Words in Progress: Amorous Illustrations of Thomas Rowlandson

In this blog, I’ve mentioned books I refer to regularly for research and those that are occasionally useful for specific eras. But there is also another category, due to having too many books (if such a thing is possible). And that is, books that I’d forgotten I possess!  

I briefly said last week that some scenes in my Regency WIP, Town Bronze take place in an upmarket brothel in London’s Covent Garden. I was mulling over clothes and costume (particularly dress and undress) that isn’t immediately apparent in my crop of costume books.

Then I suddenly remembered my copy of Amorous Illustrations of Thomas Rowlandson. I found it on a distant bookshelf and dusted it off. As I had guessed, there’s nothing like erotic illustrations so give a clear idea of ladies’ and men’s undergarments of the Regency period! This book is of its time and so depicts only heterosexual sex. But rather than bowing to societal norms of the early 19th century, this preference seems to reflect Rowlandson’s personal tastes.

Rowlandson was born in the mid-18th century and apart from being a brilliant draughtsman and caricaturist, he was very much a man of his time. As a young man, he inherited a fortune and quickly squandered it on the tables of London’s notorious gaming hells. But despite the permanent injury to his health due to this period of drink and debauchery, he rallied to regain his early artistic success and maintained a prosperous career until the end of his life in 1827.

Bill Smith of Bibliophile Books says in his fascinating introduction to Amorous Illustrations that Rowlandson’s erotic cartoons are from the latter part of his career from 1812 onwards, “gently mocking the sexual deficiencies of old men,” most likely including the illustrator himself.  But his depictions are “inclined to perceive the ludicrous” rather than being cruelly satirical or exploitative. His virile young bucks are handsome and eager and his drawings of women reflect his admiration for the fairer sex. As Bill Smith notes, “He drew women with notable grace and accuracy.”

These erotic drawings reflect “a rumbustious, bawdy age” and cheerfully celebrate sexuality with “sheer exuberance” in a good-humoured way for public consumption. Rowlandson’s depictions of “indisputably beautiful” sexually empowered women and their chosen bed partners reflect a period of openness. Although that was imperfect and unequal in many ways, I’m always reminded how the shadow of Victorian morality soon descended to drive sexual expression of all kinds furtively underground for at least the rest of the century.

Also, as I’d hoped, the illustrations confirm exactly how ladies’ stockings were tied below the knee and that some gentlemen (whichever gender they preferred) kept their Hessian boots on in bed!

Words in Progress: A Secret History of Georgian London

Last week I was chatting about my most used Regency resources. But another book I almost constantly refer to when writing about 18th and early 19th century London is Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History of Georgian London. This comprehensive tome is packed with nuggets of vital and fascinating insights and beyond research purposes, is a wonderfully absorbing read.

Dan Cruikshank is a longstanding architectural historian and you may have even seen him presenting historical documentaries on TV. His knowledge is vast and varied, but his particular interest is 18th-century London. Back in the 1970s, as a young man, he was one of a protest group that managed to save the historical area of Spitalfields from the developers’ wrecking ball. So his credentials are practical as well as erudite.

The subtitle of this book is How the Wages of Sin Shaped London’s Capital and the premise (with research that must have taken decades) is that much of the speculative building of 18th-century London was funded (at least indirectly) by the flourishing sex trade.

A full précis of this book would take far more space than one modest blog, and I’m sure I’ll return to various aspects of different chapters in future. Needless to say, Dan Cruikshank is a fantastic guide, knowledgeable, engaging and hugely compassionate about the human cost involved in London’s swift expanse during Georgian times.  

As I write romance, I tend to keep to the lighter side of reality. So in my Regency WIP, Town Bronze, where some scenes take place in a Covent Garden brothel, my depiction is very much a sanitized version of the wild and colourful characters and goings on in that district.

There are so many examples of these in The Secret History of Georgian London. One of the most infamous is Moll King. With her husband, she ran a notorious coffee house in the early 18th century, and her premises were described in her biography as “a place of nightly revels,” where, “Every Swain, even from the Star and Garter (grandees) to the coffee shop boy, might be sure of finding a Nymph in waiting.”

As Dan Cruikshank points out, Covent Garden might be the centre for sexual pleasure in the Georgian period but prostitution and casual sex were by no means confined to that area or to heterosexual sex. He mentions that “the junction between two ancient thoroughfares of the Strand and Fleet Street… was for much of the Georgian period a notorious homosexual pick up point.” Amongst many other locations, he cites historical records of “nocturnal assemblies in the Royal Exchange, Moorfields, Lincoln’s Inn Field, the south side of St. James’s Park and Covent Garden Piazza.” It’s inspiring that there was a thriving gay scene in Georgian London, despite draconian laws.

If ever I need an injection of historical vibrancy together with exact facts for my London-based stories, then The Secret History of Georgian London never fails to provide any information I require. In fact, it’s so invaluable I think the entire book is due for a re-read!

Words in Progress; Lord Rochester’s Monkey

I indulge in buying reference books far too frequently under the justification of essential research. But on my over-stuffed bookshelves, there are volumes I couldn’t resist purchasing even before I had that handy excuse! Of course, I can argue (with my budget and possibly my bank manager) that they tend to come equally in handy while writing.

One such curio is Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene, best known as a major 20th-century fiction writer. This biography of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and 17th-century rake, wit and poet is not only fascinating for its contents but also has an interesting context.

History does tend to repeat itself, so in the current era when there is much news of book banning, it’s interesting to learn that around 90 years ago when Greene was writing Lord Rochester’s Monkey, it seemed to be a doomed project as Wilmot was considered to be “a pornographic writer.”

As Greene mentions in his introduction, finally widely published in 1974, “It is difficult to think back to the almost Victorian atmosphere of the early thirties when I wrote this book. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses were still banned.”

Greene’s championing of Rochester certainly helped to restore his reputation as a major poet, as skilled as he was scathing and frequently filthy. When I was in my final years at secondary school, Rochester barely got a mention amongst Restoration poets, but now his work is rightly included in English Literature degree courses.

 Lord Rochester’s Monkey reveals that his philosophical attitude was as puritanically acerbic as his life experience was extravagantly debauched. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s Greene’s painstaking portrayal of the conflicted elements of Rochester’s short and meteoritic life that inspired me to write last summer’s story Held Close to my Heart, set in late 17th-century England, where to a certain extent, my MCs Luke and Jem characters reflect the opposing influences that held sway over John Wilmot.

This beautifully written, in-depth biography with wonderful illustrations and portraits is always a pleasure to revisit. Since my WIP, Simply John, is set in early 1660, just before the restoration of King Charles II I had to dip into the early chapters of Lord Rochester’s Monkey, purely for context (and some self-indulgent reading). I’ve borrowed a few geographical facts for my MC Owen Montgomery from the experiences of Henry Wilmot, Rochester’s father, en route to England from exile abroad to plan a Royalist insurrection with the Sealed Knot.

I’ll finish with some famous lines quoted from Lord Rochester’s Monkey by the poet himself, in a typically critical assessment of his royal master. “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore, A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.”

Words in Progress: Regency Fashion

Since I have an established reading blog in my weekly Recent Reads column, I thought it might be fun to start something similar on the writing side of things.

As I write Historical MM Romance, it’s rather inevitable that this new blog will also centre on books, especially those that help and guide my research. I have a horrible feeling that this will only encourage me to buy yet more resource books!

On that theme, during January and February, I have been working on books 5 and 6 of my Regency Twelve Letters series. In both of these, The Misfit and May Wedding, I had scenes where I describe the detail of Regency menswear. There are plenty of wonderful specialist websites on fashion, cravats and hairstyles, but what I really needed to double-check was the types of cloth available to tailors and what a Regency dandy might wear to a fashionable wedding – which is pretty specific!

Although I have a bookshelf crammed with general historical costume books, it occurred to me that I didn’t have any specific Regency reference books. So I had to get Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, a slim volume by Sarah Jane Downing, crammed with details and gorgeous illustrations of Regency fashion.

I have found that costume books tend to focus on women’s wear so as this book had two chapters detailing men’s fashions, it was a must-buy! It’s already well thumbed through and has several strategically placed bookmarks.

So now I’m forearmed to expand on the fabrics in stock at Daniel Walters’ tailor’s shop on Tottenham Court Road and the details of Percy Havilland’s fashionable ensemble for a family wedding at St. George’s, Hanover Square. Job done!