although alcohol was not served on the premises, many arrived late from the theater or elsewhere already quite drunk. Added to this nightclub atmosphere was the particular delight of people who believed they had gained entry to a gathering of an elite, which amounted to a frenzy,” according to Ian Kelly's, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style. Kelly describes the atmosphere as "fraught but sexually heightened."

Well, gee. Don’t know about you, but I’m starting to wonder whether Almack’s is the right place for somebody’s innocent seventeen-year-old daughter to meet her future husband.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We Are So Not Amused

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Susan reports:

As you've probably gathered, Loretta and I really, really like historic dress. We're constantly sending links back and forth that show this 19th c. gown or that 17th c. pair of slippers, because this is the kind of stuff that inspires us.  It also distracts us a lot, too, but whatever.

Sometimes, though, we come across examples of historic clothing that we'd (almost) rather not see. This happened recently when the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, housed in Kensington Palace, proudly announced their latest acquisition: a pair of drawers that had once belonged to Queen Victoria (1819-1901).  They are, ah, large.  Very large. Seems that by the 1890s, Her Majesty – who was five feet tall on a good day – was sporting a 56" waist. 

Poor Queen Victoria!  It's hard to imagine her horrified reaction to such a press release. But since you're probably every bit as curious as we were, here's the whole story plus the picture of two curators (yes, it took two) displaying the royal undies.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Almack's according to a Yank

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Loretta reports:

The print I used in my last blog of pretty people dancing at Almack’s reminded me of a puzzler I came upon when researching my last book:

1818 April 16
We were at Almack’s last night. The younger part of the company danced. They were not the most numerous part. Statesmen, cabinet ministers and their ladies, peers, peeresses, and their daughters, foreign ambassadors, and others, were present. In these circles, if all classes do not intermingle, all ages do. Gibbon, writing to Lord Sheffield from Paris, says, that Horace Walpole gave him a letter to Madame du Deffand, ‘an agreeable young lady of eighty-two,’ who had constant suppers at her house, and the best company. There may be seen in society in London, as part of its ornaments, ladies whom I should set down as not much short of that youthful age. It would be doing injustice to the stronger sex, to supposed that they give up sooner.

Richard Rush (U.S. Minister to Great Britain 1817–1825), A Residence at the Court of London

The puzzler was the bit about the “younger part of the company” not being “the most numerous part.” It threw all askew my image of Almack’s as the Marriage Mart. More on this subject next week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mall Chick

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Susan reports:

No matter how grim the economy may be, we Americans do love our shopping malls. (I'm no exception, living right down the road from the Mall-Heaven that is King of Prussia.) A mall is a bright, cheery place for seeing and being seen as well as for buying everything from soft pretzels to washing machines and designer dresses. All the must-haves from around the world are collected in one place for the convenience of consumers and the profits of merchants.

Yet as All-American as the mall may seem, it’s hardly new. Sixteenth-century Londoners would feel right at home at our local Galleria. Merchant Sir Thomas Gresham built the first Royal Exchange in 1566, as a lasting tribute to his generosity and wealth ––and, of course, to keep the coins flowing into the family coffers. Based on similar buildings on the Continent, the Exchange was a large quadrangle with two floors of shops surrounding an open courtyard. This courtyard was a favorite place for a rendezvous or a quick snack, as well as for spotting the next trend in starched ruffs. While visitors (“shopping” and “shoppers” are 19th century terms) could buy prosaic items like mousetraps, there were high-end shops, too, selling French lace, Italian gold necklaces, and hats made from New World beaver-skins. Nothing quite like Build-a-Bear or Wicks’n’Stix, but pretty close.

After being dedicated in 1570 by Queen Elizabeth I, the first Royal Exchange had a good long run as the center of mercantile activity in Cornhill until it became one of the victims of the Great Fire of 1666. It was also one of the first structures to be rebuilt, bigger and better, to survive until another fire in 1838. The present Royal Exchange still stands on the same lot that Gresham purchased for £3500.

The picture to the right is of the Royal Exchange in 1644, engraved by Wenceslas Hollar. Above left is a 17th century consumer (aka "Winter", also by Wenceslas Hollar), with the belltower of the Exchange in the background.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gotta dance

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Loretta reports:

As I've mentioned previously, I can be utterly captivated by masculine grace. Dancing men, like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly or John Travolta hold me enthralled.

But when it comes to grace and dignity, no one can match Mr. Darcy. Now, thanks to the wonders of cyberspace we can all see it, too, right here.

To those who've already seen it, I say, "Well, watch it again." To those who haven't: Aren't you glad now you didn't miss it? And to everyone: This is just in case you started thinking we weren't shallow or something.

To the front now



Loretta reports:

In case you were wondering, here's the front.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Double-Wide Side of Hoops

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Susan reports:

Yesterday Loretta showed us the feminine grace of 18th century hoops, swaying languidly beneath petticoats.  But for the sake of fairness (and the TNHGs always do strive for Fairness in History), I'm afraid we have to show the wider side of hoops, too.  Variations were worn throughout the century, giving skirts shapes that ranged from full bells to the modest flare worn for day in Colonial Williamsburg.  

But during the height of mid-century fashion, and for royal courts, and in Paris, ladies went double-wide.  OK, so the hoops weren't really called that (forgive me), but were named for the baskets they resembled: paniers.  Flat in front and back, they could extend so far to each side that they exceeded the reach of the lady's arms.  Considerable practice was required to navigate doorways and ballrooms, and even sitting down could be a trial. (See the detail, above, of Mrs. Andrews in her portrait by Thomas Gainsborough.)  

As can be imagined, it was not a style much beloved by gentlemen, who found it unwieldy, expensive, and just plain unsexy. No wonder Mr. Andrews looks a little sour. What can you do if you can't even reach your lady?

But trust the French to make the most of this challenge. In this print, right, one of a famous series by Jean-Michel Moreau Le Jeune featuring aristocratic society of 1770s Paris, a stylish coquette is using her extravagant hoops to flirtatious advantage.  While her husband is escorting one half of her gown into their theater box, she's using the other side to receive a farewell kiss from her lover.  So much for hoops being impractical!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The allure of the hoop

Monday, September 14, 2009

Loretta reports:

The Victorians have given us a distorted view of a number of things. When we talk about corsets, many readers imagine the Scarlett O'Hara torture device. When we talk about hoops, they're probably picturing the mid-Victorian-era big dome hoops, which strike me as the antithesis of sexy. But 18th C hoops, and the sort my heroine Zoe of Don't Tempt Me would have worn to a Regency- era Royal Drawing Room are something else altogether. At Colonial Williamsburg, we were struck by the view from behind--and the emphasis hoops give to the booty.

Above is an 18thC hoop petticoat in the CW milliner's shop. As you can see, it's not a giant steel cage. They have a nice flex, and give a sexy undulation to a woman's walk. Susan first gave me a sense of their seductive possibilities, when she suggested I take a look at DANGEROUS LIAISONS--not the Laclos novel but a book published in connection with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It must have felt funny to our Regency misses, to wear the style their grandmothers wore, and of course many resented it, as teenage girls today would resent having to wear the fashions their mothers or grandmothers wore in high school. But I have to believe that some of those young women, like Zoe, grasped how alluring they could be.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Department of Manly Beauty: Bindo Altoviti

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Susan reports:

Bindo Altoviti (1491-1556, painted by Raphael about 1515)

Fabio notwithstanding, gorgeous blonde guys are few and far between in Western male portraits.  But this picture of Bindo Altoviti, a wealthy young Florentine who was a prominent Renaissance banker (!) and art patron, certainly makes a case for fair-haired gentlemen.  In fact, the story behind this portrait is so shamelessly romantic, that I'm quoting at length from the National Gallery of Art's web page:

[In the portrait, Bindo]"turns in a dramatic, almost theatrical, way to fix the eye of the viewer. Perhaps one viewer in particular was meant to receive his captivating look: Bindo's wife Fiammetta Soderini. Renaissance poets and courtiers were unanimous in believing that a person first fell in love through the eyes. They were called the guides of love, which could reveal the passion within more effectively than the tongue itself, or letter, or messengers. Bindo's flushed cheeks contribute to the impression of passion, and a ring is prominent on the hand he holds above his heart. The robe slipping from his shoulder reveals a bare nape caressed by soft curls. Their golden color would have underscored the nobility and purity of his love.


"Bindo and Fiammetta, daughter of a prominent Florentine family, were married in 1511, when Bindo would have been about twenty. The couple had six children, but Fiammetta continued to live in Florence while Bindo's business with the papal court required his presence in Rome. This portrait, which apparently hung in the couple's home in Florence, would have provided Fiammetta with a vivid reminder of her absent husband."

Ahhhhhh....

Department of Manly Beauty: 1st Earl Granville


Granville Leveson-Gower*, Earl Granville** (1773-1846)

“Adored Granville, who could make a barren desert smile,” was what Harriet Cavendish*** wrote as his bride. They married in 1809, and she went on loving him until the day she died, in 1862.

“LORD GRANVILLE died on January 8, 1846. Long as his death had been expected, when the end came it was a crushing blow to his wife, from which she never quite recovered,” (Some Records of the Later Life of Harriet, Countess Granville by her Grand-daughter Susan H Oldfield)

I came upon the “barren desert” line a long time ago, when reading Judith Schneid Lewis’s In the Family Way. It stuck with me, and ended up, paraphrased, in one of my stories.

He was deemed “the handsomest man in England.” I’ve been trying for years to find pictures of him. I've got two so far. The family portrait includes his two illegitimate children by Harriet’s aunt, Lady Bessborough--another interesting story, which I mention in Lord of Scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I came upon a portrait at Dunrobin Castle in Scotland, but I’m not positive it was the right man. It’s hard to keep the Granvilles and the Leveson-Gowers straight. But the gentleman at Dunrobin was quite handsome, so I did gaze worshipfully at him.

*Pronounced Lewson-Gorr
**Became Earl Granville in 1833
***daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire--the one Keira Knightly played

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bombazine, Ahoy!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Susan reports:

Yes, it’s difficult to judge the past by satiric cartoons of the time.  If we consider the op-ed version of the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, we’d think that every female in American was flinging her bra into the liberation fires.  Nope, not by half –– any more than every Englishwoman in the early 1800s paraded through a northern winter in a handkerchief’s worth of cotton muslin, with nothing at all beneath it.

That said, the cartoons sure ARE a lot of fun. This one shows the older generation appalled by the newest fashions, with a dreadful pun for good measure (click on the image to enlarge so you don’t miss the details.) FYI: Bombazine is a stiff, heavy silk, while Bum-be-seen is pretty self-explanatory.

The Fashions of the Day, or Time Past and Present, by George Moutard Woodward, 1807.  From the collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Little White Dress on Fire

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Loretta reports:

The more I study the topic, the more I realize that here, as in so many cases with history, there's no easy answer. The first print (1805) shows a woman, who's clearly a young miss, in the classic white muslin dress.

The Gillray print (1802) offers another angle on the story. One of the caricaturist’s jobs is to mock the follies of the time. If a fashion is being mocked, we can be sure it was popular. This isn't the only print I've come across that portrays women wearing a style that might not suit them. But what got my attention here is that the two ladies are obviously not young misses.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Supporting Harriette

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Susan reports:


Reading Loretta's blog yesterday, I was struck not so much by the white muslin gowns themselves, but what was happening beneath them.  This high-waisted style must have been truly shocking.  For the first time in hundreds of years, the curves of a woman's breasts were on display.


European ladies began reshaping their bodies for fashion in the 15th century or so, via stays, corsets, busks, boning, even iron.  Weirdly, their goal didn't do nothin' for feminine attributes.  The ideal was a long, pointed, straight front that bound the breasts almost flat. Check out these two examples below left: the  first is mid-16th century, the second is two hundred years later in the mid-18th century, but the silhouette is almost exactly the same.


All this changes in the last decade of the 18th century. Whether it's a classical inspiration, the French Revolution, or just the ever-swinging pendulum of fashion, suddenly it was stylish to show the actual shape of both breasts.  Yes, there are caricatures of the time showing dubious "ladies" going completely au natural, but most women turned instead to the newest in corsetry (above left) for support, separation, and enhancement.  Divide and conquer, indeed.  


As fashion/art historian Aileen Ribeiro notes in her excellent Ingres in Fashion, "It is interesting how many portraits of this period exploit the sexual appeal of the early nineteenth-century equivalent of a Wonderbra and depict women leaning forward in this way; Lawrence's portrait of the Countess of Blessington [below right] exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822 is an example."

So are the portraits of Madame Recamier and Harriette Wilson. Can you hear those early 19th century men still cheering?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Little White Dress

Monday, September 7, 2009

Loretta reports:

Off and on, Susan & I have been discussing those ubiquitous white muslin dresses of the Regency, and trying to decide whether it’s a romance myth that this was the standard attire for the innocent Regency miss. Madame Récamier (note the bare feet--there’s another blog) seems to contradict that concept, but then, she’s French.

Reading Frances Wilson’s The Courtesan’s Revenge, a biography of the famous Regency era ho Harriette Wilson, I came upon this sentence: “It was now that she began to dress in her trademark white muslin and to ensure that she was seen everywhere.”

Trademark white muslin? I’ve read a lot about Harriette, including two versions of her memoirs, but never realized that white muslin was her trademark. Does this mean it was unusual for a young woman to wear it? Are we mistaken to send our Regency misses to Almack’s dressed in white muslin dresses? Or it was she unusual in wearing white muslin exclusively?

Or does this simply tell us something about Harriette? She wasn’t married, after all, at least not during the period of her fame, so she’d qualify as a “miss,” albeit no virgin. She did like a joke, and while her substantial bosom (emphasized in many caricatures) was certainly an attraction, so was her sense of humor.

Maybe, when she adopted the white muslin dress, Harriette was just being funny.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Department of Quotation: Condoms

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Susan reports:

London, 1724

From The Machine, or Love's Preservative (anon.)

By this Machine* secure, the willing Maid
Can taste Love's Joys, nor is she more afraid
Her swelling Belly should, or squalling Brat
Betray the Luscious Pastime she has been at.

*an 18th century term for a condom


Left: "Retail Traders Not Affected by the Shop Tax", 1787, from the British Cartoon Collection of the Library of Congress.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Department of Quotation: Flashman

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Loretta reports:

1845

"Mai Jeendan wants to marry you! There now!"
....

After all, it’s one thing to win a maiden heart, and very fine, but when a man-eater who’s sampled the best from Peshawar to Poona cries “Eureka!” over you, it’s no wonder if you glance in the mirror. At the same time, it’s quite a facer, and my first words, possibly instinctive, were:

“Christ, she ain’t pregnant, is she?”

Harry Flashman, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, George MacDonald Fraser.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Gentlemen & Horses & the TNHG

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Susan reports:

While the memory of Loretta’s footmen and their brawny thighs still glows warmly in our Dear Readers’ hearts, we’d like to add a little confession, and give you all something else to look at, too.

First, the confession: after our now-legendary visit to Colonial Williamsburg, we have developed a major, uh, interest in 18th century gentlemen on horseback.

These guys were completely at ease on their mounts, one fluid movement of man and horse with a healthy serving of swaggering confidence, too. It’s that whole centaur thing. They’re everywhere in CW, those elegant gentlemen riding slowly through the town, or acting as dragoons drilling on the green –– which adds gorgeous uniforms and flashing swords to the mix. And breeches, and boots, and cocked hats low across their brows, and the way the skirts of their coats fall over the backs of the saddles.

In other words, Fantasyland for the TNHG.

Here are a couple of our pictures. See what we mean?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New buck-skin breeches

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Loretta reports:

By the 19th century, wearers of the plush breeches referred to in my last blog tended to be, as I indicated, servants, public and private. A comment from Michelle Buonfiglio of Romance B(u)y theBook reminded me that of the private servants who wore livery (and breeches), the most glamorous were footmen.

They were, generally, hired for their looks. They ought to be tall and good-looking, and of course their snug breeches and stockings must show off well-muscled legs. Mrs. Beeton wrote, “When a lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tournure of his calf, it is not surprising that she should find a domestic who . . . considers the figure he cuts behind her carriage and the late hours he is compelled to keep a full compensations for the wages he exacts, for the food he wastes, and for the perquisites he can lay his hand on.”

One perquisite might be one of the ladies of the house. Or--as in the case of the heroine of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the boss’s mistress.

Fanny Hill, annoyed with her lover, Mr. H--, (who's paying the bills) turns her attention to the young manservant Mr. H-- has just hired: “a very handsome young lad, scarce turn’d of nineteen, fresh as a rose, well shap’d , and clever-limb’d; in short a very good excuse for any woman’s liking.”

She takes careful note of his livery and how well it becomes him: “new buck-skin breeches, that clipping close,* shew’d the shape of a plump,”** well-made thigh, white stockings, garter-laced livery, shoulder-knot . . .”

Fanny, like Mae West, could resist everything but temptation.

*fitting snug
**muscle-ly

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flea Market Find

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
IMG_3700 Susan reports:

One of the questions that writers are always asked is "Where do you get your ideas?" For the TNHG, this is easy to answer. Where history lies, so do our ideas, scattered so thick that sometimes we have to watch where we walk.

Which is not to say that our inspiration comes only from the mustiest of tomes, or even in museums or via the internet. Sometimes it appears in far more humble places, like a flea market.

Last month at the weekly flea market in Sandwich, MA, I was poking about the boxes on the grass, hunting through the cheapie jewelery. I have a weakness for gaudy Bakelite bangles, and One never knows what One might find. As I looked, a vendor dropped another box beside the cartons of jools, a large flat box filled with...feathers.

It was a sales rep's sample box from the first decade or so of the 20th century. I suppose it was meant to entice milliners, for the feathers had all been fashioned into little cockades and curled bunches and pretend roses. Sadly, most had disintegrated over time, rootless quills and barbs and drifting scraps of down. But what amazed me was how, a hundred years later, the ones that survived still wore their original tags, pinked edges and gold borders pinned in place and waiting to be filled out with a customer's order.

I looked, and touched, and thought of who might have sold them, who might have bought them, and what circuitous circumstances had brought them to my feet in the grass. Why hadn't the samples ever been used? What had become of the rep? Had he (or she) quit the business, eloped, won the Irish Sweepstakes, or been run over by a horse-drawn streetcar? Or had the box been bought by a single milliner who intended them for hats she'd never made? Oh, Dear Readers, the melancholy shades of doomed Lilly Bart!

"I'll make a deal for the whole box, if you want it," the vendor said. "End of summer, y'know."

The whole box was somehow too much. I took only one, this beautiful curling black feather, with two more at the base. Cost me a dollar.

But you can't put a price on what I got with it.
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