At Home With The Georgians

24 February 2011

One of the best things about writing historical fiction, besides being able to escape into a different time and day dream about gorgeous clothes and oh all that sort of thing, is the research that makes all of this possible. It really feels like the best job in the world sometimes as I laze around reading fabulous books about eighteenth century fashion, architecture and society, feverishly taking notes about little bits and pieces that will add that I hope will add a little extra sparkle to my story.

Writing Before The Storm has been a bit challenged in this respect though as we are currently trying to sell our flat and in a moment of insanity decided that it would be a Jolly Good Idea to put about 75% of our belongings and pretty much all of my books into storage. That was quite a while ago now and I’m honestly pining for quite a lot of them. I may go very very quiet for a long time after we’re reunited actually – I’m sure you won’t mind but I’ll be rolling around on my bed, surrounded by books about French art. Totally understandable, I think you will agree!

Anyway, I wasn’t planning to write this particular book right now so I put the books that would actually be really REALLY useful right now into storage without a second thought. This is very bad. However, luckily for me, the fantastic Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery came out in the nick of time and has been a major source of information about how my 1780s characters would probably have lived in their lovely houses while plotting ways to get invited to balls in Mayfair.

I can’t recommend this book and the accompanying series enough actually (although I did get a bit scared in the first episode as it went to not one, not two but THREE places that I have lived in the past) – it’s an often touching study of the domestic arrangements of various different types of households in 18th century England and is packed with fascinating information about all manner of things from house hunting to what your taste in wallpaper said about your place in the pecking order to whose job it was to choose the furniture to how Georgian ladies organised their housekeeping. I found it absolutely absorbing and it has really helped me give an extra dimension to my characters who belong to a highly aspirant nouveau riche social class.

Thanks to At Home with the Georgians I now know that Mrs Garland, a rather indolent wife of an immensely wealthy city businessman lives with her family in a relatively newly built townhouse in Highbury, that she has a fondness for yellow wallpaper and paint, that she hired someone else to oversee the decorating of her house and that people laugh at her a bit for buying the noble portraits that hang in her public rooms from auction houses. I also now know that her crowning ambition is probably to persuade her reluctant husband to buy a country estate as that was considered the pinnacle of gentlemanly success at this time.

Having said that, although I have a clear preference for writing about the history of women, I found the section of the book that detailed the living arrangements of bachelors in Georgian England, the most moving and interesting. I felt so sad for them as they longed for the comfort of a household headed by a loving, caring wife. It’s incredible how much society has changed – nowadays the self indulgent life of a well off bachelor who can do as he pleases is supposed to be an object of envy, but in Georgian times he would have been viewed with pity and even some derision and probably would have been pretty desperate to get married.

I loved this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in eighteenth century society and the development of the concept of taste, which seems so simple to us with our over abundance of choice but at the time was absolutely revolutionary. The wealthy had always created houses that were more show pieces than homes, but it was in the eighteenth century that the concept of domesticity really came into its own and people from all classes embraced the notion of creating a home, of allowing your choices about interior design and decoration reveal your own personality as well as aspirations.

I read it alongside The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital by Dan Cruickshank, which I also really loved and offered a really eye opening tour of the grimy underbelly of London. Part of my book is set in a brothel in Covent Garden and this gave me a really good idea of the sort of thing that would have gone on there – um, okay, I had a fair idea anyway but oh, you’ll see…

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