A Royal Romp Through Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace

Andrea/Cara here
, And as you might have guessed from my last post, I’ve recently been in a palace state of mind. (A reseach trip to England will have that effect on you!) Today we’re journeying from the outskirts of Oxford into the heart of London to take a look a Kensington Palace, which figures prominently in the opening scene of my next Wrexford and Sloane mystery. In fact, the title is MURDER AT KENSINGTON PALACE! (tentative release date—September 24, 2019) So of course I had to do a thorough walk-through of the rooms and gardens!

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The Disappointment of Regency Towels

Wench washing basin gilroy 1810
Joanna here, talking about one of my historical disappointments.

As you're climbing out of the bathtub or stepping out of a shower, how often have you asked yourself – "What did my Regency heroine used to dry her lithe and adventurous body at a similar moment?"

It was not a length of fluffy cotton like I have here. No. Nothing like this here in my hand.

The English and French gentry did a reasonably good job of major bathing, considering they were probably plunging into lukewarm water that had been carted up from the stove in the basement kitchen to their second-floor bedroom. But no Countess or Ladyship dried off with a towel one tenth as lovely and soft as mine.

The mundane washing of hands and face in a basin was practiced all up and down the social scale first thing in the morning and before and after a meal. But that didn’t call forth the soft and fuzzy either.

Even the masters of the bath in that era the Turks didn’t fare as well as I do.

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

There's a bath towel ready over the edge of the tub

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

Here she is tucked up in her hammam towel

The Turks knew bathing luxury. Not for them the English noble’s portable tub in the bedroom or the common man’s rapid splash in front of the kitchen fire. For them the hammam, a communal bath house of gleaming tile and heated pools. And for them the pleasure of rising from the water to be enfolded in the latest technology of towels.

The children's bath 1495

The Children's Bath 1495, with towel and very patient woman

The Turkish bath towel of the period was huge three by five feet big enough to surround the whole body in such bath towel luxury as was available. It would have been made of linen or cotton. In the Eighteenth Century in both the Ottoman Empire and across Europe, cotton was displacing linen as the affordable luxury fabric of choice, so if we want, we can grant our characters towels of the softest, silkiest cotton.

But the towels were flat woven. Smooth cloth. No loops sucking up the excess water. No fluffiness. Even the best of Turkish bath towels of 1810 would be the texture of the tea towels you may have hanging in the kitchen

No soft, thick terrycloth for my Regency heroine.
Quel disappointment.

The towels were maybe plain white in the English bedroom. Time out of mind the Turks had decorated their bath towels with splendid embroidered designs. 

1792 drying hands

Wiping his hands on a white towel

The British, on the other hand, seem to have kept embroidery for bed linens and chair cushions. British hand towels were sometimes embroidered, but the larger bath towels seem to have been plain.

You’re asking yourself, "Why didn’t the English have lovely fluffy towels? What were they thinking?"
It’s the terrycloth technology problem.

Baigneuse aux roseax  1770 france

Bath towels before terrycloth
Degas woman with a towel 1894

Bath towels after terrycloth











Terrycloth has loops that stand up from the surface of the weave. This requires special loom techniques. (They're called Dobby looms, which strikes me as appropriate somehow.) The word terrycloth may be derived from French terre, meaning high, from the elevation of the loop above the warp and weft.

The Turks started making this looped terrycloth on hand looms sometime in the Eighteenth Century. Henry Christy observed this on a visit there in 1833 and brought the technology back to Europe. Terrycloth of silk was made in France in 1841 and the first cotton terrycloth in England soon followed. It went into mass production in 1850 and soon became cheap enough to revolutionize the comfort of washing.

Queen Victoria approved. As do I.

What do you like best about the bath? Is it towels, like me? (Mine are primary RED.) Or those bath salts that foam up? Or just very hot water.

Or are you more of a shower person?

A book of your choice from me goes to some lucky commenter.

The shawl of beauty and grace

Madame-recamier-by-francois-gerard 1802

An old familiar friend of a painting, but do we ever look at the shawl?

Joanna here, talking about that fashion accessory of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the shawl.

Why shawls? We wear form-fitted, sleeved outer garments mostly — coats and sweaters and parkas and anoraks and Macintoshes — in the Twenty-first Century and feel pleased and practical doing so. Why did folks spend centuries throwing loose garments around themselves that didn’t button up and had to be draped and fidgeted with in a manner that may strike us as awkward?

I think an ideal of feminine beauty was at the root of it. The drape and swirl of a shawl, the varied possibilities with all their minute adjustments were alluring to the watcher. Displaying the shawl was an art, and this length of silk or wool might well be the most expensive object a woman wore.

So let’s talk paisley, since we’re talking shawls.

Paisley is based on a repeated, teardrop-shaped design pattern called a bota or boteh – a word that means  “shrub” or “cluster of leaves” in Persian.

Wenches star shaped tile from iran 1262

A decorative Persian tile from 1262. The boteh design comes from such roots

 This boteh is an ancient pattern, widespread in rugs, paintings, and tiles. It's an abstract shape that probably comes from the simplification of many sorts of feathers, fruit, flowers and so on in older designs. That is, there's no one origin. It's derived from many complexities that lost detail as they were copied and recopied.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the East India Company imported these Indian designs to Europe where they became immensely popular. Soldiers returning from service in the East brought back lovely, expensive scarves of silk and soft Kashmir (cashmere) wool to their sweethearts and family. The British version of the scarves might cost more than 20 pounds. Sir Walter Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau that cost 50 guineas, a huge sum in those days.


A fine shawl wrapping up mother and child 1825

Period portraits are full of these Kashmiri scarves gracefully swirled round the shoulders of women in flimsy low cut, high-waisted dresses. The survival of generations of scantily clad British beauties doubtless depended on these lengths of wool.

Wench british hand loom wool asilk 1810

British wool and silk paisley shawl showing boteh 1810

Almost as soon as the imported scarves arrived, they were copied enthusiastically by European weavers, among them the craftsmen of the Scottish city of Paisley, so much so that the Persian design ended up named "paisley" after that city in Renfrewshire, Scotland, far, far from the exotic mountains and plains of the East.

The handlooms and, after 1820, Jacquard looms, of the misty north produced quite a good imitation of the original Indian product. But it was  not a perfect likeness.

Throughout the import period, imported Kashmiri shawls were more expensive and preferred over the British version. The colors were more varied. Even at the height of Scots weaving they were using a mere 15 colors as opposed to the more than 40 colors used in the Eastern imports. The quality of foreign weaving superior, and the fabric itself was lighter. British shawls were made from sheep’s wool. Kashmiri scarves, from softer, more supple, more lustrous goat’s hair. And Kashmiri weavers used the “twill tapestry technique”.

Those of you in the know about weaving technique will recognize that this means the horizontal (weft) threads of the pattern do not run all the way across the fabric but are woven back and forth around the vertical (warp) threads to where the color is needed again. This is the way Europeans weave tapestries. And no, I knew nothing about weaving technique before I looked this up.

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Teresa Grant on Love, Loyalty, Betrayal . . . and Paris!

Teresa_grant_portrait_color_Cara/Andrea here,
I'm delighted to have my good friend and fabulous author Teresa Grant visiting the Word Wenches today to talk about her Regency-set mystery series, which is set against the backdrop of political and social upheaval as Europe struggles to reorder itself after over a decade of brutal warfare. The attention to historical detail and descriptions of real-life people are wonderfully rendered in her books—which should come as no surprise given her stellar scholarly background in history. Teresa studied British History at Stanford, a
nd received the Firestone Award for Excellence in Research for her
honors thesis on shifting conceptions of honor in late fifteenth century

THE PARIS AFFAIRThe third book in the series, The Paris Affair just released last week (you can read more about it
here) so I asked Teresa to chat with us about the the era and why she finds it such a compelling period to write about. So, without further ado . . . 

Your books are not only compelling mysteries but also explore the complex psychological struggles of men and women trying to define their personal moral compasses in a world torn apart by the chaos of conflict. Can you talk a little about why you chose the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop for your stories?
There are so many wonderful opportunities for spy stories in this period. I love spy stories, both James Bond adventure and the sort of intricate chess games and moral dilemmas John le Carré dramatizes so brilliantly. The Napoleonic Wars offers are a wonderfully rich setting for both types of story. So many different sides, so many different factions within sides. The French under Napoleon had been bent on conquest, but they had also brought much-needed reforms to many countries. Some liberal Spaniards saw supporting the French in the Peninsular War as the quickest route to progressive reform. And after the Napoleonic Wars, a number of the victors wanted to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution  and saw any hint of reform as one step away from blood in the streets. Friends easily melt into enemies and back again. Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister Prince Talleyrand  later became prime minister under the Bourbon restoration, Joseph Fouché who had been ruthless in using terror against enemies of the Bonapartist government was equally ruthless in going after Napoleon’s supporters who were proscribed from the amnesty after Waterloo. In the midst of breakneck adventure, a love affair can have political consequences, a tactical decision can shatter a friendship, it can come down to a question not of whether or not commit betrayal but only of who or what to betray.

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Don’t Know Much About History . . .

Cara/Andrea here, Today, I’m going to be talking about history. Okay, no surprise there, as our regular readers know that all of us Wenches are pretty passionate about the subject. But rather than wax poetic over some fascinating bit of research I’ve uncovered, I thought I’d share a really fun test of knowledge that fellow author Jody Novins recently e-mailed to me.


Yale-gryffin-windowNow, I have to confess, I usually feel “above the salt” when it comes to British history. The Regency and Edwardian eras are the periods I know best, but I read enough to feel comfortable in other era . ..so when I saw that Jodie had forwarded the link to a History Prize competition that British 13-14yr. olds are invited to take, I thought . . . piece of cake.

Yeah, me and Marie Antoinette. In other words, I was toast.

Suitably humbled, I was intrigued enough to do a little research on the competition. According to its website, “The Townsend-Warner History Prize, started 126 years ago, is one of the oldest institutions in the preparatory school world. It has proved endurably popular in encouraging the study of history.  It is not linked to any national testing or examinations, but aims to provoke interest and delight in historical reading, facts and analysis . . .”

PrinceRegentThey go on to explain, “The Prize consists of two papers.  The first has 100 questions demanding one-word, or one-sentence, answers from world history, but with a strong emphasis on British history. Many are straightforward, some a little more obscure. Two hundred candidates qualify from Paper 1 to sit Paper 2.  This is in the form of essay questions, but allows candidates a very wide choice so that they can write on what they know, but also show analytical skill and historical imagination . . .”

Westminster-1Over 700 students took the first part of the exam, and according to the administrators, some of the answers proved quite amusing (I was relived to see that I wasn’t the only one a little fuzzy on some of the specifics.)  When asked about the Quakers, many linked them to oatmeal (porridge in “English”) and some students thought that the seventeenth century radical group, the Levellers, ‘took part in the Highland Clearances’. (I give them an A for Logic.)

WrexhamTowerSo, ready to test your knowledge of English and World History? Sharpen your pencils and let’s see how you fair on the following! (I shall also point out that the one of the students in the top 30 was a ten-year-old boy. Maybe we should ask him to make a guest appearance.) I’ve included a link to the Townsend-Warner website in case you wish to see the entire text of each section.

1.   Answer these questions about rulers of England and Britain.

a)   Which English king signed Magna Carta?
b)   Which thirteenth century English king was nicknamed ‘Longshanks’?
c)   Who was the Black Prince?
d)   Which member of the Tudor family was England’s first crowned queen?
e)   Which Stuart king wrote A Counterblast to Tobacco?
f)   Which royal house followed the Stuarts as rulers of Britain?
g)  Who was Queen Victoria’s husband?
h)  Which king abdicated in 1936?

2.   Answer these questions on Roman Britain.
a)   Who led the first invasions in 55 and 54 BC?
b)   What is the modern name of the Roman town of Verulamium?
c)   What was the name of the tribe led by Boudicca in her rebellion?
d)   What was the name of the Roman road linking Londinium with Eboracum (modern York)?
e)   What supposedly happened to the Roman Ninth Legion?
f)   What was the name of the wall built north of Hadrian
’s Wall and held by the Romans for twenty years or so?. .
. to continue to the entire test click here

1. Write fully on TWO of the following:

Boudicca’s Rebellion (61)
Roman Roads in Britain
The Fall of the Roman Empire (410 on)
St Augustine of Canterbury (d 604)
The Vikings
The Great Wall of China
The importance of the Battle of Stamford Bridge
The importance of Norman Castles
The achievements of Henry II (1054-1089)
WellingtonRichard I (1089-1099)
The Wool Trade in Medieval England
Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) . . . to continue to the entire test click here

So how did you fare? Was there any question you found particularly stumping? Would you like to see American schoolkids take such a test? . . . And how do you think they would do? (Sadly enough, I shudder to think of it.)