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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 January 2007

Pet Peeves of the Modern Regency

by Doreen DeSalvo

I've learned a lot about history from reading fiction. I enjoy soaking upinteresting details about the stewardship of a great estate (Mary JoPutney's The Rake) and how chocolate was made (Laura Kinsale gives alovingly detailed account from her chocoholic hero in Flowers from the Storm). Historical novels give me a picture of what it was like to livein aonther time.

I love history so much that it drives me crazy when basic details are wrong. It's not necessarily the authors' fault -- some of us have read the same misconceptions so many times, in so many novels, we accept them as fact.I've been pressing Kalen to address this topic, but it's probably time to tackle it myself.

MYTH #1: "OH, MY VIRGIN EYES"
No doubt about it, Queen Victoria brought an air of gentility and sexual repression to English society. But the Regency was considerably bawdier andmore open. The rake flourished right alongside the debutante. Any young ladyreared on a country estate would have seen the breeding of animals and put two and two together. Jane Austen's heroines were well aware of what it meant when a young lady "ruined herself." Some of them, such as Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, thoroughly enjoyed their "ruination," and felt not a whit of guilt about what her actions cost their family. A Regency lady might have maintained her virginity until marriage, but she probably didn't go to her marriage bed ignorant of the mechanics of sex.

MYTH #2: "DO CALL ME CATHERINE."
Although women were relatively knowledgeable about the facts of life, Regency gentlepersons were sticklers for proper etiquette. No one with any breeding would presume to call a person by first name unless they were extremely close friends of long standing. Friends were addressed by title or as "Mr. Danvers" and "Miss Collingswood." Only among family members (including cousins) were first names were more acceptable -- although it's worth noting that the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice always refer to their cousin, the heir presumptive, as "Mr. Collins." According to some sources, the majority of married persons refer to their spouses as "Mister" and "Missus" even in private. That probably sounds cold to most of us, and might not fly in a current historical romance, but it's worth noting that people in general were much more formal in their address than modern Americans.

MYTH #3: "I'M A NOBLEMAN AND I MOONLIGHT AS A SPY."
I'm always amazed to read stories where titled men roam around the Continent as royal spies, or even more outrageously, join the army. Titled men were not jobless -- their jobs were running their estates, and most men too the care of the family lands very seriously. Rent from the land was usually his only source of income, and he had many dependents too support (unless, ofcourse, he was a complete wastrel). Overseeing the management of crops and cattle, necessary land improvements, repairs on the main house and cottages, dealing with tenant farmers, and making sure the income was properly reported added up to a full time job. There wasn't much time left over to gallivant around the country solving crimes for the Crown.

MYTH #4: LADIES OF LEISURE.
The lady of a large house was responsible for managing the servants, the household itself, and the health and social welfare of the tenants. She also made sure the servants weren't stealing from the household, and she directed the planning of meals and parties with the staff. She also kept abreast ofthe health and social welfare of the tenants, making sure the sick and elderly were properly cared for.

MYTH #5: THE SEASON WAS IN SPRING.
The Season was tied to the sessions of Parliament, not to the seasons of the year. Although many members of the House of Lords left their country estates for London just after Christmastime, the real social Season didn't begin until the members of Parliament returned to Town from a brief Easter holiday -- bringing their marriageable daughters with them. This was typically in May.

MYTH #6: MORNING CALLS WERE IN THE MORNING.
No well-bred person would dream of visiting a friend, no matter how intimate, before 1:00 in the afternoon. If you were only passingly acquainted with a person, you made your call between 3:00 and 4:00; more intimacy allowed for calls between 4:00 and 5:00; and if you were a great personal friend, you could call between 5:00 and 6:00. Regardless of the time of day, all of these visits were referred to as "morning" calls.

MYTH #7: "I'LL BE AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN."
Except in the most unusual of circumstances, well-bred ladies could not get jobs. Virtually all Regency women were dependent upon a man for sustenance, be he father, husband, brother or distant relation. Women with no close male relatives often ended up as "poor relations" -- little more than unpaid servants in the homes of distant relations. Many Regency women were a blink away from prostitution. This sad fact is evidenced by the contemporary fiction of the day, including Austen: in Sense and Sensibility, theMajor reveals that when his parents discovered his attachment for a young, impoverished ward of his father's, they cast her out and she was forced to become a prostitute to survive.

MYTH #8: WHITE WEDDING DRESSES.
Until Queen Victoria made them popular, white wedding dresses were not derigueur for a lady's first marriage. Most Regency brides simply wore one of their favorite dresses, in any color she liked. Another interesting note is that until the late 1880s, weddings were required by law to take place inthe morning.

MYTH #9: ANYONE COULD GET A SPECIAL LICENSE.
Special Licenses could be obtained from only one source -- the archbishop ofCanterbury. Because the licenses were granted at the archbishop's discretion, they were only available to well-connected people. The expense was also prohibitive. In 1850, the reported cost for a special license wastwenty-eight guineas.

I'm by no means an expert when it comes to history, so I don't mean to sound like I have all the answers or that I always write an historically perfect book. But it does bother me when rather obvious facts about history are misrepresented.

What about you? Any pet historical peeves?

21 Comments:

Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I'd love to discuss more about when the Season truly began. My understanding (coming from an early Victorian view) is that members of Parliament returned after Christmas and the families started trickling in throughout late winter and spring. (Though I am thinking there would be no debuts until the big parties started in April or May.)

Also, I've heard yeas and nays about the Little Season and whether there really was such a thing. I'm assuming this was (named or not) the period of transition between January and April?

It just seems unlikely that ALL the wives, etc. would be content to sit at home until May if they had the opportunity for some socializing in town. Who wouldn't ditch their teenage daughter for a few weeks of fun before the whole world was focused on her? *wink*

What's everyone's take on this?

The mistake I notice all the time? Mourning. The Regency is not the era of Victoria. Even early Victorian is not the era of Victoria. ;-) The strictest ideas of mourning did not come into vogue until Victoria lost her husband and went into eternal widowhood.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Mistakes I notice? Glad to say I haven't noticed many lately.

Could be because I've become so selective about what I read. Also, I think historical romance authors are more careful than they were decades ago because the readers have come to expect historical accuracy.

What I do notice is when the period costume on the cover doesn't match the story. For example, a Viking story (according to the back cover blurb) with a woman on the front cover dressed in a Regency dress. Ugh. That just confuses me.

But truly, as authors we have NO CONTROL over cover art (at least most of us don't) and I would never hold the writer accountable! ;-)

9:50 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hi Victoria,

I'd like to learn more about the Little Season, too. Perhaps the weather made travel difficult for ladies during the winter months?

While there definitely were families in town during the winter session of Parliament, my understanding is that they returned to the country for Easter, then decended on Town with a vengeance for the quasi-official Season and the Marriage Mart.

I suspect that like most social constructs, there were no hard and fast rules to this kind of things. Families probably came to town whenever they liked, according to the opportunity and their inclinations. I'm sure there were many ladies who didn't care for Town, and chose to stay at home if they had no marriageable daughters to bring out. Or perhaps I'm thinking from my own perspective. Just the thought of attending all of those balls and routs exhausts me. You'll always find me in the kitchen at parties!

Best,
Doreen

10:07 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

I can't really comment on the Regency era Little Season and the Season, because what I do know is about the social Seasons of the late-Victorian era. During this time period (1870s+), the Little Season was approximately during September-December, during which Society weddings were held. Otherwise, everyone split their time in between hunting, house parties, and the Country Ball Season(--both Scotland and Ireland had their own Seasons too).

And Doreen--even into the turn of the century, there were aristocratic and gentry families who never went to Town for the Season, and remained country-folk.

As for my peeves? #1 and #7 and #8 really get my goat because they are things that crop up in the Victorian era, and it makes me leery of reading a lot of Regency romances--and even Victorian romances--due to most lacking the demarcation between Regency and Victorian(in all its stages) social values. Many end up reading like one big blob marking the setting as "Nineteenth Century" . It undermines the author's credibility when the historical reads as thought it could be set at anytime in the nineteenth century.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

My pet peeve is titles and forms of address. Even known authors get them wrong.

For example, an unmarried woman Jane Austen was called Lady Jane at times, and Lady Austen at other times in the story.

Elizabeth Bennett is called Miss Bennett only after her older sister Jane is married and has moved out of the house. Till then she is Miss Elizabeth.

Errors fall into many categories: aggregious, outrageous, unintensional, minor. It's the first two that cause dents in my wall. The other two are forgivable.

4:27 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great post, Doreen.

The errors that get my goat are the ones (like your moonlighting spy) that don't understand the structure of society and division of responsibility. I made one in TSP, by having a peer also be a magistrate. No, no, no! -- the division between local and national responsibility was very clear. I wept when I realized (too late) what a dumb error I'd made, though friends have pointed the same misconception in books by other, better known authors (I'll never tell which).

That said, I'm also not fond of portraying Lord Muchness of Mostexcellent Manor in a way that shows him working tirelessly on the behalf of the welfare of an army of servants and laborers -- as though the effort all went one way. Not a historical error so much as a self-indulgent fantasy, imo. Mr. Knightley always kept a sharp eye on the bottom line.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

HEY! I finally managed to get on the internet here in Morocco. Yea! No access in my room, but there is wifi in the busniness center.

Sooooooooooo many things bug me in historical romances. The corsetless heroine is a MAJOR pet peeve of mine. And I'm totally thrown out the book when costume details are wrong (like a line of buttons to the waist, or a woman admiring a man's behind when he's fully clothed!).

Oh, and while Queen Victoria may have cemented the fame of the white wedding dress, there are plenty of fashion plates showing them from the Regency period (and it's more than likely that a woman's best dress would have been white). If you all like I'll do a post about it when I get home.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thank you, Camilla, for confirming my suspicion that there were some people who simply didn't care to do the Season. Like most of history, there are exceptions to every social "rule."

The meshing of Victorian and Regency eras bothers me, too. Perhaps "the Little Season" is part of this meshing, since as you say, it was an acknowledged timeframe during Victorian times, but I haven't found any non-fiction references to the Little Season in the Regency era (not that I've made an exhaustive search). I wonder if authors have unintentionally lifted the Little Season from the Victorian era?

Some of these mistakes, I think, are a factor of authors having to write more quickly, without a lot of time to check facts. Some things are so basic, though...it takes less than a minute to find the proper form of address for any person in London society. No one in the Regency would make a mistake of such social magnitude. If it bothers us so much (and I agree with you, Keira, it's even more frustrating when it's inconsistent AND wrong), imagine how much it would have pained a person of the times.

The forms of address issue ties in to Pam's point about getting the social construct right. As Pam said in an earlier post, Regency society was obsessed with fashion, celebrities, and social stratification. In a world like that, they're going to take issues of precedence, etiquette and titles very seriously. If the characters behave in a way that shows they have no knowledge of the social constructs of their own time, it's a major rug pull out of the story world for me.

Kalen, please do post on the history of corsets. The corsetless heroine is one that bothers, me, too. I think that's another case where authors have soaked up erroneous ideas from other novels, where corsets are described as pinching and poking. I read a Regency not long ago where the heroine almost fainted because her stays were too tight (it wasn't realistically possible to lace a corset that tight until the metal gromet (SP?) was invented). It's like some authors have taken the corset tightening scene from Gone with the Wind and applied it to the Regency.

Best to all,
Doreen

12:55 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

My bugbear is more language-related. I don't like it when Regency characters sound like modern American teenagers. I don't care too much if a word wasn't in use until 1840 and the author uses it for her 1812 setting, it's more getting the right flavour that I look for. We'd quickly lose readers if we wrote exactly as they spoke then! I know this is a little pedantic of me so I'm trying to get over it:)

If I see that the author gets historical detail wrong, I sort of switch my expectations to just an entertaining fairytale rather than good historical fiction. I can overlook a lot for a great story! The danger is that these errors become part of the fictional Regency 'world' and readers think you're wrong when you get that detail right. Does that make sense?

1:32 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thanks for a great topic, Doreen!

I usually notice most the things I JUST researched, so right now I'm bothered by Victorian ideas of mourning being pushed too far into the past. In fact, I'm bracing myself for all the complaints I'm going to get about my second book. It's early-Victorian and the heroine is out at private gatherings less than a year after she is widowed. But the Victorian uber-mourning evolved over time, culminating with Albert's death and Queen Victoria's eternal grief. Regency mourning is very, very different. (And thanks to Kalen for helping me puzzle this out!)

So I have another question to pose. . . I have heard authors say they write Regency so they don't use contractions. And I've heard authors say "no such thing". What does everyone here think? Did contractions disappear during the Regency?

In case you guys can't tell, I love these discussions!!!!

2:53 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I should add, she's out and about and she's not even wearing black! *gasp!*

2:54 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

Another pet peeve? The "plump" heroine bemoaning her unfashionable figure! It wasn't until the 1920s, when the silhouette shifted away from the "mature" woman and to the young woman, that the slender and active figure became the ideal.

I just finished a romance set in the 1880s and sighed in agony when the heroine made complaints about her body, because the 1880s was the height of the bustle period when ladies with ample curves were the ideal (I have pictures of the popular "improvers" for the bust, hips and bum and have seen pictures of newspaper ads for pills and contraptions promising women ample curves from the late 19th century).

And Doreen, I personally think that most of what we think is "Regency" is really Victorian. Think about it--even the Silver Fork novels were written by the early Victorians, and I know that Thackeray's Vanity Fair contains a number of anachronisms about the era. I do wonder whether we'll ever know what the Regency era was truly like.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Anachronisms in Vanity Fair? Please tell more, Camilla.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Christine, I do know what you mean about intonation and the "flavor" of speech being right. It's not so much the language itself as the cadence and manner of speaking.

Oh yes, Camilla, the standards of beauty were prett much opposite what we expect today, weren't they? I often wonder why that is. Was there a celebrity or other famous woman with a more Rubenesque figure? And please do tell more about the anachronisms in Vanity Fair!

When it comes to knowing what the Regency was like, we do have a limited number of sources to draw on. As I'm fond of saying, even historians argue about history. Perhaps the most important aspect of writing historical fiction is that we make it believeable.

Doreen,
too lazy to spell check

1:11 AM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

I'm with Christine in that I can overlook a lot in favor of a great story. That said, what really bothers me the most is errors in forms of address--simply because it's SO easy to research. Lately I've read WAY too many historicals where a duchess (Anne, the Duchess of Exeter, for example) is addressed alternately as Lady Anne and Lady Exeter. Neither is correct, and even if she were lesser nobility than a duchess, the two STILL couldn't be used interchangeably.

As to contractions, I know that even historians disagree as to whether or not they were used in speech during the early 19th century. My own personal belief is that contractions have been around for a very long time (there's a lot of them in Shakespeare!), and that the fact that they weren't used in 19th century literature does NOT mean they weren't used in speech. The written word was far more formal than speech, and just because someone wrote without contractions doesn't mean they didn't speak with them.

I use them in my own writing--using the cadence and rhythm of the particular sentence as my guide.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous revmelinda said...

Hi all,
Loved this post--it summed up many of my pet peeves too. On Doreen's question about why "ample" figures were attractive, perhaps part of the answer lies in the notion of fertility and "the important parts" being bigger. I have also heard it said that any ideal in any society reflects what the wealthy are able to do. So--in a society where there's not enough food for everyone, "voluptuousness" communicates wealth and leisure. In a society where there's generally enough food for everyone, the thinner "social x-ray" figure communicates wealth and leisure (working out, the Country Club, etc.) It's the same, I think, with exposure to the sun. At one time, a deep suntan meant you worked outdoors and were of a lower social class, while a "delicate" complexion communicated that you could stay indoors for work or leisure. Nowadays, of course, suntans are popular because they connote leisure, outdoor sports, and vacations in warm places; those who are "fishy pale" like me must be working too hard at our desks. What do you think?

10:05 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Jane Austen's novels are full of contractions, so I don't see how anyone can say not to use them. I'll try and work up post on this!

4:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am terribly sorry but your Myth number 3 is WRONG. I would refer you to the Memoir of CG Lennox, fifth Duke of Richmond London: Chapman and Hall 1862 for primary source material. If you do look at the complete list of ADC around Wellington or his family as he called them, you will see that it includes several future dukes, sons of earls and other members of aristocracy of which the Duke of Richmond was but one. And you also might want to look at the regimental lists for the 10 and the 11 Hussars or any of the Guards regiments.
Dancing Into Battle - A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo by Nick Foulkes ISBN 0297 850784 which was recently published in the UK and is a very good read as well as being accurately researched.
I would humbly suggest you research the matter further before making blanket stements like the elder sons did not go into the Army. And Dukes did not serve under Wellington.
As a point of reference, aristocrats do not have jobs, they have occupations. The Army was and remains an acceptable occupation for all male members of the British aristocracy.

Sorry to be coming in so late on the subject but I just discovered the post.
FWIW

Michelle Styles

2:29 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Wow, this is fascinating! I don't know much, but I learned a lot today.

Btw, isn't May in Spring? ;-)

And spies, to this day, often work full-time jobs besides their spying. They even have to turn over their $200,000 salaries to the government in return for their paltry government pay. Some thanks for working two jobs, huh?

I agree; the Regency spy should be struggling to keep up with two jobs, not off gallivanting with only one!

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My biggest pet peeve is the younger brother who uses one of an older brother's lesser titles as a courtesy title--especially after the older brother has a son of his own. Doesn't happen. A younger brother would be an heir presumptive--i.e. he could be displaced in the line of inheritance if his older (title holding) brother had a son. Only the heir apparent was/is allowed to use one of his father's (or grandfather's, etc) lesser titles as a courtsey. An heir apparent cannot be displaced except by his own death.

10:10 PM  

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