Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Ages in history

I've decided to occasionally post my thoughts and ideas about historical matters, especially what I see as errors.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one misleading piece of information is that the life expectancy in the past was something like 35 years. "How terrible," people say. "No wonder they married young, but even so, they wouldn't see many of their children reach adulthood."

A glance at real people immediately shows this to be ridiculous. (They didn't marry that young, either, but that's for another day.) My own family tree shows most of them living beyond that age and in fact into what we consider late middle age or later, and they weren't particularly privileged people.

I remember one tour of a historical site in which the guide put great weight on the short life expectancy in the 18th century, then led us through a graveyard full of stones recording death in the 50s, 60s, and older. She even told stories of famous people who died in old age, but didn't seem to see any conflict. She swallowed facts without digestion.

Why the discrepancy? Statistics. If we take all the births and divide by all the deaths, we can come up with a short life expectancy, but there was a tragically high death rate among the young. In those days babies and children were vulnerable to many diseases and accidents so the number of people who survived to adulthood was much reduced.

However, if someone reached 21, their chances of living to 60 and ever older were not much reduced from modern times, especially as the survivors tended to be sturdy and with good immune systems.

So when writing, we're not fantasizing to have our characters see their children into adulthood, and possibly even their grandchildren, and people in the past wouldn't have been amazed at the sight of a 60 year old. Someone who reached a 100, yes, but there were some of those, too.


Saturday, August 13, 2005

Jane Austen's ghoulish sisters....

I admire Jane Austen and her works, but she does create in the modern mind an image of an early 19th century England full of sense and decorum. This even with sensibility contrasted with sense, and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice to demonstrate how wild young ladies could be, not to mention the outrageous behaviour of many real people of the time.

Of course, in Northanger Abbey she spoofed the "horrid" novels of her time, but that proves she read the novels, and we shouldn't forget just how popular they were. People of all kinds were eagerly gobbling up the gothic novels.

Foreign settings perhaps made the extreme believable.

Koenigsmark the Robber; or, the Terror ofBohemia: In Which Is Included, theAffecting History of Rosenberg and Adelaide

The Cavern of Horrors; or, Miseries of Miranda: A Neapolitan Tale

Included in foreign, of course, was Catholicism with monks, nuns, and convents, always fertile ground for the horrid imagination.

The Bleeding Nun of the Castle of Lindenberg.

The Convent of St. Michael or the Unfortunate Emilia

Father Innocent, Abbot of the Capuchins; or the Crimes of Cloisters

The Midnight Assassin: Or, Confession of the Monk Rinaldi; Containing a Complete History of His Diabolical Machinations and Unparalleled Ferocity

Then there are the novels about sex:

Conscience; or, the Bridal Night: A Tragedy, in Five Acts

The Southern Tower; or, Conjugal Sacrifice and Retribution

Much more can be learned about the popular reading of the time here.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

How the novelist found a husband

Jane Loudon wrote one of the popular gothic novels of the early 19th century, "The Mummy!". I find this below rather charming, especially as they seem to have had a happy marriage.

"Like Mary Shelley, Jane Loudon did not, at the time when she produced her most famous work, bear the name by which she would later become better known. She was born Jane Webb; her father, Thomas Webb, was initially wealthy, but fell on hard times, which appears to have provided the initial stimulus for his daughter to write. (Her particular choice of topic was no doubt influenced by the great interest in Egypt generated by the Napoleonic campaigns there.)

She did not, however, have a long literary career, for her imagined invention in The Mummy! of a mechanical milking machine attracted the attention of the agricultural and horticultural writer John Claudius Loudon, who requested an introduction and subsequently proposed to her, after which she concentrated entirely on gardening, publishing a number of books with titles like The Ladies’ Flower Garden. Apart from The Mummy!, her only other work of fiction was Stories of a Bride, published in 1829.

More at

And more to come about those gothic novels and the reviews of them.

Monday, August 08, 2005

An elixir of egg.

Ah-ha! Perhaps the disgusting practice of using eggs to whiten tea is explained by there being very little of it. Louis Simond, early 19th century traveler to England wrote this.

"Milk-women, with their pails perfectly neat, suspended at the two extremities of a yoke, carefully shaped to fit theshoulders, and surrounded with small tin measures of cream, ring at everydoor, with reiterated pulls, to hasten the maid-servants, who come half asleep to receive a measure as big as an egg, being the allowance of a family; for it is necessary to explain, that milk is not here either food or drink, but a tincture, an elixir exhibited in drops, five or six at most, in a cup of tea, morning and evening. It would be difficult to say what taste or what quality these drops may impart; but so it is; and nobody thinks of questioning the propriety of the custom."

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Even geniuses can get fooled

In the early 18th century there was the South Sea Bubble, an investment mania rather like the fiasco, and the tulip mania. (If you haven't heard of that one, look it up!)

As proof that not only fools get caught by these things, consider the lament of Sir Isaac Newton. "I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."

Um. Doesn't "what goes up must come down" apply here?


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Missing in action

I'm very sorry for letting this lapse. It certainly showed me people were reading and enjoying, though! Thank you for being pleasant in your requests for more.

I want to explain what happened to show why this may be sporadic. I started minepast while doing intensive research and daily coming across strange things I wanted to share. Unfortunately, before realizing I could do something with them I didn't save most of them, but I had a few and came across a few more.

But then the writer's life took over. I had to switch to writing, especially to get a proposal off for a new book. Then I had to prepare my talk for the Romance Writers' national conference in Reno. Then go there. At the same time I should have been doing some promo for the reissue of one of my older books that's on the shelves now. (Risque Celtic statue, misogynistic parrot, eccentric hero, bizarre plot. Forbidden Magic. Buy now!)

BTW, not entirely from the past, but part of my research for my talk was Dr. Helen Fisher's fascinating book WHY WE LOVE. (I strongly recommend this. It's fascinating and readable. Also Malcolm Gladwell's BLINK!) In it she reports that a study over time and cultures shows a distinct preference for women with a waist that is 70% of their hips. This applies to the junoesque and the Twiggies and reflects the optimum balance of estrogen and testosterone for reproduction.

I have to say that my first thought was, bring back crinolines! If we can't fix our waists, we can spread our hips. Probably explains a lot of fashion. Then I wondered about the waist-concealing style of the Regency. Perhaps there's a reason high waisted fashion has rarely taken hold. But that's probably the reason that in fashion plates at least, Regency dresses often emphasise the breasts to a shocking degree. As in the picture above.

People sometimes think the Regency was a period of prim propriety, but the fashion doesn't bear that out. After all, it's also the time when men chose to wear form-fitting pantaloons AND cut their waistcoats and jackets up to the waist.

History -- it's not always what it seems to be.

I'll try to put up more tomorrow, and again, thanks for the assurances that there are people as fascinated by strange trivia as I am.

If you don't read romance, you don't know what you're missing -- and you certainly shouldn't criticize it!

All the best,