History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 August 2009

Further Research Ramblings: Sense and Sensibility Asea

I think it's Shelley's 1822 death in a boating accident (not quite 30 years old! Why, oh why, didn't he let Lord Byron teach him to swim?) that lies at the root of my interest in Regency figures at the seaside. In any case, I began The Edge of Impropriety with a boating accident, and ended it with a happier trip by water.

But what did they wear during that period when sailing?

No point patterning anyone after Shelley: this radical, atheistical, vegetarian son of a baronet (who borrowed every penny he could against his expectations, with the aim of depleting the family holdings by the end of his life) wore threadbare shirts wherever he went and rarely bothered with neckware. The prototypical romantic poet would have been sadly out of place among the gentlemen of Regency romance -- and anyway, he seems to have mostly gone sailing with his guy friends and left Mary, Claire, Mrs. Leigh Hunt, and the rest of the ladies home with the babies.

In the prologue to Edge I mentioned that Lady Hedges is "dressed for boating," but I didn't go into detail. And the guilty secret (now it can be told!) is that while I was writing it I rather imagined she and her husband board their sailing vessel dressed like Edwardians -- white linen, white flannel, perhaps even "boater" hats.

Entirely off-period, but good enough to get me through writing a prologue and imagining a set of supporting characters.

But in my current work, whose 1813 hero and heroine also go sailing (in a scene that's central to the narrative) I'm not so comfortable finessing the question. (Side issues: why, in women's fiction, do we take such pleasure in having the clothes described to us? And why couldn't Jane Austen have given us a little more to go on?)

So I posted an inquiry on the Beaumonde discussion loop, and was guided (most clearly, of course, by our own Kalen) to various period fashion plates for ladies' seaside wear, and some terrific background information about water and watering places as well.

Somewhat shorter skirts, I thought -- hmm, good point. And note the half-boots. While as for the pantalettes in the print over to the right, I decided to pass on those, agreeing with an 1806 quote from The History of Underclothes that calls them "the ugliest things I ever saw" and swears that the writer "will never put them on again.")

Of course, a truth little acknowledged (by readers -- or writers) of Regency romance fiction is that the second decade of the 19th century wasn't the loveliest ladies' fashion decade, the gowns being increasingly plagued by those hellish ruffles. Looking at the fashion plates, it seemed to me that all the clothes in the fashion plates were chosen for a certain artistic, even romantic, beach effect -- aforementioned ruffles flutter in a gentle breeze as the lady gazed poetically out to sea.

And as I pondered this, I received another response to my query, a bracing email from the prolific and perennially award-winning Regency romance author Allison Lane (who's tutored me before in period matters and consoled me when it was too late to fix my errors -- and whose complete backlist is available at RegencyReads.com):

If your female character is going to sail, make sure she's wearing fabrics that are closely woven and sturdy, in styles that don't billow. Sailing ships, from the smallest to the largest, are loaded with ropes that love to grab anything loosely woven or flapping in the breeze. She will also need a pelisse, both to control the skirts of her dress and to keep her warm since it is nearly always cool to cold on the water. So the ruffles that started appearing on clothing in the latter Regency are awkward at best on board a yacht. She will also need sturdy shoes that won't skid easily.

Sometimes there can be no doubt that you're hearing the voice of reason, not to say wisdom. And after all, I thought, how seriously do "rational creatures" take the dictates of fashion? (The phrase, btw, referring to women, is of course Mary Wollstonecraft's, though I love that Mrs. Croft uses it in Persuasion, and Fiona Shaw speaks it gorgeously in the 1995 movie version...)

But as to "rational creatures" being rational about what they wear...?

Oh. Well.

Which was when I knew what's going to happen aboard my boat -- a war between the rational and the not-so, fashion-wise. A face-off between the wearers of pelisses, sturdy shoes, etc, and the true believers in fashion.

Except, for some reason, I didn't want to say "pelisse," a word that always sounds furry to me.

And so I began to wonder exactly how Jane Austen had described the scene in Emma where Jane Fairfax is almost knocked overboard, during a sailing party. Well, how Miss Bates describes it to Emma, anyway (in a novel where much is said but not everything must exactly be believed), in reference to Mr. Dixon, who, as Miss Bates has it,

...does not seem in the least backward in any attention. He is a most charming young man. Ever since the service he rendered Jane at Weymouth, when they were out in that party on the water, and she, by the sudden whirling round of something or other among the sails, would have been dashed into the sea at once, and actually was all but gone, if he had not, with the greatest presence of mind, caught hold of her habit -- (I can never think of it without trembling!) -- But ever since we had the history of that day, I have been so fond of Mr. Dixon!"

Of course, Miss Bates only has this from the very secretive Jane -- and Emma, as we know, will make of it what she will -- but one thing I'm sure we can believe is that what Jane was wearing is a... habit, quite, as Allison put it "to control the skirts of her dress and to keep her warm."

Except that I'd though that habits were only worn by riders and nuns.

At which point in the process I had to break a rule I've lately set so that I can achieve even a minimum daily word count -- which is wait until later to check the period accuracy of a word.

Nope, in this case we were going straight to my beloved OED (free online for all holders of San Francisco Public Library cards) to... to what, check Jane Austen's period accuracy? Well, to get more of a feel for how else the word was actually used at the time. By, as it turns out, Jane Austen again -- who has Catherine Moreland wearing a habit on the rainy day she's first driven to Northanger Abbey. While Walter Scott, in 1824, points out that riding-habit as a specific use of the word feels, at least to him, relatively recent, when he refers to "The elegant compromise betwixt male and female attire, which has now acquired, par excellence, the name of a habit."

Anyway, I love "habit" as something a Regency lady would wear to sail. Even, or especially, when her sensibility might favor the flutter of ruffles, "habit" sounds to my ear more like an imposition of sense and discipline than "pelisse" does.

Want to take bets as to whether some future editor will let me keep it?

Do you love using the OED as much as I do?

And what excellent research resources (textual or human) are you especially grateful for?

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Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

I'm betting no. "Habit" in a Regency will be struck from your MS! ;-)

I have a collection of Regency ridding attire images and the clothes REALLY don't look much like the habit we recognize from the Victorian era on.

In fact, most of the dresses and bonnets and short jackets the poor Regency ladies wore on horseback looked much more suitable for a stroll in the park, delicate silk slippers and all!

9:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Pam! I too have been known to stop for hours trying to figure out the correct outfit for a particular character for a particular event.

I own a complete O.E.D. (my mom and I got it ages ago when we were first writing), and always seem to be pulling it out to look up words. When I'm finalizing a manuscript, I always seem to have a list of words I need to double-check and then more words when I do the copy-edits and more again with the galleys.

Other than that, my favorite research book is probably Trumbach's "Rise of the Egalitarian Family" for information on entails, settlements, and a host of other matters. I have a book of Ackermann Fasion prints that's usually by my computer so I can scan it for fashion details. And I love being able to email Candice Hern with fashion questions (and also visit her website).

As to being rational about fashion, I recently spent a day walking along the beach in a silk chiffon dress and appliquéd sweater. Not the most sensible choice, perhaps, though it was a nice and light weight outfit on a warm day. More to the point, it looked nice at dinner afterwards :-).

10:00 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

That's fascinating, Kathrynn, about Regency riding attire.

And Tracy, you're so so right about Candice Hern being a wonderful resource.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

My OED is the kind you use a magnifying glass to read which is better than nothing. I desperately wish I had access to an online edition but I cannot find a single library in Maryland that subscribes to the OED -- in the meantime I use my glass regularly.

Other resources? The Regency Garderobe (bought from regencygarderobe.com)which I take a look at before I start writing. It gives me an idea what the ladies in the forefront of fashion were wearing the year in which the story is set. The PEOPLE CHRONOLOGY to see what was happening in the rest of the world that year.

Once I start writing I tend to put research on the back burner until I run into an insurmountable question. Then I put the research hat on again and get lost in whatever it is.

Pam -- if you deal with "habit" in your author's notes I bet the editor will let you keep it in.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Blythe Gifford said...

I, too, have the OED with magnifying glass, but my favorite resource is Etymology Online, or etymonline dot com. I call it the "poor man's OED."

2:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Mary, I can't get regencygarderobe.com to link to anything that looks right. Clarify?

But I love the idea of dealing with "habit" in the authors' notes.

And Blythe, I like etymonline dot com too.

Oh and a note to Californians -- you don't have to live in San Francisco to get a SFPL card, but you do have to come in person to the library to apply for one.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Should have thought of getting a SFPL card the year RWA was in SF! Too bad....

7:59 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Apparently the Garderobe site I first mentioned no longer exists -- but here is another one that I like though we all know that Kalen would be a better resource: http://www.regencylady.net/repository/Cool/

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I just read the Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen which had a scene where Jane and Mr. Ashford go bathing. Had no idea about bathing machines until I read the book. Since I write in the Victorian era, I would be lost without Victorian London by Liza Pickard, and the two books written by Daniel Poole. Love the Sears catalogs for the late 19th century, as well as the Bloomingdale's catalog that I have. Also, the Hearts through History loop has been very helpful.

9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right when a pelisse makes you think of fur. It started out as a fur-lined cape. The relationship to the word 'pelt' is a clear indication. The names for items of dress are of course notoriously unstable, within a generation they may denote a totally different garment.
And of course those dashing fur-lined jackets hussars wore slung over one shoulder, were called pelisses too. So you still get furry pelisses in the early 19th century!


11:08 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I hope the editor lets you keep "habit." Perhaps you could tweak the sentence ever so slightly so they wouldn't immediately think "nun" instead.

Unfortunately, the NY Public Library system does not offer free OED to cardmembers (at least not when you log into the system from your homes), which breaks my heart because I can't afford even the CD versions and I've always been partial to the OED for the word origins and year of first use -- all the reasons historical writers love it.

I've stopped my wip cold to look up the Versailles Glide, the method of walking through the corridors and rooms of the palace practiced by the female courtiers and nobility during the age of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. I have a friend who is a period dance expert and is looking it up for me; once she locates the info (since I've scoured the internet already and come up empty), I'll book a lesson with her so I can actually learn it before I finish my chapter.

The type of pelisse Jane Austen and her characters wore is more like a duster in its silhouette. But there were fur-lined pelisses too, that were more like capes. Kelim Effendi gave a sable-lined pelisse to Lord Nelson in late 1798 for winning the Battle of the Nile.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

though we all know that Kalen would be a better resource:

THAT'S for sure true, Mary. The first time I saw Kalen dressed in a Regency dress she'd made it was instant epiphany time. So THAT'S how the clothes work, I thought -- AND the corsets (so different, btw, from how it's often imagined in Regency-set historicals, where slips of girls slither in and out of the kind of tank-toppy stuff worn most notably by Buffy and Faith).

Note to all aspiring historical romance authors: if you ever have a chance to take a costume workshop done by our Kalen Hughes, run, don't walk.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And here's a question for Elizabeth, re bathing machines: did young ladies of the 19th century learn to swim? Or did they mostly bob about in the surf?

Also a scholarly book I recommend to everybody who writes Victorians: Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, by Sharon Marcus. I've only read the intro (and an early essay that was incorporated into it) but the brilliance of this book simply shines off it. More than any romance writer needs to know about the relationships between Victorian female friendship, desire, and marriage -- but what we might all want to know, to do it right and get it in all its complexity. Includes an analysis of Victorian fashion plates.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Pam for the recommendation. Since my book is set at a woman's college in the 1890's, that book would be so valuable.

Well, the bathing machines were so they could change in privacy and then lower themselves into the water. I would assume they learned to at least doggie paddle in the water, if not actually swim.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

As for pelisses, anon and Amanda, I hadn't quite made the distinction in my mind between the cape and the straighter jacket. Thanks. I did know about the etymological relationship to "fur," which in this case was blurring the two things together in my inner vision.

And the Versailles glide: I didn't know it was called that, but I did come across it while researching The Bookseller's Daughter -- what I know about it survives as an outtake on my web page at http://pamrosenthal.com/books/errata.htm#daughter-outtake. And as to where I found out about it, my best vague guess is in a book about Sally Hemings -- not one of the recent ones, but one of the early ones, which I don't have any more (hope I'm not sending you on a wild goose chase, Amanda).

7:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A woman's college in the 1890s... that sounds wonderful -- I'm imagining all the older women characters in Gaudy Night as undergraduates.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you for that excerpt, Pam -- if for no other reason than to read your gorgeous and evocative prose! Funny -- right before I signed onto the hoydens blog again I emailed the choreographer to ask if she'd gotten any futher in her research because I need to complete the chapter by Labor Day.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hoyden synchronicity, Amanda -- and thanks for the nice words. I love the buzz of conversation that underlies the lonely writing process.

Oh, and speaking of hoydens, when I mentioned Sharon Marcus, I ought to have said that she was one of My Son, Dr. Jesse Rosenthal the Victorianist's brilliant professors at Columbia -- and that you can learn more about Between Women at Susie Bright's blog: http://susiebright.blogs.com/susie_brights_journal_/2007/09/in-bed-with-sus.html

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I also forgot to mention that Oxford University Press has three great series for YA that decade by decade goes through women's history, African-American history, and American history. I've found them invaluable in researching.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What's the series called, Elizabeth?

2:24 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It's called the Young Oxford University Press History of African-Americans, and the women's history is the same but American Women. Unfortunately you can't order them from the OUP USA site, but from Amazon. Most of them are out of print.

10:12 AM  

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