The Alexandra Limp

In 1869, a new fashion took hold among the young ladies of England: they began limping. They might intentionally snap the heel off one of their shoes or even buy a set of shoes designed to give them a limp. The important thing was to be seen shuffling unevenly around Hyde Park or the theater.

Speaking as someone who always walks with a limp, this would have been very uncomfortable. Walking unevenly strains your muscles and skeletal structure and leads to chronic pain. High heels and bras – or corsets – are not always comfortable, but this was an extreme sacrifice for fashion. So, why did the Victorian ladies do it?

The answer is Alexandra of Denmark, the Princess of Wales. She was immensely popular and a fashion setter in Britain. She wore chokers to disguise a scar on her throat, so chokers became popular among British ladies. In 1867, Princess Alexandra gave birth to her third child and became very ill with rheumatic fever – a complication of strep throat and scarlet fever that was sometimes deadly in the days before antibiotics. Princess Alexandra survived, but she had to learn to walk again using walking sticks, and she continued to limp. Ever anxious to follow their social leader, the fashionable ladies of England hurried to break their shoes and limp after her.

I’m not sure what Princess Alexandra thought about this, but the newspapers howled in outrage at the silliness of watching able-bodied young ladies limp all over London and other British towns. Perhaps thanks to the painful side effects of constantly limping, the fashion faded after a year or two, and ladies found other ways to torture themselves for fashion. Of course, people who had real limps didn’t leave them behind so easily. Princess Alexandra limped for the rest of her life.

A portrait of Princess Alexandra in a fashionable white dress.
Princess Alexandra in 1864

Princess Elizabeth in World War II

The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of a 70-year era full of conflict and change. Born in 1926, she is the same age as actors Marilyn Monroe and Andy Griffith, dictator Fidel Castro, author Harper Lee, and musicians Miles Davis and Chuck Berry. She is part of a generation that came of age during World War II, and as with many of that generation, the war was a defining experience in her life.

Princess Elizabeth was thirteen when World War II broke out in 1939, and like many London children, her parents sent her away from the city for her safety, though she lived in Windsor Castle and still saw her parents often. The future Queen Elizabeth II made her first public speech during this time, addressing the other children who were separated from their parents by the war. Her parents stayed at Buckingham Palace in solidarity with the people of London, and the royal residence was bombed by German planes during the Blitz.

When she turned eighteen in 1944, Princess Elizabeth enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the female branch of the British Army designed to shift some non-combat military jobs to women to free men to fight. Her royal title didn’t earn her an automatic advancement, and she served as an auto mechanic and driver with a junior officer ranking. She was among 200,000 young women serving in the ATS, of which 335 were killed in the line of duty, and many others injured.

Princess Elizabeth wasn’t wounded in the line of duty, and the war ended in 1945. Probably breaking quite a few rules, she took to the streets to celebrate with everyone else, keeping her uniform hat pulled low so no one would recognize her. She linked arms with her future subjects and marched in celebration, and some rumors even say she danced in a Conga line.

Princess Elizabeth maintained an enjoyment of driving and engine repair into her reign as Queen Elizabeth II, and also an ability to connect with many of the citizens of her country. Some people credit her as the first royal British woman to serve in the armed forces. This ignores many medieval and Renaissance queens who took active roles in defending their countries, but it’s fair to say that Princess Elizabeth’s role in the war set a positive example for British women – royal and otherwise.

Princess Elizabeth in overalls changing a car tire.
Negative (H 41668) Original wartime caption: At a Vehicle Maintenance Class, Princess Elizabeth changes the wheel of a car. She is wearing overalls. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205513022

Dance Fans

Regency dances were complicated, involving many steps that participants had to remember. And the ballrooms were crowded with people dancing energetically, making them very hot. Clever ladies solved both of these problems by carrying fans decorated with fashionable dance steps. The examples below are from the Jane Austen cottage in Chawton.

This fan shows the steps of the quadrille (each circle is a different “figure” created by the dancers, so they all had to know their places and how to move in the circle so they didn’t crash into each other).
And this one has the music to several country dances.

With the help of fans such as these, ladies of Jane Austen’s time could stay on top of the latest dance steps and stay cool.

Wishes and curses

You may know that the tradition of tossing pennies into wells or fountains to make a wish goes back to ancient times when offerings were thrown into bodies of water to gain favors from the gods (if you didn’t before, you do now). But did you know that people also threw curses into sacred waters for the gods to enact? These curse scrolls or tablets were written asking for justice or revenge, and they give us a fantastic glimpse into the everyday life – and the gossip – of people who lived two thousand years ago.

The scrolls in these pictures are from the Roman baths in Bath, England. Sadly, my camera isn’t high resolution enough to capture the very faded writing on the lead tablets, but I did take a shot of the transcriptions as well (most of them are in Latin). The “tablets” themselves are pretty small, just a couple of inches across.

Faded and cracked thin, lead plates.
Latin transcriptions of the curse tablets above with an explanation that they are about the theft of a hooded cloak, the theft of a bracelet, and two instances of the theft of six silver coins.

Some of the translations say things like, “I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.” An interesting take on revenge, telling the goddess that she can have the coins if she gets them back from the thieves. Another is more specific, saying, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple.” I guess he really liked those gloves, though it is a pretty infuriating feeling to have something stolen.

In some cases, people would write the curse backward, maybe to make it stronger or easier to read on the “other side,” and sometimes they added magical symbols or shoved nails through the scrolls to reinforce their curse.

One of the scrolls is in what scholars believe to be the only (known) written example of ancient British-Celtic.

A small fragment of a lead tablet.

There’s no translation of this tablet because British Celtic is an as-yet-untranslated language. The words read, “Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai,” though the scroll and the message are incomplete. There are a couple of suggestions about what this might mean, but if you can figure it out, let us know (and the rest of the world)!

To end on a cheerful note, archeologists have also fished a lot of beautiful items out of ancient wells and ponds, and I would love a modern replica of this ancient Celtic brooch found at Bath.

A circular brooch with a long pin for holding a clock or tunic, with swirling designs on each end of the circle.

Cruel Magic: A Victorian Faerie Tale

I like all the books and characters I write or I wouldn’t bother writing them, but this book is a particular labor of love. I’ve worked on it a long time, and though the main character isn’t a self-insert “me” character, I did base her infirmity (a spinal stroke) on my spinal cord injury (Brown-Sequard Syndrome), so I have an extra soft spot for her.

Ball Gowns. Calling Cards. Hell Hounds.

Cassandra Weaver is hiding an infirmity from a society—and a family—that demands perfection.

Henry Stewart is hiding from his former Faerie masters, trying to remember what it means to be human.

Simple enough, except that their little town of Drixton conceals a secret as old as the church bells. The Queen of the Unseelie Fay is hunting a mortal soul there, and Cassandra and Henry stand in her way. They’ll need allies to stop her, but whom can they trust? The shape-shifting Fay with his own plans? The social pariah wielding uncanny abilities? The mysterious American who carries silver bullets? The beautiful lady with a dark past? They must decide what—or who—they’re willing to sacrifice to defeat the Unseelie Queen because if they fail, the dark magic of the Unseelie Fay will overpower both the mortal and Faerie worlds.

I’m already working on book two, but book one doesn’t end on a cliffhanger – I hate it when authors torment me that way.

Available now on Amazon and through most bookstores, or request it at your local library.

Jane Austen’s Lyme Regis

I haven’t seen the new movie version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (and the depiction of Anne Elliot in the trailer didn’t inspire confidence), but one thing I have to say about all the movies is that they take us to two amazing locations in England: Bath and Lyme Regis. Of the two, Lyme Regis was Jane Austen’s favorite, and I did a research visit there last year, so I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

Lyme Regis is a pretty, little harbor town on the coast of Dorset facing the English Channel. It’s named for the River Lim. The countryside is very hilly (so much so that the train doesn’t come to the town, but stops at inland Axminster instead) and the town is part of the “Jurassic Coast,” so-called because of the many fossils found there. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien spent many boyhood visits in Lyme, and it’s said that the region inspired some of the settings for Middle Earth and a fossil he found there gave him the idea for the dragon Smaug.

A spiral shell fossil or imprint in a large black stone.
Fossils are everywhere along the beach. Some are protected natural resources like this one, but in some areas, you’re free to go rockhounding. The 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning was from Lyme Regis and began her study of fossils with those she found along the cliffs and beaches.
A small white house with a blue painted door.
This is the house on Lyme’s high street where it’s believed that Jane Austen stayed with her family when she visited in 1803 and 1804. You can’t tell from the picture, but it’s actually very close to the beach.
A town street looking out on the sea with two buildings notable for their bow windows projecting out over the sidewalk.
A view of Lyme’s high street showing its two old inns, the two buildings across from each other with the bow windows. The Three Cups is on the right. This is where Tolkien stayed when visited (he sketched images of the harbor from its windows) and is also considered to be the inn mentioned in Persuasion. Jane’s house in Lyme is just beyond it. Across from the Three Cups is the Royal Lion.
A curving stone wall and walkway protecting a harbor.
This is the Cobb–the curving sea wall that protects Lyme Harbor. You can walk on top of it (dangerous in stormy weather when the wind makes it treacherous and the waves can wash up that high) or on the lower portion shown here. This is where Louisa Musgrove’s accident takes place in Persuasion.
A set of uneven stone steps set in a stone wall.
Tennyson supposedly asked to see the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell when he visited the Cobb at Lyme. We don’t know for certain which stairs Jane Austen intended, but many people believe it was this treacherous-looking set, called the grandmother’s teeth (I tend to think they would have gone down the tamer-looking ones closer to the beginning of the walk, but these are some pretty interesting old steps–I did not try climbing them!).
A view of a curving harbor.
This view shows Lyme Harbor and the Cobb in the distance from the museum located where Mary Anning’s house once stood. The area where the cars are parked once housed an assembly hall where Jane Austen probably went dancing when she visited Lyme.
A gray building overlooking the sea, with large waves crashing against the stones beneath it.
An old painting in the museum shows what the Lyme assembly hall looked like, located right above the beach. I think it would have been a wonderful place to go dancing.
The cover of the book An Elusive Dragon showing a brown-skinned woman in a Regency-era dress holding a small, purple dragon on her lap.
My gaslamp fantasy, An Elusive Dragon, is set in Dorset and Lyme Regis, and I let my characters go dancing at the assembly hall, dine at the Royal Lion, and meet an alternate version of young Mary Anning. I hope Tolkien would have approved of my addition of living dragons, though they’re not as ferocious as Smaug.

Hawthorn tree lore

Hawthorn trees are among the most magical in European folklore – and also the most conflicting. Good luck or bad luck? Friend or foe? It depends on who you ask and when. But they’re gorgeous trees either way, with their pink or white blossoms and their trunks that get furrowed and gnarled with age. The most famous hawthorn is probably the Glastonbury Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey. It is said to have sprung from Joseph of Arimethea’s staff when he arrived there bearing the Holy Grail. Interestingly, the Glastonbury Thorn (or its current descendants) blooms twice a year – once in spring, like most hawthorns, and once at Christmas.

A lovely hawthorn tree in the Logan Cemetery – really, my picture doesn’t do justice to its cascade of late-May blooms.

Hawthorn trees were supposed to be particular favorites of the Fair Folk, often guarding the entryways into Elfland as well as ancient holy wells. For this reason, it’s bad luck to cut them down. There are roads in the British Isles that were redirected to go around old hawthorn trees, and some buildings there are said to be cursed because a hawthorn was removed to make way for the building. The Fay are very jealous of their trees.

I was delighted to find that the Logan Cemetery hawthorn has its own gnome guardian among its branches. He looks like he’s seen a few battles, maybe protecting the entrance to the Otherworld?

On the other hand, it was traditional to cut branches of blooming hawthorn for May Day celebrations. So, perhaps this is the one time it’s permissible to disturb the tree? Maybe it allows the Fay to join the celebrations. One should never bring the hawthorn branches or flowers inside, though. That might invite the Fair Folk’s attention (Branches from the Glastonbury Thorn supposedly decorate the queen’s table at Christmas, but maybe she gets a special dispensation).

The Logan Cemetery hawthorn has two trees growing from the debris collected over the years between its trunk and branches: this little spruce and the sapling by the gnome, which might be some kind of plum. When rowan trees grew in the joints of other trees, they were called “flying rowans” and were thought to be especially potent magic. Maybe this “flying spruce” growing from the hawthorn also has some special power.

Some people felt it was good luck to have a hawthorn growing near (but not too near) their house, while others didn’t want the Fair Folk that close. If you decide to plant a hawthorn, it’s a hardy tree with spring flowers, an informal growth habit, and tiny red fruit in the fall-winter (edible in most species but not tasty). Paul’s Scarlet, the one in these pictures, was discovered in the mid-1800s and has double pink flowers (wild European hawthorns, including the Glastonbury Thorn, are usually white), but it often loses its leaves early in the summer. Crimson Cloud is a pink-flowered European hawthorn that keeps its leaves until fall, and American hawthorns or maythorns also make nice yard trees. I haven’t found any stories associating American hawthorns with the Fair Folk, and I guess you can decide if that’s a pro or a con.

Mysteries of the Old West

I’ve been working on this project for a long time, and I’m excited that it’s finally in the world. I love history, and I love real-life mysteries, so I’ve combined them in a book for ages 10 and up. It’s appropriate for tweens, but my adult readers have enjoyed it as well. Lost treasures, missing people, unsolved murders, and a ghost story that people swear is true, plus lots of lesser-known historical stories from the Old West.

Find it on Amazon.

Cover showing a spooky looking cowboy with the title Mysteries of the Old West: True Stories from the Wild West by E.B. Wheeler.

A Subtle Dragon

It’s been just over two years since the pandemic shut down our lives and caused all of us some level of trauma. I went into 2020 working on a series of books set in WWI, which is a time period I find very interesting, but as school moved online, lockdowns disrupted our plans, and stores ran out of toilet paper, I developed a case of brain fog. I wanted to write with the “extra” time the lockdowns gave us (haha, all of us who have kids in school know it wasn’t extra time at all), but WWI felt too heavy to deal with when life was presenting plenty of its own dark moments. (I was going to blog more, too, but a look at my blog history shows how well that went.) I had wanted for a while to write a Regency fantasy series with dragons, so The Dragons of Mayfair was born – much more lighthearted and, for me, a good escape from the dread of the daily news.

I’m excited now that the third book in the series is live. Though I wanted each book to have a self-contained arc (I dislike cliffhangers), there are some threads that ran through all three books and are tied up in this one. I hope to do a couple of spin-offs in the future, focused on side characters, but a Subtle Dragon wraps up the main series. And if you haven’t read book two, An Elusive Dragon, and want to catch up, it’s 99 cents this week on Kindle. 

About the book:

It was a Tuesday the first time someone tried to kill Lady Amelia Chase.

Lady Amelia is resigned to enjoying one last London Season before her family declares her hopeless and banishes her to the countryside. She doesn’t expect to catch anyone’s attention—and especially not that of a masked man intent on killing her. Her unwelcome pursuer brings her attention of another sort from the sly and mysterious Earl of Blackerby. Lord Blackerby deals in secrets, and Amelia has a few of her own she’d rather not share. But she’ll have to decide whom she can trust because with the anti-magic Luddites plotting a bold gambit, the fate of England and its dragons hangs in the balance.

Find it on Amazon or request it at your local bookstore or library.

Guardians and Wards: A Medieval Practice that Lingers Today

Guardianship has been in the news lately as singer Britney Spears successfully fought to be freed from hers. The term “ward” wasn’t used to describe her, but that’s essentially what she was. I think before Britney Spears, the most famous ward was probably Maid Marian, sometimes said to be the ward of King Richard and/or Prince John in the Robin Hood stories. So, if the term “ward” makes you think of a singing animated fox in a pseudo-medieval gown (like it did for me), that’s not surprising, but it disguises a long and ugly history of wardships that continues today.

Olivia de Havilland as King Richard’s ward, Maid Marian

The medieval and Renaissance ward in England was a young nobleman or woman whose father had died before they reached their majority (21 for men, 14 for girls). Because the young person’s holdings reverted to the crown on their father’s death, the crown claimed guardianship of the ward and their holdings until they were old enough to take charge of it themselves (for men) or be married off (for girls). Generally, the crown didn’t really want to take care of all those children, so they would auction the kids off to the highest bidder – a guardian who benefitted from the lands of the ward and usually arranged the ward’s marriage to the advantage of the guardian (such as marrying them to a family member). Note that the mother or other family members might still be alive but would have to fight to be the guardian of the child and seldom succeeded. This was a financial arrangement for the crown and the best interest of the child rarely came into it. I found this both interesting and horrifying, and I wrote about it in Wishwood. This form of wardship was so frustrating to English noble families that it was one of the practices decried by insurgents in the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, and when the monarchy was restored after the war, medieval wardships were not.

Wishwood cover
In Wishwood, Kate’s guardian forced her into an arranged marriage, a situation many real-life wards would have faced.

Wardship in the English-speaking world didn’t end with the Restoration in 1660. There were and are situations where a person needs a guardian because their age or health makes them unable to care for themselves, either temporarily or permanently. Children might be wards of the court or wards of the state if their family is not able to care for them. Adults can also enter a guardianship or conservatorship if they are deemed unable to manage their own affairs (as Britney Spears was at the start). We would hope that, in our modern system, guardians are selected who care about their ward and that we’ve left the abuses of the past in the history books, though.

Sadly, this is not the case. In the US, guardianship rules vary by state, and some states make it VERY easy to put someone in a guardianship. As in, a practical stranger can have you declared incompetent and take over all of your financial affairs, up to and including putting you in a group home and selling your house and possessions to pay themselves for the trouble. In some states, there is a lucrative industry revolving around this practice and involving lawyers, judges, and long-term care facilities. Your family will have no say in the matter. And neither will you, because the horrifying part of guardianships is that the ward, being declared incompetent, essentially loses their personhood. They can’t go to court without the approval of their guardian who, obviously, is not going to let that happen. For a tale more terrifying than any ghost or horror story, read about how this has played out in Nevada (a state I would NOT recommend retiring to until they fix this!), then find out what the laws are in your state and if there is a way to protect yourself from this medieval practice that needs serious updating.

The New Yorker: How the Elderly Lose Their Rights

AP News: Guardians of the Elderly, Part One

AP News: Guardians of the Elderly, Part Two

And some potential solutions, especially if enough of us pressure lawmakers on behalf of the elderly and those with disabilities:

NPR: Unlike Britney Spears, others remain stuck