Monday, December 23, 2013
It seems almost obligatory when writing a Regency set in London, England, to include a shopping scene. After all, the Regency is associated with style, wealth, and fashion. So how can anyone ignore the shops those three things are in bold display. However, because this has been done so much, how do you make the scene fresh? That’s where a little research can turn up gold nuggets.
For A Dangerous Compromise, I needed a shopping scene, of course. It was set in London, after all. And characters need to do things—they cannot always be sitting in drawing rooms or going for drives. Now scenes cannot just be thrown into a book—every scene needs a reason to exist. And every scene needs conflict. But scenes also need to be set some place—and the more specific the place used, the more vivid the scene. If the setting adds to the scene, all the better. For this book,I found just the thing in the “Soho Bazaar” in Soho Square:
Lady Havers soon gave them all the background any of them could want on the bazaar.
It had only just been opened that year by a Mr. Trotter to help the widows and daughters of men who had died in the recent wars, a noble cause that thrilled Lady Havers. The bazaar occupied the northwest corner building in the Square, and vendors sold their wares in stalls set up along two floors, offering gloves, lace, jewelry—almost anything that might be crafted for sale.
It was, in short, a paradise for Lady Havers, whose eyes lit with a rapacious glow when they entered.
And there it was—the setting in just a few sentences. A nice transition into the scene about to take place. The setting not only provided a backdrop for the heroine to have to deal with two men who are vieing for her attention, it also provided the contrast of vendors—folks who must earn their meager livings—with those who need never work. This layered in additional conflict, which went beyond that of the characters. And it was fresh. It also happens to provide a touch of historical detail that made the scene into something more than yet another shopping scene.
The same issue cropped up again in Under the Kissing Bough. Again, we were in London—which is why it is often so much more fun to set a book in the countryside. This time I had an engaged couple, and they could hardly leave London without first shopping for the bride. With this being an arranged marriage, I knew the scene had to highlight the conflict of two people who don’t really know each other but who are going to be tied to each other for life. I needed a setting that would emphasis the heroine’s discomfort with the situation—and which would also provide an opportunity for these two to start to find a few things in common.
This time, I found Schomberg House—a grand mansion that had been converted into shops and a place that sold refreshments. In other words, the ideal place to show that the heroine doesn’t much like all this fuss, but she’s going to be married to an earl’s son, and this gives me a place where these two could have a few minutes alone:
It was but a few minutes' drive to Schomberg House, a handsome, four-story mansion, built for the Duke of Schomberg in the late sixteen hundreds, but now converted into shops that offered small furniture, drapery hangings, and refreshments to those worn out by their efforts in spending money.
Eleanor looked about her, hanging back a little from the others as they entered and mounted the staircase. She had not visited here before, but she knew from reading her London guidebooks that Thomas Gainsborough had lived and painted here until 1788. That such a famous artist had occupied the house awed Eleanor, and she stared about her, wondering what he had found to inspire him to greatness.
A deep voice pulled her out of her thoughts. "Miss Eleanor?"
She glanced up into Lord Staines's handsome face. Expecting to see a frown, relief eased into her when she saw that a smile softened his mouth instead.
He gestured to the baroque grandeur, the gilt and carved wood. "Are you lost in admiration?"
"Actually, I was wondering if grand rooms inspire grand thoughts. Or do they too often instead inspire grand ambitions, and grand arrogance?"
He cocked his head and his eyes took on a sparkle. "I was about to say we have even more impressive stairs at Westerley, but now I fear I would be inviting comparison to arrogance or ambition."
…A little shy of him, she put her hand on his arm. He led her forward, talking about the quality of the refreshments to be had and offering stories about the room, which had once served as the breakfast room of the house. He seemed to be going out of his way to be pleasant, and she began to relax a little.
Those little details—the few bits of description—added just what I wanted for this scene. But where do you get such wonderful little slices of history?
One of my main sources has been Allison Aldberg, with her books Shopping in Style and The Silver Fork Society. Both books are rather hard to come by, but offer a look into the shops of Regency England.
In London, Smithfield Market, also called West Smithfield, was one of the main London markets for cattle, sheep, hay, straw, and horses. Hungerford Market, located between the Strand and the Thames, had been built in the time of Charles II as a market for vegetables. In 1829, it was noted, however, as 'never having caught on' and a print of that era shows a less than bustling market square. Fleet Market, next to Fleet Prison, opened in 1727 and remained active until the late 1820's. As noted in London in the Nineteenth Century, "This market consisted of two rows of shops, almost the whole length of it, with a passage between, paved with rag-stones." And, of course, one cannot overlook the shops of Bond Street, and Regent Street, the shops that would develop along Oxford Street, and the beauty of the Burlington Arcade which was built in 1819 and is still as lovely as ever.