Friday, November 27, 2009

A Rout or A Rout-Party?

I've become enamoured of the word 'rout'. I took it for granted until I started researching it yesterday. I've always known that Regency people held 'routs' or 'rout-parties'. I thought it was common usage; now I'm wondering.

My dictionary tells me that an archaic use of the word 'rout' describes a large evening party or assembly. It is otherwise described as a verb "to poke, search, or rummage" or a noun "a tumultuous or disorderly crowd of persons". Both of those things may of course describe a Regency evening party, but only at a stretch.

So it occurs to me--how many people know this usage of the word 'rout'? Most people know a 'rout' as an overwhelming defeat, I think. How much was the word 'rout' used in the Regency era? Jane Austen certainly knew what 'routs' were, but who popularized use of the word? Who first mentioned the word 'rout' in a Regency romance? It must have been Georgette Heyer, but I'm not sure. My characters certainly attend 'routs'; in fact, in my WIP, my hero and heroine host a 'rout'.

The best description of a rout comes from a manuscript titled the "Receipt Book of Mary Whiting Sewell". It is published in the Georgian and Regency Lady's Fashion Plates CD-ROM from Prints George and is reprinted here with permission.

"Receipt for a Rout
Take all the ladies and gentlemen you can get, place them in a room with low fire--stir them well--have ready a Piano Forte or Harp--a handful of Books and Prints, with a few packs of cards--put them in from time to time--When the mixture begins to settle, sweeten it with briteness of wit if you have it--if not, flattery will do as well and is very cheap. When all is stewed well together for two or three hours,--put in one or two fowls, some tongues, sliced beef or ham, seed cakes, sweetmeats and wine. The more you put the bettter, and the more substantial your rout will be---
N.B. Fill your room quite full and let scum rise off of itself."

This tongue in cheek 'receipt' tells us a great deal about the usual rout. Music, conversation about books and art, occasionally cards and certainly a good supper were the key ingredients of an enjoyable evening party. The last sentence offers a wonderful rebuke of the society.

Jane Austen does not much speak of 'routs' but in Emma, Mrs. Elton does bore everyone with talk of rout-cakes. And indeed, a noted cookbook writer of the time, Maria Rundell includes a recipe for 'Rout Drop Cakes' in her 1806 book and its many subsequent editions.

"Rout Drop Cakes
Mix two pounds of flour, one ditto butter, one ditto sugar, one ditto currants, clean and dry; then wet into a stiff paste, with 2 eggs, a large spoonful of orange-flower water, ditto rose-water, ditto sweet wine, ditto brandy, drop on a tin-plate floured; a very short time bakes them."
These sound the perfect compliment to lobster patties, buttered prawns, ratafia cakes and orgeat.

Evening dresses would be the requirement for attendance at a rout, perhaps knee breeches for the gentlemen. James Gillray offers a sly look at such a gathering in this carton "Lady Godina's Rout"--plumes appear, in some ladies' minds, to have been mandatory.

A rout-party had the advantage of being able to be hosted in an average town house. A formal ball required a ballroom and few but the greatest homes had those. But anyone in fact could hold a rout. A hostess could place conversation and music in the drawing room, cards in the morning room or small parlour, and supper in the dining room. The perfect Christmas party, perhaps?

Many of our own house parties approach the requirements of a rout--some board games, some conversation and good food. I hope you enjoy some wonderful parties this holiday season--

'Til next time,


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Byron and His Beautiful Words

I have a confession to make. I have never read the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron. Until now. Early in the week I was looking for material for a tweet and pulled out a book of Byron's poems. I found the poem "When the Moon is on the Wave" and excerpted a couple of lines. Here is the whole stanza:

"When the moon is on the wave,
And the glow-worm in the grass,
And the meteor on the grave,
And the wisp on the morass;
When the falling stars are shooting,
And the answer'd owls are hooting,
And the silent leaves are still
In the shadow of the hill,
Shall my soul be upon thine,
With a power and with a sign."

I find those beautiful words remarkably powerful.

Lord Byron's life is the stuff of fiction. Biographies and collected works abound; my public library has thirty books on its shelves at the moment, lists twenty on the man and his writings. He is the sort of historical personage who crops up everywhere as soon as you look at the period.

I knew many details of his life without ever having read a biography or his work. Indeed I always accepted that his work was good, perhaps a little dated, I thought, but worthy of reading some day.Then, quite by chance, I read "She Walks in Beauty Like the Night" and it has become my favourite Regency poem:

"She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

Byron was by all accounts a difficult man, a man of many conflicting parts. Two hundred years ago, in 1809, he was just approaching the height of his powers. By 1824 he was dead. He captured the imagination of his time, and still appears regularly in Regency fiction written today.
I have never been a great lover of poetry. But I am learning, and growing. I read Robert Burns, Sarah Teesdale, John Keats, Helen Maria Williams and William Wordsworth. And now I read Byron.

Listen as you read "So We'll Go No More A-Roving":

So we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And Love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon."

Beautiful words indeed...

'Til next time,


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Regency Fashion 1809
'Ladies Dresses on Her Majesty's Birth-Day'

"Ladies Dresses on Her Majesty's Birth-Day" is the headline of an article in the January 1809 issue of "The Lady's Magazine' which is subtitled 'Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex Appropriated solely to their Use and Amusement'.

Her Majesty in this case is Queen Charlotte of England, Queen Consort of George III for fifty-seven years. On this birthday in 1809 she was sixty-five years of age. Her birthday was May 19; she was born in 1744. The portrait, right, by Beechy shows her in a lovely gown in 1796.

The particular birth-day celebration mentioned in 'The Lady's Magazine' in 1809 is not reported upon in any way. The reader, it is assumed, knows about the event. It seems evident that it was a ball, and that it was a winter event from the preponderance of velvet gowns that were worn. Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball became an important event in the social calendar, but I am having difficulty discovering the dates on which it was held over the years.
This unflattering portrait of Queen Charlotte (left) was painted in 1807 by Stroehling. It shows a considerable weight gain over the above picture, but of course the lady did have fifteen children! That would take its toll on the figure without question.

Although the circumstances and the location of the birth-day event are not described in this article, the gowns worn by the ladies in attendance are, and they are wonderful. There was a great deal of velvet worn, especially by the royal princesses. Head-dresses seems mostly composed of diamonds and feathers, although pearls are mentioned once, and even a 'bonnet a l'Espagnol'.

I've chosen a selection of the descriptions though it was a difficult choice. The Queen herelf wore scarlet and gold velvet with black lace, and the Princess of Wales (the later disgraced Caroline of Brunswick) was gowned in gold tissue with white and royal purple details. Other ladies included:
Countess Effingham--Body and train of moss-velvet, trimmed with point and gold; petticoat of purple crape, intermixed with draperies of orange, fastened up with bands of gold chain at the bottom, a border of the same to correspond.

Lady Macclesfield--Wore a rich chestnut brown satin robe and petticoat, richly embroidered in gold, snake pattern, in angles most tastefully dispersed across the petticoat, and elegantly enriched with massy embossed border, and ornamented with fine gold balls. Head-dress, diamonds and white feathers.

Lady Mary Parkes--A puce-colored velvet robe and petticoat with drapery embroidered with gold, in a most magnificent style, elegantly trimmed to correspond and tastefully looped with superb tassels. Head-dress, white feather and diamonds.

Lady Radstock--Brown Merino cloth petticoat and drapery; the border of the petticoat and drapery of scarlet and black velvet, with coral beads, and tied up with scarlet cords; the body and train to correspond. Head-dress, scarlet velvet and feathers.

Lady Bruce--A white satin petticoat, trimmed with swansdown and matted gold beads; crape drapery, intermixed with satin, richly embroidered in bright and matted gold, tastefully ornamented with gold beads; white satin train, trimmed with swansdown; body and sleeves, ebroidered to correspond. A white satin cap, embroidered in gold and plume of ostrich feathers.

Hon. Lady Hood--A violet velvet, splendidly embroidered with wreaths of gold oak, and festooned with robes of the richest gold, supported with gold doves. Head-dress, feathers and diamonds.

Countess of Carlisle--A most superb dress of ruby velvet and white satin; the draperies in every part trimmed with a rich imperial gold border, and a profusion of splendid gold tassels, rope, etc.; robe trimmed with point-lace. Head-dress, ruby turban, jewels, and feathers.

While there is a great deal of white satin and white crepe detailed, there are likewise many extremely colourful and heavy fabrics used as well. The article is a fascinating microcosm of high-end fashion in 1809. If you would like to read the descriptions in their entirety, go to Google Books and search for 'The Lady's Magazine' 1809.

I would love to wear a gown like one of these. I wonder if I am old enough for a turban--or shall I just stick to diamonds and feathers? Which would you prefer?
'Til next time,


Friday, November 6, 2009

Regency Domestics II: The Housemaid

“The house-maid, in a regular family, will find it necessary to rise about five o’clock,...”1

And from then until she retires at probably nine or ten o’clock in the evening, she will accomplish a prodigious amount of work. Reading contemporary accounts of her duties is absolutely mind-boggling.

“Her principal business is to keep the furniture clean, under the direction of the housekeeper; great industry and natural cleanliness is requisite in this department.”2 But her work involves much more than this. She starts the day in the main floor apartments—the morning room, dining room, library, etc. with cleaning stoves and fireplaces, brushing carpets and sweeping floors, shaking curtains, dusting ornaments and mirrors as well as picture frames, and finally polishing furniture, unless there is a footman to do so. She does the same in the first floor public rooms—the drawing room and its like.

Then she prepares the dressingrooms so that her master and mistress may rise and find hot water and the like awaiting them, and after that she may finally go for her breakfast! Following her meal, the bedrooms will be waiting her attention. She opens the beds for airing, and while they do, she cleans the fireplaces, sweeps, dusts, rubs up the furniture and empties the slops. Then she puts on a clean apron and makes up the beds. And moves on to cleaning the passages, staircases, and landings—again brushing, sweeping and dusting.

“If the house maid rise in good time, and employ herself busily, she will get everything done above stairs in time to clean and make herself comfortable for dinner, about one o’clock,...”1

She then is permitted to sit down for a few hours while she does needlework, mending, hemming, all by hand and often in poor light no doubt. At four o’clock she lights fires and prepares dressingrooms for use. While the family is at dinner she cleans those same dressingrooms yet again, and turns down beds. Only then does she have her own supper, and if she can stay awake, enjoy a little free time.

For this she is paid twelve to sixteen guineas per year. If she is fortunate she has an under-housemaid to assist her.

The era of formal uniforms for housemaids was yet to come; in most cases maids wore print dresses and possessed several changes of aprons, as well as caps. Fabric for the frocks was usually supplied by the employer. In 1799 Susanna Whatman wrote from London to her steward: “I enclose a bit of callico. I should like to know the opinion the maids have of it. It is a finer one than I should have given them, but it is so pretty that if they fell in love with it as I did, I should be tempted to take it.”4 Some households were beginning to wear uniform garments. The photo is of a replica of a housemaid’s uniform of about 1820. This reproduction gown is modeled after an original garment in the collection of a British stately home, and is made by The Sutlers Stores in Poole, England and sold on their website.

As noted in my first column on Regency Domestics, household service was not for the faint-hearted. “The principal qualification in all servants (but especially in females) is a good disposition,...”2 Given the length of their days and the nature of their work, I can only imagine that a ‘good disposition’ must have been akin to sainthood.

“The household work of a family will be found to afford almost constant employment for the Housemaid;”3 This must be, I think, the understatement of the last two centuries. I can think of no one today who would be willing to work sixteen hours a day for the equivalent of perhaps fifty to one hundred dollars per year. Still, in the uncertain Regency world (with no safety nets), domestic service provided a home and a wage--not to be sneered at in any age.

Until next time,


1The Complete Servant: Regency Life Below Stairs by Samuel and Sarah Adams, Southover Press, 1989

2Modern Domestic Cookery by Elizabeth Hammond, 1819, Google Books

3The Servants’ Guide and Family Manual, 1831, Google Books

4 The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, Century Publishing, 1987