Just don’t be offended if she gives you a blank look in return because the Georgians didn’t say hello. It’s not that they were rude, it’s just that the custom of saying hello didn’t really exist yet. Jane might say to you, “Good to day to you, sir or madam,” but she wouldn’t say “hello.” *
That’s the sort of detail a hard-working Jane Austen fan fiction author discovers every day. It’s just part of the job, but sometimes researching these details tends to overwhelm while trying to write. I’ll be trying to do something simple like having my character write a letter and I type—“She reached for a pen”—and suddenly I doubt what I have written. Pen sounds awfully modern and I wonder if I should say quill or quill pen. I’ve also spent the better part of a day trying to find the Georgian equivalent of a modern-day expression familiar to any parent of a teenager—“Duh?!” I reasoned there must have been some expression a Georgian teenager would use when confronted with the stupidity of an adult.
What I usually do in such cases is a quick word search of the collected works of Jane Austen (I have it all in one big Word document), for if she wrote it, I think it safe for me to use it. Sure enough, there are many examples of the word pen, including the annoying Miss Bingley offering to sharpen Darcy’s pen (and like Mary Crawford, do not be suspecting me of a pun). Unfortunately, I could not find anything like “duh.” I experimented with “Tchah!?” but gave it up. †
Of course this practice of checking the Canon, as it were, as a stamp of authenticity has its drawbacks. I will not spell ankle “ancle” nor will I use farther when I mean further nor will I end a sentence in a preposition. Austen was not often guilty of this last “sin” and usually when she did commit it, it was in dialog—but not always. Whenever I leave my prepositions at the end of a sentence, however, someone will usually comment: “Austen would never do that.”
Trying to copy Austen’s style is also something I can’t do. Her characters, for instance, always deliver perfect dialog. Consider the first bad proposal from Darcy and look at how well he speaks. You won’t find an um, er or uh in Austen and no dot, dot, dots (except for Miss Bates). Her characters deliver the most complex dialog without a stumble.
Stylistic decisions, however, are usually easily solved, especially as I steer clear of writing as Jane Austen would have during her lifetime. No, it is the niggling details that keep me from being productive. Could you get a massage when taking the waters in Bath? What word did the driver of a carriage call to start his horse? Was the word “scientist” used in the Georgian era? Can I call an electrical switch as such or do I need some convoluted description for it because surely my character would have never seen one before? ‡
I can usually find the answer online, or at least enough of it to point me in the right direction. I actually contribute to Wikipedia for all the times it has helped and I also owe the Online Etymology Dictionary and The Phrase Finder my gratitude. I have on my desk for quick reference: Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England by Carolly Erickson; Jane Austen’s England by Leslie and Roy Adkins; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole; and If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley. I am indebted to Tony Robinson for his The Worst Jobs in History TV series and Amanda Vickery for At Home with the Georgians and David Starkey’s Monarchy and Lucy Worsley’s Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency. I am extremely indebted to my husband, who has either bought me most of these books or already had them in our library. I am reading his copy of Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor about Sir Edward Pellew, made famous for his exploits in HMS Indefatigable (and known to Horatio Hornblower fans).
I keep a 16,800-by-6,332 pixel map of 1804 London and Westminster on my computer so I can see what bridges crossed the Thames at that time and I have downloaded every Rowlandson, Gillray and Cruikshank print there is and have blushed when I’ve made the mistake of Googling “Regency massage.” Unless you are an Austen author, you can have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to tell Google I did not mean the southern state of Georgia, home of Alton Brown, Paula Deen and Jimmy Carter, nor did I mean the country in the Caucuses bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nor by typing “Regency” was I interested in any number of hotels, luxury condominiums or a surprising number of beauty salons and wig makers.
And I know that I am not unusual in this. I am certain every JAFF author has a similar reading list and is familiar with the experience of spending half a day trying to find the perfect floorplan of a Georgian townhome, only to realize the plan they’ve found is for a home in Augusta or Tblisi. Probably every JAFF author has delighted in telling a jaded spouse or friend that the term “square meal” came from the square plates sailors ate from in the Royal Navy (or not) or that it is only called a Union Jack when it flies from the bowsprit of a ship (or not). In other words, we’ve all made mistakes or at the very least written something someone has perceived as a mistake.
Sometimes mistakes are intentional, like when we want some historical figure, say Sir Arthur Wellesley, to be in London when he was actually fighting in the Peninsular campaign because it would be better for our plot, and sometimes they’re accidental, like calling him the Iron Duke before he became the 1st Duke of Wellington in 1814.
If this sounds like I’m complaining … well I am a little, but really what a wonderful job this is. I spend the day learning about the kind of history I wish I’d been taught in school. I know a lot about the cultivation of cinchona plants, mangles, the spinning jenny and the many and woundrous uses of pee. I can now bore anyone into a catatonic state who isn’t immune to this stuff—in other words, you. The point of this article is to thank you, readers of Jane Austen fan fiction. I will happyily say “good morrow” or “well met” to you, even if I have eschewed this newfangled fashion of hello—unless you plan to point out that Admiral Lord Nelson would have already been dead by the events of my latest book.
PS If you have any examples of Regency tit-bits you’ve uncovered, please add them here. I expect a hotch-potch of comments that will leave us laughing.
* “Hello,” is largely an invention necessitated by another invention, the telephone. Actually you’ll be hard pressed to find any salutations in the novels, other than “good morning.” We have all a very strong sense, I’m sure, of the many stiff bows and curtseys and “May I introduce” from Austen adaptations, but Austen usually dispenses with such mundane business.
† The teenager is an even more recent invention