I have just finished reading Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Sense and Sensibility (which is to say, the final shooting script–Thompson wrote dozens of versions of the screenplay before it was acquired and put into production) and her diary from the shoot*.  She is uniformly witty and down to earth (her comments about zits, hangovers, and feeling like a talentless hack are not only reassuring to the rest of the world–which is to say, to me–but are funny in their own right) and endlessly appreciative of her colleagues on camera and behind the scenes.  I wish I’d been a gofer on that film.

Reading the diary, in particular, reminded me of the extent to which the production of an historical film of good intent (meaning, one that wants to get it right) relies on experts: the horse wrangler who teaches Willoughby how to drive a curricle (the sportscar of its day); the costumers and designers; the dance teachers; and Jane Gibson, “movement duenna and expert on all manners historical,” who taught bearing and manners and the reverence.  By which I mean bowing and curtseying.

During my brief career studying ballet as a kid the first thing Miss Dear (honest to God, it was her name) taught us was the “reverence,” a deep bow which was to be given to her at the beginning and end of each class.  Her class of 7-year-olds mostly teetered and tried not to fall over.  Later, when I took some classes in historic dance, I learned several different reverences: it wasn’t until some time in the 17th century, I believe, that bowing and curtseying split off into sex-differentiated motions.  According to Wikipedia, that font of all wisdom, the curtsey is a gesture of respect from an inferior to a superior.  Hence all those bobbing Victorian maids in the movies (“yes, m’lady.”  **bob**).  Per Thompson:

“We learn the root and meaning of the bows and curtsies–or reverences, as Jane calls them.  As you enter a room you ‘cast a gladdened eye’ about you.  Beautiful phrase….

The bow is the gift of the head and heart.  The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering in status for a moment, followed by recovery.”

I had always understood the “lowering in status” part of the reverence, and that a superior may nod or bow less deeply to an inferior, either in dismissal or acknowledgment.  You would bow very deeply–abase yourself–to a King, less deeply to a baron, acknowledging their superior status.  My 21st century feminist self gets the status thing, even if she doesn’t believe in it, but was always troubled by the fact that a gentlewoman curtseyed to a gentleman (I believe in practice she was supposed to curtsey to him, then he would respond with a bow).  The idea of a recovery from that lowering of status pleases me.  “I submit to your authority,” the curtsey says.  Or maybe, “I acknowledge that society places a higher value on your gender than on my own.”  And then the recovery: “But I submit only so far.”  And then the bow, acknowledgement and “gift of the head and the heart”.

It’s easy for me to want to read a taking back of authority in the recovery from a curtsey: I love the past, but I am firmly a creature of now.  One of the great tasks of writing then is to remember that Sarah Tolerance has no Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan or Ms. Magazine in her background; that however independent she is, she’s still a woman of her time, and while she might not feel that the man she’s curtseying to is worthy of her respect, she would still go through the proper forms.  It’s her age, and not mine, that I am playing in.


*I once read excerpts of Thompson’s diary from the movie Junior, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which she mentions that he was still so muscle-bound that it was difficult for him to tie his own tie–the muscles literally got in the way.  I was then editing comics, and made sure to mention this to those artists who seemed to think that moving like a gymnast and being built like a fireplug were not incompatible…

Adventures in Tailoring: A Regency Coat

Drunk with power after the relative success of my corset-making expedition last week, I dived right in to making the Regency coat that I need for my photo shoot.  As I said previously, a few weeks ago I found this fabric–actually, six curtains (about 50″ x 90″ each), in an olive green brocade, and at once determined that I must make a coat of them.

This was, of course, insane.  Self-taught seamstress, and one who has avoided highly tailored garments for most of her recreational sewing adventures (and these days, for most of us sewing is a recreational activity, no?).  But I have a long and honorable tradition of doing ridiculous things. Avanti! Continue reading

Blood, Sweat, and Whalebone

Actually, steel.  Be that as it may: the corset is done!  I suspect that it will be an audition for doing it again, now that I know how it goes (I found an error in the directions–or at least an omission, and contacted the pattern maker, who very obligingly gave me the answer I needed, and promised to go fix the directions at once for the next hapless corsetière.

When we left our hapless home-seamstress, all the gussets had been made and all the layers pinned together.  Now comes the fun part.  First I basted the top so that everything lined up, and tacked all the gussets and seamlines together–you really don’t want continental drift in the underlayers of your underlayer, as it were.

Everything basted and tacked, I made a pocket for the busk to go into.  What’s a busk?  A flat piece of bone, wood, or latterly steel.  The modern ones are often jointed in the middle for flexibility, but the whole point of the busk here is to render things less flexible and more constrained.  My busk was about 14″ long, and slightly wider at the top than at the bottom, so I had to top stitch the layers to make a pocket, and then edge the top in two layers so there was a finished edge to the pocket (the bottom edge will be closed in binding, later.

You can see that I also sewed the channels for the stays.  As noted: steel stays (which came in around Miss Tolerance’s time, give or take), 1/4″ wide: two pairs for the back, and one at each seam, plus a set between the bust grommets and one that rides up the side from one hip gusset to just under the arm.  With only one exception, I managed to make all the channels just about the right width: snug but not so snug I had to have an argument with my fabric.

Once all the stays were in place, I started binding the edges.  This is tedious.

It’s also the process during which I did something I haven’t done in years: stabbed myself so badly with a pin that I actually bled on my fabric.  So I have made my blood sacrifice to the Gods of Sewing, and have the blotch to prove it.

Once all the edges were bound, it was time to put in the eyelets.  Next time I do this (if there really is a next time) I may want to use larger-bore eyelets, but these were what I had.  Basically, you poke a hole in your fabric using an awl, then fit one side of the grommet through the hole and use the tool to crush the other side of the grommet onto the first side.  It takes a little hand strength and patience.  Actually, this whole project requires more patience than fabric.

And here it is, all grommetted!

And laced!

But without me in it.  Because infrastructure should remain, err, infra.  Dig?

Corsetting: It’s All About the Infrastructure

Yes, it’s all true: I am in mid-corset.  Because I have to make a Regency coat, and it won’t look right without the infrastructure (modern underpinnings will not cut it).   To my considerable surprise, the whole process is much simpler than I had imagined: with a decent pattern, up to the point I’ve reached now, it’s really a matter of tracing the patterns (I’ve been using baker’s parchment) and cutting out the pieces and following the bits and pieces.  My gusset-anxiety has proved to be an over-reaction; gussets are no harder than anything else.

So here’s how it’s been coming together.

The interlining (you do this first, both as a “try on” piece and because if you’re going to screw something up, might as well be on the layer no one will see):

It’s amazing how real it all looks with the stitches in and everything.  I am surprised by this every time I sew.  Here’s a closer look at the gussets because I’m so pleased with them.  The fabric, by the way, is coutil, which is a very closely-woven fabric with a herringbone patter, and the preferred material for the interior of corsets.

And here are the gussets, all pinned, for the lining.

And here are the lining and interlining, all in form and pinned together, awaiting only the exterior layer.

And here’s the cover, in a plain figured cotton.  I decided against satin or anything ritzy: I want this to breathe.  I also decided against cherry red or deep blue (although white, as the color of choice for corsetting, didn’t become popular until the Victorians) because I plan to wear a light-colored dress over it.  Which I will have to make.  But that’s another post.  I still have to stitch the hip gussets and the strap seam.  Then the whole gets pinned to the already-pinned lining/interlining, and basted together.  And then the really cool/scary part begins: the boning.

The thing that looks like a ruler is a busk: a flat piece that will run up the front between the breasts.  The rest are stays of varying lengths.  By the time you read this, I may already have begun that part.  I will review my progress next week.

Another Reason to Write

Research.  The best part of my writing day.

No, really.  I’m finishing Deborah Hayden’s Pox, a fascinating book on syphilis and its sufferers.  I’m a sucker for medical history and forensic medicine.  I discovered Berton Roueche’s Medical Detectives series when I was in junior high school (Eleven Blue Men, The Incurable Wound, The Man Who Grew Two Breasts); the stories in these books have a slightly dated quality since many of them were written in the 1950s.  They are basically public health puzzlers (a number of which have, in fact, been used as the germs for House episodes): eleven bums from NYC’s bowery turn up in ERs around the city, sky-blue and delirious; an HVAC installer comes down with anthrax; children in a rural school start coming down with an unidentified fever.  Part of what’s fascinating now is that–while these stories were cutting edge, or close to cutting edge when they came out, they’re almost quaint, technology-wise.  It’s useful to be reminded of how far medicine has come since 1950, and how many attitudes have changed.  It’s a particularly useful reminder for those of us who play with the past.

Another example: for Valentine’s day my husband gave me a book called The Sublime Engine, a history of the heart in medicine and as a metaphor. In the opening pages of the book there’s a passage describing early man realizing that there’s something living in his chest, something that responds to activity or emotion, something that is a part of him.  It’s the beginning of the long human fascination with the heart, and as a writer I read this passage with a kind of awe, because it’s just something I never thought of before.

I have an A-Z of Regency London (A-Zs, pronounced A-to-Zeds, are English maps and guidebooks) in which I can get absolutely lost, because the shape of the city has changed hugely in the last two hundred years.  I look up and the afternoon is gone while I was wandering in streets that don’t exist any more.  Research will do that to you.

But back to syphilis.  The Sleeping Partner (aka ST3) involves, in part, a military disaster with medical ramifications.  I got to do lots of research on that.  But at the same time I was keeping in mind the pox, which was a constant threat to women involved in prostitution (and women married to men who frequented prostitutes, and men who frequented women who frequented men who frequented prostitutes, and…). As I read Pox I begin to wonder how anyone remained uninfected. Given where Sarah Tolerance lives and who some of her friends and relations are, it is inevitable, perhaps, that syphilis will raise its figurative head.  They did have what we refer to these days as “protection” in the Regency–condoms were used for disease protection more than for contraception–but not everyone used them.  What did they use for contraception?  Oh, that’s another afternoon of research entirely, and I really do need to get some writing done or there won’t be an ST4…

Sometimes I have to make a rule: no research today. But one of the many reasons I love my job is that it lets me wander around picking up stray bits of knowledge, the way children pick up bits of string that might be useful later.  Somehow, they always are.

Dressed to Kill

Sometimes the synchronicity is just so…synchronous, you know?  I wasn’t looking for fabric when I went out today.

After the farmer’s market this morning (strawberries! ripe tomatoes! peaches sweeter than my daughters!) I went to a garage sale a friend was having, and for $30 picked up six lengths of green brocade-y sort of fabric–not period, but close enough to play period on TV, as it were.  I had no idea what I would do with this fabric, but it was beautiful, and sometimes things come up (viz: my younger daughter coming home last month to announce that I was costuming, not just her, but three classmates, for a scene from Romeo and Juliet) and you need fabric in a hurry.

Let me parenthetically explain that I am a self-taught seamstress; I love the construction aspect of the whole thing, making a garment come together, the architecture.  I have no patience for the finishing bits, and it’s only because I can hem, or whipstitch, or do whatever it is while watching TV, that things I sew don’t look like a bad pile up on I-280 at rush hour.  So I don’t often take on anything much more complex than a costume for my kids.

Anyway: I got home, settled the dog, and got an email from my publisher (can I say how much I love saying that?  I really do) talking about an idea that would require me to, like, wear Regency clothes for a photo.  I do, in fact, have one Regency gown which I made more than 20 years ago for a much younger and, alas, slimmer me.  It hangs in my closet and I pet it occasionally (silk velvet…slides through your hands like garnet colored water) but I have not worn it for years.  But because I am me, I had to start going through online resources, looking for patterns, thinking about what I would do if I had to make myself a Regency outfit…

And I have this fabric, see, that would make a perfectly splendid coat over a muslin round gown.  It would not be perfectly period; coats were generally made of plain-colored fabric; patterned fabrics generally had very small patterns that were woven in.  But…oh, it would be a handsome thing.  I’m thinking a coat using the spencer pattern shown here: but with an ankle length skirt, worn over a dress like the one below, only in a light muslin (the silk is utterly gorgeous, but 1) not my color and 2) too expensive).

The problem is, even before I began fretting over the spencer and gown, I’d have to make myself a set of stays.  Stay-making is a big production, particularly because I can’t just wear any old stays any more: they’d have to be highly structured.  In fact, I got the pattern for stays this afternoon and spent an hour reading them: I’ll tell you, that sweet ingenuous muslin-gown look had a hell of a lot of infrastructure.  And really, do I need a project like this?

And yet I have this fabric that so wants to be made into something splendid.

But now that the thought has occurred to me, it’s really hard to stuff back into the bottle.  If you don’t hear from me for a while, look under the sewing machine.

The Regency and Me

The English Regency lasted a scant nine years: from March of 1811, when Parliament passed the Regency Bill which made the Prince of Wales nominal head of state, until January 1820, when Mad King George III finally succumbed to his years and the Prince of Wales became George IV.  He was, in case you’re wondering, a rotten king (although there’s a case to be made that, had he ascended the throne a couple of decades earlier, or at least been given some meaningful work to do while waiting, he might have been a fairly good one; there’s a nifty alternate-history premise for you).

In the lengthy continuum of English history, the Regency is, therefore, a mere slip of a time period.  Why is it so interesting?  I can only answer for myself. Continue reading

The Girl in the Diaphanous Gown

Jack ThurstonI wish I could read the way I did when I was fourteen: I went through eight library books in a week (the legal limit), plus rereading books, and working my way through the spinner racks at the drugstore.  I read comic books, classics, SF, historicals, mysteries, Regency romances.  I read a huge amount of romantic suspense–and its down-market cousin, the Gothic.

Gothics had nothing to do with dark eyeshadow, macabre jewelry, or black Doc Martens.  The form arose from 18th century novels like The Castle of Otranto: a young, innocent woman comes as a stranger to a place where she is buffeted by turbulent familial or social currents, falls in love with the brooding master of the house, misidentifies threats to her life (or thinks the peril emanates from the object of her affections), nearly loses her life, and lives happily ever after.*  The covers were almost always the same: brooding castle in the background, scantily clad heroine running away from unseen menace in the foreground. Continue reading

The Happily Ever After Dilemma

When I wrote up the FAQs, one of the questions suggested to me was: What is next for Miss Tolerance? As I head toward the finish of book three, I have very concrete answers, none of which I will give here, because, really, wouldn’t you rather read the book?  I’m hoping so, anyway.

But I’m also thinking about her future.  I have ideas for plots and twists in her unconventional life that could go on for some time.  But one question I get a lot is: is she going to settle down?  Will she be happy?  And on that question I haven’t an answer yet.  As I said in the FAQs,  I don’t think she’s going to have a conventional happy ending.  And that may disappoint some readers.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Continue reading

Just for the Holidays: Free Stories at Book View Café

It’s the holidays, so Book View Café is giving readers a present: Holiday Cheer, a free e-book of holiday stories from the writers at BVC.   Including, she said immodestly, my Regency-Christmas-fantasy story “Bedlam Inn.”
Sit down with a warm cup of something cheery and relax with free fiction!