History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 May 2011

Bridging History

How did we get from togas to tights? I remember, a very long time ago, sitting in Middle School history class, absolutely puzzled as to how we had gone from Ancient Rome to Medieval Europe. One minute, there were men in togas, saying “Ave!” and stabbing Caesar and the next thing I knew it was yokels in jerkins lifting a flagon at the local alehouse while Evil Prince John (I knew all about Prince John from “Robin Hood”) was being bullied by his barons and signing major charters.

In a word, huh? Sure, there might have been some under the table note-passing going on, but I didn’t think I’d missed that much. And while we were at it, how had we gotten from Egypt to Greece to Rome? Each of the eras we studied existed as an island in a sea of historical uncertainty. We hopped from one to the other without ever touching down in the middle.

Maybe that’s part of why historical transition fascinates me so much. How did we get from Georgian panniers to Empire bodices? From Prinny’s excesses to Victoria’s pruderies? From Edwardians to flappers?

The question this raises for me is: what happens to the people who are caught in the middle, who don’t yet know that they’re meant to be one or the other? Most of these names, of course, are labels applied retroactively, by historians, once the dust has settled: Georgian, Regency, Victorian. Even once that dust has settled, it remains unclear where the patterns lie. When I was in grad school, it was a running joke that everything was “long”. You had the Long Eighteenth Century, 1688-1815, which bumped up against the Long Nineteenth Century, which was reputed to run from 1789-1914.

So what was it? Did 1789 through 1815 belong to the eighteenth century or the nineteenth? Or ought that period to be considered something else entirely?
Most of my books have been set smack in the middle of that transitional period, the pinching place between the Long Eighteenth Century and the Long Nineteenth. (To be very specific, I’ve spent most of my time in 1803 and 1804.) I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain to people that despite the similarity in the dress code, 1803 is not the Regency; different rules and mores apply.

Nothing, however, brought home to me the long, slow shuffle from Georgian to Regency like reading Jane Austen’s letters. Relatively few of them remain (thanks to her sister Cassandra’s industrious epistolary destruction, we have only one hundred and sixty extant). They begin in the 1790s and go on through her illness in 1817. I read them one after the other as I was researching The Mischief of the Mistletoe, and was struck by the distinct change in tone from beginning to end. Some changes, of course, may be accounted for by the authoress’ own aging process. She’s a sprightly twenty-something in her earlier letters; ill and cranky in the later ones. But there is also the whiff of a changing zeitgeist, from a world in which a young Jane can write about being too hungover to hold her pen steadily to a far more restrained set of social norms. There’s a big gulf between 1796 and 1817.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I’ve been reading up recently on the Great War. I’d never really stopped to consider how Downton Abbey became the House of Elliot, how Edwardians gave way to the Bright Young Things. As opposed to the slow cultural shift I saw in Jane’s letters, this one does seem to have happened quite that rapidly. Certainly, there were precedents before World War I for the hard partying that gained traction after 1919—but the move to a new set of social mores is far more abrupt, caught beautifully by Juliet Nicolson in her book The Great Silence, which moves month by month through 1919 and 1920, showing a society in rapid transition.

Which historical shifts have caught your interest?

7 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love this post, Lauren and I wonder about similar questions all the time, especially as I get older.

The first thing I thought of when I read it was Virginia Woolf famously saying that "On or about December, 1914, human character changed." She was being whimsical about the date, of course, but not about what she felt about being part of Modernism -- which has also been a big deal to me, since I grew up caring about in-your-face, avant-garde art and the huge sense of progress in general that the 20th century started off with.

And then of course I thought about Bob Dylan saying -- much more famously -- something similar. Which captured a spirit that was pretty huge in my life too.

But nowadays I think more about the togas -- especially that astonishing hinge moment when the Roman Republic ended and Christianity began and Cleopatra was the last Ptolemy (descendants of Alexander the Great's 2nd in command) to rule Egypt.

Or even back to when cities and agriculture began. I guess because you get more farsighted at my age.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

My interest is in the last cultural/social shift you mentioned: 1900-1920. Because of this, I don't feel the change was so drastic, considering the number ideas and ferments which began in the Edwardian era (the Bloomsbury Group, social welfare, relaxing and questioning of gender roles and sexuality, women in the workforce, machine guns and submarines, etc etc). In fact, after WWI wound down, there was a concerted effort to revert to those "innocent" pre-War days, hence why hemlines remained around the ankle, hair remained long, and clothing remained somewhat constricting, until the mid-1920s, and why women were forced back into the home by returning veterans.

As such, when I approach my Edwardian characters, I like to push them into that maelstrom of confusing change, into that cusp of true modernism, because social and cultural progression goes hand in hand with a HEA, I feel. There's a reason Violet Grantham wears fashions from 1905-1907 when her granddaughters are wearing ankle-skimming skirts and simple clothing, and in the case of Sybil, harem pants.

Thankfully, many Edwardians published memoirs in the 1920s and 1930s, and I can almost live through the changes they witnessed over the course of their lifetime. And personally, changes are one of the reasons I love history, particularly when I discover things are not so simple as dates and timelines!

10:00 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, Evangeline! If you have any Edwardian memoirs to suggest, I'd be very grateful. I've been playing around in 1919-1920 recently, so I've been reading lots of war memoirs and bios, but I always think it's so important to have a sense of where people come from, the earlier influences that shape their assumptions and reactions.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

The shifts are what make it interesting. There’s a reason I set my books in the 1780s, just on the cusp of a big transition. Things are happening, and there’s a sense that ANYTHING might happen. The ground is already moving beneath their feet, even if they’re unaware of it . . .

And the transitions of other eras (esp those that go from MORE repressive to less) are always interesting and full of possibilities. But I’m clearly a romantic at heart. I just watched SOUTH RIDING on PBS and found the ending utterly depressing and totally unsatisfying. I was nothing short of pissed as the credits rolled.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, have you picked up a copy of The Edwardians by J.B. Priestly? It's a fabulous book and I know I saw a few copies recently at The Strand. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, I think published a memoir, as did Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan and Jennie Jerome Churchill.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren! I too love "transitional" periods. I think it's a large part of my fascination with the Regency/Napoleonic era. One of the things that really struck me in researching the Congress of Vienna was how while many of the politicians were trying to turn the clock back to the ancien régime, the mores and intrigues also have a very 18th century flavor. The 20s & 30s have always fascinated me as well. And I've always been intrigued by the shift from medieval to Renaissance - my honors thesis was on late 15th century aristocratic culture. The title was "In Honor Bound: the Twilight of the Chivalric Paradigm." Knightly abilities no longer mattered as much as the ability to read and write and negotiate yet people were still caught up in reading tales of chivalry.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Jackie Horne said...

Lauren:

For me, the 1820's are an intriguing transitional period, particularly in terms of the changing constructions of femininity and masculinity in England. It must have been so odd for young women to find themselves being asked to behave more conservatively, rather than less, than their grandmothers! At least they had the compensation of being able to point to their moral superiority over the poor males, although it seems a poor recompense for having to accept curtailment of many of the gains women (particularly women writers) gained during the 18th century...

And of course the political machinations leading to Catholic Emancipation and the first reform bill that were happening during this decade are fascinating, too, in terms of transitions. Not too many romance authors seem interested in this period, perhaps because it's in the no-man's land between Regency and Victorian. I've been telling people I'm writing a Regency historical romance, but I'm afraid a stickler will call me on it if she/he finds out it is set in 1822...

7:00 PM  

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