Beauty & the Barbara

Since I’ve begun writing historical fiction, I’ve crossed over into a writing-world where nearly ALL the characters are based on real people. I won’t go into every one of the challenges of that kind of research in this blog; I’ll save that for another day. But to my surprise, one of the unexpected ones was having the appearances –– the “beauty”, as it were –– of those characters already determined for you by their portraits. And that beauty doesn’t always agree with contemporary conventions.

Just as most modern-day professional beauties –– fashion models and Hollywood actresses –– would have found little favor in a past that favored the more lushly appointed, it can be hard to look at three-hundred-year-old portraits with modern eyes and see the same thing. My next book, ROYAL HARLOT, is a fictionalized biography of Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. She was the most prominent mistress of King Charles II, and one of the baddest bad-girls in English history, which makes for a most entertaining heroine, if not perhaps the best girlfriend you’d call in a pinch. Barbara was universally regarded by her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in 17th century England. Crowds would gather wherever she went, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Every head would turn when she entered her box at the theatre, and even happily-wed diarist Samuel Pepys made a point of walking by her house on laundry-day, just so he could see her lace-trimmed smocks hung out to dry and fantasize like mad.

Like most famous beauties of the past, Barbara was painted repeatedly, and her portraits by Sir Peter Lily are among the most enduring “images” of the Restoration. But her beauty hasn’t traveled well through the centuries. Sure, Alexander Pope wrote “Lely on animated Canvas stole/the sleepy Eye that spoke the melting soul”, but today those bedroom-eyes look, well, kind of burned-out and druggy, and the double-chins that were so celebrated among Restoration beauties seem matronly –– especially considering that most of these paintings were done before Barbara’s thirtieth birthday.

As a history-nerd, this didn’t bother me. I am up to the challenge. But the marketing folks at my publisher were scared to death, and as a result you won’t find Barbara’s face on the cover when the book hits stores on July 3. Instead we’ll be counting on readers to supply their own mental image of what the most beautiful woman in England looked like –– even if it’s not close to the 17th century truth.

Frost Fairs


Here in Pennsylvania, the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing for entire month of February and most of March as well, with a good sloppy six inches of freezing sleet last Friday. Is it any wonder, then, that my thoughts have gone back to the great Frost Fairs on the frozen Thames?

From roughly 1500 to 1850, northern Europe suffered through what modern historians call the “Little Ice Age”, with much cooler summers and frigid winters. Such dramatic shifts in climate led to everything from famines to wars, but also to less consequential events, like the Thames (the river that flows through the heart of London) freezing solid. Before the river was closed in by 19th century embankments and diverted by bridges, the depth was more shallow and the current less swift, letting the deep-freeze take hold.

There were numerous times from 1434 onward when the river froze solid enough to be crossed by horses and wagons, but the first organized Frost Fair wasn’t until the winter of 1564-65, featuring archery contests, feasts, and dancing. The Fair of 1607 is the one featured in the novel Orlando by Virginia Woolf. The two most famous Fairs are the one of 1684 (the longest-lasting, and the one that’s featured in Duchess) and 1814 (the largest and the last.)

London during Charles II’s reign was marked by greatness: the Great Plague, the Great Fire, and one kickin’ Frost Fair. From December 1683 until February 1684, the Thames was frozen so solid that not only could men walk safely across its surface, but carts, sleighs, and horses as well.

Like any such phenomenon, the frozen river could be viewed in several ways. Those of a stern Puritanical bent (Cromwell’s time was still less than a generation in the past.) worried that it must be some sign of God’s displeasure with hedonistic London and England in general. Others who were already embracing the interest in science and nature that came with the Age of Enlightenment saw the frozen river as an amazing wonder worthy of scholarly study.

A caption from a contemporary print mirrors the concern that also came with such a harsh winter, and sounds suspiciously like Al Gore filtered through the 17th century:
Though such unusual Frosts to us are strange,
Perhaps it may predict some greater Change:
And some do fear may a fore-runner be
Of an approaching sad Mortality.

But for most Londoners, the frozen river and the Frost Fair on it was mainly one more excuse to party, and to extend the amusements of the Christmas season a little longer.

There was much to entertain visitors all day and well into the night, from bear-baiting to wrestling matches to horse-races, with the horses shod with special spiked shoes. Musicians played, rope-dancers danced, and Punch and Judy walloped away at each other. Many tried the newly imported Dutch sport of sliding in skeets (ice skates), or bought everything from toys to snuff boxes at the two “streets” of shops. Of course King Charles, never one to miss out on a good time, attended with his courtiers.

Like every good popular event, refreshment sellers did a brisk business. An entire ox was roasted near the Hungerford Stairs, but other kinds of roast and stewed meats were offered as well: duck, goose, rabbit, capon, hen, and turkey were all listed as for sale. Visitors could buy coffee, tea, and chocolate, as well as beer, ale, brandy, and sack (one temporary tavern at the Fair went by the elegant name of The Flying Piss-pot), as well as pancakes, sweets, and cakes. After dark, things got wilder, as they usually do when so much imbibing is involved: “And some do say, a giddy senseless Ass/May on the frozen THAMES be furnish’d with a Lass.”

One enterprising printer set up his press on the ice and, for a small fee, would print visitor’s names. As diarist John Evelyn noted: “People and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed…this humor took so universally that it was estimated the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name.”

The river remained frozen for three months, but everyone knew the fun had to end. Still, when at last the ice began to break up one night in February, the cracking was so thunderously loud that Londoners leaped from their beds and ran into the streets in terror, convinced that the city was being attacked by invading French guns.

This is the Frost Fair I used as a setting in Duchess. Sarah Churchill and her friend Anne, then Princess of Denmark, leave the stuffiness of the palace to go riding in a sleigh along the frozen Thames –– one of the few rare places where they are able to speak freely without fear of being overheard. Even swaddled in furs and hooded cloaks, it would have made for an entertaining and exhilarating trip.