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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 February 2008

Follow that Shallop!

The hardest things to recapture in writing historical fiction are often the ones we take the most for granted in our daily lives. The presence of servants, for example. When even minor households had at least a servant or two (and by minor, we’re talking very minor here) and major households had a few dozen, you have a very different view of privacy than that we hold in our modern world where the live-in servant is more the anomaly than the norm.

But what I had on mind today was another commonplace that isn’t at all commonplace for us: the difference in modes of transportation. I’m not just talking about horses and carriages in place of automobiles, although goodness only knows that makes a great difference in terms of the look, smell, and sound of a scene (not to mention that you would have more ubiquitous servants perched at places where one would never have extraneous characters perched on a car), but the use of water as a major means of conveying people both within and between cities.

Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Thames was a major artery not just for commerce but for casual travel, both within and without London. There’s a reason so many great houses, both within London and on the Thames, have water stairs, leading down to the river. It was the equivalent of going down to one’s garage. For those without a great house, there were the public stairs, scattered all over the city, where you could hop aboard an open boat for a cheap ride across the river.

Not only were boats faster, they were safer. While the river did have its own brigands, one was generally in less danger from waterborne thieves than the footpads and highwaymen who stalked the streets and high roads. (As an interesting side note, the first police force in London was not Peel’s Metropolitan Police but a special Thames River force formed thirty-one years earlier, in 1798. While this started as a private endeavor, it was transformed into a public agency by the Marine Police Bill of 1800).

A whole vocabulary developed around the different types of transport on the river. For a few pence, you could take a sculler, the smallest of the lot, manned by one oarsman. For a bit more, you could have a place on one of the wherries, which had two boatmen and seated five. If you were being really grand, you could sail down the river in a shallop, a barge rowed by six to eight rowers with a canopied cabin—or tilt, as it was called—either in the middle or towards one end.

It wasn’t just London, of course, that relied on river transport. In Paris, you can still see the water stairs leading down to the Thames, just as, in the American South, plantations often featured river entrances, where guests could sail in and dock rather than forcing their way down uncertain roads. Even my own native Manhattan boasts its water stairs; fewer than a hundred years ago, Rosario Candela designed 1 East End Avenue to include a set of marble stairs leading down to a dock for the yachts of the tenants. It’s a notion any number Georgian nobleman would have taken for granted.

Having my characters travel by boat in preference to carriage is one of those small choices by which I remind myself how different their world could be.

Which elements of daily life in the past do you find most surprising or alien?

21 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Lauren! I found myself surprised by the fact that Penn Station didn't exist until the 20th Century. I completely forgot that in the US there many, many different railroad companies (you would think I would have remembered this this since I've read many books about the Vanderbilts). the Pennsylvania Railroad only went as far as Jersey City. In order to get to New York from Philadelphia by train, after you ended up in Jersey City, you had to take the ferry across. Imagine my horror realizing that my poor heroine's train journey wasn't a simple matter of going from point A to point B!

6:23 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

The complete classism in England. We all know it exists, that's not the point. I think after watching "Upstairs, Downstairs" a couple of years ago, I was shocked to see how easily people fall into that sort of thought. The idea was that the "upstairs" family, a typical modern middle class family, acted the part of the landed aristocracy in the early 20th C.

By the end of the series, the wife was absolutely distraught at the idea that she would have to comb her own hair and put on her own clothes again. And she was a doctor! Both the husband and wife lost complete contact with their young son while there as well, happily leaving him to the nanny who was neither upstairs nor downstairs. I just found the whole premise alien and fascinating.

P.S. I'm looking forward to the next installment of the Pink Carnation series, Lauren. You're my shining example of a woman who can get a professional degree and still wrangle the time to write novels.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren! I love the Vaughn's-barge-on-the-Thames sequence in "Crimson Rose"--it's one of those great details that really brings the era to life. I'm thinking I haven't used water travel round London enough, though I have used the stairs and river terraces and had characters sail up the Thames to London from the coast. I too find the lack of privacy very alien (and sometimes distinctly inconvenient to a novelist trying to orchestra political or romantic intrigue). And I'm constantly having to remind myself to think about illumination when my characters go into a room. Is there enough sunlight? Are there candles or lamps? Do they have a tinderbox or other way to light the candles or lamps? On the plus side, lighting candles or lighting and turning up a lamp can make for great business during a scene.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

As always, an entertaining and informative post, Lauren.

I couldn't help thinking, having recently been admonished to explore more commercial subjects for my historical fiction, whether many readers know the difference between a shallop and a scallop.

But god I love being a hoyden and a geek!

I echo the items and issues already listed; and having just pre-laundered a new pair of jeans with the push of a couple of buttons while writing an article for a period periodical, I still am stymied by the amount of time and manpower (or most often womanpower) it took to do the washing and ironing for a household. Cleaning anything then was a production number worthy of Busby Berkeley.

I think the classism is something middle class Americans do have a hard time wrapping our brains around. I've never even been comfortable having a cleaning lady because I hate the idea of someone being my servant, even though I deplore housework and the princess in me is sure I was created for a higher purpose. :)

11:30 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I wonder if that's more of a 20th and 21st century attitude. Even a middle class family would have had a girl who helped out around the house, probably Irish named Bridget, or they called her Bridget even if that wasn't her name.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I also found the way the Old New York families tried to keep the newer wealthier families out was very interesting, considering America is supposed to be a classless society. Mrs. Astor, Ward McAllister and the 400, who were considered the creme de la creme of New York society. The way they tried to ape the English aristocracy to the point of having their servants dressed in elaborate livery.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Tracy, lighting is my nemesis! I'd say that's been my single biggest problem in staging so many scenes, trying to figure out how on earth my characters can see what's going on (which may mean that I just need to have fewer nighttime scenes-- but for the some reason, my characters always seem to be at their perkiest in the nighttime hours). A friend of mine who's an early American history professor had to take me through the steps of using a flint and tinder, because I was completely stymied as to how to create fire without matches, but I still do a lot of randomly already lit candles sitting conveniently to hand. I always think of that bit from Pepys' diaries where his fire goes out and he needs to get the watchman (it is the watchman, isn't it?) to light his candle. Another thing we just don't have to deal with!

By the way, BRILLIANT post yesterday!

1:22 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, the laundry thing just amazes me, too (especially considering how laundry piles up even with amazing modern things like washing machines). You look at those pictures from the Regency, with all those immaculate white muslin gowns, and can't help but think of all the hours of back-breaking toil that went into keeping them that way-- especially considering the mud, food, and, in London, coal smoke, that must have gotten all over them. I was explaining to a friend recently that wearing white was a social statement-- it showed you could afford impractical clothing and the people to launder.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Elizabeth, that's one of the things I find most interesting about New York, too (especially having grown up in it!), how malleable "Old New York" can be as a definition. When you think about it, there was a time when the Astors were upstarts themselves, snubbed by the old Dutch families. Have you read that Louis Auchincloss book that came out two years ago? Drat, I don't remember the name, but it traced a New York family from its early 19th century Scottish mercantile beginnings through modern prep school days-- it was a very well drawn exposition on the unintentional rise of a family mostly by dint of just being here early.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thank you, Belinda! That's a good point not only about social roles but about child-rearing as well. Another thing that I've always found intriguing is the way these social norms imprint themselves on the landscape in tangible ways. So when you visit nineteenth century homes, the nursery is often set on a different floor from the main rooms, with a whole suite of rooms devoted to child-rearing out of sight and out of mind. Since I have New York on the mind, thanks to Elizabeth's comments, it's the same way that in pre-war apartments in the city, you always have little maids' rooms off the kitchen, whereas in post war apartments you don't, reflecting a move from a society where even middle class families would have live-in staff, to a society where that was no longer the case.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It's funny you should mention the maid's room off the kitchen in pre-war apartments, because I actually have a room like that right off my kitchen in my apartment! It was actually my nursery when I was born.

I once went to visit the Vanderbilt estate in Hyde Park, and then we went to see FDR's estate. It's interesting how over the top and ostentatious the Vanderbilt mansion is compared to the almost middle class hominess of FDR's.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Although the 2-bedroom pre-war Bronx apartment I grew up in did not have the little maid's room, my grandmother's Upper West Side apartment to which she moved in 1941 when the building was brand new, did have that little room which our family always called "the little room." Creative, huh? It's interesting because the Riverdale neighborhood was always middle and upper middle income, whereas the area where my grandmother lived was dicey all the way until the mass gentrification of the 1970s. I remember that as a little girl I was afraid to stay overnight there. At the time, there were tenements right across the street, and it was just a stone's throw from the housing projects where "West Side Story" was supposed to take place.

"The little room" had several incarnations; it was my father's bedroom, a room where my aunt's college friends crashed, ditto for my first cousins. When I moved in with my grandmother after college, it was sort of an all purpose room with a desk, a daybed, and a giant refrigerator-sized freezer in which my grandmother stored, among other items, Nestle Crunch bars, because she loved them frozen. When she moved to a nursing home and I lived there with my first husband, he turned the maid's room into a music room. When we divorced, I turned it into a library, and then into a second home office.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

love the travel details, Lauren. And btw the ancient Greeks always traveled by water rather than land when they could, not just to the islands but around the peninsula, because if you think the roads in Georgian England were bad...

As an erotic writer, I had to get my mind around different notions of privacy (which my inner ear now hears with a short i, I notice) and what it took to get the clothes off someone (thanks, Kalen!). I probably mess up about light sources, and thank god there were pencils in the regency (weren't there?) when my characters need to write something down quickly.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, I love your story of the transformations of the "little room"! I see it in my head as an illustrated children's book, with the room changing clothes over the years, but always being the same little room underneath.

Our little room has always just been a den, which is far less interesting. But one little pre-war feature in my parents' apartment that I've always loved is the buzzer set into the dining room floor on the hostess' side at the foot of the table-- the latest in mod cons from the turn of the century, I imagine! That way, rather than having to ring a bell for the next course, the hostess could just put her foot down discretely under the table and buzz. It was disconnected ages ago, of course.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Privacy does sound so much better with the short "i", Pam!

4:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Lauren, I think night time scenes are essential to intrigue ("Crimson Rose"==which I am having to force myself to put down so I can get Other Things done--has some wonderful ones). And I find I have day time issues with lighting too, especially since I tend to have books set in stormy winter months. It pretty hard to see to read in the middle of a winter day (as I know from days when my power goes out). At what point do they need a candle or a lamp.

So glad you enjoyed the post yesterday--thanks for the nice words!

5:30 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, my parents and I visited the Vanderbilt estate and Hyde Park on the same day and had similar thoughts about the contrast between the two.

Amanda, I love the story about the little room.

Where the nursery is situated is fascinating and says a lot about family dynamics. At one of the Scottish castles I visited while researching "Beneath a Silent Moon," the nursery was right above the duchess's rooms, with a staircase between the two.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

In our apartment, we still have the dumbwaiter that was used to bring up food and I guess groceries. It's been blocked up since before I was born, but it used to always give me the creeps, thinking about the possibility of someone using it to get into people's apartments to rob them. I used to imagine that I could hear the ropes moving up and down, and the creaking sound.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, I totally adore the idea of "the little room" transformation story as a children's book. What a pure NY story -- and a great metaphor for life. Somehow, as I was writing its history I was subconsciously headed to where you ended up because once I read your comment, I thought "of course!" Know any illustrators?

The button! How wonderful. And oh-so-discreet. Since my sister lives more or less in your area in a pre-war co-op, I must check under her dining room table! My mother's mother, who often had a cook or at least a lady who did some of the cooking and the serving, used to actually tinkle a little bell at big sit-down dinner parties. But in a 2-bedroom Upper East Side apartment where the dining gallery is really an extension of the living room, it can get a little, well ...

I adored her but I think she would have been a Ralph Lauren Victorian -- a desperate attempt of an outsider, even though her family was all born in America, to participate in WASP upward mobility.

5:30 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post. And a wonderful string of comments! My parents' big old Craftsman house here in CA has a large maid's quarters off the kitchen (complete with its own bathroom!). We use it as a family room. There's even a buzzer in dining room floor that my dad disconnected to stop my sibs from playing with it. LOL!

I think people already hit on the strangest aspect of time-shifting for me: the interpersonal relationships between people and their servants. Whenever I'm in doubt I watch Gosford Park, which I know is early 20th century, but the relationships and expectations between the classes seems to be fairly calcified.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:42 AM  

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