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

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.

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.

Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife

2019 is a big year for Utah sesquicentennial celebrations (isn’t that a great word?). May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast at Promontory Point, Utah.  This enormous accomplishment, achieved mainly by such downtrodden groups as the Chinese, Irish, former slaves, former Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is rightly regarded as a major technological and social achievement in Utah and US history.

On May 24, 1869, another scientific wonder began: an exploratory trip down the wild Colorado River by one-armed geologist and former Civil War soldier, Major John Wesley Powell. With a ten-man crew–none of whom had white-water rafting experience–he set out to map the unexplored regions of the Colorado River through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. And I don’t just mean unexplored by white men–Native Americans familiar with the area told him his goal was impossible, deadly. Yet he took his scientific equipment in four boats and set off. The fourth boat–his own–was named the Emma Dean after his wife. On August 30, 1869, Major Powell arrived in St. Thomas, Nevada, having lost one boat, a great deal of the scientific information he gathered, and four of his men (all four deserted the expedition, and three of those were lost in the desert, never heard from again). Undeterred by the hardships, he would make the trip again in 1871-1872 to improve his scientific data.

Powell is justly famous for his daring and for his contributions to the understanding of the geology and ethnology of the West, but Emma Dean Powell rarely gets any mention. True, she did not raft down the Colorado (during one of her husband’s Colorado expeditions, she was busy giving birth to their daughter Mary Dean Powell), but the petite Emma had been her husband’s nurse, champion, and scientific partner starting in the Civil War and through his many previous expeditions. She became an ornithology expert in her own right, as well as one of the first women to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Along with her sister-in-law, Nellie Thompson, Emma made important contributions to the work that her husband and the other men of his expedition became famous for, at a time when female scientists were rarely recognized for their work. You can read more about Emma Dean Powell’s quiet but remarkable career in Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians.

Photo of Emma Dean Powell courtesy of the USGS.

powell005

Biddy Mason: Utah Pioneer

I’m excited to share the stories I learned while writing Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets, and Politicians, so I’m going to post some “teasers” here on my blog over the next few months leading up to release day.

Today is Pioneer Day in Utah, celebrating the arrival of the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. An often overlooked part of that early pioneer migration are the free and enslaved black people who came to Utah in the westward trek – including Green Flake, one of several slaves in the vanguard company of pioneers and the man who drove Brigham Young’s wagon when the LDS leader uttered his famous (if possibly misquoted) proclamation over the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847: “This is the right place. Drive on.”

Biddy Mason was another early black Utah pioneer. Born a slave in the South, she would end her life as one of the richest women in California: just one of the many remarkable women from Utah’s history!

Below: Biddy Mason, image courtesy of the National Park Sevice.

BiddyMasonNPS

For more on the ongoing efforts to document the lives of black Utah pioneers, check out historian Paul Reeves’ online database, “A Century of Black Mormons.”

The Bone Map

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad lines from east and west at Promontory Point, Utah. The Bone Map has been in the works a long time, but this felt like the right time to release it. Pioneers and polygamy are interesting parts of Utah history, but there’s much more to the state than that!

If Huang-Fu doesn’t find gold, he won’t make it out of the Utah desert alive.

Huang-Fu just wants to survive his job digging for gold with Eugene Hansen so he can go home to California or maybe even China. But when outlaws shoot Eugene, the old prospector sends Huang-Fu running with a map carved in bone. The map may lead Huang-Fu to an incredible treasure, but everyone else who carried the map has died. The outlaws are on his trail, and his only allies also want the treasure. Will Huang-Fu survive the curse of the bone map?

Fans of Treasure Island will enjoy this treasure hunt set among the gold miners, gunslingers, and Pony Express riders of the Old West.

BoneMap_frontcover copy

Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun 😉 ).

Historical maps for writers

I stumbled across this helpful web site and wanted to share it: Old Maps Online, www.oldmapsonline.org/

It’s a searchable index of old maps available for free online, with links that take you to the maps. Most are available from museum and library web sites, but it’s useful to have them cataloged and searchable in one place. The majority of the maps are from the nineteenth century, but some are older or newer. They range from world maps to detailed maps of cities. Just playing around on the site, I looked at Civil-War era maps of the military defenses of Charleston, South Carolina; maps of the West Indies during the height of the sugar plantation era; street maps of cities my ancestors lived in; and a detailed map of colonial-era Calcutta.

This is a great resource for writers of historical fiction, family historians, historians of a particular locations, and anyone who likes old maps.

Christmas is cancelled; the Yanks captured Santa: Christmas in the Antebellum and Civil War-era South

When we think of traditional Christmases, we often picture the Victorian era, with its mistletoe, decorated Christmas trees, and carolers. Not all Victorian-era people were gung-ho about Christmas, though, as evidenced by The Journals of David Golightly Harris, 1855-1870 (edited by Philip N. Racine, University of Tennessee Press, 1997). These journals are a great resource about the life of a middling, slave-holding Southerner before, during, and after the Civil War, even including his wife’s voice as she keeps records for him while he’s fighting. It also gives some glimpses into the brutal lives of slaves. Amidst all this, we learn about Christmas traditions south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Some of the traditions are familiar to us. Santa Claus brings presents to the children, and friends and families gather for large Christmas dinners. It’s also a time of reflection on the past. Harris mentions grog and whiskey as part of the festivities, which may or may not resonate with modern Christmas celebrants. There’s no mention of Christmas trees or caroling.

More unusual Christmas traditions mentioned by Harris include fox hunting, firecrackers, and shooting off guns. They also held “egg-nogs,” which seem to have involved making and consuming the drink with groups of friends. The festivities lasted for several days, usually until the 28th, and Harris repeats a folk belief that the weather in the twelve days between Christmas and “old Christmas” (Twelfth Night) portends the weather in the years to come. The slaves got time off as well (unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how they celebrated), leading to Harris to grumble about having to wait on himself. In fact, Harris thinks the Christmas holiday is dying out—perhaps not as vibrant as he remembers it as a child—and since he finds it dull and tiresome, he doesn’t seem to regret its demise in the Antebellum years.

His attitude toward Christmas changes during and after the war. He still believes it’s a fading holiday, but he is sorry to think it will soon be gone. Santa brings no presents to the children in the deepest part of the war (perhaps none were to be had), and Harris hints that they told the children that the Yankees captured Santa and his presents. Fewer people came to visit and there was less to eat. The older people turned reflective in the face of death and deprivation, but the children still played and found ways to enjoy themselves, showing that some things about human nature change very little over time.