In the recesses of my mind, I’ve stored a list of questions that I’ve carried about with me in the hope they could be answered about the Victorian era. Some answers have been found while I was sipping steaming cups of coffee and tea with friends on foggy or icy mornings. From these experts I’ve learned a few things I’d wanted to know as a storyteller about the 19th Century. I keep in mind as much as I can what the context of those times, that snake oil was easy enough to sell, and that more than social faux pas were covered up, expectedly.
Many a buyer was learning to beware. Despite the speed and quality of postal deliveries having taken on a banner of national pride (albeit the postal riders were hired much younger than those shown in movies, I’ve noticed), the West and many cities repairing themselves after the Civil War were ordering by mail about everything from new socks to replacement balustrades. But the items such as wrought iron often turned out to be hollow, cast iron painted over, according to one architect and government expert on the era with access to the records.
While bantering over such data at the café, I’m often dismayed at descriptions of the types of wares that were expected to be passed off as authentic taking me by surprise even nowadays. Particularly after the Civil War ended, many discerning buyers were very suspicious and were ordering from overseas. Especially to Europe for finer household or office architectural items or decor in order to feel guaranteed in getting exactly what they ordered.
I’ve noticed other things that piqued my curiosity as possible storytelling elements. Many a Victorian era house was added onto in a seeming willy-nilly manner, so I asked more about the arrangement of rooms and their assortments. The strangeness of why rooms were not built to the same size and why windows and doors were typically off by enough that windows in particular would have to be uniquely ordered. It was typical for panes not to be the same size, I learned. That has been my experience while residing in Victorian houses. Replacing doors from doorways in that era also led to the similar moments of having to order custom-sized.
Now, being a romantic as well as a writer of romantic fiction, I’ve always wondered where the real life moments were possible in the Victorian homes while they did their near daily entertaining each evening. I decided to boldly ask where the kisses were stolen, or freely given, at formal parties. My research included more whispered questions over more cups of coffee with costume experts, also. Data gathered and coupled with correspondence over the Internet hot spots from Old World family members while I order a second cuppa joe yielded some interesting information. The journals kept by those who used to plan the State Balls during the Victorian era brought up parlors used for trysts. I couldn’t get a straight answer until I asked a princess, in fact. Balls and ambassadorial level functions accommodated quietly the anticipated desire for guests to have private discussions, even those of a romantic nature. A stolen kiss or two was quite allowable, and many a lady practiced with her hoop skirts to ensure no awkwardness in leaning close enough to her sweetheart. Major domos and liveried attendants were on duty to make certain of privacy. Keeping tabs on the trysts was a typical if quiet duty. Society hosts and hostesses having a house designed that planned to entertain grandly would factor in such conveniences.
Also popular in a more nostalgic manner were sculpted gardens and an occasional maze could still be found. When I asked what the mazes were used for, it was replied that they were where games were played, and one could take a chaperone or guard in livery, of course. But they weren’t lingered in, although they were useful for a variety of reasons during formal functions.
Still in style although not considered a fashion trend were paper-thin clothes for evening wear. Something that had gone on since the Dark Ages, as far as my research goes. The experts bring it up as romantically viewed as well as a matter of economy, and considering how many layers of underpinnings were donned the typical ball gown of, say, royalty leading a new trend would be in fabrics that were not intended for use beyond that evening. Their levels of embellishment were also decorously on a smaller scale than I’d imagined, having been led to think they’d be more grandiose than they often were. Jewels were often already heirlooms, with trendy jewelry and embellishments being left for earlier hours in the day. Perhaps at an afternoon tea with charity society ladies.
Even after years of study on such questions including at the scholastic level I’m always impressed at what conversation reminding me of the fact that Victorians considered both dining, taking tea or coffee or simply conversing as an form of Art.