Highlighting Historical Mystery with Barbara Monajem’s research into letter writing in the early 19th Century
While writing Lady Rosamund and the Poison Pen, I had to research letter writing two hundred years ago. So much has changed since then! In my childhood, before the age of cheap long-distance calls and then the Internet, we communicated via letters–but we had ballpoint pens and envelopes. During one memorable year long ago in England, we used fountain pens and even dip pens and inkwells. But of course we have to go back still further.
Dip pens, such as those used for calligraphy, still exist, but the Regency-era version of the dip pen was the quill, preferably made from the wing feathers of a goose (or a swan or crow). The most commonly-used ink for letter writing was made from oak galls. (There were other inks for printing or artwork.) Sand or pounce (a fine powder) was sprinkled over a newly-written letter to dry the ink.
Paper was an expensive commodity back then. Made from linen and cotton rags, it was sold in various sizes and quantities. The poison pen letters Lady Rosamund receives are written on foolscap. This is not the well-known foolscap of my childhood (which we now call legal size), but 16.5 x 13.25 inches. Since paper was too costly to waste, it was often cut it into half and quarter sheets, so as to use only as much as was needed. People also crossed and re-crossed their letters—in other words, they wrote on top of what they had already written, but in the opposite direction, and even diagonally. It’s unbelievably hard to read, at least to modern eyes, but it certainly goes to show how expensive both paper and postage were at the time.
Lady Rosamund’s horrid correspondent uses a half-sheet of foolscap for a single sentence! Is she or he a wealthy person who can afford wastage? Or a servant who enjoys wasting an unpleasant employer’s paper? Or some other possibility that Lady Rosamund hasn’t thought of?
Since there were no envelopes yet, letters were folded and sealed. Sealing wax had been used for centuries, but by the Regency, the substance used was made of various ingredients and often contained little wax. It was melted with a wax jack or a bougie box, both of which held long coils of wax, of which a small amount could be melted at a time. Sticks of sealing wax were also available. A blob of melted wax would be dropped onto the folded letter and pressed flat with a seal. Often these seals were personalized, so Lady Rosamund hopes the seal will prove a clue to the poison pen’s identity.
Red wax was the most commonly used color, with black the preference for mourning. Why, Lady Rosamund wonders uneasily, does her unpleasant correspondent use black wax?
The only other clue she has is the postmark—which proved far less useful than she (and I) hoped. After consulting various sources, I learned that by the Regency, all London mail went through the Chief Post Office in Lombard Street. That’s not much help to Lady Rosamund, since London is a big city.
So how does she identify the poison pen? That would be telling.
About the Book
Lady Rosamund Phipps, daughter of an earl, has a secret. Well, more than one. Such as the fact that she’s so uninterested in sex that she married a man who promised to leave her alone and stick to his mistress. And a secret only her family knows—the mortifying compulsion to check things over and over. Society condemns people like her to asylums. But when she discovers the dead body of a footman on the stairs, everything she’s tried to hide for years may be spilled out in broad daylight.
First the anonymous caricaturist, Corvus, implicates Lady Rosamund in a series of scandalous prints. Worse, though, are the poison pen letters that indicate someone knows the shameful secret of her compulsions. She cannot do detective work on her own without seeming odder than she already is, but she has no choice if she is to unmask both Corvus and the poison pen.
Will Corvus prove to be an ally or an enemy? With the anonymous poison pen still out there, her sanity—and her life—are at stake.
Buy the book in these places:
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087BBLLNL/
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087BBLLNL/
Amazon Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B087BBLLNL/
Amazon Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B087BBLLNL/
About the Author
Rumor has it that Barbara Monajem is descended from English aristocrats. If one keeps to verifiable claims, however, her ancestors include London shopkeepers and hardy Canadian pioneers. As far as personal attributes go, she suffers from an annoying tendency to check and recheck anything and everything, usually for no good reason. Hopefully all this helps to explain her decision to write from the point of view of a compulsive English lady with a lot to learn about how the other ninety-nine percent lived in 1811 or so.
As for qualifications, Barbara is the author of over twenty historical romances and a few mysteries, for which she has won several awards. On the other hand, she has no artistic talent and therefore is really stretching it to write about an artist who draws wickedly good caricatures. But she’s doing it anyway, because he’s irresistible. To her, anyway. Not so much to the aristocratic lady. Or at least not yet.
You can find her in these places: