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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 June 2008

Regency Refreshments: Quaking Pudding

I knew I had to make a pudding. It’s such a quintessential English dish (so much so that “pudding” is a modern English synonym for “dessert”) and it’s not something most modern Americans have ever encountered. I’ve only had it because it’s a stable of re-enactments of Victorian Christmases. I did chicken-out and chose one that isn’t make with suet, though (I just couldn’t face a big lump of beef fat, plus I couldn’t seem to find it in a quantity smaller than 5 lbs!)). Quaking Pudding is more like a soft bread pudding, far more palatable in my opinion.


The English Art of Cookery (1788) :
Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas (ISBN: 0393320944) has a recipe for this as well, though theirs calls for a couple of things I couldn’t find in any strictly period versions. The “classic” cook book of the day, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (from which so many later books stole their recipes), does call for rose water, but none of the recipes I could find call for sherry (though I can see where it would be a tasty edition).

I love Mrs. Beeton’s recipes, as they give exact measurements and easy to follow directions. Unfortunately, her version doesn’t call for bread, and that was an aspect I wanted to preserve (otherwise it’s sort of like a custard, and not so much like a pudding).

So, once again, I monkyed around with things . . .

My recipe:
2 c bread crumbs
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 pint heavy cream
¼ c. sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
zest of 1 lemon
dash of nutmeg

Put a pot of water on to boil (make sure the pot is large enough to easily contain the pudding bowl, and that the water level is about ¾ of the way up the side of your chosen bowl.

Put the cream , cinnamon stick and bay leaf into a pot and heat until the cream is scalded. Remove from heat, pull out the stick and leaf. Temper the eggs by slowly adding about a ¼ c. of the hot milk to them, stirring briskly the whole time. Add the eggs and other ingredients to the hot milk and mix. Pour into a well buttered pudding bowl (any bowl will do, so long as it can be heated). Cover the top with buttered parchment paper. If using an actual pudding mould clip on the lid. If using a plain bowl, secure the parchment with twine or a rubber band. Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of the pot and set the covered bowl carefully into the hot water. Put the lid on the pot and allow the pudding to boil for one hour (you may need to add more hot water at some point so put the kettle on at this point). When the hour is up take the pudding out of the pot and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Then turn it out carefully onto a platter and serve hot or at room temperature with the sauce of your choice.

I made a simple—and very period—wine sauce:
¼ c. butter
¼ c. sherry
¼ c. sugar

Put all three ingredients into a small pot and cook over medium heat until it just begins to thicken and turn golden (to caramelize). Stir occasionally.

My friends’ reactions:

There was much joy in the house. Everyone loved it. It was soft and flavorful and just plain great tasting. I’ve been requested to make it again (and it will likely show up on a regular basis at my gang’s weekly dinner party).

27 June 2008

A Garden of Branching Paths: Thoughts on the Strange Lives of Charles and Mary Lamb


I had a sister--
The devil kist her
And raised a blister

The lines of doggerel would have a mysterious -- even a queasy -- feel about them, I think, even if I didn't know their provenance. But knowing, as I do, that they were dreamed up by Charles Lamb (who also dug that soggy trough in the middle-school curriculum known as the "Essay on Roast Pork") makes them seem even odder.

Learning that when the sister in question (Mary Lamb), was thirty-one years old, she killed their mother in a fit of manic delirium, raises the ante from odd to shocking.

And finding out that some thirty-five years later (when he and his sister were fading and feeble, as in this picture), Charles Lamb was wont to repeat the lines of doggerel in compulsive, sometimes drunken rhythms, makes me want to send my historical imagination back to the West End where things were prettier, less weird, or (in my fantasies, at least) more like a comforting costume movie.

But the Lamb story keeps pulling me back -- to a pair of eccentric lives lived very few degrees of separation away from some of the literary greats of their era (from late Georgian to early Victorian: Mary was thirty-one in 1796).

It also sends me back to many of the facts of daily life for the very many Londoners not protected by estate or property; to my own, ongoing thoughts about nineteenth century sibling relationships (as in my earlier Dorothy Wordsworth post); and (frankly) to a heap of as yet undigested material imported from that foreign country The Past, Where They Did Things Differently.

In the Lamb story and in its environs -- as with certain dull, obscure urban neighborhoods -- you can turn in any direction, set yourself walking, and find yourself someplace interesting.

To begin, perhaps, with the Lamb family's place in the world of work and social status. Bearing no relation whatever to the fascinating aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb, their family had been in domestic service for generations; Charles and Mary's father was personal servant to a barrister who lived in handsome chambers in the Inner Temple, the heart of London's legal establishment. The Lamb family's apartment adjoined the barrister's wine cellar, but the children grew up surrounded by "handsome quadrangles, beautiful gardens... coats of arms... a magnificent round church..."

And they had the freedom of the barrister's library. Which was particularly precious for Mary, who was only briefly sent to a very inadequate school for girls, while Charles and another brother attended Christ's Hospital, a charity school that provided boys with an excellent classical education free of charge, and where Charles made his lifelong friends, the writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Leigh Hunt.

(Poet and editor Leigh Hunt is not much known now, but he was famous in his time for (as the judge had it) "printing and publishing a scandalous and defamatory libel upon his royal highness the prince regent." The offending text? Free speech advocates take note: Hunt and his brother went to prison for two years for writing that Prinny:
was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country, or the respect of posterity!)

But (see what I mean by those very few degrees of separation?) I'm wandering away from the Lamb story, and especially from Mary's.

Years pass. The barrister dies, the Lambs have to leave the Inner Temple; the quaint, edenic urban childhood comes to a close. The parents grow old, crippled; a querulous aunt comes to live with them in an apartment above a wig-maker's shop in Little Queen Street in Holburn.

Charles becomes a clerk at the East India House -- imagine row upon row of young, aging, and old Bob Cratchits standing at high desks, writing and ciphering every numerical value from every item of every shipment coming in and going out of that vaster-than-empires trading monopoly. It's deadening work, but the hours aren't long; I was surprised to learn that it brought with it a pension; and Charles and his friends had time for drinking, larking, flirting, going to the theater, and (remember, it's the romantic era) fancying themselves poets and artists.

Mary is apprenticed to a mantua-maker and becomes one herself, eventually taking on a nine-year-old apprentice of her own.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a "mantua" was a sort of loose gown, but by late Georgian times "mantua-maker" has come generally to mean a dressmaker -- someone who makes and mends a lady's clothes. Romance writers prefer the Frenchier, more fashionable-sounding "modiste," and there were a few fashionable seamstresses who kept fashion spies in Paris and served the aristocracy. But there weren't many of them, and who knows how viable even their businesses were?

Because in general, this respectable independent trade for women was a tough way to make a living, and pretty much impossible to make a good one at. Not a jot of economic security came with it, of course -- certainly not a pension. And whereas Charles Lamb got to put down his pen every afternoon and meet his friends at an inn called The Salutation and the Cat, Mary (and her sister mantua-makers) worked at home, sometimes far into the night, when they weren't ministering to relatives -- in Mary Lamb's case, the three old people at home with her in Little Queen Street.

I want to interrupt myself here, though, with a familiar from our own times -- told me by a friend who recently visited his psychopharmacologist to get his dosages of Zoloft and Ativan adjusted. Scribbling on his prescription pad, the doc remarked to my friend that he was lucky: born in another century, he'd have been locked up in a madhouse by now.

Well, yes and no. Yes, Georgian London boasted a large number of madhouses -- from the scary, decaying public Bethlem Royal Hospital (the legendary "Bedlam") to Whitmore House (originally called Balmes House) in Hoxton, where for fifteen hundred pounds a year a wealthy family could secure a suite of rooms, a private caretaker, and the comforting knowledge that no one would know the whereabouts of the balmy relative there incarcerated (it's thought that the word "balmy" gets its origin from "Balmes"). And yes, it's true that madhouses were places where troublesome family members (particularly wives) could be locked away forever.

But it also seems to be true that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries madness could be seen as an episodic, controllable sort of thing. Public perception of King George III's 1788 "cure" seems to have had something to do with this, and I'd hazard that an increasing fascination (among intellectuals, at any rate) with romantic imagination had something to do with it as well. Charles Lamb had a breakdown in 1775 and spent six weeks in a private madhouse in Hoxton. Unfortunately, no records of his symptoms or diagnosis survive. All we have is the romantic, slightly shabby bravado of a letter to his friend: Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad.

Charles returned to work after his sojourn and tried to help his sister, with the strain of family finances, the care of the ever more family elders, and with Mary's own increasing mental instability. In fact, on September 22, 1796, Charles was out looking for a Doctor Pitcairn. He'd hoped to have the doctor tend to Mary on the very day when (as The Morning Chronicle had it):

While the family were preparing for dinner, the young lady [Mary Lamb], in a fit of insanity, seized a cafe knife lying on the table, and in a menacing manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice, round the room. On the eager calls of her helpless infirm mother, to forbear, she... approached her parent. The child, by her cries, quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but too late; the dreadful scene presented to him the mother lifeless on a chair, pierced to the heart; her daughter yet wildly standing over her with the fatal knife; and the venerable old man, her father, weeping by her side...


But with all my wandering among the byways of this story (and taking time out for my own speculations) I find that I've run out of time and room to finish the story. Because (at least in my amateur historical investigations) connections breed connections; history becomes a Borgesian, a Shandyesque, and certainly a hypertextual affair. And all I can do is invite you back next time I post, to read about the shape this odd story takes, and how a case of murder and a diagnosis of lunacy become a literary life -- or half of the life, thenceforth lived, in Charles Lamb's words, in "double singleness."

Note on sources: I've drawn on Mad Mary Lamb, by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson, and my own readings of some of Charles Lamb's essays (all of which are -- trust me -- far more interesting and entertaining than that awful thing about roast pork).

While as for a question: Amateur historians (or even professionals) -- do you sometimes get lost in those devilish details?

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26 June 2008

Regency Refreshments: Blanc’mange

As in “shaking like a”. Heyer made this phrase a part of my Regency vocabulary, but in my early days as a reader I really had no idea what a blanc’mange was (let alone that it was pronounced “bla-manzh”). When I looked it up (cause I’m that kind of reader) the description made it sound something like a Jello®-mold from my childhood, and that was good enough for me. I could picture it. When I look at period sources I find descriptions such as: “its face . . . quivered, without ceasing, in a very alarming manner, being, it seems, of a paralytic sensibility like blanc-mange” and “He shook, moreover, like a plate of blanc-mange”.

The English Art of Cookery (1788) contains multiple recipes for blanc’mange. The first begins “Take a calf’s foot, cut it into small pieces, put it into a sauce-pan with a quart of water . . . boil it gently, and skim it well, till it is of a very strong jelly.” Making my own gelatin is going a little too far even for me. The other two recipes begin with “isinglass”. This is a fish-based collagen. Per Wikipedia: “Prior to the inexpensive production of gelatin and other competitive products, isinglass was used in confectionery and desserts such as fruit jelly and blancmange.” I opted to use commercial gelatin, as it aligns closely with the first recipe’s requirements and is easy to obtain (and somehow “fish jello” just grosses me out).

The next big challenge was to decide what to do about the fact that all the recipes call for bitter almonds. Bitter almonds are poisonous (they can yield cyanide) and aren’t available in the United States. My options were to use almond extract or apricot seeds*. Neither is perfect, but I went for the extract, as that should give the true flavor (almond extract being made from bitter almonds).

*I work three blocks from San Francisco’s China Town, and I’ve been told that you can usually find apricot seeds in Chinese grocery stores, but I was unsuccessful in my attempts.

Speaking of flavor, the fact that the recipes all call for two or three laurel (bay) leaves seems a bit odd to me, but I went with it (many of the cake recipes call for them too). And then there are the suggestions for how to color the blanc’mange: “When you want to colour your Blanc’mange green . . . put in a little spinach juice . . . If you wish to have it red, bruise a little cochineal and put in; if yellow, a little saffron; if violet colour, a little syrup of violets”. I opted to make a yellow one, mostly because I have a large stash of saffron from my trip to Morocco.


Most modern recipes for blancmange look NOTHING like the period ones. They tend to call for milk thickened with cornstarch. But I did manage to find one that starts with gelatin (from The British Shoppe) and I used it as a starting place.

The English Art of Cookery (1788) :
My recipe:

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin2 cups half-and-half, divided1 1/3 cups sliced almonds1/2 cup sugar1/4 teaspoon almond extract1 stick cinnamon
zest of ½ lemon
½ tsp coriander seeds
2 bay leaves
Pinch of saffron (optional)

Place 1 c. of the half-and-half and almonds in a blender, and process until smooth. Strain through a sieve into a medium saucepan; discard solids. Stir in sugar, spices, zest and extract and bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer and stir constantly. Heat the other cup of half-and-half and stir in the gelatin. Add the gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin dissolves; remove from heat.Place your mould or bowl in an ice-filled bowl. Strain into the mould to remove the spices and let it sit until it cools. Place the mould/bowl in the refrigerator until set (4 hours or over night).

My friends’ reactions:

There were only two options, or so we thought: THE most disgusting thing ever of ONE OF the most disgusting things ever (the Korean slime eels I saw on Dirty Jobs still seem far grosser, but then I've never attempted to eat one *gag*). But it turns out it's actually good! It's a milky-sweet-almond base slightly odd undertones but everyone liked it (the baby, Keira, 18 months loved it!). Keira's mom thought it would be better with fruit or a fruit sauce, and I can't disagree. The sort of dry texture (it's vaguely cheese-like) sort of cries out for a fruity sauce. Overall, I'd make it again for a dinner party, so it's a winner.

25 June 2008

Summer Coolers, Regency Style: Ice Cream to Melt Over


I wrote this post several days ago in advance of my vacation ... who knew that Regency food would be a theme this week?  So here's another sweet to tempt your period palate.

Jane Austen's novels, as well as those of my own contemporaries are filled with scenes of characters "eating ices," which always puts me in mind of flavored shaved ices or a tart, water-based, palate cleansing sorbet. In fact, there were as many flavors as one might discover at any Italian gelateria, and having tried one of the Regency recipes myself, I found the texture to be much closer to that of a semifreddo than a sherbet (a milk-based ice, as opposed to sorbet, which is a water-based ice).

Ices made it to English dessert tables in the 1670s, but in those days they were an exclusive dish that appeared only on the king's table. The earliest printed recipe appeared in Mrs. Eale's Receipts, a little work on confectionery published in London in 1718.

In the second half of the 18th century, ices become more widely available from confectioners' shops set up by French and Italian émigrés. A confectionary text of 1770 includes recipes for a variety of flavors, including Pistachio and Brown Bread (the latter seems to be a flavor that never made it into our era; one wonders what it might have tasted like).

In the same book one can find recipes for ices made with elderflowers, jasmine, white coffee, tea, pineapple, barberries and a host of other exotic flavors.

According to an article in the Jane Austen Centre's online magazine, When the ice cream had "congealed", it was sometimes put into hinged lead or pewter molds in the form of fruits, or other novelty shapes. The seams were sealed with lard and they were wrapped in brown paper before being plunged into the salt and ice mixture for about two hours to freeze hard. After being turned out of the moulds, the fruits were preserved in their frozen state in an early form of refrigerator known as an ice cave. Ice cream freezers in the traditional sense were not invented until 1846, when Nancy Johnson designed a hand cranked churn which worked much like those used today. These fruits glacés were often colored with edible pigments and provided with stalks and leaves to make them look realistic. Molds in the form of citrons, pineapples, bergamot pears, and apricots were popular. Some in the form of crayfish, asparagus, cuts of meat and truffles were also used.

In France, rich custard-based ices known as fromages glacés were frozen in molds in the form of cheeses. Fake biscuits and canelons (cigar shaped wafers) were also popular. Water ices and frozen mousses were made in a remarkable variety of flavors. Some of them included the alcoholic liqueurs of the day, such as the almond-flavoured ratafia and the spicy rossolis. In England, frozen punches were particularly popular. These were based on lemon, or Seville orange sorbet fortified with rum. One of the confectioners who helped establish a taste for quality continental ice cream in England was an Italian called Domenico Negri. Two of his apprentices published recipe books later in the century, which both have large sections on ice creams. One of these, Frederick Nutt, whose The Complete Confectioner first appeared in 1789, gives thirty two recipes for ice cream and twenty four for water ices.

I'm an ice cream junkie, so I couldn't wait to try the Regency-era recipe for Lemon-Orange Ice Cream.

Lemon-Orange Ice Cream
Zest of 1 lemon and 1 Orange
2/3 cup sugar
7 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup minced pistachio nuts

Put the lemon zest and sugar in a food processor and process until the zest is finally chopped. In a saucepan, mix the lemon sugar with 1 1/2 cups heavy cream and all milk. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Place the egg yolks in a large bowl and whisk briefly. still whisking the yolks, slowly pour in the hot cream. When the mixture is smooth, pour it back into the saucepan or into the top of a double boiler.

Cook over low heat or over simmering water, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes a thick custard, about 15 min. Do not let the mixture boil. Place the custard in a metal bowl set over a larger bowl of ice. Stir until very cold and thick. Mix in the lemon juice. Whip the remaining cup of cream until stiff. Fold in the lemon custard. Add pistachios if desired. Pour the mixture into the bowl of the machine and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions.

(If you do not have an ice cream maker, freeze the mixture in a shallow pan. Once partially set, scoop the ice cream into your mixing bowl and beat until smooth (not melted). Return to freezer and freeze solid.)

Makes about 1 quart.

I chose to omit the pistachios, because I've never much liked nuts in my ice cream. And I used 1% fat milk instead of whole milk (I did use the cream, though, as per the recipe).

I zested the citrus fruits with a handheld microplane, rather than in a food processor. I don't have a double boiler, and found the saucepan worked just fine. Once the mixture had cooled in its ice bath, I poured it into the ice cream attachment bowl for my KitchenAid mixer, churned it for about 15 minutes (or per manufacturer's instructions), then transferred the partially frozen mixture (which will be like very gloppy soft ice cream) into a lidded plastic container, (i.e. Tupperware, etc) and placed the container into my freezer for several hours, to freeze the ices to the proper consistency.

These "ices" are tart and refreshing and exceptionally creamy, although I found that the frozen mixture tended to crumble and flake when I tried to scoop it out of the plastic container, whether I used an ice cream scoop or a large spoon. It had a texture I'd never before experienced in contemporary ice creams and gelati, which is why the dry-ish, crumbly texture of a semifreddo came to mind.

I'd be interested to hear about your Regency recipe experiments!


24 June 2008

Regency Refreshments: Cheesecakes

Some recipes for Cheesecakes appear to be essentially a custard baked into a puff pastry shell. They are essentially a Danish. But most call for the cook to begin by making cheese curd. I’ve done this on my friends’ goat ranch, and it’s a quick and easy process, but I’m going to cheat and start with a nice plain ricotta.

The Universal Cook (1806):
Similar to Cheesecakes are Maids of Honour. In fact, I see very little difference when comparing the recipes (except, perhaps, the edition of candied citron and brandy), so I’m not going to bother to include those recipes or to make them up. Whatever variety I make will be similar enough to give you an idea of what they would have been like. A flavor that seems to be common in all the books is lemon. And as I’m a sucker for lemon-flavored anything (and I’m quite tired of everything being filled with currents by now, and the “common cheesecake” recipes often call for their addition). This is the variety I chose to make.

The English Art of Cookery (1788) :
All the Cheesecakes of the day appear to have been baked in puff pastry shells. Luckily puff pastry is readily available (as it takes forever to make). So I’ve now skipped over two time consuming and labor intensive steps that a cook of the period would have had to go through (making cheese and making puff pastry).





My recipe:

2 lemons
¾ c. sugar
Six egg yolks
1 pint ricotta cheese
2 sticks butter, melted
1 pack puff pastry

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease a muffin pan.

Peel the lemon rind with a vegetable peeler (be careful to just peel off the rind and not the bitter white pith). Boil it in water until it softens (20-30 minutes). Strain and combine with the sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Process until ground. Add the egg yolks and cheese and blend. Add the melted butter and blend (it will be really thin, don’t worry, it solidifies as it bakes). This can be done one to two days ahead of time and then stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

You can defrost the puff pastry, but it’s not necessary. If you leave it cold it will be easy to cut and will bake perfectly. Just break it along the fold lines and then cut it into 2-inch squares (one sheet of Pepperidge Farm’s Puff Pastry yields a dozen squares).

Press each square of puff pastry into a hole in the muffin tin and prick the bottom with a fork (as you would a pie crust). Spoon a large dollop (about 2 TBL) of the lemon mixture into the “cup” formed by each puff pastry square and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

You can garnish these with bits of candied lemon peel or with a dusting of powdered sugar if you like.

My friends’ reactions:

These were a huge hit. Everyone really enjoyed them. We did discuss that it might be nice to use fresh lemon zest, rather than the boiled rind, to achieve more brightness in the lemon flavor (this would certainly suit a modern palate better) and we decided that these would be wonderful as a base for strawberry shortcake.

I know this recipe sound like a lot of work, but it was actually really easy and quick (and would be even quicker if you just zested the lemons and used the fresh zest).

Lesson learned after the fact: Raccoons really like lemon-flavored cheese. I have a near nightly visitor who believes with all his little furry being that whatever is left in the dog dish must be there for him. For the last year or so this has been the deal. He never touches anything else. Just the dog food. Then last night the sweet scent of lemon-flavored cheese filling wafted out of the trash and he was IN. Garbage all over the place. Cheese filing all over my floor. Pure comedy (of so I keep telling myself). Once he'd polished off the garbage he moved on to the kitchen table and the six cup cake-sized cheese cakes up there in a ziplock bag. He didn't touch the fruit, the granola bars, the box of cereal or even the cinnamon muffins. Nope. My little bandito is all about lemon-flavored cheese.

23 June 2008

The Group and the Individual

The time line of war and peace, conquest and freedom is the merest skeleton whose numbers are brought to life with the stories of men and women who made it happen. Their world is filled with the physical, emotion and intellectual detail that we hoydens (love to) explore and share.

Along with the basic need for food and shelter, the deepest parts of those elements are resonant throughout human existence: the lust for life, the fear of death, the longing to be accepted and valued are the big three that come to mind without much thought.

One of the overarching elements that fascinates me is the importance of the group in contest with the importance of the individual. In my randomly educated opinion up until the late eighteenth century the survival, prosperity and growth of the group far outweighed the importance of the individual. People lived communally, in ways that we would not countenance now. They ate and shared life in groups, they survived and failed as a community. They married for the greater good of family and country. SELF-preservation took second place. Men fought and died to protect their lands. Women gave birth, as often as they could, to insure the survival of the line or to guarantee that there would be enough people to fight and farm.

Change was born with the Enlightenment. But my theory on the growth of the importance of the individual is more fundamental. That shift began when men and women became literate. With the invention of the printing press came the greater availability of reading material and reading became another challenge the individual felt a need to conquer. The process was long and slow, but as more and more could read, two things happened: one, the reader was no longer dependent on the community for information and two, the new reader needed a quieter spot to absorb the written word.

Another great sign of the importance of the individual was that couples began to act on the longing to marry for love rather than as family needs dictated. It is an element of the early nineteenth century life that makes the Regency such fertile ground for writers. The conflict that grew between the old-school parent and their children who had a different vision.

Looking at the big picture, I think, in our day, war remains the primary way we reassert the need for the greater good of the community. Men and women die for a cause and those of us at home support the troops whether we support the war or not. Natural disaster calls up the same reminder that community has a place in our world, but tsunamis and tornadoes lack the deliberate element of declared war. Could it be that the “Go Green” rallying cry is a call to community as well?

Can there be any doubt that this stems from the extreme importance of the individual that we see in this early part of the twenty-first century? What comes next? I delight in debate. Tell me what you think…

19 June 2008

Regency Refreshments: Ratafia Biscuits

Finally something that worked out the very first time! My prep for the Historical Writers Conference continues. This week I attempted Ratafia Biscuits (a “biscuit” is a cookie, just as it is today in England). The name delights me (and how can you go wrong with an almond macaroon?). The Oxford English Dictionary dates “Ratafia” (for a cookie) to 1845. I’m a bit stumped by this, as I find recipes for them more than one-hundred years earlier than that.

A Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts (1734):

Recipes for “Ratafia Cakes” or “Ratafies” (which isn’t in the OED at all) are common throughout the Georgian era. As are their slightly blander sister-cookie: The Macaroon (essentially the same cookie, but without bitter almonds*).

*Note about bitter almonds: bitter almonds are very hard (if not impossible) to come by in the United States due to their poisonous nature. What using them gets you is a very intense almond flavor, so the substitution of almond extract (which is, in fact, made from bitter almonds, but is safe) is a reasonable choice in my opinion.

A Complete System of Cookery (1816):
My recipe:

3 cups blanched slivered almonds (about 12 ounces)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3-4 egg whites
1 teaspoon almond extract (for Ratafia Biscuits; Leave out for period Macaroons)

Heat oven to 325º. Line your cookie sheet/s with parchment paper or a Silpat® sheet (they will stick to an ungreased sheet and spread too much on a greased one).

Put the almonds into food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade; process 1 minute. Add sugar; process 15 seconds longer. Add whites and extract (if using); process until the paste wads around blade. Scrape sides and corners of workbowl with spatula; process until stiff but cohesive, malleable paste (similar in consistency to marzipan or pasta dough) forms, about 5 seconds longer. If mixture is crumbly or dry, turn machine back on and add water by drops through feeder tube until proper consistency is reached.

Make balls of dough about the size of a walnut for each cookie, form a dozen cookies upon each paper-lined sheet, spacing the cookies 1 ½ inches apart. You can drop the paste from a spoon or for a neater look, roll it into 1-inch balls between your palms . (Rinse and dry your hands if they become too sticky; slightly damp hands or oiled hands keep the dough from sticking too badly.)
Bake until golden brown: 20 to 25 minutes. If overbaked, macaroons will dry out rather quickly when stored. Leave macaroons on papers until completely cooled or else they may tear. Store in an airtight container.

My friends’ reactions:

Everyone really liked them, though there were differences as to which one was preferred. Something about the addition of the almond extract intensified the sweetness of the cookie. Several people like the more subtle flavor of the macaroon as opposed to the strong almond flavor of the Ratafia Biscuit. We all agreed that they were both great with a glass of whisky.

I really love this kind of hands-on exploration of my characters' world, and it’s something I can do here on “my” side of the pond (much as I’d rather be romping around England taking pictures and visiting historical sites and museums). And yes, I do picture the hero of my newly released novel eating Ratafia Biscuits while lounging around and drinking far too much whisky.

18 June 2008

Kenneth's Collection


I love losing myself in research books, but there's a special thrill to research trips. Walking down streets your characters walk in your novel, exploring rooms they might have lived in, seeing clothes and furniture and works of art and imagining which of your characters might own what, how it would be arranged, what it might represent. It doesn't necessarily mean going to the location where the book is set. I was lucky enough to go to London and Scotland when I was researching Beneath a Silent Moon and "location scout" (that's me in Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden, which first opened in 1800). But I also did a lot of research for the book on trips to New York City. Kenneth Fraser, the father of Charles (the hero), has an art collection that plays an important role in the book. Kenneth Fraser built his collection making the Grand Tour with his friend Lord Glenister. I built Kenneth's collection in my imagination by exploring the the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection.

The allusions in my books tend to the literary and the musical. Even though I've loved museums since I was a child (my mom and I named all the Regency and Georgian paintings at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor when I was ten) exploring the visual arts for thematic references for my books was something new. The Frick is particularly wonderful for this as you can wander through actual house looking at paintings hung on the walls of rooms designed for them, sculptures set out on beautiful tables and desk, marble busts lining corridors. If you get tired of walking, you can take a break on a stone bench in an exquisite courtyard filled with stone statues. I took notes, drew (very bad) sketches, scoured the museum gift shops for post cards. I looked, of course, for works I thought Kenneth might have collected. But I also looked for works that reflect that themes about sex and power (and the intertwining of the two) that run through the book. Which, given Kenneth's personality, tallied nicely with the type of art he would have collected :-).

Back at home I laid out my notes and postcards and bad sketches and picked paintings and statues and sculptures that fit different scenes. Early in the book, Charles is summoned to an uncomfortable interview with his father Kenneth, who has just become betrothed to Honoria Talbot, the girl Charles almost married himself. In Kenneth's study, A Renaissance bronze that had the look of Cellini served as a paperweight. A bit later in the scene, Charles fixed his gaze on the bronze sculpture, which appeared to depict a naked Triton ravishing n equally naked Nereid. He gripped her, either in conquest or supplication, while she looked away and yet curved her body into his own. That description came from notes I took on a sculpture I saw at the Frick.

Later in the book, Mélanie (the heroine) is alone with Kenneth in the wake of a shocking incident involving Honoria, an incident which makes Mélanie question everything she thought she knew about both Kenneth and Honoria. Kenneth was staring at a painting on the wall by the fireplace. Danaë reclining on gleaming red velvet, her head thrown back, her hand extended to clutch a fistful of gold coins. When I saw that painting (at the Met, I think, though I may be wrong, and I don't have time to dig my notes out before I post this), I knew it was the perfect image for that scene.

Still later, when Mélanie is trying to make sense of the world of Honoria Talbot grew up in--She thought of the Fragonard paintings that were littered about the house. Young lovers in a rose-strewn garden, watched over by Venus and Cupid. A world of sugar-coated romance with carnality pulsing just beneath the surface. That description--a metaphor for the world of my fictional Glenister House set whose intrigues form the background of the novel--was inspired by the Fragonard room at the Frick. I still remembering standing in that room, turning to examine the various paintings, and realizing how very much more is going on in them than what first meets the eye.

Kenneth Fraser's collection plays as important role in the plot of Beneath a Silent Moon, but it became much more than that as I wrote the book. It was a way to highlight emotions and draw thematic parallels. It became a living, breathing part of of my characters' world for me--and hopefully for the reader.

Writers, do you like exploring museums and imagining how works of art might figure in your characters' lives? Have you ever written a scene inspired by a painting or sculpture? Readers, do you imagine scenes from your favorite books when you visit museums? Any favorite books to recommend in which works of art play an important role?

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16 June 2008

Who's Who in Late Georgian England

Part of my celebration for the publication of LORD SCANDAL is a new page on my website that’s all about who’s who in late Georgian England. I assume that many fans of historical romance are at least passingly familiar with the notables of the Regency era (and if they aren’t, they can avail themselves of the information on Candice Hern’s wonderful site). But I’m guessing that the personalities of the pervious generation may be a bit hazier . . . so let me introduce you to a few of the faces you might encounter in one of my books.

At the end of the 1780s the future George IV is a handsome twenty-somthing, “the first gentleman of Europe”. Jane Austen is a tween, perhaps already working on her juvenilia. Nelson is newly married and living landlocked on half-pay. The man who will someday become the Duke of Wellington is a teenaged aide-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Brummell, the future king of fashion, is just a little boy. Byron is a newborn (hard to imagine, isn’t it; Don Juan in nappies).

Here are just a few of the faces you’ll encounter on the much longer list on my site (for the purposes of the list I’ve chosen the year 1788):

Prince of Wales, Age 26


George Augustus Frederick seems to have taken strongly after his unmourned grandfather (Frederick, Prince of Wales). While most people remember him as an obese buffoon with a penchant for equally hefty—and often much older—women, at this point he is a tall, strapping young man. He is emotional, sensitive, and a great patron of the arts. Only a few years previously he has contracted a secret, illegal, marriage to the great love of his life, Maria Anne Fitzherbert.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Age 34


She was the daughter of the first Earl Spencer, and a distant cousin of the Whig grandee, Charles James Fox. She was one of the great beauties of her day, and she gathered about her a large circle of notables from the political, literary, and art worlds. Her influence as a social leader extended even to Almack’s, where she was one of the early patronesses.

Emma Hart, Age 23

The future Lady Hamilton is mostly remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson, but at the time of this telling Emma is in Naples, living with Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples, as his mistress . . . the most shocking part of which is that she was sent there as something of a present by her former lover, Sir William’s nephew!


Henry Angelo, Age 28

Angelo’s father came from Italy in 1755. Angelo Senior was a fencing and riding instructor who made a name for himself by besting well known English and Irish fencers. He promptly opened his own salle, Angelo's School of Arms. He was the fencing master to the young princes, and in 1763 published an illustrated guide to fencing, L'Ecole d'Armes. Henry was a fencing master like his father, and he took over the Angelo salle in 1785. It was a fashionable meeting place, and often held exhibitions by visiting foreign champions (such as St. George and d'Eon).

Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Age 43

Joseph de Bologne was a true Renaissance man. He was the illegitimate, half-African son of a French planter, who raised him as a gentleman in Paris, and left him the incredible sum of fifty thousand pounds. Joseph was not only a champion fencer (who visited England in this capacity as a guest of the Prince of Wales), but a world-class violinist and composer, and Marie Antoinette’s personal music instructor! Henry Angelo said of St. George, "No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength … his attacks were a perpetual series of hits and his parade was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him".

Chevaliere d’Eon, Age 78

Let us start with the facts: D'Eon was a Frenchman who lived the first half of his life as a man and the second half as a woman. He was a spy, a diplomat, and a captain of dragoons. He claimed that he disguised himself as a woman and became a maid of honor to the Empress of Russia. There was rife speculation that he was, in fact, a woman. After some very complicated goings on in the 1760s he was left exiled in London. He ignored this fact, returned to France, and demanded that the French government recognize him as a woman. The French King and court agreed, so long as d'Eon dressed like a woman. In 1785 he returned to England, where he lived the rest of his life (continuing to cross dress until his dying day). In 1787, he bested the much younger Chevalier Saint-Georges in an exhibition match. When he died, doctors examined his corpse and found it to be anatomically male.

Mary “Perditia” Robinson, Age 31

In1779 her performance as Perdita in Garrick’s Florizel and Perdita (his adaptation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale) she captured the attention of the Prince of Wales. Her previously published book of poems had already brought her the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. When her affair with the prince ended in 1781, she blackmailed the Crown into granting her an annuity. In 1783 she suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralyzed. By the late 1780s, she is a distinguished poetess, "the English Sappho."

Sarah Siddons, Age 33

Sarah was the best-known tragedienne of the 18th century. Her entire family were actors, and she grew up in her father's traveling company. In 1775, as a member of David Garrick's company, she made her disastrous debut at Drury Lane. Her contract was not renewed and she did not return to the London stage until 1782, when she appeared in the title role of Garrick's Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage. This time she was a hit. By the 1780s she was the undisputed queen of the stage.

John Philip Kemble, Age 31

Tall, imposing, and attractive, Kemble was one of the great Shakespearean actors of the late Georgian era. He made is first appearance at Drury Lane in 1783, along with his more famous sister, Sarah Siddons. He was appointed manager at Drury Lane in 1788.


Frances Burney, Age 36

She published her first novel Evelina anonymously in 1778. It was a huge success, bringing her to the notice of influential friends ranging from Dr. Johnson to the Duchess of Devonshire. A second novel, Cecilia, followed in 1782. In 1786 she accepted a post as one of Queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting. Though she had a warm relationship with the queen, she was not happy at court, as her duties deprived her of time to write (note that nothing was published during her years at court).

Grace Elliott, Age 34

In 1771 Grace Dalrymple made her debut in Edinburgh. She was an acknowledged beauty and married a rich physician. She fled her marriage in 1774, eventually receiving a divorce and a settlement of £12,000 in damages. It was only then that her real adventures began! Her brother kidnapped her and had her confined to a French convent. She was rescued by Lord Cholmondeley, and spent several years thereafter as his mistress. It was during this period that she became known as “Dally the Tall”. The Prince of Wales introduced her to the French Duke of Orleans in 1784 and by 1786 she had settled in Paris . . .



Do you enjoy stumbling across real people in novels? I love it when they appear for a quick guest appearance, so long as the character presented seems authentic and genuine. I think it adds verisimilitude to the work and grounds the novel in a way that things like clothing and food and carriages simply don’t equal.

13 June 2008

To Bathe or Not To Bathe... That Is the Question


As I see it, the fiction writer's dilemma is (1) choosing which of conflicting pieces
of information to regard as "true" and (b) knowing when to quit researching. I found amazingly little definitive information on medieval bathing...though I didn't go as far afield as libraries in other cities via inter-library loan. So... here's what I did find.

Society for Creative Anachronism. In 13th century Paris, twenty-six bathhouses, run by a guild, offered steam and tub baths for various prices. A stool would be provided to assist the in climbing out of the deep bath, and one or more servants are usually pictured standing by as well.

By the end of the 14th century, it was common recorded that people of all classes bathed in France, Italy, Saxony, Bohemia and Germany. The lack of cleanliness and horror of bathing often associated with the Middle Ages dates only from the Renaissance, when the morality of public bathhouses came more and more under suspicion, and when it was also widely believed that immerson in water facilitated the spread of epidemics.

However, in medieval times, it became increasingly fashionable to have your bath drawn in the privacy of your own home.

Wikipedia: With the decline of the Roman Empire, the public baths often became places of licentious behavior, and such use was responsible for the spread rather than the cure of diseases. A general belief developed among the European populace was that frequent bathing promoted disease and sickness. Medieval church authorities encouraged this belief and made every effort to close down public baths.

People continued to seek out a few select hot and cold springs, believed to be holy wells, to cure various ailments... Bathing procedures during this period varied greatly.

Life in a Medieval City: (Joseph and Frances Gies, chapter "A Burgher's Home"): Perhaps once a week a wooden tub for bathing is set up, and servants lug up buckets that have been heated over the kitchen fire. In the interval between baths members of the household may take shampoos.

Life in a Medieval Castle: Gies, chapter "The Castle as a House"): Baths were taken in a wooden tub, protected by a tent or canopy and padded with cloth. In warm weather, the tub was often placed in the garden; in cold weather, in the chamber near the fire. When the lord traveled, the tub accompanied him, along with a bathman who prepared the baths.

In some important thirteenth-century castles and palaces there were permanent bathrooms, and in Henry III's palace at Westminster there was even hot and cold running water in the bath house, the hot water supplied by tanks filled from pots heated in a special furnace. Edward II had a tiled floor in his bathroom, with mats to protect his feet from the cold.

and...in the chapter "A Day in the Castle": After washing in a basin of cold water, they donned outer garments....

Life in Medieval Times: (Marjorie Rowling, chapter on "Women and Wives"): Another popular place was the public bath. By the first half of the thirteenth century these had been reintroduced to the main cities of Europe through the influence of returned Crusaders. Built on the Moslem pattern, these included hot steam baths; they were also patronised by both men and women as social clubs. These finally became so disreputable that, by 1546, they were suppressed in England, though they continued in France and other countries until a later period.

The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages: (Norman Cantor, ed.): Cleanliness and Perfumes: People in the Middle Ages placed a high value on cleanliness. Bathing was common; it was more elaborate for the rich than for the peasantry, but most people bathed regularly. Public baths were common, especially in the larger towns. In some places, people recognized the curative powers of mineral waters and took medicinal baths.

History of Hydrotherapy website: During the Middle Ages, bathing of the whole body was an activity in the more moneyed families. The poverty of the medieval age meant it lacked adequate places for the practice of hygiene. Pitchers and sponges were used to clean the body.... Later, the domestic apparatus of the bourgeois home was gradually modernized, yet the majority of bourgeous domiciles possessed neither the space nor the infrastructure adequate for equipping a room with a permanent hot tub.

Hygiene was thus consigned to portable inventions. Gradually, the upper classes began to promote the need for hygiene among the lower classes. Still, the task was not an easy one, given that soap was a luxury product beyond the means of many families.

Medieval bathhouses had plain round or oval wooden tube made of oak or walnut... the shape not unlike the average modern tub built in this way to allow several people to bathe at once. Hot water was scarce so whole families and their guests bathed together or at least in quick succession. There are many pictures of communal hot tubs, some with a tray across the top holding food. There seems to have been neither inhibitions about bathing with the opposite sex nor any feelings of encroachment on privacy. [Wow! This suggests several sexy scenes.]

Blogger's caveat: Somehow I don't find this website description credible, though I have seen a picture of a bathing scene: tub holding two persons with a tray across the top holding food.

Dr. Stephen Mark Carey: This Assistant Professor of German at Georgia State University says: There are two recent books which might be of interest: (1) Virginia Smith's book "Clean", a history of personal hygiene and purity (2007; Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199297795 and (2) Sophie Albert's "Laver, monder, blanchir: discours et usages de la toilette dans l'occident medieval" (2006: Paris: PUPS, ISBN 2840504480 9782840504481)

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10 June 2008

Welcome, Barbara Metzger!


Available Now!

He’s a master of disguises— but he can’t mask true love

Spymaster Harry Harmon’s new assignment is to spy on enemies at a country house party. To do that, he’ll require a courtesan— learned, truthful, and beautiful...

Poor, sensible, smart Simone Ryland has come to Mrs. Burton’s bawdy house in search of work. But instead, she finds Harmon in need of her special “skills.”

THE SCANDALOUS LIFE OF A TRUE LADY is set in the Regency era right after Waterloo. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?
I wanted the war over because hero Harry was a master spy. Now that peace has come, he is desperate to retire and have a real life, without disguises, aliases, or threats.

How did you become interested in this time period?
The same way many writers come to the Regency, via Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I also have to credit Barbara Cartland for making it look do-able. I'd never have had the courage to try otherwise. What you love about it? The times? Because so much was going on. The tradition of Regency-set romances? At first, because they were comedies of manners mixed with True Love. And honor. Yes, still honor. The heroes have strict codes and strong consciences.

What do you like least about this period?
Again, there is a difference between the history and the fiction. The Regency was a great time for the wealthy and titled. Poverty, prejudice, ignorance and injustice can be ignored in a love story. What I like least about writing about the times is that so many great plots have already been used! Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around? The same thing, trying not to repeat myself or anyone else. That was one reason I started adding a bit of paranormal to my books, for the fun of going in new directions without straying to far from my home base. THE HOURGLASS had Death as hero. In the True Love Trilogy, TRULY YOURS, THE SCANDALOUS LIFE OF A TRUE LADY, and THE WICKED WAYS OF A TRUE HERO (Feb., 2009) the heroes carry the family trait of being able to discern the truth. I had a great time playing with that.

Anything you flat-out altered or "fudged"?
Like having Harry get a bad taste in his mouth when a lie is spoken? I guess I take enough liberties with reality! I do often make up towns, streets, etc., because an actual place has its own history.

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. *sigh*
I am sure there are many, despite so many readings and rewrites, editing and copy-editing, but I do not read the books when they come out. By then I am sick of the story, and hate to find the errors, when it's too late to fix them.

Tell us a little about your hero or heroine (or both!). Something fun, like his favorite childhood pet, or her first kiss (assuming it wasn't the hero, LOL!).
The best thing about Harry is all the characters he pretends to be: an old man, a coachman, an army officer, a rake. The heroine begins to suspect because all of them have white cat hairs on their clothes.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn't get out of your head?
Again, I took the notion of the men in the Royce family being about to tell truth from lies and went where that led me. The first book was about a court case, because Rex could tell the heroine was innocent. In SCANDALOUS LADY, Harry is defending the country. The final book is about counterfeiting. All different heroes and plots, but with the same quirk.
I know this is a spy book. Was there a particular historical event taking place in England (something like the Peterloo massacre) that had your dashing spy master active in his own country? After the war, there were still plots against the government, still people with secrets, so Harry still had work to do before he could retire.

Did you have to do any major research for this book (I always assume with spys that there must have been lots of background research that never makes it to the page)?
No, since Harry's existence was supposed to be a state secret, I figured I could put him where I wanted, without worrying about Intelligence services, etc. Magic is very liberating!

What/Who do you like to read?
Almost anything with a happy ending. If there's a dog, even better.

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Both, to my dismay. I usually spend months thinking, so I know the characters, the set-up, the beginning scenes, all neatly outlined and indexed. Then I get stuck, frustrated and bored, and start writing, without an ending! Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go? Both, but more of reworking each chapter until I like it.

What are you planning to work on next?
Well, my next story, the last of the connected books, is done. That's THE WICKED WAYS OF A TRUE HERO, where poor Daniel gets a rash when someone tells a lie. He's a total misfit in so-called polite society, or trying to talk to a proper lady. Right now I am working on a new Regency-historical, without any paranormal at all, trying to see how I can twist the arranged marriage plot in new ways. And I am kicking around a contemporary idea, with magic. I'd start it soon. . . if it only had an ending!

09 June 2008

Can Writing Be Taught?

I know a successful author who's proud of the fact that she's never read a book on writing craft…and another who criticizes every fiction workshops in existence, claiming that, to paraphrase B. B. King, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know." At the other end of the spectrum are those who attend every session at the national RWA conference, feverishly taking notes and yearning to glean a bit of writing wisdom. These two groups of authors seem to be at odds: those who think writing can't be taught, and those who strive to learn all they can.

I lean to the second camp, to be sure. Academia has always been a comfortable world for me, and I naturally gravitate toward studying. But besides that, I honestly believe that while some have a natural gift for storytelling, there is still plenty for every author to learn. A perfect book hasn't been written yet, to the best of my knowledge.

I've been mulling over this question a lot in the past year, trying to decide if I wanted to take my quest for craft to the ultimate level: an MFA. Some of the advice I got surprised me:

"You won't learn anything there that you couldn't learn on your own."

"Academia isn't the right place to learn anything creative."

"Creative writing can't be taught."

"It's a waste of money."

I rebelled at these comments. Sure, some aspects of writing may be innate, but that doesn't mean we can't shore up our weaknesses or hone our natural abilities.

One of my favorite books of writing inspiration is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. A writer of short humorous essays, I don't believe Ms. Ueland was ever published much. But this little handbook, published back in 1930, is still in print. That alone speaks volumes about how wonderful and useful it is. In the book, she discusses all sort of topics pertaining to the writer's heart and mind. She compares writers to painters, actors, doctors -- any pursuit that has a creative side.

And that's where I found my answer. Music can be taught, obviously -- no one disdainfully suggests that composers leave off studying music theory, music history, or great composers of the past. Imagine someone telling a modern composer, "Oh, you can't learn anything in an academic music program that you can't learn on your own. Why do you want to read all those scholarly essays about Beethoven? Getting an MFA would be a waste of money."

Painters are also given much encouragement to study -- look at the influence of different schools on the work of many artists, from Gentileschi to Jasper Johns.

Writers seem to be singled out for the negative view. Is this because creative writing is taken less seriously than music or painting? Perhaps it's because we use words; our tools are common to everyone. Even parrots and gorillas can use words. Are the people who espouse this view simply negative about creative writing in general, thinking that studying fiction is about as useful as studying basket weaving? (If you've never tried it, let me assure you that basket weaving is every bit as difficult as any other craft. Those elaborate baskets from times gone by end up in museums for a very good reason).

That explains the perspective of the non-writer, perhaps, but what of the novelists who eschew workshops? Is there an innate overconfidence (for lack of a better, less judgmental word) on the part of authors who have so much talent, they don't feel any need to study craft?

I have no idea. All I know is, I'll be starting an MFA program this week, and I hope to learn a lot in the process.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What aspects of writing do you think can be taught? What aspects do you think one must simply be born with? And lastly, have you ever read a perfect book?

06 June 2008

A Walk on the Wild Side of the Regency: From Dorothy Wordsworth to Emily Bronte

In an earlier post to this blog, I wrote a little about some of the great literary walkers of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries -- authors and characters both. And about the wonderful ways in which the human figure moving through nature can become part and parcel of story, biography, observation, consciousness.

Particularly in the period romance readers will call the Regency (and which -- ironically -- more scholarly types will call the Romantic period), a turn through fine prospects or a tour through sublime wildness was considered a necessary prop and aid to the cultivation of taste and sensibility.

But although the words "taste and sensibility" seem to suggest these qualities were cultivated at a slow, contemplative, rather decorative pace, the truth is that in those days people made tracks.

Without the aid of Ecco or Mephisto or whichever twenty-first century wizard of the walking shoe you prefer, the poet William Wordsworth crossed the alps at the impressive rate of 30 miles a day.

According to William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys, the philosopher William Godwin's normal pace from London to its environs was a strong, steady four miles an hour.

And in Wuthering Heights, Cathy Earnshaw's father walked from Yorkshire to Liverpool and back in three days, when he brought home the infant Heathcliff.

Of course Wuthering Heights is a work of wildly romantic Victorian fiction (by a novelist who had a Regency childhood).

But Emily Bronte's mastery of fact, law, and chronology are tight and supple, and her reverence for the physical landscape of the North of England is rock-solid. And anyway, I've done the math; it would have been possible for Mr. Earnshaw to get to Liverpool and back in the space Bronte allotted him. It's true that it wouldn't have left him much time to do his "business" in the city. But what was that business anyway? Suppose...

But I'll return to that later.

Meanwhile, what of women walkers during this period?

We all know about Lizzy Bennet's three miles to Netherfield, "crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise," the "brilliancy" of her complexion not lost upon Mr. Darcy.

The dirty stockings are a nice touch, and as I remember it, the Ely/Firth Pride and Prejudice spatters a little mud on Lizzy's white skirts as well.

But the image is still more or less of a piece with those long shots of white dresses against sunlit green rolling fields so beloved by Jane Austen movie-makers. And it's miles away from this description: "with mud-encrusted skirts banging against her sturdy legs, her flimsy shoes, her neck and face often wet and cold, her eyes and ears alert to the beauty of every sight" -- from a new biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister and extraordinary nature diarist. The book, by Frances Wilson, is called The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth.

You can read Margaret Drabble's wonderful, thoughtful review here, but you won't find any white skirts aflutter against sun-dappled English verdancy. In their pursuit of romantic sublimity and what much later we might call authenticity, the Wordsworths hiked through rain and darkness and hail. On a journey with William's wife Mary, Drabble cites Wilson, citing Dorothy, telling us that "the threesome... lost its way on the slippery darkening road several times, and Dorothy writes laconically 'I was often obliged to crawl upon all fours, and Mary fell many a time.'"

Of course, there's a great deal more to the journals than sloshing around in the mud. Like Dorothy's 1802 view of those famous yellow daffodils. Because no, William wasn't "lonely as a cloud" when he came across them, and before he wrote the poem (not my favorite) he consulted this journal entry (which I much prefer):

We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up -- But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stone about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced...

And there's a great deal more to Dorothy's story as well, though it's not a happy one. Living out her life in close quarters with William and his family, she took on huge burdens of housework, childcare, and secretarial duties for her increasingly famous brother. Physical and emotional stress overtook her; there's been speculation for the last half-century about her love for her brother (and his for her). It's impossible to know what shape any of that took. Still, you don't have to believe in a physical passion to imagine a brilliant woman's passion for life and achievement, for another possible self in a time of such limited possibility for women -- originating in a brother and sister's never-forgotten shared childhood and youth.

In her later years she had a serious emotional breakdown. She ended her days as an invalid and the only picture of her that survives is this one -- the girl with the muddy skirts and what (in a 1839 journal article) Thomas De Quincey described as her "gipsy tan," quite faded from that sad strained face, closed mouth hiding bad teeth, beneath the hideous Victorian cap.

Gone. But (perhaps) not quite disappeared from literary imagination. For Frances Wilson speculates that it's quite possible that a young Emily Bronte read that 1839 journal article, perhaps to think of a wild, nature-loving girl with a wild, all-encompassing love for a brother figure.

And (this is my speculation), that Mr. Earnshaw knew exactly why he was walking to Liverpool. To bring home that brother -- that wonderful tragic other self -- to Cathy. And to us.

Anybody else out there as fascinated as I am by that wild, romantic sensibility that runs like a hidden stream through our witty, happy-ever-after Regency period?

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05 June 2008

A Royal Affair to Remember: Charles II and "Pretty, Witty Nell Gwyn"


On Tuesday, Tracy asked me if there was anyone I really fell in love with as I was researching and writing ROYAL AFFAIRS, and I rhapsodized about my lifelong affection for Nell Gwyn, an admiration that only increased the more I delved into her life story. Here, much distilled from her entry in ROYAL AFFAIRS, is the story of the love affair between Nell Gwyn and Charles II.

When Charles II was crowned in 1660, the kingdom joyously cast off the repressive shroud of Puritanism and the pendulum swung wildly in the opposite direction. It was time to party—and no woman better typified the ethos of the era than “pretty, witty Nell Gwyn,” (1650-1687) as the king’s friend and noted diarist Samuel Pepys called her—the Cinder-Nella who went from street urchin to oyster-seller to orange-girl plying the theatre pit with her tray of fruits and sweetmeats, and thence became the nation’s first female stage star before leaping headlong into the king’s bed and affections for nearly two decades.

To say that Nell was lowborn is to sugarcoat her childhood. She grew up in Coal Yard Alley amid the London slums. Her father, who had been jailed in Oxford for being a royalist, died in prison, most likely a debtor as well. Nell’s mother, a beauty who hard luck and hard times had reduced to an obese, brandy-swilling soak, sold ale at Mrs. Ross’s in Drury Lane, so Nell used to tell people that she was “brought up in a bawdy house to bring strong waters to the gentlemen.” Nell’s older sister Rose, after a brief stint as an orange seller, followed the predictable course for such a pursuit and ended up a prostitute.

With her flame-colored curls streaked with gold, her oft-praised tiny, dainty feet, her flawless peaches and cream complexion, perfect teeth hidden by a full and sensuous mouth that poets swooned over, and hazel-green eyes framed by soft brown brows, Nell was a petite, yet voluptuous, spitfire. She had an infectious laugh, an earthy sense of humor, cursed like a carman; and, though illiterate and uneducated, had a lightning-quick rapier wit. Her secret girlhood crush was the new king, twenty years her senior, 6’2” and swarthy with blazingly intelligent black eyes, a dashing moustache gracing the upper lip of a sexily sardonic mouth; and a head of inky black curls that tumbled past his shoulders.


Charles II

Upon his accession, Charles had immediately set about reopening the theatres that the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had shut down. Charles tapped Thomas Killigrew to form a company in the king’s name and it was at the new King’s House in Drury Lane that the twelve-year-old Nell and her sister Rose got a job hawking oranges to the gallants in the pit, honing their skills at flirtation and witty repartee.

Nell had been working as an orange girl for eighteen months when she came to Killigrew’s attention. Impressed with her pluck, the theatre manager asked Nell if she’d ever considered taking acting lessons. So in March of 1665, at the age of fifteen, Nell made her stage debut, appearing in Dryden’s The Indian Emperor. It was an instant success, leading to the prompt invitation to join the company. Nell possessed a strong clear voice that could be heard above the rowdiest crowd, an effortless gift for mimicry and improvisation, and matchless comic timing. Her vitality was contagious. “Sweet Nell of Old Drury” as she was affectionately called, was a star.

But in 1665, the plague emptied the playhouses and streets of London, and those who still had their health fled for better air. Nell and her mother decamped to Oxford, but no sooner did everyone feel safe enough to creep back home, than the flames of the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed one-third of the city.

King Charles vowed to rebuild swiftly and was true to his word. And by the end of 1666, Nell was the indisputable queen of the London stage. One early evening in April, 1668, after watching a performance of She Wou’d if She Cou’d, Nell and her date repaired to a nearby tavern. Dining there was the king himself and his brother James, the dour Duke of York (who Nell called “Dismal Jimmy.”). The royals invited Nell and her friend to join them. When the bill came, the monarch and the duke fished through their purses, but neither had the means to pay it. Nell suddenly found herself stuck with the tab. Making use of the king’s favorite expression—and making as much light as possible of her predicament—Nell cried, “Od’s fish, this is the poorest company I ever was in!”

The King, utterly smitten, laughed uproariously. Nell had made a conquest for life. The illiterate actress and the royal polymath found common ground in myriad ways, drawn to each other by a mutual passion for the theatre, a ribald sense of humor, and a love of sport and the outdoors.
Still, Nell realized that if she was not to be his official mistress, or maîtresse en titre (because of her low birth), her position was a precarious one, and she would require some sort of insurance policy.

To that end, Nell didn’t quit the stage for the first three years that she and the king were lovers. She even returned to the theatre soon after giving birth on May 8, 1670 to their first child, Charles, a clear message to her adoring public that the monarch was not providing her and their son with enough to live on. In February, 1671, the king, publicly shamed, settled Nell and their baby into a fashionable town house at 79 Pall Mall, which he paid for and furnished. She was soon pregnant again, and on Christmas Day, 1671, she gave birth to their second son, James, the king’s eighth son by five different mothers. That year, at age twenty-one, Nell finally retired from the stage.

Soon, it was common knowledge that a person had to visit “Mrs. Neslie” if they wanted the ear of the king. Charles trusted Nell implicitly, fully aware that she was looking out for his interests in preference to her own. For one thing, unlike Charles’s other mistresses, Nell never meddled in state affairs, happily admitting her ignorance on such subjects, perfectly aware that the role she played in the king’s life was that of a sexy pleasure giver, not a political adviser, “the sleeping partner on the ship of state.” In fact, a little ditty popular in the 1670s goes like this:

Hard by Pall Mall lives a wench call’d Nell
King Charles the Second he kept her.
She hath got a trick to handle his prick
But never lays hands on his scepter.

And because Nell herself was of the people, she kept her lover connected with the needs of his subjects. To the lower classes she became something of a cult heroine. She was the goddess of the guttersnipes, as close to a queen as one of their own could ever aspire. The tradesmen adored her because she was the only one of the king’s mistresses who always paid her bills promptly.

Despite her low birth, there were some who countenanced Nell’s presence in their king’s bed more easily than that of his Papist mistress Louise de Kéroualle. At least Nell was a Protestant. In 1681, during a time of open anti-Catholic sentiments, Nell’s coach was stopped in an Oxford street by a mob who believed passenger to be the detested Louise. The shade was lifted and out of the window popped Nell’s pretty face amid a profusion of red curls. “Pray good people, be civil. I am the Protestant whore!” she cheerily announced, turning the jeers of the angry swarm into a rousing chorus of cheers.


Louise de Kéroualle

Although Nell herself, being baseborn, was never ennobled by her royal lover, she did convince Charles to bestow titles on their sons, which she once described as “princes by their father for their elevation, but they had a whore to their mother for their humiliation.” In fact the boys had never even enjoyed a surname!

One day when Charles paid them a visit, Nell, waiting for their six-year-old son to greet his father, called into the next room, “Come hither, you little bastard!” Nell’s frank punning shamed the king, and on December 27, 1676, he signed a royal patent, granting little Charles the titles of Baron Heddington, Earl of Burford—and later, the boy was made Duke of St. Albans. He ended up living better than his mother did, with apartments in Whitehall, and an allowance of £1500 a year. Among all seventeen of Charles’s royal bastards, Nell’s Charles was always a favorite of the king. And in January 1677, little James was given the title Lord James Beauclerk (the surname King Charles chose for both boys).

It wasn’t parity with the titles he given his other mistresses and their royal bastards, but Nell retained her sense of humor and consoled herself for her lack of commensurate honors by cheerfully reminding her aristocratic rivals that when all was said and done, they were providing the same service to the king.

Ironically, for the basest and bawdiest member of Charles’s harem, Nell was the most assiduous when it came to matters of hygiene. She knew what it was like to come from squalor and filth, and perhaps there was no better confirmation of her arrival than to enjoy the pleasures of soap and water and the luxury of pristine undergarments. Her fastidiousness in this regard was a point of pride with Nell, who boasted to the visiting French ambassador Monsieur de Coutin that unlike his countrywomen Louise de Kéroualle and another rival mistress, the bisexual Hortense Mancini—whose undergarments were filthy and stinky—her own linen was daisy fresh. To prove her point, Nell lifted her skirts, to display her immaculate petticoats. Monsieur de Coutin, stealing a glimpse at Nell’s pretty ankles and calves, concurred.

While she was his mistress, Nell’s annual royal pension (on which she was expected to subsist and support her two sons by Charles) was a paltry £4000. Yet Nell did ultimately convince Charles to give her the freehold of 79 Pall Mall, where she was a popular hostess, and where Charles so often met his ministers and foreign emissaries to conduct affairs of state. After all, Nell teased, she deserved the freehold because she “had always offered [her] services for free under the crown!” Though her pensions were a fraction of her rivals’ allowances, Charles did give (and built for) Nell a number of houses, as well as a passel of Irish properties, from which Nell derived an income during her lifetime.

And because she was the mother of an earl, she was accorded the status (though not the title) of a lady and entitled to receive a coat of arms. Nell immediately had it applied to her vast services of silver plate.

In 1679, Nell’s mother died after falling into a ditch in a drunken stupor, and typical of Nell’s loving heart, she honored the fat old bag with a lavish funeral. Later that year, Nell’s younger son James, who had been sent off to France to be educated died, purportedly “of a bad leg.”
Endeavoring to cheer and console her, Charles built his little Nelly a house just inside the grounds of Windsor Castle, where rumor had it that a secret tunnel connected Burford House with the king’s apartments in the castle. Together the lovers poured their energies into improvements to Windsor, adding tennis courts, an orangery, and a bowling alley. Because Nell so loved hawking, Charles made their surviving son Master of the Hawks and Grand Falconer, a sincure the future Dukes of St. Albans would enjoy for centuries. And on June 11, 1679, a royal warrant reaffirmed Nell’s pension.

On February 1, 1685, Charles spent the evening in the company of Nell and his other mistresses, past and present. The following morning, Nell’s thirty-fifth birthday, while he was waiting to be shaved, the king’s eyes suddenly rolled back into his head, he began foaming at the mouth, and he slipped off the chair, hitting the floor with a heavy thud.

When Nell heard the news, she came running to Whitehall, but the Establishment refused to allow a fallen woman to sully his royal presence. For the next four days, Charles swung from violent convulsions to periods of lucid tranquility, but all the bleeding, cupping, purges and purgatives, and quack remedies did not avail.

During the king’s final hours, he bestowed on their son the ring that his paternal grandfather, Charles I, had worn on the scaffold the day he was executed. Charles II had himself worn the ring during his triumphant Restoration Day procession through London on his thirtieth birthday, May 29, 1660. If ever there was an indication of preference for Nell above all other mistresses, it was Charles’s gift of this most personal, and most treasured, possession to their only surviving son.

On Charles’s deathbed he was said to have uttered the plea to his brother James, the future king, “Let not poor Nelly starve.” Romantic last words perhaps, but those who adore Nell Gwyn’s unique spark and her insatiable vitality might argue that Charles could have ensured that she would never hunger for anything while he lived. He had plenty of opportunities to do so.
Nell was in desperate financial straits following Charles’s death in 1685. She began selling off her possessions, and feared that her lover’s last words would go unheeded by the new king.
But three months later, James did send Nell some money to live on, paid the lion’s share of her creditors’ bills, and in January 1686, granted her an annual pension of £1500. Nell was the only one of Charles’s mistresses ever to receive her funds directly from the treasury, as only she could be depended upon to spend the money on what it was intended for.


James II/VII

Still faithful to the memory of her lover, Nell repulsed the advances of several suitors after the king died, sorrowfully telling one expectant gent that she would “not lay a dog where the deer had lain.”

She spent the brief remainder of her life as she had always lived it, gaily and in the company of good friends. In March of 1687, Nell suffered a stroke, then was felled by a second one in May that left her paralyzed. For months, from her sumptuous silver bed, attended by Charles’s former physicians, she waited for death to reunite her with the king. Nell Gwyn died on November 14, 1687. She was only thirty-seven years old. Nell would never live to see her royal son become a war hero, nor dandle any of her thirteen grandchildren.

On November 17, the day of Nell’s funeral, the streets were mobbed with mourners from all strata of society. Her eulogy was delivered without irony by the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Contained in her will were numerous charitable bequests to Protestant and Papist alike, consistent with Nell’s lifelong sense of generosity and her refusal to become mired in state or religious politics.

Nell's friend, the playwright Aphra Behn, once told her, “You never appear but you glad the hearts of all that have the happy fortune to see you, as if you were made on purpose to put the whole world into good humor.” No wonder Nell Gwyn captured the heart of a king.

Have you ever "met" someone during your research and felt their story was "yours" -- that you wanted to claim dibs on it because no one could understand what made that person "tick" as well as you do? Who were they? Did you write their story?

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