A Regency Christmas Tree for You

There’s a long-held tenet in the romance community that people of the Regency Era didn’t have Christmas trees as part of their Christmas celebrations. That’s correct.

In general.

But the truth is that long before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced the idea of Christmas trees to the British public, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, brought the tradition of Christmas trees to Britain from Germany.

Royal records show that Queen Charlotte celebrated the season by having yew branches placed in rooms at Kew Palace or Windsor Castle, which she then decorated with candles and ornaments.

In 1800 she hosted a Christmas party for the children at court. For the occasion she had an entire yew tree brought inside, “the whole illuminated by small wax candles.” She decorated the tree with “sweetmeats, almonds, fruits and toys” for the children.

While the queen’s Christmas tree tradition wasn’t widely known to the general public, it was definitely known by palace insiders and members of the nobility. Some of those nobles may even have adopted the practice themselves, and that’s the premise behind one of my traditional Regency romances.

In Once Upon a Christmas my heroine, Nerissa Raleigh, is attending a ball a nobleman’s London home, when she seeks a quiet place to escape the hectic whirl of the ballroom.

When the hero, Breck Davenant, follows her, he discovers her in a small drawing room in which the family has erected a Christmas tree.

Here’s Nerissa’s reaction to seeing a Christmas tree for the first time:

He closed the door and advanced farther into the room. It took a moment for him to realize that Nerissa had not replied, nor even turned to look at him. She remained curiously still, her attention focused upon one of the most dazzling objects she ever beheld.

In the far comer of the room stood a pine tree that reached just above Breck’s height. About its branches were hung a number of adornments. Perfectly round oranges, bowed ribbons, and small brass keepsakes decorated the tree from top to bottom. Set among the branches were short candles of purest white, held in place by small sconces of polished brass.

Breck moved toward one corner of the room, the better to see Nerissa’s profile as she continued to gaze at the tree, her brown eyes gone wide with wonder.

“Shall I light them for you?” he asked at last in a low voice that was just as mesmerizing as the tree itself.

He didn’t wait for her to answer, but drew a taper from the candelabrum and began to light the candles on the tree. Nerissa clasped her hands together and watched him with a feeling of deepening anticipation. When he was done, he stepped back, allowing her a full view of the results.

The candlelight amid the branches seemed to set the entire tree aglow; it reflected off the small brass tokens and bathed the room in the warmth of its beauty.

Nerissa couldn’t recall the last time she had been so dazzled. She closed her eyes for just a moment and breathed deeply of the scent of pine and oranges. “Could anything ever be more beautiful?” she asked appreciatively. “It’s almost as if a forest nymph had touched the tree with its magical fairy dust! It—it’s the most wonderful thing I have ever seen!”

She looked over at Breck and found his gray eyes upon her, his lips half-smiling, and an oddly arrested expression on his face.

“I dare say you think me quite foolish!” she said, steeling herself against the teasing she thought surely he would hurl her direction.

He took the time to draw a cigarillo from his vest pocket and light it from the flame of the candelabrum before he answered. “On the contrary,” he said slowly, “I think you quite charming.”

She felt a sudden and unaccountable wave of happiness sweep over her, and she was somewhat surprised by the feeling. She watched him cross the space between them with a few long-legged strides. He chose not to expand upon those brief, provocative words, electing instead to stand by her side and gaze upon the tree with her in companionable silence.

“Why is it here?” she asked after a few moments.

“It’s a Christmas tree. The Germans make them part of their holiday celebrations.”

“I—I’ve never heard of such a thing!” she said, looking up at him and finding the quizzing look had returned to his eyes.

“Barbaric, isn’t it?” he asked. “No doubt they erect it as part of a pagan ritual. Do you think they dance like heathens about it and—”

“Don’t!” exclaimed Nerissa, laying her small hand on his sleeve to still his words. “Please don’t make sport of it. It—it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”

Breck, long inured to the lures of Christmas traditions, even those of German origin, thought better than to tease her over this admission.

He stepped back a little toward the fireplace, drew deeply against his cigarillo, and watched the play of emotions cross her expressive face. It had been a long time since he had seen anyone so lose herself to enchantment. In his social circle, one rarely encountered anything new. If, by odd circumstance, one did, it would never do to betray the thing.

Nerissa Raleigh, he was fast discovering, had no such compunctions. She gave herself up to the delight of her surroundings and gazed upon the softly glowing tree with wide-eyed, unaffected appreciation. He had the very distinct feeling that she didn’t even recall the Christmas Ball going on downstairs, or the fact that someone might have by now missed her. Were he to allow it, she would no doubt prefer to remain in the family saloon, staring at the tree for the rest of the evening.

“Miss Raleigh,” he said in a quiet voice that drew her attention, “it is time we were returned to the ballroom.”

“I suppose you are right,” she said, fighting back an odd pang of regret. She watched him move about the tree, extinguishing the candles, and she said rather impulsively, “Thank you! How gallant you were to have lit the candles and made the tree so lovely just for my benefit!”

He had just finished snuffing the last of the flames, and turned to send one of his quizzing looks her direction. “I dare say I was merely in one of my heroic moods.”

She wasn’t offended. “I dare say you are more often heroic than you may know!”

He looked down upon her, a speculative look in his eye, as if he had been about to say something but thought better of it. Instead, he offered his arm and said rather gently, “I’ll take you back now.”

Nerissa placed her hand on his arm and felt the warmth fly to her cheeks. Here was a side of Breck Davenant she had not yet seen. He was being extremely solicitous and surprisingly tender. When he led her back into the ballroom and she would have withdrawn her hand from the crook of his arm, he placed his other hand over hers, compelling her to stay.

“Will you dance with me, Miss Raleigh?” he asked.

She could hardly refuse. In fact, at that very moment she wanted nothing more than to remain by his side. They took their place in a country set. The music struck up and Breck clasped her hand lightly. He may as well have set her gloves on fire, thought Nerissa, for each time the movement of the dance caused her to place her hand in his, his touch left behind a most peculiar warmth. They had been together many times, but now, inexplicably, she was nervous in his presence and could barely bring herself to meet his eyes without blushing.

Breck noticed her behavior, and he was a little intrigued by it. Her whole demeanor had changed since he had lit the candles on the Christmas tree. He recalled how lovely she had looked—her wide brown eyes gazing upon the tree with an ingenuous light that was not at all unattractive. His impulse had been to tease her, but when she had directed that same gaze his way, he had felt something stir in his heart that was not mere amusement.

He had meant to twit her, but instead found himself feeling something quite tender for her. That, he knew, was dangerous ground.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Nerissa’s first encounter with a Christmas tree.

And I hope you liked Breck’s reaction.

Whatever traditions you and your family hold with, I hope they bring you joy this holiday season.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

 

 

p.s. You can learn more about Once Upon a Christmas by clicking on the book cover:

More on Beau Brummell and a Short Story

One of my favorite places to shop is my neighborhood antique mall and in Denver we have several. On Broadway, just south of the downtown area, is Antique Row, where antique stores of different varieties pack a seven block stretch. … Continue reading

Beau Brummell at Bonwit Teller

I’ve been working on a story that includes a secondary character who is an unabashed Regency Dandy. In his mind, appearance is everything.

In writing the character, I wanted to make certain I accurately described his attire, so I turned to my research files on the king of all dandies: Beau Brummell.

Beau Brummell, engraved from a miniature by John Cook.

When I skimmed through my files and the books I have about Beau Brummell, I realized they focused more on the events of his life and his sense of style, but really didn’t contain any actual descriptions of his clothing.

Beau Brummell, by Hubert Cole, from my library of Regency research books.

Also surprising: there’s precious little when it comes to detailed descriptions of Beau Brummell’s clothing on the Internet, either.

But in my online searches I did find something interesting. On The New School’s website, tucked into their online archives, were several photos of Brummell-inspired fashion from the 1950s.

Why were people in the 1950’s so interested in Beau Brummell? Because in 1954 MGM released a movie that was supposed to be about Beau Brummell’s life. The film starred Stewart Granger as The Beau, Peter Ustinov as the Prince of Wales, and Rosemary Harris (mother of Jennifer Ehle, my favorite Lizzy Bennet) as Mrs. Fitzherbert.

A black and white still from a scene in “Beau Brummell” starring (left to right) Elizabeth Taylor, Rosemary Harris, Stewart Granger, and Peter Ustinov.

Also in the film: Elizabeth Taylor as Lady Patricia, a totally fictional character who served only to showcase Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty and give Stewart Granger a heterosexual love interest in the midst of all the ruffles and tight breeches. (That’s the kind of thing they did in the fifties. Don’t ask me why.)

Poster for the 1954 movie, “Beau Brummell.”

The great New York department store Bonwit Teller caught a little of the Beau Brummell bug. They came up with an advertising tie-in to the movie and devoted several of their coveted 5th Avenue window displays to women’s fashion “inspired by” Beau Brummell’s dandyism.

Here’s a photo taken at the time of one of the window displays in 1954 (courtesy of The New School archives):

The female mannequin is dressed in 1950’s style high-waist pants, ruffled shirt, and a waistcoat that mimic the male’s attire. On the floor at their feet is an unraveled reel of film.

The male mannequin is wearing one of the actual costumes from the Beau Brummel movie. Here’s how that costume looked when Stewart Granger wore it in the film:

If you look closely, you can see his round hat tucked under his left arm.

Here’s another of the Bonwit Teller window displays from 1954. In this display the female mannequin is again wearing high-waist pants with a seam detail that mimics the brocade on the male mannequin’s military jacket.

He is is dressed in another costume from the movie. Here’s what Stewart Granger looked like in that same military uniform in the film:

There’s a scene mid-way through the movie when Beau Brummell joins the Prince of Wales on a hunt. Bonwit teller depicted the scene, matching their idea of a modern, 1950s woman in a red dress and heeled shoes with a gentleman’s hunting pink, which consisted of a long red coat, white shirt and pants, and black boots.

Here’s the same costume worn by Stewart Granger in the movie. With him in the scene is Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Fitzherbert and Peter Ustinov as the prince.

I was so glad to find these images, because they helped me realize Beau Brummell was not all about black tailcoats and understated fawn pantaloons.

Stewart Granger as Beau Brummel in the 1954 movie of the same name.

Those articles of clothing have been the mainstays of any Regency romance hero’s wardrobe since Georgette Heyer first described them in Devil’s Cub in 1932. But the movie costumes convinced me I can introduce color, stripes and pattern to my character’s attire and still hold true to the Dandy’s dress code.

With these costumes as a guide, I was able to write some descriptions of ensembles I think my Regency character will enjoy wearing. I even thought up an article of clothing he’ll wear that will end up playing a major role in the story.

I’m looking forward to sharing all of it with you soon!

In the meantime, if you’d like to see more photos of the Bonwit Teller window displays featuring costumes from the movie, click here to be taken to The New School Archive and Special Collections website.

 

A Gentleman’s Sporting Life

In a Regency era story I’ve been working on, my hero is a sporting man. Whatever the sport, he loves it: Fencing, boxing, fishing, shooting—they’re all on my hero’s list of favorite things to do.

Fencing at O’Saunessy’s Rooms in St James Street in 1820, by Cruickshank.

While researching different sports that were popular at the time, I came across a reference to the sport of hare-coursing.

A portion of a 17th Century painting on silk of a hunter and his dog hare-coursing.

Hare-coursing is a violent sport in which dogs are turned loose to hunt down hares by sight.

That’s all the description I’ll provide, because I find the concept of the sport too upsetting. I’m an animal lover through and through, so I’m glad to know the sport is banned in most places today.

Still, it was a normal gentleman’s pastime during the Regency, and while I’d never write about it in a story (except to condemn the practice), I was intrigued to discover there was a specific style of dress men wore for the sport.

I did a previous post (which you can read here) that featured gentlemen dressed for shooting pheasant or other game birds.

Likewise, when I stumbled upon a description of hare-coursing, I also found this image of a coat a gentleman would have worn that was specially designed for the “sport.”

From the John Bright Collection

The coat itself is made of wool, trimmed with velvet, which leads me to think hare-coursing was a popular pastime during the colder months of the year.

The coat has two deep pockets on either side of the back skirt. The size of the pockets indicates they may have been used to carry the dead hares.

But what I found most interesting was the buttons on the coat. They were cast with images of a running hare, which makes me think the garment belonged to a wealthy man who could indulge in a custom coat to wear just for engaging in hare-coursing.

I’d never glorify hare-coursing by including it in a story, but this image does inspire me to rethink my hero’s wealth. Is he the kind of man possessed of such an extensive wardrobe that he’d naturally have a custom coat made up to wear only one or two times a year?

Or would that be too vain of him?

Maybe I’ll have my hero be a little more altruistic—the kind of man who would rather put his wealth to better use.

Hmmm, the possibilities are endless!

Downton Abbey and Simpson’s-in-the-Strand

Last week I saw the movie, Downton Abbey. It was wonderful and perfect and all I hoped it would be. In fact, I smiled like an idiot through the entire 122 minutes of the film (and, yes, I sat through … Continue reading

Musical Instruments in Regency England

When I first began reading Jane Austen’s and Georgette Heyer’s novels, the pianoforte seemed to be the musical instrument of choice for every Regency era heroine.

Portrait of Geneviève Aimée Victoire Bertin by Francois-Xavier Fabre

Jane Austen often equated a woman’s ability on the pianoforte to her overall value to society as an “accomplished woman.” In her novel Pride and Prejudice here’s how Caroline Bingley described Miss Georgiana Darcy:

The harp was another instrument mentioned in Austen’s novels, but with much less frequency; once again, Caroline Bingley mentioned the harp in regard to Georgiana Darcy:

“I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp.”

Author Georgette Heyer, who wrote her novels set during the Regency over one hundred years after Austen, also wrote about female characters who played the pianoforte. She also mentioned harps in her stories but usually for comic value, such as when a male character complained about a woman “twanging” away at a harp.

In recent years I’ve come to learn that there was another musical instrument that was just as popular—if not more so—than the pianoforte and the twanging harp: The guitar.

Lady with a Guitar, by Francois Xavier Fabre

I’ve found quite a few portraits of people—women and men—who lived during the Regency era and were memorialized with a guitar.

I find this so interesting, mainly because I always associated guitars with twentieth century America. Say the word guitar and I think of a cowboy strumming “Home on the Range” while sitting with his fellow cowpokes around a campfire. I never really thought of the guitar being prevalent in the early nineteenth century, and I certainly never thought of it being English.

Young Woman Playing Guitar, by Adele Romany.

Another instrument that’s often featured in portraits of the time is the lyre. Unlike the guitar, the lyre makes sense to me, given that a majority of the early Regency years were influenced by Greek symbols and stylings.

Portrait of Hortense Bonaparte, by Fleury-Francois Richard (1815)

In this post I’ve shared a few examples of portraits I found, but I’ve collected even more examples on one of my Pinterest boards, and I’d love to have you take a look!

Click here to visit my new Pinterest board, “Musical Instruments in the Regency.” I hope you enjoy it; and be sure to subscribe to the board so you’ll be notified when I add new images. I’m pretty certain I’m going to be posting some more images of guitars and lyres and pianofortes. And who knows? Maybe I’ll come across some other surprising musical instruments to share with you!

 

Stories from Quarry Bank

Not long ago I wrote a post for the Austen Authors blog about Charles Bingley, a character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (You can click on the Austen Authors logo to read the post.)

If you’ve read Austen’s classic novel, you know that Charles Bingley and his sisters are quite wealthy by the standards of their day. They certainly enjoyed the finer things in life and spent their money freely on travel, clothes, and large, expensive homes. Austen told us the Bingley siblings inherited their wealth from their father, and that the family fortune had been “acquired by trade.”

I’ve often believed “trade” meant ownership in a textile mill, a belief I explained in the Austen Authors post. Also in the post, I wondered what kind of mill owner the Bingley’s father would have been.

My opinion has always been that the elder Mr. Bingley would have been among the enlightened brand of mill owners. By that, I mean that he treated his employees with respect and probably established churches and schools for his workers. I based my theory on research I did about Quarry Bank, a real-life mill founded in 1784 in Manchester, England.

At the time I wrote that post, I didn’t know there was a book about Quarry Bank Mill that described the workers and the conditions at the mill. Nor was I aware English television had broadcast a dramatic series that told the stories of the children who worked at the real Quarry Bank Mill.

I haven’t seen the series, but last week I discovered the book on Amazon. You can click on the book cover to read more about it

I just ordered my copy, and it’s on it’s way (Thank you, Prime two-day-shipping!).

On a whim, I switched from the U.S. Amazon site to the U.K. Amazon site to see if I could find a DVD of the TV series. Lo, and behold, Amazon U.K. has quite a few books about Quarry Bank Mill! Oh, how I wish I had known about them before!

This book, for example, is only 128 pages long, but contains over 250 pictures of life at the mill:

And this one really piqued my interest:

It tells the story of the wife of Quarry Bank Mill’s owner, and her life-long efforts to improve the education, health and welfare of Quarry Bank’s workers.

Both of these books are must-haves for me! And if you’re a fan of North and South (another classic novel that centers around early English Textile mills), or ever wondered how those Bingleys got so rich, you may find these books of interest, too.

If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to know what you think of them!

Symbolic Armor

I’m an American fascinated with all things British, especially manor houses. In my Yankee mind, every English country house has a butler, a stable full of horses, and an ominous-looking suit of armor standing guard in the hall near the front door.

Suit of Armor inside Peles Castle, Romania (from Pinterest)

But then, a funny thing happened.

While browsing through The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections, I came across this eighteenth century helmet and shield, and all my previous fascinations with battle armor went out the window.

It’s gorgeous! No clunky, clanking armor here; just beautiful design, plenty of gilt, and a deep blue patina that makes every beautiful detail stand out.

This kind of armor was symbolic, rather than functional. Its design was based on Classical themes that remind me of Greek and Roman heroes.

It’s also the kind of armor that was created to impress all who saw it. Very probably it graced an important place in a grand castle or estate, in the same way we’d hang a Monet or Rembrandt so it could be viewed and admired.

Thanks to this display at The Met I now have an entirely new take on armor, and a new bit of inspiration to use when I want to imagine the luxurious interior of a great English country house.

If you’d like to know more about this helmet and shield (as well as other armor on display), follow this link to The Met’s website.

Smokin’ Hot Literary Characters

Back in the day when cigarette smoking was cool (and some physicians actually prescribed cigarette smoking to their patients!) tobacco companies invested heavily in advertising.

One of the most successful and effective methods for spreading the word about cigarettes was through printed cigarette cards.

Issued between 1885 and the beginning of World War II, pictorial cards were extremely popular with consumers. Each cigarette pack included a collectible card and a bit of history, which might have helped smokers justify wasting their money and health on the wicked weed.

In England, John Player & Sons (a branch of The Imperial Tobacco Company) was arguably the most popular producer of collectible cards. They typically issued their cards in sets and encouraged consumers to collect them all.

The company issued hundreds of different sets, some containing as many as 50 individual cards. The most popular sets featured images of royalty, with collectible sets depicting kings and queens, coronations, castles, and highlighted events from a particular monarch’s reign.

While not quite as popular, the company also issued about a dozen sets dedicated to literary characters. Dickens was very popular; Thackeray and Scott had their own sets, too.

 

The images in this post give a sampling of characters from books published in 1766 to the mid-1800s. Some of the artwork was produced by major artists, including H. M. (Henry Matthew) Brock, British illustrator of Jane Austen’s novels.

I like these particular images, because they coincide with the way I imagined the characters in my head when I read the books.

An added bonus: the Cliffs-Notes-style descriptions of the books on the reverse side of the cards, which gave just enough information about the characters and the plots for smokers to converse intelligently about classic novels while they smoked themselves to death.

My favorite cards are the three characters from Vanity Fair: Becky Sharp, Jos Sedley, and Lady Southdown.

What do you think: Are the characters portrayed on these cards as you imagined they would look?