History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 August 2013

Hello, Dolley!

My editor’s notes for revisions to the 464-page manuscript of my next nonfiction release, INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES: A Demillennium of Unholy Mismatrimony (NAL/November 2014), just arrived in my inbox yesterday, so this will be a brief post, as I need to buckle down ASAP.

I think this is my first History Hoydens Post since moving down to our nation’s capital. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t taken advantage of the myriad opportunities to explore the cool things about the city, steeped as it is in history; but last Sunday my husband decided that I needed to get out a bit more.

So we went on a two-hour walking tour of "Georgetown during the War of 1812." The irony is that the war didn’t really touch Georgetown proper—except that we DID begin the tour at the federal-era Dumbarton House, now the HQ of the Colonial Dames of America, known as the place where Dolley Madison (my favorite First Lady) stopped for tea on August 24, 1814, the day she fled the White House with, among other things, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, just hours before the British torched the place.

Who knew there would be snacks! What a great way to start the tour. The lovely people at Dumbarton House had baked up Dolley’s favorite dessert, a slightly sweet, dense cake with a hard caramel drizzle nicknamed “Dolley cakes,” in personal cupcake/muffin-sizes. Thanks to Martha Stewart, we can all reproduce the recipe. http://www.marthastewart.com/330232/dolley-madison-layer-cake

We also associate Dolley with her passion for ice cream. Evidently her favorite flavor was, even then, an acquired taste, and as such, the Colonial Dames decided not to offer their guests a taste.  Dolley Madison was a big fan of oyster ice cream.  And nowadays we think savory ice creams are innovative!

I was rather tickled because the owner of Dumbarton House, which was then called Belle Vue -- the man who offered his hospitality and sanctuary to the fleeing FLOTUS was a man named Charles Carroll! [Full disclosure: no relation--but it was fun to pretend.]

Writing of the parlous event to her sister Lucy Payne Washington Todd, Dolley told her:

"Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humour with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen from New York, for safekeeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!"

It was rather marvelous to hear about a story that has entered the lexicon of American myths and legends and to learn how much of it was really true. A historical novelist's dream come true!

Are you a Dolley Madison fan?

26 August 2013

The Tenth Muse and Framing Historical Fiction

I just got back from a fun and thought provoking few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (there are my daughter Mélanie and I above at the Member Lounge). Along with well-loved plays such as an enchanting A Midsummer Night's Dream and a complex, touching, brilliant My Fair Lady, we saw a couple of very intriguing world premieres, Liquid Plain and The Tenth Muse. Both were historical, Liquid Plain about African Americans who had escaped slavery in the 1790s, The Tenth Muse about nuns in 18th century Mexico.  Both plays were strong and intriguing and provided a great deal of conversational fodder for my friend and fellow writer Penelope Williamson and me over lattes and cosmopolitans.

In particular, The Tenth Muse got me thinking about how we frame historical fiction. The play is inspired by the story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, famed for her writing and intellectual pursuit. But instead of dramatizing Sor Juana's story directly, playwright Tanya Saracho sets her play twenty years after Juana died of the plague (shortly after she fell out of favor with the church). Juana's niece Sor Isabel is an important character, but the play centers around three young women who come to the convent with their own dilemmas and are caught up in Sor Juana's legacy.

As historical novelists, we have a number of choices to make in dramatizing historical events. We have to choose where to stop and start our stories (which sometimes can mean looking back at pivotal events as in this play). And we have to choose whose eyes through which to tell the story. Our own Juliet Grey brilliantly dramatized Marie Antoinette's life with Marie Antoinette as the central character. Other writers tell the story of real historical figure through the eyes of a fictional character - often a friend, lady-in-waiting, valet, or maid. Still others weave together real and fictional events and characters, so that fictional central characters interact with real historical figures, and the plot combines real and fictional events. Lauren and I both fall in this category.

For a writer, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of story. There's an immediacy to telling a story as it unfolds, through the eyes of the central character. One person I talked to very much enjoyed The Tenth Muse but also said she would have liked to see Juana's story dramatized. On the other hand, while I love writing about real events and people, I also enjoy the freedom of being able to shape the story of my central characters and develop their personalities. This also gives the author more latitude in how the story ends. Without huge spoilers, I will say that The Tenth Muse ends on a more hopeful note than probably would have been possible in dramatizing Sor Juana's life.

Do you have a preference in how the historical fiction you read is framed? What are some of your favorite examples? Writers, how do you approach framing historical events?

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23 August 2013

Clothing of the Working Class: The Cranberry Girl

This is another from Walker, c. 1814. To me, it looks like she’s wearing a blue bedgown with short sleeves, black mitts, a white apron, a brownish-red (dare I say puce?) petticoat, a red handkerchief, black half-boots, and a chip-straw bonnet with blue ribbons.

I could, however, also make a case for the blue gown being of a front-fastening style from the turn of the century like the one pictured below. It’s just that it wasn’t the norm for these to be worn over a colored petticoat.

22 August 2013

Clothing of the Working Class: The Cutler

Another one from Walker's 1814 Costume of Yorkshire. Here we're looking at craftsmen practicing a skilled labor. The man at the center is wearing a shirt, a waistcoat, breeches, stockings, shoes, a knit hat, and a cravat. His apprentices are similarly dressed, with the addition of aprons and varying headgear. It's worth noting that the waistcoat depicted is of a slightly older style (the bottom is not squared off like a fashionable one would be) and the breeches are old-fashioned at this point except for leather ones worn for riding.

This is obviously a workroom/studio. No doubt the master cutler would slip on his coat before entering the shop proper (assuming he also had his own shop and wasn't employed by someone else to create stock.

21 August 2013

Clothing of the Working Class: The Lowkers

This image is from Walker’s 1814 book. You can see that some of the women are in Empire-waisted gowns (like the beauty who is front and center), but others are still in 18thC garments. The rural beauty is in a round gown, with an apron, mitts, handkerchief, and a cap and bonnet. The woman on the left with her back to us is of particular interest, as she’s wearing her stays (possibly leather ones from the look of them) as her main upper garment, along with a handkerchief, an apron, and a short petticoat. The woman on the far left appears to be in a man’s coat, and the one just behind our rural beauty is in what I think is a form of smock (smocks could be either shirts or coats that were work over your other clothing to keep them clean).

The only information I can find about “lowkers” is that it’s a form of “looker” and is related to looking after something. So perhaps these women are so labeled because they are looking after the field/crop.

20 August 2013

Clothing of the Working Class: The Salop Woman

There’s a LOT going on in this image (another from Pyne’s 1805 Costume of Great Britain). I’m going to ignore the soldiers, as military uniforms are a whole other topic.

The old woman pouring the salop* is wearing a long green bedgown over a blue petticoat, an apron, a handkerchief around her neck, and another tied over her head, holding on her hat. There appears to be a red cloak on the back of her chair, which would be very much in keeping with her class.

Behind her stands what appears to be a member of the watch (he’s leaning against his box; note the lantern hanging there). He has on a great coat and a simple round hat. And it appears he has a handkerchief tied about his throat. You can just see his brogans peeking out from under the old woman’s chair.

Drinking his bowl of salop is a coal dust covered boy. He’s grubby and a bit tattered, in trousers, a shirt with no cuffs, and an open waistcoat. He has a simple knit cap on his head. This is pretty much how I would picture a climbing boy, though this boy was most likely employed in delivering coal, not cleaning chimneys given the tools he’s shown with.

Across from the salop cart is another woman with a basket. She could be a street vendor, or a maid out on a shopping expedition. She has on a brown bedgown over a slightly paler brown petticoat (which is much longer than that of the rabbit hawker we saw yesterday, leading me to believe she probably works indoors). She has a checked handkerchief around her neck, and a simple white cap over her hair (no hat).

*Additional note about salop (aka salep or saloop): This is a fortifying hot beverage with Turkish origins that made it to England before tea or coffee. It was a sold by street vendors in London and after coffee houses made an appearance, it would have been found there too. It is made using orchid tuber flour mixed with milk and sugar. It was very popular and would have been widely consumed, especially by the working class people who couldn’t afford tea and coffee.

19 August 2013

Clothing of the Working Class: A Female Street Vendor

One of the things we rarely talk about in historical romance circles is the clothing of the lower classes (unless they’re servants, then we talk about it a lot). There are two very interesting sources for studying what the lamp lighters, orange girls, fish wives, and mine workers would have been wearing. The first is W. H. Pyne’s Costume of Great Britain (1805). The second is George Walker’s Costume of Yorkshire (1814). The think I find interesting about both of these is that the people shown are predominantly wearing the clothing styles of the late 18th century. I’ll post a few this week and talk about them in detail.

Here you can see a street vendor from Pyne’s 1805 work. She’s wearing brogans (simple, unisex shoes), a somewhat short petticoat (typical of a lot of working class women), a blue apron (typical of butchers), what appears to be 18th century style stays (yes, these are quite commonly worn as an outer garment by women of this class), but might also be a bedjacket (the standard poor woman’s short gown), a short jacket (that might be woman’s Pierrot jacket from the 1780s-1790s or might be a more current repurposed man’s garment), a blue handkerchief covering her neck and bosom, and a striped one over a classic 18th century style black hat.

You can see two fashionable women in more current fashions strolling in the background.

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