The Vanishing Thief, Kate ParkerOne of the joys of writing is discovering new source material. On a trip to England, I discovered a reprint of “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Baroness Staffe, translated from the French by Lady Campbell, in 1893.

Baroness Staffe has opinions and suggestions on everything, from the sensible (green is a “dubious” choice for an olive-skinned brunette, very fat women shouldn’t wear a low cut dress) to the incredible (using cocaine on insect stings, rubbing in arsenic for the complexion).

Along with her opinions comes information about everyday life in the 1890′s for Georgia Fenchurch, the heroine of The Vanishing Thief and the other books of the Victorian Bookshop Mystery series. These suggestions and directions of the baroness’s give wonderful clues about a character to plant in a story.

Buttoned and laced boots were both popular at that time, and the baroness gives directions for putting both on. I would never have guessed you don’t button the first two buttons on the boots by the toes until after you close the boot from the instep to the ankle. That might be another case of the baroness’ opinion, but it could be used in describing a character’s actions.

She recommends if your “fingers are square or wide at the ends, you may narrow them a little by pinching and squeezing the tips.…in time you will become aware of a notable and pleasant change.” Can’t you see a possibly guilty woman doing this while being questioned?

“A woman should speak in a rather low voice, but distinctly. To shout in speaking denotes vulgar habits, and sometimes shows a domineering spirit…We should have self-command enough never to shout, even when under the influence of anger, indignation, or pain. Such outcries spoil forever the chords of a musical voice.” A character who carries on in a mild voice while everything is falling apart around her would be interesting. What would make her finally scream at someone?

“A badly-dressed woman is only half a woman, if her being so comes from indifference.” Can you imagine a meeting of Baroness Staffe and a suffragette?

On the other hand, the baroness recommended walking and housework for exercise. She preferred using chamois leather or cotton satin for corsets which should be short and only boned in the front and back, allowing freedom of motion.

A woman like Georgia who is running a bookshop and investigating crime in the Victorian Bookshop Mysteries would need to move easily. It’s nice to find evidence that upper crust dispensers of advice in the books in Georgia’s shop would approve of her corset, if not of her occupations.


Leave a Reply