Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Victorians

I recently had the delightful opportunity to visit London with my critique partner and friend. Since we both write historical romance, we chose a hotel in Kensington with the idea that it was close to so many things we love - Portabello Road Flea Market, the West End Theatre District and... The Victoria and Albert Museum.

I confuse many people when I talk about writing stories set in the Victorian time period, because they usually say, "you write Westerns". That's true, but the years between 1837 and 1901 are officially the reign of Queen Victoria of England and what we now refer to as, the Victorian era.

As we wandered through the amazing collection of artifacts from the apartments of the Queen and her Consort, examples of work from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and clothing from that era, I started to consider what makes this time period so appealing to those of us who choose to write stories set then?

For me, there are so many things, including the new up and coming middle class developed from the Industrial Revolution, (no need to write about royalty and wealthy aristocrats), the fashions which were elegant, somewhat fussy and quite beautiful, and the social manners and mores.

Everyone has heard about the staid and straight-laced Victorians, who covered piano legs with long fringe shawls and called their underclothes "unmentionables". I have fun discovering the patterns of social interaction and then of course distrupting them in the course of my story in order to create conflict.

In one of my searches through the library catalog, I came across a jewel of a book, Never Give a Lady a Restive Horse: A 19th Century Handbook of Etiquette which are selections from the pages of Professor Thomas E. Hill's famous volumes on etiquette. (I didn't know he was famous but the forward pages tell me he was, so I accept it.)

This book includes chapters on the Laws of Etiquette, The Science of Beautiful Dress, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers and even samples of Tombstone Inscriptions, (in the event that you can't think what to put on a dearly departed ones stone.)

One of my favorite articles is about the Etiquette of Conversation, How, When and Where to Speak. My coworkers and I decided that we would probably be the very undesirable "coarse and boisterous" visitors rather than the "cultured and refined" guests. After all, one of the guidelines is not to talk about private, personal or family matters. In this day and age, we all do that, some people even post their inner- most thoughts on webpages, blogs and Facebook. What would the very private Victorians think of our digital world where privacy has gone to the dogs? I suspect they'd be horrified.

I'm afraid I broke several very important rules of appropriate behavior when my hero, Sam, first meets my heroine, Amanda, in my upcoming release, Promise Me.

You can judge for yourself.

"My mother had a cure for insomnia. Perhaps you'd allow me to fix you a hot toddy. I guarantee it will make you sleep soundly as a baby."

The sultry tone of his voice mesmerized her.

All the deportment lessons she'd suffered since childhood came back to her in a flash. She should keep going back to her room, but his dark and hypnotic voice promised secret delights, and she didn't want to leave. She wanted to sit down and continue to banter with this mysterious man. If he thought her a brazen hussy, so much the better. For a few moments tonight, she'd be that other woman, the one who didn't care what others thought of her.

Swallowing her apprehension, she tossed her braid over one shoulder and crossed the small kitchen to take a chair at the table. She settled her candle next to the oil lamp and gave him an inviting smile.

"A hot toddy sounds perfectly wonderful. Are you sure it won't be too much trouble?"

The man leaned forward. The corners of his lovely mouth lifted slightly. "It would be my pleasure to assist an angel to bed."

She warmed from her cheeks down to her bosom. She had never in her life done anything as brash as this. What would Father Mikelson say? She didn't want to think about the penance she'd do when she confessed. Flirting wasn't the same as adultery, was it? Could she still be an adulteress if her husband was dead? Good Lord, why was she even thinking about such a thing?

When he turned his back to her, she knew what fueled her illicit thoughts. As he poured a concoction into a cup, Amanda forgot to breathe as she stared at the thick, dark hair curling at the edge of his collar, his lean torso and long legs.

"It's you," she whispered.

Are there any Victorian rules of etiquette you'd enjoy playing with in real life? Or do you dream of donning a gorgeous silk gown with pantalettes, hoop skirts, and a corset?

Deborah Schneider - 2009 RWA Librarian of the Year

Promise Me - January 22, 2010


Celia Yeary said...

DEBRA--I love the Victorians in America. Their motto--in the eastern part of the US--was "too much is not enough." I've included something aobut them in one WIP--will I ever finish it? Who knows? But I enjoyed your post so much.Celia

Kathy Otten said...


The photo's of the dresses are beautiful. Wish I'd taken the trip with you. I just bought a little book on Victorian entertaining. Sooo many rules! Thanks for sharing. Your excerpt was cute. Like the way she briefly pondered her sins.

Tanya Hanson said...

Deb, fantastic excerpt, sigh, and the info is absolutely first-class. What great dresses and shoe...but I'm glad I don't have to wear them. At Kensington palace I saw Victoria's wedding gown a few years ago; she was about four feet tall LOL.

Keep up the good work.

Deborah Schneider said...

Thanks ladies. Keep at it Celia, you know what they say, "one word at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time1" You will get there.

Thank you, Kathy. Yes, poor Amanda. She sins now, ponders later. But sinnin is fun with Sam.

Tanya, I had the exact opposite reaction, I wanted to wear those dresses. But then again I think wearing a corset is FUN. And I did see the Queen's dress too, she was tiny and round.