Tuesday, 25 January 2011

To Contract or not to Contract? Historical Speech Patterns

I have been in quandary for some time about the issues of contractions in historical fiction. Do you use them or don't you?

Patterns of speech and vocabulary are one of the ways I try to give characters their own personality. A soldier might speak more directly and draw on battle and strategy for allusions; a school mistress might speak in more complex language and observe grammatical propriety. One character might drop nicknames like litter; another might always use someone's proper title. If I am writing well, I can see on the page which character is speaking with or without dialogue tags because they have their own distinct voice, a voice I can hear as though they are talking right to me.

In my work in progress Serendipity, the female protagonist is formal in her style of speech. She uses proper language and fewer contractions. Her brother, who is very informal, uses a lot of slang, oaths, contractions and nicknames. I didn't precisely plan it that way, that's just how they talk. The character I am struggling with is the main male protagonist (it's a fantasy historical), who having a life span of two millennia, would likely not be down with the speech patterns of the day. I write him quite formal, with no contractions in an attempt at neutrality but then he seems oddly stilted, which isn't his personality at all. Maybe that's a particular issue when writing fantasy mission. My male protagonist is from another world, a world that is very courtly and mannered. However, he's a poor fit for that world and besides, courtly mannered speak doesn't sing off the page for me.

I don't think this is an issue that I alone struggle with. Some authors are really good at dialogue, others not so good. I found myself putting down a book by one bestselling author this morning because I found the dialogue distractingly stilted, where as with other authors I will keep turning the pages because the dialogue dances along every line.

I think sometimes people writing historical romance – or historical fiction at all – are stuck trying to convey histori-speak. They want to capture a flavour of the period and to give their dialogue an authentic ring. The problem with this of course, is that we don't have many Regency heroines sitting around to chat to or to record - so how do we know what linguistic patterns and turns of phrase are appropriate?

Do we go for well written formal sentences peppered with cant from one of the many dictionaries which can be found online? Or do we try to make the dialogue sound natural to our ears? Where can we go for inspiration?

We do have primary sources of course. We have novels written in the 1800s, from Mrs Radcliffe's gothic romances to Jane Austen's mannered comedies. We have diaries, poetry, plays and letters. We even have speeches. The problem with these is that whilst they will give us a flavour for the vocabulary, they won't actually tell us how people speak.

Let's take Jane Austen for example. Here is an example of Catherine Morland's speech from Northanger Abbey:
"No, indeed, I should not I do not pretend to say that I was not very much pleased with him; but while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! the dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina's skeleton behind it."

The dialogue tells us much about Catherine. From this one snippet we can deduce she is impressionable, very imaginative and much addicted to gothic romance. However, Austen was reacting to her own cultural context. Northanger Abbey is well known to be a satire of the gothic romance tradition as exemplified by Mrs Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and that is reflected somewhat in the dialogue. Compare to Emily St. Aubert's language in Udolpho:
"Oh my dear father," said Emily, while a sudden tear started to her eye, "how exactly you describe what I have felt so often, and which I thought nobody had ever felt but myself! But hark! Here comes the sweeping sound over the wood-tops; - now it dies away; - how solemn the stillness that succeeds!"

Jane Austen may have been reacting to her own contemporary fiction, but she started a trend. Take this extract from Georgette Heyer's Arabella:
"Oh, yes! But it was much, much worse at breakfast! He would keep talking to me about the London scheme – teasing me, you know, about the giddy life I should lead there, and saying that I must be sure to write very long letters home, even if I cannot get a frank for them, for he would be so much interested to hear of all my doings!"

Note the plethora of exclamation marks! They are a feature in all three authors, particularly in female speech!
I am fascinated by the way culture shapes society and society shapes culture (and I'm not the only one: see the Teach Me Tonight Blog). I wonder if the popularity gothic romance helped to shape the way people spoke in the early 19th century, in the same way that Friends has impacted on the way people spoke in the early 21st century? Or was it a style of dialogue peculiar to fiction, which didn't relate at all to vernacular speech?

We have no real way of knowing. The closest we have to hearing actual speech is reading letters, diaries and memoirs of the time. Let us compare how Jane Austen writes when she is being herself (Letter to Cassandra, 24 August 1805):
"Our visit to Eastwell was very agreeable; I found Ly. Gordon's manners as pleasing as they had been described, and saw nothing to dislike in Sir Janison, excepting once or twice a sort of sneer at Mrs. Anne Finch"

And then recollected speech in the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson:
"Do pray, Fanny," said I, "cut your Mitchels. I vote for cutting all the grocers and valets who intrude themselves into good society."

Lastly, Lady Caroline Lamb writing of Lord Byron in a letter to Captain Thomas Medwin in 1824:
"I was not a woman of the world. Had I been one of that sort, why would he have devoted nine entire months almost entirely to my society; have written perhaps ten times in a day; and lastly have press'd me to leave all and go with him--and this at the very moment when he was made an Idol of, and when, as he and you justly observe, I had few personal attractions."

Although this is a tiny sample and thus can't be considered representative of the whole, it is interesting to see that the quality of the speech is different; it is certainly less exclamatory. However, with the exception of Caroline Lamb they are still relatively contraction-free.

Contractions were in use though. English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh attaches dates to use of contractions throughout history. A list is given here on Joanna Waugh's website. I'm left with two questions: how do we really know what dialogue is authentic? And does it really matter, as long as the dialogue sounds good to our modern ear, adds to the characterisation and doesn't distract from the story?

Personally, I think it is worth following the advice that Lapin gives to Anna Grazinsky in the incomparable A Countess Below Stairs: "One wishes only to suggest a costume." The dialogue should add to the story not distract from it and distractions for me include both awkward formality and anachronistic words and expressions. The best stories have, first and foremost, strong voices with a light dusting of period language.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Iphone for the Romance Author: Top Three Apps

2011 seems to be the year of technology for me. First there was the Kindle, which is inexorably bankrupting me through its one click wondrous (is it right to live off porridge to fund my reading habit?). Now there is the iphone, which arrived yesterday in all its gleaming apple-designed glory. Many people will have embraced the world of smartphones long ago. Sadly, I had the misfortune of misplacing my smartish mobile phone somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow and have since made do with the most basic of basic square lumps of plastic, which does what phones were originally designed to do: call people.

So why would I blog about an iphone on a blog which is ostensibly about romantic fiction and writing?

Because I am so excited by the potential that iphone has to offer an aspiring romance author!

It's not just that you can browse the internet, look up dictionaries or write on the move; after all a netbook is much better suited to those particular activities. It's not just that you can block out the world by filling yours ears with music from your inbuilt ipod. And it isn't because you can e-books on the tiny screen, thus giving you a library in your pocket (as averse to Kindle's library in your handbag).

It's because of the wonderful fusion of primary resources and interactive technology that brings you a series of Apps which are just perfect for the historical romance author. Here are my top picks:
  1. For people who like to plot out a battlefield or work out the sweep of the Ottoman Empire, History: Maps of the World is worth a look. It has a good range of maps from all around the world and across the centuries in excellent resolution.

  2. For people who like to give a sense of time and place by referring to contemporary events, you can look up what was happening on any given day in history on the (free) HistoryTools app. This was created by the people behind the Writers Dream Tools web resource and I love it. If I wanted (for example) to have a quick look at some of the births, deaths and developments in 1825 I can find out in moments that Beethoven made his last appearance on 19 September, that Nicholas I became Tsar on 1st December and that the first public steam railway opened on 27 September. Just the sort of things my characters might be gossiping about over breakfast.

  3. Last but not least, for those who fancy themselves as the next Jean Plaidy, I am in love with the neat little Walking Through Time app. This piece of historical cleverness overlays historical maps/places onto modern maps and allows you tootle around them using GPS. If want to find out more about a particular site, one click will give you access to information and often to a recording drawn from primary sources. The app is a collaboration between Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh using maps provided by the Landmark Information Group and the National Library of Scotland. At the moment, it largely concerns Edinburgh, but I notice there are calls to extend the application to London and other places. I have my fingers crossed for this: it would be ideal for my planned Regency Walking Tour of London!

I can't wait to see what else iphone might have to offer in the weeks to come. If anyone has any other apps to recommend, please do list them here!


Thursday, 13 January 2011

Penny Illustrated and other 19th Century Newspapers

I am utterly thrilled with my latest primary source find: a searchable database of British Newspapers from 1800-1900. How exciting!

This particular treasure trove belongs to the British Library and has an excellent search function. It's possible to search by date, location and key word which makes it absolutely perfect for exploring the contemporary context of any UK-based Regency (or Victorian) romance you might be crafting.

For example, let's say your heroine is making her debut in Edinburgh in 1825. What news might have gripped her at the breakfast table? What events might she have attended? What were her role models up to? You can find out by browsing the pages of the Caledonian Mercury.

Containing 49 national and local newspapers, the database has a relatively wide geographical spread (with a relatively large clutch of papers in London). The only downside is that unless you are a member of a subscribing institution (e.g. a higher education institution or some public libraries) most of the papers are subscription based. The cost isn't extortionate: a seven-day pass is £9.99.

For those who prefer not to subscribe it is still possible to dip into two of the newspapers free of charge. Both the Penny Illustrated Paper (weekly from 1861) and The Graphic (1869-1932) are available without subscription. Sadly, the favorite news outlet for the announcement and retraction of ton engagements, the Times, doesn't appear to be included.

The Penny Illustrated alone, however, is well worth a scan. I hugely enjoyed the article on the Court Ball at Tuilieres which appeared on p.74 of the paper on Saturday, January 30, 1869, in the Ladies' Column. My favorite aspect of this was the description of how the guest list for the ball was drawn up by the Grand Chamberlain, acting on information from les agents du Palais. His observations were all jotted down in a great book, which allowed him to sort the desirables from the undesirables. Notes included:

Madame La Comtesse ~~. Name appeared seven years ago. Disappeared from Paris. Why? Went to Italy. What to do? Fast then. Ascertain if too fly-blown to be invited without giving rise to scandal.
Madame W~~, Prussian. Suspicious political relations. To be asked but to be surveilled at the ball.
Madame Louise C~~. Wrote libellous (sic) account of a bal masque, to which Her Majesty invited her last year, for the Turin Papers. Rigorously excluded.

The same article also has an excellent description of fashions at the ball:
In the time of our mothers and grandmothers, flowers, jewels and costly laces were so disposed, that the wearer could have the pleasure of glancing at them whenever she flitted by a mirror. But now the chic, or the chien, as a certain ambassador terms it, is to have them wreathed around that "fulling", which drapes a horsehair bustle of obtrusive outline.


The verb "cascader" has obtained through "La Belle Hélène",a particular signification, and masses of tresses falling in Magdalen fashion are called, in the hairdressers' slang, cascades. Curls attached to the crown descend far below the belt, mingled with wild profusion of creeping plants, or with moths and butterflies pinned to them

The Ladies' Column also includes a fascinating snippet on a new bonnet material (the skin on the Indian dagger plant), a description of an ecstatic (Louise Lateau) who carried the stigmata on her hands and an article on paragraphs on hair restorers, which lists ingredients as wide-ranging as Spanish fly, bear fat, wormwood and hedgehog skin!

Interestingly, many of the news items in the Penny Illustrated seem to be lifted from other newspapers including the Daily News; the Impartial de Soignies and the Herald.

All that I need for my cup to runneth over is for subscriptions to these newspapers to be available via Kindle!

Addition to the post:

I just came across a rather marvelous website, Raglinen, which is all about primary source newspapers - a perfect complement to the British Library database.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Writing Lessons from the world of Sci Fi Movies

On Thursday night my husband and I treated ourselves to a sci fi/ fantasy movie fest. The films in question were this year's big blockbuster Inception and the lesser known but equally highly rated Moon (2009).

Both films were good and they are very different from each other: when is a fast-paced thriller with a large core cast; the other is a pared-down tension filled two-hander. Differences aside, however, Moon was the hands down winner in the superiority stakes. It's difficult to describe the plot of either without giving a string of great big spoilers so I refer anyone interested to IMDB for a plot synopsis. The subject of this post isn't a review of the films but a few points about what (in my humble opinion) makes Inception good and Moon great.

Three things to love about Moon
1. World-building. From the opening credits of Moon we are given to understand the importance of the lunar mining operation to the world. We discover that the problems of fossil fuels shortages, climate change and energy security have been resolved by the development of clean energy from Helium - and that Helium is mined on the moon by a large global corporation. This helps to set the context for the film's tightly woven plot. The lunar mining operation is keeping a whole planet alive and well. It has solved famine and floods. Millions are better off as a consequence of its work. This isn't a dystopian view; the Earth has been saved. The guys up on the moon are heroes - hurray for them! We immediately get a sense of timing (future), scale (global impact) and value (millions of lives). So when we get to the eerily isolated world of our solitary lunar miner we understand just how important his work is. He's saving the world - but at some personal cost.

The world-building in Moon isn't just contextual, as a frame for the plot and the action. It's atmospheric. As a movie, much of that is done by way of visuals and sound but it's done well. The protagonists' world is real to the viewer; we can suspend disbelief.

Interestingly, when looking at some blog comments about why people like the Sherilyn Kenyon Dark Hunter series, the vast majority of people said it was because her world-building was so good. They just fell in love with the whole Dark Hunter world she created. It's something Georgette Heyer is incomparably good at too (for a little more on that see here. Her books read like contemporary romances written by a regency lady. Romance novels are not all about the romance, it seems.

2. Universality. The other thing I like about Moon is that it explores universal questions - in this case through the narrow lens of a technological innovation (I'm trying my best to avoid plot spoilers here - hopefully not to the point of obscurity). This is something Sci Fi has always done really well. In this case Moon explores questions such as: does the good of the many outweigh the good of the few? What is humanity? Is food and energy security worth sacrificing the human rights of one man - or a handful of men? These are highly topical questions right now. We are living in a world where we have to take a view on important issues such as whether protection from terrorism is worth turning back the clock on civil liberties. A futuristic context enables these issues to be explored without party politics getting in the way.

3. Strong character development. The two protagonists in Moon both change in the course of the film. Initially they come across as very different people: one hot-tempered, scornful and aggressive; the other restrained, lonely and philosophical. In their case, this is particularly interesting because it suggests something about the way in which characters are formed by their experiences. Both change in an in the end, both are willing to sacrifice themselves for the other - a progression familiar from many a good romance novel. In the end, I think it's the strong characterisation which engrosses the viewed and makes this film work. I really care about what happens to the two protagonists; I'm deeply emotionally involved.

And then a look at Inception

Now compare and contrast with Inception, a hugely successful and inventive fantasy blockbuster. It's well acted, no doubt, and it's gripping. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film and engrossed in the plot. It's as twisty and elaborate as any of the mazes which Ariadne (the film's female architect)designs. So why does it get a 7/10 from me and a mere 6/10 from my husband? Because it lacks the three ingredients which make Moon so great.

Firstly, world-building. We are given this concept: that people can invade the dreams of other people and extract their secrets, and further more that they can plant ideas in their subconscious. All well and good - it's an interesting idea. The setting seems contemporary (a contemporary urban fantasy?), but there aren't really many cues to tell us that. I was left wondering about that - is this a new skill developed in a future version of our world? Or is it an alternate version of the world we live in now?

In the film our hero, Cobb, is offered a job. In return for his redemption from a crime he didn't commit, he has to plant an idea in the mind of the heir to a major global energy company. And why should we care about this? Because the energy company will soon own most of the world's energy supply and become really, really powerful. That's it. The company in question could be an exemplar of idyllic working practice and corporate social responsibility for all we know. In fact, given that we are being told this by a shady business man who apparently possesses infinite power and wealth, it probably is. Do we want this mission to prosper because it's important that it should? Or should we care because it means so much to Cobb? Given the sketchiness of the mission we have to assume that the latter is true.

Which brings us on to character development. In the course of the film we learn that Cobb is haunted by guilt; he needs to make peace with his subconscious. The interesting twist to this is that if he doesn't, his subconscious poses a major threat to the mission and indeed to his team-mates. So do we care? Well, a bit. It would be nice for him to hug his kids, but the whole man-tortured-by-subconscious-and-needs-to-get-his-kids-back vibe is neglected in favour of driving the action forward. And there is a lot of action; lots of cool fight scenes in a cornucopia of different settings; lots of slick costumes and clever sequencing. But in the end does Cobb change? Does he learn something about himself? I don't really think so. He comes to terms with his guilt, certainly, but his redemptive act (saving the shady business man who is going to sort out that icky murder charge for him) is glossed over in a matter of seconds. It feels somehow unsatisfactory - an opportunity missed.

Lastly, does the film take the opportunity to explore the universal questions it touches upon? It does have a lot of opportunity for to probe some interesting subject. Like Moon, Inception messes with one man's mind in order to achieve an objective of global significance (putting aside the fact we don't really care about that objective). It also touches upon the ethical dimension of tampering with another person's thoughts and beliefs. We see the tragic result of one case of idea-planting (inception) gone awry in the case of Cobb's wife. Her story is intertwined with the main plot, shaping the actions of the characters and especially of Cobb.

I think the problem with Inception is that all the emotion is bound up in the relationship between Cobb, his wife and his own subconscious. Maybe that's deliberate; it enables the viewer to live inside his head - a place where the 'real' world is less important than the world of his dream. Unfortunately it also disengages the viewer from any emotional resonance the main story line might have. It's possible that the actions of the team in probing the Energy Heir's head will have tragic consequences. It may be that those tragic consequences are worth it to Save the World from Global Dominance. The problem is, as we don't know if it's important for the world to be saved from this particular global dominance (and we only have the word of the shady businessman to prove it exists at all) and little time has been spent on encouraging us to grow emotionally attached to the Energy Heir - we just don't care that much.

It's nice to see Cobb reunited with his kids, but I'm not convinced he's changed that much. Likely, he'll be roaming off in someone else's subconscious all too soon. And as for the secondary characters - well, they're just plot devices really, there to move things along. Or maybe they're projections of Cobb's subconscious - who knows? Who cares? In the end Inception is exciting, twisty and clever - but a bit emotionally empty.

This wasn't meant to turn into a film review (although it has). The point I was actually trying to make was about writing.

To my mind, Inception and Moon represent two different theories on how a book (or in this case a film) should be put together: plot versus character. I have read a fair bit of advice on this aspect of writing and I know that author's approach this in lots of different ways. Some people need a prescriptive roadmap for where their plot will go; some just start with a situation and a pair of characters and let them run.

Inception is all about plot: it's fast-paced, gripping and intellectually engaging. Will it make you wonder? Maybe. Will it bring a tear to your eye? Definitely not.
Moon is well plotted too, if slower paced. But in its case character reigns supreme. You really care about the two protagonists. Damn it, you're rooting for them. It's as intellectually challenging as Inception, but ultimately, you will remember it with your heart and not your head.

Which will I watch again? No question: Moon.

And the Lessons are:

So here are the lessons I'm taking away from my Sci Fi Fest (in priority order):

1. Stick with the protagonists; fall in love with them and let them blossom. Let the action challenge them and their characters shape the action. Let them change and let them grow. Let them feed off each other; it will make your work live and breathe.

2. Make your world real. Set it in a context which makes sense and provides touchstones for your reader to build an imaginary kingdom in their mind. If this is poorly done, it's just irksome. Your people will be floating in time and space and we won't have a cultural yardstick of what we should expect (past, present or future) to judge them by.

3. Universality. There must be some universality of human experience in the fabric of your story. This isn't the preserve of Science Fiction, though its something Science Fiction does particularly well. It doesn't have to be on the level of asking big questions; maybe it's on an emotional level. How far will someone go to protect the person they love? Is it ever right to.... whatever. That will add interest to your story.

I'm taking a good plot for granted!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Regency Scene Setting: Dated by the Gas Lamp

I'm in the middle of a short story in which the heroine steps inside her long lost sister's home. The setting is important; it provides visual clues to the sister's affluence and lifestyle and also helps to date the story.

As I have mentioned before, the latter is a trick much practiced by Georgette Heyer. She allows the events and settings of her novels to date the story without hitting us over the head with the calendar. Activities and settings such as a visit to the Elgin Marbles (Cotillion), riding on a pedestrian curricle (Frederica) and the Duchess of Richmond's Ball before the Battle of Waterloo (An Infamous Army) help to plant the story in a clear time and space. It subtly assists us in populating our imaginative world.

I would like to be able to say that this is why I spend time on (for example) working out when women started wearing bare toes in their sandals or donning pince-nez, but the sad fact is I am just an irredeemable geek where social history is concerned and I find details like this absolutely fascinating. Hence I have just spent too long a portion of my life trying to find out the answers to the followed questions:

1. When was gas lighting was first used in domestic homes?

2. Would the hall walls in a relatively affluent Regency household be hung with paper, silk or painted?

3. Where would a fashionable courtesan live in Regency London?

Thanks to the marvelous power of the wondrous world wide web I have managed to discover that gas lighting was used in domestic homes from around the 1860s (too late for my story). Throughout the Regency period candle-light and to a certain extent, oil lamps (such as the Argand oil lamp), were still the most common light sources in the domestic home. The main types of candles were tallow (made from animal fat and therefore cheap, smelly and smoky); spermaceti (made from whale oil and less prone to softening in hot weather); and beeswax. Candles were both portable (candlesticks and candelabra) and fixed (sconces and chandeliers). In more affluent homes, the candelabra was often displayed in front of a mirror on the mantelpiece for enhanced light. My heroine's affluent sister therefore might have a chandelier in the hall and a candelabra on the mantelpiece. There are some excellent examples of these types of home furnishings in the Victoria and Album Museum, such as this candelabrum from 1810 which was commissioned by the Prince Regent which was part of a candelabra intended for the conservatory at Carlton House.

Her walls would very likely be hung with wallpaper, or possibly damask, rather than painted. Wallpaper came into use in the early Georgian period when the fashion for all things classical was at its peak. Although patents on wallpaper had been taken out under the reign of Charles II, the pieces were generally quite small and therefore not particularly useful. In 1712 a tax on wallpaper was introduced which added a tax of 1d per square yard on painted, patterned or printed wallpaper. By 1809 the tax rose to 1s (equivalent of £2.84 in 2010 according to the highly useful Measuring Worth website). People got round the tax by buying plain wallpaper and having it hand stenciled. To demonstrate her fashionable and affluent status, my heroine's sister would probably have the most popular and expensive wallpaper design, such as stripes, Rococo designs or flock patter which imitated velvet. For an example of some expensive painted wallpaper in the Chinese style see this sample on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, created c.1810 - 1830.

And when would my heroine's sister (who by now you may have gathered is an affluent courtesan) have lived? According to Dan Cruickshank she would most likely have dwelt in on of the elegant villas which had sprung up in the Georgian building boom in Soho or Marylebone.

A word of caution
I am really enjoyed reading my way through Stephen King's On Writing at the moment and one of the points Mr King makes is that when writing, you should just write. If you don't know the name for something or (my example) when gas lighting was introduced, put a place holder in and then go back to it when the story is done. Just get the damn story down. It's good advice. But those titbits of knowledge are just sooooo tempting!

For a guide to lighting in the Victorian Home (which also covers aspects of Georgian lighting), see this wonderfully researched article by Jonathan Taylor.

For a short history of wallpaper see this article on freepedia. The For Romance Readers Blog references the Georgian tax on wallpaper and thus its use as a symbol of wealth and extravagance. The specifics of the tax itself is described in more detail here. The introduction of wallpaper to the Georgian home is covered in this article on the History of Wall Panelling in Interior Design Projects.

For the impact of prostitution on building in Georgian London, see Dan Cruikshank's The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital (Random House). Some of the points Cruikshank makes are summarised in Harlot's Progress, an article in the Economist which reviews Cruikshank's book.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Festive Traditions Through History: Best Posts

In the spirit of sharing, I thought I would make a note of some of my favorite blog posts pertaining to the festive season from some of the most entertaining and informative bloggers on my blog roll:

For all those who had a few too many at Hogmanay, I recommend: The History Hoydens' What was she drinking: Heroines who over-imbibed, a thought provoking comment on drunken (or the lack thereof) heroines in historical romance.

For a whistlestop tour of the origins of many of our Christmas traditions, I recommend Living History Today's post Christmas is a Coming, And the Goose is Getting Fat. This contains vital information such as when its proper to kiss under the Mistletoe and the long-lasting consequences if caught under the last berry.

For something on the 12th Day of Christmas, otherwise known as the Epiphany can I recommend a stop off with the Word Wenches for The End of Christmastide.

And finally, for a festive recipe by Mistress Longe pay a visit to the Two Nerdy History Girls (Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott) who share How Mistress Longe made Snow, 1615

Happy reading!

A History of Marchpane: Sinful and Sweet

Whilst pottering around the kitchen today my attention was caught by Emily Williams' feature on a history of cake icing on Radio 4's Questions, Questions (currently available on iplayer here from about 15:30 minutes), which heavily featured the preparation and use of Marchpane.

I have always liked the idea of Marchpane. As a word, I first came across it when reading Rumer Godden's Tottie: The Story of a Doll's House. In The Doll's House of course, Marchpane isn't a cake. She's a doll; a wicked, beautiful femme fatale of a China Doll who turns the Plantaganet family's life upside down. The story has all the ingredients of a classic: there is loyalty betrayed, courage and disaster, played out through the beautifully drawn characters of the story. Marchpane's impact on the Plantagenets and the sisters who own them is reminiscent of C.S.Lewis' turkish delight touting White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. She divides the family in order to rule. Marchpane's name is emblematic of what she is all about; as the eponymous Tottie says to the boy doll Apple: "Marchpane is a heavy, sweet, sticky stuff like almond icing. You very quickly have enough of it."

To me therefore Marchpane has always been redolent of delicious wickedness and deceptive beauty in a way that Marzipan, its more pedestrian sounding descendent, never has. No wonder my ears pricked up.

In British history Marchpane was a status symbol. Between the Middle Ages and the 16th Century (note the use of the name Plantagenet in Godden's story) it was the height of fashion; a culinary emblem of wealth and extravagance. It was made of three main ingredients: rose-water, ground almonds and sugar. All of them had to be imported, ensuring the dish's luxury appeal.

For the culinary artiste, Marchpane presented almost endless possibilities. It could be printed with devices, shaped in wooden moulds or even modeled into architectural shapes. The Radio 4 feature describes Queen Elizabeth I being presented with a marchpane model of St Paul's Cathedral and the creation of a Marchpane chess set (surely the perfect gift for the Duke of Villiers in Eloisa James' Desperate Duchesses series). The programme also describes a Tudor 'Sugar Banquet', something I have never heard of before. Sugar Banquets gathered maybe 8-10 people together to flirt, dally and otherwise enjoy themselves. Marchpane provided the centrepiece for such an event. In Tudor times, porcelain was a largely unknown material. Marchpane however, could be rolled thin and hardened to create a substance which was similar - but edible. Marchpane wine glasses could be supped from at a Sugar Banquet and then broken up and eaten. This was viewed as delightfully novel: the ultimate in disposable tableware.

For those who really wanted to push the boat out, Marchpane could be gilded with gold leaf. These exquisite confections were the Tudor equivalent of Almas Caviar or White Alba Truffles; the preserve of the ostentatious rich. For the less wealthy, a rose-water and sugar glaze would have to suffice.

References and Further Reading:

John Partridge's Treasury of Hidden Treasures from 1653 (available online here) gives an authentic recipe for the preparation of Marchpane.

Marvellous Marchpane by Living History Today provides an earlier recipe from Gervase Markham's The English Housewife (1615).

Laura Mason's Sugar Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets