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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 July 2008

On the Road

Last week, I had to get three characters from Calcutta to Hyderabad during the end of monsoon season in 1804. After dealing for so long with Britain and France, a much smaller geographical area, the sheer amount of time involved in traveling across India—without airplane, train, or automobile—was mind-boggling. My characters had the option of taking the overland route, riding elephant-back along the foothills of the Eastern Ghats, a journey measured in months rather than days, or taking their chances sailing down the coast to Masulipatam, the nearest port city, and then moving inland from there. This speedy option was bound, with good weather, to take them over two weeks. It makes the trip from London to Bath-- or even London to Gretna Greene--seem pretty short, no?

Even more mind-boggling than the length of these journeys was the size of the retinues involved. Maria Graham, who traveled through India in 1809, described “a small party on a tour to Poonah” as consisting of “one lady, two gentlemen, and three children… but our attendants are near two hundred.” Maria Graham’s was a modest entourage. When Lady Henrietta Clive set out from Madras to Mysore in March of 1800, she took with her two teenage daughters, their governess, their pianoforte, and seven hundred and fifty servants (some of whom were employed specifically to carry the pianoforte), in short, seven hundred and fifty servants for four women. Likewise, when Edward Strachey and Mountstuart Elphinstone made their way to Pune in 1801, they took with them roughly two hundred servants, a detachment of sepoys, and eight elephants, one of which was designated for the sole purpose of carrying their library, which included, among other eclectic choices, works by Homer, Herodotus, Beowulf, Dryden, Boswell, and Thomas Jefferson. One assumes they didn’t play the pianoforte.


As Graham (a bit sheepishly) explains it in her journal, “we are obliged to carry tents, furniture, cooking utensils, and food, so that our train cannot consist of fewer persons”. Among the necessaries of life, Graham lists “coolies to carry our baggage, lascars to attend to and pitch our tents, servants to dress our food, others to take care of the horse and the beasts of burthen, and hamauls for our palanquins”. The multiplication of attendants begins to make a sort of sense. If everything must be transported by beast, one needs servants to care for the beasts, which then means that one needs more beasts and more bearers and bearers for the bearers. It was, essentially, an entire household in motion.

Can you imagine traveling with seven hundred and fifty people and a comparable number of animals? Or taking a brief sight-seeing trip—with two hundred servants?

16 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wow, Lauren! What a fascinating post your research yielded! I've read about royal progresses -- Henry VIII or Elizabeth I travelling across their tiny island with hundreds in tow and as you say an entire household in motion, but the ratio of [haute ton] travelers to servants that you describe is staggering. Hundreds of servants for just four women (and the way you have delineated the separate types of servants with their particular set of responsibilities is an education in itself).

... and I look at moms on the Columbus Avenue bus struggling to juggle a stroller, a toddler, a huge diaper bag, and a large bag for Cheerios and other snacks and wonder how they manage it alone.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

It made me think of early modern royal progresses, too, Amanda-- and one of the things I found so interesting was that these huge retinues weren't for monarchs or great nobles, but (except for the Clives) for pretty ordinary ladies and gentlemen.

Great point about the Columbus Avenue moms. I was having a similar discussion with a friend of mine yesterday (she was complaining about having to come home from her full time employment and expected to cook, clean, refill toilet paper rolls, and make sure the fridge is stocked), about how our modern world collapses all sorts of job descriptions into, well, just us.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Yup, that's definitely the drill for most of us, Lauren!

Yet in some places, at least 30, 40, 50 years ago, that template of vast retinues for small families still existed.

I have middle-class friends (all born here in NY) whose father and uncles and aunts were raised in the Philippines and that older generation had many servants (they came cheap there in the 2nd half of the 20th century, evidently). One aunt had a servant whose sole responsibility was to answer her phone for her. Not a receptionist in an office situation -- it was more like the aunt was lounging on the sofa and the phone rang and it was this woman's job to run and grab the receiver. This lady had a number of staffers, each of whom had a narrowly defined responsibility.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Ooooooooo, great post. You're really making me want to get back to my "Morocco WIP" which has been shoved to the back burner . . .

I love the idea of traveling this way. It just sounds like a wonderful experience (though I guess that's because it would be CHOICE, not a requirement, LOL!).

2:02 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Oooh, what's the Morocco WIP, Kalen?

2:43 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

It is amazing bit of information -- thanks Lauren -- it reminds me that to travel alone in England in the Regency was not the norm -- something I lose sight of too often.

Are we allowed to be impressed that four people gave employment to over 500. And do you think we have seen the last of servants? I wonder if it may not make a comeback along with extended families living together.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I loved this post, Lauren. A sense of scale is something we always need to be reminded of -- and even back in Europe, the cost of labor was so much less than the cost of so much else. That's why we ooh and aah over the beautiful handmade Regency clothing that still survives.

I just (guiltily) checked the text of The Slightest Provocation, to see if I said "wagon" or "wagons" to describe the Penley family's servants, following the carriages, when the family did their annual London to the country move. Sighing with relief -- I said "wagons."

While as for servants nowadays, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild's The Second Shift says that lots of 2-income upscale families have begun to have household staffs (albeit not live-in) again. And in New York (perhaps more on the upper east side) there are plenty of darkish women with lightish kids (or old people) in tow -- sending money home to their own kids in Jamaica, Kenya, the Dominican Republic... I know, because some of these women made life so very much easier for my family during my mother-in-law's 8 years (she died, very peacefully, just recently, in the beginnings of the advanced stage of Alzheimers).

3:27 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, there is in fact a geographical hierarchy of nannies on the upper east side (my sister is a resident, so I'm privy to all the playground chatter, although her kids are past that now, at ages 9 and 12). I suppose "plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose" because on the face of it, skin tone plays a major factor, as we go from the Irish nannies to the lighter skinned women from all over the world, to the darker skinned international women, and finally to darker skinned American-born women. I am still slack-jawed from hearing about this (and that was years ago). This unwritten hierarchy made my skin crawl then, and still does.

I have no kids, but I hate housework -- still, even if I could afford someone to clean the apartment, no matter her country of origin (and I have hired people in the past), I'm not fully comfortable with the "servant/mistress-of-the-house" relationship.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Well, let's see: my ladies-in-waiting, my seamstress, my laundress, my cook and his staff, a dozen men at arms, my grooms and squires, their grooms and squires, servants for the pack animals, my majordomo to announce the inns/abbeys/castles on the way my arrival in advance, my travel marshal to find the way, my dogwarders, my falconer, my first hunter and his staff, that stupic husband I was obliged to marry (just make sure he stays at the end of the train), the troubadour, his apprentice to carry the harp, my lover, his men at arms and squires, his falconer, that jouglers we picked up, his wife, the two pilgrims who pray for us, my chaplain (whom we have to keep away from my lover), my scribe, my rentmaster to deal with financial transactions, my foster daughter, her duenna, her dancing teacher, her groom ....

Too bad servant's wages have risen so much or traveling could be a lot more fun. *grin*

6:15 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wow--I'm always aware that large households and ever-present servants make it a challenge to get characters alone, but this gives a whole new meaning to the problem :-).

I always find the logistics of travel challenging when writing. Despite the fact that I know roughly how fast a carriage can travel, I have to stop and calculate distances, modes of travel, where they can change horses, and who would have to go on the journey (this is where it's a huge help to write about married couples because at least one can dispense with chaperones). In "Secrets of a Lady," Charles's aunt was originally going to live in Bath, until I realized the journey there and back would take too long and slow the book down. So I moved it to Brighton.

9:18 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

:shudder: that's why I stick to the age of the automobile and ocean liner. I personally detest long journeys, so I couldn't even bear the thought of reading about one, let alone writing one--unless the characters meet with adventure and danger during their progress. But just straight-through, get from point A to point B? The height of boredom.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Tracy, it's easier to move Roman armies around than a Regency lady with entourage, it seems. :) It's amazing how organised those Romans were and what distances they managed to cover if their officers knew what they were doing (in case of commissioned officers that was not always the case, and Varus certainly mucked up).

5:08 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The "Morocco WIP" is a love triangle travel story set in 18th century N. Africa (there was a huge earthquake and I can just *see* the Road to Zanzibar (a la Bob Hope) potential of it all. I got the basic idea for it, but I've been busy with other stuff . . . plus, I don’t really write comedy per se, so I need to tweak the whole idea into something a bit more my line (aka replace jokes with sex, LOL!).

Somehow this whole discussion reminds me of the great scene in Heyer’s Arabella where the hero is teasing his grandmother about traveling with hordes of servants, three carriages, her own sheets and plate, etc. and she responds with something like, “I always have to bring my own sheets.”

7:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It's the time and space continua that build a mimetic world, I think...

And in response to Amanda's comments about the color-coded hierarchy of hired help in NY:

Glad to have lived in blessed innocence of this. The women who took care of my mother-in-law not only loved her (they came to her funeral, and, as I knew they would, spent a lot of time gazing at her body in the coffin) -- they liked and respected each other across national and color lines. I remember once calling and getting no answer. The reason, one of them later told me, was that they were avoiding check-up calls from the agency, because "they only gave Jackie two weeks off after her surgery, which isn't right you know, so Carmen substituted for her some days, which meant that I had to step in for Carmen... etc etc." I was glad that they were able to make the work as humane as they could for themselves and each other, not to speak of for us.

Most such stories are clearly are not so benign. But in any case I think upstairs-downstairs relationships can give a historical novel more depth. I've tried it in two of mine, and for those of you who are going to RWA National, I want to recommend my friend Janet Mullany's workshop on servants in historical fiction, Saturday Aug 2 at 12:45 (I'll be introducing).

7:57 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Kalen, gods yes, I forgot those in my list: my master of the household, servants to clean the plate, maid servants to clean the sheets, my master of the wardrobe (I already meantioned the seamstress) ...

8:32 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

here's the list of King Edward II's baggage train from 1312.

He liked pretty stuff. ;)

8:41 AM  

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