Have you ever been to a place, or seen a picture or heard a description of a place, that you just yearned to belong to? This happens to me all the time when I’m reading Regency romance. Whether it’s Jane Austen’s descriptions of the English countryside, or Georgette Heyer’s enumerations of the beauties of a London townhome, I wish I could claim some sort of belonging to these places.
As an American writing English romances, I often feel like a great pretender. No matter how often I visit England, or study its dialects, or research its history, I will never have that native comfort of knowing that what I say is true to reality. There will always be a worry of whether I got it right, or whether someone who actually knows better will call me out.
But my dear husband, who is a genealogist, was able to point out to me that I have a connection to the Regency that is just as close as a native Brit’s: my ancestry is overwhelmingly British, and my predecessors were tramping the very same lanes and rubbing shoulders with the very same crowds that I love to read about in historical fiction. Lest I get too highbrow about it, however, I must admit that my ancestors were hardly of the upper 10,000.
One ancestor I discovered to be a potman at the Bricklayer’s Arms in 1811. A little extra research divulged the information that a potman was simply a server, usually of drinks, but of anything else that was ordered. The Bricklayer’s Arms I assumed to be some sort of pub or inn, so I turned to my copy of the 1815 Epicure’s Almanac, which is a listing of all the eating establishments of any note in all of London at the time. There I found that the Bricklayer’s Arms was a major coach stop, and offered “a most comfortable repast either in the style of a hasty dinner or a flying lunch.” This was interesting enough, but imagine my excitement when I was able to find this posting inn actually listed on Horwood’s 1813 map of London, on the corner of the Kent Road and Bermondsey New Road. The Bricklayer’s Arms is no longer extant, having been replaced by houses, but it was such a thrill finding this connection that I just had to use it in the opening scene of Romance of the Ruin, Book 2 of the Branwell Chronicles.
Another ancestor was a coal merchant in Bath during the Regency, driving his coal cart up and down all those hills and shoveling coal into the coal chutes that can still be seen beneath the flagstones. Sadly, a newspaper article in the 1856 Bath Chronicle describes his death after his cart was overturned. But his son had risen to be a policeman, and lived on Henrietta Street, just around the corner from where Jane Austen’s family had lived.
As I found the stories behind these names on birth certificates and censuses, they came alive to me, much as the characters in historical novels come alive with their stories. Telling stories is a way to connect us, not only to each other, but to those who came before. I’m proud of my English heritage, even and especially because it was not nobility or gentry, but hardworking people who did their best with what they had, and bettered themselves when they could. That’s the kind of nobility I can really get behind.