Thursday, 2 August 2012

Corsets, railway carriages and a lovely free gift! By Jennie Walters


Funnily enough, my post this month is along the same sort of lines as Hywela's a few days ago: the highways and byeways you can find yourself travelling down in the name of research. I'm currently writing a story set in 1893. It's another in my 'Swallowcliffe Hall' series, set in a large country house, but for the first time featuring one of the aristocrats rather than a servant as my main character: Eugenie Vye, the elder daughter, who for one reason and another has arrived at the grand old age of twenty-two with no husband on the horizon. If she can't attract an eligible suitor by the end of the season, she may be shipped off to India to try her chances there. (Completely coincidentally, I see a book by Anne de Courcy has just been published on that very subject, 'The Fishing Fleet' - note to self to request it from the London Library.) It's been fascinating looking at the house from the other side of the green baize door, and I've had to get to know it all over again from a different angle.


I think Eugenie must wear a corset at night.
Because of Eugenie's preoccupations, I've also had to find out a lot about 1890s fashion, and Wikipedia has alerted me to the great corset debate. If you have a spare ten minutes, it's worth looking this up but, in a nutshell, it's about such weighty issues (sorry about the pun) as whether it's a good idea to wear a corset at night as well as in the day (to spare oneself the pain of being laced up again from scratch in the morning), and whether young girls should be squeezed into corsets so their figures can be formed while their bones are still soft. Naughty girls who cut their laces to try and get some sleep at night should have their wrists bound, or the corsets may be secured with a chain and padlock. And thus young women with waists as vast as 22 inches can reduce their measurements to 17 or 18 inches, and 14 or 15 if corsets are worn at night. Phew! Just thinking about it makes me panicky.

Another difference I've found when writing about the aristocrats is that they have the freedom to travel around a lot more, rather than the housebound servants. I've just moved Eugenie and her American relatives by marriage to 1890s Paris - romantic Paris of La Belle Epoque, which I could spend months researching. Luckily for me, Eugenie is not particularly political or observant and has a habit of getting the wrong end of the stick, which may excuse a multitude of research omissions. I did want to get a flavour of travelling to France in this era, however, and was lucky enough to stumble across the most wonderful piece of writing by Charles Dickens: A Flight, published in 1851. Not only does this account make you feel as though you're actually on that train with him, it is so wonderfully funny and observant that I've fallen in love with Dickens all over again and may have to stop writing to read everything he's ever written. So here is the lovely free gift mentioned in the title of this piece: the link to  A Flight, which IMHO is ten minutes of sheer reading joy (although I would skip over the first paragraph about Don Diego de whojimaflip).

It's hard to pick out my favourite details, but I do especially like Demented Traveller, whom unfortunately at moments of Network Rail-induced stress I much resemble, and the marvellous Mystery, who 'does such miracles in her own behalf, that, one of these days, when she dies, they'll be amazed to find an old woman in her bed, distantly like her' and who 'eats of everything there that is eatable, from pork pie, sausage, jam and gooseberries, to lumps of sugar'.

Perhaps most valuable of all for the harrassed researcher is the idea that what makes this writing so utterly brilliant and memorable is not the accuracy of the detail but the eternal truths which make one think yes, of course - that is exactly how I feel, only I could never have expressed it so perfectly. For example, Dickens observes on nearing the French coast:
'And now I find that all the French people on board begin to grow, and all the English people to shrink. The French are nearing home, and shaking off a disadvantage, whereas we are shaking it on.'
Who hasn't noticed the very same thing when approaching the Gare du Nord aboard Eurostar...

Perhaps you've made your own serendipitous discoveries in the name of research, too. Feel free to share them here!



5 comments:

madwippitt said...

I shall never complain about bras again after reading about the corsets ... ack!

Jennie Walters said...

I know! The thought up being trussed up even at night is unbearable. Reminds me that I once saw a bustier Victoria Beckham had donated to a charity auction - it would have just about fitted my upper arm...

Lynne Garner said...

I love to research and it can often take me off into a new direction and become the gem of a new idea.

Luck Shop said...

Very interesting piece of garment history you have here! I never knew about the big debate. Interesting read.

Jennie Walters said...

Yes, it's fascinating, isn't it? Hard to keep one's eye on the story and not go bouncing off in all sorts of directions!!