Monday, September 12, 2011

Regency Britain Is Not Modern America

By Helen Woodall, editor

With the renewed popularity of Regency-set romances, more and more non-British authors are penning Regency-set stories. This article is not referring to stories in a world invented by the author which may have some similarities to Regency Britain, but to stories purporting to be set in Regency Britain.
Many of these are excellent stories, but are ruined for non-American readers because they have included peculiarly American traditions. Traditions that are probably so “normal” to the author, the editor and the publisher, that it never occurred to them to check if they were “British”.

1. Calling a married woman Jane Smith Jones. If Jane Smith got married she was Jane Jones. If someone wanted to know her heritage it would be said as Jane Jones, née Smith. Or possibly as Bertie Smith's daughter Jane. Using the maiden name as the middle name is a distinctly American tradition.

2. Houses in England in that day (and the vast majority of them still now) had a front door that opened onto the pavement (sidewalk). There may or may not be steps up to the door but no stoop, no porch and definitely no porch swing! Most town houses had no garden. The garden was in the square, gated, locked and shared by all the houses in the square. Country houses had a garden. Not a “yard”. A yard was where the farm animals and horses were. Google 'Regency architecture'. There are lots of pictures.

3. The evening meal was not called supper. There were two meals, breakfast and dinner, with nuncheon (a light meal) in between if dinner was to be eaten late. In the Season, supper may be served at balls after midnight. A light meal again. Dinner is a hot meal with three courses and several removes, served around 5 p.m. in the country and 9 p.m. in town.

4. Yes, “bloody” is a very British swear word. But it was not used at this time period. Partridge reports that it was "respectable" before c.1750, and it was used by Fielding and Swift, but heavily tabooed c.1750-c.1920, perhaps from imagined association with menstruation. The term was debarred from polite society during the whole of the nineteenth century. [Rawson]

5. “Gods”. In this time period, the British people were Christian. The official religion was the Church of England. The King was the Head of the Church and the House of Lords included many religious officials. The Lords Spiritual were 26 senior bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal made up the rest of the membership. Of these, the majority were life peers who were appointed by the Monarch. If an aristocrat had pantheistic thoughts, he would keep them to himself for fear of losing his inheritance.

6. “Bathe” and toilets. Thomas Crapper did not invent the flushing toilet. The Minoans of Ancient Crete did. Although the U-bend was invented in 1782 (making them suitable for indoors by taking away the dreadful smell) they did not become common in Britain until the late 19th century. Rich people had servants who emptied chamber pots (bedpans) into outdoor earth closets. Up until 1900 almost all British houses had outdoor toilets. In poor areas one toilet served an entire street of families.

People rarely took baths. Before the 19th century it was difficult to heat a large amount of water in one go. Suppose you heated a cauldron of water and poured it into a tub. By the time you had heated a second lot of water the first lot would already be cold. The rich stripped and washed all over in a small amount of water carried to them by servants. Those old metal tub baths you see in pictures are about the size of a baby’s bath. You stood up in it.

Some good references:
Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester, Random House

Helen is on safari in Africa at the moment, but will be happy to respond to comments in a few weeks.


lynneconnolly said...

Thank you! Excellent post!

May I add the use of more Americanisms? The word "gotten" for instance screams "American" to the modern British reader. Yes, there is a little use, but not enough to merit it being used regularly in historicals.

And title misuse. That drives me batty. "The Viscount Smith," calling a duke "my lord," having a peer choose who is to inherit his title, having an illegitimate child inherit - hold me back!

But there are two parts to historical accuracy. There's getting the facts right, and there's authenticity, giving the reader a real feel for the age.

ECPI Editors said...

It is not at all difficult to look up correct British titles and forms of address, or the laws for inheritance of entailed titles and estates. I can understand errors in some unusual and weird situation, but not the normal and common stuff. I hate, hate, hate reading stories that get this wrong. All I can think is "lazy, stupid author", and I won't read anything else of theirs. If the author is not going to do it correctly, then don't pretend that they are trying to represent a real historical period.

I've been driven batty by stories where the Earl's widow decides that her younger son will inherit the title because she hates the older son's wife. Or the assumed oldest son and heir doesn't inherit because there's a surprise illegitimate older son. Or worse yet where the author decides to put modern opinions into the story and has the oldest daughter inherit the dukedom instead of the infant son, because the family believes in equality. What any person or family believed or wanted has and had nothing at all to do with the laws regarding inheritance of title.



Charlie Cochrane said...

Yes, yes! Great post.

Lynne - absolutely spot on about gotten. Must be prefixed by 'be' or sandwiched between 'ill' and 'gains'. :)

BTW I have to confess a mistake in reverse. I had one of my Regency characters refer to a blizzard. Later found out it was an American word, Victorian era. Oh, the shame...

Joanna Waugh said...

Great blog, Helen! I know you are in Africa right now but I just wanted to thank for for plugging my website. And isn't The Regency Encyclopedia fantastic? I just love it.

Charlie -- I'm always learning new things about the Regency as well so don't be embarrassed about the blizzard reference.

Helen W said...

Hi everyone
Thanks for the comments. I agree with everyone. They're all good points.
Brilliant line re "gotten" Charlie.
I met my first giraffe today. He was the tall, silent type.

Charlie Cochrane said...

No stealing that line, Helen! I have patent pending on it...



Barbara Elsborg said...

We do need these rules followed - that's what makes Regency romances so comforting. You know exactly what you're going to get in the world the author paints. I've read LOADS of regency romances, I've written over 20 books - Not regency ones, tried to write one set in that period and realized how hard it is!! I got ten pages in and temporarily gave up!

Valerie Bowman said...

Thank you for this post. Bloody and supper are points well taken! But as an American writing Regencies, I have to say, I know there weren't really "gardens" behind most townhomes but it's just *so* romantic a setting. I cannot resist. Ditto with the baths. I realize they didn't take them but they can be such wonderful devices. With apologies to history sticklers!