Risky Regencies

Why I don’t write Victorians

This past weekend we attended the Eurocar 2007 show at the Lorenzo State Historic Site in Cazenovia, NY, arriving in our vintage Mini of course.

Built in 1807 by John Linklaen (of Dutch origin), house is furnished with items from the Regency through the Victorian eras. There’s a virtual house tour on the website. A treat is the carriage house with a mini museum including a collection of antique carriages and sleighs, a few close to “our” time period. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

I toured the house with my children last year but this year we had the pleasure of participating in a “Victorian Fashion Show” in which the presenter dressed my oldest daughter as if she were going for a drive. Some of the things she said made me wonder but I’m by no means an expert on period clothing, especially Victorian. I’m curious to learn what some of our clothing experts think.

Here’s my daughter after donning drawers, chemise (tucked in–is that right?) and corset. The corset itself I know to be inaccurate, because it happens to be the same modern one I wear under my Regency gown. It weirded me out a bit to see it on my daughter! She laced it in front, too, which isn’t how this corset is designed to be worn and I thought most corsets still laced in the back during the Victorian era. I think maybe it was just easier to do it that way. The point was made that corseting was used to achieve a particular look. As it was 85 degrees out and humid, I’m grateful she did not tighten it too much!

The next layers included petticoat, hoops, another petticoat and bustle pad. The presenter said they might wear as many as 10 petticoats and that the full weight of the clothing might be something around 40 lb, which seems staggering to me. If true, this seems quite brutal, especially in summer.

The other thing she said, as she completed my daughter’s toilette with dress, shawl, bonnet and parasol, was that women were not supposed to show any skin other than the face and hands. Hence the long sleeves and high neck of the gown. By this point I was worrying I’d have to sprinkle water on my kid to revive her, but she did look cute!

Comparing to the Regency (check out
Kalen’s dressing the Regency heroine page) the initial layers of clothing aren’t very different. But without the profusion of petticoats, the hoops, etc…, the Regency lady’s clothing load would be far lighter. And at least she was allowed to show some neck and arm, allowing some body heat to escape if necessary!

As I said, I’m not sure everything in this presentation was precisely correct but it does generally match what I’ve read about the Victorian era. I like to be very active but I’m also a bit prone to heat exhaustion, so I’d have a lot of trouble putting a heroine into this sort of clothing. If I ever wrote a Victorian heroine, she’d have to be a rebellious, Bohemian type and flout at least some of these clothing conventions!

How about you? Can you get over these sorts of things when reading/writing Victorian set romance? Any interesting sites you recommend visiting that are closer to home for most of us than England?


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15 years ago

I can easily get over the clothing if it means that I can have a book set somewhere else than the Regency. I am soooooo bored of the Regency and really don’t understand the clothing issue at all. I mean, are you saying that people have to show flesh to be sexy? Or are unable to remove the clothes to have sex? Nope, I don’t understand at all.

15 years ago

To me the Regency women had it so much easier than the Victorians. I could never have survived a summer with all those petticoats. I would much rather read a Regency, too, where the culture was not as “uptight” and restrained at the Victorians. On a personal note, I grew up in Syracuse and am very familiar with beautiful Cazenovia. The next time I go home for a visit, I’ll have to see if I can get to the Lorenzo Mansion. Thanks for the link.

Elena Greene
15 years ago

Francois, I’m not talking about what is sexy or not.

I’m just talking about what someone like me could wear and move about in without fainting (or throwing up, much less romantic!) from heat exhaustion. But I’m unusual; I tend to be warm and often wear lighter clothes or fewer layers than my friends, even in winter.

Though the extremes of tight corseting during this era put me off, too. Not that everyone did the extreme, but when I’ve read about pregnant women using corsets to hide their condition I can’t help but shudder. I still read and enjoy the occasional Victorian romance; it just depends on how the author handles things. I love Laura Kinsale’s Victorian-set stories. There’s more to the era than corsets and hoops.

Sorry to hear you are bored by the Regency. Sometimes I do get a bit tired of revisiting Almack’s but as with the Victorian, the era offers a lot more than that.

Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

Stupid blogger and my IP are at war again, no pictures. Grrrrr. What year was your daughter being dressed for (“Victorian” covering so much varied ground)? The layers mostly sound right, but I think they’re playing history salad with the details.

The layers and layers of petticoats is a pre 1850s thing, and went out with the invention of the crinoline (at which point only one or two were worn, expect in winter when more were worn under the crinoline for warmth).

I don’t really get into the Victorian era for romance, though I rather enjoy it for mystery (love Anne Perry’s books). I can go as far as the 1840s, but after that it just becomes too straight-laced for me, I like a bit of riot and rumpus (but my friend and fellow Hoyden Victoria Dahl likes writing and reading Victorians for this reason, she likes the dichotomy of prim on the outside and wild on the inside).

15 years ago

A corset could lace up the front for the working class (can’t afford servants so you have to do it yerself), but they would not be likely to go out Driving. Working women also didn’t do any tightlacing. And she’d have gloves, and depending on where and when, a veil to protect her face. And with a bustle or crinoline holding out the skirts, a lot of petticoats weren’t necessary.

The nice thing is all of the layers were linen, cotton, and wool- fabrics that breathe and wick away the sweat. They can be comfortable in most temperatures. In the heat of the South in Summer, the Ladies often took naps, stripping down to corset, chemise and undies and recline on a fainting couch, with a servant to fan them.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
15 years ago

I like Victorians too for the same reason Victoria does. There’s something about the anticipation of a Victorian gentleman having to get through all those layers of clothing to get to a woman that’s terribly erotic. I keep thinking of that scene in the movie version of Age of Innocence when Daniel Day Lewis unbuttons Michelle Pfeiffer’s glove to kiss her wrist. Sigh!

And women did manage in the later Victorian era with the tea gown to find a way to wear less clothing. Don’t forget Amelia Bloomer.

Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

A corset could lace up the front for the working class (can’t afford servants so you have to do it yerself)

Could, but didn’t from what I’ve seen. You had other servants to lace you, or you had the people you shared your room with. The poor and working class did not live alone. What would have been more common was a corset that laced in the back but had a 2-part metal busk in the front so that it only had to be loosened to be taken off and put back on. I can get myself in and out of my 1880s corset without a hitch.

Don’t forget Amelia Bloomer.

Her crusade was against the layers and layers of petticoats, once the crinoline was invented even Amelia went back into skirts (and don’t forget that hers was also an American movement that didn’t make much headway in England).

Elena Greene
15 years ago

Thanks for all the clarifications and additional details, all!

I can’t recall the presenter giving a year or even a decade for the costume. A bit on the “history salad” side. But fun.

I do see the appeal of that dichotomy of prudery and sensuality in the Victorian era. I think of it as the subversive Victorian versus the sort of romance that appears to glorify all the restrictions and the corseting.

I may have to come to terms with this myself at some point, as I’m thinking I may want to grow up the children in LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE and give them their own romances.

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

I’ve never been tempted to set a novel in the Victorian era (mostly because I’m so happy and inrigued with the Regency). It’s the social constraints that get to me more than the clothes, though the two are certainly connected. If I go on writing about Charles and Mélánie long enough and write about their children grown up, I would end up in the early Victorian era, which I can see being fun (esepcially since I’d like to explore bohemian 1830s Paris). I do enjoyng reading Victorian-set books or books actually written in the era–Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and like Kalen I think I particularly enjoy Victorian-set mysteries.

Cara King
15 years ago

I’m thinking I may want to grow up the children in LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE and give them their own romances.

Ooh, neat! I’d love to read that.

BTW, I too had heard that it was either hoops, or tons of petticoats — not both. (Maybe one or two, but not lots.)

I think the voluminous Victorian clothing would have been delightful during an English winter (not counting mud on the hem) but horrid in a hot humid English summer (and even worse in India — horrors! Mad dogs and Englishmen, after all…)

As for romances, I find the Victorian setting very interesting…and I love the Regency too! And if some Regencies do seem too much alike, Francois, — partly due to certain publishers, I expect! — you might look for anything by Carla Kelly or Alicia Rasley (look in used bookstores) for some wildly different plots, characters and settings.

Cara (warm today in Nice, and very happy she’d not wearing any petticoats at all — or a corset!)

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

Or look at my Regencies, francois! I try to go against the norm, to explore the Regency underworld.

I think there are authors who can do a wonderful job with the Victorian era and more power to them! Not me. It just doesn’t spark my imagination in any way, social, clothing, etc., even though it was an era of rapid advancement in industry, science, medicine…just not my cup of tea!!

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

Your daughter looks adorable, Elena! 🙂 And some day I am coming to the East Coast, and you’ll wake up to find that Mini gone….

15 years ago

It depends on what part of the Victorian era. Your daughter is wearing 1840s/50s clothing, which was when tons of clothing was being worn. Me, I stick to the 1890s/1900s–when women could be more active.

But I love the Victorian era. Much more room for characters to move around and do things.

15 years ago

I haven’t read many Victorian-set romances, but I’ve read quite a bit of other fiction with a Victorian setting (either because that’s when it was written, or historical novels set then). It works for me pretty well. More annoying than the clothing are some of the common attitudes–Wilkie Collins has some lengthy digressions in several of his books about the inferiority of women (though he doesn’t use that term, of course).

Sexual (and other) attitudes may have been more straight-laced in the Victorian period than the Regency…but no period was monolithic. Especially in the later 19th century there were people with much more “broad-minded” beliefs.

One Victorian-set book that I enjoyed very much was Freedom and Neccessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. The main characters in that book were all social radicals, with much more “modern” attitudes towards sex and marriage.


Tracy Grant
15 years ago

Todd, “Freedom & Necessity” is one of my all time favorite books! So great to hear someone mention it! It’s a fabulous love story and adventure and a great look at mid-nineteenth century radical thought.

Janet Mullany
15 years ago

Your daughter looks adorable, Elena!

I’ve always had a hankering for bustles–gilding the lily of what is already big and wobbly.

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

Todd and Tracy, I’m going to look for that novel right now! I’ve been wanting some good fiction to read lately. 🙂

One recent Victorian-set book I enjoyed immensely was “The Crimson Petal and the White”–somehow it seems easier to find really well-done Victorian settings in non-romances lately. Maybe because so many Victorian-set romances seem to masquerade as Regencies? (But there is Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty, one of my fave Victorian romances!)

Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

I’ve always had a hankering for bustles–

I love the “natural form” gowns c. 1875-1880. Love ’em. My sister has a thing for the really large bustles that come after those (the ones that make me think the women look like little centaurs). I’ve promised her that should she get married I’ll make her one. LOL!

Megan Frampton
15 years ago

I like the Victorian period, although I don’t think I’d be comfortable writing in it. I am reading a Laura Lee Guhrke right now set in late Victorian, really liking the setting.

And the Crimson Petal and the White is fantastic.

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

pRichard Armitage and “North & South” certainly changed my view of the Victorian period as a romantic time. And Guhrke and Kinsale add to my overall enjoyment.

Elena, you have a Mini?? Sheesh, I need to really workout. When I go out east, I’ll have to arm-wrestle Diane for GB and now Amanda for the Mini.

Accurate clothing or no, your daughter looks very cute!!

Deb Marlowe
15 years ago

Elena, Your daughter looks like she is having the time of her life! I know I would have loved something like that when I was a kid, and I would probably would have had a total fantasy moment and channeled one of the March sisters for the rest of the day!

I always wanted to wear a bustle, because it turns a negative into a positive! 🙂 In fact, the train of my wedding dress buttoned up into something that looked like a bustle and I loved it.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

In fact, the train of my wedding dress buttoned up into something that looked like a bustle and I loved it.

Funny, Deb, my wedding dress looks very much like a Regency dress. I noticed that fact not too long ago…

Elena Greene
15 years ago

Keira and Amanda,
You will have to arm-wrestle my husband for Mini. She’s his girlfriend and a pretty high maintenance one at that. Maybe you’ve seen the classic British car bumper sticker: “Every part falling off this car is of the finest British craftsmanship.” 🙂

But she’s fun and you are more than welcome to take a spin in her if you come out this way.

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

Maybe you’ve seen the classic British car bumper sticker: “Every part falling off this car is of the finest British craftsmanship.”

That was hilarious. I’d never heard it written as succinctly as this.

I love the Mini and the idea of it. I’ve been to their Website and design a couple. You can customize it to the hub cap. I love that!! Someday…when I can get rid of the people mover I drive right now…

Deb Marlowe
15 years ago

I’ll bet your wedding dress was gorgeous, Diane! Strange bit of foreshadowing, eh?

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