Recently, through the wonder of Netflix, we discovered a captivating program that first aired on BBC in 1998. Set during the time of King Edward VII’s coronation, London 1902, Berkeley Square tells of three nannies and the wealthy families they served. As we watched the first few episodes, we were reminded of the Masterpiece Theater classic Upstairs, Downstairs and its revelations of the British upper class and their servants’ lifestyles.
Although nannies were among the more privileged of servants, their lives were wholly dependent on their employers. Berkeley Square touches on some social issues not often seen in popular film – child neglect, the use of laudanum and baby-farming. The depiction of children and their caretakers was both thought-provoking and sad. The movie shows strong visual images in the costumes and settings.
As a writer of historical romance, I’ve long been fascinated with servants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two years ago, my husband and I toured a few of the summer mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. We especially enjoyed seeing The Elms. The tours – both of the main house and the special behind-the-scenes servants tour – revealed two different worlds. The contrasting tours were like entering the kitchen of an exclusive restaurant; we saw both the glamorous facade and where the potatoes were peeled.
Studying how people lived – cultural history – helps to better create and shape our characters. That’s what I find most valuable in my writing research, discovering what folks wore (both day and night), what they ate, how they dressed, and what they valued. Last year’s History Conference at RWA National included workshops on dressing our characters, a Regency period Soiree, and samplings of foods from different time periods.
Movies. Books. Websites. Conferences. Old house tours. Civil War re-enactments. They all reveal needed details that breathe life into our characters.
→ Have you seen Berkeley Square? What movies, books, or other events have helped you to enrich your knowledge of cultural history?