Beau Monde Mini-Con - Wednesday, 7.25.12

Highlights of the Beau Monde mini-conference: meeting all the members I've followed on Twitter or through the chapter email loop (especially Rose Lerner and Susanna Fraser, who introduced the topic of a "Time Machine Free Pass" - my pick was Sir Richard Francis Burton, naturally) and learning to lose at loo. So...workshops.  I'm going to type up some notes and impressions.

Popular Magazines of the Regency (Sandra Schwab)

Sandra Schwab is an academic and she has a proper academic approach to scholarship: thorough and precise.  I miss the good old days sometimes, so I enjoyed this quite a bit.

The talk seemed to have two main points.  The first was naming periodicals to which authors might turn when researching specific topics - The Lady's Companion or La Belle Assemblé for fashion info, for example.

The other was to sketch out the rise of periodicals that started with the Gentleman's Magazine in 1731 but exploded during the Regency, with over 4,000 new magazines launched between 1790 and 1832.  The earliest magazines covered all bases; town and country; local and international news; politics and culture.

With time, magazines magazines began targeting specific audiences (women, for example) and subjects (sporting).  The fact-based reporting of the early years gave way to more opinionated articles; snarky book reviews in Blackwood's, for example, resulted in an endless stream of libel suits.

Horse Sense Through History (Shannon Donnelly)

Shannon is a horse person & a chaptermate who's corrected several horse-related mistakes in my manuscripts in the past - my primary observation about horses is that everyone I know who's passionate about them has been severely injured as a result.

She covered basic horsemanship, breeds, markings, and carriage types.  Meanwhile, Joanna Bourne kept interrupting with questions that began, "So if your heroine has been kidnapped..."

This was my first clue that the conference was going to be awesome.

Delilah Marvelle gave the luncheon keynote.  I always love listening to authors talk about how they got published, or how they revived a flagging career, really any kind of from-the-trenches wisdom.  No two are alike and Delilah Marvelle's was particularly harrowing.  She ended up saying the thing that an aspiring writer most wants to hear: believe in yourself, write what you know is good.

I think romance as a genre can be deceptive; the titles and covers are so interchangeable, but the books themselves?  Absolutely the opposite.  I once heard James Scott Bell say that the secret to rising tension is to write to the climax, not the resolution of a novel; until you reach it, the writer's endpoint should be that moment of maximum peril.  Writing toward a happy ending will only take you in the wrong direction.

I suspect that romance genre covers could teach a similar moral: don't write the novel that deserves a pastel-colored clinch cover; it will end up blander than most of the novels that end up sandwiched between them.

The last workshop of the day was...

How Clothes Worked (Isobel Carr)

Isobel took us through the nitty gritty of dressing and undressing during the Regency - how corsets laced (and unlaced), how garters tied, what shifts and nightgowns looked like.

The highlight of this talk?  When she explained that Georgian corsets sculpted "baby's bottom" boobs, while Regency corsets engineered a "lift and separate".  And when someone asked how realistic it is, in historicals, for a gentleman to expose a fully-clothed woman's breasts, her response was: "You push up a little bit, you tug down a little bit, you've got boob."

So, there you go.  Totally realistic.

After the workshops came the literacy signing.  Some 400 authors sat at booths, signing books and chatting with the public at large.  I wandered up and down the aisles, looking for favorite authors, and discovered how rewarding it is to tell people that I think their books are great.  It's really fun!

A special shoutout to Julie James, who agreed that the hero of my favorite book of hers, Just the Sexiest Man Alive, is appealing precisely because he's cocky and enjoys his fame, and Lauren Willig, who recommended Jennifer Lee Carrell's Interred With Their Bones so I could enjoy the pleasure of reading about the wanton destruction of Widener Library.

Last but not least, the Soirée.  About half the attendees at the Beau Monde soirée showed up in costume, and a couple busted out rakish male alter-egos.  I sat down at the card table and learned to play loo.  Despite being a relatively simple game, I lost every round.

The Dog Brothel

I just finished Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.  Not as entertaining as some other disease books that I've read, but rabies is fascinating and Rabid contains some pretty crazy anecdotes. One of them is period appropriate and so crazy I had to share.  Namely, that in the mid-nineteenth century many people believed that sexual frustration caused canine rabies.  As Wasik explains:

"Dog owners confronted with the masculine fervor to mount during walks, or with the recurring frenzy of feminine heat, could be forgiven for later imagining that it was these unconsummated passions (and not the unseen nip from a stray in the streets) that caused their pets to be seized by canine madness."

One doctor, Henry William Dewhurst, a man of "murky scientific standing" (which does make me suspect this particular delusion couldn't have been too widespread), backed up his wackadoo theory in 1830 by observing that when sexual urges are "unable to be gratified, as was intended by the great Author of nature, pure madness breaks out."

Which gets around to this basic truth, which most people recognize but bears repetition: the Victorians were as sex-obsessed as anyone else.  What we think of as Victorian prudery is a manifestation of that obsession, a symptom of it -- not a separate beast at all.  You've got to have sex on the brain to put a skirt around a piano leg.

Anyway, Wasik goes on to describe an 1845 Italian screed that provides a nice anthropomorphic distillation of every single Victorian sexual hangup you can imagine.  Based on the assumption that rabies is a form of canine blueballs, "Monsignor Storti" suggested that:

"Each male dog would be brought to a central location [as Wasik clarifies elsewhere, "mandatory canine bordellos"] for his urges to be satisfied.  Immediately afterward, he would be neutered and then sold.  And then -- presumably in order to keep these dogs from generating rabies eventually -- all male dogs would then be destroyed after two years."

Where are the female dogs?  Killed as puppies or relegated to these dog brothels?  And doesn't this sound like a blurb for a YA dystopian novel?  Victorian newspapers must be full of plots for YA dystopian novels.

I don't think anyone ever tried to execute this horrible idea.  Small mercies, right?

A Rose By Any Other Name

So my work in progress, The Duke Who Never Forgets, is set in Derbyshire.  I've been looking up some locally appropriate surnames - did you know you could do that?  There's a website, here, that gathers lists of English surnames by county, often dating them back to their earliest appearance in records.  Very handy for a romance author striving for authenticity and local flavor. There are a lot of fantastic names to choose from, some glorious and crunchy like Widgery and Kippax, some that have a perfect traditional feel that can't just be invented, like Orme or Harrop.

And some names that are too fantastic and silly to be believed - like Topliss or Toogood, Hickinbotham or Luckcuck.  Luckcuck!  And let's not forget the inevitable Longstaff, but have you ever met anyone named Lillycrapp before?  Or Purseglove?  Spendlove, Makepeace - there's a sentence in there, I think.

a piece of impiety

So the heroine of my work in progress, The Duke Who Never Forgets, owns an ink factory.  She's an ink chemist and owns this company that brews and manufactures ink according to formulae of her devising. As a result, I've been reading about ink.  My best resource so far has been 40 Centuries of Ink by David Nunes Carvalho (thank you, Google Books!), which is brimming over with everything I could possibly need - like a zillion recipes for permanent black ink, for example.  I'm thinking I might have to do a bit of brewing just for authenticity's sake.

It's also full of odd little legends, like the one that follows:

"A strange old woman came once to Tarquinius Superbus with nine books, which, she said, were the oracles of the Sybils, and proffered to sell them. But the king making some scruple about the price, she went away and burnt three of them; and returning with the six, asked the same sum as before. Tarquin only laughed at the humour; upon which the old woman left him once more; and after she had burnt three others, came again with them that were left, but still kept to her old terms.

The king now began to wonder at her obstinacy, and thinking there might be something more than ordinary in the business, sent for the augars [sic] (soothsayers) to consult what was to be done.  They, when their divinations were performed, soon acquainted him with what a piece of impiety he had been guilty of, by refusing a treasure sent to him from heaven, and commanded him to give whatever she demanded for the books that remained.  The woman received her money, and delivered the writings."


Public Places In The Past Smelled Bad

I'm always clocking the "mph" in each new city I visit in India.  No, not the miles per hour - the men peeing per hour.  So far Jaipur has the highest mph.  Can't turn around without seeing some dude huddled up against a fence or a tree, scenting the area.  A few days ago I shared a taxi with a couple of Danes from Jaisalmer to Udaipur.  I explained about varying rates of mph across the country and said I had a daily quota to meet: five men peeing in public, or I've gone under. They laughed and said I was exaggerating.  I counted seven before the taxi arrived in Udaipur and we parted ways.  Victory?

There are lots of great smells in India.  Incense and flowers and stuff.  But the number one most common odor here is urine.  There are five hundred million men in India and they are all manufacturing a powerful eau de parfum that they spray all over every public space.  Streets, parks, train stations, you name it.

That's not all, of course.  India is one of those countries were women are not encouraged to go out alone.  If I get on a bus or train, I'll see men - alone or in groups - or families.  Not groups of women.  Western women travel alone here, but not Indian women.  And there's always something prickly and uncomfortable about being the odd person out.  I can say from experience, it's really, really uncomfortable to sit down in a train car when every other person around you is male.  It's really hard to fall asleep in your berth when you can hear men's voices around you and no feminine murmurs to balance it out.

I've met so many friendly people.  I've found helping hands along the way when I needed it, I've asked for directions and gotten guides instead.  But that doesn't change the fact that male-dominated public spaces are fundamentally hostile to unchaperoned women.

Westerners - Americans, certainly - feel like we have a right to public spaces.  We're used to seeing them as an extension of our homes, as the focal points of community activities, as friendly and welcoming.  And that often seeps through to writing about historical eras, where characters venture blithely into the streets without a wink of fear.  They travel alone, they go out on foot, and they don't suffer constant harassment.

But, seriously, imagine your usual gently-bred Regency heroine.  She's sweet and innocent and she says "limbs" instead of "legs".  Does she see five men peeing into a ditch every day before lunch?  Does she think the world smells like urine?  No.  No she does not.  Why?  Because she stays inside.

Public spaces, public life, street life -- these things didn't really exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century (reams have been written on the birth of public spaces and it's a fascinating topic).  There are still places in the world that are male-dominated, where social life is private, and they really do give us a glimpse into what it would be like for a lone woman in a hostile world.  The answer?  Scary.  Disgusting.  Chaotic.