Sir Walter Elliot and Me

I’ve been fascinated by English nobility for as long as I can remember. And like most writers who pen stories set in the era of Regency England, I’ve made a study of the peerage with its ranks and titles, hierarchies and presidencies.

That explains why—whenever I read the opening paragraphs of Jane Austen’s Persuasion—I feel a strong connection with Sir Walter Elliot and his preoccupation with his own book about the baronetage:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL.

“Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791.”

There are plenty of instances in Persuasion where Austen gives readers reasons to dislike Sir Walter Elliot for his arrogance, or holds him up to ridicule for his vanity; but I have to agree with Sir Walter on one thing: I love a good book about the peerage.

Several years ago, I found my own copy of a book like Sir Walter’s Baronetage, and it’s one of my prized possessions.

In a used book store in southern California I found a battered 1806 edition of Debrett’s Peerage of England, Scotland and Ireland. Here’s the title page:

It’s a thick book, weighing in at over 400 pages of very tiny type; but it contains everything you’d ever want to know about the hereditary peers of Great Britain and Ireland in the early Nineteenth Century.

The book names each peer by rank, his wife (if married), his children (detailing whether they’re alive or deceased), and the name of the peer’s heir.

It even includes illustrations of the major peers’ coats of arms, and their mottoes. For example, the Marquis of Downshire’s motto is:

“Either attempt not, or accomplish.”

That sounds a lot like Yoda’s “Do or do not; there is no try,” doesn’t it? Here’s a page showing some of the coats of arms for English Marquisses:

And like Sir Walter Elliot, I enjoy browsing through the pages of the book whenever I have an idle moment.

In my novel Mary and the Captain, my copy of Debrett’s played a pivotal role in the story. Mary Bennet used the entries in Debrett’s to figure out the identity of a boy apprentice she and Captain Robert Bingley (Caroline and Charles’ brother) rescue from a cruel taskmaster.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that there’s nothing to Debrett’s but a long list of peers, their ancestors, and heirs.

My 1806 edition includes a handy explanation of heraldic terms. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours poring over these pages with a magnifying glass trying to reason out for myself what each symbol meant on a given coat of arms.

Every little detail on a coat of arms means something. For someone like me who enjoys solving puzzles, interpreting the arms shown in the book has been a fun challenge using the illustrations of terms.

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Like Sir Walter, my Debrett’s has given me “occupation for an idle hour” and I’m still discovering fascinating new bits of information in its pages; like this entry for Elizabeth Rawdon, Baroness Hungerford:

What?!? I was pretty startled to see a woman listed among the barons, since all my research showed noble titles were passed from male to male in each generation. But with Lady Hungerford’s entry, I charged off on a new flurry of research to figure out how it was possible that a woman inherited a baronetcy.

I’m still working my way through the book, and with each reading I seem to discover new revelations that fascinate me. That’s why I can whole-heartedly agree with Sir Walter: poring over the pages of a book about the peerage never fails to hold my interest.

 

 

Byron’s Bible

George Gordon, Lord Byron certainly had a reputation.

Lord Byron (National Portrait Gallery, London)

In fact, he had several reputations. Even today some people think of him as the noble, courageous, yet doomed hero he wrote about in his verses.

Others think of him as a scandalous cad who embarked on a series of inappropriate relationships, seduced his half-sister, cruelly disgraced his wife, and drove Caroline Lamb to madness.

Byron in Albanian Dress by Thomas Phillips

But he also had a reputation as a wit. His sense of humor ranged from cheeky to outrageous, and he delighted in catching people off guard. Here’s an example:

Byron’s publisher was a man named John Murray. In appreciation of their long-time association, Byron one day presented Murray with a beautifully bound Bible in which he had written a very flattering inscription to Murray. Murray prized the Bible and kept in on a table where anyone who entered his office could not help but see it and be impressed by it.

One day a visitor to Murray’s office was admiring the Bible and flipping through the pages, when he called Murray’s attention to John 18:40, which read “Now Barabbas was a robber.”

Byron had scratched through the word “robber” and substituted “publisher.”

An 1840 print of Lord Byron by Currier and Ives

The account I read didn’t describe how John Murray reacted to the discovery, but it did report that Murray stopped displaying Byron’s Bible in his office.

 

Take Two Pigeons and Call Me in the Morning

Inaccurate—and sometimes preposterous—news stories have been circulating since mankind first began stringing words together in a sentence. History shows that even reputable publications sometimes pick up questionable stories and run with them.

To illustrate the point, here’s a news item I found in a 1798 issue of Sporting Magazine about a revolutionary medical treatment:

We inserted in a former Number, an article respecting a child being recovered from convulsion fits, by applying the naked breast of a live pigeon to its stomach: the same experiment has been lately made on the child of a poor person at Clipstone, Northamptonshire, and with equal success. The infant had had several violent fits, and its life was despaired of. In one of these the breast of a pigeon was applied to the pit of the stomach, and in a few minutes the child revived. The same experiment was made several times, and with the same effect: the pigeon, however, did not appear to be convulsed, nor to have sustained any injury, and notwithstanding the loss of feathers, it is still alive, and pecks as well as usual.

This may read like nothing more than a bit of Regency-era quackery, but at least the story had a happy ending: both patient and pigeon survived.

The pigeon was not so lucky in the following account of a similar encounter, which I found in The Monthly Gazette of Health, Vol. IV for the Year 1819 by Richard Reece, M.D. of London:

Epilepsy.—An intelligent gentleman of Gloucester, informs us, that the parents of a young man residing at Fairford, who had been for four or five years subject to epileptic fits, applied (by the advice of a friend) a live pigeon to the pit of his stomach during an attack of the paroxysm. The fit terminated much sooner than usual, and the pigeon on being removed was observed to be stupid. On a return of the fit the same pigeon was re-applied to the pit of the stomach, and soon afterwards the patient recovered, and the pigeon exhibited some symptoms of being convulsed.

These two stories aren’t necessarily representative of the state of early nineteenth century medicine, but they do make an important point: In Regency-era England, physician-prescribed medical treatments (like blood-letting, laxative-induced purging, and applying leeches) often did more harm than good. It was natural, then, for people to search for alternatives, like folk remedies, to cure what ailed them.

After all, pigeons were plentiful; and with stories like these fueling people’s imaginations, desperate families (and a few untrained members in the medical profession) had nothing to lose by turning to pigeons to ease the symptoms of a loved one’s illness.

Medical anthropologist and author Kyra Kramer recently did a guest post about Regency medicine on Maria Grace’s blog, Random Bits of Fascination. It’s an interesting read with nary a mention of pigeons. I hope you check it out.

 

My Garage Sale Find

It’s true what they say about one man’s trash.

I should know. I’ve found a few treasures of my own while browsing through jumbles of used items other people have for sale. I never know what I’m going to find in a booth at my local swap meet or on a table of items at a neighborhood garage sale.

box-pimpernel-place-mats

Just last week I found a set of Pimpernel British Heritage place mats at a garage sale. Each cork-backed mat in the set of six measures about 8″ x 8-1/2″ in size; and though the original box is a little beat up, the place mats themselves are in great condition.

westminster-abbey

But I didn’t spend $2 of my hard-earned money to take them home and put hot plates on them; I bought them solely because of the images they depict of old London landmarks. And when I scanned each image and cropped off the red and gold borders on my digital copies, they were nice images, indeed.

westminster-abbey-cropped

Unfortunately, there’s nothing on the box to indicate where the original images came from.

st-pauls-cropped

Nor do they name an artist (although the box did assure me these mats would add “interest and elegance” to my table).

st-james-palace-cropped

So I turned to Google Image Search and found a couple of matches, but I couldn’t be certain how reliable the background info was that I found.

ludgate-hill-cropped

The above image of Ludgate Hill viewed from Fleet Street returned several matches, one of which indicated the original was by Jones & Co. from 1830.

Detail of the Ludgate Hill mat

Detail of the Ludgate Hill mat

Based on the style of dress of the people depicted in each scene, I’d agree the setting for each image is about 1830.

The other nice thing about these illustrations is the amount of detail they contain. Take the Ludgate Hill image, for instance. In the shadowed corner of the building on the far right of the illustration you can see the marker for Fleet Street.

And on the face of the four-story white building you can just make out the name “Albion Fire and Life,” an insurance company founded in 1805.

piccadilly-cropped

The illustration of the intersection of Piccadilly and Coventry has similar details, from the business names on the buildings to the style of coach and dress at the time:

piccadilly-detail

The other thing I like is the scale each image provides, showing the monumental size of the buildings and landmarks.

horse-guards-cropped

So these place mats, once planned for a purely utilitarian purpose, will now be added to my collection of items related to the Regency era.  The next time I’m writing about the era and find myself stumped describing a London landmark, I’ll have these images to refer to. All in all, I think this set is one of my better $2 investments.

 

 

Hold on to Your Hats! It’s a Helter Skelter

I love to ride roller coasters. The hair-raising speed, the sudden drops you feel in the pit of your stomach, the hair-pin turns—they all combine to make for one thrilling ride.

If roller coasters are a little too intense for your taste, you might want to give a Helter Skelter a try.

The Helter Skelter at Coney Island, New York in 1905

The Helter Skelter at Coney Island, New York in 1905

Helter Skelters are slides built around a central structure. Instead of modern mechanical gears and pulley systems, they rely on gravity to give riders a smooth, twisting-turning trip to the ground. Inside their central structure is a staircase; riders climb the stairs to their highest point where they emerge from the structure at the top of the slide; then they sit down on a mat, or take a seat on a sled, and ride the slide to the ground.

Helter Skelters aren’t exclusive to America. The photograph below, found at I Love the British Royals, shows the future King George VI riding a Helter Skelter at Wembley Exhibition in London, 1925.

The future King George VI on a Helter Skelter at Wembley Exhibition, London, 1925.

The future King George VI on a Helter Skelter at Wembley Exhibition, London, 1925.

Nor are Helter Skelters a 20th century invention. In fact, there are records of Helter Skelters as far back as the Regency era.

The image below from 1817 shows a man with two masked revelers at the base of a Helter Skelter slide, with twin tower structures in the background.

A gentleman and two masked revelers at a Helter Skelter slide; 1817.

A gentleman and two masked revelers at a Helter Skelter slide; 1817.

And the following 1816 image depicts two ladies and a gentleman watching riders descend a Helter Skelter.

A Helter Skelter slide; 1816.

A Helter Skelter slide; 1816.

In this undated image, one man collects his wife and daughter as a second man collects his wife after they’ve gone down a Helter Skelter:

Riders completing a turn on a Helter Skelter slide. The riders used wheeled chairs to descend the slide.

Riders completing a turn on a Helter Skelter slide.

Some Helter Skelters were rather elaborate. The 1816 image below shows a Helter Skelter with dual slides that take deep turns—certain to thrill the era’s most adventurous riders. And with a starting point four stories high, riders probably reached some impressive speeds on their way down.

An elaborate Helter Skelter, four stories high; 1816.

An elaborate Helter Skelter, four stories high; 1816. The image shows riders descending on wheeled sleds that follow a track.

Given my love for roller coasters named Goliath and Intimidator, I feel a special kinship with the Regency era ladies and gentlemen who dared to take a turn on a Helter Skelter. It looks like the kind of fun I like!

And the Chutzpah Award Goes to …

In my collection of old books and documents I have several copies of The Sporting Magazine from the years 1797 and 1798. The Sporting Magazine was a monthly publication for gentlemen. Most of the articles chronicled racing events and reports on stag and fox hunting; but they also contain some excellent feature articles, too.

The features cover diverse topics. I’ve read articles on the history of boxing, the proper equipment for anglers, some poetry, and even reviews of new plays being performed at London theaters at the time.

But my favorite elements of the magazine are the little news items that the editors fit in between the larger articles. Here’s a sample:

From the January 1798 edition of The Sporting Magazine

From the January 1798 edition of The Sporting Magazine

The motto “Honi foit qui mal y pense” is the motto of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and translates as “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.”

Princess Elizabeth (center) with her sisters Princess Augusta Sophia (left) and Charlotte Augusta Matilda, Princess Royal (seated). by Arthur N. Sanders, published by Henry Graves, after Thomas Gainsborough (1784) NPG D15000 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Princess Elizabeth (center) with her sisters Princess Augusta Sophia (left) and Charlotte Augusta Matilda, Princess Royal (seated); by Arthur N. Sanders, published by Henry Graves, after Thomas Gainsborough (1784)
NPG D15000
© National Portrait Gallery, London

This story really tickled me—first because it’s just plain funny; and, second, in an era of strict etiquette and court manners, Princess Elizabeth sounds like she would have been a very interesting young woman to know.

The Sad Tale of Lydia Bennet and Other Women Like Her

Lydia Bennet was fifteen years old when she fell under the spell of George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Willful and foolish, she eloped with Wickham less than a year after making his acquaintance, leaving her family stunned by the news and tainted (in Society’s eyes) by her actions.

Why Did He Do It?

One question Lydia’s father and sister Elizabeth pondered was, why would Wickham run off with Lydia? She had no money, no dowry, and no connections. Had he some hidden motive in singling Lydia Bennet out as the object of his villainy?

Lydia Bennet and George Wickham as portrayed in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

Lydia Bennet and George Wickham as portrayed in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen never revealed Wickham’s true motive in the story, but it could very well be that George Wickham was just plain caddish when it came to his dealings with women. The Bennet family was right to worry that Lydia’s actions would have a long-term effect on the family’s reputation. Society did not deal kindly with anyone whose name was attached to scandal.

Lydia Bennet entered into her scandalous union with Wickham with her eyes wide open; but there are records of similarly situated young women who were innocent victims of such men.

The Teacher and the Student

The Newgate Calendar (a chronicle of the scoundrels who were confined within the walls of London’s Newgate Prison) recounts the trial of Henry Morris, whose story has parallels to Wickham’s.

Morris was a teacher by profession, and one of his students was fifteen-year-old Mary Anne Murphy. Morris was smitten with Mary Anne; he approached her father in 1812, declared his undying love and asked the father’s permission to marry her.

Mr. Murphy gave Morris his consent to marry his daughter once she attained the age of sixteen some six months hence; in the meantime, he required that Morris court his daughter only under his supervision.

Morris agreed, but quickly went back on his word, meeting Mary Anne in secret. Morris began missing his teaching responsibilities at the same time Mary Anne began missing class; soon Morris abandoned teaching his classes altogether, and Mary Anne went truant. Within months of promising to wait until his beloved was of age, Henry Morris eloped with Mary Anne Murphy to Scotland.

Once husband and wife, they returned to Mary Anne’s father to make amends; but Mr. Murphy had been looking into Henry Morris’s background, and discovered his new son-in-law was even worse than he imagined.

The Case against Him

Henry Murphy, it was discovered, was not a teacher at all. He had no qualifications and had forged his credentials to secure his position.

Second, Morris had a history of wooing and abandoning young girls; Mr. Murphy discovered four such girls and suspected there were more.

Third—and worst of all—Henry Morris was not only a bounder, but a bigamist. At the time he ran off to Scotland with Mary Ann Murphy, he was already married to a woman named Maria Fontaine.

The main door of Newgate Prison.

The main door of Newgate Prison.

Mr. Murphy had Henry Morris arrested on the charge of bigamy; he was imprisoned at Newgate until his trial. Young Mary Anne—in typical Lydia Bennet style—refused to see her husband’s infamy. She stood by him, took home-cooked meals to his cell, held his hand in court, and begged her father over and over to drop the charges against her husband. He refused.

Henry Morris was convicted of bigamy and he was deported to serve seven years of hard labor at a penal colony in Australia. Mary Anne’s response:

When the verdict was pronounced, she burst into the most outrageous expressions of grief; cried out most violently to save him; tore her hair, and clung around his neck, declaring that she would not be separated from him. The judges, however, ordered her to be removed, but directed that it should be done as gently as possible; and she was accordingly carried out of court in a state of utter distraction.

The reaction of one of Morris's wives upon hearing his sentence. From The Newgate Calendar.

The reaction of one of Morris’s wives (presumably Mary Anne) upon hearing his sentence. From The Newgate Calendar.

Some reports allege that Mary Anne followed Morris to Australia, waited patiently for his release from prison, and lived with him again as man and wife.

As sad as Mary Anne Murphy’s story was, there was an even more famous case of bigamy that shocked England in the early 1800s.

The Bigamous Rake

In 1802 Mary Robinson was quietly living her life in the Lake District. A shepherdess and the daughter of the proprietor of The Fish Inn in the village of Buttermere, Mary was an acknowledged beauty in the county. She was also quite an innocent and was, therefore, unprepared when a handsome gentleman with “blue eyes and a fair complexion” drove into Buttermere.

Mary Robinson, the Maid of Buttermere.

Mary Robinson, the Maid of Buttermere.

He introduced himself as Colonel Alexander Augustus Hope, a wealthy retired officer and younger brother to the Earl of Hopetoun. He was so taken with Mary’s beauty, he immediately set out to woo her; within three months of their meeting she agreed to elope with him to Scotland.

John Hatfield.

John Hatfield.

It wasn’t until her husband abandoned her within months of their marriage that Mary discovered several hard truths:

  1. Her husband’s name wasn’t Alexander Hope and he was not related to Lord Hopetoun. His real name was John Hatfield, and he was the son of poor parents in Cheshire.
  2. John Hatfield had a long history of romancing women possessed of dowries or fortunes large and small, marrying them, and abandoning them. He was a bigamist, several times over.
  3. Hatfield left a trail of forged checks and unpaid bills across England, thanks to his smooth talking ability to swindle tradesmen, hoteliers, and acquaintances. (Sounds a lot like Wickham, doesn’t it?)

After he deserted Mary Robinson, Hatfield married at least two more women. He finally met his match when one of the women he wronged turned him in to authorities. He was convicted of several counts of forgery and bigamy; and because the court heard sufficient testimony to deem him an habitual criminal, John Hatfield was condemned to death. He was hanged in 1803.

Is it possible these famous cases (and others like them) were in the back of Jane Austen’s mind as she wrote her story about Lydia and Wickham? Perhaps, but the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice hints that while their love didn’t last forever, Lydia and Wickham at least stayed together, and Lydia “retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her.”

You can read more about the bigamous John Hatfield and the Maid of Buttermere by clicking on any of the following links:

The English Lakes: A History by Ian Thompson

Website of Pascal Bonenfant

Let’s Take a Trip, Regency-style

When I first began reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, I was intrigued by the world she created. Prior to reading her novels I never gave a thought to how people really lived in the early 1800s, even though I’ve always loved history, and studied English history, in particular.

The cover of my well-worn copy of Frederica

The cover of my well-worn copy of Frederica

There was something about her novels, though, that brought that world to life for me. One part of her Regency world that intrigued was the idea of travel. Reading Heyer’s novels, like Arabella, Regency Buck, and Sylvester, made me curious about how people traveled long distances, or even from one neighboring town to another. Heyer had a way of making travel sound both tedious and romantic. Her words painted a picture of just how boring and exciting, dangerous and uncomfortable it could be to ride in a cramped coach for hours with people you don’t know.

Illustration from The Country Gentleman magazine; April 1932 edition

Illustration from The Country Gentleman magazine; April 1932 edition

Over the years I’ve collected quite a few images of Regency-era coaching scenes. They help me visualize Heyer’s stories as I read them, and help me better describe coaching life as I write my own novels.

A 1908 postcard titled, Taking Up Passengers.

A 1908 postcard titled, Taking Up Passengers.

Below are some of my favorites images: they’re a series of coaching illustrations by artist Gilbert Wright that he produced between 1907 and 1911. I like them because of the little details Wright included in his paintings, like those boots in the first painting, titled Getting Ready.

And in the painting titled The Top of the Hill, he showed the passengers of the stage coach walking up the final approach to the hilltop; whether they did so to lighten the load or simply to get some exercise on a pleasant day, is a question left to our imaginations.

I’m happy to share my favorite images with you so that you, too, can “get a visual” of what it was like to travel in Regency England. I hope you enjoy them!

Getting Ready, by Gilbert Wright, 1911.

Getting Ready, by Gilbert Wright, 1911.

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Waiting for the Coach, by Gilbert Wright (1908)

Waiting for the Coach, by Gilbert Wright (1908)

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Two Gallants, by Gilbert Wright (1911)

Two Gallants, by Gilbert Wright (1911)

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The Start, by Gilbert Wright (1911)

The Start, by Gilbert Wright (1911)

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Detail of The Start showing a female passenger climbing up on the box, by Gilbert Wright

Detail of The Start showing a female passenger climbing up on the box, by Gilbert Wright

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A Heavy Storm, by Gilbert Wright, 1907

A Heavy Storm, by Gilbert Wright, 1907

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A Fresh Relay, by Gilbert Wright, 1911

A Fresh Relay, by Gilbert Wright, 1911

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The Top of the Hill, by Gilbert Wright (1907)

The Top of the Hill, by Gilbert Wright (1907)

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The Return to the Stables, by Gilbert Wright (1911)

The Return to the Stables, by Gilbert Wright (1911)

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Eeewww, Grose!

Captain Robert Grose published his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1798, and Regency-era aficionados have been using it to bring life and a little sass to their stories and articles ever since.

Captain Francis Grose

Captain Francis Grose

The next time you settle down for a cozy read with Georgette Heyer (or any number of present-day Regency romance authors), you can thank Captain Grose when you come across these terms:

Banbury Tale or Banbury Story – A round-about, nonsensical story

Bear-garden Jaw – Rude, vulgar language, such as was used at the bear gardens

Quiz – An odd-looking fellow; a strange dog

Gudgeon – One easily imposed on. One who swallows the bait or falls into a trap

Pudding-headed Fellow – A stupid fellow, one whose brains are all in confusion

There have been similar dictionaries published since Grose’s original, but it wasn’t until 2011 when a thorough and worthy update to Grose’s dictionary appeared on the scene.

Entries from Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Entries from Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Compiled by Jonathon Green, Green’s Dictionary of Slang is a hefty, three-volume dictionary of the most vile, unrepeatable language to come out of Britains’ mouths over the last 500 years. Green’s Dictionary builds on Grose’s Vulgar Tongue, as well as The Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words published in 1859 by John Camden Hotten.

cover-greens-dictionary-of-slang

What makes Jonathon Green’s Dictionary so remarkable is the sheer size. Covering 500 years of cant, it weighs in at over 6,000 pages; there are over twelve thousand entries for the letter S alone.

If Jonathon Green’s Dictionary sounds like something you’d like to explore, you’re in luck. This month he launched Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online. Now, at the click of your mouse or a tap of your finger, you can immerse yourself in the definitions and etymology of the gutter-talk we blushingly can’t get enough of.

At Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online you can listen to the author’s recent podcast on terms for drink and drunkenness, or just browse the dictionary (arranged alphabetically) to your heart’s content (just make sure the kiddos aren’t looking over your shoulder).

If you ever wanted to expand your knowledge of Regency-era cant (or the slang of other English eras), Jonathan Green’s website should be your first stop.

You can click on the links below for more info:

Visit Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online
Read Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Robert Grose
Read The Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words by John Camden Hotten

Acting Up in Regency England

When it comes to traditional Regency romances, there are some plots elements that are popular staples of the genre.

There’s the elopement to Gretna Green plot. Or the plot about the rich relative’s will that dictates a man and woman must marry in order to inherit the relative’s wealth.

And then there’s the actress plot, where a woman of sterling character makes her living on the stage (by choice or necessity) and wins the heart of the hero.

It’s an interesting premise, because actresses in the eighteenth century were considered women of questionable character—promiscuous demi-mondaines—until Sarah Siddons burst upon the scene.

Mrs. Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785.

Mrs. Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785.

Sarah Siddons (born July 5, 1755) joined an acting company when she was 18 years old and quickly gained favor with touring companies and audiences alike. Ultimately, she earned the reputation for being one of England’s great tragic actresses, and she did much to legitimize the profession of acting for women. In fact, she was so beloved by the theatre-going public, she became the muse for an Irish inventor and educator named Gilbert Austin.

Sarah Siddons by Sir William Beechey, 1793. From the National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sarah Siddons by Sir William Beechey, 1793. From the National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Gilbert Austin wrote a book titled, Chironomia, or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery, which was published in 1806. The book presented a system of elocution and gestures to use when expressing emotions. Mr. Austin modeled many of the instructions on Sarah Siddons’ movements and speech patterns on the stage.

Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia, by William Hamilton, 1784. (c) Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia, by William Hamilton, 1784. (c) Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mr. Austin admired Mrs. Siddons greatly, saying she was “all that is beautiful in grace and dignity.”

He also idolized Sarah’s brother, John Philip Kemble, who was also an actor. Austin described Kemble as “the perfection and the glory of art, so finished, that every look is a commentary, every tone an illustration, every gesture a model for the statuary, and a study for the painter.”

John Philip Kemble, by Sir William Beechey, 1799. (c) Dulwich Picture Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Philip Kemble, by Sir William Beechey, 1799. (c) Dulwich Picture Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It was little wonder, then, that he used Kemble and Siddons as the ideals on which to formulate this theories of graceful movement and correct speech.

John Philip Kemble as Richard III by William Hamilton. (c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Philip Kemble as Richard III by William Hamilton. (c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mr. Austin wrote the book to instruct private individuals who wanted to improve themselves in grace and oration. He advocated that certain gestures were the mark of a cultivated society; and that proper pronunciation and articulation were sufficient to identify the manners of a true gentleman and man of letters from the common people.

An illustration of the proper way to point.

An illustration of the proper way to point.

He provided instructions on the proper way to stand, point, and clasp one’s hands.

An illustration of "complex significant gestures."

An illustration of “complex significant gestures.”

Some of the illustrations even featured Sarah Siddons’s poses from some of her more notable stage performances.

sarah-siddons-ed

Austin’s book was a great success. It became a staple in classrooms throughout Britain and America; and he earned an international reputation as an authority on gestures and oratory delivery.

The proper way for a man to clasp, cross and fold his hands.

The proper way for a man to clasp, cross and fold his hands.

Would you like to read the book? Click here to read Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia, or a Treatise of Rhetorical Delivery.