Making The Light Over London Come Alive Through Research

For The Light Over London, I got to immerse myself in a number of histories of the ATS, the Blitz, women’s roles in the British military, and more. I’ve included a few mentions of these books in my author’s note at the end of The Light Over London, but I wanted to mention a few more titles in case there are any readers who want to learn more about this fascinating time period.

Used for The Light Over London

These are the books that had the greatest impact on me while writing Louise and Cara’s stories. I don’t think it would’ve been possible to write the detail of the 1941 story without Barrett and Calvi’s excellent history of a Gunner Girl (as well as a Wren and a WAAF) or Green’s extensive research into the everyday lives of women in the ATS.

Girls in Khaki: A History of the Second World War by Barbara Green

The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

The Secret History of the Blitz by Joshua Levine

Woman at the Front: Memoirs of an ATS Girl by Sylvia Wild

Additional Resources Used

From time to time, I needed to get a greater context of what was going on in Britain or Europe during the war. For that, I turned to several of these books. Certain titles also were invaluable for giving The Light Over London texture in the fashions and hairstyle or learning about social attitudes to things like love and marriage during the war.

Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941 by Daniel Todman

The Blitz: The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner

Debs at War: 1939-1945 by Anne de Courcy

Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford

The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel

Historical Fiction Set on the Home Front

If you enjoyed The Light Over London and are interested in reading more books set on the Home Front during this time period, I recommend the five-volume family saga by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles. Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers also touches on World War II in Cornwall and the Wrens in a charming historical and contemporary narrative.

If you’re a reader of books set in Britain during WWII, I’d love to hear your recommendations. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

The Weird Wonderful World of Edwardian Valentines

The Language of Flowers

Bunch of red romantic blooming poppy flowers isolated vector illustration

I've always been fascinated by flowers. Not just the bunches of roses that I get from my local bodega to decorate my apartment. I love the complexity of roses, the endless varieties of lavender, and the usefulness of herbs. Flowers are so much more than a fleeting bit of beauty.

It’s no surprise then that when I learned the Victorians had an entire silent language they gave to flowers, I was fascinated and wanted badly to find a way to incorporate it into a book.

The Governess Was Wanton is a twist on the traditional Cinderella story. Some elements are the same — there’s mistaken identity, a woman who is down on her luck, and an item that’s lost and must be returned by a handsome man — but I decided to flip the story to give the fairy godmother her own happily ever after.

Because I was changing the formula, I also wanted to change up the all-important glass slipper. I decided that instead of Cinderella losing her shoe, my heroine, Mary, loses her handkerchief. But it isn’t just any handkerchief. It’s unique, one of a set of twelve given to Mary by her own governess back when her life was very different. Those twelve handkerchiefs are edged in a pattern of ivy and pink geraniums.

Those flowers aren’t an accident. I chose them because in the Victorian flower language ivy stood for friendship, fidelity, and marriage. Geranium had several meetings but the ones I drew on were gentility and esteem as well as true friendship (this last one applied to oak leaf geranium specifically).

What I enjoyed the most about incorporating these flowers was that they were sort of like the Easter eggs you spot in an episode of Doctor Who. If readers know anything about flower language, it’s a fun little thing to pick up in the story. If not, the flowers were just a pretty embellishment on a handkerchief.

The thing to remember is that authors rarely chose to put something as symbolic as the glass slipper — or in this case the embroidered handkerchief — into their story without thinking a bit about the details.

If you're interested in reading more about flower language and Victorians there's a wonderful article from Atlas Obscura all about it. The next time you see a flower pop-up and romance novel maybe you can find some deeper meaning in why the author chose that flower in particular.

The Governess Problem

I’ve written a bit here about how I came up with the idea to write about three friends who are all governesses and each find their happily ever after in their own time. What I haven’t talked about is why governesses? The answer is simple: governesses occupied a fascinating space as educated, well-bred ladies who earned a wage but weren’t servants. That status on the fringes of society makes them all the more interesting to write about.

"Marian Hubbard 'Daisy' Bell and Elsie May Bell with governess," 1885, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Who Was the Victorian Governess?

If you’re only vaguely familiar with who governesses were and what they did, here’s a primer. They were often educated, respectable women who’d fallen on hard times, the daughters of parents who couldn’t afford to keep them at home until they married, or other down-on-their-luck widows armed with a good reputation. These women could make an income by educating the girls of a well-to-do middle- or upper-class families until their charges were married and became the mistresses of their own households.

And intentionally or not, governesses were subversive as hell.

It’s important to remember the context of the time period we’re dealing with here. During Victorian England society was governed by a phenomenon called “the two spheres.”

Convention dictated that men occupied the public sphere and could go off into the world and do things like manage businesses, enter into politics, or work. Women got to stay at home.

“The prevailing ideology regarded the house as a haven, a private domain as opposed to the public sphere of commerce,” writes Elizabeth Langland in her article, “Nobody’s Angels: Domestic Ideology and Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Novel."

White, straight, cisgender women of the middle and upper classes occupied this “private sphere,” but at the same time their money allowed them to delegate many of the duties that would have traditionally fallen to women. In households that could afford it, you hired a maid-of-all-work, or if you had more money specialized servants like chamber maids, ladies maids, and a cook. Families who could afford it hired a nurse and, for the education of their young girls, a governess.

The Governess as a Sexual Threat

Governesses, by professional necessity, were not married. They lived in their employer’s homes and therefore had an intimate knowledge of a family regardless of whether their actual relationships with the individual members were warm or not.

Even though governesses were a status symbol of a certain degree of wealth and class, they were still looked on with suspicion. Having an unmarried woman in close proximity to a husband or older sons was seen as a direct threat to domestic peace. The historian M. Jeanne Peterson quotes at length from Mary Atkinson Maurice's Governess Life (1849) in her article “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society:”

Frightful instances have been discovered in which she, to which the care of the young has been entrusted, instead of guarding their minds in innocence and purity has become the corruptor—she has been the first to lead and to initiate into sin, to suggest and carry on intrigues, and finally to be the instrument of destroying the peace of families…

Because the governess wasn’t the “traditional” Victorian woman who stayed within the confines of her own home and therefore the private sphere, she was seen as threatening to the very structure that held society in check.

Even more concerning — and surely ridiculous to modern readers — was that Victorian womanhood was wrapped up the idea that the ideal woman was modest and retiring when it came to sex. The accepted model of female sexuality can be most easily seen in the works of the much quoted and undeniably naive Dr. William Acton who believed that that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind" (The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, 1857). If a woman lived outside of the bounds of her traditional role, she must be a threatening, oversexualized figure. This is where the governess-as-seducer trope you see with characters like Vanity Fair's Becky Sharpe gets its bite.

"A sufficient reason," S.D. Ehrhart, Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1894 January 10, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Governess and The Economic Threat

Governesses didn't just offend society's ideas about womanhood because of they lived close to men or their perceived sexuality. They subverted strictly gender roles for middle-class women by earning a wage. This gave the governess access to money, economic independence, and choice — all hallmarks of what we would later come to know as feminism.

Woman in Victorian England had little say over their own money. It wouldn’t be until a series of Married Women’s Property Acts* increased the legal rights of women under British law throughout the 1800s that a woman could inherit and maintain control over her own money within her marriage. Before then she was essentially beholden to first her father and then her husband and sons for the duration of her life. She was essentially a charity case who had little legal recourse if the man who was supposed to be providing for her was instead frittering away her money.

By living outside of the traditional father-daughter or husband-wife structure and earning her own wage, a governess could exercise a degree of independence by having power over her money.

I don't want to paint too rosy a picture for the Victorian governess. She didn't earn much money so the independence she did have was limited. “Her working life was not likely to last more than 25 years, at a starting salary of 25l, rarely reaching 80l” (Liza Picard, Victorian London: The Tale of a City, 1840-1870, p. 262).

While teaching was one of the few respectable ways for a middle-class woman to earn her living,** the governess was relegated to a lower social status than her charges. Still, she was earning money and was beholden to no man which meant she had legal control over her income — something married women couldn't boast of until well into the 19th century.

Making Them Heroines

The conflict built into the governess's life — whether it's the perceived threat to the fidelity of a marriage or her uncomfortable limbo between lady and servant — makes her the perfect romance heroine. There's conflict built into her story from page one because she doesn't fit neatly into the boxes that Victorian society assigned women. No matter who the hero (or heroine in the case of F/F) is, there is going to be a tension regarding her non-traditional role in the home and in society. And great romance comes out of great tension.

*You can read more about these acts in Mary Lyndon Shanley’s Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, a dry but fascinating book.

**Another was writing. Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Milton Trollope were just two of the women who picked up their pens to earn money during the Georgian and Victorian eras.

Further Reading

Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, Mary Lyndon Shanley

“Nobody’s Angels: Domestic Ideology and Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Novel," Elizabeth Langland

“The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society," M. Jeanne Peterson

Victorian Sexualities,” Holly Furneaux

Photos: London and The Governess Was Wicked

"This room, with its green-and-white wallpaper and big bay windows looking out over Onslow Square, would continue to be the center of her world until Cassandra was old enough to wear her hair up and marry." —The Governess Was Wicked

I love books that are strongly grounded in their setting. I want to hear the rush of traffic and feel the breeze from the subway (disgusting though it may be) when I'm reading a book set in New York City. Likewise, if a book takes place during a London winter, I want to know that the characters are chilled to the bone from the damp that sets in around autumn and doesn't leave until spring.

It was important to me in writing The Governess Was Wicked that readers feel that my characters really do know their way around the parts of Central London that make up their whole world. Here are just a few locations readers will encounter:

  • The Nortons' home in Onslow Square in South Kensington with its beautiful, perfectly symmetrical houses.
  • Dr. Edward Fellows lives in the just-becoming-fashionable neighborhood of Chelsea on Sydney Street where a bachelor doctor could have had his office with rooms above
  • There's Mrs. Salver's Tea Shop in Pimlico, a working class neighborhood where people who served the wealthy in Mayfair and Belgravia would have lived
  • Elizabeth sends two very important letters from a huge hotel just off Rochester Row near the bustling travel hub of Victoria station
  • And finally the book ends in Lady Crosby's Eaton Square home

Since my family lives in this area of London, I asked my father, a talented photographer, to take some photos to show readers a little of the world of The Governess Was Wicked. Enjoy this virtual stroll through the streets!

Lord What? Lady Who? Understanding Titles in Historical Romance

"Soirée toilette." 1883-01, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Who cares if Lady Claire, the daughter of the Duke of Rockland, marries Sir Ware, a baron? Her married name will be Lady Ware, and a lady is a lady, right?

Not exactly.

I get a lot of questions about keeping all of those lords and ladies straight in historical romances and why titles matter. It's complicated in particular because although the peerage has clear rankings (a duke is higher than a marquess, etc.) some people are addressed the same way. This is especially confusing among women.

Here's a long but hopefully handy guide to telling your barons from your viscounts:

The Royals

Royalty includes the king and queen, the Prince of Wales, any children, and so on. Since I write about Victorian England, the reigning monarch would have been Queen Victoria. Prince Albert was her prince consort (the husband of the queen regent who was not a king himself). The Prince of Wales, the heir apparent, would have been Bertie who then became Edward VII on Victoria's death.

The Queen The queen would first have been addressed as Your Majesty on first instance. Then she would be addressed as Ma'am.

Prince Consort, Princes and Princesses of Royal Blood, Dukes and Duchesses of Royal Blood This group would have included Prince Albert, Victoria's husband who served as prince consort, the Prince of Wales, and all other royal princes, princesses, and royal dukes and duchesses. They would have been addressed first as Your Royal Highness and then afterward as Sir or Ma'am.

"Presented on the occasion of the coronation of His Majesty King Edward VII, June 26th, 1902." Cigarette cards, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Peerage

There are five hereditary titles for members of the peerage that are ranked as follows from highest to lowest: duke (duchess), marquess (marchioness), earl (countess), viscount (viscountess), and baron (baroness).

This might all seem straightforward, but it can become confusing and muddled for a few reasons. First of all, in addition to a title, a man or woman would also have a family name. For instance, I might be Julia Kelly, Marchioness of Dunnett. Kelly would be my family name, Dunnett would be my title.

Then there were courtesy titles. If a man was a marquess, he might be Christopher Kelly, Marquess of Dunnett, Earl of Kirk, and so on and so on. He would only be addressed as Lord Dunnett because marquess is his highest ranking title, and his eldest son would be given the courtesy title of Earl of Kirk and would be addressed as Lord Kirk. In the rare cases when there was no second title, the eldest son would be given the family name as a courtesy title (ie Lord Kelly).

There are even more exceptions to the rule, but for now let's focus on the most common instances.

Dukes and Duchesses The name of a dukedom is taken from an existing place (ie the Duke of Devonshire). When addressing a duke or duchess, you would call them Your Grace (or referring to them in third person His Grace and Her Grace). My copy of Titles and Forms of Address recommends using titles sparingly in conversation.

The widowed wife of the last duke would would retain her title. However, to differentiate her from the current duchess she would be referred to as the Dowager Duchess and addressed by her first name and then her title. For example, after her husband died in 2004, the Duchess of Devonshire became the Dowager Duchess and was referred to as Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire.

The younger sons of dukes would be called Lord [First name Family name] and the daughters of dukes would be Lady [First name Family name]:

  • Lord Colin Kelly (addressed in speech as Lord Colin, never Lord Kelly)
  • Lady Justine Kelly (addressed in speech as Lady Justine, never Lady Kelly)

Marquesses and Marchionesses Just to make matters complicated, the title of marquess can also be spelled marquis (they may choose how they spell it). The title is generally taken from a place name so one would be the marquess of [place name]although there are four modern exceptions to this rule just to keep things interesting.

A marquess and marchioness would be referred to as Lord and Lady Dunnnett and addressed in speech as My Lord and My Lady. The full formal title of the Marquess of Dunnett would only be used on very formal occasions.

Dowagers marchionesses follow the rule of dowager duchesses.

Younger sons of marquesses are Lord [First name Family name], and rules of address follow the younger sons of dukes.

Younger daughters of marquesses are Lady [First name Family name], and rules of address follow the daughters of dukes.

Earls and Countesses Some earldoms take a geographical name (which would make the title the Earl of [Place]), some take a family name.

An earl and countess would be referred to as Lord and Lady [Title] and addressed in speech as My Lord and My Lady. As with marquesses and marchionesses their full formal title would only be used on rare formal occasions.

Dowagers countesses follow the rule of dowager duchesses.

Younger sons of marquesses are the Honorable [First name Family name], and would be addressed as Mr.

Younger daughters of earls are Lady [First name Family name], and rules of address follow the daughters of dukes.

Viscounts and Viscountesses As with earls, the title is sometimes taken from a geographical name and sometimes a family name.

Titles and forms of address follow marquesses and earls, making them Lord and Lady [Title].

Dowagers viscountesses follow the rule of dowager duchesses.

Courtesy titles stop at the level of earls. The eldest son of a viscount is styled as the Honorable [First name Family name] as are the younger sons of viscounts. They would be addressed as Mr.

Younger daughters of earls are styled as the Honorable [First name Family name], and are addressed as Miss. The eldest daughter would be Miss [Last name] and her younger sisters would be Miss [First name] (ie Miss Emory would be the eldest sister followed by Miss Alexandra and Miss Alexis Emory).

Barons and Baronesses Barons are the last rank of the peerage. Their names can be derived from geographical location, family name, or other sources.

Titles and forms of address follow marquesses, earls, and viscounts making them Lord and Lady [Title].

Dowagers viscountesses follow the rule of dowager duchesses.

The eldest son of an baron follows the form of address of the eldest son of a viscount. The younger sons of barons and the daughters of barons also follow the rule for viscounts.

If you're interested in learning more about forms of address, I recommend picking up a copy of Titles and Forms of Address.

I'm giving away two huge prize packs to celebrate the release of my book The Governess Was Wicked thanks to a little help from my author friends. You could win ebooks, signed paperbacks, audiobooks, and an Amazon gift card!. All you have to do is enter here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

What They Wore: The Governess Was Wicked

I love historical fashion from pantaloons to pelisses, and over the years more and more of it has made its way into my books. Clothing can be a wonderful way to ground a scene in a time and place, and it can also tell you a lot about a character.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1855, French, cotton, from @metmuseum

A photo posted by Really Old Frocks (@reallyoldfrocks) on

When I started writing Elizabeth Porter, the heroine at the center of The Governess Was WickedI knew I'd set myself a particular challenge. Governesses typically wore simple clothing in a limited range of colors (think functional colors like greys and dark blues and greens) and with few embellishments. She would have had a few dresses including her "best" dress that would have been worn to church or on special occasions. Otherwise, her clothing would have had to last as long as possible to maximize on cost.

Dress, ca. 1856, British, from the Metropolitian Museum of Art

Most of what we see in museums are beautiful examples of exquisite — and exquisitely expensive — gowns. The more workman-like dresses weren't necessarily preserved for history. That means that you'll see a lot more of Mrs. Norton's wardrobe when you go to museums than you will Elizabeth's.

While her clothing might not have been as luxurious and fashion-forward as the woman whose children she educated, a governess did share something in common with her mistress: they both wore the same silhouette.

Cabinet photograph, Aug Linde (photographer), 1850-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

The late 1850s was characterized by large, bell-shaped skirts that flared out from a tightly cinched waist. One big development in undergarments allowed women to achieve these huge skirts: the cage crinoline. Up until this point, ladies would have piled on petticoats to create a full effect. Although they look horribly impractical to us, crinolines of wire covered with cotton actually created a structure for a dress to lay on top of and flare out from the body.

Cage crinoline, ca. 1862, British, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Crinolines were relatively inexpensive, so women of all classes eventually adopted them (although the massive yards of fabric needed for truly huge skirts would be a fashion statement only very wealthy women could afford).

Dinner dress, 1855–59, British from the Metropolitian Museum of Art

The shape crinolines created was so popular that reports were 200 pound of product was lost in the Staffordshire potteries in 1863 due to the wide skirts of working women accidentally sweeping shelves clean.

Cabinet photograph, H J Whitlock (photographer), 1850-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

If you're interested in fashion history (or just really like all of the pretty pictures of dresses I've shown), join my Facebook group Really Old Frocks and follow my @reallyoldfrocks Instagram for more beautiful old-fashioned fashion.

And last but not least, I'm giving away two huge prize packs to celebrate The Governess Was Wicked thanks to a little help from my author friends. You could win ebooks, signed paperbacks, audiobooks, and an Amazon gift card!. All you have to do is enter here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

BONUS: I had to include this stereoscopic picture I ran across in doing my research for this article. It's both creepy and flirtatious with the older gentleman kissing the hand of a young woman who is fending him off coquettishly with her fan.

Stereoscopic photograph & stereograph, 1851-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

Women and the Victorian-Era Tennis Dress

Tennis, anyone? It seems ridiculous to us today to look at fashion plates from the Victorian era and realize that some of those huge, voluminous dresses with full bustles and flounces were meant to be tennis dresses. In the modern era, tennis players look like this:


So how do you get to Serena's nearly complete domination of the women's game for the last decade in a totally functional tennis dress (or skirt and top) from these ladies?

"Tennis-Costumes." 1889. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.


During the Victorian era an increasing number of women picked up a wooden racket and hit the courts (in full-length gowns of course). Women of the upper and middle classes began to take an interest in sport — croquet in the 1860s, tennis in the 1870s and 1880s, and the daring sport of cycling in the 1890s, according to Catroina M. Parratt in her article "Atheltic 'Womanhood:' Exploring Sources for Female Sport in Victorian and Edwardian England."

The growing popularity of sport among women came about during a time of hyper-masculinity among Victorian men.* But it was also a time when women's education reformers were pushing for healthful — although moderate — exercise for girls. They argued that girls could also learn lessons on the field much as boys did while playing cricket and rugby.

However, Parratt argues that womanhood and athletics were not necessarily compatible, and so sporting women had to find a way to reconcile those two things by "project[ing] an image of moderation and becoming femininity." While women who supported Victorian dress reform might have tried to argue that shorter skirts and bloomers would have been more rational uniforms for playing tennis, feminine modesty won out. Reformers couldn't rock the boat too much by putting girls in functional athletic clothing, so instead women continued to swathed themselves in the hyper-feminine dresses of the era while playing sport. As Parratt puts it, the sporting woman's experience was "at one and the same time, a liberating and constraining one."

"Lawn-Tennis Gowns, Swiss Belt, Yoke Jersey." 1888. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.


"Toilette De Tennis." 1895. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

"Woman And Girl With Tennis Rackets." 1895. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.


*The Victorians were remarkably preoccupied by masculinity, especially in relation to the empire. There's a ton of scholarship that's been done on this topic, particularly about male education and masculinity, that's worth tracking down if you're interested.

PHOTOS: A Walk-Through ‘Manus x Machina’ from The Met’s Costume Institute

Last weekend I spent the day at the Metropolitian Museum of Art's "Manus x Machina" exhibit from the Costume Institute. The exhibit, which focuses on the marriage of machine produced fabrics and effects with handworking in couture and high fashion — is grouped into themes like lace and sequins rather than being ordered chronologically. That means you'll see a wedding dress from 1870 next to a dress from 2015 which makes it easy to see silhouettes and styles reflected over and over in the garments even as eras changed.

There's nothing like seeing an exhibit like this in person, but if you can't  make it to New York City, here's a walk-through of some of the dresses.

If you want to see more dresses from "Manus x Machina," you can check out the exhibit album in my Facebook group, Really Old Frocks, which celebrates historical fashion in all its forms.

"The Girls She Left Behind"

I've talked before about my love for fashion plates, but sometimes when I'm rooting around in the New York Public Library's digital collection I stumble upon something I've just got to talk about. For 10 cents in September of 1919, you could buy a magazine with a pretty remarkable-looking cover. Check it out.

"The Girls She Left Behind Her." 1919. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The cover is entitled "The Girls She Left Behind Her," and it's pretty stunning. Not only do we have a young lady in what was traditionally a man's riding kit — boots, jodhpurs, and all — she's standing in front of at least six female figures, all dressed in historical garb.

From what I can tell we start with a woman in Elizabethan dress on the far left and progress through the 18th century to the Georgian empire waist dresses all Jane Austen period drama fans know so well. Barely visible in green behind the main figure is what looks like the full bell skirt of a dress spread over a cage crinoline (mid to late 1850s) and then the mutton sleeves of the mid 1890s. Topping it all of with her back turned to us in a stunning pink dress is a woman wearing the fashions of the first decade of the twentieth century.

This is a little early for the extreme changes in fashion that the flappers brought with them, and so the magazine cover is in a way even more remarkable. You can see just how aware the editorial staff of this magazine must have been about the opening up of social conventions regarding dress — and also a woman's place in society — when the central figure of a fashion plate is wearing trousers. Even more interesting, I don't read any censure in this drawing. Rather than a fearful cartoon of how society would fall apart just because a woman pulled on a pair of pants, the artist seems to be making a statement: this is how it is.

I won't go so far as to say this image was intentionally feminist. The illustrator still calls her a girl, and we've got to remember that this pretty white woman who represents beauty ideals of the time is meant to move magazines. Besides my old college professors would scold me for not contextualizing what feminism would have meant in 1919 and instead projecting my own modern ideas onto it. Instead I'll just say that this magazine cover is a fascinating sign of its times.

Now if someone could make me that white skirted riding coat and find me a pair of those boots I'd be a very happy lady.

Exploring Victorian Fashion Plates

It's no surprise that I love libraries. I'm an author, it's kind of what we do. But my love of the New York Public Library runs deep for a lot more reasons than just accessibility to books. The NYPL is an incredible resource for writers, especially those of us focusing on historical writing. The digital collection isn't entirely open (ie there are some resources you can only access while at a library location and with a valid library card), but enough of it that it's an incredible tool.

One of my favorite places to start rooting around for inspiration while I'm writing books is the digital collection's listings of fashion plates. If you're interested in the history of 19th-century fashion, this is the place for you. Godey's Lady's Book and La Mode Illustrée are both well-represented in the collection, and clicking through will give you a pretty good idea of how fashion (especially silhouettes) changed throughout the 1800s.


"Costume Parisien." 1807. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

London Fashionable Evening & Full Dresses.

"An Equestrian Fashion Plate." 1849. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

"Toilettes de Mme. Breant-Castel." 1870 - 1870. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

"Soirée toilette." 1883-01. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

"Spring mantles." 1883-05. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

"Blackwell's Durham Fashion Doll [paper doll with dress]" Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

A Closer Look: James Miranda Stuart Barry

When you’re a historical author, you do a lot of research. Pair all of the book-specific research with a degree in Victorian British History with a focus on gender and sexuality, and I’ve got more random facts kicking around in my head than I know what to do with. I've always been fascinated by women in medicine. Today I'm taking a closer look at the unusual life and work of James Miranda Stuart Barry.

James Miranda Stuart Barry

"The good doctor wore three-inch lifts in his shoes, carried a parasol, and traveled the world with a milk goat. And he had a lousy temper. But James Barry earned the highest rank a doctor could achieve in the British army."

James Miranda Stuart Barry is a problematic, but important place to start when looking at first generation of female doctors to earn medical degrees in the United Kingdom. That's because Barry lived for decades as a man, and it was not until his death that people discovered that he was biologically female.*

James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley between 1789 and 1791 to unknown parents. What we do know is that Bulkley would grow up and want to be a doctor. In the early 19th century, that was a profession barred to women. Florence Nightengale and the professionalization of nursing had not yet happened, and the only way for a woman to really be involved in the medical profession was through midwifery. Stuart, however, had a plan.

In 1809, Bulkley assumed the name of James Barry to gain entrance to Edinburgh University (Women). Not much is known about Barry's time at the university, but he successfully kept his gender under wraps and graduated in 1812 (Karlekar). Not satisfied with secretly smashing one barrier, he joined the British Army--an organization completely off limits to women--and was appointed Medical Inspector of South Africa.

By all accounts, Barry was not easy to get along with. He was, "bombastic, opinionated and tactless." He criticized local officials in South Africa for inadequate water systems that he insisted on being upgraded. After his work in South African, he took his crusade for better sanitary conditions and nutrition for soldiers to India, the Caribbean, and Canada (Women). In Canada, he would eventually be elevated to Inspector-General of Military Hospitals in Canada (Karlekar). Barry also has the distinction of performing one of the first Caesarean sections in the British Empire.

Barry died in 1865. The woman who prepared his body made what must have been the shocking discovery that the doctor was in fact biologically female (Women).^ It was a secret he had kept for 56 years all to maintain a life dedicated to medicine.

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*I'm a strong believer in respecting self-identification. While biologically Barry was female, he lived the majority of his life as a man. We don't know whether this decision was rooted in necessity because he wanted to practice medicine and would have been barred for his sex or whether Barry identified as male. Since we cannot ask Barry himself, I've chosen with great respect to identify him as male since that is the way he presented to society.

^While most sources seem to agree that Barry was biologically female, there are some people who dispute that claim. It is possible that Barry was a male hermaphrodite with breast development and external genitalia.

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"Her-Story: Then James Barry/Miranda Stuart," Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics On the Air!

Karlekar, Malavika, "An Anatomy of a Change: Kadambini Ganguly and the Seven Before Her",  The Telegraph India, July 8, 2007

Roland, Charles G., "Barry, James"Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval.

A Closer Look: Crinolines in the 1850s

When you're a historical author, you do a lot of research. Pair all of the book-specific research with a degree in Victorian British History with a focus on gender and sexuality, and I've got more random facts kicking around in my head than I know what to do with. Today we're taking a closer look at a game changing fashion trend in Victorian Britain. Courtesy Emily Hudson - Costume Construction

Of all of the fashions that jump to mind when one says "Victorian England", the crinoline is probably the most distinctive. The massive, bell-shaped skirts of the late 1850s are iconic in both their size and impracticality (sitting in one of those must require great skill and a well-timed prayer that the hoops didn't go flying over your head). They are romantic because nothing we wear now bears much resemblance to the floor-length skirts that ladies adopted during this era.

Fashion plate from Le Monde Elégant, 1859 (from

Skirt Size and the Development of the Artificial Crinoline

Undergarments are what makes much of women's fashion in the 1800s possible. The crinoline is no exception.

Horsehair crinoline, Mid-19th Century (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the first half of the 1850s, women relied upon layers upon layers of petticoats to hold out their skirts. Check out 0:26 of this clip from Gone with the Wind. Scarlet pulls on a petticoat made of layers and layers of flounces.

Often horsehair warp or wool weft was use, but the problem was that these material are both heavy and hot. Women were quite literally weighed down by their undergarments not to mention the yards of fabric required to make up their actual dresses.

The artificial crinoline was a game changer. It's essentially a large cage of wire hoops held together by vertical tapes, and it did away with the need to layer petticoats on in order to fill out a dress. That in turn kept the layers of fabric forming a woman's skirts out of her way, allowing her greater mobility (Cunnington, 188).

Cage Crinoline, Mid-19th Century, American or European (Courtesy The Metropolitian Museum of Art)

There are conflicting stories about who introduced the artificial crinoline into society. Elizabeth Ewing credits the Princess Eugenie, the wife of Napolean III, with both wearing one and bringing a grey one covered in black lace and pink bows as a present for Queen Victoria on a visit to Windsor (Ewing, 47). C. Willet Cunnington disagrees, claiming that it was in use before Princess Eugenie got her hands on the style and that she is simply the most prominent early adopter.

Whoever is responsible for the crinoline, that woman changed the silhouette and undergarments of Western women for decades.

Taken at a recent trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum

A word about typical trends in crinoline-reliant dresses. From 1857-1859, fashion favored dome-shaped skirts. Dressmakers did away with the flounces, tucks, and fussy details of an earlier era (they did not suit the new line of the skirt that thrust out into space on its own). Instead, double and treble-layered skirts with vertical trimmings were commonly seen. Short corsets with a highly defined waist and little hip definitions were also common in this era.

Day Dress, ca. 1860 (Courtesy Christies)

Crinolines, Class, and Gender

First advertised in England in 1856, the crinoline exploded in popularity in a few short years. Looking at the dresses made to accommodate this kind of undergarment, you might think that this would be a fashion exclusively worn by wealthy women. Dresses could reach four or five yards in circumference and required 18 yards of expensive fabric to construct a dress. But as Cunnington writes, "It served as a barrier against the aggression of the Lower Orders, who were kept at arms' length--until even the Lower Orders themselves adopted the fashion" (170).

Women went crazy for crinolines. An often-cited fact to show the popularity of the crinoline is that in 1863, Staffordshire potteries lost 200 pounds worth of product due to the wide skirts of working women accidentally sweeping shelves clear (Willet & Cunnington, 154). That is a lot of smashed pottery, but it didn't persuade workers to leave off their crinolines.

Woman's Dress, 1855, France (Courtesy LACMA)

Aside from the fact that crinolines kept women's skirts clear from their legs and relieved them from the burden of petticoats to hold out their dresses, historians argue that the fashion gains popularity during an era when women were demanding greater recognition in public life. Much of the rhetoric around women's roles at this time talks about the separation of the public (male) and private (female) spheres. A woman was expected to be the Angel in the House and leave things like commerce and politics to her husband. Yet in the 1830s, the men and women behind the early suffrage movement forced British politicians to debate the idea of a woman's right to vote during the Great Reform Act of 1832. Women wouldn't win the right to vote for decades, but they continued to make small but significant strides in the meantime. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 granted women the right to divorce and abolished adultery as a criminal act.*

1857, Blackwood's Lady Magazine

Red Crinoline, Taken at a recent trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum

Some historians of fashion argue that as women asserted themselves in the public sphere, they also asserted themselves through their choice of these massive, crinoline-enabled dresses. The skirts literally take up more space, demanding that people watch out and make way for their wearer. It's impossible to ignore a woman walking down the street or gliding into a ballroom when she has a five-yard circumference. She demands attention.

Dress, ca. 1857, probably American (Courtesy The Metropolitian Museum of Art)

Walking dresses, 1855 France, Journal des Demoiselles

The Fall of the Crinoline

"The notion that ease and comfort must be sacrificed in order to express social rank, had previously governed the design of fashionable clothing. Now, at last, it seemed too great a price to pay." (Willet and Cunnington, 152)

American, cotton, 1873 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As with every fashion, the crinoline had its heyday and then was set aside for another trend. First, the crinoline was reshaped. In the 1860s and 1870s, it starts to push towards the back, putting more emphasis on the fanned back as opposed to the large, domed sides. Then, skirts eventually slim down. The crinoline was simply too big to be practical.**

If you are interested in more articles like this or would like to stay up to date on release dates and other news, please subscribe to my newsletter!

More Victorian fashion is available on my Tumblr ReallyOldFrocks.

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*Up until 1857, obtaining a divorce was a difficult, expensive, embarrassing task. It required an Act of Parliament, and few people had the means to pursue a case. Unsurprisingly, it was also doubly difficult for women to successfully petition for divorce. A woman had to prove two complaints against her husband such as adultery, abuse, and neglect. A man? He just had to prove one of those complaints during the proceedings. Making such a case would be embarrassing, but he had the chance to bounce back socially. A divorce case would almost guarantee a woman's ruin whether she was the party at fault or not.

**The physical dangers of the crinoline range from the very real to the ridiculous. There are anecdotes about skirts catching fire and women falling over only to wind up with their skirts over their heads (one story even includes the Duchess of Manchester). Even with quilted petticoats draped over the cages, in the winter the skirts were drafty with nothing hanging around legs legs to keep them warm. There was also a problem of propriety. If you sat down the wrong way in a crinoline, the entire drawing room got a very clear look at your undergarments. This was not an era where anyone got to look at a lady's undergarments. How scandalous!


Cunnington, C. Willett, English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations, Dover Publications, 1937

Cunnington, C. Willett & Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes, Dover Publications, 1951

Ewing, Elizabeth, Fashion in Underwear: From Babylon to Bikini Briefs, Dover Publications, 1971

I Went to the Death Becomes Her Exhibit at the Met

Death Becomes Her, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This Sunday was Marathon Day here in NYC. I, like many New Yorkers, live right near the route. While I love the marathon, sometimes the crowds can get a little rough. This year I cheered on some of the runners earlier in the day and then left the neighborhood to do something I never do. Dear Reader, I went to the Met on a Sunday and took a boatload of photographs.

Normally the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a mess on the weekends (even more so when it's raining). I try to avoid it as much as possible, but I was determined to see the museum's new exhibit Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire. Victorian fashion? Death? Mourning? This is pretty much right in my wheelhouse, so off I went to a delightfully empty Met thanks to all of the crowds being diverted to the marathon.

Arriving so early, I had the gallery mostly to myself which was an incredible experience. The exhibit is small but incredibly details and representative of several trends in mourning attire. The curator's notes addressed some major themes:

  • Women bore the brunt of the responsibility when it came to mourning. Rules for men were much more flexible, but women were strictly regulated in what they could wear and when as well as the social activities they could partake in while in mourning.
  • The stages of mourning and the way that fabrics mirrored the gradual coming out of mourning. The exhibit discusses the use of crepe as well as the incorporation of more lustrous fabrics like silk moire and taffeta in the later stages. Color also comes into play.
  • The tension between fashion and grief. Especially in the later examples of the dresses, the curator's notes emphasizes that the wearer, despite being in a deep state of mourning, was still at the cutting edge of fashion when it came to silhouette.

And speaking of silhouette, I was delighted to see that the exhibit shows the progression of the Grecian-inspired dresses of the 1810s-1820s through the bell-shaped crinolines of the 1850s all the way to the princess cut dresses of the lat 1870s to early 1880s and then into the very late Victorian period (there's even an Edwardian dress or two in there). Oh! And one of Queen Victoria's dresses is on display (which I sadly did not photograph because I was overwhelmed by seeing one of Her Majesty's dresses in the flesh)!



If you have the chance to see this wonderful exhibit, definitely do. Sadly there is no museum catalog for Death Becomes Her, and photographs do not do these works of art justice (all of the detailing gets lost on black fabric, and these are rich with details).

Death Becomes Her is on until February 1, 2015.


A Closer Look: The Natural Form

When you're a historical author, you do a lot of research. Pair all of the book-specific research with a degree in Victorian British History with a focus on gender and sexuality, and I've got more random facts kicking around in my head than I know what to do with. Today I'm taking a closer look at one of the defining fashion trends of the Victorian era.

"The ideal at present is the greatest possible flatness and straightness: a woman is a pencil covered in raiment."

(Harper's Bazar, October 23, 1875)

I've spent quite a bit of time writing about Britain in the early 1880s. It's a really interesting time in history, and it marks a very visible change in women's fashion as well. The silhouette of the typical dress completely changes from the "natural form" of the 1875-1882 to the bustles that dominated fashion plates from 1883 to 1890. Today I'm looking at those natural form dresses, and trust me when I say that it was anything but natural.

Courtesy Emily Hudson - Costume Construction

Starting in 1875, women's clothing goes through a transformation. The dresses of the previous era were characterized by larger skirts held out from the body first by crinolines (example A) and then by bustles (example B). I've seen the style of dress popular in the 1860s and early 1870s described as festooned and confection-like, and it's not a bad description. If you can put lace or a ribbon on it, you better believe that evening dress is going to be covered in lace and ribbon.

Evening dress, 1865 (Courtesy Royal Armory and Hallwyl Museum) If that's not a confection-like dress, I don't know what is.

Example A: Day dress and vest circa 1860 Look at that crinoline!

    Example B: Seaside ensemble in cotton, circa 1870 (Courtesy LACMA). Note the soft bustle at the back of the skirt that holds the dress away from the hips.

Starting in 1875, the silhouette of women's clothing in Britain and America began to change. Skirts slimmed way down and that crinoline that we associate with much of mid-Victorian fashion went away. Now, rather than emphasizing the waist, skirts clung to the hips and the thighs. This shows off the body in a new way.

Toilette by Jules James Rougeron, 1877

Fashion plate, 1882. Here you can see good examples of some of the biggest trends of the era including the slim skirts, the long, ruffled trains, and asymmetry in draping.

It's no surprise that the natural form was achieved by completely artificial means. Long corsets that ran from the upper torso down over the hips were needed to achieve the right line for the long-waisted cuirass bodices* and slender princess cut dresses.


Petticoats made trains fall correctly, and you often see gathers of fabric at the back of women's undergarments or pads to give a little bit of support to those heavy skirts.

Ball gown, circa 1880 (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

If you think that slender fashion makes women's clothing in any way more practical than the mid-Victorian styles, you're sorely mistaken. The line of women's dresses became so slim that it greatly restricted their ability to move (sometimes skirts only allowed for a six-inch step when walking).** Also, that large train was heavy and got in the way of pretty much all movement. All of this adds up to clothing that is highly impractical for any women who has to move during her day. Like many of the beautiful fashions that we love in historical romances, we are talking about the clothing of a select few who could afford both the clothing and the lifestyle that went along with this sort of fashion.

Women's tan open-weave linen dress, circa 1880 (Courtesy Charleston Museum)

Some other trends that went along with the natural form include asymmetry in trimming and draping, full-length outerwear with Eastern European and Siberian touches (think fur, fringe, and braid), decorative pockets on dresses, and the lawn tennis apron.

Mourning dress from Mme Roger, 1878

One of the reasons I chose to write about the 1880s is because I adore the natural form. I love the silhouette of these dresses. The very finest dresses from this era are works of art. Researching them is a real pleasure, so much so that I actually created a Tumblr dedicated to historical fashion. It's called Really Old Frocks, and I update it with some regularity.

If you'd like to do some reading and looking on your own, I highly recommend Victorian Fashion and Costumes from Harper's Bazar, 1867-1898 edited by Stella Blum. It's an incredible resource with full, original descriptions of the fashion plates including fabrics.


*The cuirass bodice is form-fitting, often boned, and ends below the hips. It didn't make sense to me until I realized that the name comes from the long piece of armor that covers a knight from chest to hip.

**I'm reading over my notes right now and laughing because I actually wrote, "greatly restricted the ability to run." Who the hell is running in one of these dresses?