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Category: Research

Posts in which we talk about research

One of my favorite Georgian novels is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (and not just because I also adore the movie with Albert Finney!). I own a Victorian copy in two volumes that I found at a used bookstore in Berkeley when I was in grad school. It was far too expensive for my scholarly pockets, but I had to have it (mostly because it had been signed by the original owner when he finished reading it in 1868 and again by a subsequent owner in the 1930s). All of this is a long way of introducing one of my favorite bits of triva about the novel. Ignatius Sancho (the famous black abolitionist and the first black man known to have voted in a British election) wrote Sterne, the author or Tristram Shandy, a letter asking him to write something opposing slavery. Sterne not only replied, but he kept the letters and they were both published posthumously in 1775. [Note: Tristram Shandy was originally published in nine volumes over seven years, this exchange took place before the final volume was published in 1767; the scene Sterne refers to in his reply in in the final volume.] It seemed fitting to share this exchange for Black History Month.

Ignatius Sancho

Sancho to Sterne
REVEREND SIR,
It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call “Negurs.”—The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience.—A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.—The latter part of my life has been—thro’ God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.—How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!—I declare, I would walk ten miles in the dog days, to shake hands with the honest corporal.—Your Sermons have touch’d me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse, page seventy—eight, in the second volume—is this very affecting passage—”Consider how great a part of our species – in all ages down to this—have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.—Consider slavery—what it is—how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!”—Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!—and, sure I am, you are an epicurean in acts of charity.—You, who are universally read, and as universally admired—you could not fail—Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.—Grief (you pathetically observe) is eloquent;—figure to yourself their attitudes; hear their supplicating addresses!—alas!—you cannot refuse.—Humanity must comply—in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself,
Reverend, Sir, &c.
I. SANCHO

Sterne’s Reply to Sancho
There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro—girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ‘ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make ’em so. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our Brothers & Sisters are there carrying—& could I ease their shoulders from one once of ’em, I declare I would set out this hour upon a pilgrimage to Mecca for their sakes—[which] by the by, sancho, exceeds your Walk of ten miles, in about the same proportion, that a Visit of Humanity, should one, of mere form—however if you meant my Uncle Toby, more—he is [your] Debter,
If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]—tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other.
And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget [your] Letter. [Yours]
L. STERNE.

My ongoing research into free blacks in Georgian London has netted me two more books. I’m going to talk about the first today: Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel by Clifford D. Conner. All I knew going in was that Despard had a black wife. I was hoping to find out about how their relationship was viewed and how it affected his career as an officer, but the book focuses vary narrowly on his military career and his trial for rebellion.

Colonel Despard

 

There were tiny bits about his personal life that could be gleaned though. His wife, Catharine, was the daughter of an English curate in Jamaica (no information is provided as to whether her parents were married). She was clearly well-educated, and obviously moved in the same circles as the English officers and their wives. Despard married her in the middle of his career (probably in 1785), and promotions continued to follow, so the powers that be in the army didn’t seem to care. Neither did Nelson, who was a friend and testified in Despard’s defense. Catharine traveled with him to his various postings, and appears to have acted as his hostess when he was governing various territories in the West Indies.

Despard’s family on the other hand clearly never accepted the marriage. They referred to Catharine as Despard’s “black housekeeper” and after Despard’s death they offered no assistance to her or to their son (his uncle, General Despard, said that James had “not even an illegitimate claim upon him.”) What we do know is that Despard’s friends took care of them after Despard was executed (they were reportedly given a pension by Sir Francis Burdett and Lord Cloncurry’s memoirs state that they lived with his family in Lyon for some years).
Their son, James Despard, went on to join the military (as an officer, which I think is worth noting). There are various reports of him (usually referred to as a “creole”) that scatter across the first decades of the nineteenth century. He was appointed a captain the London Milita in 1814 after serving in France and supposedly refusing an offer of a high position from Bonaparte (this I find doubtful given Bonaparte’s treatment of the Chevalier Saint-Georges). There are further anecdotes from his spiteful Aunt Jane suggesting that he ran away with an heiress.

So all in all, I read a lot of tedious military history and found the barest scraps of what I was interested in, but I’ll take what I can get when it comes to real life interracial marriages in the period.

It did lead me however to a post by Mike Jay who has also written a book about Despard (The Unfortunate Colonel Despard) that has a more detailed look at the marriage and Catharine. Let me quote it here:

According to Jay, this could well be the first known case of an English gentleman married to a free woman of color, which makes it all the more fascinating.

If you’re an avid reader of Regency romances, you’re likely very familiar with Gunter’s [N0. 7-8 Berkeley Square], the famous pastry shop which was one of the few places a lady might dine when out and about. While the cafes of Paris were open to women, not so the taverns and chop houses of London. I was recently thumbing through The Epicure’s Almanack looking for places women might dine out or meet one another and I was delighted to find the Index had an entry which covered many of them:

Still from the BBC’s production of Persuasion

Debatt’s Pastry Shop, Poultry

Adjoining the King’s Head Tavern [No, 25 Poultry, south side], very fortunately for ladies and beaux of delicate stomachs, stands Debatt’s pastry shop, famous for sweets, soups, and savory patties. Here the epicure, who has sacrificed too liberally to the jolly god, may allay the fervency of his devotion by copious draughts of capillaire [an infusion of maidenhair fern sweetened with sugar or honey, and often flavored with orange-flower water], spruce [a fermented beverage (beer) made with an extract from the leaves and branches of the spruce fir mixed with treacle], soda [yes, soda water is period], orgeat [made by mixing barley water with syrup of orgeat, prepared with almonds, sugar, and rose-water], or lemonade. [This location is spitting distance from the Bank of England for purposes of plot.]

Unnamed, Ave Maria Lane

At the corner of Ave Maria Lane [No 28 Ludgate Street, north side] you may halt a moment, and take a glass of capillaire in the old established pastry-shop, where soups, mock turtle, savory patties, ices, and confectionary, in all their glory and splendor, with custards of the greatest delicacy, are daily offered up to the Hebes and Junos of the city.
[Nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral for purposes of plot.]

Farrance’s, Spring Garden [note, he or his brother owned the unnamed shop above]

Farrance, the Pastry Cook, lives at the corner of Spring Garden, or rather his numerous friends may be said to live there; for so much does he attend to the gratification of their appetites, that he seldom has time to think of his own. In point of magnitude, and of the excellence and cheapness of its articles, this long celebrated shop has no superior, perhaps, in the world. Here are exquisite soups, highly flavored tarts, savory patties, and delicious pastry and confitures. Fruits and ices throughout the whole extent of their season, good and in great variety. Need we say that in this temple Pomona and Ceres hold daily a levee of beauty of fashion; and that you may observe at all hours in the forenoon a whole nidus of little Cupids and Psyches feasting in terrene nectar and ambrosia. In plainer terms, ladies generally regale their younger friends and relatives here with the incomparable bon-bons of Monsieur Farrance. [Near the north-east corner of St. James’s Park for purposes of plot.]

Owen and Bentley’s Fruit-shop, New Bond-Street

Opposite the Blenheim [87 New Bond Street], is Owen and Bentley’s Fruit-shop, at which are to be had all early produced fruits, exotic, as well as indigenous. You may also regale yourself and the ladies here, with jellies, ices, and liqueurs. It is actually a temple of Pomona. [Conveniently located between Cavendish Square and Hanover Square for purposes of plot.]

There are many other pastry shops mentioned (often with side note that they supplied venison of all things), but none of the other entries mentions women being entertained there. The Almanack does make it plain though that high-end pastry shops were acceptable places for women to congregate and that they were common enough in London (and in Bath per Jane Austen). Have any of you written one into your books or read one that you particularly remember? I know Heyer used Gunter’s frequently, and I used it in Ripe for Seduction under its earlier name, Negri’s Pot and Pine Apple.

“A Voluptuary Under The Horrors of Digestion”: 1792 caricature by James Gillray

Today I’m going to defend a fellow author’s honor. I don’t actually know who the author is, but she could be any one of us because we’ve all been on the receiving end of an incorrect historical “fact check”. A couple days ago there was a tweet going around ripping a historical author a new one for daring to have a heroine who was concerned about being overweight. This character dared to diet. Dieting (and concerns about being fat), per the tweeter, were anachronistic and she simply had to toss the book aside.

*clears throat* HELLO, LET ME INTRODUCE YOU TO MY FRIEND LORD BYRON

Byron, he of the long poems and wild affairs, had a well-documented fear of growing fat. It was so severe that I’ve seen modern biographers refer to it as a neurosis. As far back as his days at Cambridge he was notorious for subsisting on “soda water and biscuits” (sometimes “vinegar and potatoes”). He was known as an adult to live off a slice of toast and tea for breakfast, and nothing but vegetables and seltzer mixed with wine for dinner. He also smoked cigars to stave off hunger pangs. He complained about how much food his wife ate, famously saying that women should never be seen eating anything but lobster salad and champagne.

And Byron wasn’t alone. As far back as 1724 English doctors were recommending meatless diets, exercise, and avoiding luxury foods in order to lose weight and improve health (George Cheyne, An Essay of Health and Long Life). You can find powders recommended to reduce too corpulent bodies (Medicina Britannica, 1747), and frank statements that “Nay sir whatever may be the quantities that a man eats, it is plain that if he is too fat, he has eaten more than he should have done.” (The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791).
There is even a long and very modern sounding treatise of advice in Sure Methods of Improving Health, and Prolonging Life (1827) which recommends moderation in habits and diet and exercise to lose weight.

Advice and opinions about weight and diet also appeared in Ladies’ Magazines such as Manuel des dames, which has VERY strong condemnations of women who have “excess embonpoint” (see quote below, which is vicious) and says they should “Take long walks, stay up late, eat little, talk, move about, and study a great deal…Abstain from meat, bread, starchy vegetables, broth, and milk.” It also says the most common causes of corpulence are “indolence and luxurious living”, and that “activity of body and mind” are necessary to counter it (as well as the omission of one meal a day).

It an excessively meager figure is hideous, an enormously fat one is disgusting. It is nothing more than a heavy, shapeless mass, whose every movement is awkward, ludicrous, and often painful. Something of the coarse and crude is written all over these massive forms. The soul seems crushed, the eyes are dwarfed, the features are enveloped, and the foetid odour of profuse sweat ends by arousing disgust.”

Not to mention the plethora of period caricatures we have making fun of the Prince Regent’s weight and his penchant for older, fat women. So there you have it: The Georigans stigmatized fat people just like we do today, and no, dieting wasn’t invented in the 1860s. So Regency Author, whoever you are, you have every bit as much right to write about these issues as any contemp author and there’s nothing anachronistic about it.

I saw a new book about black history on Twitter and had to pounce: Black Tudors, The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann. While this is earlier than what I write, I grew up as a historical re-enactor and a lot of my time and study has been devoted to fifteenth and sixteenth century history. I’m only halfway done with the book, but it’s proven well worth my time and money.

I don’t want to give a synopsis of the entire book, as that’s unfair to the author, so I’m going to concentrate on the first black Tudor featured in the book, John Blanke, the Trumpeter. John Blanke shown twice in the Westiminster Tournament Roll and is the only idenifiable portrait of an African in Tudor England.

Blanke is a fasinating figure. Musicians were known to move from court to court rather freely, and they were often used as messengers betweeen courts. It is likely that Blanke arrived in England in the retinue of Katherine of Aragon in 1501 (blacks, both free and enslaved, being more common in Spain, Portugal, and the Italian states). By 1507 he is listed as one of Henry VII’s trumpeters and is being paid the same wage as the others. He must have been a favorite, because when a more senior musician died, Blanke petioined the new king, Henry VIII to be raised in position and have his pay increased. Not only wa this request granted, but when Blanke married in 1512 the king bestowed upon him violet cloth for his wedding clothes (as a musician, Blanke was already entitled to ignore the sumptary laws and was known to dress in crimson).

This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

One interesting tidbit I learned was the because trumpeters were used as messengers, they were supposed to have dipolmatic immunity, allowing them free passage through foreign and even enemy territory. This, coupled with their frequently moving from service of one king or noble to another, also gave rise to them being thought of as spies. Wouldn’t a Dunnett-like series about a spy/trumpeter moving through the courts of sixteenth century Eurpoe be amazing? Somebody who’s better at mystery plots than I am needs to write this for me!

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