Friday, December 19, 2014

12 Things You Maybe Didn't Know About Mourning Customs

As a fan of Regency romances, I've always been interested in the mourning customs of the day -- black clothes and veils most of all. Then I discovered that my friend Loren the historian is even more of a nut than I am about the process of grieving a loved one during the Regency and Victorian periods. We can have hours-long discussions about what he likes to call The Victorian Way of Death. (Isn't that a great title for a book?)

Since my latest Regency romance novel explores what happens after the unexpected death of an earl leaves his entire family -- including his pregnant wife and his daughter -- in limbo, I had to refresh my memory about mourning customs. What was my heroine allowed to wear? How long would she have to remain in seclusion?

So I thought today I'd share some fun facts about death and mourning during the Regency and Victorian periods.

1. Deaths most often occurred in the home, and bodies were laid out in the best parlor for visitors. That's the origin of today's commonly-used term, "funeral parlor" or "funeral home."

2. Not only the survivors but the house was put into a state of mourning. Clocks were stopped, shutters were closed, mirrors were draped or turned to the wall, and the "badge of death" (usually made of black crepe) was hung on the front door.

3. In an era before the telephone and (in the Regency) before the telegraph, the news of a death was sent by mail -- often on stationery which bore a black border to warn the recipient of the bad news inside.

4. Women did not attend burials in the Regency period. They were presumed to be too weak to withstand the shock of standing at a graveside, so they stayed at home.

5. The procession from the home to the church for the funeral service and then on to the graveyard (the word "cemetery" is a Victorian invention) was a ceremonial occasion and the lineup of the mourners was very important. Chief mourners -- those closest in relationship to the deceased -- were first in the procession, followed by other relatives in descending order as the relationship grew more distant. Then came friends, neighbors and other guests.

6. Mourning dress achieved full and tortuous status after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 threw Queen Victoria into a cycle of grief from which she never emerged -- but long before that, widows were expected to wear nothing but black for an entire year, the period known as full mourning. The more distant the person's relationship to the deceased, the less stringent the dress requirements and the shorter the period of time. For a man mourning a distant relative, wearing a black armband for a few weeks was sufficient.

7. After the full mourning period was completed, half-mourning allowed the grieving person to wear purple, lavender, or gray clothing -- but bright colors were not allowed until the mourning period was entirely over. 

8. The widow was expected to seclude herself at home for the entire period of full mourning -- receiving visits only from close friends or relatives and venturing out only to go to church. During half-mourning, she could once again venture out for quiet social occasions and visits, but not parties or balls.

9. Mourning clothes were among the very first mass-produced clothing items. Since the need for them often arose suddenly, there wasn't time for seamstresses or tailors to make garments from scratch.

10. The heavy black veils worn by Victorian widows were dyed using a compound containing arsenic -- which may have contributed to the the large number of ladies who soon followed their husbands to the grave.

11. Mourning jewelry was often specially made of jet -- a black stone resembling coal -- for the grieving person. Sometimes regular jewelry could be re-engineered to suit the purpose, perhaps mounted on a black background. During half-mourning, some regular jewelry could be worn -- diamonds and pearls because they were neutral in color and amethysts because of their purple color.

12. Until 1823, any person who committed suicide was required by law to be buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through the heart, to prevent the ghost from walking. Until 1832, a suicide could be buried only between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight, with no service or prayers said over the body.

It's relatively easy to find data on Victorian mourning customs; the Regency is a bit tougher to research. In fact, the Regency was part of a transition period between the 18th century (when gravestone symbolism was dominated by the skull and crossbones, skeleton with a scythe, or the death's head) and the high Victorian period (when euphemisms took over and people "entered into rest", "fell asleep in the arms of Jesus", "went to his reward" and so on. 

We still use some of these -- like "passed away" -- so though many of the customs of the 19th century sound weird to us, they still resonate in today's practices.

Gentleman in Waiting

Everything depends on the baby…

Lady Mariah Gerrard anxiously awaits the birth of her stepmother’s child, desperately hoping for a boy who will inherit their father’s title so Mariah can gain access to her dowry and her freedom. Her father’s cousin John, the next heir in line, has other plans – so if the baby is a girl, disaster looms for Mariah.

When Myles Moreton comes to Edgeworth to manage the family estate, Mariah’s no longer certain that even the birth of a boy will solve her problems. Why is money missing? Why is Mariah’s dowry in doubt?  Despite his genial fa├žade, is Cousin John planning mischief – or worse? Why is Myles Moreton, rather than the late earl’s trustees, suddenly in control? And how can Myles -- a man who’s entirely ineligible -- be not only completely maddening but utterly charming and very, very tempting?

As the family gathers to await the birth, Mariah and Myles search for answers – and they find that playing the waiting game can have its own rewards.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lady Charlotte?

This is a photo of a gravestone in our local cemetery. Lady Charlotte is a local celebrity, even though she died in 1873. I've even heard people say, "Did you know there's a member of the royal family buried in Ottumwa Cemetery?"
Well... no. There's not. Furthermore, she's not even who the tombstone says she is. 

The tombstone says

Lady Charlotte, dau (daughter) of
Sir Robt. Lowthe
and wife of
E. T. Hulaniski
Feb. 25, 1873
23 y. 3 m. 10 d.

Let's break that apart and see what it means...

Charlotte's father was a knight, which is a nice rank -- but it falls several short of the aristocracy, so she can't be "Lady Charlotte" based on her father's rank. He'd have to be at least an earl for her to claim that title.

And her husband seems to have no title at all -- so she can't be "Lady Charlotte" based on his rank either.

So she's really not "Lady Charlotte" at all -- not if she (or whoever wrote the text for her tombstone) is claiming to be part of the British system of aristocracy.

And by the way, here's what her tombstone looks like these days, after another 25 years of weathering. But cemetery preservation is a topic for another day.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Best Little Writers' Conference

Okay, I'm prejudiced... but I really think that ORACON, the Ozark Romance Authors' annual writers' conference, is the best small conference to be found anywhere. It's just one day -- but that day is packed full of information, fun, networking, support, and great people.

Make that lots and lots of great people....

The attendees at ORACON 2014, University Plaza Hotel, Springfield, Missouri
(my thanks to ORA and Sharon Keeling Davis for sharing this photo online)

ORACON kicks off on Friday evening with a booksigning at the Springfield Barnes & Noble store and then fills Saturday to the brim with programs like The Editors and Agents Gong Show (this year was first pages -- and very enlightening discussions of when and why the editors and agents would stop reading or lose interest). Plotting, self-publishing, and editing your way to a best-seller rounded out the topics. The day ends with announcements of winners in the Weta Nichols writing contest. 

ORACON 2014 is history -- but plans are already being made for ORACON 2015. Don't be left out!

Leigh's nominees for best conferences:

Best small romance conference: ORACON, Springfield, Missouri (September)
Best regional romance conference: Moonlight and Magnolias in Atlanta, Georgia (October)
Best regional writers' conference (for writers of all sorts): Midwest WritersWorkshop in Muncie, Indiana (July)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Butler Did It!

Since most of us don’t have servants, it’s sometimes tough to picture what people in service in the grand houses of the past actually did all day. If you've read my post on the housemaid’s job, you may have concluded that the upper servants had a far easier time of it. And that’s true, though it depends on how large the household actually was.

In the grandest of houses, the head of the staff would be a house steward who was in charge of hiring and firing servants and paying the tradesman’s bills, but in the merely grand houses, those duties would be split between the butler – assisted perhaps by an under-butler – and the housekeeper.

While the housekeeper is (naturally) in charge of the house, the butler is in charge of the dining room – including protecting, polishing, and counting the silver and maintaining the wine cellar – and overseeing all the male servants. If there was no valet to wait on the master of the house, the butler took care of his clothing and dressing room.

While the pattern of a butler’s day varied greatly depending on the size of the household and the activities of the family, here’s a pretty normal pattern for the butler in a medium-sized house:

It is the butler’s duty to set the breakfast table, bring up the food and drink, wait on table, and clear after the family has finished – a pattern which is repeated at luncheon, dinner, and with the evening tea tray just before bedtime. After each meal he supervises the cleaning of all the silver, china, glasses, and serving dishes and makes sure they are put away in their proper places.

Between meals, he takes up his other duties. He take care of the master's clothes, laying out what he'll need next, cleaning or brushing or mending, and straightening the dressing room. He checks the wine cellar, tending to any wines which may be off in taste or color, or bottling wines which were delivered in casks. He polishes the silver (no tarnish-proof strips in those days!), and he’s on duty to answer the door from morning till night. After the household has retired, he makes sure all the menservants have gone to bed, then locks up the doors and windows before (finally!) retiring himself.

By the Victorian era, when paying calls over tea became a standard afternoon activity, the butler had it a bit easier. The fashion for Victorian ladies was to have a very attractive parlormaid who would answer the door and wait on the ladies and their afternoon callers at tea time. Since the butler was not required, he could rest for an hour.

Pay during the Regency period? From 30 to 80 pounds sterling per year – depending on the size of the family and the household staff. But he also received his master’s cast-off clothes, as well as the leftover pieces of the wax candles, once they were too short to burn! 

Sources: The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams, published 1825
Etiquette, by Emily Post, published 1922

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Top Ten --Er, Six -- Pet Peeves in Historical Romances

I admit it, I'm a fan of historical romance. Always have been, even long before I started writing it. But I have to say there are some things that drive me straight round the bend and make me toss a book aside...

1. Getting the titles wrong. Lady Sarah Winchester isn't the same person as Lady Winchester is, and when the author gets it wrong, it's easy to dismiss the story entirely.

(Here's the skinny on how to handle dukes ... marquesses ... viscounts ... barons ... and baronets.) 

2. Getting the succession wrong. Inheritance of money is one thing, titles are another. Illegitimate sons could not inherit titles, period. Oldest sons could not be bypassed in favor of younger ones. Daughters could not pass along titles at all (there are a very few exceptions, by royal decree).

3. Getting the geography wrong. London to Gretna Green is 320 miles. Even if you figure an average speed of 10 miles per hour for a team of horses (and that would be tough to maintain over time, what with having to stop to change teams every few miles), it was impossible to do the trip in a day, much less overnight, during the Georgian or Regency eras. Which was the entire point, of course, since by the time a couple had been together and alone for such a long journey, the girl's reputation was ruined and irreparable. 

4. 21st century characters who turn up in historical time periods. I don't mean modern-day characters who time travel. I mean people who were supposedly born and reared in the 1300s, or the 1500s, or the 1800s, but who think and act and talk and behave as though they just stepped out of Starbucks holding a latte and an iPhone, complete with modern sensibilities and politically-correct attitudes.

5. Magically-survivable injuries. Before modern antibiotics, being shot in the abdomen was pretty much a death sentence. There are real-life stories of survivors, yes, but they’re remembered because they were rare. Concussions were just as serious then as they are now, and being hit over the head hard enough to cause unconsciousness for a period of time is likely to lead to bleeding in the brain and death, not a nice long sleep and then waking up feeling just fine and remembering everything. (Author Eileen Dreyer, who was a trauma nurse before writing thrillers, does some great seminar sessions on medicine in historical eras and how authors get it wrong.)

6. Trusting other authors to get it right. I swear I’ve read a historical novel where the hero complained about the heroine feeding him pablum – but when I checked, I discovered that particular baby formula was invented in the 1930s instead. Oops.

What about you? What are your pet peeves, the things that make you toss a book aside? Please share!