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]


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



The fate of a fallen woman

oyster-rooms_0001Life in the real Regency wasn’t all Almack’s, balls, and house parties. Even in the households of the rich and titled, a woman’s comfort and happiness depended very much on the character of whatever man headed her household—father, brother, husband. And a highly structured society where women were expected to be chaste and modest, and men to have broad experience, meant an ever-present potential for disaster.

In the lesser ranks of society, a woman might be valued for her skills, her personality, her knowledge, or whatever underpinned the economic contribution she could make to her family. A slip from chastity could be forgiven. Even a child out of wedlock was not necessarily an irretrievable disaster. An extra pair of hands was, after all, an extra pair of hands.

A proper lady

For ladies of the gentry, any smudge on the character threatened the wellbeing of the family. Ladies were decorative rather than useful; educated for little beyond amusing themselves and running a household. Their economic value lay in the family connections created through their marriage, in the children, or more particularly the sons, they would bring into the world.

English landowners practiced primogeniture, a form of inheritance designed to keep an estate unified. Primogeniture meant that lands, titles, and rights were passed intact to the deceased lord’s eldest son. If the right to rule will be passed from father to son, then a family has a great deal invested in making sure that a wife sleeps with no one but, and certainly no one before, her husband. Virginity became a necessary precondition for a good marriage.

Assuring a potential husband of the virginity of a particular maiden meant—as we who read historical romances set in those times know—setting all kinds of restrictions around young ladies. It wasn’t enough to be a virgin; a marriageable girl of gentry class must never be in circumstances that allowed gossips to speculate about what she might, or might not, have done. Reputation was everything. The loss of reputation was the end of a girl’s (and her family’s) hope of a ‘good’ marriage.

Fallen from grace

Our romances offer many paths to those who fall from grace. Her family might rally round to prove our heroine’s innocence. An angry father or brother might force a marriage which becomes a love affair, or the other party to the offence might volunteer.  Exile to the country might lead to her true virtue being discovered by a neighbour, or she might be pursued by her seducer who has finally realised that he truly loves her.

In some books, the heroine becomes one of the tens of thousands of women earning her living from the sex trade in Georgian London. Generally a mistress of a man or a succession of men. More rarely, a prostitute in a brothel or in the streets.

That’s the premise for my character, Becky. In the novel, we meet her nine or ten years after her father threw her out. Just think of it. A gently-born girl, raised with few skills beyond flower arranging and embroidery, always treated with courtesy and respect, taught nothing about her own sexuality, suddenly cast into the streets to make her own way. What must that have been like?

In historical romance, our heroines survive the horror and the abuse (or, in some books, manage to bypass it all together) to eventually find the mandatory happy-ever-after. In real life, few were so fortunate. An early death was more likely: from sexually transmitted diseases, complications of pregnancy or abortion, drink and drugs taken to dull the senses, or all of these together.

A Baron for Becky has a happy ending, though not (I hope) an entirely predictable one.  In the end, I found myself writing about marriage rather than prostitution. Becky has had a hard life, and it has left scars. Her happy ending does not come easily. But then, that’s life.


An fan-tastic habit

fan3I’m fascinated by the idea of a secret language of fans. I can’t quite see how it would work. Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite prepared to believe that fans were used to flirt with, and that certain gestures meant certain things. I just don’t see how coded signals could be both effective and secret. After all, if everyone knew that a half-opened fan pressed to the lips meant ‘I want your kiss’, no lady would dare press the handle of her fan to her lips in the middle of a crowded ballroom. (And if she and her swain were unobserved, then fan signals were surely unnecessary.)

For what it is worth, though, here are signals that every chaperon worth her salt should have been looking for, according to a pamphlet published in 1827 by fan-maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy:

  • Twirling the fan in the left hand means “we are watched.”
  • Carrying the fan in the right hand in front of her face means “follow me.”
  • Covering the left ear with the open fan means “do not betray our secret.”
  • Drawing the fan through the hand means “I hate you.”
  • Drawing the fan across the cheek means “I love you.”
  • Touching the tip of the fan with the finger means “I wish to speak to you.”
  • Letting the fan rest on the right cheek means “yes.”
  • (c) Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Culture, Libraries and Learning); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

    (c) Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Culture, Libraries and Learning); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

    Letting the fan rest on the left cheek means “no.”

  • Opening and shutting the fan means “you are cruel.”
  • Dropping the fan means “we will be friends.”
  • Fanning slowly means “I am married.”
  • Fanning rapidly means “I am engaged.”
  • Touching the handle of the fan to the lips means “kiss me.”

Whether they used them to signal to others or not, ladies—and gentlemen, too, in the regency—found the surface of fans a useful place to write memory joggers: dance steps, song lyrics, rules for card games.

Fans could be made of all sorts of things. Some were of feathers. Some were of flat sticks of bone, ivory,  wood, tortoiseshell, or mother of pearl, joined at one end, and strung on ribbon or cord so that the other end flared into the fan shape. Others had ribs of such material and a pleated skin of paper, lace, silk, or fine leather. (Here’s a quiz question. What were chicken-skin fans made from?) They were often exquisitely painted. Whether our regency heroes and heroines signaled with them or not, they would not wish to enter a stuffy crowded ballroom without one.

3-regency-fans3Just for fun, here’s an encounter between the Duke of Roxton and his loathsome cousin, The Comte de Salvan, from Lucinda Brant’s wonderful Noble Satyr.

“You will not find what you are looking for,” drawled the Duke of Roxton, quizzing glass fixed on Madame de La Tournelle. “That which you desire is not here.”

Salvan spun about and stared up at the impassive aquiline profile.

“Continue to gawp and I will go elsewhere,” murmured the Duke. “Mademoiselle Claude has been beckoning with her fan this past half hour. Sitting next to that frost-piece is preferable to being scrutinized by you, dearest cousin.”

Salvan snapped open a fan of painted chicken skin and fluttered it like a woman, searching gaze returning to the sea of silk and lace.

“To be abandoned for that hag would be an insult I could not endure, mon cousin. You merely startled me.”

“I repeat, your search is fruitless.”

“Ah! You see me scanning faces. I always do so. It is nothing,” Salvan said lightly. “Did you think me looking for someone in particular? No! Who—Who did you think I was looking for?”

(Answer: not chicken-skin.)


Curious facts on WIP Wednesday

LiverpoolAuthors often joke about how a law enforcement agency might react to their Internet search history. We need all kinds of curious facts and odd pieces of knowledge to give strength and depth to our plots, and make them accurate. Even writers who set their stories in a totally imaginary world of fantasy or science fiction need their creations to be believable, and historical fiction writers spend huge amounts of time checking the details of background, custom, clothing, manners, and history so that they don’t make errors that will throw a knowledgeable reader out of the story.

Some of it makes its way into the story. Some of it never does. I spent three days this month researching historical Liverpool for the two chapters where David and Gren pursue investigations in that city, and barely any of it actually appears on the page. Sigh. And a further hour’s research into canals just confirmed that a single sentence was historically possible.

Today, on work-in-progress Wednesday, I’m asking you to post about a curious fact or an interesting piece of research, and show us an excerpt in which you used (or didn’t use but were aware of) that information.

Mine is from Embracing Prudence and is the only place my Liverpool research provide context and texture to the story.

Liverpool was large and busy and smelly. England’s second biggest port, dominating Bristol and rivalling even London, its docks were a forest of ships’ masts and spars surrounded by a cacophony of loading and unloading that began at first light and continued until it was too dark to see.

“Abolition will hit them hard,” Gren observed, as they strolled to the offices of the man they had come to see.

“Disgusting trade,” David observed. Liverpool had built its wealth on the Triangle Trade: cheap manufactured goods and guns from its hinterland to Africa, to be traded to chiefs for the live bodies of their enemies. Men, women, and children across the Atlantic to the islands of the Carribean, to be traded for sugar and cotton and other tropical products. Sugar and cotton back across to Liverpool, to be fed into the manufactories that supplied the United Kingdom and beyond.

But even in Liverpool, hard though many had argued the economic costs of stopping the trade, support for abolition had grown these last twenty-five years. The Abolition Bill currently before Parliament was in its final readings, and likely this time to pass where so many had failed. Had some of the local merchants seen the signs of the times and decided to diversify? And applied the same ruthless disregard for human life to the fur trade?

They climbed the stairs to the offices in a substantial building off one of the main thoroughfares leading up from the river. Atkins had a sign on the door saying ‘Thos. Atkins, Discreet Enquiries’, and two clerks in the outer office.


Jessica Cale talks about sex in historical fiction

Jessica CaleToday, I welcome Jessica Cale to the blog. Jessica is the author of Tyburn and her new release, Virtue’s Lady (see below the article). She describes herself as a recovering journalist with rather a lot of Nick Cave records writing historical romances out of a grey bedroom in North Carolina.

Sex in historical fiction

Sex can be a tricky topic in historical fiction because I think there are a lot of assumptions made about it that aren’t necessarily based on reality. There’s a tendency to believe that people were either better at abstaining or had enormous families, but the belief that the past was inherently more virtuous than the present is problematic. The truth is that people weren’t more sexually repressed or guided by some divine will power, but that the specifics of sex in history are too often neglected in history books because it’s seen as irrelevant, sensational, or controversial.

Myths about contraception and childbearing

One of the things that surprises people the most about sex in history is that contraception existed before the twentieth century. Condoms had existed since prehistory as evidenced by a 12,000 year old cave painting of the first condom in the Grotte de Combarelle in France, and the Egyptians had spermicidal pessaries and reliable urine-based pregnancy tests thousands of years ago. Sylphium, a sort of giant fennel, was such an effective contraceptive that the ancient world farmed it to extinction within 6,000 years. Condoms came into their own during the Renaissance when they began to take on a form we would recognize today, and Casanova himself recommended them to put ladies’ minds at ease regarding unexpected pregnancy. Condoms were regularly used from that point onward to prevent sexually transmitted disease, especially the epidemic of syphilis that returned to Europe with Columbus from the Americas. The withdrawal method was used, as well, and if that failed, there were a number of herbal mixtures that served as potent abortifacients, the recipes having been passed down through the generations with the earliest known ones coming from Ancient Egypt.

Another misconception is that people wanted to have lots of children. During the Restoration, as many as three in four children didn’t live to see their sixth birthday. Miscarriage, abandonment, and even infanticide were tragically common, as sanitation standards were abysmal and the poor couldn’t afford to have larger families. Furthermore, childbirth was the most common cause of death for women, with almost fifty percent of the female population losing their lives as a direct result of it. For common people, children were as much a burden as a blessing. The average age of marriage for men was between twenty-seven and twenty-eight, and for women it was between twenty-five and twenty-seven, so family sized tended to be naturally smaller, as well.

Myths about virginity, lesbianism, and marriage

It might also surprise you to learn that seventeenth century couples commonly cohabited before they married, sometimes for years, and virginity was not so carefully guarded a prize as it was for the upper classes that required it to ensure succession and inheritance. Women (and sometimes even men) commonly worked as prostitutes, and sometimes only for a short period of time to get ahead before they ultimately settled down or opened a business for themselves. Marriage for the poor could still take place with nothing more than a declaration and a witness.

Interestingly enough, lesbians existed and were tolerated or accepted in Britain over the last few centuries. There wasn’t always a term for it, but girls being unusually close was fairly common and even seen as innocent. What harm could come from a union that couldn’t result in pregnancy? There were even a few cases in the nineteenth century where women were allowed to marry, provided one of them presented herself as a man and attempted to serve the same role in society, which was seen by some as being more valuable and honorable than continuing to live as a woman.

The idea of the past being a time of virginity, strict heterosexuality, and repression is based on nostalgic nonsense. Sure, if your heroine’s life is riding on making a good marriage, she might be sheltered and totally inexperienced, but for the majority of the population, that just wouldn’t have been the case.

And a thought to consider

To wrap up, I’d like to leave you with a fun fact I’ve learned just this week. From at least the middle ages up until the nineteenth century, the female orgasm was believed to be necessary for conception, so the men of the past not only knew what it was, but they were good at making it happen. So much for sex in history being stuffy!

virtuesladyVirtue’s Lady

Lady Jane Ramsey is young, beautiful, and ruined.

After being rescued from her kidnapping by a handsome highwayman, she returns home only to find her marriage prospects drastically reduced. Her father expects her to marry the repulsive Lord Lewes, but Jane has other plans. All she can think about is her highwayman, and she is determined to find him again.

Mark Virtue is furious when Jane arrives in Southwark. In spite of his growing feelings for her, he knows that the crime-ridden slum is no place for a lady. Jane must set aside her lessons to learn a new set of rules if she is survive and to prove to Mark—and to herself—that there’s more to her than meets the eye.


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