Victorian Surprises

June 29, 2010

About a month ago, I toured a local historic home that had been built in the 1870s. The house was filled with the requisite Victorian furniture and décor, but also had a few things I’d never seen before. I don’t pretend to be a historian, but I like to think I have a pretty good grasp of that time period. Imagine my surprise when I came across something that looked like the picture below.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Now, many of you may know what it is, but I didn’t. It was placed on a dresser in a bedroom. Any guesses? No? It was filled with sugar water. Can you guess now?

I’ll have pity on those of you who don’t know. It’s a fly trap. Flies go in, but can’t get back out. I can only imagine what a gross mess it must have been to clean one out.

The other item that caught my interest was similar to the piece depicted below.

The one I saw was on a lady’s vanity. It measured about three inches in diameter. They usually are a part of a matching vanity dresser set. I thought it looked like something you put cotton balls in, but that wasn’t it. They were often made of ceramic or glass with a silver top. Can you guess? It’s a hair receiver. (Above photo courtesy of

Ladies would take shedded hair or hair left in the bristles of a brush and store it in this container. The hair was used to make jewelry, to memorialize a deceased loved one, or braided into designs. It was also used to make a rat or ratt—a large amount of hair was rolled into a tube shape, then put into a hair net and sewn shut. This was used to add fullness to the elaborate hair-dos of the time period.

Needless to say, I had no idea our ancestors were so creative. It makes me wish I could travel through time to experience daily Victorian life in person.

Watch fob made of hair.


True Confession

June 25, 2010

Damsels in Regress was set up to be a place where three authors could share their love of books and history with the internet at large.  It was NOT set up to be a personal blog, full of angst and randomness and half-formed thoughts posted throughout the day.  But that all being said, this Damsel has a true confession to make:

I am tired of writing historical fiction and can’t wait to move on to something else.

See, even Lucy's amazed!

Wow, did I just admit that on my historical fiction blog?  Well, too late now, folks–it’s out there.  I must confess after the past five years of living through World War II in the head of a British teenager, I am exhausted.  Wiped out.  Kaput.  My next project, once my last book in this trilogy is at last complete and coherent, will be something utterly different.  It may not even be a novel, but when I get to writing another novel, I have vowed it will not be set in the past.  It will feature today’s kids and teens in all their 2010 glory.

This is not a change of heart on my part.  I love history.  I have loved historical fiction since I discovered the American Girl books in grade school.  I even love the research, that great process of discovery where you pick up the most random bits of information along with the things you’re going after in the first place.  And I love being back in time, erasing the last seventy years and pretending the world is still at war saving bacon grease and listening to new Glenn Miller records.  But just like book characters who time-travel and find it has taken a toll on their bodies, my mental time travel has taken its toll, too.  So much as I would love to set a story during the Irish War for Independence or colonial Boston or the Jazz Age, I have to live in the present for a little bit until I’m ready to commit to learning all I can about that time and place.  I have to close the door to the past when my last chapters have been written.

Okay?  You hear me?  My next cast of characters will have cell phones and debate the policies of President Obama, not FDR.  I mean it!


I am going to Europe in September, my first vacation with just my husband since our honeymoon almost four years ago (that’s what you get for moving across the country from your family).  We’ll visit the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France–Paris, Normandy, and Brittany.  We’ll see famous landmarks, gorgeous churches, great works of art, convoluted train stations, and lots and LOTS of history.  The last time I went to Europe, well, some of that history got to me, and I started a book.  Five years later, I’m screaming for mercy on my blog, saying I can’t live in the past anymore.

September will be interesting…

Contest Winner!

June 23, 2010

Congratulations to Amber! You have won the autographed copy of The King’s Rose by Alisa M. Libby. Please email us at damselsinregress [at] gmail [dot] com with your address and we’ll mail the book to you.

Thanks to everyone who participated with your insightful comments on the Tudors.

The Old Yankee Stadium

June 22, 2010

Last weekend (June 12th) my dad brought me to Yankee Stadium to see a ballgame in the new park.  It was an AWESOME day.  I was spoiled rotten.  In the process of exploring the new stadium, I started thinking about the history of the old stadium, (a place where so much great history took place—if you’re a baseball lover like me) and I thought it’d be fun to share some facts with you starting with its date of construction and demolition.

Original Yankee Stadium

On February 6, 1921 the Yankees announced the purchase of 10 acres of property in the west Bronx. The land was purchased from the estate of William Waldorf Astor for $675,000. It sat directly across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, where the Yankees’ had played since 1913. On April 18, 1923 the Yankees played their first game in their new stadium. From September 30, 1973 to April 15, 1976 Yankee Stadium was closed while major renovation work was completed. The last game ever played at the stadium was on September 21, 2008.

Now some interesting facts that I’ve come across in my research:

  • The Stadium was almost built at the site of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum at Amsterdam Avenue between 136th and 138th Streets in Manhattan.
  • Thomas Edison started a cement company in 1899, and the extra-durable cement he developed was used for the original walls.
  • “New York, New York” is played over the stadium loudspeakers at the end of every game. The tradition used to be that the Frank Sinatra version was played if they won and the Liza Minnelli version was played if they lost.  In 2001, she told them to play her version after a win, or not play it at all. The Yankees now play the Sinatra version after every game.
  • Old Yankee Stadium was the first three-tiered sports facility in the States. The electronic scoreboard was the first of its kind.
  • Yankee Stadium was the first ballpark to be called a stadium due to its enormous size.
  • The original dimensions at Yankee Stadium were 295 ft. (right), 490 ft. (center), and 281 ft. (left). Centerfield became known as “Death Valley” because of its distance from homeplate.

Yankee Stadium during renovations (1974-1975)

So, share with me—Are you a baseball fan?  What team has your loyal support?  Can you share any interesting facts about them?

PS: Yes, I live in Boston.  No, I am not a Red Sox fan.  Yes, I was born and raised a NY Yankee fan.  Yes, both my mom’s and dad’s families are from New York and New Jersey.

Last weekend (June 12th) my dad brought me to Yankee Stadium to see a ballgame in the new park.  It was an AWESOME day.  I was spoiled rotten.  In the process of exploring the new stadium, I started thinking about the history of the old stadium, (a place where so much great history took place—if you’re a baseball lover like me) and I thought it’d be fun to share some facts with you.

Interview with Alisa M. Libby

June 18, 2010

Please welcome Alisa M. Libby, author of The Blood Confession and The King’s Rose, a historical novel about Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry the VIII. Thanks for joining us at Damsels in Regress today, Alisa.

1. How did you come to write Catherine Howard’s story?

I was instantly intrigued by Catherine: a pretty, oft-overlooked girl who caught the king’s eye after a few months in her new life at the royal court. Her story was magical and exciting, and also quite terrifying—like a fairy tale gone horribly wrong. I wondered what had really happened, what she had been thinking when she married the king. I wanted to imagine the story in her point of view, and (barring time travel) fiction is the best way to do that.

2. What kind of research did you do?

I read a lot about Catherine, King Henry and his previous wives, as well as the culture of the Tudor court, their clothes, their food, their religious beliefs. I listened to music composed by King Henry and looked at portraits from the time period. I also took a trip to England. My husband and I visited Hampton Court, where Catherine was first presented to the full court as their new queen, and the Tower of London where—less than two years later—she was imprisoned and executed. It was an amazing experience to visit the halls where Catherine likely reveled in being queen…and where she later awaited her fate, a woman condemned.

3. Was there anything you really wanted to discover about Catherine that you couldn’t find?

We can get close to history, but we can’t know every detail about what happened behind closed doors, or what people were saying or thinking. I was surprised by how often the historical accounts I read disagreed on different details, such as Catherine’s supposed affair with Thomas Culpeper.

According to legend, Catherine’s ghost haunts a gallery in Hampton Court. I fantasized about finding her ghost and asking her questions: did you really have an affair with Thomas while you were married to the king? Were you in love with Thomas? Did you worry about being caught? I fantasized about getting her blessing to tell my version of her story. When I walked down that haunted gallery on a “ghost tour” of Hampton, I kept thinking “I’m here, if you have anything to tell me, now is your chance.” I never did get a visit from her ghost, but I think that’s for the best for both of us. In the end it was up to me to choose what I thought would be the most interesting story to tell. This decision faces every writer of historical fiction.

4. I was struck by the cultural differences in Tudor England compared with modern day.  I mean, a 15-year-old marrying a 50-year-old is rather disgusting to think about these days.  Did you learn anything about the lives of young girls—age 12 and up—that you didn’t include in the book?

There were so many fascinating details that I couldn’t include: stories about previous wives, celebrations at court, religious festivals. There were also more details about Catherine’s life before court. My first draft of her story was nearly 500 pages long—I started from age ten and told the story of her entire life. I ended up cutting the first 190 pages in my first revision; painful, but absolutely necessary. A lot of those details were needed to understand Catherine’s character, but they could be folded into the main action of the story, which begins once she becomes the favorite of King Henry.

5. How did you get started in writing?

Since I was very young I had the urge to tell stories and record them. During my teen years I wrote mostly (very awful) poetry, much of it influenced by fairy tales and mythology. I loved playing with language, with the sounds of words, with description. I fell in love with language. I remember reading Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” in fifth grade, and it was like falling in love.

6. What were your favorite books when you were a teenager?

I read a lot of poetry, especially Edgar Allan Poe, Tennyson, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. As for favorite novels, at around twelve I read and loved The Last Unicorn (still one of my all-time favorites). In junior high I loved the Emily of New Moon trilogy by L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), and in high school I was blown away by George Orwell’s 1984, which sparked my dystopian phase.

7. What are you working on now?

I’ve been writing contemporary fantasy/magical realism. I don’t have to worry about historical accuracy, which is truly liberating, but writing fantasy certainly has its own unique challenges, as does any book. I hope that I have another historical novel in me, as I found writing The King’s Rose such an exhilarating experience—history is so often stranger than fiction!

So true! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Alisa.

For more information on Alisa and her work, visit her website at

Contest: The King’s Rose

June 16, 2010

The winner of this month’s contest will receive a signed copy of The King’s Rose by Alisa M. Libby. To enter the random drawing, share with us something you find interesting about the Tudors. It can be a specific fact or simply your own thoughts about that time in England’s history.

The winner will be announced on Wednesday, June 23.  Good luck!

And don’t forget to drop in on Friday the 18th to read our interview with Alisa Libby.

Book Review: The King’s Rose

June 14, 2010

The King’s Rose
Alisa M. Libby
Grade 8 and up
320 pages

In Tudor England, 15-year-old Catherine Howard catches the eye of King Henry VIII. Or should I say, beautiful Catherine is paraded before the king any chance her scheming family can get. Those in the court know how disappointed Henry is with his new German wife, Anne of Cleves. And the Howard family, who had first tried for power with Anne Boleyn, see a new opportunity for wealth and position through Anne’s cousin Catherine.

No matter that Catherine is not a virgin and the king wants a beautiful virgin bride. They remake Catherine’s image, telling her that her past no longer exists. All that matters is that she please the king. Despite her misgivings, Catherine obeys and before long is married to Henry the VIII.

When I began this book, I knew very little of Catherine Howard’s tale. In fact, I kept Henry’s wives straight with the common rhyme—”divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” Once I realized that Catherine was number five and therefore another one to lose her head, I was bummed. After all, I knew the ending, right? How good could the book be?

Well, I’ll tell you the answer. Very good. Author Alisa Libby has drawn a compelling portrait of a young girl who is a pawn to her family’s machinations. She shows Catherine to be politically naïve and unable to share her thoughts with anyone as she fulfills her duty. This sense of isolation while being what others expect pervades the novel. In a scene early in the story, Catherine has taken off her cream silk betrothal gown after alterations:

I pull a linen nightdress over my head and plop heavily onto the bed.  The silk gown lies beside me, unfolded like the petals of a rose.  In my nightdress I feel smaller, diminished.  I am merely the model upon which the gown was held, the gown’s mode of travel.  I can only hope to play my part well and live up to the gown’s expectations of the girl I must become.

Catherine does her best to make King Henry happy. And she seems to succeed. Henry calls her his “rose without a thorn” and even shows affection for her in public. In the midst of this success, she struggles to fight her romantic dreams of being with Thomas Culpeper, her cousin and the young man she fell in love with just as she caught the king’s interest.

As Catherine navigates life with an aging king—he is nearing 50 when they marry—she does not become pregnant. It is the one thing that can assure her position and keep everyone pleased. After months of this, her grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, tells her to take Thomas to her bed in order to become pregnant.  Catherine is both shocked and scared, but complies. Thus begins a brief period where she is living out her romantic dreams. And still, no pregnancy.

It all falls apart, of course. In Libby’s deft hands, Catherine is a sympathetic character, even with her faults. I found myself wishing the novel were not based on a real person so there could be a miraculous escape. But no. It is Catherine Howard’s story and well worth the read.

Be sure to check back this week. We’ll have a contest to give away a copy of The King’s Rose and an interview with Alisa Libby.