Saturday, 14 May 2016

Book Club Guide for Mary Green

The read-along for Mary Green starts today, so here is a little book club guide, for those who are interested in a little extra background reading.

1. Why did you write this book?
Mary Green is the kind of book I would want to read. I wrote it because I love the novels of Jane Austen, drawing room dramas with a light-hearted tone and sentences I can sink my teeth into—a romantic story that is not a romance novel, that is thoroughly researched in terms of the historical setting and yet fun to read.

2. What would you like people to take from your work? I just want them to enjoy it. I believe that whenever we invest in a story, whenever we are moved by someone else's experience, true or fictional, it cultivates our empathy and makes us a more compassionate person. Mary Green is a story that readers can just relax and sink into, an engaging and enjoyable diversion. It doesn't try to teach anyone anything directly, but the characters are very real, at least to me, and that is what I want to give people, just the experience of reading it.

3. Give us a little insight into the background of the story? This story is set in the early 1800s, in a time known as the Regency Period. It is before the Industrial Revolution, so almost everything is done by hand. The Napoleonic Wars are off and on again during this time, so the proportion of men to women is quite small. The American Revolution and the French Revolution are a few decades past and colonialism, especially in India, is in full swing. There is a fascination with all things eastern and classical. Ladies' fashions involve muslins and silks from India worn in a style reminiscent of ancient Greek togas, for example. Feudalism is mostly gone, thanks to the Agricultural Revolution, and there are a lot of migrant workers leaving the countryside for the cities. There is very little in the way of a middle class at this time. People tend either to be gentry or paupers, and women had very few options to support themselves. They were about a century away from getting the right to vote, for example, and relied mostly on marriage as the primary means of security.

4. What kind of experience could I provide my book club that would give them some insight into the characters and their experiences?
To set the mood for Mary Green, anything that brings to mind Jane Austen and her contemporaries would be appropriate. The only music people had ready access to was what people could make themselves, particularly on the piano, which was a fairly new invention at the time. Scotch and Irish airs were easily as popular, if not more so, than the classical music we now associate with the period. So those would be appropriate, as would anything by Haydn, or The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel.
I recommend serving tea in china cups, or even hot chocolate, which was the only way chocolate was consumed at the time and was quite an expensive and indulgent drink. It should be prepared with actual chocolate, melted and mixed with hot milk. To make it more authentic, you can add spices and other flavours like nutmeg, cinnamon, chilli, lavender, orange water, etc.
This would be quite fitting, as drinking chocolate features repeatedly in the second half of the book. Although we think of scones with cream and jam as typical of anything old and English (and so delicious, they would really not be amiss anywhere), they actually only became popular in the Victorian era, well after the Regency era when this book is set. Little sweet-meats would have been served, like tiny biscuits that could fit on one's saucer. Any squares cut small would be perfect, or Persian or Indian sweets, which are quite similar to what was eaten in England 200 years ago.
For more involved dishes, the Jane Austen Centre website has some great recipes, which can be found here:
One simple yet classic refreshment is syllabub. Simply whip two cups of whipping cream and as it starts to thicken, add 1/2 cup of white sugar and a couple of tablespoons of either white wine or lemon juice and a couple more of lemon zest. Chill and serve with grated nutmeg, sprigs of mint, slices of lemon, or anything your heart desires.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Downton Abbey and the History of Clean Hair

I confess that we watched the final season of Downton Abbey when it played in Britain last year. We streamed it using a proxy server, which is WAY beyond my technical prowess, and if my husband were not also a fan of Maggie Smith, I doubt I would ever be able to watch it, because we don't even have cable.

Without giving anything away, I feel it is safe to say that in the Christmas special finale, many things of significance were done and said, wrapping up a long, soapy story. But the one I picked up on, the one that made me want to write a blog post, was a little, forgettable, off-hand remark made by Molesly of all people.

He said to Baxter, as they were walking in the village, that shampoo was actually Indian, that the Indians had it for centuries before the English. This is just the sort of tidbit that Julian Fellowes likes to drop for us nerds to catch, and it reminded me of a few tidbits I have come across in my own research, and which lead me to hypothesize about how India changed the face of English fashions.

Mr. Molesley was, in part, absolutely right. The word shampoo comes from the Hindi word meaning massage. So if, in your Regency reading, you encounter people talking about going for a shampoo, they were likely going to an early massage parlour, or Turkish bath, where such things were purveyed. The idea was first brought to England by one Sake Dean Mohamed, who was appointed the "shampooing surgeon" of George IV as well as William IV.

The hair-washing type of shampoo was at one time made from soap nuts, or so I have read. My first encounter with soap nuts occurred as a result of cloth-diapering my first-born. Soap nuts are recommended as a natural washing agent that will not leave residue and make the diapers smell. They are the fruit of a tropical tree and, when agitated in water, release their waxy coating in a sudsy froth that dissolves oils and cleans things. They have been used in India since well before Regency times, both for laundry and for personal cleanliness, including washing hair.

This is what raw soap nuts look like. You really can just throw a couple in the wash with your clothes. They do work.
Body soap in the Regency was made with lye and would have been quite harsh on hair, I imagine, though I have never tried it. I have also never tried modern soap on my hair. Generally, it all seems like a bad idea. Also recommended during the Regency for hair washing, was to apply beaten egg whites to the roots of the hair, leaving them to dry and then rinsing them out. While this may have been effective, it smells terrible! And not amount of rinsing can get rid of that acrid odour. Soap nuts, unlike soap, are very gentle, but like eggs, smell awful.

So, Regency ladies would have their hair washed with a solution either made from the liquid in which soap nuts had been  boiled, or into which soap had been shaved and dissolved. To this liquid were added essential oils and herbs and probably vinegar. (My grandmother has always sworn by the efficacy of a vinegar rinse for making hair soft and shiny and manageable.) The herbs and oils may also have benefited the hair, but more likely covered up the wretched smell of the soap nuts, which really do smell HORRIBLE when you boil them. And they would not have used it in the way we use shampoo, just rubbing it into their hair. It wouldn't have worked. They would have agitated it and then taken the foam and worked it through the hair. It would have been quite an undertaking.

The point I am attempting to make is that shampoo as we know it did not really exist in the Regency, or even in India. So, sorry Julian Fellowes, but even the word "shampoo" was not used to describe liquid, hair-washing preparation until the Edwardian era, which really saw the flourishing of commercial products of all kinds. So it would not have been any sort of surprise to Baxter, hearing the fact in the 1920s, that shampoo had not always been part of English life.

Early Edwardian shampoos
Non-soap-based shampoos, made instead with chemical surfactants, were not produced until the 1930s, and that is what we all use now. And let me say that for all my love of history, I am very glad not to be living in it. Shampoo as we know it is so much more effective and user-friendly than any soap nuts liquid. Believe me. I have tried both.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Review

You might imagine that I get asked in conversation for my opinion on this film with some regularity. I do. Actually, I most often get asked first whether I watched it, and usually the person asking cringes a little as if they might have given offence even by suggesting that I might do such a thing. But fear not! I am quite open to satire and mash-ups. In fact, the entirety of my opinion is premised on my love of the video below. I recommend you watch it with sound before reading the rest of my review, that is, if you have not watched it before.

The summary of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that I wish it had been made by the brilliant amateurs who made that YouTube video! The whole film ought to have been a series of camp jokes about how difficult it is to wash brains out of a petticoat. It should have been one long, hilarious juxtaposition of strict propriety and gory violence. It should have thrown out any pretense of actually being Pride and Prejudice, aside from character names and very few plot points. Instead, it tried to fit the entirety of the novel, PLUS a whole zombie film into 90 minutes! So it neither delivered as a Jane Austen diversion, nor as a zombie movie, because they cancelled each other out instead of playing off each other. It would have been so much better if the girls from the Fight Club had been given free range to script some good quips and string them together into the semblance of a narrative. I mean, imagine what they could have achieved with a budget one tenth the size of what was spent on the Zombie apocalypse and Lily James.

I wanted more of this kind of thing - fussing about their hair and their dresses, and also whether their daggers make their bums look big... (they didn't actually make that joke, but I wish they had)
Actually, I have no issue with Lily James. I think she is all right. Her mouth kind of reminds of my irresistable friend Poppy and so I sort of find her cute, and liked her much more with dark hair, actually. The only casting error I felt was Mr. Darcy. He ought to have been MUCH better looking! I mean, he ought to have been Benedict Cumberbatch regardless of how old he is. He was born to play Darcy, in my opinion. But even without the Batch, they should have found someone more action hero, if he is supposed to be this zombie-slaying stud, basically.

In a nutshell, that is my opinion. I'm not a snob. I was somewhat looking forward to a good laugh, but it wasn't funny enough. There were a few clever moments, but on the whole, it was just kind of gross.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Football banned in London due to player deaths and property damage

As you might have guessed, this is not current news. My book is about the past, and so are all my posts. This actually happened in the 14th Century, but it did happen. So if you think football has only gotten out of hand in recent years, think again. People were regularly killed, maimed and injured in inglorious ways very regularly right through Jane Austen's time. People would sometimes get stabbed, or break their shins against each other, or break each other's heads. It was very violent. That's why it was banned in London in 1314. It was also banned in Manchester, but you can imagine how that went over.

For the benefit of North American readers, I should clarify that I am talking about the game now known as soccer. It was not called soccer until the late 1800's, well after Jane Austen's time, but although the word is mostly used in North America, it is most definitely an English invention. (My apologies to those who already know all this stuff. I only found it out in recent years, and finding it myself quite interesting thought I might as well share it.)

The game was always called football, and in fact, American football derived from it as well. In New Zealand we called the American sport Gridiron. This apparently has to do with the lines on the field. Everyone there played Rugby, which also derived from the same sport and is named for the school where the rules were codified. Rugby school was very posh, and so the game is thought of as more upper-class, though it has the same roots. The game we call soccer is Association Rules Football. The Association was formed in 1863. Association is shortened to Assoc. and as the English have this charming way of putting "er" on the ends of things to make them chummy, they called it soccer. They also do this with rugby, call it "rugger."

From what I have read, it seems like the sport mostly started in the north of England. It was played in medieval times between neighbouring towns, on Sunday, when folks weren't working. The teams were formed out of the trade guilds, especially the young apprentices. The older men would ride out and cheer them on. Imagine Darcy and Bingley, of an afternoon, on their mounts, cheering for the Lampton blacksmiths in the paddocks of Derbyshire.

The match would start in the middle of a field halfway between the towns, and each town would try to get the ball to the other town's church door, which was the goal. I don't know about you, but I think this is fascinating It sounds a bit more like capture the flag to me than what we think of as football.

The fact that teams were traditionally formed out of natural trade associations is the reason I support the team Crystal Palace. I say I support them, but that just means that when someone asks me, I say I support Crystal Palace. That team was formed by the workers who built the Crystal Palace. If you don't know what that is, perhaps I will do a post on it another day, even if it was actually Victorian.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Spotlight on Edge of Wild

Today is the start of the read-along for Edge of Wild, by Danika Stone, so I thought I would tell you about it, even though it is not a Regency novel, or even really historical fiction (unless you count the 1990s as history, which I suppose, in a very technical sense, it is). I met Ms. Stone at the launch of Stonehouse Publishing, and I can report that she is quite delightful and very unpretentious, and really everything you would hope for in an Alberta author. Moreover, she is an excellent reader (not always the case with authors) and, more importantly, a terrific writer. I am looking forward to joining in the read-along of her latest release, Edge of Wild, and you too can join in the conversation about it this week (or any time) with the hashtag #EdgeofWild.

Here she is reading the first chapter at the Stonehouse launch on March 1, 2016:

The novel is a mystery-thriller set in Waterton Lakes, Alberta in the 1990s. The author has received much praise both for her lyrical prose and her page-turning narrative strength. Here is the blurb for the book:

Transplanted from New York City to the tiny mountain town of Waterton, Alberta with the task of saving a floundering new hotel, Rich Evans is desperate to return to the city as soon as he can. The locals seem unusually hostile towards his efforts, or maybe even menacing, and was that a cougar on his door-step last night? As Rich begins to wonder whether his predecessor disappeared of his own accord, he finds himself strongly drawn to Louise Newman, the garage mechanic who is fixing his suddenly unreliable BMW, and the only person in Waterton who doesn’t seem desperate to run him out of town. As Rich works on the hotel, the town is torn apart by a series of gruesome, unsolved murders. With Louise as his only ally in a town that seems set against him, Rich can’t help but wonder: will he be the next victim?

The book is available in Chapters/Coles/Indigo as well as select independent book stores. You can also order it using the following links:

Order paperback

Order iBook

Order for Kindle

Order for Kobo

Thursday, 5 May 2016

6 words that make you sound like Jane Austen

If you ever fancy trying your hand at writing an Austenesque story or dialogue, or if you just enjoy using historical language in your every day speech, it can help to have a few key words and phrases in your back pocket, to give it an authentic flair. These are just a very few that I like, to get you started, vocabulary that has fallen out of use, or at least have changed in their use since the early 1800s. I referred to "a want of evidence" in a legal submission recently, and thought it made me sound very distinguished. Let me know how you get on with using them, or if you have a particular love of your own antiquated colloquialisms.

Haste - meaning quick speed, or rapidity as it were. You can tell someone to hurry by saying, "make haste!" Or you can do something hastily, often to your regret. Or you can be hasty. It is a terrific word, and very efficient, for in one syllable there is so much mood and subtlety, I feel.

Alacrity - meaning enthusiasm and haste (see above). This word is quite common in Jane Austen's writing, and we NEVER see it any more. I have only ever seen it as a noun, though if anyone knows its adjectival form, please do share!

Vast - meaning very, very large. It can be used simply to describe a physical thing, such as the most common example of a vast ocean. You can also speak of there being a vast deal of something, which is very Jane-Austen in my opinion. And you can use it as an intensifier, such as being vastly disappointed in the shocking want of cake.

Directly - meaning immediately. We still use this word, of course, but not quite in the same sense. Think of Mr. Bingley saying, "I shall speak with the solicitor directly." You can also use it to replace the phrase, "as soon as," as in, "I shall ask him directly he comes here." This sounds very awkward to our modern ears, but that is what makes it authentic.

Parched - meaning thirsty. Actually, in some places they still use this word, like Newfoundland, for example, which actually has the oldest form of English currently spoken in our modern world - at least according to Trivial Pursuit, or some board game I once played that had that as a question. It's some hot today, byes! I'm right parched.

Want - meaning lack. I wrote a whole post on this word, so I was not going to include it, but decided to at the last minute because, being quite a common word, it comes up a lot and, in my opinion, makes a vast deal of difference to the sound of writing. If you don't have any tea, for example, you can speak of a want of tea. It doesn't necessarily mean you want some tea, though. If you don't have tea, and you want some, you can say that you want for tea. See how exciting this little word is? So much style, I feel.

So make haste, and come with alacrity to my vast offering of tea, directly I call you, for I see you are parched and want refreshment!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

To smart or not to be smart

If you are familiar with the English spoken on both sides of the Atlantic, you might see the humour in the true story of my brother, who had an interview at Oxford and nothing to wear, going from shop to shop asking if they had any dress pants. Canadian readers might wonder, what is so funny about that? UK readers may react with the same confusion and amusement as did the people in the shops.
Where we here in the colonies say, "dress," the denizens of the old country say, "smart." And when they say, "pants," they actually mean, "underwear."

So, essentially, my poor brother was himself rather dismayed that not a single clothing store in Brighton had any dress pants, while the shop attendants wondered why this American guy wanted underwear with dresses on them, or possibly underwear to wear with a dress? Not sure. What he should have been asking for was, of course, smart trousers.

Here is a picture of my brother, looking smart in both senses of the word. Firstly, he is wearing a tie, and secondly, he ended up going to Yale where he was valedictorian and from where he went to work for Google. (Sorry, a sister has to brag when she can.)

This brings me to my point, which is to clarify the meaning of an English word, for use in historical English fiction. At least here in the New World, we use "smart" to mean intelligent. This usage began in about the mid 20th Century. Prior to that, from about 1700, it meant what it now means in UK English, ie. looking good.

The original meaning, however, is to sting. This, too, is still a use I have heard, though not as common as it once was. It is from this meaning that we get the use for clever, from the idea of having a cutting or sharp or stinging wit. It has also been applied to the sense of being keen in bargaining. These uses are attested from as early as 1300, though are more specific than our modern general use for just being, well, smart.

And just for fun, here is a picture of my brother, with me and my sister, looking smart in a wholly different, much more Regency way.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Dressmakers: unexpected feminist revolutionaries

When I was writing Mary Green, I wanted to have a character who was a mantuamaker, and I wanted the dressmaking to be a bit of a feature in the book. I had to do a bit of research about how one went about ordering gowns, and I discovered, rather by accident, that dressmaking, or mantuamaking, has quite a bit more to do with the history of feminism than I had bargained for. This was particularly problematic because I wanted my mantuamaker to be male. I wanted him to be handsome and charming and a bit of a dark horse, which was tricky once I understood how important this trade was for women.

Check out this ENORMOUS mantua, circa 1744, from the
Victoria and Albert Museum.
I discovered that, until the 17th Century, it was illegal for women to make and sell clothing, both male and female. (I have not been able to find the actual legislation which restricted economic activity to men, but believe it did exist. If anyone has a source for this law, please do direct me to it.) Then, in the mid to late 1600s, a new fashion came on the scene that would forever change the course of women in the workplace.

It was called a mantua, or a manteau, or mantle, and because of its construction it fell outside the prohibition. It was a loophole in the law, and it opened the gates to allowing women into the industry. The mantua was a less structured garment than the gowns of the previous era. It was worn over a structured stomacher and petticoat, and because of its lack of boning was somehow permissible for women to make and to sell. And once they were in, they did not let go their hold. They were the ultimate entrepreneurs and they weren't going anywhere. In fact, they branched out into millinery and jewellery and other associated trades.

And do not think that there was no push-back from the tailors! The gentlemen of the profession continued to make men's clothing, as well as stays and corsets and outerwear for women, as these tended to be more labour intensive and required more physical strength. But they lost their foothold and their ability to argue that women could not do the work of making soft-flowing robes.

Dressmakers Shop - 1775
The matter was hotly debated in parliament even, with the guilds arguing that these women were taking work away from men who had to support their families, failing to mention, of course, that women without husbands had no other means of supporting themselves and their families. Arguments were raised, even, as early as the mid-1700s that permitting women to enter into commerce in this way was was opening the gates to such horrors as women gaining the vote or standing for election. This slippery slope argument was dismissed as an absurd level of hyperbole and the women were left to earn their keep. And as the late 18th Century saw the advent of very unstructured gowns, chemises really, the mantuamakers came to be the fundamental clothiers of society ladies.

Up until then, the men were still a real part of the game, though not everyone thought they should be. Fanny Burney, for one, wrote of them as unnatural fops, knowing more about women's bodies than women did. She was writing in the second half of the 18th Century. By the early 19th Century, there were virtually no male mantuamakers left. I read on one blog that by 1810, there was not a single male dressmaker in all of New England, so that is something. However, I did find support for the idea that there were a few male mantuamakers about in England at that time, though they were rare.

My dilemma was that I wanted my lead character, Mary, to be snubbed by the high-end, popular dressmakers of Pall Mall, but not by the humble guy in the shop off the high street. I did not like the idea that these ladies, who were fighting tooth and nail to keep the men at bay, who were feeding their families with their own labour, would snub poor Mary Green because of the state of her shoes, while a man would be humble and kind.

In the end, I resolved to make my dressmaker, Mr. Graham, a linen-draper whose mother had been a dressmaker and who had learned the trade from her, since she did not have any daughters. In the later years of his mother's life, he was doing most of the work as her eyes and hands began to fail her. Linen-draping (or selling fabric) was a separate, male-only trade, though very occasionally, a linen-draper would have an in-house dressmaker. Consequently, it is the snobby, male linen-drapers who turn their noses up at Mary, and Mr. Graham who trusts her to bring his fashion skills to the ladies of London.

I hope you will like him as much as I do, and that you will not blame him for being male. Perhaps, if he is successful, he will give employment to many deserving women, and who knows? Maybe his daughters, or grand-daughters will one day fight for the vote, in memory of old Mrs. Graham and her determination and ingenuity.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

What is a "Read-Along" anyway?

Have you ever read a book, and wished that you could find someone else who had read it, so that you could talk about it? I suppose that's why people join book clubs. But sometimes, you don't belong to a book club, and maybe you haven't got time to find one, or even time to go to one if you could find one. And then once you join the book club, you would have to convince everyone else to read the book that you just read.  And even if you are successful in convincing them, you would have to wait until they all read it. If, like me, you can't get it together to do all of this, if you haven't got the patience to wait through all of that, and just want to talk to about the book while it is still fresh in your mind, and you're still excited about it, then maybe a read along would be worth joining instead. You might miss out on the snacks and beverages of a real life book club, but you get to stay in your pyjamas and you can always make your own tea.

So what is a read along, then? Basically, it's an online book club. Book bloggers sometimes do them and post as they go and invite discussion etc. on their blog. In the coming month, Edmonton's newest publishing house, Stonehouse, is doing a read along of the five books it is releasing in May 1, all by Alberta authors. So if you want to get in on supporting local authors and being part of the buzz, you might want to see if any of their offerings interest you. 

The read along will involve a spotlight each week on a different book, with book club guides and author interviews and book trailers on the publisher's website, as well as a hashtag for each book that you can use to participate in the discussion on social media sites. And if you have your own blog and want to discuss the books on your site, all the better. You will be in good company, as a few bloggers are already signed on to do just that.

Here are the dates of the read along for each of the five Stonehouse titles (More details and ordering info can be found on the Stonehouse website):

May 6-13
Edge of Wild by Danika Stone
A mystery-thriller set in 1990's Waterton, Alberta.

May 13-20
Mary Green by Melanie Kerr (that's me!)
An Austen-like tale of an orphan girl set in 19th Century England. 

May 20-27
Kalyna by Pam Clark
A story of love, heartbreak and internment among the Ukranian settlers of war-time Alberta. 

May 27-June 2
Course Correction by Doug Morrison
A maffia, spy thriller set in modern Ukraine. 

June 2-9
League of the Star by N R Cruise
The saga of a French family exiled in England following the revolution.