Archive for the ‘Regency’ Category

To prove the world was round? REALLY? Who writes this stuff?

1. There’s a really interesting discussion going on about anachronisms in historical romance over at History Hoydens. As you can see from my looong comment, this is something I’ve given a lot of thought to yet totally failed to come up with a coherent policy. I evaluate anachronisms on a case-by-case basis! My anachronism ethics are situational!

But you know what I do hate unequivocally? Apocryphal historical anecdotes repeated as fact! Like how Columbus wanted to prove the world was round, or how Queen Victoria didn’t believe in lesbians. Now this is frequently a mistake made in good faith but I think that is what annoys me the most–how these lies become so ubiquitous they completely obscure the truth. Which leads me to:

2. It’s the anniversary of Waterloo this week (June 18th)! My January book A Lily Among Thorns is set in London in the two weeks before the battle.

But…they’re not actually the two weeks before the battle! They’re the two weeks before the news of the battle reached London, which is actually several days later–late on the night of June 21st. The news quickly spread, turning into an impromptu parade through the streets of London. It must have been so thrilling!

Of course, Nathan Rothschild knew about the outcome of the battle first. The popular story is that he went to the ‘Change and purposely led traders to believe he knew the battle had been lost! There was a panic and he was able to buy up “consols” (OED: “An abbreviation of Consolidated Annuities, i.e. the government securities of Great Britain”) at a very low price, seizing control of the Bank of England and making his fortune.

I totally believed this! You read about it everywhere! I included it in the first draft of A Lily Among Thorns. But oops, it is FALSE. Here’s what The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson has to say (link goes to the Kindle edition because I seriously could not find the paperback even when I looked at “other formats”–I kept getting the second volume in the series and I don’t know if the links are broken or if it’s out of print or what):

No doubt it was gratifying to receive the news of Napoleon’s defeat first, thanks to the speed with which Rothschild couriers were able to relay a newspaper version of the fifth and conclusive extraordinary bulletin–issued in Brussels at midnight on June 18–via Dunkirk and Deal to reach New Court [the location of the Rothschilds' bank] on the night of the 19th. This was just twenty-four hours after Wellington’s victorious meeting with Blücher on the battlefield and nearly forty-eight hours before Major Henry Percy delivered Wellington’s official dispatch to the Cabinet as its members dined at Lord Harrowby’s house (at 11 p.m. on the 21st.) Indeed, so premature did Nathan’s information appear that it was not believed when he relayed it to the government on the 20th; nor was a second Rothschild courier from Ghent.

He then explains why Waterloo was actually financially disastrous for the Rothschilds, who were financing the British army and had all their money tied up in things that were suddenly no longer necessary–and no longer likely to be paid for by the gov’t.

In London, a frantic Nathan sought to make good the damage; and it is in this context that the firm’s purchases of British stocks have to be seen. On July 20, the evening edition of the London Courier reported that Nathan had made “great purchases of stock.” A week later Roworth heard that Nathan had “done well by the early information which you had of the Victory gained at Waterloo” and asked to participate in any further purchased of government stock “if in your opinion you think any good can be done.” This would seem to confirm the view that Nathan did indeed buy consols on the strength of his prior knowledge of the battle’s outcome. However, the gains made in this way cannot have been very great. As Victor Rothschild conclusively demonstrated, the recovery of consols from their nadir of 53 in fact predated Waterloo by over a week, and even if Nathan had made the maximum possible purchase of £20,000 on June 20, when consols stood at 56.5 and sold a week later when they stood at 60.6, his profits would barely have exceeded £7,000.

He goes on to demonstrate that the brothers were in dire financial straits all through 1815 and beyond although they did come out on top in the end, of course. He also talks at length about their disorganized accounting practices. The whole chapter is incredibly detailed and fascinating–I haven’t read the whole book yet but I want to.

There is a GREAT post on this topic at Risky Regencies here. I really recommend watching the video even though it’s kind of long–and if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at LEAST watch the first couple minutes so you can see the clip from a Nazi propaganda film showing an exaggerated version of the apocryphal consols story.

What’s your favorite/least favorite apocryphal historical anecdote?

She must have been assisted in the stile spelling and diction

A really interesting excerpt from Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture by Ghislaine McDayter, on the early 20th-century published collection of some of Byron’s fan letters (“To Lord Byron”: Feminine Profiles Based on Unpublished Letters, 1807-1824…which makes me sad because it seems to be the ONLY published collection of Byron’s fan letters and they’ve left out all the ones from men! Which are more relevant to my interests at this particular time even if there were probably less of them…):

“Henrietta writes to Byron asking for his ‘intellectual’ love, and the editors argue that such desires can only be disingenuous. They refer to a second letter as proof, this time from an older and more famous woman, Harriette Wilson: ‘Harriette Wilson even—the most notorious courtesan of the period—recently solicited [Byron's] acquaintance, adding in a postscript to the effect that what she wanted was not love but an intellectual understanding!’ For these editors, the concept of a courtesan, let alone a starstruck virgin, being interested in a non-sexual relationship with Byron (and equally the concept that he could possibly be interested in such a thing) is dismissed as absurd. Yet, the women who write to Byron repeatedly make it clear that they are interested in some ‘other’ sort of relationship with him. Many speak of their fantasies of befriending his ex-lovers and his future wife, and if, as was sometimes the case, Byron did make a sexual advance on these women, he was often spurned. The “notorious” courtesan was particularly adept at putting Byron in his place, remarking curtly that although she had written in praise of Byron previously, she had merely ‘alluded to your understanding and common sense, not to your —— which I conceived to be entirely out of the question.’”

I haven’t read Harriette Wilson’s memoirs (yet) but she was obviously a snappy writer. Here’s what Sir Walter Scott had to say about her:

“She must have been assisted in the stile spelling and diction though the attempt at wit is poor—that at pathos is sickening. But there is some good retailing of conversations in which the stile of the speakers so far as known to me is exactly imitated.”

I love his assumption that since she’s a courtesan she must have had to be heavily edited! If the Byron letter is an example her “stile” and diction are excellent in their natural state.

A man ain’t nothing but a man

I have a pet peeve. And a blog. Match made in Heaven!

I know language evolves. I like that about it, actually. But the way the word “Luddite” has evolved seems disrespectful to me of the original Luddites, who I learned a lot about while researching In for a Penny.

Nowadays, people use the word to mean someone who’s irrationally mistrustful of technology: “My grandmother’s such a Luddite, she won’t get a cellphone.” But here is the original meaning of the word (quoted from Wikipedia—the whole article is great):

The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested—often by destroying mechanized looms—against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt was leaving them without work and changing their way of life.

Many of the mechanical looms were called “frames” because of their design, so the Luddites were also commonly referred to as “framebreakers.”

These people weren’t opposing technology on philosophical grounds. They weren’t superstitiously afraid of the coming time when the robots would rise up against their masters and enslave them in return. Nor were they simply stubborn and old-fashioned. They were losing their jobs, and there was no provision at all made in the shifting economy to absorb or retrain them.

The textile industry was changing rapidly in this era. Before the Industrial Revolution, skilled weavers worked out of their homes (their cottages, hence, “cottage industry”) in rural areas, using hand looms.

Then new machines were invented that moved weaving into factories in new industrial cities, and required only low-paid, unskilled labor to run them.

Of course, that’s an oversimplification, and the machines may have been not so much themselves the object of the workers’ wrath as simply an easy way to economically damage employers; here’s a great rundown from my current research book, Byron’s Romantic Celebrity by Tom Mole:

[The textile industry] went into crisis in the early 19th century, when economic depression at home and the loss of export markets in Napoleonic Europe and Revolutionary America hit hard. Wage cutting was endemic in the industry, and many workers suffered drastic hardships as wages fell or failed to keep pace with rising prices. A parliamentary committee investigating the situation in 1812 heard that wages were on average one-third lower than they had been in 1807 and before. The workers’ distress was exacerbated by at least three other factors, including the practice of payment in truck [my note: basically the "company store" system]; the introduction of cheaply produced low-quality stockings known as ‘cut-ups’; and the possibility of hiring juvenile and unskilled laborers owing to the lapsed apprenticeship laws, which flooded the labor market and further depressed wages in a practice known as ‘colting.’ The use of new wide weaving frames, which weavers were forced to rent from their employer or from an independent entrepreneur, often at exorbitant rates, also had its part to play in the industry’s degradation.[...]Between 1780 and 1830 workers were reduced from comparative prosperity and independence to crippling poverty and complete dependence on their employer.

Smaller, similar acts of violence to framebreaking happened all over England, directed against new technologies that threatened working families’ ability to make a living. In Penny, the 1816 rioters fired the elder Lord Bedlow’s barn with the new threshing machine inside of it. New threshing machines eliminated an entire large income source (threshing with the flail) for agricultural laborers; I’ll talk about that in another post.

What’s relevant here was that this was almost a culturally recognized form of protest: the workers smashed things up and made demands, and sometimes they got concessions. For this reason one scholar, Hobsbawm, described Luddism as “collective bargaining by riot.”

During the early 19th century, the Combination Laws prohibited trade union activity or collective bargaining for British workers. They weren’t repeated until 1825, and even then union activity was severely limited by law. Requests for changes in company policy backed up by property damage wasn’t a great or safe system, obviously. But anything more orderly and official was equally subject to legal repercussions and much less anonymous.

The framebreakers, of course, were not successful. They lost, and they were punished. The offense was originally punishable by up to 14 years transportation. In 1812 the Frame Bill was passed, making it a capital crime.

Byron opposed the bill in his maiden speech in the House of Lords. The speech is completely brilliant and carefully reasoned and sarcastic and moving and you should absolutely read the whole thing here. Here’s a small excerpt:

The framers of such a bill must be content to inherit the honours of that Athenian law-giver whose edicts were said to be written not in ink but in blood. But suppose it passed; suppose one of these men, as I have seen them,—meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your Lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame;—suppose this man surrounded by the children for whom be is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault that he can no longer so support;—suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims—dragged into court, to be tried for this new offence, by this new law; still, there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him and these are, in my opinion,—twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jeffreys for a judge!

Mmm, I love a man who can orate. Unfortunately Byron was wrong and quite a lot of framebreakers were hanged after the bill was passed. (“Jeffreys,” by the way, refers to Baron Jeffreys, the notorious “hanging judge” who presided over the trials of Jacobites at the “Bloody Assizes” in 1685–if you’ve seen the Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood you might remember him.)

The closest thing to a modern equivalent of the Luddites in the popular imagination is John Henry, the steel-driving man who competes with the new steam drill to see who can dig the deepest. The outcome varies in different versions of the song, but generally John Henry beats the steam drill and then dies. While he didn’t react to his displacement with active political resistance, he was a powerful symbol to countless workers who did. Here’s Odetta singing it:

The story’s been reworked dozens of times by dozens of singers. My favorite is the Drive-By Truckers’ “The Day John Henry Died”:

You can read the lyrics here. For me, this part captures what makes the John Henry story, and the Luddites’ story, so sad:

It didn’t matter if he won
If he lived, or if he’d run
They changed the way his job was done
Labor costs were high
That new machine was cheap as hell
And only John would work as well
So they left him laying where he fell
The day John Henry died.

The Luddites couldn’t possibly turn back time or get rid of the new machines. The British economy was changing and growing so rapidly that it was no longer practical for farming and textiles to be done the way they had been; more needed to be produced faster and cheaper to support the growing population, and specifically the growing urban population.

Technological progress can’t be stopped or held back just because it changes the economy. Machines make our lives easier in so many ways. Why should someone have to weave cloth or drill steam by hand when a machine can do it? Why should someone have to spend their life in a factory when their job can be done by a computer?

But that doesn’t excuse the employers who leveraged new technologies to erode the established rights and wages of workers, or who exploited newly created groups of workers. And when technological advances happen without any provision for what’s going to happen to the people whose jobs are being replaced (or paid significantly less), you can’t blame those people for being angry.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes

Hey all! Revisions are BENDING TO MY WILL! MWAHAHAHAHA!

Okay um. I think all the oxygen from my brain is gone because of too much revisions (I just typed “brain from my oxygen”) so I will be brief! Actually brief, not like Friar Lawrence or Polonius when they say that (Shakespeare REALLY liked that joke: “I will be brief” followed by a million lines).

My GSRWA and blogging friend Cecilia Grant (her blog is awesome, you guys) just did an amazing and a half interview over at Romance Writers on the Journey. It’s sooo good. Although I feel that it’s very unfair to post an interview like this when your book is NOT AVAILABLE YET. Here is the description of her first book:

“When a pretty young widow enlists his help in conceiving a fraudulent heir, Christopher Mirkwood knows exactly what to expect: pleasure and more pleasure, and the chance to bestow the sensual awakening of which any such widow must necessarily stand in need. What better diversion from the tedium of a parentally mandated rural exile?

Awakening. Really. Martha Russell is wide awake, thank you, and has more important matters on her mind. Armed with principle, fortitude, and a bone-deep certainty of her own righteousness on all occasions, she’ll do whatever she must to keep her estate, and housemaids, out of her brother-in-law’s hands — even if she must do it with a wastrel who can’t get it through his pleasure-addled head that their arrangement is strictly business.

They need a month of illicit encounters. They’ll be lucky if they make it through a week. But if they can keep from throttling each other, they might find that even the most unromantic of bargains can turn into more than either one bargained for.”

How awesome does that sound! Prickly women with an over-developed sense of responsibility are my FAVORITE. And then the next book which is EVEN FARTHER AWAY sounds, if possible, EVEN MORE EXCITING:

“Martha’s brother’s story: Sworn to provide for a fallen comrade’s widow and child, Waterloo veteran Will Blackshear ventures into the gaming clubs of London in pursuit of quick cash – only to run afoul of a stone-cold cardsharp who’s staked out the territory as her own.

Lydia Slaughter is everything Will doesn’t need: ruthless, untrustworthy, and another man’s mistress. When she proposes a truce, and a tactical alliance, the resulting partnership could make his fortune… or ignite a passion that will leave them both in ruins.”

::drools:: Apparently Lydia is even a mathematician! Glamorous professional gamblers who are secretly math geeks make me SO HAPPY. (Have any of you read The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley?)

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

“My characters often start out as reactions to something I’ve read. For instance there was a period where I happened to read a whole string of romances featuring heroines who were downright Lady Chatterley-esque in their enraptured wonder at the male anatomy. It made me want to write the opposite: a heroine who’d look at an unclothed man and think, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ Then it followed that her hero needed to be someone whose whole self-concept was rooted in his appeal to women, because those two could give each other maximum grief.”

Okay, maybe I like that so much because I get a lot of my ideas the same way. But also, that’s hilarious. And THAT IS JUST ONE EXCERPT. IT IS A VERY LONG AND GREAT INTERVIEW. And then in the comments there’s a discussion about emotionally manipulative things that totally make us cry! Which is something I love talking about because I’m a sap. If you want to know how to make me cry this is your chance. ALSO she’s giving away a signed copy of In for a Penny AND of Amanda Forrester’s The Highlander’s Sword (which I hear is a FABULOUS book and has been getting wonderful reviews even though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet) so this is your chance for those too.

…Okay that wasn’t that brief was it? But most of it was excerpts. Oh God I shouldn’t be allowed to make blog posts when I have done about ten hours of revision in a day. Whatever! Go! Read!

I don’t do anything so mean, I don’t even sell apples!

My blog tour starts today! You can read my post about classism in Regency England over at History Hoydens. Here’s the opening:

When I started writing In for a Penny, about a rich brewer’s daughter who marries an impoverished earl, I realized I was going to have to do some research to figure out how people in the Regency thought about class. I had general ideas, obviously, but if I was going to write about my heroine from the point of view of my antagonist, the snobby poacher-hating Tory Sir Jasper, or write about my heroine meeting the hero’s newly-middle-class tenant farmers, I needed to understand more.

I quickly discovered that there were endless gradations, just as there are today:

1. A biography of Hannah More tells this story: the Duchess of Gloucester “desired one of her ladies to stop an orange-woman and ask her if she ever sold ballads. ‘No indeed,’ said the woman, ‘I don’t do anything so mean, I don’t even sell apples!’”

And I’m giving away a signed copy of my book in the comments, too. Check it out!

"Maybe they didn’t have black people back then."

It’s International Blog Against Racism Week, and it FINALLY motivated me to do something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time: research people of color in my era and setting of choice, Regency England.

I’ve written three manuscripts and I’m starting a fourth, and guess what? I haven’t written a single black character, or Indian character, or Egyptian character, or even a Jewish character (and I’m Jewish myself). I haven’t written a single character who isn’t white and Christian. Not even a minor character or an extra in a crowd scene, unless you count having my heroine bank with Rothschild that one time.

Why is that? Well, the most obvious, easy answer is that the minority populations of England weren’t as large during the early nineteenth century as they are today. Many of the big waves of immigration from different areas of the Empire hadn’t happened yet. And that’s true. But I think there are three factors that are far more important than that one:

1) My default is white. I wish this wasn’t true, but it is. If I have to describe a random housemaid or the heroine’s friend from finishing school or a sailor on the docks or a doctor or a land agent or a waitress or any of the huge cast of supporting characters that are inevitably created for any novel, it doesn’t occur to me unless I consciously think about it that THEY COULD BE A PERSON OF COLOR.

Even Victorian Thackeray did better than that in his historical novels–just off the top of my head, there was an African page boy in History of Henry Esmond and a mixed-race student at Miss Pinkerton’s in Vanity Fair. (Of course, both of those portrayals were racist, but that’s hardly an excuse for my own whitewashing.) English society in 1815 was a lot more homogenous than it is now, but it was also a lot less homogenous than I’ve depicted it in my books.

Why do I say “supporting characters” up there? Because there’s no way I know enough about nineteenth-century non-white-British cultures to write a story from the point of view of someone from one of those cultures. No way at all. Which leads me to:

2) I don’t write characters of color because I don’t have the knowledge base to write historical characters of color well, to give them the detail and the verisimilitude and the voice and life that every character needs.

Research for writing historical novels is an on-going process; no matter how many books I’ve read or how much I think I know about the Regency, every time I sit down to write I realize there’s another gaping hole in my information. When is a cavalry officer allowed to wear his uniform off-duty? I asked myself a few days ago, and I had no idea. I know quite a lot about historical accounting and poaching and new farming methods in Norfolk thanks to In for a Penny, and right now I’m busy researching bluestockings and the internal workings of the Whig party for my next book, but when the time comes to write the next book I’ll have to do a whole new set of research.

Since ALL of my information about the time period is acquired from books and fellow research geeks, and I don’t have general knowledge based in life experience the way I do about the modern world, I know nothing about Regency communities of color because…

I’ve never researched Regency communities of color. Because I never really thought about it, and I can get away with never thinking about it.

3) Writing characters of color is scary, because if you do it wrong people might get upset. If you just don’t write them, it is hard for people to get upset at you, because you blend in with all the other books that give the impression that the entire world is white.

I’m not happy writing books set in the All-White World anymore. So:

Here are some awesome Regency-set books written by white people that include major characters of color, as inspiration and example:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. The character in question is the wonderful Stephen Black, an extremely competent butler who, to his great dismay, becomes the favorite friend of a cruel and capricious fairy ruler. Stephen is awesomely realized, and oh yeah, he saves England in the end.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series includes a variety of characters from different parts of the world (in particular, China and Africa).

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. This one is actually set in the US in the period leading up to the Revolutionary War, but it’s so great I included it anyway. It’s about a little boy who gradually realizes that he is a slave and that his entire upbringing is an experiment by Enlightenment philosophers and scientists to determine whether Africans are inferior to Europeans. It’s brilliant and inventive and the historical voice is amazing.

Here are the research books I just ordered:

Black London: Life Before Emancipation, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. “Alongside migrants from all over Europe, Georgian London supported a community of more than 10,000 blacks. Theirs is the story that Ms. Gerzina, who teaches at Vassar College, tells with great clarity.” – New York Times Book Review

Immigration, ethnicity, and racism in Britain: 1815-1945, by Panikos Panayi.

And here are the ones I put on my wishlist:

Black Experience and the Empire.
Black Writers in Britain: 1760-1890.
Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Yes, I’m a geek, I can’t help it! Too bad textbooks like this are so expensive.
Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History.

If anyone can recommend good Regency romances with characters of color and/or good research reading on the subject, please do!

And here are some blog posts that brought home to me the importance of creating a multicultural world in my stories. They’re about science fiction and fantasy because I read a lot of geeky blogs, but I think the principle is the same.

This one is about Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. I’ve always found it really, really difficult to describe or articulate how this invisibility feels, how it affects you and the way that you view and experience media. I remember someone posted a one page article or somesuch wherein all of the actors in STXI had just one little soundbyte type quotation about their character and their feelings about the original version. John Cho’s was him noting that his reaction to Sulu was essentially: “OMG AN ASIAN GUY IS ON TV.”

This one is a moving essay about the Earthsea trilogy and how it felt to the author to finally read a fantasy story with characters of color in it. Seriously, read this. I cried. But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story.

Musings on Race in Fantasy or: Why Ron Weasley isn’t Black. This poster rambles a bit, but he makes some points that resonated with me, as a white author. No writer would dream of suggesting that a black person couldn’t be beautiful, but our “generic” idea of beauty is pale and blonde, just like our “generic” idea of boyish charm is a freckly redhead and our “generic” idea of a wise man is a white guy with a long beard and a pointed nose.

I want to change, and I’m going to try. I know I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes, but I think that’s better than staying where I am, and hopefully, when I do mess up, I’ll be able to apologize, think about it, and do better next time.