Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
April 13th, 2012 by Evangeline Holland

Four Things Repeated in Historical Romance, But Rarely Explained

After reading a review for a recently released historical romance, I decided to find an excerpt on Google Books, and was immediately distracted by the first paragraph. It wasn’t that the prose was tepid, or because it was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies, but the description of the carpet drove me to do some research. I will fully admit that I am not exempt from thoughtless repeating of things I’ve read in historical romances in my own writing, but after coming to terms with my own writing voice I don’t want to parrot other books. So without further ado, here is a list of things repeated in historical romances that are rarely explained (a caveat, my information naturally comes from books printed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; however, since Georgette Heyer mixed her Regency research with her Edwardian background, I’m sure there are only a few tweaks to be made for those writing Regencies and Victorian romances).

1) Aubusson carpets

When describing a room, many historical romances never fail to mention the “Aubusson carpet”, no doubt thinking it short-hand for old luxury. Aubusson is a commune or village in northern France, which has been famous for its tapestries and carpets since the 14th century. However, there are other carpets just as luxurious and renowned as those made in Aubusson.

According to a 1915 U.S. Treasury report:

Aubusson carpet.—A carpet made at Aubusson, France. It is made in one piece, in the hand or needlework style of the Indian carpets, etc.

Axminster carpet.—A variety of Turkish carpet, * * *. So named from the town of Axminster, in Devonshire, England.

Persian carpet.—A carpet made in one piece, instead of in breadths or strips to be joined.

Turkish carpet.—A carpet similar to the Persian.

According to Our Homes, and How to Beautify Them:

There are the various English makes, Brussels, Wilton, Axminster, and Kidderminster. Most of these are for hard wear, but there are different grades of quality, and in buying a carpet it is well to remember that the best is always the cheapest in the end. Nothing but the best Brussels should, if durability be any consideration, ever be put down. The same may be said of Wiltons, which are the same as Brussels but with a cut pile. The Axminster carpet (so called from a Somersetshire village where the loom was first established), has a special interest considered from the decorative point of view, because any number of colours are available in its manufacture. It has therefore been used with the greatest success in the reproduction of Oriental designs. In the better qualities it has also been used to copy Aubusson carpets, and the employment of fine wool and fast dyes has resulted in a very fair imitation of the originals.

Appropriate Carpets for Appropriate Rooms:

All kinds of carpet, of course, naturally suggest themselves for particular rooms. As already pointed out, the Turkey suits the dining room, and the Aubusson the French salon or boudoir. Persian rugs and carpets are suitable for almost any place or condition. Wilton piles are appropriate either in a drawing room or in a dining room. There is no hard and fast line when you get into the domain of the English makers, because the manufacturer designs his carpets to suit all requirements, and you can get an Axminster or a Brussels to fit in with the style or purpose of any room. If the two cardinal principles are well kept to the front, it is scarcely possible to go very far wrong.

2) Sideboard

Our characters are frequently served food or drinks from the sideboard, or help themselves from food placed on the sideboard. But what is it exactly?

According to Wikipedia:

A sideboard is an item of furniture traditionally used in the dining room for serving food, for displaying serving dishes such as silver, and for storage. It usually consists of a set of cabinets, or cupboards, and one or more drawers, all topped by a flat display surface for conveniently holding food, serving dishes, and even lighting devices. The overall height of the tops of most sideboards is approximately waist level.

The earliest versions of the sideboard familiar today made their appearance in the 18th century, but they gained most of their popularity during the 19th century as households became prosperous enough to dedicate a room solely to dining.

According to volume 2 of The Book of Decorative Furniture:

The sideboard did not assume its present forms and functions until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Indeed, until table service was made more complex by the constant multiplication of courses, and the changing of knives, forks, and spoons with each course, there was little use for an enclosed piece with so much table and cupboard accommodation, and side-tables amply sufficed.

The typical Adam “sideboard” consisted of a side-table, with knifecases and brass gallery at back, a wine cooler (frequently of sarcophagus design) underneath, and flanked on each side by pedestal cupboards surmounted by urns. The Brothers Adam designed almost exclusively for spacious rooms and wealthy clients, whose houses at that period were well provided with cupboards. There was little need, therefore, for combined compact and enclosed sideboards; whilst the pedestals and the sideboard-table furnished the apartment with greater dignity and elaboration.

Sideboards were also made by Heppelwhite, Chippendale, and Sheraton. In America, the built-in sideboard grew in popularity during the early 1900s, and when I think back on my house hunting last year, a good handful of the homes I toured had built-in sideboard–and I thought nothing of it!

3) Drawing Rooms and Sitting Rooms

This is where our ladies take their tea, receive their callers, seduce the hero, etc etc. They are frequently used interchangeably, but in truth, they are two very different rooms with very different uses.

Wikipedia offers the first crack:  A drawing room is a room in a house where visitors may be entertained. The name is derived from the sixteenth-century terms “withdrawing room” and “withdrawing chamber,” which remained in use through the seventeenth century, and made its first written appearance in 1642 (OED). In a large sixteenth- to early eighteenth-century English house, a withdrawing room was a room to which the owner of the house, his wife, or a distinguished guest who was occupying one of the main apartments in the house could “withdraw” for more privacy. It was often off the great chamber (or the great chamber’s descendant, the state room or salon) and usually led to a formal, or “state” bedroom. The American equivalent was the parlor, or as many would later call it, living room. In French usage the room and the social gathering it contained are equally the salon.

The morning room, a nineteenth-century designation for a sitting-room, often with east-facing exposure, suited for daytime calls, or the middle-class lounge, a late nineteenth-century designation for a room in which to relax; hence the drawing room is the smartest room in the house, usually used by the adults of the family when entertaining. A living room, also known as sitting room, lounge room or lounge (in the United Kingdom and Australia), is a room for entertaining adult guests, reading, or other activities. The term front room can also be used to describe a living room, because in many homes the living room is at the very front.n the 19th century, the front parlour was the room in the house used for formal social events, including where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral.

House Furnishing and Decorating states:

If one were asked for definitions of ” drawing room,” ” parlor ” and ” living-room,” the answer would depend wholly on the individual point of view of the person questioned. The name “drawing-room” seems to suggest two conceptions, one the formal apartment, formally and punctiliously treated, an indispensible feature of the very large house, the other a distinctly less formal room, furnished and intended for constant intimate use after the fashion of small English houses and, in general character, approximating what we have come to designate as a living-room.

Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman discuss the distinctions in The Decoration of Houses:

Sometimes, as in England, the drawing-room is treated as a family apartment, and provided with books, lamps, easy-chairs and writing-tables. In other houses it is still considered sacred to gilding and discomfort, the best room in the house, and the convenience of all its inmates, being sacrificed to a vague feeling that no drawing-room is worthy of the name unless it is uninhabitable. This is an instance of the salon de compagnie having usurped the rightful place of the salon de famille; or rather, if the bourgeois descent of the American house be considered, it may be more truly defined as a remnant of the “best parlor” superstition.

And The Chautauquan considers the drawing room “a room appropriated for the reception of guests ‘to which a company withdraws from the dining room.'”

So there you have it (I think): drawing room is for formal entertaining and the sitting room is where you can relax.

Maya Rodale’s post on White’s reminded me of another thing seen in historical romance, but rarely explained:

4) The Gentlemen’s Club

White’s (f. 1693): Social

Brook’s (f. 1784): Whig (or, Liberal Party in Victorian & Edwardian eras)

Boodle’s (f. 1762): Tory (or, Conservative Party )

Once you leave the Regency period, a wide variety of clubs are available for authors to choose from–including ladies’ clubs after the 1880s!

That’s all I can think of for now, but can anyone else think of things they’ve seen in historical romances that, when they thought about it, are used much too often without any real explanation?

April 9th, 2012 by Evangeline Holland

The Danger of Superficial History in Fiction

My Google Alert for Downton Abbey led me to a Daily Mail article, where the journalist questions Hugh Bonneville’s explanation for the phenomenal success of the show. While I do think his reply was worded diplomatically, it nonetheless paints a rose-colored view of Edwardian society. However, one comment in particular shocked me (truly): “Some of us enjoyed “Downton Abbey” because it featured characters who were beautifully dressed, well-spoken and had good manners. It featured no screaming babies, unmarried mothers on benefits, druggies, yobs,”students”, British citizens who were members of ethnic minorities and above all no pop music. Nor was there any evidence of so-called popular culture. For those of us who hate what this country has become, it was required viewing.”

Everyone knows I am a massive fan of the Edwardian era (or Turn of the Century, Belle Epoque, Gilded Age–whatever you want to call it), and while the zeitgeist of historical romance (and in fact, most fiction) focuses on the privileged class, I’ve made an effort to dig up the hidden stories concerning people of color because most people automatically assume life was one long tragedy until the 1960s and 1970s, not just in America, but in Britain. While I don’t sugarcoat or marginalize the presence racism, segregation, and prejudice played in the lives of ethnic minorities, I celebrate the fact that things were not as black and white in the early twentieth century. When I read statements such as the one quoted above, it makes me angry not at the person, but at the reasons why such statements are prevalent in society when discussing the past.

In my own experience, I didn’t know anything about the history of US and international race relations, Colonization in Africa and India, and African-American history until I took a few classes to fulfill my college graduation requirements. Independent studies related to Edwardian Promenade unearthed such people as Li Hongzhang, the Princesses Sophia, Bamba & Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh, Meta Vaux Warrick, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer, James Reese Europe, and so on. This is not to say that every book must include people of color (the resentment towards this form of “political correctness” irritates me as well!), but the more we weavers of fiction fail to push beyond the superficial boundaries of history, the more likely it is for viewers to assume people of color were nothing, for women of color who love Jane Austen or Downton Abbey to feel uncomfortable with this love because “they” were just slaves or sharecroppers or were being exploited in Africa, China, or India back in the day, and for people to accuse writers of being “PC” when characters of color are introduced into a storyline (or an actor of color is cast in a period piece).

If we can create dozens of Dukes when we know there have always only been a handful, or turn (virginal) courtesans into the toasts of polite society, or have our heroines befriend and care about the welfare of all lower-class people, why should knowledge of racism stop you from including a wealthy black Liverpool family? Or a Japanese society hostess? Or the German-Japanese daughter of a diplomat who marries a German prince? Perhaps even an English lord who converts to Islam?