Coffee, panties and Jane Austen

After my wife complains to me about a poorly researched historical novel she’s reading, I explore a couple of common mistakes authors can make when falling back on assumptions. Fair warning, my sense of humour is dry and sometimes crude.

Coffee, panties and Jane Austen

My wife’s a voracious reader of historical fiction, particularly stories set in and around the Regency. This is a very popular genre both for author and readers, thanks to the influence of Pride and Prejudice and other Austen novels. I have no beef with Jane Austen, I quite enjoyed reading P&P, as well as watching the various adaptations thereof. Regretfully, a lot of P&P fan fiction, or other stories set during the Regency, is just plain awful, sometimes comically so to my Commonwealth sense and sensibilities.

When my wife is reading novels by a modern author set in the period, she will often exclaim in irritation when she encounters something careless the author has written, and is usually quick to lay the blame at the foot of the author’s nationality.

I’m generally more forgiving than my wife, because I understand the difficulties. What I suspect happens is in the absence of research, authors will often make assumptions or revert to what they know. But as I noted in my podcast, reader expectation is one of the reasons why I write fantasy (where I can make things up) instead of historical fiction (where I can’t). Make up stuff in fantasy, and your readers praise you, make it up in historical fiction (or demonstrate ignorance) and your readers will crucify you.

Case in point, my wife showed me a book in which Regency women are described as taking their morning coffee. I get that Americans love coffee, and to many, tea is only fit for the Boston Harbour. However depicting 19th century English ladies ritually drinking coffee is… well, I’ll be generous and say historical licence.

Coffee is certainly drunk in the United Kingdom (in modernity and the past), but it has never enjoyed the same social status as tea. Though coffee and tea were introduced at a similar time, consumption was different from the beginning. For a long time, coffee drinking was relegated to coffeehouses, which were public centres of business and intellectual activity — women, while not overtly barred from these establishments seldom frequented what was considered a very male domain. People (mostly men) went out for coffee, they didn’t drink coffee in their homes. Brits didn’t start drinking coffee en masse, until the mid 20th century gave us instant granules — even so, the British consume the lowest amount of coffee per capita in Europe.

The dominant drink of the age, particularly favoured among aristocratic and gentry women, was tea. Tea became the established drink because at first, it was 10 times more expensive than coffee, and was thus seen as a luxury commodity. However, by the time of the Regency, Britain’s East India Company dominated the tea trade of India, China and Ceylon, and supply was sufficient to make tea affordable enough to be enjoyed across society.

Americans I’ve discovered also ‘cream’ coffee — another phrase used in the book my wife is reading. The British do not use this expression, nor do they use creamer — that godawful non-dairy additive which was invented during WW2. The British add milk to their coffee (and tea) and only started doing so during the Victorian era — there’s an interesting story about that too, but I’ll save that for another day. As an aside for modern writers, Brits don’t boil water in microwaves either — they use electric kettles.

Another source of amusement is the word ‘panties’ in a Regency context. Over the years, my wife’s pointed out quite a few scenes in which some strapping fellow in a moment of passion rips off a fair lady’s panties before giving her a right royal shagging. Leave aside for a minute that the term ‘panties’ isn’t used much in the UK, and you may be shocked to learn that Georgian and Regency women did not wear underwear.

That’s right, they went commando. This was on account of their elaborate dresses, which took so long to remove that the poor lady would soil herself in the event she needed to relieve herself fast. In fact, popular opinion of the day regarded underwear as unhygienic, and the only class of women who were likely to wear them were…well, ladies who rented their charms on an hourly basis.

Regency women also didn’t shave their bodies, or cultivate a size zero figure, or a Coco Chanel sun tan — wealthy women were plump and pale to show affluence. Also, a special note for you writers of historical erotica, women didn’t wax their pubic regions, and circumcision was almost unheard of among British men and remains thus to this day.

I’m not writing this to be a pedantic bastard, or pick on fanfic writers, or indeed American writers. American authors Dianne Gabaldon and Marion Zimmer Bradley are phenomenally talented writers and meticulous researchers who prove that Americans can write British historical novels. Yet, I suspect if the shoes was on the other foot, I’d get into hot water. If wrote a novel set in America and used ‘knickers’, ‘pavement’ and ‘bonnet’ instead of ‘panties’, ‘sidewalk’ and ‘hood’, I’d be laughed at — and woe betide me if I screwed up some facet of American history.

Again, I’m reminded of why writing historical fiction is an exacting and laborious discipline and craft. You have to do your research, and do it well. Often the smallest and most inconsequential detail will trip you up. You can’t make assumptions. You can’t make things up. You can’t default to using your cultural values and practices. Your readers, and the people and times you research, deserve more respect than that.

Cover Photo a composite of photos by Mel Poole and Billie from Unsplash.