Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Christmas Gifts for Jane Austen Fans

In honour of Jane Austen's birthday, here is a Christmas wish list for the Austen fan - even if that person is you.
You may know a lover of Jane Austen, or of classic literature in general, and be looking for inspiration for a unique gift. They probably have all the books, in various editions, as well as all the movies, and many works of fan fiction, or non-fiction. So what do you get them? Of course, they probably have other interests which you may know more about. Just because they like Jane Austen doesn't mean they need an Austenesque gift, but if that is what you would like to get them, here are a few things I have come across, and which I think would be very welcome by anyone. Most of them will make it in time for Christmas, depending on where you are.

Storiarts makes clothing and accessories based on classic literature. I like these gloves in particular, because they use text from Persuasion, which is not a novel that gets as much attention as some of the others, so it is nice to see it highlighted here. I would be delighted to receive a pair of these, as I think, would any Jane Austen fan. And it is not too late to order for Christmas, as they offer express shipping. They also have scarves, and cushions and other stuff, but these were my favourites.

These are available from the Jane Austen gift shop in Bath. If you are in the UK, they should get to you in time for Christmas. They are also on Amazon, if you are not in the UK. These are best for people without kids, and therefore with a fridge that is not covered in dinosaur magnets and school notices and crayon drawings, like mine is. In fact, the Jane Austen Centre has loads of awesome gifts, including a reproduction ring, copied from the one Jane Austen wore herself, which is exclusively available through them. But as that requires six weeks to custom order, so no dice for Christmas!

These are made to order, though the site says there is one in stock, so you might have some luck getting one for Christmas. I have only ever seen these on line, so there is a good chance your Jane Austen fan does not have one already. The cover design is from a vintage collection, and one  you don't see much, so it's a great, unique gift.

This, from A Mighty Girl, is my idea of fun. I love the adult colouring book movement! I have a mandela book, and I work on it when I am watching my kids, because it makes me happy and I can leave it and come back, and it is kind of mindless but cathartic. How much more true would this be if the images were Regency themed? Love it.

If you are a parent and a Jane Austen fan, you have no doubt received more copies than  you can count of the Pride and Prejudice counting primer. It is adorable, my kids love it, and I think it's a great gift... so long as you are sure they don't already have it! BUT, now there is a new one, and if you are quick, you might get to be the first to give it! (I have a copy already and it's adorable and kind of hilarious, just like the first one). It is on Amazon, so should be able to ship in time for Christmas.

I know, I know. Yes, this is my book, and yes I am shamelessly putting it on this list. We indie authors have to do what we can. But seriously, I have read numerous fan fiction novels, and never found what I was looking for. That is why I wrote this book, because it is what I, as a fan, wanted to read. It is also pretty obscure, so there is a very good chance that they have not read it, unlike most of the mainstream spinoff novels that you might find on shelves at your local bookstore. If you happen to live in Edmonton, you can pick up a copy at Cally's Teas on Whyte Ave, where they also carry Jane Austen band aids and air freshener as well as many other charming gifts and teas. Follies Past is also available at Tix on the Square, where they have a large selection of local handicrafts, which would make unique gifts for anyone on your list.  For those outside Edmonton, Follies Past is available on Amazon in paperback and eBook and will ship in time for Christmas if you are in North America. I cannot confirm either way for the rest of the world. 

I am a believer in not giving more stuff. Despite my enthusiasm for the gifts set out above, I think in our cluttered world it can be much better to give an experience. Yes, if you are in Edmonton, you can come to one of my events, like the Midwinter Ball on February 27, but there are events all over the world that you can check out. I recommend having a peruse through the Facebook Page for Regency-Austen-Napoleonic Events. You can check out your local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, or the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. I know there are a few groups in Australia and across the US. And in the UK, there is lots always going on. There are costume balls, and retreats in Georgian houses, and dinners and musical evenings - I have seen posts about all of these things. If you have specific suggestions, please make them in the comments page.

Whatever you give or you get, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, with plenty of good cheer!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Pride and Prejudice on the big screen

November 15 saw possibly the most enjoyable six hours I and 250 other Edmontonians have ever spent - with this guy (see below) at Fort Edmonton Park in the historical Capitol Theatre. It sold out in under an hour, and I have been overwhelmed with interest in repeating it. I enjoyed it so much, that even after six hours of sitting, I would have done it all over again the next day... nay, that very same night. "Just put it back to the beginning, Mr. Tech! We want more!"

So, since so many people were unable to get tickets, and are hoping for a repeat, and indeed even those who did get tickets would like to do it again, I thought I would write this little post letting everyone in on the background and thus the future of this unprecedented and thrilling event.

I had wanted to put this on for years. Eventually, in 2014, I started trying to track down the rights for a public screening. Many people do not understand copyright and think that as long as you aren't charging any money, or include a disclaimer giving credit to the rights holders and stating that you intend no copyright infringement, then you are not committing an offense. This is like saying, "I didn't intend any theft; I just meant to take it without paying." Or how about, "I did kill him, but look, I held up this sign as I did it!" (sign says: No Murder Intended). So, I had to actually acquire the rights. This proved quite a challenge. I contacted every copyright collective and every agency that I could find. They all directed me to each other. Nobody seemed to know how to obtain these rights. I even called 1800-O-Canada, which is a surprisingly helpful service in the most unexpected situations. They too were flummoxed. I contacted companies that arrange film rights for public viewings like the ones in Churchill square. They could not help me. I was sent to broadcasting rights organizations all across the county. They were all equally unhelpful. Surely, I am not the first person in the world ever to want to put on a show? Was there something about this particular show?

In the end, I went to the BBC shop - the online store where you can order DVDs and mugs and stuff. I dropped them a line. You can imagine, they were not really the right people. But I did not go away.

After a few months, I finally heard back from a guy at BBC International. He told me it was unlikely the BBC would give me the rights. I thought unlikely was not the same as impossible, so I asked him to look into it. He told me there would be a lot of obstacles and it would be very expensive. I may want to have a plan B. I told him my plan B was not to do the event. And let's see what those obstacles are, shall we? Apparently, the BBC never imagined anyone would want to show the program on the big screen and so had not negotiated the rights for that with people like the director. Essentially, the BBC didn't have the power to grant me a license to show the program, because they didn't actually own all the rights to it.

I told them to get me a ballpark estimate, just so I could evaluate whether it was worth pursuing. It was several weeks before he came back with a figure. He said it would be in the range of $37,000.00.

So, that was more than I had expected! And yet I was not deterred. It seems they had decided just to set the price so high that nobody would want to purchase the license and they wouldn't have to renegotiate the rights. Little did they know, I would not be so easily put off. I decided to ask what I would get for my $37,000.00. Could I sub-lease the license, for example? Would it be exclusive to Canada? To North America? For how long? Maybe I could get corporate sponsorship. Maybe I could crowd-fund it. Maybe Cineplex would like to do a national run of it. He said he would get back to me.

It then came up that some people didn't know that you needed to have permission to show programs even if they weren't charging admission. He asked whether I would be interested in a non-theatrical license (one that did not permit admission charges, usually used by schools and private groups), which would have different pricing. I said I could find a way to work with that (again, maybe corporate sponsorship, maybe crowd-funding). He said he would find out the price for that.

Some time later, I received the most wonderful and amazing email. He came back to me saying that the BBC had decided to buy out the rights to the program, so they now had the power to grant whatever licenses they wanted. (I'm not saying this was entirely my doing, but in my heart I do like to think that it was). And they were setting the fee at zero for me and my event. As long as I didn't charge admission, I could show it. He then said that the upcoming Friday was his last day at the BBC, and not to ask any questions but to take this permission and run.

So I did.

Next was the challenge of finding a way to cover the expenses of putting on a film screening without any income from ticket sales. I was not hopeful about grants. I could sell really expensive refreshments. Maybe do a Kickstarter campaign, but with no rewards, since I couldn't offer admission as a reward. I approached my first choice of venue, which was Fort Edmonton Park, just to get an estimate of costs so I knew how much I had to fund-raise. They took a while to provide an answer, but after several phone conversation and email exchanges, they offered to put the whole thing on for free! We would co-host it. I would provide the license and they would do everything else. What a dream come true! All they asked was the right to sell us food. All the costs of running the theatre and paying the staff would have to come out of the food sales, so they were kind of expensive, but considering the entertainment was free, it was still a good deal.

It turned out I was not the only one with this dream, as I did no advertising and it sold out almost instantly. All I did was make an event on Facebook and invite my friends to it. There were over twice as many people wanting to go as there were seats, and that was just according to the Facebook numbers. There may have been others.

Lizzie on the big screen, entertaining the throng
The event itself was absolutely glorious. The weather was perfect. The venue was perfect. Everything was even better than I had imagined it. I was a bit worried that six hours was going to seem long. It didn't. It was such a festive atmosphere. The jokes were funnier with such a large group, and the nuances of the acting, the directing choices, even the editing, were so much clearer and more entertaining when blown up to such a large size. It was truly magnificent and completely unforgettable.
Some people even came in costume!
The food was delicious, and so plentiful!
Treats laid out for our enjoyment in the original Selkirk Hotel,
beside the theatre

I have written to the BBC to seek permission to repeat this event. I have not yet had a reply, but it is Christmas time. Everyone is no doubt run off their feet. But fear not. I am not easily dissuaded, and I hope, before long, to be able to post good news here, or at, or on our Facebook page or Twitter. In the meantime, if you are interested in getting first dibs on tickets once I wrangle the BBC into letting me do it again, you can put your name on a waitlist I created on Just click the "Get Tickets" button and then the "Join Waitlist" button in the window that should pop up. (It was brought to my attention that these links were not taking readers to the waitlist. I have fixed this error and it seems to be working now. Sorry about that!)

Hopefully I will see you at Fort Edmonton Park soon!

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice and founder of Regency Encounters

Monday, 14 September 2015

Make-Believeism - a Manifesto

This afternoon, I was on the radio, talking about the Jane Austen Festival taking place this week in Bath, England. After the interview, I realized there was so much more I wanted to say, so I wrote this post to say it.

The Jane Austen Festival, like the Regency Ball, is an example of what I call Make-Believeist events, or ‎RePlay‬, as I like to call Regency re-enactment. Make-Believeism has been proliferating of late, and other examples include Comic-Con, Steam-Punk, CosPlay, masquerade balls in Venice, LARPing, etc. But what does all this say about our desires as a modern, western world? In events like these, we seek to fulfil the fantasy of entering an alternative reality, of stepping through that magical door, be it a wardrobe in the spare room or platform nine-and-three-quarters or a portal to Longbourn that we discover in the bath. By leaving behind all the markers that define us in our lives, we are forced to confront the question of who we really are. Although it seems counter-intuitive, it is my experience and my observation that when people engage in make-believe, they are more themselves than they are at any other time. It is also, for many people, the only time that they detach from their digital world and engage with the people around them in a sense of community that is based on fun, and on casting away our pretensions of social hierarchy. How can you think yourself better than anyone else when you are dressed up in a costume? We are all just having a ridiculous good time and we are all in it together. It is permission to play and it frees us to the person our heart, our spirit wants to be. 

What is more, I have observed more artistry and craftsmanship and creativity in the Make-Believeist context than in most of the many so-called arts events I have attended in my life. People are motivated in Make-Believeism not by some moralistic, abstract desire to "promote the arts" but by a burning, gleeful compulsion to live out their crazy childhood dream. They take up sewing, crafting, dancing, music, writing, all kinds of things that they would never otherwise think of, and they do not do it out of obligation. They do it out of love, out of joy. It is deeply addictive. 

This is a rebellion against consumerism. A growing number of people are tired of passive entertainment. They don't just want to watch the show. They want to be the show, be in the fantastical world, see it, feel it, live it for themselves. The world of skinny jeans is not enough for some of us. We want more. We want to dance in long-wise sets. We want to taste lembas bread. We are throwing down our cel phones and bringing our imaginations to life. 

Call it nonsense if you will. I call it art.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice and founder of Regency Encounters

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Buy the Book

Monday, 20 April 2015

5 of the best Costume Dramas you have probably never seen

I concede that I may underestimate the comprehensiveness of the viewing public's experience with costume dramas, and that you may, in fact, have seen all of these, particularly if you are someone who reads this blog, which is clearly directed at people like me, who are costume drama junkies. This is a list of costume dramas that I count among my favourites, but that I rarely, if ever, hear anyone mention. I confess, I kind of like that nobody ever talks about them, because it allows me the somewhat narcissistic pleasure of being the one to tell others about them. These are listed in no particular order, except that I saved the best for last.  And I limited myself to films, just to be kind of consistent.

If I could describe this movie in a word it would be 'subtle.' It doesn't beat you over the head with anything, and it kind of fades into the background of your memory, which is probably what accounts for its obscurity. But that does not mean you should not watch it. It means that you can watch it again and again without getting sick of it. The story is of a musicology professor who visits her sister in the mountains and becomes determined to capture the traditional music she there discovers. It is just sort of lovely, and with such great music. Snuggle up on the couch with a cup of tea and a ready sigh, and enjoy.

The Damned United
This probably pushes the definition of costume drama since it is set in the 1970s, but still, it is a different time, and the aesthetic takes some crafting. Therefore, I am including it. I am also including it because it is such a great movie, and I have  never heard anyone mention it. I am pretty sure it was not a huge box office hit, even across the Atlantic where people know who Brian Clough was. He was a football (soccer) manager, and is the lead character. Normally I would not have five minutes for a sports film, but this was really a character piece, subtle and stylish and not at all requiring any interest in the game itself.

The Conspirator
I think about twelve people saw this movie. I certainly do not see it included in any lists of best costume dramas anywhere, yet it is, in my opinion, one of the most clever and thought-provoking films of our time. Do not be put off by the Americana look of the branding. The plot is based on the trial of one woman accused of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln, but the theme is really an exposition in defence of the rule of law that I expect escaped the average viewer. I, however, left the theatre reeling with the implications of all the film had to say. It is a movie that will make you think, in a good way, while engaging you in a riveting drama that stands on its own as a fascinating bit of storytelling.

Of all the films I am listing here, I feel most confident in assuming you have not seen this one. It was a made-for-TV movie that I only watched because I was determined to watch everything John Cusack had ever been in, and he plays essentially the lead role. It is the story of Adolph Hitler in the early interwar period, when he was an aspiring watercolour artist and WWI veteran. Cusack plays a Jewish art dealer who takes an interest in his work. The portrayal of this character of Hitler can only be called brave and fascinating. Who is there in history more infamous, more reviled? How can you possibly show him as anything but a horrific, demented monster, while still trying to offer some kind of understanding of where he came from? The character in the film is despicable and pathetic, and still believable. It feels like you could actually know that person, which is terribly frightening. It is not a luscious kind of costume drama. It is not about the aesthetic of the period. Most of it takes place in a warehouse. It is character driven and incredibly well done. Plus it has Molly Parker in it (go Canada!).

Down with Love
From what I can gather, this film was a box office flop, and being set in the 20th Century, might not be what you think of as a costume drama, especially since it is a comedy. Some might think it not deserving of inclusion with the other films listed here, but I stand by my choice. I don't subscribe to the view that a movie has to be weighty to be good. There is no angst involved in this one. It is clever, adorably mid-century and highly enjoyable. Yes, it is not a serious film, but it gets 5 stars from me because it does precisely what it sets out to do, and does so with style. If you are looking for something light-hearted yet well-crafted, this one comes with my enthusiastic approval. I have probably watched this ten times and am still not tired of it.

Cradle Will Rock
This is my favourite film of all time. I have yet to be so blown away by a film as I was by this one, and were it not for a mention of it in a newspaper listing in the late 1990s, I might not have heard of it. That's a lie. It has John Cusack in it, so I would undoubtedly have heard of it. The incredible fact of this film is who else is in it: Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Emily Watson, Joan Cusack, Hank Azaria, Cary Elwes, Paul Giamatti, John Turturro, Tenacious D (both of them), and the list goes on. How could you not have heard of this movie, you might ask yourself? I ask the same question.  It is written and directed by Tim Robbins, who, though famous, is not as renowned as he deserves for all his diverse genius. I cite Bob Roberts as my evidence. (It's not a costume drama, so couldn't list it here, but watch it anyway. It is my second favourite film after Cradle Will Rock. It's like Wag the Dog meets Best in Show meets something infinitely superior to either.) When I watched Cradle Will Rock for the first time with a group of friends, we actually all stood up and cheered aloud at the screen. BRAVO! BRAVO! Oh, I am getting excited just thinking about it.

In addition to the films listed above, there were a few that I thought too well known, or critically recognised, to be included, but still somewhat obscure, and deserving of a little more praise, even if you have seen most of them. I have set them out below. If there are others you think worthy, please mention them in the comments as well.

Mrs. Henderson Presents
Judy Dench plays an eccentric, aristocratic widow who decides to take charge of a theatre left to her by her late husband. It is set in WWII during the blitz, and is poignant, amusing and everything you want it to be.

Amazing Grace
I don't really know what to tell you about this film except that if you are looking at it thinking, "I wonder if this is any good?" it is, and you should watch it. It has lots of great actors in it, including the ubiquitous Romola Garai and many, many others. It is about Lord Wilberforce and his quest to abolish slavery. It is the first film in which I saw Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Pitt the Younger long before he was any kind of heart throb. It captures both the personal story of WilliamWilberforce as well as the great historical drama of human rights and the law.

Moll Flanders
You might be aware that there is a novel of this name, by Daniel DeFoe. Do not be fooled. They both bear the name of their title character, a woman in 18th Century England. However, there end the similarities. There is virtually nothing in this movie that could be said to have been taken from the book, but it need not necessarily follow that the movie falls short. In my own, possibly singular opinion, the film is actually far superior to the book, perhaps not in their entire respective historical contexts, but just as something to pick up here and now. I expect the discrepancies account for the mixed reviews. If you haven't read the book, or are able to set aside any expectations of this as an adaptation, I recommend this as a film that will make you want to cheer out loud.

Hilary and Jackie
This film was nominated for 2 Oscars, but it still is not that well-known considering how brilliant it is. This might have been the first role in which I saw Emily Watson, and I have certainly been devoted to her ever since. The film is the true story of the famous cellist, Jacqueline Du Pre, and her lesser known sister, flautist Hilary. It tells the story twice, once from the perspective of each sister, and it has such great acting and writing. It is moving and at times a bit disturbing, but utterly compelling.

Miss. Potter
This one did win a Golden Globe and it does star more Hollywood-level celebrities, specifically Ewan MacGregor and Renee Zellwiger, a pairing I think is destined to be classic. Oh, and again it features Emily Watson. I must really like her or something! It is the story of Beatrix Potter, with all her brilliance and idiosyncrasy.  It is so pretty, and touching, and lovely. I could watch it over and over

The Young Victoria
Oh what a pretty, pretty film this is. If only Queen Victoria had looked anything like Emily Blunt, poor girl. You have all probably seen this, but I just wanted to list it because I love it so much.

Ever After
I have confessed many times in this blog to being a huge Disney fan, and lover of fairy tales. I hope the readers are not so prejudiced as to consequently doubt my intelligence or discernment in the art of film or historical portrayal in general. This film is supposed to be the story of what "really" happened to the "real" Cinderella. To me it is a terrific balance of Hollywood fantasy, humour and great storytelling.

Bright Star
The worst thing about this film is the Scottish accent of one character. Otherwise, I cannot find any fault with it. It does get mentioned in lists occasionally, but I don't think it is a really high-profile movie. It is a very personal and understated portrayal of Keats near the end of his all-too-short life. It captures his genius and the tragedy of his death without milking it. It makes the people all seem very real and, to a point, ordinary, though obviously poetic and intellectual. It is beautifully shot, but still a bit gritty, though not in that obnoxious let's show everyone how horrible the olden days was kind of way. It's just very intimate. Plus, it stars Freddie from The Hour and I love him.

These are all based on my personal taste, which not everyone may share, but I hope I may have brought to your attention a new favourite that you might not otherwise have heard of or considered watching.

Please also do watch the video at top right about the upcoming Regency costume ball taking place in Calgary May 16, 2015.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Buy the Book

Thursday, 9 April 2015

What would Jane Austen eat for breakfast?

The answer, tea and toast, is not very interesting I grant you, but the rise of the tea and toast breakfast, at least in my opinion, is.

You see, not long before her time, the usual breakfast of English champions was the famous Beef and Ale breakfast. Yes, that's right, beef and ale for breakfast. Appetising right?

In my post about death by teeth, we learned about how the English loved their sweets, but they also were renowned for their love of meat. The French called them a country of flesh eaters. They mostly lived off meat and cake.

As for the ale, well, it was weaker than the beer we drink now, quite watery in fact. Until they started drinking tea, the English pretty much didn't drink anything that wasn't at least a little bit alcoholic. This is because alcohol cleans the water, so adding a little makes things safe to drink. Water was not considered safe to drink on its own, and it probably really wasn't. I have heard a theory, which makes a good deal of sense to me, that the real reason Bath was so effectual at curing certain illnesses is because people "took the waters" there, from the spring. It was reputed that it contained healing properties. Perhaps it did. But it was also the only water they drank. And they were often prescribed it in rather large dosages. For a people who lived on meat, sugar and alcohol, this alone was probably sufficient to address many of their ailments.

You will recall Mr. Woodhouse, in Emma, drinking wine and water, which was considered a very mild drink. Ale was particularly popular because you could grow grain in England, and therefore it was in ample supply. But tea was another story.

We think of tea as quintessentially and eternally English, but if you think about it, that can't possibly be true. As you might guess, tea doesn't grow in England. There is a woman in Victoria, Canada, who is starting to grow tea, but it is very weak and will take generations to develop into something drinkable, and may never be any good because,although Victoria is the warmest part of Canada, it is still really too cold for tea.

In England, I am not aware of anyone even attempting it. But those cheeky colonials got away with claiming for England lots of other countries, and with them all their resources. As the British Empire expanded into the East, the English were introduced to tea. In later years, they would go to great lengths, including devastating wars, to keep their tea supply flowing.

The excellent benefit of tea was that it required the water to be boiled, making it safely drinkable. It was VERY expensive and consequently became very fashionable. By Jane Austen's time, it was indispensable. See my post about tea, to read about just how valuable it was.

There were, however, those who did not think tea was right for England, crotchety old men who thought beef and ale was perfectly good for their ancestors and should be perfectly good for everyone else - none of this foreign, new-fangled tea business coming in and taking over the good, old-fashioned English ale. Some said tea was bad for the health, citing the change in the complexion of young ladies as evidence. Tea has taken the blush right out of their cheeks, they said. Never mind that it was not the tea taking it out so much as that the young ladies were no longer in a constant flush from being ever so slightly drunk.

Having abandoned their beef at breakfast time, the English clung to their cake. With their tea and toast they also ate pound cake, and lemon drizzle and various other sweet baked goods. They also drank cocoa. This was probably the healthiest thing they ate. Cocoa at least has some antioxidants. And they didn't at first take it sweet like we do. Cocoa was initially a watery, spicy drink, not at all the sweet, creamy thing we have with marshmallows around the fire. They may also have eaten chocolate, but I cannot confirm that. And I very much doubt Mr. Woodhouse would approve if they did.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Buy the Book

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Studies have shown, Queen Victoria lived for almost a thousand years

The manor house which my brother, to his eternal
shame, unwittingly referred to as a cottage
By studies, I mean the vernacular of colonials. I have long noticed, to my great amusement, that for North Americans at least, the word "Victorian" refers to anything predating the First World War. I have heard many such charming remarks as, "I love Downton Abbey, especially the Victorian costumes" or "When you go to the Jane Austen festival, do you wear Victorian dresses?"

I do not wish to be like that English woman who bit my brother's head off for calling the stone manor house a cottage, but I thought I might just clarify a few things in case you don't know. I assume most of you do know, in which case, I write this so that you have something to which you can direct people when you haven't the time or the inclination to tell them why they don't love all that Victorian stuff in "The Tudors."

Also, I have been organizing a lot of Regency events lately, like the Springtime Ball advertised on the right (you should totally come), and an explanation of what is meant by 'Regency' may be useful.

Young Queen Victoria at her coronation in 1837
Eras in English history are mostly named after the monarch reigning at the time. The Victorian era refers to the time when Queen Victoria ruled England. She became queen in 1837, aged 19, marking the beginning of Victorian England.

She died in 1901, at the age of 83. The intervening 64 years only are what we can call the Victorian age, or era. Nothing before, and nothing after.

Hers was the longest reign in English history and, I grant you, a long time for any single monarch, so it is somewhat understandable for people to think it covers pretty much all of the olden days. Furthermore, the Victorian era was remarkably prolific, particularly in terms of literature and technology, so much so that we who are so far removed from any other knowledge of England's history think that everything ever produced in the olden days, must be Victorian.
Queen Victoria near the end of her reign

Downton Abbey opens with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, which is, at best, the Edwardian era, though King Edward himself was actually dead already, as of 1910. His son was on the throne, so that is really two monarchs removed from being Victorian.

Jane Austen's works were published in the second decade of the 19th Century. Jane Austen herself died in 1817, 20 years before Queen Victoria took the throne, and in fact, a year before she was even born. The era we associate with Austen, and when all her books were published, is called the Regency, though you may have heard me refer to it as the Georgian era. Allow me to explain.

There were several kings in a row who were all called George, and their collective reign is therefore known as the Georgian era, or period. The first of the Georges became king in 1714. The third one, George III, was on the throne when he started to become mentally ill in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They made an excellent film about it called "The Madness of King George." It was going to be called "The madness of King George III" but the producers thought American audiences would not go see it because they had not seen the first two movies in the trilogy. God bless America.

King George III had a son who was also called George, specifically Prince George. In 1811, George III was declared unfit to rule and his son took over, but not as king - as Prince Regent. A regent is someone who rules in a monarch's stead while that monarch is unable for some reason. This sometimes happens when a child becomes king or queen. The monarch is a figurehead only, and a regent is appointed to do the actual job of being in charge.

A young prince George, most likely before his Regency,
though I could not find a date. Please comment if you know
when this portrait was done.
Prince George ruled as Regent from the age of 39, in 1811, until his father died in 1820, at which point the Prince Regent became the King. Those nine years were and still are aptly called the Regency. It is, however, still correct to call it Georgian, or late Georgian, as the prince was after all a George, and became King George IV, extending the Georgian era until his death in 1830. Some include the subsequent reign of his somewhat under-appreciated younger brother, William, as part of the Georgian era, and that takes us right up to 1837 and the reign of his niece, Victoria.

If you watch the film "Young Victoria" you might discover that she was pressured to allow someone to rule as her regent when she inherited the throne, but she refused. You may also be falsely led to believe she looked something like Emily Blunt, whom I adore, but who really is so lovely, one could be deceived into thinking Queen Victoria was a beauty. I assure you, such was not the case.

So, now you know that the stuff you love in "The Tudors" is Tudor, and everything in "Elizabeth" is Elizabethan. And if you don't know, or don't particularly care about the exact historical period, you can always just call it old.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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Monday, 6 April 2015

To endeavour to attempt to use the word "try"

Whenever I read things written in the present time, but intending to feel like they were written 200 years ago, I always come across words that take me out of my suspended disbelief. I have written several blog posts under the tag "write like Austen" on these words and the differences between their modern usage and their former meaning. I have no idea if they are useful to anyone, or even interesting, or if anyone even reads them, but I hope so.

"She has got over the most trying age."
A word which can give you away as a modern writer when writing in Regency English is "to try." In the sense of trying to do something, it was not as frequently used 200 years ago. It was used, but more often with a different meaning, one that it can still bear but is not so common, which is to test something.

This can be in the sense of seeing if something works, or of making something difficult. Think of Lizzie saying to Wickham that Georgiana "has got over the most trying age." Or Mrs. Bennet saying that something tries her nerves, or tries her patience.

You might say "try the door," which would mean, test the door, or see if the door will open. Saying, "I have tried to open the door," is not as elegant, in my opinion, and not as common a historical usage.

"It ought not to be attempted."
I recommend, as is probably a good general rule for writing, seeing if you could use a different word or expression. Some examples might be to attempt, to endeavour, to strive, to make an effort, to struggle. Not only might they be more descriptive and evocative, but they are more appropriate to the period. Recall that when Jane asks Lizzie whether they should let their acquaintance know about Wickham's true character, she replies "that it ought not to be attempted."

My feeling is that it will make your writing more authentic if you are aware of these different meanings of "to try" and if you mostly use it in the sense of testing the capacity of something, or being difficult, and if you mostly use other words when referring to one's exertion.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Cinderella and the Glass Slipper

On March 13, Disney releases its new re-telling of this classic tale.  As an unabashed Disney fan, I look forward to it with great anticipation. Also, I love alternative re-tellings (Wicked, Maleficent, etc.) I hope to go on opening night with a large group, either in costume or in pyjamas.

I thought this would be a good time to air my beef with Stephen Fry. Well, I suppose he just reads the cards the QI elves give him, but whenever he says something wrong, I feel I have to dispute it at least to my readers. Please note that I actually adore Stephen Fry and his show. I'm just a bit uppity and excitable when it comes to historical trivia.

In one episode of QI, Mr. Fry states that Cinderella never wore a glass slipper, that this was a translation error and that the slipper was made of squirrel fur. This, he suggests, is because of the homophony of the words "vair" and "verre" in French, the language in which the most popular version of the story was first written. Note that this is the version on which is based the Disney cartoon film, which is (surprisingly for Disney) really rather faithful to the tale on which it is based.

I did a bit of research on this question, and I am convinced that Mr. Perrault, who first included the glass slipper in his telling "Cendrillon" in 1697, intended that it be a glass slipper, not a fur one. Here are my reasons, for your consideration:

1. The word in the story is written "verre." It appears numerous times in the story, and is always spelled this way, which means "glass." It never appears as "vair" or "fur."

2. There is no evidence Perrault did not know how to spell. He does not have a history of confusing the spelling of words with their homophones. By all accounts he was a very learned and erudite guy. Although spelling in the 17th Century was more flexible than it is now, there is no evidence that I am aware of that "verre" was ever an acceptable orthographic variation of "verre." Furthermore, where multiple spellings are acceptable, one usually finds that the word is spelled in different ways within a particular manuscript. Jane Austen, for example, uses both "friend" and "freind" in her books. Only "verre" is used by Perrault in Cendrillon.

3. I have not been able to find any contemporary illustrations for the Perrault story, but at least this one, done in 1862 by Gustave Dore (there should be an accent aigue above the "e" but I can't do one in this program), shows what looks to me like a glass slipper, suggesting that  at least19th Century folk, in France where Perrault first wrote and published his version of the story, believed it was made of glass.

4. One of the reasons for believing that there was a confusion between "vair" and "verre" in this story is that it seems ridiculous to have a slipper made of glass, whereas a slipper made of fur makes perfect sense. Need I remind these people that this is a fairy tale? Everything about it is ridiculous. They make a carriage out of a pumpkin. Perrault was renowned for his creativity. He was practically (though not actually) the founder of the fairy tale as we know it. There is no reason to exclude the possibility of a certain element of a fairy tale because it is fantastical. See my reasons below as to why glass actually makes more sense than fur.

5. The qualities of glass fit the story. Glass, in the 17th Century, was very precious. In the Grimm version of the story, the slipper is made of gold, reinforcing the notion that it was made of a precious material. Furthermore, the very fragile nature of glass fits the ephemeral idea of magical garb that lasts only one night. Also, any lady wearing a slipper of glass must be very graceful and dainty, or they will break the slipper. This implies that Cinderella was all these things, which is consistent with the nature of her character. Unlike fur, glass has absolutely no give. It does not stretch. It would have to mould to the foot in order to fit. Given that only Cinderella can fit the slipper, it makes sense that an inflexible material, like glass, suits the plot of the story better than fur, which might stretch and bend to fit another lady's foot.

I don't know whether I have convinced you or not, or whether the elves at QI might ever reconsider their position, but this is how I came to my own conclusion about the glass slipper. I hope the new Disney film delivers, and is at least as entertaining as this blog post!

Some of my favourite people, on the set of QI, in fitting costumes for the subject of Cinderella

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Regency comes to Calgary, May 16, 2015

On September 28 last year, Edmonton saw its first Regency costume ball, which took place in the sumptuous Wedgwood Room of the Hotel MacDonald, which is actually a certified castle. To own the truth, I think of it as my castle. It isn't. I just feel an affinity towards it. For pictures and details, see my post about that event, which was so popular, we had to do it all over again to accommodate those who couldn't get tickets. 

Dancing in the sumptuous Wedgwood Room at the Michaelmas Ball

We are currently in the midst of dance lessons for the Regency Midwinter Ball taking place again at the Hotel Mac, on February 28.

Dance lessons begin for the Midwinter Ball

If you missed that as well, or if you simply cannot get enough Regency loveliness, then have I got news for you! I am bringing the show south to Calgary, where we will repeat it all, this time at the Palliser, in the Alberta Ballroom, which might be the only venue in the province that could rival the Mac's Wedgwood Room. Tickets at

Alberta Ballroom at the Palliser Hotel

For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me tell you how it works, and how I came to hatch this plan. I have been to several Regency events, particularly costume balls, and while I enjoyed myself tremendously, those events were all in England and we cannot always hop on a plane for the sake of an evening's revelry. Furthermore, I wanted to do things differently.

Dancing at the Jane Austen Ball in Bath, England
One think I always felt was underdeveloped was the actual dancing. There were hundreds of people at the ball, and though there was a workshop offered in advance to learn the dances, we learned more than 5 dances in an hour and a half, and then spent the ball reviewing them and never really got to dance. I wanted to hold a ball at which people came knowing the dances already, so we could all just dance, as they would have in Jane Austen's time. I wanted the dances to last long enough to really get going. In the old days, a single dance could last as long as half an hour. Mine last about 10 minutes, which is long enough to work out the kinks, and for most people to make it at least once down the set.

So, for that reason, I offer 3 dance lessons leading up to the ball, to teach and practice the dances fully. Everyone comes knowing the steps, and recognizing many of the faces of the other guests. I like to think this gives an air of authenticity to the experience.

Some of our guests posing for the camera at the Michaelmas Ball
In Calgary, the lessons will take place at 5400 Dalhousie Drive, NW, on April 26, May 3 and May 10. You can register for the lessons at

I also have a rule against cel phones and cameras at the ball. I always find it impossible to suspend my disbelief of time travel when people are texting and taking selfies all around me. Also, one wants to have a splendid visual record of the event, and being someone who is terrible at photography, and always forgets to take pictures, I never walk away with anything like the images I would like to take with me. 

So, I hire a professional photographer to take everyone's portrait, in their costume, as they arrive, and to take photographs throughout the evening. That way we all get to see ourselves looking our best, and there is only one discreet professional intruding with modern technology on our evening of make-believe.

I have a few gowns that I hire out, and I have posted videos to my YouTube channel showing people how to create a Regency costume out of regular clothing. Costume is mandatory, though flexible. I order a stock of long white gloves for the ladies and stockings  for the gentlemen, which guests can purchase, as they are both difficult to find. Plus I have a few gowns which I rent out to guests who are in a bind about their dress.

Showing some of my gowns to guests at the dance lessons for the Midwinter ball
I recommend people in Edmonton to the Theatre Garage for costume rentals, but do not know of a good costume rental shop in Calgary. Please comment below if you do.

Please share the word about this event. It is going to be tremendous fun, and a lot less expensive than a trip to England.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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Monday, 9 February 2015

Mr. Darcy was actually a plumber

Well, maybe it would be more accurate to say he was a pipeline engineer. My brother is also a pipeline engineer, and when I asked him about this, he acknowledged that, indeed, Mr. Darcy is integral  to pipelines everywhere.

I do not, of course, mean Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley, and indeed, the character was created before the engineer became known. It is just a bit of trivia to get your attention. But something I did learn at a talk by Beatrice Nearey at the Edmonton Library, is that there was running water in London in the time of Jane Austen, which I found surprising.

I recall watching the Forsyte Saga miniseries in 2003 (which, by the way, is possibly the best miniseries ever made and stars Damian Lewis in possibly the best performance ever given, making me resent that his rise to fame came from Homeland when I had been singing his praises for over a decade. Also, Homeland is excellent and I really like it, but I only watched it because it has Soames Forsyte in it.)

There is a scene in which the character Irene goes into the bathroom, gets in the tub and turns on a tap.

When I first saw this, I wondered about the historical accuracy of a Victorian having running water. It seems it was not only possible but quite likely. By the late Victorian period in which the book is set, Mr. Darcy had long established his pressurized water system in France. And Soames Forsyte was a man of Property and lived in Montpelier Square, which was quite posh.

At one point, water was piped in to London from Hertfordshire through the hollowed-out trunks of trees by the New River Company. I wonder how this could possibly be effective, but I am told it was done. The water only went to the most well-to-do houses, such as those in Montpelier Square, and ran for a total of 24 hours per week.

By Jane Austen's time, there were several water companies, such as Chelsea Water Works, distributing water in London. Normal people got their water from the Thames through a distribution system that was, at least at one time, made of lead.

At one point along the New River, the water was used to flood a large theatre for something called Aqua Drama, or Aquatic Theatre. This was a sort of entertainment in which naval events were staged on massive water tanks for the enjoyment of the paying public. They had actual ships made by actual shipbuilders, albeit on a smaller scale, but that were actually capable of firing real guns - inside the theatre. I do not know if anyone was ever killed in these enactments. It would not surprise me. The idea came from the ancient Romans, was revived in Medieval England, and apparently returned again to amuse the Georgians.

Aqua Drama in action

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Buy the Book