The history of mistletoe at Christmas

It’s the season for mistletoe, or at least so it would have been back in England during the 18th and 19th century. The little plant with its golden boughs, yellow-green oval leaves and sticky white berries had an important role to play in Christmas celebrations, forming the crucial part of the Kissing Bough or being hung in bunches in strategic places around the household.

Any woman standing under the tree could be asked for a kiss, and courted bad luck if she refused. In one version of the tradition, every kiss was paid for by plucking a berry from the hanging stems, and when the berries were gone, so were the kisses.

So how did a little parasite come to be a magical harbinger of romance?

There are a few stories; some from Norse tradition, some Greek, some from the druids of ancient Britain, and some with strong Christian traditions.

The plant that killed the favourite

In Norse mythology, one god was the favourite of all the others. Everyone loved Baldur. Everyone, that is, but Loki, the god of mischief. Frigga, Baldur’s mother, protected her beloved boy by travelling all the world, and asking everything that grew on land and under it to promise never to hurt Baldur.

As a result, Baldur became invulnerable to anything thrown or thrust at him, provided it was plant-based. Of course, poking Baldur with plant-based weapons became a favourite game, because boys are like that. But Frigga had forgotten one important fact.

Mistletoe doesn’t grow on land or under it. It grows on the branches of another plant — including, willow, oak, and apple trees. Loki made a dart from mistletoe wood and gave it to the blind god, Hoder, so he could join in the game. And Baldur died.

Everything in heaven and earth wept, and Frigga tried for three days to restore her son. In the end, her tears became the mistletoe berries, and Baldur woke from death. In her joy, Frigga made the mistletoe her sacred plant, and decreed that anyone standing under it would never come to harm, but would only be kissed.

Power over hell

In Greek myth, mistletoe had power even over hell. Two doves bought a golden bough of mistletoe to Aenas to light his way through the forest that blocked the way into Hades. When he showed the bough to the ferryman at the River Styx, he and the bough were instantly transported alive across the river.

The sign of peace

To the druids, mistletoe was very special. They believed it could heal just about anything. They cut it from oak trees with sickles of gold, and gathered it without letting it touch the ground. And they hung it in bunches in houses to keep away sickness and war, protect the household from sickness and ghosts, and bring happiness and fertility.

Anyone passing under mistletoe had to lay down their arms and desist from fighting until the next day, even in a forest. Even more so in a house, where guests would stand under the mistletoe to greet their hosts with a kiss of friendship.

Love conquers death

No wonder, with this history, the mistletoe was adopted by the new Christians of Northern Europe, who easily made the transition to seeing this plant of healing and peace as a symbol of Christ, who lay down his life to bring peace to the world, and who came alive out of death. Mistletoe became particularly associated with the birth of Christ, which was now being celebrated in midwinter, when mistletoe had been a traditional part of pre-Christian ceremonies.

Friendship kisses under the mistletoe translated nicely into the new Christian celebrations.

Kissing for luck

Exactly how kisses of peace became the romantic kisses we think of today, we can only guess. But the idea that mistletoe will bring prosperity and fertility might have something to do with it. Prosperity for a woman meant marriage, and by the sixteenth century, kissing under the mistletoe was wildly popular among the working classes.

By the nineteenth century, the custom had often been adopted above stairs as well as below, though not by all. Some regarded it as licentious and improper. But only the most rigid of moralists would refuse a kissing bough to the servants’ hall, even if his or her own daughters could safely pass through the family’s parlours safe in the knowledge that no errant white berry posed a risk to the sanctity of their fair lips. Poor girls.

A week today, I’m publishing the ebook version of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, a collection of my Christmas novellas and novelettes. The print version is already available. At 92,000 words, or 320 print pages, of stories about the magic of romance during the magic of Christmas. At $2.99 for the ebook, it represents a 40% discount over the cost of the individual books. And the print cost of $12.50 makes it a great stocking stuffer. Follow the link in the name above for blurb and buy links.

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The forts of the English coast

I love George Clarke’s Restoration Man television show, and was fascinated by a recent episode that showed here in New Zealand following two separate projects to restore a Martello tower. I’d heard of them, but had no idea of their history, and once I looked it up, I knew I’d found the exact object to fill a plot hole in The Realm of Silence.

Martello towers are small round forts built along the southern and eastern of England, with a few in Ireland and Scotland. They were based on towers built in Corsica to repel the Barbary Pirates. The British navy was very impressed when they were unable to overcome one at a place called Mortello Point, though it fell to a land assault.

The war with France

So in the late 18th and early 19th century, when invasion from France was a real threat, the government embarked on a plan to build the towers, each around 40 feet tall. They were garrisoned by 15 to 24 soldiers and an officer, with food and water, sleeping quarters, and a gun on a swivel to repel sea or land invaders.

They could be accessed only through a door some 16 feet above the ground, accessed by a ladder, and were designed to withstand heavy attack.

140 were built, but the invasion plans receded with the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar and had faded by 1812 [edited after JSMF2’s comment, below], and they never had to be put to their intended use.

 

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Edinburgh underground

This week’s Footnotes on Friday is a cry for help.

I’ve dropped one of my characters into trouble, and I need atmospheric detail and historic fact on the way to getting her out. Are any of you experts in Edinburgh’s underground?

Amy Cunningham, daughter of Susan Cunningham and granddaughter of Lord Henry Redepenning, has been kidnapped and is being held in the cellar of a house somewhere in Edinburgh. She finds that a pile of rubbish hides either a hole or a trapdoor that lets her into Edinburgh’s underground ways, where she has various adventures and experiences before being taken up by an amiable crowd of university students/apprentices/seamstresses or whatever I decide, and escorted to her family townhouse.

But which underground ways?

I’ve narrowed it down to the South Bridge Vaults or Mary King’s Close, both of which were available to me in 1812.

The Vaults are chambers formed in the arches of South Bridge, which was built in 1788. South Bridge was a shopping arcade that bridged a gully, and the 19 arches beneath it contained 120 rooms that quickly filled up with taverns, tradesmen’s workshops, and slum housing. All in the dark, and increasingly illicit and nasty.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the places in his 1878 book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes:

“…under dark arches and down dark stairs and alleys…the way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall. (There are) skulking jail-birds; unkempt, barefoot children; (an) old man, when I saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave him so preeminent an air of wretchedness.”

Mary King’s Close is a relict of a much earlier time. In a city enclosed by walls, it’s common for new buildings to be erected on top of old ones, the weight of centuries sinking the past with cellars containing what was once the street or even upper floors of a building. Legend has it that Mary King’s Close, which is under the City Chambers, was sealed up in the 1640’s to prevent still living plague victims from infecting the rest of the city. Another source I found says, more pragmatically, that the City Fathers of the time were worried about losing trade to the New Town so they:

decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. And they found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral, with just one small problem – the streets of houses already there. But rather than knocking them down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as foundations. Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting the Royal Mile were destroyed but further down the close whole houses were buried intact. [https://www.ontheluce.com/underground-edinburgh-mary-kings-close/]

People being people, many of the denizens refused to leave, and you could drop into the underground right up until the start of the twentieth century to have a wig made or to buy tobacco.

So which one? And what would it have seemed like to a gently-born if feisty 15-year-old Regency maiden? Can anyone help? Drop me a message on my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.

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Thank you to the historians

Look what arrived in my mail box yesterday! 905 pages of detailed research pertinent to my current work in progress, The Realm of Silence.

Pertinent in the tiniest of ways. I am, after all, writing an historical romance. I might use my blog to prose on about the interesting facts I discover in my reading, especially on Fridays, but I don’t stuff them all into the stories.

Still, I’m about to take some of my characters in to Penicuik, and they need to talk to a French sergeant who is imprisoned there. So how could that happen? Were the prisoners isolated from the local citizens? Did they get a chance to mix? What happened when they were sick? Or if they died?

Ian MacDougall can tell me, and from the first 50 pages, which is all I’ve read so far, he can do so in a clear and interesting manner. Not always the case, I can tell you!

So far, for this book, I’ve read two guides to the Great North Road in Regency England, several books about rebels, radicals, and agitators, and a number of journal articles about prisoners-of-war.

Undoubtedly, as the characters continue telling me their stories, I’ll be off to find out more.

So this post is to thank all the serious historians who have spent years reading everything they can find on a topic (including contemporary sources), talking to other experts, studying artefacts, and writing up their results. MacDougall has six pages of bibliography and three pages of thank-yous to people he has interviewed or who have sent him stuff.

He and all the other wonderful historians I’ve relied on over the years save me from making wrong turns in the story or artefacts or actions or language that is wrong for the period. It matters to me, and it matters to many of the readers, and I just wanted to stop for a moment to say I’m grateful.

Thank you.

And watch this Friday spot for more about Prisoners of War in Scotland from 1803 to 1814.

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Serving God, the Parish, or possibly Mammon in late Georgian England

The church and the parish were important in rural England in late Georgian times. Faith in God was a simple part of life for most ordinary people, if not for the idle rich. Besides, village life depended on farming, which revolved around the seasons, and the liturgical year and important feast that reflected the seasons. And Sunday services were still mandatory, (until the late 19th century) with non-attendance punishable by a fine.

So who presided over these services?

To someone raised in the last half of the 21st century, the concept of church livings—where a local landowner has the power to appoint the rector or vicar to his local Church of England parish—seems odd. Yet it made a lot of sense in the beginning, encouraging those with wealth to build churches.

Those with the power to appoint had what was called an advowson, which was a type of property that could be bought, sold and inherited.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled nearly 5% of benefices, presenting them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown, to be presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.  [Maria Grace at English Historical Fiction Authors]

The advowson conferred the right to a living, also called or a benefice; a post that guarantees a fixed amount of property or income. This income came from tithes: great or small, depending on the parish. Parishes that paid a great tithe had a rector. A great tithe was 10% of all cereal crops grown in the parish and sometimes wool. Parishes that paid a small tithe had a vicar. A small tithe was 10% of remaining agricultural produce. By late Georgian times, tithes had commonly become a fixed cash payment, whose value had very likely dropped from the time it was first set.

The practice of sending younger sons into the Church meant that many parishes were served by clergy who were landed gentry first and foremost, and whose parishes rarely saw them.

Without patronage, being an ordained cleric was not a passport to a life of clover. Over a fifth of ordained clerics in late Georgian England never had a living, and a third took more than six years. A quarter died young, emigrated, or went into teaching.

If you weren’t one of the lucky 20 percent, with the well-connected friends or relatives who could see to your future by giving you a parish, or the 25 percent who died or left, you took a job as one of the working bees of the late Georgian church, as a curate.

Curates might work alongside their vicars, or they might act instead of them, while the lucky fellow was off socialising or hunting. The curate’s wages were paid from the vicar’s own pocket. Just to confuse things, if a curate was permanently appointed to a parish that had no or an absent rector or vicar, the curate would often be called ‘vicar’.

Whatever he was called, the resident pastor, at the very least, was responsible for church services: Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, and funerals, plus visiting the sick. And, of course, the very least was what some did.

But, according to at least some commentators, the bulk of them were decent men, doing their best. Maybe they were not exciting. Indeed, the exodus to more enthusiastic forms of Christianity offered by the Wesleyans and others grew in strength through the Georgian period. But:

The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor.  [Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England]

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I love research

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I love research. I even love research when I have a perfectly delightful plot that falls apart when research proves it couldn’t have happened. Working out what might be historically probable instead, or at least plausible, has allowed me to drop down many an exciting rabbit hole into research wonderland.

For example, in  A Raging Madness, my hero Alex has a leg full of shrapnel, and is currently helping my heroine to escape from relatives who are determined to lock her up in an asylum for the mentally unwell.

Shrapnel? What kind of shrapnel? What munitions carried shrapnel at that time? What battles were they used in? How were shrapnel wounds treated? What was the long term prognosis? How about complications? And did they even call it shrapnel?

It took me a while to find a suitable battle, but eventually I put Alex the right place to be on the business end of a canister shell, a cannon ball with a weak outer shell filled with scrap metal. When the cannon fired, the shell burst apart, and a broad fan of metal caused devastation among the enemy troops. And, in my case, on the body of the assigned escort of a British diplomat who was observing the battle.

Ella, my heroine, was the daughter of an army doctor, and I figured she’d solve all of Alex’s problems by removing the shrapnel (and no, they didn’t call it that). But not so. Then, even more than now, removing shrapnel or even bullets (unless they are lead) was a very bad idea.

Even today, going in after a splinter of metal might cause more harm than good, and the world is full of people walking around with bomb fragments buried inside. Back then, with no antibiotics and no anaesthetics, the treatment of choice was to leave the mess alone.

Over time, one of three things would happen. The body and the shrapnel would adjust to one another. The body would reject the shrapnel, moving it piece by piece slowly out to the surface. An abscess would form, and the poisons from the infection would kill the patient unless someone acted to drain the abscess.

Hurrah! I had my intervention. Poor Alex developed an abscess.

But escape? Alex can barely walk, let alone ride. Ella is recovering from addiction to the laudanum that her relatives have been force-feeding her. (Another rabbit-hole: what does laudanum withdrawal look like? Feel like?)

I needed a plausible way for two such invalids to escape.

I chose a canal narrowboat for a number of reasons.

One: I loved the idea of the villains haring all over the countryside looking for them while they ran away by the slowest form of non-pedestrian transport ever invented.

Two: I’ve always wanted to go on a canal cruise, and this way I got to watch YouTube clips and call it working.

Three: By 1807, when my story is set, the canal network stretched from the Mersey (with access to Manchester and Liverpool) all the way to London. Travelling by narrowboat was feasible. Canals were a supremely profitable way to move goods in the early 19th century, and had been for a number of years. At a steady walking speed, a horse could move fifty times as much weight on a boat as it could on a road. The canals provided still water and tow paths to ease the travel, and locks, tunnels, and viaducts to overcome obstacles. Later, canal boats were mechanised, and later still the railways put the canals out of business. But in 1807, Alex and Ella hitched a lift with a charming Liverpool Irishman called Big Dan.

Four: I could put my hero and my heroine in close confines, calling themselves married, for five to six weeks. Not only did they have heaps of time to talk and even to succumb (or nearly succumb) to their mutual attraction, they were also in deep trouble (or Ella was) if anyone found out. They used false names. They stayed away from fashionable places. But even so, their novelist made sure that someone with no love for Alex saw enough to cause trouble.

Five: The time frame let Alex develop an abscess and recover from the operation, all before he needed to be on hand to save Ella when rumours spread about the two of them and their canal interlude.

And down the rabbit hole I went.

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Where there’s a will there’s a way

In last week’s Footnotes on Friday post, I wrote the first post of three on inheritance in Georgian England. Part 1 was about entails and titles. This week, I want to talk about wills. Part 3 will be about dowries, marriage settlements, and jointure (provisions in a will for the widow).

Only certain people could make a will

Then, as today, a will is a statement that says who is to have your property after you die. So the first requirement for our Georgian testators (will maker) is that they had some property (real, personal, or both).

They had to be ‘in their right mind’. If they made a will while insane or drunk, and someone could prove that, the will would be void. So would be the wills of convicted felons, traitors, outlaws, suicides, slaves, prisoners, and people who had been excommunicated’

Married women could only make a will with the consent of their husbands, and that consent could be withdrawn right up until the will was probated.

All other men and women could make wills, as could boys over the age of 14 and girls over the age of 12. In practice, poor people didn’t and those with substantial property to leave mostly did.

Wills were a way to look after the survivors

A will allowed a testator to make sure everyone was looked after, to pay debts (real or moral), and possibly (as we see in many stories) to settle final scores. Many testators specifically said that they’d made a will in order to prevent disputes in the family after their death. A few seem to have intended their grudges to live after them.

Wills were a final chance for the dead to impose conditions on the living, which is a marvelous device for us storytellers. In theory, testators could dispose of their own property however they wished. However, if the will seemed unfair, it might be challenged. As noted above, one ground for contesting a will is that the person made it while incompetent. A potential beneficiary might also contest the will on the grounds that it was made while the testator was under pressure, coercion, or undue influence, or that that the testator was defrauded (for example, into signing the will thinking it was something else).

Certain life events made a will invalid

A will was also invalid if it wasn’t properly witnessed, if a later will could be found, or if the person had married since the will was made. The birth of a child made a man’s will invalid, but not a woman’s.

‘Executing’ the will

The will usually named someone as executor. The executor was a person who would make sure that the testator’s intentions were carried out. Wills involving real property didn’t need to be probated  (‘proved’ in a probate court). Wills involving personal property, including leaseholds on land, did go to the church courts who were in charge of probate from the time of Henry II until 1858, the church courts granted probate or administration, and the will on which A Raging Madness pivots was probated in the Chancery Court in York.

Dying intestate

If a person died without a will, and if there were no deeds of settlement to the contrary, common law took over, and English common law said that an oldest son inherited the real property. If there was no will and no son, the property was divided among the daughters. If not offspring at all (and legal adoption didn’t exist), a set of rules came into play about who got what, with a portion for the widow and the rest divided among other relatives.

Personal property wasn’t covered by primogeniture, and was divided by the same rules if there was no will.

  • one third to the widow, remainder to the children
  • if there were no children, half to the widow, remainder to next of kin
  • if there was no widow, remainder to the children
  • if there were no children, administration could be granted to someone with an interest in the estate (eg, a creditor)
  • if there were no next of kin and no one wished to claim administration the estate would revert to the Crown.

 

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Spies and other creepy crawlies

The last decade of the 18th century and the first of the 19th was not all balls, assemblies, and house parties, even for Britain’s top ten thousand families. Radical notions were abroad. Outrageous ideas such as land reform, a fairer distribution of resources, and universal male suffrage. Even female suffrage, but that idea didn’t have support beyond a very small group of women.

In the view of those who controlled the country, such ideas were dangerous. It seemed clear to most of our aristocrats that God had ordained a system in which the rich spent more on a single waistcoat than the seamstress who made it earned in a lifetime of sewing. The French Revolution had shown that the poor did not agree.

Was the threat real?

Coffee houses were meeting places for those who wanted to discuss radical ideas.

How real was the threat that the downtrodden labourers of Britain would rise up like the French, kill their betters, and sweep away all the apparatus of government, church, and Society? It didn’t happen. Minor flare-ups and riots did not draw the kind of popular support the rebels hoped.

Perhaps the British people did not have an appetite for the kind of bloodbath that had happened over the channel. Perhaps Parliament made enough changes, albeit slowly and reluctantly, to give reformers hope for a legitimate social evolution.

Or perhaps the desperate endeavours of a cadre of spies provided sufficient information about the radical societies that their paymasters could nip revolution in the bud.

Who were the spies?

When I hear the term ‘spy’, I tend to think of people operating in the territory of some foreign power, as part of a declared or undeclared war. And this period had those, too. More about them another time.

But today, I want to talk about the spies that worked within Britain, infiltrating radical groups and feeding information back to the government official or nobleman who employed them. I became interested when I realised that my current hero and heroine, and the heroine’s fifteen year old daughter, we’re heading straight into the middle of the 1812 riots in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Riots? Revolts? Or damp squibs?

And what did they do?

Georgian spies did not merely report the plans of the little groups who fomented the rising. They contributed to riots and attempted revolts, by enthusiastically providing false information to the organisers so that they would have plans to sell to the government.

Certainly, the government paid large sums in bribes and reward to those prepared to join an organisation that was possibly fomenting revolution. The spying effort was managed across various agencies and individuals, all working independently of one another, and researchers reading government records have unearthed a six-fold increase in costs in the last two decades of the 18th century.

More police stooge than James Bond

Today, anyone going undercover in a democratic nation is hedged about by restrictions designed to protect the rights of citizens. For example, in most countries, the agencies need evidence to convince a judge that a crime is being committed. Back then, all it took was a willing person and a purse full of cash.

And entrapment is a crime. An officer who entices a gang member or terrorist into committing a feolony is themselves guilty of a crime. Not so back in the tumultuous years of which I write though, depending on the jury, evidence of entrapment could and sometimes did, lead to a case being thrown out of the court.

Forget James Bond. What the English government had was more like the police informer in the modern tv crime shows: a dirty little man with a drinking problem, half blackmailed and half bribed into reporting the activities of those who thought him a friend.

 

I recommend

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes.

https://penandpension.com/2015/03/20/alien-office/

http://www.historytoday.com/iain-mccalman/radical-rogues-and-blackmailers-regency-period

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Christmas presents in Georgian England

No presents, and no tree to put them under. Not on a Regency Christmas Day

Authors of Regency stories face an interesting challenge when writing a Christmas novel. Our modern readers are so accustomed to the association between gifts and Christmas Day that historical accuracy can be jarring for them.

Not that people didn’t give presents during the long Christmas season before the Victorians picked up a few German customs and marketed them through newspaper columns on the habits of royalty, Dickens stories, and popular magazines. People in the northern hemisphere have always given presents at some point during that season when winter seems as if it is going to last forever, but at last the night of the winter solstice passes and the days slowly begin to grow longer.

The day varied. Solstice night itself, the first day (or week) of the new year. People gave their children food treats hoarded against the feast, and gifts of dolls and carved animals, often home made. Wealthier people very likely gave richer gifts, as happens today. And kings and other leaders undoubtedly gave gifts to their followers, who would judge their personal standing with the boss by the size of the present.

Christian missionaries didn’t invent gift giving and feasting in the darkest part of the year. But they did Christianise it, ascribing the feast to the birth of Christ. And boy, was it a feast. In medieval times, people partied for 12 days (after fasting all December).

But they didn’t give presents on Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve, either). Instead, Christmas was a time for church going and feasting. The 24 day fast might have disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries and the foundation of the Church of England, but the food blowout on Christmas Day remained, with all but the very poorest of the poor managing a special meal to mark the day.

The Puritans during the Commonwealth knocked off even that. No Christmas at all. But the Restoration meant all those Christmas customs crept back out of the shadows for people to rejoice in once again.

St Stephen’s Feast Day was the traditional day for giving to servants and tradespeople, and the needy (as good King Wenceslas did). The Feast of Stephen is 26th December. Family members didn’t get presents then, though. They had to wait.

In Scotland, 31st December, or New Year’s Eve, was gift day. English children had a few more days to go; family and friends were given presents on Twelfth Night, the day before the Feast of the Epiphany (6th January).

Different places, different customs. Children in various parts of Northern Europe received their presents from St Nicholas of Myrna on 5th December, the eve of his feast day or on the day itself. St Nicholas was born in France and buried in Italy, and quite why he favoured Dutch and German children with a visit is a mystery lost in history. He visited Central Europe, too, but not until 19th December, his feast day there.

In modern times, all these visits have been moved to 24th December, which makes the poor bishop’s task much harder. However, he has inherited Odin’s magic reindeer to pull his sleigh, so that must help.

Greek children had St Basil, whose feast day is 1st January. He arrived in the night on New Year’s Eve, leaving presents, and the families would exchange the gifts they’d bought or made at or after the New Year’s Day feast.

To make things even more complicated, different countries moved their calendars from Julian to Gregorian at different times.

All of which presents a minefield for a conscientious author.

My Christmas novellas include Candle’s Christmas Chair, Gingerbread Bride, and two novellas in Holly and Hopeful Hearts: A Suitable Husband and The Bluestocking and the Barbarian. Holly and Hopeful Hearts is on special at 99c, but the sale ends soon.

See my books page for more information.

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A domestic treasure

vicar-of-wakefield-mr-burches-first-visit-rowlandson1After I wrote a few weeks ago about the clash of cuisines for Caroline Warfields Highlighting Historical, one of my friends loaned me a treasure: the 1819 edition of A New System of Domestic Cookery, Formed Upon Principles of Economy and Adapted the Use of Private Families, by A Lady. The lady in question was Maria Eliza Rundell, who has been called the original domestic goddess, and the book bears that out.

I have it beside me now, using gloves to turn the precious pages and remembering that they’ve known many hands going back, undoubtedly, to the year of publication.

The book starts with some general observations: a not so little homily on habits of economy, the joys of managing a household, and the importance of properly supervising servants.

imageThe bulk of the book comprises recipes for everything a household might require: food of all kinds, preserves, drink, household remedies. The writer also gives instructions for everything from carving lamb to keeping chickens to making ink and household cleaners. Consider these, chosen at random from the table of contents:

To stew lampreys as at Worcester (and eels the same way)

To make a pickle that will keep for years, for hams, tongues, or beef, if boiled and skimmed between each parcel of them

To dress moor-fowl with red cabbage

A liquor to wash old deeds &c. on paper or parchment, when the writing is obliterated, or when sunk, to make it legible

To prevent the creaking of a door

General remarks on dinners

Everything, in fact, that a prudent woman might need to know in order to run a household. Not for our Regency lady the conveniences of squeegee bottles filled with precisely manufactured chemicals, or vacuum cleaning machines, or spray on foam for oven-cleaning. Or stainless steel, for that matter.

To dust Carpets and Floors.

Sprinkle tea-leaves on them, then sweep carefully.

The former should not be swept frequently with a whisk brush, as it wears them fast; only once a week, and the other times with the leaves and a hair-brush.

Fine carpets should be gently done with a hair hand-brush, such as for clothes, on the knees.

To prevent the Rot in Sheep.

Keep them in the pens till the dew is off the grass.

For Chapped Lips.

Put a quarter of an ounce of benjamin, storax, and spermaceti, two penny-worth of alkanet root, a large juicy apple chopped, a buch of black grapes bruised, a quarter of a pound of unsalted butter, and two ounces of bees-wax into a new tin saucepan. Simmer gently till the wax &c. are disolved, and then strain it through a linen. When cold melt it again, and pour it into small pots or boxes; or if to make cakes, use the bottoms of tea-cups.

And it goes on with recipes and advice for 347 pages. (The 1865 edition had grown to 644!)

First published in 1806, Mrs Rundell’s book stayed in print until the 1880s, with 67 successive editions. Now that is a domestic treasure. Thank you, Inez, for the privilege of seeing it.

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