The joys of research books

Photo, Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, North Wales, 24 September 2011, Calotype46, Flickr, creative commons
Calotype46, "Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, North Wales," Flickr, 2011.

For 20-odd years I have been collecting research books. I started at some point during my teens, and have by now amassed a rather eclectic collection that covers such diverse topics as the medieval warhorse, castle-building, British teapots, doll houses, anatomic waxes, secret societies, and erotic art (complete with amusing illustrations of Roman oil lamps). While at first I simply bought any book that looked vaguely interesting (this explains the anatomic waxes), now that I write Regency-set historical romances, I tend to focus on 19th-century Britain.

A sense of place has always been important for my writing, which is reflected even by some of my earlier acquisitions: when I start plotting a novel, I still use Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and Christopher Simon Sykes’s lavishly illustrated Great Houses of England and Wales, which I bought back in 1998, to put together a country estate for my protagonists. More recent acqusitions still include pretty pictures (very important for visualising settings!), but they tend to deal not so much with the history of a great house, but with its inner workings. An invaluable source in this regard is Christina Hardyment’s Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses, published by the National Trust. This book doesn’t just tell you about the organisation “downstairs,” but also answers such important questions as where to find the loo. (At Penrhyn Castle, chamber pots were installed in a hidden cupboard in the dining room to be used by the gentlemen after dinner.)

Yet, to inform us about country life, nothing beats the voices of the people who lived in and visited these grand old houses. In A Country House Companion Mark Girouard has collected excerpts from various primary sources from across the centuries. A guest to Lord Byron’s house party at Newstead Abbey in 1809 tells us about “the custom of handing round, after dinner, on the removal of the cloth, a human skull filled with burgundy” (qtd. in Girouard 53).

Photo, Sandra Schwab, Image provided by author

Sandra Schwab, courtesy of author.

Other people were less fortunate: when he visited the Portsmouths in 1878, Henry James found the experience rather “dull”: “To-day is bad weather, & I am sitting alone in a big cold library, of totally unread books, waiting for Lord Portsmouth, who has offered to take me out & show me his stables & kennels (famous ones), to turn up. I shall try & get away tomorrow, which is a Saturday; as I don’t think I could stick out a Sunday here” (qtd. in Girouard 55). Such insights into the life of the past are invaluable for a writer, for who of us has ever lived in a big, rambling old house?

Apart from the country, London, too, plays an important role in many Regency-set historical romances: this is where the famous Season takes place; where anxious mammas drag their daughters to endless rounds of balls; and where our hero and heroine meet over lemonade at Almack’s. A wonderful resource for exploring the historical London is The London Encyclopaedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert: it gives you the history of streets, parks, and buildings, some of them long-vanished, like the original Crockford’s, “[a] private club and gambling house established in 1828 at No. 50 St James’s Street [. . .]. Its chef, Eustace Ude, was paid £ 1,200 a year” (218). Again, contemporary voices breathe life into such somewhat dry facts: “No one can describe the splendour and excitement of the early days of Crockey. A supper of the most exquisite kind, prepared by the famous Ude, and accompanied by the best wines in the world, together with every luxury of the season, was furnished gratis,” writes Captain Gronow in His Reminiscences of Regency and Victorian Life 1810-60 (my edition is edited by Christopher Hibbert).

While working on my second novel, Castle of the Wolf, which is mainly set in the Black Forest, I discovered yet another type of primary source: travel guides. As more and more people could afford to travel, publishers such as Murray in London and Baedeker in Germany hurried to meet the demand in guidebooks that told travellers which sights to see. Just like modern guidebooks, these books also include information about hotels and restaurants as well as practical advice, e.g. how to obtain a passport, where to hire a carriage, and what to do about money: “The safest, most economical, and most convenient mode of carrying money abroad to meet the expense of a journey, is in the shape of circular notes [. . .]. These notes possess this great advantage over a common letter of credit, that the bearer may receive his money at many different places, instead of one fixed spot alone,” tells us Murray’s Hand-Book for Northern Germany from 1845. For writers of historical fiction, these guides are treasure troves of information; they really do allow us to travel back into the past. If you’re very lucky, your copy might even include some splotches of authentic 19th-century mud or scribbled marginalia about the horrors of foreign beds and foreign food.

Sandra Schwab

Sandra Schwab lives in Frankfurt, Germany, and is currently preparing the re-launch of her three novels, which were previously published by Dorchester. When she wears her doctor hat, Sandra teaches English literature at Mainz University. Her current research focuses on the Victorian magazine Punch, but she has also worked on popular romance: her recent publications include the article "'It is only with one's heart that one can see clearly': The Loss of Sight in Teresa Medeiros's The Bride and the Beast and Yours Until Dawn" in the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. Find out more about Sandra Schwab.

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