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A Map of the Rhine, 1832

I have the unfortunate habit of getting rather obsessed with minor points of  research – like travel. When I wrote my second novel, Castle of the Wolf, I spent at least a week if not more (probably more given that I have a fat folder full of notes and research material) reading up on travels on the Rhine. I pushed the date of the story back several years in order to make it feasible that my heroine would take one of the early steamships for traveling to the south of Germany. Indeed, I even unearthed timetables for the steamers that transported people up and down the Rhine.

And all of this for not even half a chapter. Wheee!

(On the left you can see a part of a map of the Rhine that was included in the third edition of Baedeker’s guide book Die Rheinreise from 1839. You can view the whole map here.)

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the ease with which people were able to travel was, of course, largely dependent on their income. Indeed, most people would have never traveled far from home: just as far as their feet could carry them. Hiking tours were apparently quite popular among students, and in the 1790s it was one such tour – a trip of the two friends Ludwig Tieck and Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder through southern Germany – that brought about the birth of German Romanticism.

In Britain meanwhile, the eastablishment of a network of turnpike roads in the 18th century improved travel considerably. Turnpike roads opened up the countryside and made the country estates of the aristocracy and the gentry more accessible. Various new forms of passenger transport came into being, with the fastest form of transport being the mail coach (they didn’t have to stop at toll gates, and horses were changed frequently), followed by stage coaches, which could carry up to 18 people. Moreover, several inns specialized in the renting of post coaches and horses to wealthier travelers. Yet the cost for carriages, horses, and toll fees made traveling still expensive.

Thus, perceptions of distances could vary widely as the following conversation between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice shows (from Chapter 32; they’re at the Collinses’):

“It must be very agreeable to [Mrs. Collins] to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”

“An easy distance do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles.”

“And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.”

“I should never have considered the distance as one of the advantages of the match,” cried Elizabeth. “I should never have said Mrs. Collins was settled near her family.”

“It is a proof of your own attachment to Hertfordshire. Any thing beyond the very neighbourhood of Longbourn, I suppose, would appear far.”

As he spoke there was a sort of smile, which Elizabeth fancied she understood; he must be supposing her to be thinking of Jane and Netherfield, and she blushed as she answered,

“I do not mean to say that a woman may not be settled too near her family. The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances. Where there is fortune to make the expence of travelling unimportant, distance becomes no evil. But that is not the case here. Mr. and Mrs. Collins have a comfortable income, but not such a one as will allow of frequent journeys — and I am persuaded my friend would not call herself near her family under less than half the present distance.”

(Hmmm…. It might be time for another re-read of Pride & Prejudice.)

When I dug into travel in Roman times this weekend, I was quite surprised to find a number of parallels to Georgian and Regency England: not only do several of the major roads in Britain (and in other parts of Europe) still follow old Roman routes even today, but along the Roman roads you could also find a network of inns and way stations. Ideally, every 6 to 12 Roman miles you would have had a way station, where you could change horses, and every 25 Roman miles an inn where you could spend the night. 25 Roman miles, approximately 37 km or 23 modern miles, was probably meant to be the distance somebody walking on foot could cover in a day.

Many of these stations were meant to be used by traveling officials or by merchants transporting goods like fabrics or building material. They could change horses for free and could also spend the night at the inns for free. The costs had to be covered by the local towns and communities, which led to many tensions between the provinces and Rome.

But what perhaps surprised me most was the fact that maps were already available in Roman times: they listed all the towns along the chosen route and also gave the distances between towns. Here is a snippet from one such map, the Tabula Peutingeriana from 250 (from a facsimile from 1887/88; the whole map can be found here):

a part of the Tabula Peutingeriana

This week, I’m going to start with:


This Saturday is the #FallBackInTime event on Twitter, Facebook, and what not, where your favorite romance authors (and we hope, you, too!) will post a selfie with their first or favorite historical romance novel. And so far, my selfies all ended up looking really dreadful. (More suitable for Halloween, really…)

Selfies are, of course, nothing new. Back in the day before smartphones & cameras they were called self-portraits (and they tended to look fab!) (oh well, but then we typcially only get to see the self-portraits of, you know, real artists instead of those done by amateurs). Some of them are very serious (and done in oil), others are far more cheeky – and naturally, self-portraits by the artists of Punch tend to fall into the latter category.

One of my favorite staff portraits in the magazine itself is the border for the preface to volume 7 from 1844. It was done by Richard Doyle and shows the writers and artists bringing their offerings to Mr. Punch:

Selfie from British magazine Punch
Between Mr. Punch and Toby, his dog, you can see Mark Lemon, the editor, and (I think) one of the publishers, while behind Toby the artists and writers are queuing and waiting to hand over their work. The short guy at the front is probably John Leech, followed by Thackeray (tall + curls + small, round spectacles = super-easy to recognize!) and, at the far end of the queue, by Dicky Doyle himself, holding a gigantic pencil.

Kinda cute, isn’t it?

Well, the same cannot be said about my own selfies, I’m afraid, even though I have a smartphone with a camera and don’t even have to sketch my portrait. But…


Sandra Schwab's Horrible Selfie No. 1
The second attempt turned out even worse:

Sandra Schwab's Horrible Selfie No 3
And the third attempt… At least I managed to keep my eyes open. That’s progress, right???

Sandra Schwab's Horrible Selfie No 2
But still not particularly, er, nice. *sigh*

So I’m coming to you, hoping that you might have some tips for me how to improve my selfie-taking skills before this weekend so that I won’t end up traumatizing the rest of the world with my truly bad selfies. HALP!!!!!

And, of course, I hope you’ll join us on Saturday for the #FallBackInTime event and post your own selfies with historicals that you particularly enjoyed or that started your love affair with the genre. 🙂

cover of "All in One Basket"I was really sad to learn earlier today that Deborah Devonshire (or, to use her title, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) has died at age 94. She was the last of the famed Mitford sisters, whose family was fictionalized by Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love. One of the most infamous passages is perhaps this one:

“My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.”

Just a few days ago, I bought several of “Debo’s” books, including Chatsworth: The House and All in One Basket: Nest Eggs by Deborah Devonshire (which includes the books Counting my Chicken and Home to Roost). I love her wry observations about life in the country and life in a giant country house:

“The joys and difficulties of living in such a huge house are all magnified. […] A bag put down in a rare bit of house can be lost for months. The master key can be forgotten in an attic door until panic sets in. It is a terrible place to housetrain a puppy. Letting a dog out in the night is quite a performance, with thirty-four stairs to go down and up again and the complicated unlocking of monster doors. […] On the good side, children can roller skate for miles without going out of doors; on a wet day you can walk for hours, be entertained and keep dry […].” (from Chatsworth: The House)

cover of "Chatsworth: The House"And the following passage perfectly explains why our Regency misses better pack a shawl when they are invited to a country house party:

“A new heating system was installed [at Chatsworth] when we moved in and it works pretty well. Even so, the wind can penetrate huge old window frames which don’t fit exactly. In September we go round with rolls of sticky brown paper to stop the gaps. When the front door is open and people with luggage dawdle, all our part of the house feels the blast […]. There are zones of intense cold, seldom visited in winter: the Sculpture Gallery, State Rooms and attics, where a closed-season search for forgotten furniture can feel colder than being out of doors.” (from Home to Roost)

If you wonder at all the references to poultry in many of her book titles: she kept chickens and apparently loved them very much. There is one fine picture of her, showing her in a ballgown among her flock. On at least one occasion the chickens also came in handy as an alternative to flower arrangements on the dinner table: one cockerel and two hens – all freshly washed for the occasion – were put in glass containers on each end of the table, with little chicks snuggled up in hay-filled china baskets in between.

Obviously, she was rather unconventional (a bit of an understatement) and had a great sense of humor. All of this shines through in her writing and makes her books truly enjoyable reads.

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A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

St. George has just saved the other Champions of Christendom from the enchantment by the evil witch Kalyb

A few days ago Janet talked about paper dolls of the Regency period, and today I’d like to add to that theme by talking about another kind of toy produced from paper: toy theatres.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

The Seven Champions decide to separate and seek adventures each on his own (St George is off to Egypt in a steamboat)

Toy theatres were first produced by William West in 1811. He ran a haberdashery and circulating library on London’s Exeter Street, which is conveniently close to several theatres, including the Lyceum Theatre, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden. When he first noticed how well cheap prints for children sold, he had the idea to monetize his proximity to the theatres and started to sell theatrical prints. The first of these showed eight characters from Mother Goose, a popular pantomime playing at Covent Garden at the time. Soon, other printers also joined in and sold character sheets and scenery sheets.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

Having arrived in Egypt, St. George hears the most dreadful news: the king’s daughter is in grave peril

These first character sheets were not intended for playing – but it seems that this is exactly what happened: children cut out the characters to play with them. So within two years, West had also begun to sell paper theatres. The prints became ever more elaborate: clever cascading scenery was joined by sheets which enabled the reenactment of theatrical tricks.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

But never fear! St. George saves Princess Sabra…

Printers typically based their toy theatre sheets on current popular plays, and they made them available in two versions: plain and colored, which led to the famous phrase “one penny plain and two pence coloured.” Putting together toy theatres seems to have been mostly a pastime for boys, and it became a matter of pride to color one’s characters, scenery, and theatre oneself.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

…and fights against the terrible dragon, who was about to devour her

Before they were cut out, all parts were typically pasted onto cardboard to give them greater stability and make them more durable (though of course, cardboard would not keep the theatre from going up in flames when a particularly impressive trick involving a bang and lightning effect went wrong). Some children might have even built a wooden frame for their theatres, which would have made playing them much easier. Such wooden frames would have also enabled the young impresario to hang the scenery from the cross links rather than putting them into slits in the cardboard.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

“Take that, fiend!”

To give you an idea of how elaborate toy theatre sheets could become, let us look at J.K. Green’s sheets based on the Christmas pantomime Harlequin St George and the Dragon, which was running at Drury Lane in December 1847: there were 8 plates of characters, 17 plates of scenery, 2 plates of tricks, and 5 plates of wings. (By contrast, the modern version which was published by Pollock’s Toy Theatres in 1972 and which you can see in the pictures accompanying this post, is much abridged and comes with only four plates of scenery and characters.)

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

Splendid tableau of past & present chivalry

But then and now, the play ends with a tableau of the victorious Wellington at Waterloo (*waving to Diane*). This way it draws an explicit comparison between chivalry of the past (St George!) and modern chivalry (Wellington, of course), which boys were supposed to emulate. So, in other words, toy theatres were not only mere entertainment, but also contained a didactic component (if you actually made it to the grand tableau without burning your theatre down, that is).

Toy theatres continue to be produced today (though in smaller numbers), several professional and amateur theatre companies are specialized in toy theatre productions, and annual toy theatre festivals are held in different parts of the world, including at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Which play would you like to see on a miniature stage?


The production of Harlequin St. George and the Dragon depicted here was arranged for you by yours truly. I also did all the (inexpert) cutting out and gluing together of the various parts of the theatre, scenery, and characters. 🙂

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