Tag Archives: Sir Joshua Reynolds

History Undusted: Earrings in the 18th Century

I recently watched the film “Emma”, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam; as the proposal scene was playing, I noticed her earring and wondered if that was historically accurate – did they have pierced earrings in England at that time (the early 1800s)? I’m not into fashion (that’s an understatement – I’m very pragmatic when it comes to clothes!), but the historical aspect fascinated me enough to look into the matter.

While we have probably all heard of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, painted ~1665 by Johannes Vermeer (doubts have been raised as to whether it is actually pearl or rather polished tin or coque de perle, given the reflective qualities and size, but that’s another issue), it is a Dutch painting from the 17th century and thus doesn’t answer my question. My interest lies more in the 1700s (18th Century) of Britain, and so I began researching 18th C. English portraits.

I discovered that, while there are many portraits with earrings displayed, there are far more without. So it would have been possible, but was by no means as common as it is today. Also, sometimes the current hairstyle hid the ears, such as that of the 1770s and 1780s, or perhaps their ears were hidden by the custom of married women wearing mob caps, even beneath other “public” hats.

 

Mid-to-late 1780s

Typical 1780s hairstyle; such a style would have either hidden earrings or made them obsolete.

 

Mrs. Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789

A married woman wearing a mob cap under her bonnet (though from the black cape and hat combined with a white dress, she may be at the end of a period of mourning, wearing “half weeds”). Mrs Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789

 

 

The portraits do not reveal whether or not they were merely clip-on earrings or studs, though ear piercing has been around for centuries, varying in intensity and use from culture to culture (some for religious purposes, some for ownership such as slave earrings, and others were status symbols for royalty or nobility). I’ve found many portraits from Europe as a whole, between the 16th and 19th centuries which portray women wearing earrings; here are a few, with their details:

1761 Joshua Reynolds. Lady Elizabeth Keppel

1761, by Joshua Reynolds: Lady Elizabeth Keppel. Note that the Indian woman is also wearing an earring(s), and a rope of pearls; I don’t know whether she is portrayed as a servant or merely inferior in rank, due to her placement in the portrait…

 

 

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. Though this is a French portrait by subject & painter, it is from the period in question and displays a hoop earring, as well as the hairstyle common in this period in England as well.

 

 

Turkish Dress c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

Turkish Dress, c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

 

Young Woman in Powder Blue, ca. 1777

A young woman in powder blue, ca. 1777

 

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 London, Portrait of Lady Anne Furye, née Greenly - born 1738

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 London, Portrait of Lady Anne Furye, née Greenly

 

Based on History Undusted Original Post, June 2015

 

 

 

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Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

1761-joshua-reynolds-lady-elizabeth-keppel

1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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