What Would Jane Austen Eat? Lemon Curd!

Tea table set for two.

Tea table set for two. On the menu? Regency era lemon curd tarts. (Photo by author)

What’s a girl to do when her generous neighbor gifts her with a sack of homegrown lemons?

She makes Regency-era lemon curd and invites an Austen-loving friend over for tea, that’s what.

But was lemon curd known in Jane Austen’s day?

Definitely yes, judging by the many recipes for lemon and other fruit curds–or creams as they were often called– in the famed A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy: and Adapted to the Use of Private Families by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell.

Published in 1806 by John Murray (who would later publish Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and a new edition of Mansfield Park), the book familiarly known as ‘Mrs. Rundell’ was an immediate success and continued as the most widely read cookbook in the first half of the century.1

Mrs. Rundell’s recipe for Lemon Cream calls for a ‘pint of rich cream, two beaten egg yolks, four ounces of sugar’ and the finely peeled zest of one lemon.

The mixture is boiled then allowed to cool, when the juice of the lemon is beaten in.2

Variations such as Raspberry, Coffee, Orange and Apple creams are listed.3 Her Snow and Almond creams sound more like syllabubs, light and frothy sweet thickened liquids.

Now that I had a confirmed genuine Austen-era sweet, which recipe would I use to make it? Recipes of the time, or receipts as they were often called, are far more rudimentary than the detailed ones we use today. Remember, in effect these books were written for professional cooks so basic techniques and vocabulary were assumed to be known already by any competent cook. I’m decently skilled but hardly a chef, let alone a food historian. I needed a modern recipe for my first go at lemon curd.

After an internet search, I chose Alton Brown’s recipe courtesy of the Food Network. It looked simple and was highly rated by readers.4 It took me approximately forty five minutes start to finish with most of the time devoted to prep work, especially zesting the lemons carefully to avoid even a hint of bitter white pith.

The kitchen smelled heavenly and there was something soothing, almost hypnotic about stirring the mixture until it thickened.

The recipe produced two cups of fragrant, sunshine bright, tangy-sweet curd.

Best of all was watching the delight and hearing the yummy-sounds made by my tea guest as she sampled the fruit of my labor. It might not have been formal etiquette but it was music to my ears.

My first foray into capturing the feel of the Regency era through cooking was such a success, I’m looking for my next ‘receipt’ to make soon.

Hot cross buns, anyone?

Two lemon curd tarts.

The results: lemon curd tarts similar to those that might have graced Jane Austen’s tea table. (Photo by author)




2 http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=H3UEAAAAYAAJ&q=lemon#v=snippet&q=lemon&f=false

3 ibid

4 http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/lemon-curd-recipe/index.html


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Regency Depilation: A Prickly Problem


Since yet another of the joys and indignities of aging is a prickly new growth forest of hairs decorating my chin and upper lip, I’ve been looking around for solutions.

Naturally, my research led me back through history to my spiritual home, the Regency Era.

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, http://tinyurl.com/al8lc83

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, http://tinyurl.com/al8lc83

We think of Regency Era beauty as a look of simplicity and naturalness. The style had its roots in the French revolution of 1789 as a reaction against the artificiality of the bewigged and face patched aristocracy.

So were Eleanor Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse above these petty concerns?

Perhaps any ‘natural’ but excess facial hair didn’t bother Austen or her heroines?

Hah. Beauty manuals and periodicals of the time express the fixation on having a ‘brilliant’ or ‘blooming’ complexion. In other words, the purity of the feminine face was key. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs. Weston describes Emma as having, ‘regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health…’1

In Persuasion, we can tell Anne Elliot is in love by the recovered bloom of her complexion. Her father notices, ‘her skin, her complexion, greatly improved: clearer, fresher.’2

It is hardly a leap to guess that a bristly mustache or wiry chin hairs would be inconsistent with the fresh blooming look.

Even in the preceding Georgian period of white lead face paint, facial hair was not appreciated. It was said that the Duke of Newcastle paid exorbitant sums to have his wife’s facial hair permanently removed. In 1755 the acerbic Horace Walpole, speaking of the Duke’s retirement from government affairs,

imagines the Duke will now ‘let his beard grow as long as his Duchess’s.’3

Hair removal is divided between epilation and depilation. Both methods date as least as far back as the Pharaohs of Egypt. 4

Depilation is the removal of the hair above the surface of the skin. The most common historic methods were shaving or cutting, but also included chemical depilatories.5

The safety razor was first described by Jean Jacques Perret, a French barber, in 1770 as using a metal guard along one edge of the blade to keep the blade from slicing the skin.6

I do not find any period references to women such as Austen heroines using a razor, either straight or safety, on their faces. Even if Perret’s invention was readily available,I cannot see Mr. Darcy enjoying the feel of stubble on Elizabeth’s upper lip.

Chemical depilatories were common.

A mixture of cat feces and vinegar, with or without pounded eggshells, is cited in numerous sources from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries as both a hair remover, and a hair growth inhibiter.7

These irritant (and irritating) methods do not accord with the genteel way of life we associate with tonnish Regency women.

A less objectionable formula published in Lemery’s Curiosa Arcana of 1711 calls for, ‘the shells of 52 eggs, beat them small and distill them with a good fire.’ Then, with the water, ‘Anoint yourself where you would have the Hair off.’ Strong vinegar and even quick-lime are also recommended.8

The other class of hair removal is epilation. Epilation means the removal of the entire hair from the follicle. Historic methods included waxing or sugaring, threading or plucking and their use appears to reach back to the dawn of history.9

Based on the simplicity of epilation and ready access to its methods, it seems more likely that Austen, and her heroines, would have used one or more of these treatments for unwanted hair growth.

Tweezers, for example, are a truly ancient tool and replicate the plucking gesture of the fingertips with greater precision. For brows these would have been the obvious and simple solution.

For larger areas such as lip and chin furring, sugaring or waxing would be more efficient. These are related methods, in that a sticky paste is spread onto the skin. When the paste is pulled away, it brings the hair with it. It is thought that sugaring, which can also use molasses or honey as the adhering agent, was a refinement of waxing. The sugaring formula can be used at room or body temperature hence the danger of skin burns was eliminated. 10

Demonstrating how easily a sugaring formula can be created at home is this recipe:

2 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of water, 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Combine the ingredients and bring to a boil, then allow to cool in an airtight container.11

There is an intriguing potential connection between Jane Austen and our final method.

The ancient practice of threading, khite’ in Arabic or ‘fatlah’ is thought to have originated in India. A cat’s cradle of cotton thread is twisted and rolled to grip and remove unwanted hair. In the hands of an experienced practitioner, it is very precise and quick.12, 13

India was the birthplace of Jane Austen’s favorite cousin, and later sister-in-law, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide.

The daughter of Austen’s Aunt Philadelphia, Eliza was rumored to have been the natural daughter of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India.

After marrying a French aristocrat who was guillotined in the French Revolution, Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry. 14

Jane and Eliza were very close during Eliza’s years in England. Eliza died in 1813 with Jane at her bedside.15

Eliza’s paternity has been much debated, but she did name her only son Hastings and received a legacy in Warren Hastings’s will. The Austen family felt not only admiration but kinship for Warren Hastings and Jane sent him a copy of Pride and Prejudice. 16

Is it so farfetched to imagine that cosmopolitan Eliza, the world traveler and sophisticate, might have learned of khite, threading, through her Indian experience and later passed on this beauty technique to cousin Jane?

Austen’s inquiring mind, curiosity and powers of observation all predispose her to be an early adopter of new ideas and techniques. As does her reputation for attractiveness. Her brother Henry spoke of her complexion as being, ‘of the finest texture.’ Her nephew James Austen-Leigh remembered, ‘her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour…’17

As for me? Of course I followed my Regency muse.

The simplicity brought tears to my eyes. As did the effect of having dozens of hairs yanked out of their sockets at the same time. But—it was quick, and no redness, no worry about reused product or unsterilized equipment.

All I had to do was lean back in the chair, let Tammy work her magic, and dream of Regency elegance.

Tammy of Queen's Nails, Turlock CA demonstrating threading. Photo by the author.

Tammy of Queen’s Nails, Turlock CA demonstrating threading. Photo by the author.


1 Austen, Jane. Emma. London, John Murray.1815 (dated 1816).

2 Austen, Jane. Persuasion. London, John Murray. 1817 (dated 1818).

3,7,8 http://depilatories.com/shop/history-hair-removal-3

4, 5, 9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depilation

6 http://www.ehow.com/about_5038278_history-safety-razor.html

10, 11 http://www.ehow.com/way_5761126_homemade-hair-removal-cream.html#ixzz2HX0azuNX

12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threading_(epilation)

13 http://hairremoval.about.com/od/threading/a/threading101.htm

14, 15  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Hancock

16 http://www.janeausten.co.uk/warren-hastings-first-governor-of-india/

17 http://austenised.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-did-jane-austen-look-like.html

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Happy Anniversary, Lord Byron?

Happy 198th anniversary, Lord and Lady Byron!

Image Courtesy Wikipedia: Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Byron

Image Courtesy Wikipedia: Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Byron



Image courtesy Wikipedia: Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1812 by Sir George Hayter, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Byron

Image courtesy Wikipedia: Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1812 by Sir George Hayter, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Byron














Of course, George Gordon, Lord Byron and Anna Isabella Milbanke, Lady Byron are no longer alive and able to enjoy marital bliss.

But did they ever?

After all, Lord Byron is considered by many to be the ideal romantic hero. His marriage, then, must have been ideal, too. Right?

Oh, so wrong.

Byron’s first and only  marriage was likely motivated by that infamous killer of romance, debt: he had them, she had expectations of a fortune to inherit. They  separated only fifty four weeks later, after the birth of both a daughter and a scandal that rocked even the notoriously relaxed morals of Regency London’s ton.

In one way, then, the marriage could be called a success: it is still discussed, studied, argued about, nearly two hundred years later.

On January 2, 1815, Byron married Anna Isabella Milbanke.1

Though legally separated in 1816, Byron and Annabella remained married until Byron’s death in Greece on April 19, 1824. 2, 3

Annabella, as she was called, was the cousin of Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom Byron had conducted a notorious affair in 1812-1813. Byron broke off the affair with little consideration, repelled by Lady Caroline’s growing possessiveness.4

Lady Caroline famously described Byron as, ‘bad, mad and dangerous to know.’5

Byron retaliated with his poem ‘Remember Thee! Remember Thee!’ whose last line refers to Lady Caroline as, ‘Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.’6

The ever-short-of-funds Byron began to court Lady Caroline’s cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Annabella”) who was heiress to a large estate. Annabella was a highly intelligent and moral woman who refused Byron’s first proposal of marriage but later relented. Her mathematical genius led Byron to call her his ‘Princess of Parallelograms.’ 7,8

Upon her marriage, Annabella became Anne Isabella, Lady Byron or Baroness Byron.

However, Annabella’s mother disliked Byron so much that she requested the Prince Regent give Annabella the title ‘Lady Wentworth’ so that her parents would not have to call her ‘Byron.’

When Annabella’s mother died, in order to inherit the large estate, Annabella changed her surname to Noel, a condition of her mother’s will. 9,10

The marriage proved unhappy almost immediately. Byron’s best man, John Cam Hobhouse, alleged Byron had written but failed to send a letter calling the wedding off. Another rumor is that Hobhouse himself tried to convince the vicar to refuse to perform the ceremony because Byron was, ‘a monster of cruelty.’ 11

They moved to a London townhome where Byron behaved badly from the start.

He was frequently drunk, entered into affairs, fired pistols into the ceiling, spoke viciously to Annabella, and in general made his friends fear for his sanity.12, 13

Annabella became pregnant almost immediately. Byron noted that the naïve Annabella, ‘could always be caressed into tractability.’14 Their daughter, Augusta Ada, was born on December 10, 1815, and on 16 January 16,1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. 15, 16

On 21 April, 1816 Byron signed the Deed of Separation. Rumors of domestic violence, sodomy, and incest with Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh, began making the rounds of London society, likely assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline. 17, 18

Of the rumors, Byron noted, “Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction and ruin to a man from which he can never recover.”19, 20

Though he had long delighted Society with his outrageous behavior, delicious scandals and brilliant poetry, such accusations put him beyond the pale and he found most doors closed to him.

Byron left England, never to return.21

Byron and Annabella’s daughter, Ada Augusta, inherited the best of both her parents. She was a brilliant mathematician, collaborated with Charles Babbage on his analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers, and has been called the world’s first computer programmer.22,23


1, 2, 6, 9, 15, 17, 19  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron

3, 10, 16, 23  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Isabella_Byron,_Baroness_Byron

4, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 20 http://www.internationalbyronsociety.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=8&Itemid=7

5 http://fascinatinghistory.blogspot.com/2005/10/mad-bad-dangerous-to-know.html

6 http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/lbyron/bl-lbyron-remem.htm

7, 8 http://androom.home.xs4all.nl/biography/p006574.htm

21 http://englishhistory.net/byron/life.html

22 http://www.biography.com/people/ada-lovelace-20825323

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Merry Christmas from the Fatally Fun Team

Merry Christmas from the Fatally Fun team at www.HillariDelgado.com. Left to right, Oski (Chief Morale Officer), Hillari (Author and Primary Pooper Scooper), and Edward the CritiCat (Quality Control Commissar).

Merry Christmas from the Fatally Fun team at www.HillariDelgado.com. Left to right, Oski (Chief Morale Officer), Hillari (Author and Primary Pooper Scooper), and Edward the CritiCat (Quality Control Commissar).

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‘Bring Us a Figgy’–What?

Vintage engraving, family being served plum pudding

Period illustration courtesy Jane Austens World: http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/category/regency-christmas-traditions/

“Each year I tell my family I’m finally going to make a Figgy Pudding for Christmas. No one seems very enthusiastic.”—C. Williams.

“So bring us a Figgy pudding and bring it right now!”—Traditional carol.

Bring a what?

A Figgy Pudding is an early version of the Christmas Pudding. In this case, the most important ingredient would be rich, sweet figs, along with, “butter, sugar, eggs, milk, rum, apple, lemon and orange peel, nuts, cinnamon, cloves and ginger! Not dissimilar to the modern day Christmas Puddings!” 1

Last week we discussed ‘Stir Up Sunday,’November 25, the last Sunday before Advent and the traditional deadline for mixing up your family’s Christmas pudding so it will have time to mellow before its starring role as the flaming finale to the Christmas feast.

To review, ‘pudding’ is the British English term for dessert (as in, ‘hey mom, what’s for pud’?) The ‘Christmas Pudding’ is also known as a ‘Plum Pudding’ (as in Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol) or a ‘Figgie Pudding’ (as in the carol) and would be called a fruitcake in the States. In the case of the Christmas Pudding, the cake is boiled rather than baked.

(I know you’re making that face. Trust me. Make your own fruit cake, omit the nasty neon green citron, substitute roasted macadamias, pineapple and coconut then tell me you don’t like fruit cake. Feed it spiced rum and—you get the idea…)

In 1845 in her ‘Modern Cooking for Private Families,’ Eliza Acton is credited as being the first to christen the Figgy or Plum pudding as a Christmas Pudding. The UK’s Telegraph recently tested Mrs. Acton’s recipe against pudding recipes from four of the country’s most popular celebrity chefs. 2

The results? The 167-year-old recipe won the competition with a perfect five out of five. Here’s the recipe, courtesy of www.zesterdaily.com:3

Eliza Acton’s Traditional English Christmas Pudding

Serves 6-8

Miss Acton recommends this as a remarkably light, small, rich pudding to be boiled in a cloth in traditional style, though, she says, it can also be cooked in a bowl.

3 ounces plain all-purpose flour

3 ounces finely grated bread crumbs

6 ounces grated suet

6 ounces raisins

6 ounces currants

2 ounces candied peel

4 ounces grated apple

5 ounces brown sugar

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon grated mace or cinnamon

Small glass brandy

3 medium eggs

Pinch salt

Batter is much lighter when boiled in a cloth, and allowed full room to swell, than when confined in a mould [bowl]: it should be well beaten the instant before it is poured into it, and put into the water immediately after it is securely tied. The cloth should be moist and thickly floured, and the pudding should be sent to table as expeditiously as possible after it is done, as it will quickly become heavy.

Mix and beat all the ingredients together, tie them in a well-floured cloth (scald it first), push a wooden spoon through the loops of the cloth and suspend it in a full pan of boiling water. Bring the water back to the boil, turn down the heat a little, and lid. Boil the pudding for 3½ hours. Unwrap the pudding onto a warm plate and set in a medium oven for 10 minutes to form a rich dark skin.

If you prefer to boil the pudding in a bowl, butter it first. Drop in the batter: It should fill it nearly to the top. Lid with a circle of buttered kitchen paper. Tie a clean cloth over it, with a fold so that the pudding can expand. Boil for 3½ hours in a pan of water that comes three-quarters of the way up the bowl. Keep it loosely lidded, and take care to keep the level topped up with boiling water. After 3½ hours, when it is ready, let the pudding stand in its bowl for five minutes before it is dished, to prevent its breaking. You can store this pudding under a clean cloth. It will need 2 hours to reheat and lighten again. To flame it, make sure that the brandy is warmed before you pour it over and set it alight.

Finally, for you food historians, the Oxford Dictionaries Blog has an excellent entry entitled ‘The Christmas Table’ that delves into the history of this dessert.4

So who’s with me? Raise your pudding spoons high, and let’s serve up a Figgy Pudding this Christmas and revive a delicious tradition!



2 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/christmas-food-and-drink/9688444/The-best-Christmas-pudding-recipe.html

3 http://zesterdaily.com/cooking/christmas-plum-pudding/

4 http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/12/the-christmas-table/

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Stirring Up a Regency Christmas Pudding

Period illustration of plum pudding

Period image of a flaming plum pudding. Image credit: cyberphysics.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Hope you enjoyed Stir Up Sunday. Like all good Austen fans, I was weighing, measuring and stirring away all day preparing my Christmas pudding.

What’s that? You missed it?

Well, no worries, you still have time to get your Christmas pudding stirred, baked and fed before Advent begins on December 2.

Still no go? Ah. Allow me to explain.

The last Sunday before Advent, this year November 25, was traditionally known as ‘Stir Up Sunday’ or ‘Christmas Pudding Day.’ It was considered the last day to ‘stir up’ your Christmas pudding so it would have time to mature before its star turn on the day.1

The pudding would spend the intervening weeks reposing in a cool dark place, being ‘fed’ every week or so with a stiff drink of brandy or rum, and mellowing into moist, rich perfection. Another spell of an hour or so of boiling heated the pudding before serving.

Everyone in the household took a turn stirring the pudding with a wooden spoon while making a wish. The pudding was to be stirred from east to west in honor of the Wise Men who visited the infant Christ. Children of the household often recited a rhyme based on the 1549 Book of Common Prayer collect for the day:

‘Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot;And when we get home, we’ll eat the lot.’2

A silver sixpence was slipped into the batter, to bring wealth to the finder. Other additions might be a button or bell for a lucky life, a ring to foretell marriage, or even a thimble to warn of impending spinsterhood!3,8

By the time of the elegant Regency era, many of the old Christmas traditions were considered ‘rustic’ and people of ‘good society’ avoided them.4

In Persuasion, we view the countrified Musgraves’s celebrations through the sophisticated sensibilities of Anne Elliott and Lady Russell. The “riotous boys holding high revel” over a table “groaning” with Christmas food treats, the “chattering girls cutting up silk and gold paper” to the background of a “roaring Christmas fire” hold little charm for the ladies. Lady Russell resolves “in future not to call at Uppercross in the Christmas holiday.”5

Fortunately the Christmas pudding, the sturdy descendant of the medieval boiled ‘frumenty’ porridge, was a survivor of Regency minimalism.

Later developments included sultanas, currants and dried plums, hence the name Plum Pudding.6

Of course, for Americans the term ‘pudding’ can cause confusion. In simple terms, a Christmas pudding is a fruitcake that is steamed rather than baked. To be most correct, it should be brought to the table flamed with a tot of brandy and decorated with a sprig of holly, and is served with a custard or brandy ‘hard’ sauce.

Ready to make your own Regency Christmas pudding? 1811’s The London Art of Cookery by John Farley offers this recipe:

“Plum Pudding boiled.

Cut a pound of suet into little pieces, but not too fine, a

pound of currants washed clean, a pound of raisins stoned,

eight yolks of eggs, and four whites, half a nutmeg grated,

a tea-spoonful of beaten ginger, a pound of flour, and a pint of

milk. Beat the eggs first, then put to them half the milk,

and beat them together, and by degrees stir in the flour, then

the suet, spice, and fruit, as much milk as will mix it well

together very thick. It will take five hours boiling.”7

The storage and aging of puddings was so well known and used that Farley did not need to give directions. For modern cooks, this simple procedure involves allowing the pudding to cool completely. Wrap the pudding in a clean kitchen towel soaked in brandy or white rum. Store the pudding in a covered tin and keep in a cool, dark place for at least two to four weeks before serving, refreshing the wrapping with additional liquor weekly.8

Modernized recipes are readily available. Christmas or Plum pudding is a simple and sturdy dessert that requires little of a cook, even a novice, except a bit of time. Cider can be substituted for the liquor.

Why not try making one, at least once? You might stir up a new Christmas tradition for your family.


1 http://projectbritain.com/Xmas/stirup.htm

2 ibid

3 http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/Xmas/christmaspudding.html

4 http://jobev.com/xmasarticle.html

4 ibid

5 Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Chapter 14

6 http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/Xmas/christmaspudding.html


8 http://www.mahalo.com/how-to-make-plum-pudding/

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Freezing For Fashion

Bloomers weren’t just for modesty; they protected their wearer from icy drafts.

We’re enjoying our first 50-degree day in my corner of California. Nine a.m. found me standing in a windswept expanse of concrete courtyard waiting for an interview subject to arrive.

And freezing my derrière off, as the saying goes.

Despite nubbly tights, boots and a mac, the wind was whipping briskly up my long wool skirt. I had the option of wearing slacks that morning. Certainly I slipped into my favorite fluffy sweats as soon as I got home.

But my frozen fanny and I had a transcendent moment of union with our Regency and Victorian sisters.

How on earth did they keep warm under their long skirts? As a matter of fact, often they did not.

Those stately homes with their high ceilings and wide hallways were notoriously cold. It took many, many hands and tons of coal, coke and wood to heat them. Particularly as the nineteenth century wore on and servants became harder to find (and more expensive to keep), those hands just weren’t there.

The problem of frigid chambers, arctic halls and icy dining rooms were so ubiquitous that many women of the period shared their strategies for keeping warm.

Red flannel pantalettes were popular.  Wash leather (chamois) leggings were used to protect lower legs. Shawls of cashmere were used in winter. Yet ‘Regency Etiquette’1 speaks disapprovingly of Regency women who so slavishly followed the prevailing fashion they refused to cover their bosom and arms which the Empire style usually bared.

Quilted satin pantalettes filled with swansdown were known. (Think of a dress so voluminous you could wear quilts wrapped around your lower legs without it showing!)

Photo credit: Stock vault

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Brewing up the ‘Natural’ Look

I woke up this morning with sore hair. Maybe my mop was exercising while I was asleep or the arthritis has colonized my hair follicles, but it had better snap out of it. It (the mop) has an appointment today for a cut and foil.

Before you ask, yes my hair is my ‘natural color.’ It just needs a bit of ‘lifting’ to be as natural as it was when I was eight. Thanks to crème bleach in the hands of a genius named Kim, my hair is going to look eight years old until it’s laid across the pillow in my coffin.

Regency grays are still just—gray

But what about our sisters of earlier days? Is it true that all those well-bred ladies in our favorite Jane Austen books and BBC miniseries were perfectly happy with mousy or gray hair? That’s what ‘they’ say.

I say, piffle. Women were just as interested in maintaining or improving their looks in the Regency and Victorian ages, as they are now.

Since dyed hair is an important element of ‘When in Rome,’ my humorous romantic suspense set in Regency Rome, I have delved into the history of hair dye and dyed hair.

Working hard to look ‘natural’

In the Regency period, Austen’s contemporaries affected a natural look, as a reaction against the powdered and painted look of their parents. (Think George III in one of those curled white horsehair wigs. Or modern English barristers’ wigs, on steroids.)

Unfortunately, then as now, the ‘natural look’ actually took a lot of work. Particularly as you grew older. The traditional dyes: walnut stain, chamomile flowers, berries, black tea and coffee,¹ often left ferocious tell-tale stains on the scalp and skin. Or they just did not have much effect.

Golden blonde hair was popular. In an effort to bleach darker shades to blond, women applied lemon, herb washes or even lye and caustic soda to their hair then sat in strong sunlight wearing large hats cut out to expose the hair.²

Blonde’s opposite, deepest brunette, was also admired. And it was useful in covering graying. A fortuitous sidelight of the development of photography in the 1820s and 30s was the use of silver salts—potassium nitrite—to darken hair as well as photographic plates. Unfortunately the over application of silver salts could turn the hair purple.³

(In a sidelight, the cosmetics brand we know today as L’Oreal was founded in France in 1909 as ‘Aureole, The French Harmless Hair Colouring Company’ to provide reliable dying alternatives to silver salts and their resultant purple.)4

Not Too Prudish to Dye

We think of the Victorians as rigid and puritanical. They may have been so ‘refained’ they called piano legs ‘limbs’ and swathed them in concealing fabric, but they were not too refined to dye their hair as their racy Regency parents did. That old warhorse Hydrogen Peroxide came into use in the 1860s and remained a widely used bleaching solution well into the 1930s.5

Barbara Onslow’s Victorian Page offers these extracts from Victorian sources:

In 1873, The Young Ladies Journal provided the recipe for ‘Pollie’s Own,’ to lighten hair. ‘Washing your hair with soda will make it lighter; but it is injurious to the skin of the head and causes the hair to break. Rosemary is very beneficial and is used as a wash.’6

An 1895 edition of Home Notes provided this mixture to produce brown hair:7

Flowers of sulphur ……………. ½ ounce

Glycerine ………………………… 1 ounce

Rectified spirits of wine ………. ½ ounce

Rosewater, to …………………..  8 ounces



1: http://hmbeautyrecipes.homestead.com/HAIRcolor.html

2: http://www.ehow.com/about_5127023_history-hair-dye-colors.html#ixzz2A8hnWR6h

3: ibid

4: ibid

5: http://www.colourlovers.com/fashion/blog/2007/12/18/hair-color-a-history-of-folicle-hue-adjusting

6: http://victorianpage.com/Victorianpage-LadiesPage-Beauty.html

7: ibid

Photo credit: Stockvault.net 

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My Personal Ghost Story

Not too long ago, admitting you had a personal ghost story was apt to get you pitying looks or that ‘drinking-her-lunch-again’ gesture behind your back. But ghost stories have gone mainstream, judging by the proliferation of cable reality shows such as ‘Celebrity Ghost Stories,’ ‘My Ghost Story’ and the like.

In honor of October 31, I hereby chime in with my very own, very true and very personal ghost story.

My grad school friend and I had traveled from California to Haworth village in Yorkshire, England for the annual Bronte festival.

Accommodations in the small village were limited to small family-run bed-and-breakfasts, and relatively few of those. The event drew large crowds every year and competition for those few rooms was fierce.

Trudi and I had booked far ahead of time and had our confirmation in hand. Nevertheless when we arrived at the doorstep of the tidy terraced house, the landlady told us she had expected us the night before and had given our room away.

We must have looked a sight: jetlagged, rumpled from long train rides and the lengthy wait on a windswept platform for the transfer to the Lilliputian local train. ‘I can call my neighbor down the road,’ she said. ‘He may still have a room.’

Within moments she returned. ‘He has a room for you if you go right now.’ The landlady gave us the house number and pointed.

Off we trotted. In the line of trim housefronts with their shining windows, this house sagged, gray and dejected. Even the ‘Bed and Breakfast’ sign in the window looked halfhearted.

Trudi and I exchanged looks. Behind us the narrow street hummed with the cars of incoming festivalgoers. We turned back to the door and rang the bell.

‘You the ones who called?’ The landlord loomed over us, huge and hairy, moth-eaten cardigan gaping across a grimy singlet. He took our nods as assent and pulled back the door.

The determined gloom allowed only impressions of the interior. The blinds of the front windows in the lounge were tightly shut against the late afternoon sun. Even in the semidarkness I could see vast numbers of tennis shoes scattered across the floor. But not in pairs, not new as if he were a flea market trader. No, the floor was littered with individual shoes. Old, grotty shoes.

A compressed sofa hulked against one wall. A light patch in the rear wall allowed a peak into a tiny kitchen. Even from a distance we could see piles of dishes and pans on the counters and in the sink. The whole smelled of dirty feet, smoke and squalor.

Not that the landlord gave us much time to look around as he chivvied us to the foot of the stairs. ‘I’ll show you your room.’

‘A lot of people like to sit in here,’ he gestured with a massive arm, ‘and watch the telly.’

Voluntarily? I wondered.

‘And that’s the kitchen where I’ll be making your breakfast.’

My stomach lurched at the thought.

Up two flights we climbed, then around the landing and onto a third flight.  These stairs were so narrow we had to edge up sideways, backs against the wall, holding our duffle bags ahead and behind us with outstretched arms. The top landing was floored in worn lino. There was a gable window ahead of us set into the roofline, and a stout oak door to our right. The landlord took out a key, unlocked the door and pushed it open.

At first glance the room was unobjectionable: at least by the standards of the rest of that house. It was plainly furnished with three single beds and nightstands lining the walls. The coverlets were thin and worn but looked clean enough. One narrow window was set in the roofline, the twin to the window on the landing. It allowed in only a weak light.

It occurred to me that generations of servant girls had lived most of their lives in garret rooms just like this one. I could survive one night here.

So why was every instinct telling me to get out—no, run out, right now?

‘I’ll go make you a nice pot of tea and bring it up to you girls while you’re unpacking,’ the landlord broke into my thoughts.

We watched him close the door behind him. Shutting us in.

Wordlessly Trudi and I exchanged glances. We waited until his heavy steps descended the stairs before we moved. I tiptoed to the door and tested the knob. It turned freely; I eased it open a crack, just to check. A tiny portion of panic receded: at least we weren’t locked in.

Trudi was standing on the bed looking out the window. I joined her, only to find the house was set at the edge of a steep ledge overlooking open fields. Far below us, not only the four storeys of the house but the additional drop of the ledge, ran a dirt path. The window we were looking out was made of thick panes, the whole painted shut.

‘Even if we could get the window open, no one could hear us. And if we climbed out, we’d probably fall,’ I whispered to Trudi.

‘Did you see that lounge?’ Trudi whispered back. ‘He’s not right.’

‘Nobody knows we’re here. We need to get out. Now.’

‘Do you think we should tell him?’

‘He’ll figure it out.’ My words were clipped; I could hardly force them out around the panic that gripped my throat and burned in my chest.

We crept down the stairs, testing each tread with our toes for any squeaks that would betray our escape.

In the narrow entryway we paused. Tinkling sounds of tea making told us the landlord was still occupied in the kitchen but nothing was more than a few short feet away in the confined space of the little row house. If he looked up he would see us.

Each hair of my head felt like an antenna, quivering, testing, anticipating the moment that walking nightmare would see us, try to stop us. It was the waking version of a nightmare of being chased, straining ahead of an unseen predator, arching like a bow against the moment the icy fingertips reach, touch, catch…

I eased the front door open just wide enough for us to slip through, trying to limit the beacon of light from outside. Trudi and I passed one at a time into the sunlight and freedom.

We ran down the street, shaking with silent giggles of relief and release, until we turned the corner. A little common area, a red-paned phone box, shoppers passing, dull, blessed normalcy: what had we been thinking? He was a slovenly man in a dirty old house. Why had we let our imaginations run away with us? ‘But still, that lounge—all those shoes!’ ‘I would have poured the tea down the drain. Can you imagine eating anything that came out of that kitchen?’

Ever-resourceful Trudi made short work of finding us a room in a semidetached home on the edge of the village. The place was filled with sunlight and the owners’ children and dogs. We were assigned a grand, ornately furnished room with a marble fireplace and sets of floor-to-ceiling windows. They all opened. I checked.

Several days later we were walking back to our lodgings along a footpath that skirted the village. ‘Look,’ Trudi stopped me. “There’s that house.’

I followed her gaze, up the bare rock ledge, over the antique stone foundations appearing as if they had grown from the native rock, to the long line of four storey houses perched high above us. Whitewashed, slate roofed, little windows reflecting the sun, individual houses were difficult to pick out of the long line.

Except for one that hulked, dingy and blind windowed, amidst its neighbors. ‘That was our window,’ Trudi pointed.

A cloud passed and the light dimmed. For just a moment I could see through the window, glimpse the face that looked out. Thin, feminine, surrounded by long blond hair, a face I recognized, mouth open as if calling.

Or screaming.

Before I could do more than suck in a breath, the face winked out of existence. The sun reappeared and turned the windows back into mirrors.

‘What?’ Trudi asked.

‘I’m just glad we didn’t stay.’

We passed on down the path, talking of other things. I could not tell my friend, and I never told anyone else, until now, about what I saw in that moment. For who would believe me?

Who would believe I had seen, not the ghost of what happened but the ghost of what might have been? For it was my own ghost I had seen, trapped high above, pleading silently for help that would never come, in some other reality that had not happened and would never end.

Photo Credit: PhotoPin

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