The House of Commons opera hat

I’ve been doing some research on the British Parliament for my next book, and wow. I forget how much OLDER the UK is sometimes, and how much more time they’ve had to accumulate customs.

On one page of my book (The Great Palace by Christopher Jones) I see:

“The Mace, the symbol of Royal authority, must always be present when the House is sitting. Without it, the House is totally powerless.”

(More on the Mace from Wikipedia. And here’s a picture.)

On the next page:

“The Serjeant-at-Arms[…]is the only person in the Chamber allowed to wear a sword.”

Two pages later:

The House of Commons snuffbox. It is kept by the Principal Doorkeeper. Any Member may ask for a pinch of snuff before going into the Chamber.”

How awesome is that? According to Wikipedia, “A floral-scented snuff called ‘English Rose’ is provided for members of the British House of Commons at public expense due to smoking in the House being banned since 1693. A famous silver communal snuff box kept at the entrance of the House was destroyed in an air raid during World War II with a replacement being subsequently presented to the House by Winston Churchill.” (The new box was made from the timber recovered from the damaged Chamber.) Nicholas Fairbairn, an MP until 1995, was known during his tenure for being the only person to actually use the snuff.

What is even more awesome is that I cannot possibly feel the least bit superior, because it turns out the US Senate has ceremonial snuffboxes too!

But my very, very favorite is this:

The House of Commons opera hat. The collapsible top hat which Members must wear if they want to raise a point of order during a division [their word for a vote].”

And there’s a little picture of an old top hat sitting on a bench.

I was desperately sad to discover that this custom had been discontinued following a recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of the House of Commons:

“64. At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak ‘seated and covered’. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

Another beautiful image was provided by Hansard’s record of the discussion on the issue:

“We recommend a new procedure for raising points of order during a Division. At present, we have the opera hat, and, although some Members may feel that they look particularly fetching in it, it makes the House of Commons look ridiculous when someone wearing the hat is trying to raise a point of order from a seated position while everyone else is milling around and going to vote.”

(Sidenote: If anyone writing historical romance with a political dimension doesn’t already know about the online Hansard’s, here it is! It is saving my life with things like dates of parliamentary recesses, when bills were proposed, &c.)

Can anyone find a picture of the opera hat? Preferably being worn. My Google-fu is failing me.

ETA: Dave was kind enough to write and share this video of the opera hat in use! Thanks Dave!!


Very exciting news! My editor e-mailed me my cover yesterday!! Look:

(There’s a larger version here if you’d like to see more detail on the painting, which is beautiful.)

Also note the incredibly flattering cover quote by Lauren Willig. I am the luckiest girl in the world.

I am so, so happy with this cover. I have heard a lot of horror stories about covers so I was a bit nervous about what mine would look like, but clearly the Dorchester art department is ACE. While in one small respect the cover doesn’t fit the book (the book takes place in the middle of summer), I think it captures the mood of the book perfectly. I LOVE the way the warm sunset colors contrast with the snow. Plus red and gold has been my favorite color combination since I was about ten years old.

The cover also fits the book in another way that I think must be a coincidence (although I don’t know for certain) but that means a lot to me personally. There’s a scene early in the book where my impoverished hero is having dinner with Penelope and her nouveau riche parents, trying to win them over so they’ll give their consent to the marriage.

It was as though he had the Midas touch. He went straight to her mother’s wall of sentimental engravings and old book illustrations in gilt frames, and pointed to a garishly-colored old engraving of Venice that her mother loved. “It’s the Bridge of Sighs! Have you been to Venice, Miss Brown?”

“No,” Penelope said. “I have never been out of England.”

Mrs. Brown smiled. “Oh, those old pictures are all mine. Penny is much too elegant for such trifles! I hope very much to go to Venice with Mr. Brown someday.”

Penelope, poor girl, is very concerned with appearing to have “elegant taste” at all times, since her parents sent her to boarding school with a lot of gently-bred girls and they all made fun of her for being a vulgar parvenue. I’m not entirely sure what type of wall-hangings she would prefer, but I’m guessing distantly-spaced original works in sober colors and plain frames, maybe contemporary landscapes or portraits. Gilt would NOT be involved. (Don’t worry, she mostly gets over herself by the end of the book!)

I, on the other hand, think Mrs. Brown’s wall sounds pretty, and it’s an exaggerated version of something from my own life. On the wall by my parents’ bed, there was a few feet between the window and the dresser where my mom had hung six or seven small romantic prints–a Hudson River School painting of the Amazon, a Bouguereau mother and child she got as a gift when I was born, a commemorative print my grandmother bought at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a sheet music cover my father bought her as a gift, and so on.

My mom died a few months after I wrote that scene (and long before I finished the book), but she was the audience I imagined while I was writing anyway. She read Pride and Prejudice aloud to me when I was nine, introduced me to Regency romances when I was twelve, and read my first manuscript when I was seventeen and told me it was good (in retrospect, it might have been more accurate to say it had potential).

The framed picture on the cover of In for a Penny would have fit right in on her wall, and that makes me very happy.

And I'll be in Scotland afore ye!

Great news–plans are finalized and at the end of this month a friend and I are going to the UK for two weeks!

We’ll be visiting friends in Newcastle and Orkney, and then spending a few days in Edinburgh.

I’ve been to the UK twice before. My mom took me to London, Bath, and Brighton as a college graduation present (so five years ago–yes, I’m young), and the year before that I studied abroad in Paris and spent some time in the summer travelling around Europe. In England, I visited the same three cities plus Canterbury and Oxford.

It was wonderful and I loved all those cities (especially Bath–sorry, Jane Austen, I know you weren’t a fan!), but I’m excited to see a bit further north. Less and less of my book ideas seem to want to be set in London these days, so I want to collect other interesting settings. Newcastle is one of the northern industrial cities that come up so often when researching Regency politics and labor/class relations, and Orkney is…

Okay, my main association with Orkney is still Lot and Morgause from the Arthurian legends. But it’s at the very northernmost part of Scotland, and my friend and I are taking a six-hour ferry ride there from Aberdeen. I LOVE ferries. It is going to be beautiful! (And there is a BAR on the ferry. I’ve never been on a ferry with a bar before.) Also, my friend lives in a cottage. She doesn’t even have a street address, just “— Cottage.”

I promise I will post loads of pictures!

Does anyone have any tips to share for international travel (I haven’t been out of the country in years), or suggestions for things we really ought to see? Regency-era stuff especially welcome…

"Maybe they didn't have black people back then."

It’s International Blog Against Racism Week, and it FINALLY motivated me to do something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time: research people of color in my era and setting of choice, Regency England.

I’ve written three manuscripts and I’m starting a fourth, and guess what? I haven’t written a single black character, or Indian character, or Egyptian character, or even a Jewish character (and I’m Jewish myself). I haven’t written a single character who isn’t white and Christian. Not even a minor character or an extra in a crowd scene, unless you count having my heroine bank with Rothschild that one time.

Why is that? Well, the most obvious, easy answer is that the minority populations of England weren’t as large during the early nineteenth century as they are today. Many of the big waves of immigration from different areas of the Empire hadn’t happened yet. And that’s true. But I think there are three factors that are far more important than that one:

1) My default is white. I wish this wasn’t true, but it is. If I have to describe a random housemaid or the heroine’s friend from finishing school or a sailor on the docks or a doctor or a land agent or a waitress or any of the huge cast of supporting characters that are inevitably created for any novel, it doesn’t occur to me unless I consciously think about it that THEY COULD BE A PERSON OF COLOR.

Even Victorian Thackeray did better than that in his historical novels–just off the top of my head, there was an African page boy in History of Henry Esmond and a mixed-race student at Miss Pinkerton’s in Vanity Fair. (Of course, both of those portrayals were racist, but that’s hardly an excuse for my own whitewashing.) English society in 1815 was a lot more homogenous than it is now, but it was also a lot less homogenous than I’ve depicted it in my books.

Why do I say “supporting characters” up there? Because there’s no way I know enough about nineteenth-century non-white-British cultures to write a story from the point of view of someone from one of those cultures. No way at all. Which leads me to:

2) I don’t write characters of color because I don’t have the knowledge base to write historical characters of color well, to give them the detail and the verisimilitude and the voice and life that every character needs.

Research for writing historical novels is an on-going process; no matter how many books I’ve read or how much I think I know about the Regency, every time I sit down to write I realize there’s another gaping hole in my information. When is a cavalry officer allowed to wear his uniform off-duty? I asked myself a few days ago, and I had no idea. I know quite a lot about historical accounting and poaching and new farming methods in Norfolk thanks to In for a Penny, and right now I’m busy researching bluestockings and the internal workings of the Whig party for my next book, but when the time comes to write the next book I’ll have to do a whole new set of research.

Since ALL of my information about the time period is acquired from books and fellow research geeks, and I don’t have general knowledge based in life experience the way I do about the modern world, I know nothing about Regency communities of color because…

I’ve never researched Regency communities of color. Because I never really thought about it, and I can get away with never thinking about it.

3) Writing characters of color is scary, because if you do it wrong people might get upset. If you just don’t write them, it is hard for people to get upset at you, because you blend in with all the other books that give the impression that the entire world is white.

I’m not happy writing books set in the All-White World anymore. So:

Here are some awesome Regency-set books written by white people that include major characters of color, as inspiration and example:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. The character in question is the wonderful Stephen Black, an extremely competent butler who, to his great dismay, becomes the favorite friend of a cruel and capricious fairy ruler. Stephen is awesomely realized, and oh yeah, he saves England in the end.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series includes a variety of characters from different parts of the world (in particular, China and Africa).

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. This one is actually set in the US in the period leading up to the Revolutionary War, but it’s so great I included it anyway. It’s about a little boy who gradually realizes that he is a slave and that his entire upbringing is an experiment by Enlightenment philosophers and scientists to determine whether Africans are inferior to Europeans. It’s brilliant and inventive and the historical voice is amazing.

Here are the research books I just ordered:

Black London: Life Before Emancipation, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. “Alongside migrants from all over Europe, Georgian London supported a community of more than 10,000 blacks. Theirs is the story that Ms. Gerzina, who teaches at Vassar College, tells with great clarity.” – New York Times Book Review

Immigration, ethnicity, and racism in Britain: 1815-1945, by Panikos Panayi.

And here are the ones I put on my wishlist:

Black Experience and the Empire.
Black Writers in Britain: 1760-1890.
Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Yes, I’m a geek, I can’t help it! Too bad textbooks like this are so expensive.
Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History.

If anyone can recommend good Regency romances with characters of color and/or good research reading on the subject, please do!

And here are some blog posts that brought home to me the importance of creating a multicultural world in my stories. They’re about science fiction and fantasy because I read a lot of geeky blogs, but I think the principle is the same.

This one is about Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. I’ve always found it really, really difficult to describe or articulate how this invisibility feels, how it affects you and the way that you view and experience media. I remember someone posted a one page article or somesuch wherein all of the actors in STXI had just one little soundbyte type quotation about their character and their feelings about the original version. John Cho’s was him noting that his reaction to Sulu was essentially: “OMG AN ASIAN GUY IS ON TV.”

This one is a moving essay about the Earthsea trilogy and how it felt to the author to finally read a fantasy story with characters of color in it. Seriously, read this. I cried. But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back th
en. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story.

Musings on Race in Fantasy or: Why Ron Weasley isn’t Black. This poster rambles a bit, but he makes some points that resonated with me, as a white author. No writer would dream of suggesting that a black person couldn’t be beautiful, but our “generic” idea of beauty is pale and blonde, just like our “generic” idea of boyish charm is a freckly redhead and our “generic” idea of a wise man is a white guy with a long beard and a pointed nose.

I want to change, and I’m going to try. I know I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes, but I think that’s better than staying where I am, and hopefully, when I do mess up, I’ll be able to apologize, think about it, and do better next time.