One of the things I learned when I met Mary Robinette Kowal and Marie Brennan on their book tour was to start wide when doing research and progressively narrow in on your subject of interest. (Read more about the signing here.) If you've ever used a compound microscope, you know that you have to start at the lowest magnification, bring the sample into focus, and repeat at every successive magnification as you increase in power until you reach your desired point. Research is like that.
This week I have been reading The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities by Richard L. Bushman. One good thing about living in a college town is that used bookstores are full of educational books just like this one that someone had to buy for one class and then only opened once (seriously, there is only underlining on one page and that's in the intro) that I get to benefit from after the fact. So thank you, obscure professor that I never had, because this has been great. If you've ever had her/him, tell them "Thank you" from me. That being said, this book was much more interesting to read knowing that I was reading it only to get what I needed from it, not to have to write an essay this weekend.
I only read the intro and the second half, as the second half of the book is the one that pertains the most to Spitfire. Some awesome things that I learned:
Bushman feels that capitalism and a genteel lifestyle should not have worked well together, but they did, largely because of the blossoming middle class working to earn their money, then turning right around and spending it on goods to make them appear more refined.
Everyone was automatically judged on their manners and appearance as aspects of refinement, and it was a matter of course to comment on this to one another. (Doesn't sound like an alien concept at all.) The middle class was trying to become more like the aristocracy and questing to constantly become more refined, which thrust every aspect of their lives and personages under critical eyes.
Women of the middle classes were highly educated in languages, arts, literature, music, and dancing, all with the hope of attracting an eligible bachelor and marrying up, as happened so often in the sentimental novels. They were often sent to boarding schools for young ladies to learn to become more refined and genteel. Once they did marry, they almost never used their education again and had to learn how to run a household. As the nineteenth century progressed, schools for young ladies did start to incorporate useful skills into their curriculum, but only after generations of middle class girls had been sent off to school to learn how to become "ladies" and come back as snobs who looked down on their middle class parents' way of life.
Men of the middle classes were sent to school, not necessarily to earn a degree or even become an expert on a subject, but rather because it was what you did. Their work and/or income was usually determined by what their father did or left them as inheritance.
Reading was highly valued, particularly being well-read in the classics.
Letter writing was extremely important. If you didn't write letters to your far away loved ones on a regular basis, it gave the impression that you didn't care about them. If you wrote letters to your family and failed to mention all the family members at the locale of the recipient - say you wrote to your mother at home, where your father, aunt, sisters, and brothers also were - the left out family member(s) would feel snubbed. If you wrote a letter that was messy, that was disorganized in thought, or with bad handwriting, it said that you didn't care about the recipient, and people had to go out of their way for two or three sentences at the beginning of the letter to convince the recipient otherwise. Want to get better? You could take lessons from a Writing Master to improve your letters.
If you were well off and you lived in the country, you would probably complain about how dull it was, whether it was or not, to emphasize the fact that you were refined because you knew what diversions existed in Society elsewhere.
A parlor came to be equated with refinement. A house could lay claim to refinement if it had one, even if the parlor was mostly shut up and the family never spent any time there because their finest belongings were also their least comfortable.
Upholstered furniture was extremely rare in the early nineteenth century.
If a household owned a large gilt mirror, it would likely be the most expensive thing they owned, more expensive than any other furniture, including the piano.
The upper class did not care to associate with the middle class, saw them as "attempting refinement with inadequate means and little experience." (p. 234) (So much for marrying up, right?)
Cards, music, and dancing were considered cultivated in a parlor but vulgar and debase in a tavern or common room.
The middle class made improvements to existing houses to bring them up to more refined standards. One man complained of the new designs, "We must have a shed behind it, to live in, for we here don't think of living in the front part of our houses, not even to go in at the front door." (p. 265)
Authors of the time (there were many successful authors that were women) sought to reconcile the refined lifestyle with middle class means, introducing it as a way of living your life regardless of station or income (manners, deportment, style, etc.)
Sentimental novels often featured a heroine who was extremely well educated, though not often from a home of means. She would often win the approval and affection of some foreign aristocrat because of her refinement and "mental culture", sometimes even over her beauty (or lack thereof). Bushman draws a parallel between this and the fact that the American middle class needed the approval of the aristocracy to prove its legitimacy. Bushman also feels that the form of the sentimental novel actually pushed back the advancement of women's rights by encouraging them to develop where they were and wait for validation rather than seeking an alternate situation.
Members of churches had to pay for the pews they occupied, as churches became more ornate to match their more affluent members, the pews became more expensive, thus edging out poorer parishioners.
Pastors of churches, trying to distance themselves from the stark, puritanical churches and styles of worship of the past that made their more affluent members uncomfortable, went so far as to say that refinement was a virtue attributable to God, and that the more refined a person was, the more godly. They did seek to differentiate between refinement and seeking fleeting fashion, but I think that's more splitting hairs.
Before we laugh and say, "How fun! How backward!" I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on just how little has changed. The middle class lifestyle described here is the American Dream. Constantly chasing the dragon of wealth and influence, earning it penny by penny rather than inheriting it. The dream that "We're just as good as them." We're still knee-jerk judgmental and gossipy. We think that having more things and more education than someone else makes us better people. Girls are still encouraged to better themselves so that a boy will come along that will like them and ask them to marry them rather than figuring out who they are and what they want out of life. I was told in my 400-level Biochem Lab that the only reason I went to Texas A&M was to find a husband, and it still makes me shaking-angry if I think about it for too long in one sitting. People who attend church today often care more about whether the other members are like them than how God is served by their worship. Don't be afraid of the mid-1800's when you read Spitfire. It will probably be a very familiar place.
On a lighter note, I leave you with a quote. This farmer was referring to reading, but I find if I take it out of context, it still applies to myself, as an aspiring author with a day job.
"How hard it is to earn one's bread and make any literary pursuits at the same time." (p. 282)