History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 February 2009

Historical romance, birth control and birth rates

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s award winning tome “Team of Rivals” (a 754-pager that is surely Kindle worthy) about Abraham Lincoln’s political genius. What strikes me are the side stories about the women, and how so many of them had sooooo many children. Mortality for the mother and children was very high. But no one was immune, rich or poor, to endless childbearing and the risks involved.

In the 19th century, almost all women got married. The idea of consciously trying to limit having children would have been revolutionary (except for those “ladies of the trade”).
According to census estimates, an American woman had on average SEVEN to EIGHT children in 1800 (a wife of one of Lincoln’s political friends had SIXTEEN starting at age 22!). By 1900 the number dropped from seven to eight to about 3.5. That number has fallen to about two today. In fact, birth rates have been in decline for some time--they first started falling in the mid 1800s in New England and then among pioneers as they headed west. Why? Before then, it has been speculated, children were educated at home or in church. Once public schooling became available, children became more expensive to care for and less helpful around the house. Women were also freed up from all-day children-rearing, allowing mothers to enter the paid labor force.

However, money doesn’t historically appear to be the only incentive for smaller families.
"We know for sure that you don't have to reach a high level of per capita income for fertility to decline, but we don't know exactly what sets it off," said historian George Atler at Indiana University. "Whether it's general change or attitudes about birth control is still a question debated among demographers today.

Attitudes have definately changed. The dogma of most major religions during the 1800s fdiscouraged birth control, and birth control and divorce were forbidden in the United States. In 1873 the Comstock Act made it illegal to send any so-called obscene materials in the mail, including information about contraception (a topic I have blogged on before). However record sales of family planning books published in the 1830s suggest that the public (women?) were ready to keep families small, regardless of religious or political pressure.

"Moral Physiology" by Robert Dale Owen and Charles Knowlton's "The Fruits of Philosophy" became popular for advocating contraception methods. Owen described coitus interruptus. Knowlton's book included instructions for women on how to wash with a spermicidal solution.

Hacker's historical research may better inform us about the current worldwide trends toward smaller families. "All nations are experiencing fertility declines," said Hacker. "It's becoming a social policy issue as countries face prospects of caring for an aging population."

Much of this info came from:

I must admit, I’ve been reading a lot about the social history of women and now when I read a traditional romance, I worry when the heroine sleeps with the hero without thinking of the consequences--the fall from grace, the expense of children, the risk of death. As a reader, I want her to have that conversation with the hero---even if the book is a historical, no, ESPECIALLY if the book is historical. Maybe she could actually make a conscience effort to avoid getting pregnant. But birth control is still almost never discussed in romance. Any thoughts on why this is? The ick-factor takes the romance out of the sex scene?

Has anybody ready any romances lately where birth control is discussed and done well (a few coitus interruptus scenes come to mind from some recent historicals I’ve read, but not many)?

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26 February 2009

Near misses in history

We spend a lot of time here debunking accepted historical myths and delving into what really happened. Maybe it's because we approach history as writers and want to improvise upon a set theme or just have an urge to dig deeper. And deeper.

I found out something really fascinating just the other day. I turned to my trusty resource at Historic-UK.com and found that today, February 26, was the date of the first issue of a British one pound note in 1797, a result of the panic caused by the French invasion of Fishguard a few days earlier. The what?! (The invasion, not the pound note. And I don't even want to get into why a pound note could do what a coin couldn't; it makes my head spin the same way a $1.75 trillion deficit does.)

Now popular British myth has it that the last time the country was invaded was in 1066. There were some home grown invasions--didn't the Scots cross the border a few times? How about the Duke of Monmouth in 1685?

Well, Fishguard is in Wales, not England proper; and given that the story has the trappings of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and has a woman of a certain age in a starring role, it's no wonder it's not the stuff of legend.

The previous year, the French, under the command of General Lazare Hoche, attempted an invasion of Ireland that, with the support of the Irish, was supposed to spread to the north of England, gaining support in the great industrial cities of the north and marching southwest to Bristol--in other words, taking the major ports. It was foiled by bad weather and poor organization.

In 1797, Bristol was targeted under the command of an Irish-American from South Carolina, William Tate, with four ships carrying over 1,200 soldiers wearing English uniforms, captured earlier--the cloth would only take a dark brown dye so they were known as "La Legion Noir." The weather was too bad to attack Bristol, so they sailed north, landed near Fishguard and unloaded soldiers and weapons. A farm was captured. Vive la France!

The Pembrokeshire Militia gathered, joined by reinforcements from the navy, but discovered the French had superior tactical positions and possibly outnumbered the English. But Tate's forces lost control of the situation, and here's where the G&S elements come in. It's thought that the French, seeing at a distance Welsh women in their traditional dress of red shawls and black hats, were English infantry; furthermore, Tate was having problems with his undisciplined troops becoming mutinous, and the local inhabitants, instead of flocking to support liberte, egalite and fraternite, were hostile.

Hundreds of civilians joined the English troops. As a further blow to French male pride, a local cobbler, 48-year-old Jemima Nicholas, supposedly captured twelve French soldiers singlehanded.

The French surrendered. There's a full account of the invasion at fishguardonline.com.

In a comic postscript, the captured French later escaped in the yacht of the English commander Lord Cawdor.

Over at the Riskies today, talking about the escape of the Corsican Monster from Elba... another legend in his own time.

Why do you think certain events live on in popular memory and others are forgotten?

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25 February 2009

The Privileged Class Enjoying Its Privileges

I claim to believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity. And I live here.

My heroine Mélanie says these words to her mentor and former lover Raoul in Secrets of a Lady, surrounded by the surrounded by the Siena marble, intricate fretwork, and Aubusson carpet of her elegant Berkeley Square library. Pam had a wonderful post a couple of weeks ago which got me thinking about Mélanie’s words. Pam wrote about the conundrum of being “deeply egalitarian in my attitudes toward social, political, and economic matters” and yet writing “in a genre that centers itself upon the pleasures and pursuits of the Regency ton.”

These days, it's difficult not to think about economic matters. And for those of us who write predominantly about aristocrats, the contrast is perhaps sharper than ever. The 1930s romantic comedies I loved as a child were a big influence on me as a writer. So many of those stories (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey among others) take place in a rarefied world of cocktail parties and dinner dances, weekends in the country and engraved cards of invitation). In many ways it's a fairytale world of escapism with black tie and glamorous gowns and cocktails on the terrace. And yet the darker side of the Depression era is not out of sight. My Man Godfrey begins with the madcap society girl heroine on a scavenger hunt from which she brings back the "forgotten man" hero and makes him the family butler. The hero, Godfrey, turns out to have a more complicated past than meets the eye, one which brings the story back to the whole ever-present question of "forgotten men."

In Holiday, the hero, a young, self-made man, wants to take a holiday and "come back and work when he knows what he's working for" to the horror of his socialite fiancée and her Wall Street father (but the delight of his fiancée's sister). In The Philadelphia Story (which remains one of my all time favorite movies and plays), a left-wing reporter assigned (to his disgust) to cover a society wedding, goes to write about "the privileged class enjoying its privileges" (writing this post, it occurred to me that Bow Street Runner Jeremy Roth in my books probably owes something to Mike Connor; both view the privileged class with a jaundiced eye). In the course of a midsummer night both Mike and the heiress bride-to-be Tracy Lord re-evaluate their attitudes toward social class as well as the nature of love and morality.

My mom, who grew up during the Depression, introduced me to these movies (in the days before vcrs and dvds, we often went to old movie revival houses). My mom was also a lifelong liberal with a strong sense of social justice. As I wrote in response to Pam’s post, “I absorbed strongly egalitarian values from my mom, who also introduced me to Georgette Heyer [and Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and other writers who's books are largely set in a rarefied and aristocratic world] and took me out for tea and with whom I started writing Regency romances. Even our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, which was very 'London Season,' had scenes set in the darker side of the Regency world. Exploring that darker side is something I’ve done more and more through the years. But there’s no denying my central characters live a very elite privileged existence.” And in my own life, though I certainly don’t live in Charles and Mélanie’s elite world, I confess I’m a political, social, and economic liberal who also enjoys the opera and nice restaurants and has a weakness for designer labels (usually purchased at 70% off :-).

In my books, Mélanie in a sense confronts the same paradox. She married her aristocratic husband Charles Fraser (diplomat, politician, duke's grandson) because she was working for a cause that opposed everything his world stands for. She realizes her marriage had catapulted her neatly over an artificial and quite unconscionable social divide. And yet she thinks in Secrets of a Lady that the longer one played a role, the more natural it became. She had grown all too comfortable with the privileges she had married into. It’s a conundrum she continues to wrestle with. In fact, I think she’ll confront it more in future books, when her past and ideals aren’t so buried.

Mélanie's conflict mirrors a number of my own conflicting feelings as an author who writes about a very privileged set of people. I love reading (and writing) about balls and gowns and country house parties and social intrigue. But I’m also fascinated by the contrast between the “Silver Fork” world and it’s darker, more Dickensian side. When I blogged about this topic on my own website, Stephanie commented, "It’s not an easy line to tread. Because I enjoy reading about 'the glitter and the gold' in historical romance, yet few things raise my hackles more quickly than a hero or heroine born at the top of the food chain and carrying around a whopping sense of entitlement....Maybe the difference between an obnoxious versus a sympathetic member of the elite has to do with how they 'wear' power. Do they wear it expecting lesser beings to tug their forelocks and kowtow? Or do they wear it more lightly, understanding that, as people born to wealth and station, they might have something of a duty to those less fortunate than themselves? I suspect that Regency–and for that matter, Victorian–society had plenty of people occupying both ends of the spectrum."

That range of attitudesgives writers a lot of leeway in how portray characters. Think of the difference between Anne Elliot’s self-absorbed father and elder sister in Persuasion versus Darcy who has a strong sense of the duty that comes with his position. Or the way Emma's attitudes change over the course of her namesake book. When my mom first introduced me to Emma, she compared Emma Woodhouse to Tracy Lord. Austen may not write about climbing boys and the stews of St Giles, but she does a brilliant job of showing the plight of women without a fortune without anyone lecturing about it.

And writing about the powerful, doesn't necessarily mean ignoring social realities. As Taryn commented on my blog, "power, well-used, is very attractive, and mis-used is intriguing as a force to be feared."

As writer Mike Connor says to Tracy Lord, "With the rich and mighty, always a little patience."

How do you feel about power and privilege in the novels you read? Do you prefer to read about characters living an elite and aristocratic life? Do you like to see the dark side of that life or escape in to the fairy tale? Does it make a difference whether the story is set in the past or the present day? Does the current economic situation make you yearn for escapism or make you want stories more grounded in economic reality? Or both?

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23 February 2009

Just what is sexy?

Pam’s last post got me thinking about what I find sexy (or exciting, or intriguing, or moving) as a writer, as a reader, as a woman. And further, about how I use my own predilections in my books without the book becoming a display of TMI (as has been the accusation for a certain paranormal writer), or worse IMO, ending up with a book with limited appeal (the equivalent of the magazine Bears in the gay community, which has a limited and very specific target audience).

On occasion I stumble across a book which, for whatever reason, turns me off, though I can tell that the author is describing something that she finds attractive. And it always leaves me shaking my head in wonder. Some details are entirely unnecessary, and by using them, you can lose readers, so why do it?

Years ago I heard an author give a workshop about designing/describing heroes and her advice is something that really rang true for me: Give just enough details that the reader can fill in the blanks to make the hero her own. The specific example she used, copious amounts of chest hair, rang especially true for me (TMI WARNING: I would never, under any circumstances, be a subscriber of the afore mentioned Bears magazine). She pointed out that by spending precious time lovingly describing the hero’s hirsute chest, you risk readers who find said expanse of chest pelt repulsive laying aside your book and never picking it back up (and worse, never buying another book by you, for fear for further paeans to something that she finds decidedly unsexy). I know that there are authors I avoid because of these sorts of issues, and I’m sure you all have them too.

To further complicate the issue, those of us who write historicals are also often working against what was considered attractive at the time (mustaches anyone?), or what was simply the predominant look (Prince Valiant bowl cut, mmmm, sexy), or aspects of fashion that simply don’t work for the women of today (wigs = toupee, don’t they, just admit it). Throw in a general lack of sanitation, fashion that may or may not float your readers boat (all that velvet and lace in the 18th century doesn’t work for a lot of people, though it clearly does for me, LOL). Some of this you can work around by simply glossing over it. Some of it gets done away with by having characters with unusual habits (there’s a lot of bathing in Medieval Romancelandia). And some stuff just gets made up entirely to better conform to modern tastes (here I’m thinking of a recent discussion on one of my loops of sexy silk nightgowns and sheets in Regency romances).

It’s such a balancing act. Is it any wonder that the occasional reader finds herself falling from the highwire of our creation? As a reader, does it bother you when the hero is “over described” or are you able to skim past it and keep your mental image of the hero as you’ve created him? As a writer, do you worry as much as I do about this stuff, or am I truly alone in the crazy, deep end of the pond?

20 February 2009

"When I am dancing, I know who I really am."

Book review: Once a Dancer, An Autobiography, by Allegra Kent.

I’ve loved ballet since I was 8 years old and saw Alicia Markova and Jacques D’Amboise dance “Coppelia” at Stern Grove in San Francisco. That was in 1945. From then on I kept scrapbooks of magazine articles about ballet dancers, read everything I could find about dancing, and the summer I was 9, I even talked my grandmother into enrolling me in a beginning ballet class at the Ft. Bragg grange hall in northern California. During my first lesson, Grandma noticed that both my knee joints were swollen and swept me off to the doctor, who said I had rheumatic fever. End of my ballet dreams, but not of my interest.

Reading Allegra Kent’s autobiography (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) was a thrill. Born Iris Cohen, she started lessons relatively late (at age 9) but excelled in both athletic ability and imaginative gifts. Later she joined the New York City Ballet at 16, the youngest member of the company. George Balanchine choreographed some of his best-known dances especially for her.

Allegra was a choreographer’s dream. She was small (she weighed 100 pounds, and if she gained even 5 pound she worked it off at the barre). She was athletic, with a strict regimen of daily attendance at class (even after childbirth), muscle massages, and swimming exercises with water wings attached to her ankles (her own invention). Balanchine described her as “bendable.” She could do a perfect split standing up–one leg straight up over her head.

Kent had a distinctly unique gift as a dancer--an imagination that could transport her physical body into a character with sensitivity and exquisite nuance. And often an unexpected dash of humor, which enchanted Balanchine.

Outside of dancing, though, her life was a mess. Abandoned by her father, dominated by her mother, involved with first no men at all and then a real rake hooked on drugs, she was gun-shy for years. She reveled in motherhood, bore three children, all gifted in the arts, but all her life she scratched for money to raise them on her own. Her late-in-life love died young (at 60), after only four years together.

Like many talented artists, Allegra was her own worst enemy. She trusted the wrong people, struggled with stage fright all her performing life, and, inevitably, she grew older. Over the years he kept her body in shape for dance, had very few injuries and consistently substituted for other dancers who did, and sometimes ended up dancing eight ballets in a single weekend.

Allegra Kent was the oldest member of the ballet company, still performing at 50, when her mentor Balanchine died. New young talents (Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland) were joining the company and Allegra was finally eased out of the troupe.

She was devasted. She had held onto dancing because “When I am dancing, I know who I really am.” In the following years she taught at ballet academies, coached other dancers in various ballet troupes, and performed in special “gala”concerts to which she was invited for a starring role.

What is most impressive to me is that she never gave up. She worked at dance; she sacrificed for her children; she loved unwisely and she suffered great losses. But each time she picked herself up, packed up her leotard and pointe shoes, and marched off to her daily regimen of classes.

Sound familiar?

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17 February 2009

A Few of My Favorite Dungeons

When I wrote my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I blithely invented an extra-special torture chamber for my half-mad villain and his collection of the Inquisition’s Greatest Hits. I needn’t have bothered. If there was one thing revolutionary Paris didn’t lack, it was dungeons. In my current work in progress, my hero is employed directly by the Prefecture of Paris, and indirectly by Napoleon’s spymaster, Fouche, so I’ve been making up for lost time by taking full advantage of the dungeons of Paris.

In case you should care to visit the dungeons of revolutionary Paris, here’s my impromptu Lonely Planet guide on the subject:

The Temple Prison:

Definitely a must-stay for the discriminating aristo or would-be English spy. Located on the right bank of the Seine, in le Marais, the old aristocratic quarter of Paris. Former fortress of the Knights Templar, dating back to the 12th century. A very chi-chi place to be incarcerated: the royal family (Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the Dauphin, Princess Marie-Therese, and the King’s sister, Madame Elisabeth) were kept here while awaiting the fatal fall of the guillotine. It was at the Temple Prison that the Dauphin was last seen alive. Other notable inhabitants of the Temple Prison include Sir Sidney Smith, thought to be one of the prototypes of that demmed, elusive Pimpernel (although Sir Sidney was clearly not quite elusive enough, since he spent two years in the Temple prior to his belated daring escape).

Prison des Carmes:

The Temple might have been the prison for the old royalty, but les Carmes was the place for the new. Watch out—if you stay here, you may run across some of the key figures of the new political order to come. Rose de Beauharnais (later renamed Josephine by her enraptured second husband, a little man by the name of Bonaparte) was imprisoned here during the height of the Terror. Look closely and you may see her small pug dog Fortune running back and forth, carrying hidden messages to her two children, Eugene and Hortense. With her, you’ll find Therese Cabarrus (shortly to be Therese Tallien), who enjoyed a brief fame as Our Lady of Thermidor, hailed as the prime mover behind the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Terror, as well as being best of friends with the future Madame Bonaparte—until an increasingly stuffy Napoleon decided she was too flashy and he didn’t want her hanging around his court.

The Abbaye Prison:

A nice compromise for the discriminating prisoner who wants someplace with a known name, but less flashy than the Temple. Conveniently located in the fashionable district of St. Germain, on the left bank of the Seine, the Abbaye was made notorious in the September Massacres of 1792, when a bloodthirsty mob attacked the prisoners, killing over a hundred with a barbarity that shocked contemporary chroniclers. Notable prisoners included Mme Roland, as well as Sir Sidney Smith (yes, he got around). During the Consulate and Empire, the Abbaye was used for the interrogation of prisoners, with methods that included burning the soles of the prisoners’ feet and crushing their fingers in musket locks.

Also Available for Bread, Water, and a Little Light Torture: La Force (where indignities were perpetrated upon the Princess de Lamballe); Prison de la Bourbe, aka Prison de Port-Libre (the royal governess and Louis XVI’s lawyer were kept here); the Madelonnettes Prison (the Marquis de Sade stayed here); Saint Pelagie prison (more Marquis de Sade, as well as Mme Roland, although one hopes not at the same time); Le Coignard (um, yeah, the Marquis stayed here, too); Saint Lazarre (originally a leper hospital, but no Marquis de Sade); and many, many more….

13 February 2009

Seeing Through Clothes: Milk, Mad Men, and Me

I finally saw Milk last night, and like Tracy, I left the theater in tears.

A lot of it was the memory of the events themselves – like the Briggs Initiative to rid California schools of gay and lesbian teachers (and their supporters) and the heroic, successful, hands-on campaign to defeat it.

I remember this particularly vividly because a friend of mine, activist Amber Hollibaugh, set off in a van and drove around rural California towns like the one she’d grown up in – an out lesbian taking on local fundamentalists in public debate, in 1978.

Could this have really happened, I ask myself? Could people really have been that brave?

It did happen. You can read Amber's account of it here.

But I know it's true because I remember how after the campaign, Amber showed me a lovely blousy overshirt (it was an era of big, filmy, voile-y sorts of things from India), and told me how she wore it to debate one Reverend Royal Blue of Redding, California. The shirt didn’t wrinkle, she said, and the metallic threads running through it gave it a sort of dressy look, good for being onstage in a local community center. Funny that amid all that astonishing, inspiring, take-on-the-world chutzpah, a big blue shirt with metallic threads running through it is what made Amber's bravery real for me.

Funny but true. There’s nothing like the clothing of an era to bring us back there. Milk has an uncanny, offhand realism about it – Sean Penn and other cast members wear the slouchy jeans of the late '70s just as I remember them being worn. And my husband Michael had that very same rust-colored jeans jacket – it would have been several years old in ’77 or ’78, which is accurate too (most of us don't throw our clothes away after a year).

In fact, the costumers the TV show, Mad Men talk somewhere in a DVD extra about the '50s clothes and objects they used for the show's 1960 first season.

Not that this favorite show of mine is anothing like Milk. Mad Men is about advertising rather than activism; it's cool rather than passionate, trading in desire and frustration rather than risk and triumph.

But what a sly, true take it has on an era's styles and surfaces, codes and constraints, as expressed through the world of objects its characters move through, sit on, wear, and (perhaps most especially) covet.

Sadly perhaps, since our cable contract is too "basic" for AMC, I'm a season behind and dependent on DVDs for my Mad Men fix. So I've only watched through end of Season One, the Thanksgiving 1960 episode (its ending credits scrolling against Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," a song that wasn't written until 1962, the year Season Two begins – appropriately enough for this post, with a Valentine's Day episode).

But the enforced scarcity of a cheap cable contract makes me all the more obsessive consumer of the DVDs, plumbing the voiceovers and other extras for meaning – which in the case of Mad Men are the interviews with the costume designer and makeup people, along with snippets from the actors wearing the clothes and makeup:

- The women in their girdles and amazing torpedo bras: for all the lack of bodily freedom, many of the actresses admitted to enjoying feeling more "put-together" than we get to be these days)

- The men in their suits with the 13-inch fly zippers: the actors say the pants are too tight and rise too high; they complain of the discomfort. But watch them walk – watch John Hamm move across the frame (after the commercial – sorry! – about 1 minute, six seconds into this clip -- there, that wasn't so painful, was it?); I don’t know what it is about that walk, but I know that a part of me – a deeply desiring part of me from my early teens – remembers that walk and that look as a masculine ideal.

But as a writer I'm more interested in the clothes from the inside out. The way they make us feel when we wear them. Because our clothes may be our most consistent guides and goads to who we try to be in a world we didn’t create; our nakedness when we're alone an intermittent reminder that we aren't exactly those people; our nakedness with a lover a way of revealing this fact.

And the limnal moments of dressing and undressing, especially when shared with a lover (not to speak of a reader!)… well, in my writing, anyway, for me those are perhaps the sexiest, most complicated and challenging moments of all. Which is why, I guess, I care so much about what people really wore in the periods I write about – why, like Kalen Hughes, costume expert extraordinaire, I take seriously that Regency stays and shifts didn’t just fall off at the touch of a male finger.

(I’m indebted to Kalen, for example, for teaching me that in 1828 women’s stays began to have metal grommets around the holes for laces – can you think of a better way to show-not-tell the beginnings of an advent of radical physical unfreedom for women?)

And why I usually like to include a dressing as well as an undressing scene among the erotic parts of my books – because I love the pathos of people going back to their worlds, of eros and ego in a world of objects.

And why I’d love to know how the writers among you think about the clothes (period and otherwise) that you write about…

…and what you readers want when you read about them.

Oh, and an acknowledgment: The title of this post comes from Anne Hollander's deeply illuminating study of clothing in the western art tradition.

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11 February 2009

All Hail Queen (of Hearts) Esther Howland

Esther who?

With florists and jewelers doing a land-office business around February 14, sooner or later, someone was bound to see the commercial potential in romantic greeting cards. And who has the time to make each missive with their loving hands?

The visionary was Esther Howland (1828-1904), a Worcester Massachusetts native and Mount Holyoke graduate who never married. But of course Jane Austen never wed either, and one could never accuse her of not knowing a thing or two about romance.

A classmate of Emily Dickinson's, Howland graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1847 at the age of 19. When she received an ornate English Valentine from a business associate of her father’s, her heart skipped a beat—because she saw dollar signs.

Her family owned Worcester's largest stationery and book store, so she already had connections. Esther created a dozen prototypes of her Valentines and gave them to her brother to include in his sample book. When he returned from his business trip with more than $5,000 in orders, Esther realized she wasn't going to be able to process all those orders alone. So she started up her own greeting card business, importing machine-embossed paper lace (think doilies) and floral decorations from England, and employing her female friends to manufacture Valentines using the process and techniques of an assembly line (take that, Henry Ford!)

On February 5, 1850 she took out her first advertisement in a Worcester paper, The Daily Spy.

Soon, things were booming; in 1879, Howland's company was named the New England Valentine Company (her valentines usually have a NEV CO on a red sticker on the back); and the little cottage industry moved from Esther's family home to a building of its own. She published a thirty-one-page book of verses and allowed her clients to chose their own poem for their valentines.

Esther Howland became known as the "Mother of the American Valentine" and her company brought in annual revenues of $100,000. The decades between 1840 and 1860 were the golden age for sentimental Valentines. Even after they caught on in America, the perforated lace paper used for making them was still manufactured only in England, so Esther continued to import the lace-edged “blanks” for her company’s cards. But she introduced several innovations of her own to the Valentine-making industry: she is credited with the idea of placing a thin sheet of colored paper under the white paper lace, to produce a contrast, as well as with the concept of a three-dimensional “shadow box” card.

A recurrent knee knjury forced Esther to work from a wheelchair since 1866. And in 1881, Howland sold the business to the George C. Whitney Company so she could care for her ailing father.

As people who focus on love and romance nearly every day because it’s what you write about, does Valentines Day have any special place in your heart? Do you think of it as a “busman’s holiday?” Do you send Valentines? Do you make them yourself, or do you buy them? Are you one of those people who send a little valentine to many people in your life to remind them that you think they’re special, or do you save all your love for one recipient?

09 February 2009

Repression Challenge

No, not that kind of repression, but since you've read this far don't stop now.

In 2007 I wrote a post about a literary challenge from the Biological Psychiatric Laboratory at Mclean Hospital (a research lab from Harvard Medical School) which offered a $1000 prize to anyone who could find literary evidence, written before the 19th century, of a person who suffered a traumatic event, repressed the memory and later recovered.

As I said in my two years post post, it sounds like a scam, right? But it was not. An Washington Post discussed the research of scientists and literary scholars who published their findings in the journal of Psychological Medicine.

The group, headed by Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical school, claim that repressed memory, also known as amnesia is "a culture-bound syndrome' --- creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century." Apparently literature as far back as Homer show characters suffering from other disorders ranging from disjointed thinking, schizophrenia and depression. The literary work of other cultures was explored and no "convincing" example was found of a traumatic event followed by repressed memory and recovery of the memory before the year 1800.

In the second half of the 19th century evidence of trauma related amnesia in literature is plentiful -- the article refers to Dickens TALE OF TWO CITIES in which Dr Manette's time in the Bastille is so terrible that he has no memory of it until events in the plot cause him to recall the experience. The researchers contend that if the condition existed before this and other literary proof, evidence would be found. There in lay the challenge.

The news is that the challenge has been won. It's old news, actually, but I feel compelled to inform all historical writers so they no longer think that they must avoid stories with an amnesia plot. Here is what the Biopsychlab reported in May of 2007:

"The libretto of the 1786 opera, “Nina,” wins our $1000 award for a case of “repressed memory” in a written work before 1800.

“Nina” is a one-act opera with a score written by Nicholas Dalayrac and a libretto written by Marsollier. The full title is: Nina, ou La folle par amour, comedie en un acte, en prose, melee d’ariettes, par M. M. D. V. Musique de M. Dalayrac. It was published by Brunet in Paris in 1786. Several subsequent translations into English are available; one of the best known is the 1787 translation by Berkeley, which is available online through Eighteenth Century Collections Online. The libretto is not available online.

Nina's repressed memory is global, that is she recognizes no one and remembers nothing after the traumatic event, which involved the death of her lover in a duel with another suitor. I encourage you to read the full article at biopsychlab.com where there is a discussion of the differences between the 18th century understanding of amnesia and what it has evolved to today.

This post is based on information from a Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam, the Biopsychlab website and from my previous post of March 6, 2007

Have you ever used amnesia in a book or do you have an idea working? How do you describe current medical conditions in historical terms in your work? How do you research medical conditions you want to use-- using current medical information or from primary sources?

posted by Mary Blayney | 2:51 PM

05 February 2009

Sewing boxes and embroidery

A few months ago I blogged about dumb luck in a box and shared my discoveries on those most gorgeous of items, portable Regency writing desks. While searching around for illustrations I came across some sewing boxes from the same period and decided that at some point I should blog about those too. Naturally that got me going online in all sorts of strange directions, and squeaking OMG I want that! And that! from time to time.

Somehow I doubt I'll take up embroidery but it was close, very close, for a few minutes.

Work, for genteel women, meant sewing or embroidery, and the idea of it being a suitable, sociable occupation for women lasted well into the twentieth century. Many projects required embroidery--handkerchiefs, linens. Sometimes men embroidered too--it was a favorite pastime of sailors. One of my aunts, who worked for the Admiralty in the 1940s, surprised her boss with his embroidery project in hand.

Here's a favorite scene from one of my favorite books--the first meeting between Seth and Flora Post in Cold Comfort Farm (I have just bought yet another replacement copy to have it disappear into my daughter's reading maw).
Flora saw at once that he was not the kind that could be fobbed of with offers of tea. She was for it.

"What's that you're making?" he asked. Flora knew that he hoped it was a pair of knickers. She composedly shook out the folds of the petticoat and replied that it was an afternoon tea-cloth.
Here's a sewing box from c. 1800, still with its original pink paper lining, exquisitely made. The box is maple with a hand-colored print on the top.

The sewing tools are made of Tunbridge ware whitewood, a process of wood mosaic originally developed to make souvenirs for those visiting the spa at Tunbridge Wells, Kent. More about Tunbridge ware here.

Does anyone know what the little bottles would have held? Images are from Antique Boxes at the Sign of the Hygra in London.

One very popular form of embroidery work was embroidery with narrow silk ribbons instead of thread--fast, simple, and decorative. The Jane Austen Centre, Bath, magazine has a great article about it here. If you wish to explore further, Threads published an article on the basic stitches and you can buy supplies at ribbonsmyth.com.

An early form of needlepoint, Berlin woolwork, was becoming popular in the Regency, particularly to make the uppers for slippers, which would then be taken to a shoemaker to have the soles attached. These child's slippers, possibly American, date from around 1840, although Berlin woolwork peaked in England with the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Here are some more gorgeous sewing boxes at Hampton Antiques and Gerald Mathias and some great pictures of this tortoiseshell needle box here--yes, it looks like a snuff box until you open it up, and it has its original paper lining.

Here's an article about the development of the famous Mountmellick whitework embroidery industry, started early in the nineteenth century in the northern Irish town of the same name. Wikipedia has an entirely different set of dates, so take your pick...

Do you embroider or collect antique linens? Do you have any books or online sources you'd like to share?

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03 February 2009

Declarations, Resolutions, & Other Heart-Stopping Moments

With Valentine's Day only ten days off, this seemed a good time to write a blog I've been thinking about for some time. Favorite romantic scenes--first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I've reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. "Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!"

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer's Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all--conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they're so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can't but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. "I've just won a wager with myself."

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It's character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there's that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. "Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first."

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn't my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn't even in my top three. And yet I've reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It's beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There's very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. "Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?"

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly's Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I've ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There's also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (one a wizard, the other a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they'll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they
know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts.

5. "I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?"

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion.

6. "Placetne, domina?"

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night. That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage
proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there's still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet's done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I've mentioned, there's very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the "Gigi" moment--where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he's madly in love with the heroine who's been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world "love" never being used.

8. "I prefer you as you are--tainted and tarnished."

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. "A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes."

I think the "dock scene" from Laurie King's A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument
about his having gone after the villain without her. There's a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. "Well," he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, "you're my corner and I've come to hide."

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman's Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I'm fond of addressing in my own writing, "what happens after happily ever after?" And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet.

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There's also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one's guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Now it's your turn. What are some of your favorite heart-stopping moments?

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02 February 2009

What about the girls . . .

When I was posting about my favorite historians, I was asked what about female historians? To be quite honest, I really don't think about the sex of those provide me with my drug of choice. But of course there are many women out there whose work sits in pride of place upon my shelves. None of them more so than Janet Arnold.

As most of you know, I'm a big fan of the minutia of history, the tiny details that made up actual everyday life. And when a new book that feeds my mania hits the shelves, I'm overjoyed. When said book just happens to be by all-time favorite historian, one who is sadly deceased, it's like a miracle.

Janet Arnold was, IMO, the most accomplished costume historian of our age. Her Patterns of Fashion books detail extant garments from the 16th century up through the early-20th. When she died, she was rumored to be working on a book about undergarments, a decade later that rumor has been proven true. Her assistant finished that book, and it was recently published as Patterns of Fashion 4. A more fitting tribute I can't imagine.

This new book details the cut and construction of shirts, smocks, neckwear (as in ruffs and rebatos), drawers, and caps from 1540 to 1660. I've been pouring over it, soaking up the details of cut and construction and, even more importantly, how each item connected to create the silhouette of the day.

My favorite item in the book is a pair of women's drawers from Italy, c. 1630 (yes, Italian women, unlike their English counterparts, wore them). It's entirely possible that this pair belonged to a courtesan. Either that, or to a woman with a rather devilish sense of humour and sexuality. Made of white linen, they are embroidered in blue silk in a pattern of double headed eagles and acorns and the words "voclio il core' (I want his heart).

These are the kinds of details that set my imagination running. Who was she? Why did she have these extraordinary underpants? What was her story? What happened to her? Did she get his heart? In my version she most certainly would.

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