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Friday, April 19, 2013

Regency Life...a Bouquet of Roses?


When I write Regency romance novels, I like to include as a variety of sensory details to help the readers feel as if they are really there. The easiest sensory details to remember to include are sight and sound, but I also try to put in how things feel, smell, and taste. Smell is the hardest unless the character is eating or drinking anything. But the next hardest for me is smell. I often forget to include smell, probably because, let’s face it, things in the good old days were often not so sweetly fragrant, especially in the big city of London.

One of the reason I like the Regency is because by then most people had developed a habit of bathing regularly as opposed to earlier eras when they only bathed a couple of times a year. *Shudder* Even though they bathed, there were no deodorants, so human perspiration was still probably a prevalent smell. And the older generation hung onto their habits of rarely bathing so they wore massive amounts of heavy perfumes to cover up their body odor. Heavy musk was common with older gentlemen and heavy floral perfumes with older ladies. Only the younger generation who bathed wore the lighter perfumes. The younger men often wore bay rum aftershave, which I’ve never had the pleasure of smelling but have heard it described enough to wish I could get some for my husband.  But I digress.

One of the most prevalent scents during the Regency would come from the horses. I like horse; they’re beautiful and back then were an essential part of transportation but let’s face it; horses smell. They build up sweat that froths wherever the reins rubs.  It stinks.  This is why people always changed clothes after riding and refused to enter the drawing room “in all their dirt.” And the stables smelled the same then as they do now—of hay, straw, horse, and manure, not to mention the smell of the stable boys who worked there all day.

London, too, had its own smell. Most of the wealthy classes left London for the summer, partly because once Parliament was no longer in session, the lords returned home to oversee their estates, but partly to escape the unpleasantness of London’s air. During the summer, the Thames let off an unforgettable stench. It was, after all, an open sewer. When in London, even during the cooler month, the wealthy Londoners spent their outdoor time in Hyde Park, which is a long way away from the river and its odors. At Hyde Park, they had the cleansing effect of grass and trees. But the manure was still there, of course.

So if a character goes to London after being in the country for several weeks or months, the smells would be different from what they experienced at home. The most prevalent scent would be the piles of horse manure in the road.  Every horse in London dumped about 22 pounds of dung a day. Street sweepers swept it to the side during the day and picked it up at night, but it was always there.

The fashionable Mayfair area did not have the sewage smells of others areas.  Houses had cesspits in the back where slops were emptied.  These were cleaned out periodically by nightmen, but there would be some lingering smell.  However, other areas had no drainage, with slops emptied into the street, so add human waste to the mix. 

In addition to the smells of waste, meat markets had a blood smell around them because they were not as clean as today’s butcher shops.  Fish boys delivered fish to homes, some of it not entirely fresh. During cold months when people burned coal to keep warm, the ordinary city smell would include the acrid smell of coal smoke.

But not everything smelled bad, and after a couple of days in town, most people no longer noticed the manure smells or heavy perfumes. The streets abounded with other scents.  Piemen offered hot pies, girls sold flowers, and bakeries always smelled of fresh bread.  As our characters walk down the street, they might notice the smell of beer and food as they go by a pub. They might also pass a perfumery and notice the bouquet of perfumes.
As I set a scene in my Regency romance novels, I try to include the pleasant scents the character would notice, especially if it’s during a romantic or pleasant interlude between characters, and I downplay the other, less-pleasant odors. After all, writing historical romance involves a bit of fantasy. 

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