Recently while researching for my next novel, I did a little searching about the use of handkerchiefs. Apparently, they had a language of their own just like fans. This is definitely another interesting tidbit to add to your reality shelves while reading historical romance. Have you found any books referencing the handkerchief flirt? Enjoy.
Flirting or coquetry remained an art form throughout the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian Eras, and handkerchiefs and flirting language became all the rage.
Here’s an interesting trope for a Historical Romance novel. I wondered if anyone has tried weaving this historical tidbit into a tantalizing book, and apparently, they have (see below). Read all about it. Men who sold their wives.
‘The options available were to grin and bear it, try and get an annulment (tricky), desertion, bigamy, or to tie a rope around their neck and sell them at market to the highest bidder’ Read more at iNews/UK.
Years ago, I stumbled across the book Victorian Women by Joan Perkin during a Google search and realized that it was a treasure chest of information about the Victorian era and the challenges Victorian women faced.
Studying the contents has been an eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in moving beyond the romance of the era and into reality. What is unique about the book, is that it contains text from women who lived during that time period, expressing what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world. Joan Perkins includes the lives of all women, in the upper class, middle class, and working-class, to give the reader a complete picture. To be a woman in the Victorian era was frankly unromantic. Here are a few of the many items that I found informative:
The importance of class and gender in the Victorian era played a large role in a woman’s life. A quotation from Alexander Walker, a physiologist, in the mid-1800s had this to say about women. “It is evident that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector: the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protection. Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs; the woman as naturally obeys.” The general male opinion regarding the female sex was void of respect. Women, however, as general, didn’t buy into the fact that they were inferior to the male species. Wives who only gave birth to girls were considered failures in their marriages. A male child was considered far better not only to produce an heir for the upper class but to produce workers for the family of the working-class.
No formal schooling existed for children until the 1880’s. Upper-class women were taught at home by governesses and tutors. The middle upper class taught their children at home or paid for private schooling or boarding school. The lower class women were self-taught or remained illiterate. I am astonished from my own ancestry research on my family in the Manchester, UK area from the 1800s to 1890s how many of my ancestors put an “X” as their mark on documents such as marriage certificates.
On one spectrum, the Victorian era was one of prudish ideals. Sex, menstruation, and masturbation were never discussed in the upper and middle classes. Most women entered marriage completely ignorant regarding sexual relations or the female reproduction system. Sex was a considered a marital duty in order to produce children and should never be a pleasurable experience for a woman. Ignorance was a means used to keep daughters pure until marriage.
Up until the age of 21, men and women needed parental consent to marry. Marriage for the upper classes, of course, was arranged for wealth and power. Charlotte Bronte thought that romantic awakening was romantic folly. Women shouldn’t fall in love till the offer of marriage had been given, the wedding ceremony over, and the first half year of marriage had passed. Middle-class women married men that received their parents’ approval. Finding a husband could be difficult. In 1851, there were 500,000 more women than men in England, and by 1911, the number rose to a 1.5 million.
The lower-class women lived entirely different lives. In the 19th century over a third of women were pregnant when they got married. The farming community “indulged freely in fornication and adultery.”
A double standard existed in all three classes. Men were not criticized for fornication or illicit sex before or during a marriage, but women were held to different rules.
The mortality rates were astounding in childbirth. One in 200 women died giving birth. Most women had an average of nine children. There were crude and ineffective means of birth control, and abortion was a crime. Many poor women, however, attempted to abort babies and died in the process.
Once married, a woman’s property belonged to a man. Any wages a woman earned during the marriage belonged to her husband. It wasn’t until 1882 that an Act of Parliament finally gave a married woman the right to her property at the time of marriage or earned during the marriage.
Underpants were not worn before the 1840s. Now you know.
There are interesting chapters regarding what women did during the Victorian era regarding entertainment and domestic life for all classes.
We romanticize the Victorian era far too much. A wife was the property of the husband. Once again, the double standard held where he could be unfaithful, but the wife could not. Divorce came by Private Acts of Parliament before 1857 and was very costly and difficult to obtain. Men could divorce their wife for adultery; women could not divorce only on the grounds of adultery, but it had to be accompanied by either physical cruelty, bigamy or incest. Custody of children went to the fathers, and the rights to see the children after a divorce could be curtailed or forbidden for the mother.
The husband had the right to “to give moderate correction” if she did not obey. Wife abuse occurred in all classes of society. Women had very little recourse against husbands who beat them and leaving was often not an option. Not until 1878 were women able to separate from abusive husbands and receive some type of maintenance from their spouses.Because divorce was difficult to obtain, married partners would often separate and go their way. Alternatives would be living with another lover out of wedlock or committing bigamy.
Most women outlived their husbands by many years, and widowhood for women in all classes could be a devastating and difficult time. One in four individuals over 65 were considered paupers and ended up their lives in workhouses or asylums. Unless they had family members who could afford to care for them, widows needed to turn to other means in order to support themselves. If they were savvy enough, they may take in boarders, clean houses, or find other menial jobs in order to survive.
There were a growing number of women who preferred spinsterhood rather than marriage because they were free to handle their money, make their decisions, and keep their illegitimate children. Middle-class women had more opportunities to pursue skilled jobs, but they were paid a pittance in comparison to their male counterparts. Lower-class women often worked long hours in factories and other jobs, and sometimes resorted to prostitution.
The book is filled with many true details from women of the past that will shock you regarding the hardships and inequality they faced. However, there are truly inspirational stories, too, about those women who worked to bring about equality and change for women.
You can order the book in paperback at Amazon. I purchased a used copy for $6.00. When it arrived, it was an old library copy, and a bit worn. However, I didn’t mind because it’s received my pink highlighter throughout the text. After recently checking Amazon it appears that copies are becoming unavailable. If you want to read the book, you may have to search out libraries and other venues. I highly recommend the effort if you are interested in Victorian-era research.
As an author, I realize that I am guilty of writing about an era and purposely ignoring the hardships that Victorian women endured. Perhaps as modern ladies, we are merely enamored by men in ascots who look dashing, rich, and handsome. We love our dukes and titled men, the fancy houses, and the lavish lifestyles and fashions. These are the fantasy men we have chosen to fall in love with between the pages, and the lovers we have given our heroines.
However, the aristocracy of England during the Victorian era only accounted for 2% of the population. Another small percentage included the upper-middle-class, which consisted of 15% of the population. These were families such as businessmen and tradesmen, who could adequately support their families.
To write about the other 83% of the population would be depressing to most readers. Frankly, I do not think that women care to read about suffering women in romance books. I know when I wrote about the hardships of one poor French woman in 1870 in my first book, The Price of Innocence, I was severely criticized in reviews for writing a “miserable story.” However, let’s be honest with ourselves. Lives for women during that time period were for the most part miserable, which thankfully gave rise to changes in law and attitudes.
“Suppose then that this first and vital standing order for the toilet be stringent, and that refreshed, and therefore energetic, buoyant, and conscious of one duty being at least performed, the lady leaves her bed and prepares to dress.” The Habits of Good Society
What duty? A good night’s sleep, of course. I suppose you could call it the need for beauty sleep in a rested young lady.
I am continuing to read through “The Habits of Good Society,” yawning here in there but also dropping my mouth open at some of the recommendations. Hang onto your Victorian hat, because here comes the next installment of life in 1872 England.
The second order of business, after getting out of bed, is the bath, which once again is reiterated upon regarding the healthy type to take to balance circulation and maintain the skin. After the bath, a lady moved onto the necessity of personal grooming of the skin, face, and hair.
Her great-grandmother, however, wore powder and only dressed her hair three times a week. She rarely washed her face because it was bad for her complexion, but merely dabbed it with a cloth. Apparently, they were afraid of cold water. Filtered rainwater is suggested in 1872 to be the best moisture for the complexion.
After the bath, the woman sits at her “toilet table,” which contains everything neatly arranged for her use. (Once again, in the Victorian mind, everything has a place and is the order of the day!) The author notes that having a pale complexion was at one time the mark of beauty and somewhat continues to be the preference of some women. “Pearly whiteness” of skin in this time period was enhanced by “pearl powder.” The use thereof is stated to be unhealthy because it clogged the pores, and if not applied correctly, was noticeable. Let’s face it, we still see a bit of clumpy powder on our faces now and then. Of course, the more one aged, the deeper the lines upon the face became, necessitating the additional application of powder. Eventually it would turn into a clumpy and undesirable state of affairs.
The thought of the day is that the extravagant use of cosmetics was evil, according to the author, who doesn’t think it’s a moral question but a physical one. Good skin should be attained by rest, exercise, and a healthy diet. If you were prone to occasional “eruptions” (which are pimples), it could be very stressful. The author states, however, to avoid such frequent occurrences that you should not rub or touch your skin unnecessarily, get fresh air, stay out of the intense heat, use pure water, and sparingly use cosmetics. Not bad advice for 1872, considering it closely adheres to twenty-first century practices for the control of eruptions (a much kinder word, I think, than pimple).
Brace yourself for hair care. The practice of some with thick hair was only brushed and not wash, which led to smelly heads. It was not the author’s preference, who focuses on the puritanical view of Victorian cleanliness. Brushing alone was not recommended. To cleanse hair, the best possible solutions are noted below. In addition, a lady’s hair should be dressed twice a day (meaning styled), but taken down during the middle of the day for a thorough brushing.
“Wash the roots of the hair from time to time with weak vinegar and water, or with a solution of ammonia, cleanses it effectually, whilst a yolk of an egg beaten up and mixed with warm water is excellent for the skin and hair; bit it is troublesome to wash out, and must be done by a careful maid.”
Whether this concoction was used by all, I have no idea. However, the thought of ammonia and its smell had to leave a residue behind. I suppose the yolk of a beaten egg might eliminate the odor. The author seems to think that any scents applied to the hair itself is injurious.
I am finally gathering that the anonymous author must be male, which I think lends to a few of his slanted views. Where he gets his information regarding best practices for the feminine toilet routine is unknown. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll be searching my kitchen stash of cleaners, along with vinegar, to wash my hair any time soon. Thank goodness for Pantene.
“In the beginning of the present century (19th), it was thought proper for a gentleman to change his undergarment three times a day, and the washing bill of a beau comprised seventy shirts, thirty cravats, and pocket handkerchiefs à discretion.” (The Habits of Good Society 1872)
“The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen,” continues on the subject of particular interest mostly because of the stories I’ve read about the poor hygiene in centuries past. However, when it came to the Regency and Victorian era, the upper class deemed it important as a sign of good character. Not only cleanliness was a duty for the sake of health and being agreeable to one’s neighbor, but it also went hand-in-hand with obeying the scriptures as a means of exemplifying purity. Poor personal habits by an individual who neglected his body was a sure sign of weak character.
The Victorians in 1872, however, thought Beau Brummell’s idea of taking two hours to dress was a bit ludicrous. However, if you dressed in ten minutes time, surely you’ve neglected the important matters of the toilet through your speedy actions.
The bath, recommended after waking in the morning, focused on the type one took. There were a variety of baths at varying temperatures. The most cleansing bath came from warm water of 96° to 100°. If you were filthy, 108° was better, as it expanded the pores, increased circulation, and did a better job. Then there was the cold bath of 60° to 70° that should be avoided by persons who cannot tolerate it and is extremely dangerous after eating. A tepid bath of 85° to 95° is the safest. Shower baths were frowned upon because they did not focus on the health of the individual. Then there is the sponge bath as the last means of cleansing that could adequately do the job if a regular bath was unavailable.
The next duty of the Victorian is to clean the teeth, as there is nothing so terrible as being near an individual with poor breath and black teeth – especially a woman. The usual recommendation of avoiding sweets and smoking were taught be dentists. The writer recommends hard bristle toothbrushes with tooth powder. A little water, with a good lather, will do the job. (I guess by this time, we’ve progressed beyond the twigs and chalk of the Regency era.) The mouth should be rinsed seven times with cold water, and one should brush several times a day. After all, a woman can tell when a man has been drinking and smoking, which was deemed offensive in the opposite sex. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how attractive the man appears — if he has foul breath it is unforgiving. At least now when you read historical romance in the Victorian era, you can be assured that the hero’s kiss upon the lips of the heroine didn’t include a mouthful of bad breath.
The advice continues with grooming for the nails, hair, beards, makeup, and other matters regarding the lady’s toilet. Stay tuned for the next installment of cleanliness in 1872.
“A lady – beautiful word! — is a delicate creature, one who should be reverenced and delicately treated. It is therefore unpardonable to rush about in a quadrille, to catch hold of the lady’s hand as if she were a door-handle, or to drag her furiously across the room, as if you were Bluebeard…” (The Habits of Good Society: By Unknown Author, originally published 1872. Copyright 2012 Forgotten Books).
Recently on my author Facebook page, I’ve been posting videos of period dramas with romantic scenes of waltzes. Some of my favorites are from The Young Victoria, War & Peace (2016), Cinderella, and Crimson Peak. They look so romantic with women in gorgeous gowns being swung around the room by handsome men.
According to The Habits of Good Society, there were rules to be followed if you were considered to be an “accomplished” individual on the dance floor. The introduction above focuses on how men should gently treat the lady. Apparently, if a man is too brusque with a woman while dancing, it may be an indication of how he is in his personal life.
A man should always smile when taking a lady’s hand, and bowing should still be in style.
“To squeeze it, on the other hand, is a gross familiarity, for which you would deserve to be kicked out of the room.”
I’m sorry, but it’s difficult not to laugh over at that rule. Even though the quadrille is a bit outdated in 1872, it is still danced albeit a bit slowly. Too slowly it becomes ridiculous.
The waltz, of course, is the preferred dance of this time period. In fact, the writer of this book wishes he could rave about it for days. He begins by explaining that position is the first importance, as well as the placement of the man’s hand where it should be – at the center of the lady’s waist. The lady should turn her head a little to the left. Oh, and it’s considered atrocious for a lady to lay her head upon a man’s shoulder! Position, therefore, is of utmost importance.
These points are fascinating:
In Germany the waltz is rapid but it slackens the pace every now and then.
The Russian waltz men perform like the Austrians and will dance around the room with a glass of champagne in the left hand without spilling a drop. This reminded me of the scene in Crimson Peak where the waltz was done with a candle in the man’s hand that remained burning throughout.
To be graceful in England, one must waltz with the sliding step. It’s up to the gentleman to steer, keep his eyes open, and watch where they are going to avoid collisions in a crowded ballroom.
Violent dancing (too fast and reckless) can cause injury. The author apparently had seen an occasion where the gentleman broke his ankle and the lady gashed her head.
There are quite a few more references to various dances, including the Polka. Instructions are detailed. The overall sense, of course, is skill, ability, and following the social norms of treating the female with respect.
The Appropriate Use of You-Know-What, You-Know-Where and You-Know-How
This post was contributed by Lorraine Hunt Lynn on 5/5/13
Perhaps I’m a little odd, but I have a thing about hygiene in Historical Romance. Whenever the captain of a buccaneering vessel sweeps his love interest into his arms and carries her into his cabin, I tend to wonder when he (or she) last washed. I know, I know; we are supposed to presume that our protagonist and love interest have taken care of the essentials, but the question of love’s bare necessities remains for me.
Perhaps my obsession comes as a result of the years I spent studying history, and the need to understand it at its contextual level. As a student, I was expected to research everything and assume nothing before attempting to offer my opinion. As there were no Regency rakes hiding in 19th century census transcripts, and little mention of heaving bosoms among the Old Bailey records, the hard graft of understanding the ordinary person took precedence. Then again, my sanitary preoccupation might be the result of my addiction to Time Team, and Phil Harding’s love of the ‘good tomato growing soil’ at the base of a castle’s long drop toilet system. Regardless, historical hygiene has always fascinated me.
Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf, is a childhood friend of mine, and our shared passion for our writing and our children has seen us through most of our lives together. When Paula’s debut novel began to take shape, and her ongoing involvement with Regia Anglorum fascinated me, I recall wanting to know all about pre 1066 England. So excited was I, that my first question was, ‘So, what did the Anglo Saxons use for toilet paper?’ It’s true; the University of Oxford conferred upon me a piece of paper assuring the world of my historical abilities, and I ignored the status of Anglo Saxon women, their societal structure, architecture, medical knowledge and so much more, to ask about the act of wiping one’s nether regions!
All buccaneers, rakes, heaving bosoms and moss wiped bottoms aside, I have to wonder if this is a subject considered by other Historical Romance readers. Are the undergarments, unmentionables and undesirables better left unsaid in Historical Romance? Personally, I believe that the more of life’s ‘little things’ there are in historical fiction, the more it can lend credibility to a good story. I’m not suggesting that a hero or heroine should be portrayed as an OCD sufferer in a ritual cleansing frenzy, and nor do I believe that a manifest of undergarments should be provided each time anybody disrobes. No; what I would prefer to see is the occasional, tasteful reference to how they kept themselves clean, and to ensure that it is appropriate to the era in which they lived.
This requires a fair amount of research, but it can pay dividends in terms of believability. The practice of soap making, for instance, is an ancient one, and lye soap has been used by everybody with access to animal fat, ash and a fire since time immemorial; possibly since before the Anglo Saxons were gathering moss for the purpose of wiping themselves! Lye soap however, was only fashioned into solid cakes when mixed with salt, and was definitely not to be applied to the face in that form; not unless the heroine was intent on aging before a reader’s eyes. Soft lye soap was used for bathing, and was generally scooped from a pot with the fingers.Toothbrushes too, have been around in one form or another for centuries, and toothpaste as we know it today since at least the 19th century. Before then, salt or charcoal were the most effective dental cleansers. There were no antiperspirants in days of yore, but deodorants in the form of powders and perfumes were in common use by the middling and upper classes since the Middle Ages at the very least. As to underwear, the simple act of having one’s bloomers (the precursors to pantaloons) removed in the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries, required the removal of two separate legs, each joined by a tied fronts piece. This is the context about which I write when discussing historical accuracy and the ‘little things’.
Often in fiction, the most unmentionable of all subjects is a woman’s menstrual cycle; something requiring a well crafted and sensitive approach by an author. It is difficult to ignore the subject if a fornicating couple is trapped by marauding abductors for anything in excess of three weeks, as the inevitable will happen; from puberty to menopause, you can generally set your clock by it. Pregnancy too, is the result of sexual activity at a certain time in a woman’s cycle, and the credibility of a story can often hinge upon such trivialities as the moon and the calendar. Historical Romance authors should ignore these realities at their own peril; but how can they be addressed without risking it being overdone to the point of distraction? I believe that it’s all about balance, and I offer the following advice to those struggling with subjects from moss to menses, and everything in between.
Heroines can simply catch a glimpse of a little soap at the base of an earlobe, thus assuring the reader that her love interest is ship-shape in the cleanliness stakes. Alternatively, the hair at the nape of his neck might be damp from his ablutions, or his own musk might mingle with the aroma of lye soap as she falls into his embrace. When crafted as a passing mention, these details don’t detract from the scene itself, but they serve to give characters substance. The requirement for a certain level of cleanliness is something we share with our forebears, and thus it can transcend the ages and allow readers to relate; something all authors continually strive to achieve.
The inevitable ‘monthlies’ (a term used in antiquity, and still common in the 1950’s) are bound to crop up in a book spanning a time frame in excess of three weeks. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in gruesome detail, but the passing mention of a heroine’s cramps slowing her morning routine can convey to a reader that she is just as human as the rest of us. Childbirth too, can be an interesting subject, but many authors struggle between providing too much or too little information. If it is essential to the plot, a well written delivery (in history, the woman was delivered of the child; the child was not delivered) can add a wonderful dimension to a story. Again, this must be done in the context of the times, and in keeping with the heroine’s knowledge of childbirth. Words such as uterus, contraction, umbilical cord and birth canal have only been in general circulation in modern times, whereas pain, cramp, urge, sting and push are timeless.
Long underwear on men is another area of fascination for me. Although the nightshirt, nightcap and long undies of antiquity predominate in modern depictions of life in Tudor England, 19th century Midwestern saloons and colonial plantations, the truth of the matter is that not all men wore long underwear. To begin with, the impoverished Dorsetshire agricultural labourer had little chance of affording such a luxury, and I can assure you that no early Australian settler in his right mind would wear long woollen undies and trousers when the mercury hovered around the 110 mark for weeks on end. The latter labouring fellow would either cut out the legs from the offending undergarment, or opt to ‘free-ball’, in order to survive the rigours of his environment.
I suspect also, that stays, corsets, crinolines and bustles for colonial working class women were reserved for the advent of company, or for venturing outside of the homestead for church, as any restriction to working efficiently would necessitate its removal. Books and electronic sources detail what people wore in a certain era, and such resources contain wonderful descriptions and drawings of clothing and accessories, equipping the historical fiction author with everything they need to put a heroine’s ensemble together. The author must however, be wary of out-thinking daily life, and should acknowledge that life’s practicalities also come into the picture; after all, the flip-flop is not a modern invention, and was worn by the Japanese for centuries. As to the aforementioned night attire, it’s all very well to rug up for a night in a Hebridean crofter’s hut, but sweltering nights in the colonial tropics are best survived by wearing as little as possible under netting, thus allowing perspiration to help cool the skin.
Finally, let us not forget the most basic function of all; toileting oneself. No romance reader, historical or otherwise, wants to be faced with the prospect of Lord Dunraven grabbing a copy of The Times and heading for his era’s version of the thunderbox; God forbid! The thought is as abhorrent as any mention of poorly functioning bowels, and any author in breach of this unwritten law should find a sturdy cane and administer themselves a damned sound thrashing. If however, mention of ‘the pot’ is appropriate to a scene, it should be tasteful, fleeting and non descriptive, and used only as a means of adding believability.
I admit that I like Historical Romances with the right doses of ablutionary reality in them, but only as a means of giving characters and situations believability and depth. I need to rest assured that a kiss allows a heroine to be the recipient of a man’s passion, and not the remnants of the pease pudding and faggots he ate for dinner. Most importantly, I strive to provide my own readers with the correct doses of subliminal reassurance that teeth are clean, nether regions are fresh and underwear is laundered, regardless of marauding abductors and the calendar.
It’s fairly late as I finish this Blog, and I’m well overdue for a you-know-what, you-know-how and you-know-where (hot cup of tea, white and sweet, in bed). I shall bid you all good night, climb into my 21st century night attire, and start thinking about my next Blog.