Friday, 27 September 2013

Would Jane Austen eat Christmas pudding or Christmas porridge?

Most people don't like Christmas cake, but many enjoy a nice Christmas pudding. I prefer sticky toffee pudding myself, but I doubt that is as traditional.
The molded, steamed pudding that we are familiar with, with a sprinkling of icing sugar and a sprig of holly on top is, like so many Christmas traditions, a Victorian invention. Christmas was not such a big deal in Jane Austen's time. But there were still some traditions, like Christmas porridge.
Autumn was slaughtering time, and there were not so many ways to preserve meat then as there are now. Obviously there were no freezers, and although it gets cold in England, it is not cold enough to keep meat from going off. So what did they do? They couldn't let all that meat go to waste.
Quite early on, people figured out that fruit would act as a preservative, because of the sugar content, though I doubt they knew that was the reason. Therefore, the common practice was to prepare meat with dried fruit to keep it throughout the winter. There were various ways of doing this. One was to pack the meat and fruit together wrapped in pastry like a giant mince pie. Another, the one that probably led to Christmas pudding, was a stew of meat and fruit with vegetables. There were particular days of Advent on which you had to do things to it, like stir it.  It was cooked very slowly.Traditionally, every member of the family would stir the porridge, from east to west The porridge was made in huge batches and poured into smaller earthenware pots and stored in the cellar to be re-heated later as needed. The fat from the meat would rise to the top and form a seal, which helped to keep it from spoiling, kind of like duck confit. It also contained a healthy dose of wine, which would also act as a guard against bacteria. It probably still killed some of the people some of the time, but you know, they did what they could.
It was originally more of a savoury dish, and was always eaten in celebration, but used to be made and served at harvest time. That's why I am writing about Christmas pudding in September, because it is more traditional. By Jane Austen's time, however, it would have been associated with Christmas. As they got better at preserving meat, the purpose of the porridge got lost and the meat was no longer part of it. Sugar and flour and eggs started to go into it, and by about 1830, it appeared as we know it today.
You might think meat and fruit cooked together sounds nasty, but what about mince pies? They used to be made with minced beef. My grandmother says her mother always made them with beef, and that there was nothing so delicious.
Maybe I will find a recipe for the old Christmas porridge and serve it at my book launch. That's going to be at harvest time. What do you think?

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook..)

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

If Jane Austen wanted to be patriotic, she could wear a dead person's teeth

You will recall from the last line of my last post that teeth were a serious problem in the old days, so serious in fact that it killed people by the score. I have heard that in medieval times, you could sue for divorce on the basis of bad breath from rotting teeth. If you have ever seen a specimen of medieval teeth, it is pretty shocking.
In the Georgian era, some people used birch twigs, chalk and salt to clean their teeth, but I am not sure how universal a practice this was. Certainly, people still had very bad teeth. If you recall from my post about tea, you might remember that the Georgians ate a lot of sugar, or at least they did if they could afford it. Not only did they put excessive amounts of sugar in their tea, they also ate cake constantly. They ate cake for breakfast; I kid you not. They ate little cakes with their tea. They didn't have lunch, so they just snacked on cake. This rotted their teeth, obviously. At least, if you could afford sugar it did.
Resulting infection was, I believe, what caused death by teeth. There were no anti-biotics, and dental care was pretty horrific. In fact, I imagine going to the dentist might actually be more dangerous than not, given that people didn't know about germs and definitely did not sanitize anything, even if they did clean it, which is questionable.
The only real treatment was to pull the tooth. If you were rich, you could be drugged with laudanum first; Chloroform came later. Once the tooth was out, then what? Did you just go around with a tooth missing? You could, I suppose, but preferable were false teeth. They didn't make artificial teeth out of plaster like they do now. They used dead people's teeth. 
The market for teeth was quite a hot one. You could even wear dentures made of a whole set of a dead person's teeth. They wouldn't fit very well, but it's better than dying of toothache, and better than toothlessness. 
The most popular teeth were those of fallen soldiers from the war in France. It was considered patriotic to wear a soldier's teeth. People would  scour battlefields scavenging for jewelry and buttons and money, but they also went about taking out the soldiers' teeth which they would sell back to the English. I don't see at all how it would be patriotic to participate in this atrocity by purchasing such teeth, and I don't know how anyone could verify the source of the teeth, but I suppose they just wanted to keep the memory of the soldiers alive and near to them... in their mouths.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast.) 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Open Audition - Spread the word!

Project: Film-style trailer for new historical novel
Audition Time: Monday September 30, 2013 at 3:00pm 
Audition Location: Varscona Theatre, 10329 - 83 Ave, Edmonton, AB
Format: Please prepare on short piece of your choice (if possible) and be prepared for cold reading

Petticoat Press is looking for individuals to play the following roles (ages flexible):

Mr. Darcy - Tall, dark and handsome gentleman age 25-30
Mr. Bingley - Pleasant-looking gentleman age 25-30
Mr. Wickham - Gentleman with every appearance of goodness age 20-30
Georgiana Darcy - Tall, dark girl with a womanly grace age 14-20
Clare Langford - Sweet-looking, sensible girl age 16-22
Caroline Bingley - Attractive lady age 20-30
Lady Sofia - Pretty young lady age 16-35
Mrs. Younge - small, brunette Lady age 20 - 35
Lady Catherine - Age 40+
Butler - Any age

Austin hanged in Park Lane!

If you are a spelling geek like me, you will instantly have noticed that I could not be talking about the novelist, Jane Austen, and you would be correct. I could not help myself. The last man to be publicly hanged in London was a Mr. John Austin, in 1783. I came to this knowledge whilst looking for information about Georgian London, specifically Mayfair. I was confused by John Rocque's historic map which did not contain any Park Lane. Hyde Park was there, just at the edge of the city, but the road along its easterly border was called Tiburn Lane. What is this all about? I thought. I found the answer quite shocking; I thought others might be interested.
Tiburn, or Tyburn as it is more commonly spelled, was the name of the village that played unfortunate host to London's public executions for several centuries.Prisoners from Newgate Prison were taken there to be hanged at the Tyburn Tree, which was a triple gallows, with three posts, connected at the top by beams from which were suspended three nooses. In the late 18th century, public executions ceased, and prisoners were hanged within the prison instead.
It is not known precisely where the Tyburn Tree stood, though I am, no doubt, stretching the truth to suggest anyone was actually hanged in what is now Park Lane. Many believe it was in what is now Connaught Square, another highly desirable address. There is a memorial of the Tyburn Tree in a traffic circle in modern day Edgware Road, with three little cones to mark the three legs of the gallows.
Tiburn Lane was called such, rather obviously, because it led to Tiburn, pretty well right to the gallows. I find it highly amusing to think of all those posh people living in London's once notorious West End, where Newgate's hapless prisoners were carted to their doom.
I suspect these posh people were the motivation for the name change. Nobody wanted to talk about Tyburn any more, and those living in what had come to be, and remains, the most prestigious address in London would tolerate the association. It could be that by the time the gallows went, they were the only remnant of the village of Tyburn, and so the name did not hold any meaning any more, but I doubt it. London is full of names that refer to things that are not there any more. Consider Mayfair itself. No May Fair going on there for ages.
In any event, the name of the road was changed at some point to Park Lane. John Rocque's map was done in 1746, so I know it hadn't changed at that point, which makes sense because the gallows were still there. Another ordnance survey map in 1806 shows it as Park Lane, so by the time of Pride and Prejudice, I believe it would have been known as such. I like to think that there were still some people around calling it Tiburn Lane for a while after it had changed though, as sometimes happens when road names change. And I like to think of the posh people emphatically correcting them."You mean Park Lane. It is called Park Lane now, you know, because of the park. Such an excellent park, do not you think?"
We tend to think that public executions happened all the time in the olden days; that is how it seems in film and television. But the truth is that they were actually quite rare. Most people were transported if anything, and infinitely more frequently were recorded as having died of "teeth."

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast.) 

Monday, 23 September 2013

Mr. Darcy didn't wear underwear, but he might have stuffed his socks

Georgians loved all things neoclassical. You can see it in their architecture, their art, even their clothing. Although we usually think of men of this period dressed in black, by 1813, when Pride and Prejudice was published, it was not really en vogue, except maybe for clergymen. I am pretty sure they always wore black. But for fashionable gentleman, it was much more stylish to try to look as much as possible like a Grecian marble statue. This meant wearing light, creamy tones and very tight britches, often made of calf-skin.
As you have no doubt seen in costume dramas, they did not usually wear long trousers, but rather short ones with long socks. One advantage of this was that it allowed a gentleman to display his shapely, Grecian calves. If one's lower legs were wanting in bulk or definition, all was not lost. One could pad them up. It was actually possible to buy calf-shapers to put into your socks. As Mr. Darcy abhors deception of any kind, he may not have participated in this trend, but it was certainly possible. I do find it difficult to believe that a lady could not tell that a man's legs were not her own, but perhaps it is like a push-up bra. It doesn't matter that it is obviously the work of a bolstering garment. The effect is as desired.
As for underwear, neither men nor women wore any in the Georgian era. Underwear as we know it didn't exist at the time. Bloomers were just beginning to make an appearance on the scene, but were a bit useless. They were not in one piece but came in two separate legs, each with a tie to go around the waist. They did not really cover you up very effectively, and were prone to coming undone and falling off. I really do not know how they came to be popularized at all. Eventually, someone came up with the brilliant, though apparently not obvious, idea to sew the two legs together, as had been done with trousers for centuries.
Previous to bloomers, Ladies simply wore petticoats. Actually, in the Regency, they wore a chemise, which is like a loose, light, shift, then a stay, which is like a cross between a bra and a corset, then a petticoat or two, and then their dress, or gown as they would have called it. All together, the length and weight of their dress obviated the need for any underwear. They were pretty well protected. On their legs, they wore high socks. I cannot confirm that they did not use any sort of garter to keep them up, but I am pretty sure they just tied ribbons around the tops and hoped for the best.
The men also did not wear any underwear. Many modern people do not realize that a man's shirt functioned as his underwear. Shirts were extra long, and men just stuffed them down and around to cover themselves up. So, the romantic image that we have of a man in a flouncy shirt with an open collar, writing poetry by candle light is perhaps not so alluring when you consider that the bottom half of that shirt is not very sanitary. This is why a gentleman was never seen in his shirtsleeves in company, because a gentleman doesn't wear his underwear in front of other people. And this is why I am so outraged by the scene in the Pride and Prejudice film where Matthew McFayden (dreamy as he may be) is out for a stroll at dawn in his open shirt. MR. DARCY WOULD NEVER ROAM THE DOWNS IN HIS UNDERWEAR!
Sorry for yelling. I am excessively attentive to Mr. Darcy's reputation.

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Jane Austen did not approve of taking tea with milk

Yesterday's post kind of went off the rails and ended up in Chinese grammar. It was not really connected to Jane Austen in the first place, and I should say that not all my posts will be. They are just sort of interesting things I have learned in my research and my geek life. But still,what has Chinese to do with the English Regency? .... how about - TEA!
But wait, you might say, although, like so many things, tea came from China, their tea is very different from English tea. They drink mostly green tea, or oolong, etc. We drink mostly black teas. This is true, but what you may not know is that in Jane Austen's time, their tea was much more Chinese. They drank green tea, or oolong, or a blend of the two. There was probably some black tea around, but it was not as ubiquitous as in the Victorian era and beyond. 
Jane Austen wrote in a letter of a new acquaintance, "There are two traits in her character which are pleasing -- namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea." Now, I have said in my heading, that she didn't approve of putting milk in tea, not cream, but these were interchangeable in this context. As my great-grandmother would tell you, "if it comes in a cream pitcher, we call it cream." It was not at all cooth to imply that what was in the cream pitcher was in fact milk. I like to put actual cream in my tea, and people are often horrified at this and think it quite unprecedented. I always tell them, people in the past always put cream in their tea when they could afford to. For further, direct evidence of this, I must again direct you to Elizabeth Gaskell and her delightful book, Cranford. In it, the ladies go for tea at a posh lady's house and she serves tea with a very small pitcher of cream and a larger pitcher of milk. The pitcher of cream, she gives to the dog, with the excuse that he has very delicate taste. The ladies are all rather put out that their tastes are valued less than that of her dog.
In any case, you might share Jane Austen's opinion on the matter when you consider that it was green tea that they were drinking. I can't imagine taking that with milk or cream. Where we part ways is with respect to sugar. The Georgians put ghastly amounts of sugar in their tea. They drank it like green tea syrup. If you ever chance to see a Georgian tea set, you will notice the size of the sugar bowl is enormous relative to what we expect in modern times. You may also notice that there is an additional bowl, which would be a slop bow, where you tossed the last drops of tea and leaves from your cup before re-filling. And the sugar spoon might be in the shape of a shell. Some were actually shells, though I don't remember learning why. Anyone know?  

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Disclaimer: The Great Vowel Shift may not be interesting to some readers

I received a specific request from Nadia Rushdy to write a post about the Great Vowel Shift after I mentioned it in conversation last week. I hesitated to comply because I have been so many times warned against talking about linguistics. My sister always says that it is a topic that instantly kills conversation. Actually, I have used this to my advantage, though only once.
In 2001, I had just returned from China and was meeting an old friend, Ryan Lash, at a book shop in Montreal. Waiting for my friend, I had been chatting with the clerk. When my friend arrived, the clerk kept talking to us, and we wanted to leave. I mentioned I had come back from China. The clerk said something like, "I heard Chinese has no grammar." Here was my moment. I seized it, saying plainly, "No, it just doesn't have any inflectional morphology." That was the end of the conversation. He had nothing. My friend and I made our escape. 
As to the Great Vowel Shift itself, as any linguist will tell you, it as the biggest change in pronunciation of the Middle English period. Basically, it turned open syllables into dipthongs. So, in terms of Jane Austen, her name "Jane" would have once had 2 syllables Ja-ne (the silent "e" wasn't always silent). The great vowel shift would have turned the "a" from a short vowel sound to a long vowel sound, or from "ah" to "ay."  This is the same with all words that have a silent "e" such as robe, lime, tube, tale, cope, and thousands more.  It also accounts for the difference between words like "latter" and "later." One has a closed first syllabler "lat-ter" and the other open, "la-ter." So, we kept the silent "e" on the ends of words to show that they were once open syllables, and so that we don't read Jan Austen and buy a tub of toothpaste.

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)

Friday, 20 September 2013

The "beheaded" look was an actual fashion trend in the time of Jane Austen

Marie Antoinette, like many queens before her, was very influential in the world of fashion. She is even credited with creating the empire waist gown that we associate with the late Georgian and Regency periods. She had a little cottage constructed for herself, with a humble country garden surrounding it and she spend her days there, pretending to be a peasant. She would wear a simple shift or petticoat with a ribbon around it, and I have heard it suggested that it was in imitation of this style of dress that the Napoleonic fashion was born. Certainly, the gowns of Jane Austen's time resembled more the dress of peasants than the absurdly ornate courtiers' gowns of the late 18th Century.
When Marie Antoinette was ultimately beheaded with her husband, so powerful was her influence that fashionable ladies began to recreate the image of her, post-guillotine. They cut off all their hair, in a ragged way, as though it had been done by a prison barber, as Queen Marie's would have been. They then wore a red ribbon around their necks to indicate the would-be cut of the blade that was to have severed their head from their body. I am not sure just how common this fashion was. A lady would certainly have to be committed to it, since she had to cut off all her hair in order to sport it. But if you want to see an example, or evidence that I am not making this up, you can watch Wives and Daughters, the mini-series. (Actually, you should watch it anyway. It is lovely.) About half-way through, one of the characters, a very wealthy and fashionable lady, shows up to a ball dressed just as I have described. Gruesome, I know, but true.
And you thought Heroin Chic was too much!

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Once upon a time, you could rent a pineapple

This sounds so ridiculous, I thought it was very fitting in relation to a book called "Follies Past." It is true. I learned about it at a Jane Austen Society of North America Edmonton Chapter meeting.
Pineapples used to be a sign of prestige. They were very expensive, and displaying one in your fruit bowl told the world that you were of a certain class or standing. If you couldn't actually afford to buy a pineapple, there were  fruit vendors who would rent it out to you for a smaller fee, but you had to return it unharmed. Pineapples are quite hardy, but they do not last forever, and there are stories of people having rented a pineapple to impress their guests, and their guests - being duly impressed - asking to taste it. In these stories, the poor renters of the pineapple were doubly injured. They had to comply and cut open the pineapple, costing themselves a hefty fee with the grocer, and the pineapple was rotten through, costing their reputation with the guests they were trying to impress.
The very best country houses had pineries, specialized greenhouses for growing pineapples. There was a lot of competition for the best gardeners to get yourself the best crop. Yes, you can grow pineapples in England.  I am told also that you can grow pineapples as household plants. You just plant the green top of the pineapple in enough soil and it will grow into a plant. I have not tried this, but if anyone has, please report the results below.
Pineapples have also long been a symbol of hospitality. That is why you often see carvings of them adorning gates and bedposts, and why they are such a popular design on tea towels and serving dishes. I don't know why exactly they became such a symbol. If you know, please share in the comments. I suspect it is related to the prestige that they represented, i.e., you are welcome to everything. We have enough to share. We even have pineapples...

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)

Monday, 16 September 2013


I now have a blog, and a facebook page and even a twitter account. The book will very soon be available through Amazon, and one day, hopefully, be made into a feature-length film, or even better, a three-part mini-series.
The book is just what it says in the title, a prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the great, possibly greatest ever, English novel. Among other things, it tells the story of Georgiana and Mr. Wickham, as summarized by Mr. Darcy in his historic letter to Elizabeth. It also has new characters, as well as a few surprises, all of which I hope readers will enjoy. It has been a great labour of love and I cannot wait to get it to market. Keep checking back here for updates, or follow me on twitter or like me on facebook. I plan to go to print this autumn, and will have lots to share, not only about the book, but about the Georgian era and jollly old England as well. Perhaps even a quip or two about the great Jane Austen herself.