In my previous blog post I asked which of the words and phrases below could be used in a story set in 1802. These are the answers.

  1. Agent provocateur: used pre-1802?   No

According to Etymonline.com the first referenced use in English as a borrowed French term was in 1845 (this was a surprise: I was sure it dated back to the Napoleonic Wars).

  1. Spy: used pre-1802?   Yes

The Random House Dictionary has this word dated from 1200-50, a variant of the Middle English spien. So any of you planning a story about a medieval James Bond, go right (or should that be write?) ahead.

  1. Yokel: used pre-1802?   No         

Etymonline.com has its first recorded use in English from 1812 (it has, apparently, come to us from the German jokel, a rude name for a farmer). Really annoyed about this as I had to substitute ‘yokel’ in ‘The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy’ for ‘bumpkin’ (1560s) which to my ear doesn’t have quite the same heft.

  1. Bedrock: used pre-1802?   No

Memidex.com cites its use from 1869.

  1. Blindside: used pre-1802?   No                         

Dictionary.com puts the first use of this US football term in the early 1970s.

  1. Snob: used pre-1802?   No

Tricky one this. Although the word ‘snob’ was around pre-1802 its use was confined to Cambridge University students as a dismissive term for the local tradesmen. The meaning we infer – those who look down on those they believe to be their social interiors ‒ was popularized by William Thackeray’s ‘Book of Snobs’ (1848). So there’s a jarring moment in Jol Wright’s visually beautiful film version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when Mrs Gardiner accuses Elizabeth Bennet of being a snob (just one of many historical faux pas, the worst of which is Keira Knightley’s penchant for wearing rubber wellies!).

  1. Standby: used pre-1802?   Yes

Merriam-Webster has the first recorded use of ‘standby’ (as in ‘one that is held in reserve ready for use’) dated at 1796, so Elizabeth can indeed reach for that conversational standby, the weather.

  1. Upstage: used pre-1802?   No

Etymonline.com dates this from 1855, which was a painful discovery … the synonyms for ‘upstage’ just don’t cut it. I ended up using ‘overshadow’ but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  1. Stage-struck: used pre-1802?   No

Another 1802 no-no, etymonline.com dating this from 1813. The good news here is that the term stage-smitten dates from the 1680s.

  1. Scuttlebutt: used pre-1802?   No                         

Although the word scuttlebutt – a barrel of drinking water for the use of the sailors – dates from 1805, its use as a term for rumor and gossip is much later, 1901.

  1. Femme fatale: used pre-1802?   No

French borrowings are awkward in terms of dating. According to Merriam-Webster the use of femme fatale in English dates from 1912 (etymonline.com comes in a little earlier at 1895). My problem as a writer is that these anglicized Frenchisms are so marvelously succinct and evocative I really regretted having to ditch them. Some of the others that fell by the wayside:

“A woman diving off a bathing wagon in to the sea” 1790 by Thomas Rowlandson , Wellcome Library, London. Here: dipping more than her toe into a new language
  • Volte-face (1819)
  • Decolletage (1894 – try finding a synonym for that!)
  • Bete noir (1844)
  • Habitue (1818)
  • Declasse (1887)
  • Aperitif (1894)
  • Chic (1879)
  • Bona fides (1838)
  • Debutante (1817, as in ‘a young woman making her first appearance into Society’)
  • Fiancee (1844)
  • Fiance (1864)
  1. Mores: used pre-1802?   No

1907, from Latin mores “customs, manners, morals”.

  1. Goal: used pre-1802?   Yes

Figurative sense of “object of an effort” is from 1540s.

  1. Dutch courage: used pre-1802?   Yes

This dates back to the British troops seeing the Dutch troops getting ready for battle in the Thirty Years War (1618-1638).

  1. Sang-froid: used pre-1802?   Yes

1712 (from the French meaning of ‘cold blood’). Fortunately a number of other anglicized Frenchisms made the cut-off date of 1802. These included:

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, not a snob but definitely wearing her wellies
Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, not a snob but definitely wearing her wellies
  • Passe (1775)
  • Rendezvous (1640)
  • Pique (1530s)
  • Sobriquet (1640s)
  • Faux pas (1670s)
  • En route (1779 – I was so pleased about this, synonyms are a nightmare)
  • Tete-a-tete (1728)
  1. Red-handed: used pre-1802?   Yes

1781 (of Scottish origin, I understand).                                                         

  1. Light-fingered: used pre-1802?   Yes

I had one of my characters described as ‘light-fingered’ so when I read in The Cassell Dictionary of Slang’ that ‘light finger’ was ‘US, 1950s’ I was a little put out. Fortunately, further research had the term backdated to 1540. Phew!

  1. Vendetta: used pre-1802?   No

Etymonline.com has this making its debut in 1846, from Italian vendetta ‘a feud, blood feud’. A shame it’s so recent, it’s such a very evocative word.

  1. Proletariat: used pre-1802?   No         

I was searching for a synonym for ‘the mob’ and tried all manner of alternatives. ‘Proletariat’ was a no-no: 1853, from the French prolétariat.

  1. Hoi polloi: used pre-1802?   No

Another try at finding an alternative to ‘the mob’ and another no-no: 1837, from Greek hoi polloi ‘the people’. (OK, Byron used it in 1822 but that was in Greek so it doesn’t count!). If you do need alternatives, ‘the commonality’ is OK (1580) as is ‘riff-raff’ (late 15C).

  1. Itinerary: used pre-1802?   Yes

This came as a surprise to me, ‘itinerary’ sounding quite a modern word, but no: mid-15c, ‘route of travel’ from Late Latin itinerarium “account of a journey”.

  1. Deadlock: used pre-1802?   Yes

One of only two decent (and usable) alternatives to ‘stand-off’: ‘deadlock’ was first used in 1779 in Sheridan’s play ‘The Critic’.

  1. Stand-off: used pre-1802?   No                         

A really useful term but one, sadly, no one in Georgian England would have employed. Its use in the sense of ‘stalemate’ is dated 1891.

  1. Impasse: used pre-1802?   Yes

Good word and usable! 1763, from the French impasse meaning ‘an impassable road or a blind alley’.

  1. Sham: used pre-1802?   Yes        

In the sense of ‘something meant to be mistaken for something else’ it dates from 1728.

  1. Transfix: used pre-1802?   Yes

I was certain this was a modern word but no: 1580s, ‘pierce through, impale,’ from Middle French transfixer.           

  1. Grouch: used pre-1802?   No

I needed a word to describe Darcy when he was in one of his moods. This seemed perfect until I discovered its first use was in 1896. Drat!

  1. The game is afoot: used pre-1802?   Yes

This phrase is so synonymous with Sherlock Holmes that I’m guessing most people would think it was coined in the late 19th century. Wrong; it was first used in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’.         

  1. Pedestrian: used pre-1802?   Yes

Another surprisingly usable word with its meaning ‘a walker’ dating back to 1793. Fortunately the word ‘pavement’ is from the 13th century so they had something to walk on!

  1. Bric-a-brac: used pre-1802?   No

1840, from obsolete French à bric et à brac (16c.) “at random, any old way”, a nonsense phrase.

So … how did you do? My score was 14/30 … pretty poor, I suppose, but as they say practice makes perfect (a mid-16th century maxim so one Elizabeth Bennet might have used). 



DSCF9002 blogWriting about life in 1802 is a challenge. One of the key ambitions of a writer of fiction is to be so persuasive that the reader suspends disbelief … forgets that the world and the characters he or she is reading about is make-believe. To do this the writer has to ensure there are no jarring historical inaccuracies or plot inconsistencies which brings them out of their fugue.

Pretty straightforward for those whose story is set in the present day or better yet is a fantasy world of the author’s own devising, but with historical fiction, accuracy is all and that requires a LOT of background research. This is especially with Regency fiction the readers of which are a very knowledgeable bunch.

So before I began the ‘The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy’ I knew I had to do my research. I read a great many books – some good, some not-so-good – and I thought it might be useful to pass on my thoughts and recommendations.

I began by reading about Georgian London – a good chunk of the action of my story takes place there ‒ trying to get a feel for the place and the people. These are the books I referenced to help me do this:

“Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England” by Roy and Lesley Adkins

DSCF9014AIf I had to recommend just one book as an introduction to life in Georgian England, this would be it. Comprehensive yet entertaining, it provided any number of insights that helped me in the writing of my novel. For instance, the importance of almanacs to the Georgians was partly due to their being able to alert night-time travelers when the moon would be out (coach travel on a moonless night was a perilous occupation). Another example: in ‘The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy’ Mrs Reynolds advises Elizabeth that she has provided her maid with sheets for use in coaching inns, this prompted by the Adkins’ book. An excellent book.

Nelli Rating: 10/10

“Dr. Johnson’s London” by Liza Picard

DSCF9015APerhaps in terms of ‘fun reading’ this is my favorite of the five I’m reviewing. It could be criticized for being a little staccato and list-like but I enjoyed it immensely. It was by far the best at conveying the idiosyncrasies of life in Georgian London and was a treasure trove of bits and pieces to get an author’s creative juices flowing. For instance it describes ‘the language of the fan’ – how ladies communicated using their fans – which is great fun for a writer. Examples:

Fan close, tip to lips: hush we are overheard; and

Open fan, hiding eyes: I love you.

I also loved the comment, attributed to Lady Browne, that, ‘We English always carry two purses on our journeys, a small one for the robber and a large one for ourselves’. Marvellous stuff. I had Elizabeth follow Lady Browne’s advice.

Nelli Rating: 9/10

“Voices from the World of Jane Austen” by Malcolm Day

DSCF9013AFor those about to embark on writing about Georgian life this is an excellent place to start. That the book is built around passages from the journals of real Georgians and excerpts from Georgian newspapers and the like enables you to appreciate the manner in which people conversed and the things that were important to them. I think it was this book that first alerted me to the depth of the divisions that racked Georgian society especially regarding such divisive subjects as the abolition of slavery and the impact of the industrial revolution. Highly recommended.

Nelli Rating: 8/10

“Georgian London: Into the Streets” by Lucy Inglis

DSCF9009AAn excellent book and one which conveys how very confined London was at that time: one million people crammed in an area perhaps only a tenth of the size of modern day London. It was especially useful as it describes London by district so if your character finds him or herself in Lambeth (as mine does) you’ll know to make mention of the forest of windmills decorating the area these used to grind the flour needed to keep London supplied with bread. Similarly, given that my story heavily involved the intractable ‘Irish Question’ that St Giles was where the poor Irish in London congregated (and where in the mid-eighteenth century one out of every five buildings was a “gin-house”) was a very useful piece of intelligence. Well worth a read.

Nelli Rating: 7/10

“Georgette Hayer’s Regency World” by Jennifer Kloester

DSCF9012AAn excellent introduction to Regency life, well written and well-illustrated though I found it somewhat superficial. My main criticism of it is that as a writer trying to come to terms with the rhythm of Georgian speech the lack of quotes from the Georgians themselves gave it a very sanitized feel, though I suppose the title of the book should have given me a warning of that. I also thought the Appendix of slang was a little truncated (but more of that in a later blog).

Nelli Rating 6/10


Reading Pride and Prejudice I was struck by how little description there is of the idiosyncrasies of the world inhabited by the book’s characters. The reason for this is simple: Jane Austen was writing for those living in that world … they knew everything there was to know of its faults and foibles.

My task is different: I have to persuade my readers that the action I describe is taking place in 1802 and therefore I have to take especial care that everything is accurately described. To have the reader suspend disbelief I had to make a determined effort that there were no jarring historical inaccuracies. This required a mountain of research and this, in turn, led me to the consideration of the 3Cs: coal, candles and claret.

My first home in England was a house in Scarborough which was built in the late eighteenth century and I was struck then by the number of fireplaces it had: one in each of the four rooms downstairs and one in each of the four bedrooms. Indeed, the ‘coal hole’ where the coal to service these fires was stored was so large that we converted it into an office! One house, eight fires: the amount of smoke it generated must have been prodigious.

I thought of this when I started researching Georgian London. Apparently, seen from afar, London of the early nineteenth century appeared as a dirty smudge of smoke on the horizon. Hardly surprising given that a veritable forest of chimneys – remember London’s population was by then a million strong – were belching out smoke from dawn until … well, dawn, soot floating through the air like oversized and very black snowflakes. And all this soot had to go somewhere. One of the most evocative descriptions I’ve read is that English houses of that era were like chimneys turned inside out: the outside was covered with soot and dirt while inside everything was clean and bright. Every vertical surface was covered by a patina of black, slimy soot so washing windows must have been a full-time occupation. Even the sheep which grazed in Hyde Park had black fleeces and, apparently, a letter sent from London could be identified by its smoky smell.

Stench aside, the other consequence of coal smoke was, of course, that it created the famous London fogs. I’ve always associated these with Victorian London – Sherlock Holmes and all that ‒ but Georgian Londoners would have been equally familiar with them. December 1813 was so cold that London was shrouded in a thick fog that lasted for eight days, this so dense that the shops in Bond Street had to light their lanterns at noon.

The impact of this on my story is two-fold. Walking would have been a filthy business – no wonder women wore veils and gloves – and hence those of the bon ton preferred to travel everywhere by carriage. An active girl like Elizabeth would have found this a great imposition.

Secondly, as soon as the sun set, the combination of darkness and fog would have made London – especially in the rookeries – a dangerous place. There was, after all, no street lighting – the first gas lamps weren’t introduced until 1813 – so venturing forth after dark needed real courage … especially for a respectable woman like Elizabeth Darcy.