Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Undertaker's Mute

A reader recently asked me what a character means in my first regency, Ruined by Rumor, when he accuses the heroine's new husband of having "all the address of an undertaker's mute."

As the name suggests, an undertaker's mute worked for an undertaker, though few if any were actually unable to speak.  Prior to World War I, and especially during Victorian times, mourning was big business, with the bereaved generally vying with one another to demonstrate the depth of their grief (and the loftiness of their social position) through lavish funeral arrangements. The mute was an expected part of this memorial pomp.

The role of the undertaker's mute began practically enough, as described by Bertram Puckle in his 1926 Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development:
From the moment that the undertaker "undertakes" the funeral arrangements, he assumes an implied professional responsibility for the safe keeping of the body. This is the origin of the now obsolete practice of posting one or more of his miserable minions on the front doorstep of the house of mourning.
As time went on, the mute's position became less practical and more ceremonial. With his doleful demeanor and somber costume, he was expected to set the proper tone of funerary gloom.

This undertaker's mute is swathed in white, appropriate for a child's funeral. (Image courtesy of artist Roxana Fernandez.)
He bore a staff covered in crepe--white for the death of a child, black for an adult--and was himself similarly draped, wearing a sash and a top hat with a trailing silk hat band. I looked long and hard to find an historical image, but unfortunately the best period illustration I could find, here, is under copyright. Still, I hope you'll click on the link, since the painting you'll find is a wonderfully evocative example of a pale and woeful mute.

In reality, however, mutes weren't always appropriately sober. One of the mute's principal responsibilities was to walk in the funeral procession, and it was traditional to supply him with gin in order to fortify him against the outdoor cold. Working as a mute was occasional rather than regular work, and many mutes made the most of the occasion, resulting in drunkenness. A writer to the London Quarterly Review complained of the expense of having to supply "kid gloves and gin for the mutes" and expressed a growing anti-mute sentiment when he decried "the lowest of all hypocrites, the hired mourner."

Charles Dickens was always alert to social hypocrisy, the more ridiculous the better, and in Oliver Twist he highlighted such absurdities of the funeral industry. The hen-pecked undertaker Mr. Sowerberry calls Oliver to his wife's attention:
'There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear,' resumed Mr. Sowerberry, 'which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love....I don't mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear, but only for children's practice. It would be very new to have a mute in proportion, my dear. You may depend upon it, it would have a superb effect.' 
Mrs. Sowerberry, who had a good deal of taste in the undertaking way, was much struck by the novelty of this idea; but, as it would have been compromising her dignity to have said so, under existing circumstances, she merely inquired, with much sharpness, why such an obvious suggestion had not presented itself to her husband's mind before?
Thanks both to the gin-drinking and to ribbing from critics like Dickens, the mute gradually fell into disfavor, ultimately becoming a figure of ridicule. By the turn of the twentieth century, such professional mourners had disappeared from the English funeral scene altogether, with only the faintest echo of his demeanor discernible in today's pallbearers.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press.  Her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25 and is available now for pre-order, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Vague-er Side of Valentine's Day

While we, as romance writers, are certainly familiar with the notion of St. Valentine (one of the three, anyway), and how the romantic holiday has come to be, are you aware that February 14 is also Communist Martyr’s Day, and Statehood Day for both Arizona and Oregon?
No?  Read on.
Sadly, a rather lot of blood-letting seems to have occurred on this day in history.  The most famous atrocity for Americans is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which seven Chicagoland mobster rivals of Al Capone were killed (which is putting it mildly).  But earlier, in 1349, several hundred Jews were burned to death as mobs in Strasbourg forcibly removed the population from their midst.  More recently, in 1998, an oil tanker train collided with a freight train in Cameroon, which would have been bad enough, but one of the workers flicked his cigarette aside, igniting an explosion that killed over a hundred.  Then, in 2005, a series of terrorist attacks in the Philippines killed seven and wounded over one hundred and fifty.
That’s the bad news.  But other, less bloody yet noteworthy things happened as well. In 1849, the first photograph of a sitting president was taken by none other than the incomparable Matthew Brady.  His subject?  James K. Polk, the Great Compromiser.  Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on Valentine’s Day 1876, and in 1924, Thomas Watson renames his rather forgettable company the International Business Machine Corporation—better known as IBM. 
So what do we glean from this?  That Valentine's Day is a day like any other.  Good and bad happen every day, all around us, and it’s all in what you make it.  If you experience trial or adversity, learn from it and overcome.  If you experience the flush of new love, renewed love, or everlasting love, relish it and pass it along.  And, if you need to believe that February 14 is special, take a prolonged look at the beautiful love letters between Elizabeth Barrrett and Robert Browning, published a year ago today, by Wellesley College and Baylor University.   

Lesson?  Make it a good Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How do I love thee? Let me write a poem.

St. Valentine, we hardly knew you. Considering there were two different St. Valentines during the Roman era, no wonder there is confusion about who he really was and why he became associated with love.

Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first to recognize in writing the connection between the Roman mystery man and romance. In his poem, Parliament of Foules, written in 1382, he writes
For this was Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

It’s not exactly greeting card material, but it is one of the first written records of the day being associated with love.

After Chaucer waxed poetic about the day, others got in the game, creating little poems and cards to give to their sweethearts. The oldest surviving example is in the British Museum. It is a love poem from 1477 and you can see and read about it here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/642175.stm

Later, in the 15th century, Charles, Duke of Orleans would offer a little ditty to his wife and further cement the connection between love and Valentine’s Day
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine

You can practically see Charles coming home from a hard day of oppressing peasants with a box of chocolates tucked under his arm to give to the little wife. However, the only chocolate available at the time was a bitter version of hot chocolate introduced to Europe from South America by the Conquistadors.

Romantic men all over the western world would have to wait another three hundred years before the little heart-shaped boxes went on sale. In the mid-1800’s, Richard Cadbury invented a way to mix chocolate and cocoa butter to make a sweeter, more edible chocolate. To sell his new creation, he offered them in fancy boxes and the Victorians snapped them up. Whether chocolate shops put them out the day after Christmas is still open to historical debate.

Along with these new-fangled chocolates, Victorians exchanged homemade Valentine’s Day cards. It wasn’t until an enterprising American woman, Esther Howland came on the scene that mass produced cards became available. Esther had started making cards by hand, but when demand for her designs outpaced her production abilities, she began manufacturing them in bulk. Now, husbands all across America and Britain could panic and rush to the store to buy a mass produced sentiment to go along with their heart shaped boxes.

So, as you prepare for Thursday, give a little thought to those who paved the way, and have a very happy Valentine's Day.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Boudica - Celtic Queen

Boudica was queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the Roman army that occupied her village.
Boudica's husband Prasutagus was the ruler of the Iceni tribe. He had ruled his tribe as an ally of Rome. He intended to secure his land and his daughters by bequeathing his kingdom jointly to his two daughters and the Roman Emperor. When Prasutagus died, his will was ignored. Rome annexed his kingdom as if conquered. Boudica was flogged and her daughters were raped. The loans Prasutagus got from Roman financiers were all called in.
Boudica was a tall woman with amber hair that hung below her waist. She wore a golden torc, a multicolored tunic and a thick cloak fastened with a brooch. She not only dressed the part of a leader her harsh voice and penetrating glare marked her as a person with whom to be reckoned.  Historical accounts describe her as being more intelligent than other women of her day. Perhaps it was her royal upbringing and the close relationship she had with her husband the king. She was a strong willed woman and would not be defeated. In about 60 AD she encouraged the nearby tribes, who had also been routed from their land and mistreated by the Romans, to join her and her people in revolt.
Their first target was Colchester, the former capital of the Trinovantes tribe, now displaced from their lands by the Romans. Her attack was planned while the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was leading his troops against the Isle of Anglesey. Boudica found the city poorly defended and destroyed Colchester, the site of Emperor Claudius’ temple.
Her next target was London. Suetonius, after hearing of her attack and victory, hurried to London but quickly concluded he did not have enough men to defend the settlement. He evacuated and abandoned London. Boudica burned London to the ground as well as other cities in her path. It is estimated that about 75,000 people were killed. Emperor Nero considered withdrawing his Roman forces from Britain, but Suetonius' victory over Boudica re-secured Roman control.
Suetonius, regrouped his forces. Heavily out-numbered-Rome 10,000 Boudica 230,000-the field of attack was to Suetonius’ advantage.  The area was narrow. Boudica could not optimize on her large force and the Roman soldier’s discipline and tactics were a deadly combination. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Boudica and the Britons were defeated in the Battle of Watling Street.
It is unclear how Boudica died. She either killed herself, so she would not be captured, or fell ill and died—the sources differ.
Interest in the history of these events was revived during the English Renaissance and led to a resurgence of Boudica's legendary fame during the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria was portrayed as her 'namesake'. Boudica has since remained an important cultural symbol in the United Kingdom. The absence of native British literature during the early part of the first millennium means that Britain owes its knowledge of Boudica's rebellion solely to the writings of the Romans.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Of Wimseys and Wellesleys: Courtesy Titles, Part 2

Today we look into what happens when the daughters and younger sons of last month's post get married.

I'll start with the sons of dukes and marquesses, since they're more straightforward. Obviously, their names don't change upon marriage. Lord Peter is still Lord Peter. But when he marries Harriet Vane (a commoner, daughter of a country doctor), she becomes Lady Peter. Not Lady Wimsey, because younger sons' courtesy titles attach to the first name, not the surname. And not Lady Harriet, because it's his title, not hers. Incidentally, their children don't have titles, courtesy or otherwise. They're just very well-bred and well-connected commoners.

Daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls are more complicated. The rule, as I understand it, is that when a woman with a courtesy title marries, she takes her husband's title if it's higher in precedence than hers, but keeps her own if hers is higher. This means that if she marries a man without a title, she doesn't become Mrs. Husband's Name. Instead, she's Lady HerFirstName HisLastName. In the case of the fictional Wimsey family, Lord Peter's sister, Lady Mary, marries Charles Parker, a police detective and one of her brother's closest friends, and becomes Lady Mary Parker. (NOT Lady Parker.) Her husband's name doesn't change. Basically, a man can convey his courtesy title to his wife, but a woman can't pass hers to her husband. Is this sexist? Of course it is. If you're going to write historical fiction, you'll run into far worse instances of it.

Wellington's one sister also married commoners (untitled gentlemen might be a better term), becoming first Lady Anne FitzRoy (wife of the Hon. Henry FitzRoy, son of a baron) and then after his death Lady Anne Smith (wife of Charles Culling Smith).

If Lady Anne or Lady Mary had married a peer (a holder of an actual rather than a courtesy title), then she would've taken his title even if it were a lower rank of the peerage (baron, viscount), because substantive title always trumps courtesy title. I.e. if Lady Mary Wimsey had married Baron Stuffy, she'd be Lady Stuffy rather than Lady Mary.

It's when courtesy title holders marry each other that things get really complicated. Then, if I understand this correctly, you go by their relative precedence. Dukes' daughters trump dukes' younger sons, who in turn trump marquesses' daughters who trump their younger sons and so on. So Lady Mary Wimsey, as a duke's daughter, has precedence over any man's courtesy title. Therefore, no matter who she marries, unless he has an actual title of his own, she'll outrank him and continue to go by Lady Mary. But if Lady Anne Wellesley, an earl's daughter, had married the younger son of a duke or marquess, she would've become Lady HisFirstName HisLastName, because dukes and marquesses trump earls.

At least, I'm almost sure that's how it works. But I'm open to correction if not.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

A Classless Society?

I don’t think so, do you? Even today when everything is so much more relaxed, there’s still very much a class system, especially in England. When Lord Lucan (allegedly) murdered his children’s nanny back in the seventies in mistake for his wife, he disappeared off the face of the earth, expounding endless conspiracy theories in the process. He couldn’t have done that alone, unless he did the honourable thing and topped himself. It’s widely believed that some members of his exclusive club banded together to help him because, yep, he was one of them.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.

Imagine how much worse it must have been back in Regency days if a person didn’t happen to be socially acceptable. It didn’t matter if you didn’t have two farthings to rub together, just so long as you were born into the right family. Talk about the luck of the draw!

In Forgotten Heiress, my upcoming release from Samhain, I deal with this issue. Eloise is the daughter of a banker. I’ll pause for a minute and give you a chance to get over the shock. Back with me now? Right, I’ll carry on. Eloise’s old man might have been a wealthy banker, but that didn’t help much. Add in the fact that Eloise was illegitimate and…well, her chances of being accepted by society were zilch.

Eloise doesn’t care. She's quite content to remain in the country with her dad, ride her horse and play the piano. Then along comes the handsome heir to a dukedom, who lavishes attention on Eloise for no apparent reason. 

Her neighbour Harry Benson-Smythe’s suspicions are aroused and he wonders what the devil the rogue thinks he’s playing at. When Eloise’s life is endangered at the hands of her aristocratic admirer, Harry rides to rescue the woman he’s fallen for. But he’s already engaged to someone else—someone suitable in the eyes of his family—so even if he can save Eloise there can be no future for her and Harry, can there…

Forgotten Heiress available from Samhain Publishing and all on-line retailers from February 19th.