Today on the blog, I’m delighted to welcome Elizabeth Bailey as part of her blog tour for The Gilded Shroud. I’ve included my review of the novel at the end of this post, but first, here’s an article from Elizabeth, about that most important individual: the lady’s maid…
Why does your Regency lady need a personal lady’s maid?
The truth of the matter is that many of them did. If you know your Jane Austen, you will be aware that the daughters of the Bennet household had to share the services of a maid, who also doubtless had other duties unconnected with keeping their clothes clean, pressed and ready to wear.
If we are to look at an aristocratic Regency lady, however, there is no way she could cope without this necessary adjunct in her life. Commonly called an abigail or dresser, and often referred to as “my woman”, your lady’s maid held a superior position in the household. She was educated and well-versed in the fashions of the time. This set her a cut above ordinary maids, and just below the housekeeper.
A competent lady’s maid knew how to preserve complexions as well as clothes and was wholly responsible for the care of her mistress’s wardrobe. During the season, a lady might change her clothes up to five times a day: a morning ride required a habit; then morning dress for visiting, followed by afternoon dress. Dressing for dinner was de rigueur, in evening dress or a ball-gown. Finally, she was undressed and dressed again for bed. The lady’s maid must be in attendance for each change, with the chosen clothes ready and waiting, a jug of hot water and towels for washing if needed.
In between these changes, the maid might have a moment to herself. But she must still put everything used away, wash her mistress’s undergarments, brush horse hairs and dirt off the riding habit ready for next time, sew repairs and iron parts of the next set of clothes to be worn.
Dressing was a difficult business in those days. First came the shift, a loose garment much like our knee-length nightdress. Then the bone-whaled stays to lift the bosom, which laced up the back. In the 18th century, loose pockets were tied around the waist, followed by a hoop and an under-petticoat tied over that. This was a gathered skirt with slits for the hands to get to the pockets. A stomacher – a wide piece of stiff material running from bosom to below the waist – was pinned to the stays. The overskirt came next, again tied, followed by a bodice pinned to the stomacher, and a fichu or tucker pinned into the bodice at the bosom for modesty.
All this tying, pinning and tucking was difficult for my lady to manage without help. Lesser women, who wore less elaborate costume, could manage for themselves, or get a general maid to assist. Or persuade an obliging husband to wield a pin or two.
Come the mid-1780s when the waistline rose and flimsy, floaty muslin dresses became the fashion, dressing was a little easier. But my lady still wore her shift, a shorter pair of stays, an under-petticoat before the over-gown, again in two pieces, tied and pinned, and likely another partial gown over that. Only the English Chemise Gown was an all-in-one dress which tied below the bosom.
After shift, stays and under-petticoat, but before the main gown, your skilled lady’s maid dressed the hair, unless our aristocratic lady had a coiffeur who came in. The maid also had charge of my lady’s jewellery, which she helped her to put on, as also lacy cap and/or hat, gloves, shoes, scarves, spencer (short jacket) or pelisse (long coat).
Setting aside her main function, the lady’s maid performed such tasks my lady would not wish another to touch, such as washing out her menstrual rags. She would be expected to attend her mistress in ill-health and childbirth, provide her with solace in times of misery, lend a sympathetic ear to her grumblings, and in general act the role of agony aunt as well as passing along any tidbits of interesting gossip.
All this gave rise to an intimacy unparalleled in any other relationship, inclusive of husbands. A successful lady’s maid might well tend the same lady from youth to death, provided she didn’t overstep the mark or be caught cheating her employer.
She could make a tidy extra living from my lady’s would-be lovers and admirers and she would of course prove a fount of information for an inquisitive sleuth trying to find out who murdered her mistress.
THE GILDED SHROUD
When Emily Fanshawe, Marchioness of Polbrook, is found strangled in her bedchamber, suspicion immediately falls on those residing in the grand house in Hanover Square.
Emily’s husband – Randal Fanshawe, Lord Polbrook – fled in the night and is chief suspect – much to the dismay of his family.
Ottilia Draycott is brought in as the new lady’s companion to Sybilla, Dowager Marchioness and soon finds herself assisting younger son, Lord Francis Fanshawe in his investigations.
Can Ottilia help clear the family name? Does the killer still reside in the house?
Or could there be more to the mystery than meets the eye…?
I really enjoyed The Gilded Shroud, and found myself racing through it, eager to discover the answer to the whodunit at the heart of the book. Ottilia is a likeable central character, but the whole ‘cast’ here is well-rounded, both upstairs and downstairs, which makes an interesting read, as we hear tales of the deed from staff and friends of the deceased. I did feel Ottilia was perhaps a tiny bit too composed when suddenly thrust into the middle of a horrific murder investigation, but maybe that’s pure jealousy, knowing that I would be the one running around like a headless chicken!
The 1700s aren’t a period I’m particularly knowledgeable about, but the writer captures the essence of the time, along with issues such as the ladies of the house not being able to receive guests until suitably attired in mourning dress, and the fear of scandal, always terrifying to the upper classes, after all.
I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy a good mystery, and a well-crafted historical setting.
ABOUT ELIZABETH BAILEY
Elizabeth Bailey feels lucky to have found several paths that have given her immense satisfaction – acting, directing, teaching and, by no means least, writing. Through the years, each path has crossed the other, honing and deepening her abilities in each sphere.
She has been privileged to work with some wonderful artistic people, and been fortunate enough to find publishers who believed in her and set her on the road.
To invent a world and persuade others to believe in it, live in it for a while, is the sole aim of the novelist.
Elizabeth’s own love of reading has never abated, and if she can give a tithe of the pleasure to others as she has received herself, it’s worth all the effort.
You can check out Elizabeth’s website here http://www.elizabethbailey.co.uk/.
Elizabeth’s Twitter: @LizBWrites