Furniture is Fun, and an Accurate Setting Matters
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
I’m often asked how much research I do for my books. The answer falls somewhere between a lot and too much!
I have strong opinions about accuracy in historical fiction. I certainly don’t expect perfection, but I would hate for one of my readers to be irritated by inaccuracies that draw them away from caring about the plot or what the characters are feeling. An accurate setting not only sets the stage, but it helps keep the readers' eyes on the characters and their adventures.
There are plenty of resources out there for understanding the social and cultural history in Regency-era England. I cringe when someone writes that the characters’ carriage arrived at the station. I roll my eyes when someone says an entailed estate is willed to the daughter of a friend. I shake my head when someone calls a duchess “my lady”.
Readers who enjoy regencies or JAFF know these things, and they and the genre deserve my best effort to get it right.
In my work in progress, Darcy and Georgiana spend time in accommodations that are… less luxurious than they’re accustomed to.
He looked around the austere chamber, as much to distract him from Georgiana’s resignation as from anything else. The chimney piece was narrow, suitable for only a few embers from the main fireplace, none of the furniture was made of mahogany or rosewood, the draperies were simple. He exchanged the cloth on her forehead for one that had been soaking in cold water.
“I hate to see you sunk from the comforts you were born to.”
The reader doesn’t need a history lesson on wood types used in Regency-era furniture. What the reader sees is that Darcy is not impressed with the outdated and unstylish furnishings, and it shows that he feels above staying in such a place. But it's possible that if I wrote her bed at Pemberley was made of oak, a reader might frown and say, "Um, not likely".
Here’s what I learned while wondering what type of furniture Darcy would expect if he wasn’t staying a such a modest house:
In 1721, Parliament passed the Naval Stores Act that abolished the import tax on timber. It was meant for shipbuilders to import wood from the colonies, but it also resulted in more options for furniture builders, called cabinet makers. Now they had new material to work with, like walnut and mahogany rather than oak. Oak was sturdy, but had a rough grain and was difficult to carve and gild.
Mahogany has a dark, rich color, fine grains, and was good for veneers. Perfect for English Rococo styling that was becoming popular in the mid-1700s. Thomas Chippendale used mahogany in his furniture and his styles were copied throughout the century. It was a superior product compared to oak, sturdy, easier to work with and create delicate styling, and it became the height of fashion.
So, Darcy wouldn't want oak in his sister's room.
Even furniture with walnut veneers wasn't as popular as mahogany when lighter, more delicate Neoclassical styles came into favor through the end of the nineteenth century. The best furniture in your up-to-date house would still be mahogany, and it was popular in the elegant Regency style that followed, too.
Whether you think P&P was set in the 1790s or 1810s ... remember when Darcy has a room redesigned for his sister:
"...a very pretty sitting-room, lately fitted up with greater elegance and lightness than the apartments below."
Even those rooms downstairs were still:
"neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings."
Pemberley probably wasn’t gaudy Baroque and maybe not even Rococo, but the room Georgiana liked was probably closer to the Neoclassical or the sleeker Regency styling that was popular whenever the story was set.
All of this is to say, that for one paragraph, one character’s thought, a lot of effort went into it. But what is important to the reader is what does it say about the character if he’s looking around and not impressed with the simple drapes and the lack of fine imported-wood furniture?
Jane Austen variations and historical romance don’t have to be accurate to be entertaining. No author can know everything, but I enjoy a story more if the author tries. Some things are immutable, and for those of us who read—or write—about this era, there are details that we expect to see done right. I never want to write anything that will draw a reader out of what could otherwise be a fantastic story.
Readers deserve to have their intellect respected. And besides, I love all the little details!