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Introducing Ratafia, the Regency lady’s indulgence.

 Introducing Ratafia, the Regency lady’s indulgence. I

Those of us who read and write Regency-set historical novels (set in the early 19th Century Britain) are often presented with food riddles. What is jugged hare? And how about scotch collops? Not to mention spotted dick!

We also notice that the Regency era offered a variety of different drink options, from the innocuous (tea and coffee) to the potent (Napoleon brandy and “blue ruin” gin).  You never read about people drinking water, probably because it wasn’t safe. Boiling and fermenting would do a lot of decontamination… so you can see how the Regency characters could talk themselves into thinking of brandy as an aid to good health.

A photo by Roberta Sorge. drink that seemed particularly popular with the ladies was “ratafia” (pronounced rah-tuh-fee-uh, all syllables equally accented). In Regency novels, ladies of quality sip this drink all day long, while the gentlemen are downing brandy and whisky. I once assumed ratafia was some kind of mild cordial, sweet and only slightly alcoholic, as befitted a pious lady of a good family.

Then a friend of mine, another Regency novelist, embarked on an experiment. Lynn Kerstan decided to make ratafia as Christmas gift for her writer friends. When the little bottle arrived in the mail, I promptly took a swig. That’s when I realized that the proper Regency ladies were quite deceptive when they pretended this was some innocent sweet cordial.

It was probably 90 proof. Seriously.

When I pointed this out, Lynn sent me the recipe she’d used:

Regency Ratafia

1 quart of brandy

½ bottle champagne

1/2 cup of gin

¼ cup of sugar

2 oranges

2 cups of cherries, pitted and squashed

2 cups of blackberries

Dash of cinnamon

Dash of nutmeg

1 teaspoon powdered rosemary

Three cloves (bruised)

¼ cup crushed almonds

Mix in a gallon glass jar. Cap jar and shake. Store in dark cupboard for three weeks, removing once a week to shake jar. After three weeks, strain liquid through a cheesecloth, pressing down on solids to release their liquid. Distribute and store in several pint jars or tightly corked wine bottles.

Notice that the recipe starts with brandy, and then adds champagne and gin! The orange and cherry provides the cordial-ish taste, while the herbs and spices add a depth of flavor.  And the sugar, well, that doesn’t just make it sweeter. I think the purpose of storing this concoction for weeks and stirring it occasionally is to ferment it even further.  (I found another recipe that primly suggested an addition to stop fermentation—vodka. Yep, that’ll take care of that intoxication problem.)

With the brandy base, Lynn’s version was most similar to those created in the Regency. I’ve found less potent variations, some which are basically a long-refrigerated sangria (red wine, fruit, sugar, and three weeks in the fridge). Italian ratafia starts with Montepulciano red wine and adds only cherries as the fruit. A French variation uses a variety of berries, including gooseberries. The Catalan version has unripe (green) walnuts soaked in the liquor before the fruit is added. I even found one that deepened the flavor with peach and cherry pits (which are poisonous if opened).  Each of these adds both a spice like cinnamon and a savory herb (usually rosemary).

Ever after, I imagined those Regency ladies primly sipping their ratafia at the afternoon al fresco musicales, and then as an after-supper liqueur, and finally as a nightcap, then stumbling off to bed in a stupor, and waking up with a hangover. Ratafia is not for sissies!

Here’s a less potent variation that we can enjoy this summer without too much guilt. I devised it myself after testing a few recipes. (The extreme measures I take for research!) I decided to follow Lynn’s example and stir it once a week. I didn’t have any cheesecloth, so I just strained it through a wire mesh colander.

Alicia’s Less Potent but Still Classy Ratafia

Into a large capped glass jar, like the kind you use for sun tea, mix:

1 bottle of dry but fruity red wine (Italian and Spanish wines are best, I think)

1 pound of mixed and then crushed berries—your choice, but make half cherries for deepest flavor, and you can leave in the pits in for that dangerous thrill

½ pound of peach slices

2 oranges peeled and sectioned (I once tried tossing in the peels too, but that was a bit bitter. Next time I might just try the zest of the oranges)

I/4 cup of white sugar

A vanilla bean, sliced, or a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, ground rosemary

¼ teaspoon of ginger and anise

A few crushed almonds

Close the jar and shake to distribute. Then put it away in a dark cupboard or the refrigerator (my choice) for three weeks. Once a week, shake the jar to re-distribute.

After three weeks, strain it through cheesecloth or a fine mesh. Then pour it into bottles or smaller jars.

Now try it out.  I’m a wimp and add water at this point, but if you’re made of stronger stuff, you can drink it straight. Keep it tightly capped and refrigerated. It goes great with barbecued meats on a summer night.

And don’t forget to wear your lacy gloves and sip primly from tiny cordial glasses!




Tryst at Brighton-coverIt’s a decade after Napoleon’s defeat, but the war still haunts even the victors. Linked by family and by grief, divided by social class, Russian émigré Natasha and ship’s doctor Matthew have lived for years in mutual distrust. But when she’s suspected of killing a man from her past, she reaches out to Sir Matthew for help. It takes both his medical training and her intuition to solve the mystery of the murder at the Brighton Inn—and the secret of her own troubled past. Read Tryst at the Brighton Inn by Alicia Rasley.





alicia by dmac croppedAlicia Rasley lives in Regency England… well, only in her imagination. She is the RITA-award winning author of eight Regency romances, along with a best-selling family saga and a contemporary mystery novel. She lives in the Midwest until she can invent a time-travel machine! She teaches writing at a state university and in workshops around the country and online. Sign up for the email newsletter and get a free novella!

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More about the Brighton Pavilion

Carola Dunne shared this with me:

Turner painting of Brighton from the sea acquired by Brighton Museum.

My article about the Brighton Pavilion.






The Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Brighton Pavilion: Britain’s Own Kubla Khan

by Alicia Rasley

(My Tryst at the Brighton Inn is set outside Brighton. In fact, Natasha is on her way to Prinny’s birthday picnic at the Pavilion when she gets caught up in a murder.)

In 1786 George, Prince of Wales was 24 and newly married, illicitly, to his great love Mrs. Fitzherbert. He was also deeply in debt, hundreds of thousands of pounds owed for jewelry, horses, and especially his beautiful London home, Carlton House.  When the stress in the capital got too much, he would retreat to a farmhouse he owned in the seaside town of Brighton.

But this was the time leading up to that astonishingly creative period known to most of the world as “the Romantic era,” though most of us would call it the Regency. And this was the future Prince Regent, “The Prince of Pleasure.” A simple farmhouse wouldn’t satisfy his extravagant nature and luxurious tastes for long. So soon he hired the fashionable architect Henry Holland, who started adding to the farmhouse. And adding. And adding. Holland designed the first of the great buildings, the Marine Pavilion, in the clean neo-classical style Prinny favored. One of the special features Holland provided for his royal patron was a tunnel to the nearby home of Mrs. Fitzherbert, still the secret wife.

brighton pavilion



The Marine Pavilion in 1787

For most of the next decade, Prinny contented himself with furnishing the pavilion, spending thousands on art, fixtures, and draperies. This was hardly his only extravagance, but it was a major contributor to the impossibly large debt that he’d accrued by 1795. In fact, in return for Parliament paying off his debt, he was forced into a bigamous marriage with his German cousin Caroline. He could be forgiven, perhaps for later wondering if it was worth it, because his was one of the worst marriages of all time.

Once freed of his crushing debt, Prinny felt up to spending again. But few of us would argue with his choices. For example, one of his early decisions was to put a couple water closets in the main building, for those special guests who weren’t up to battling the sea breeze to get to the outdoor privies. He kept (this will not surprise you) three confectioners on his Brighton kitchen staff, and brought Holland back to create a special confectionery in the kitchens.


The Grand Saloon, where the Regent entertained guests, changed occasionally to show the particular trends in high-priced depavilion grand salooncorating. The room was remodelled in the late 1790s by the artist Biagio Rebecca, painted in dramatic colors with gilt-framing. While he did use some French artisans and artists, in the time of war, Prinny tried to be patriotic. Much of the furniture was built by such great British cabinetmakers as Chippendale and Seddon. (The “sociable” circular couch in the middle of the room is probably from a later period, as it appears in a print that pictured the room in early Victorian times.)

Fortunately, the prince’s taste wasn’t confined to European. A gift of some Chinese wallpaper  inspired the prince, and he conjured up a manically oriental design for the main rooms of the Pavilion. Biographer J.B. Priestley describes one feature, “Along the southern wing was an astonishing Chinese passage of painted glass, decorated with flower, insects, fruits and birds, and illuminated form the outside, so that guest could easily imagine they were passing through an immense Chinese lantern.”

By the turn of the century, Prinny turned his attention to the outbuildings, commissioning a new stable and a riding school. Even he was taken aback at the elegance of the resulting buildings, admitting that his horses were being “housed in a palace.”  In fact, the new additions posed a pair of problems. The facades were in an Indian style, clashing with the more classical house, and also, with a 65-foot high cupola, the stable outshone Prinny’s own home. This could not, of course, be borne.

Much of the time before his Regency were spent hiring and firing architects. First he hired Humphry Repton, primarily a landscape architect, submitted plans to unify the house and gardens with an Indian theme. Prinny declared this a “perfect” design, but Parliament didn’t agree, or at least didn’t agree to finance it. By the time he had the blunt, he’d moved on from the “mogul trend” and he reached out to a new architect, James Wyatt, to make his Gothic dreams come true. Imagine a neo-Gothic monstrosity rising out of the South Coast landscape! Well, you’ll have to imagine it, for before he could break ground, James Wyatt was killed, and Prinny had to search for new inspiration.  It took years after Prinny became Regent, but finally he turned to John Nash, who was a known quantity, having already remodeled Carlton House. (He had also once been a student of Repton’s, who could not have been pleased to be set aside this way.) Nash got to work, and by 1815, he had expanded the Pavilion and unified its exterior into a vaguely Indian shape.

Nash used the Pavilion as an opportunity to experiment. After all, the nation was paying the shot! He used cast iron to strengthen the walls and pillars while still creating an illusion of Oriental fragility in the minarets and domes. He built new kitchens and heated them with steam. The queen mother was so impressed by all this, she gave her reckless son fifty thousand pounds, some of which went to creating State Apartments suitable to host the Prince, the Queen, and other royalty.

For the rest of his Regency, and during his own reign, Prinny used the Brighton Pavilion both as a canvas for his creativity, and as a retreat from the barrage of criticism he faced in London. As author Victoria Hinshaw remarks, the Pavilion’s “constantly changing architecture and decoration reflect the restless personality of George IV.” He frequently summered there, and was engaged in constant improvements to the house and grounds. Even so early, the Pavilion was something of a tourist attraction, rising up on the edge of town like a vision of Kubla Khan’s palace.

nash designed pavilion brighton




The Nash-designed Pavilion


Royal sea-towns were nothing new. For example, Prinny’s father had made Weymouth to the west a popular escape. But Brighton was special, only a day trip from London, and even then possessing a raffishly louche mien that would have appealed to the fun-loving prince. There’s no doubt, though, that without the Pavilion, Brighton would be just another beach town. Instead, it became a fashionable watering-hole, and many nobles made the trip down in order to attend one of the Regent’s elaborate parties.

After he became king in 1820, Prinny continued to host admirers at the Pavilion, until poor health kept him confined mostly to London.

After he died, his brother William IV also came to use the Pavilion as a refuge, for as a sailor in his youth, he had affection for the sea-vistas. He and his queen became known for their informal get-togethers especially in the summers. The continuing royal patronage turned Brighton from a small town to one of southern England’s major cities, with more the 40,000 residents in 1831.

But his successor didn’t regard Brighton so fondly. Queen Victoria, Hinshaw reports, didn’t like the house. The decadent Pavilion couldn’t help but remind the prim new queen of her pleasure-obsessed uncle, and as her family grew, she found little use for this holiday home.  But she treasured it enough to let it stand, and in 1850 she sold it to the city of Brighton.  First, however, she stripped much of its elaborate furnishings; most of these have been returned, but some are still to be found in Buckingham Palace.

Soon the city reopened it as a showplace, charging a sixpence to the tourists to ogle the garish yet oddly tasteful rooms. Several times in the next century, the Pavilion was remodeled, once to turn it into a hospital for victims of the Great War. Though it must have posed an inviting target to the Luftwaffe, the Pavilion survived World War II and was extensively renovated during the post-war period. The renovators this time consulted period guidebooks and sketches as they tried to return the house to the one of Prinny’s vision. The house was almost finished when an arson in 1975 almost destroyed the Music Room. Author Leslie Carroll remembers visiting years later and finding that part of the house was still closed for repair. The Music Room was barely reopened when the epic storm of 1987 dislodged a stone from the minaret and once again damaged the salon.

However, private donations and contributions from the local and federal government have funded a massive renovation, and the Pavilion is now restored to its former glory.  To tide us over until we can all take a road trip and see it in person, here is a 9-part (!) class about Brighton Pavilion from the Open University:

This is a great multimedia experience, with color plates, floorplans, and snippets of the sort of music Prinny would commission for his parties.

The Brighton Pavilion is, above all, an experience, onr that manifests the extravagant and romantic Regency period, and recalls the Prince who remains the most poignant symbol of that time. As the OU concludes, “The Pavilion itself has been called silly, charming, witty, light-hearted, extravagant, gloriously eccentric, decadent, childish, painfully vulgar, socially irresponsible, a piece of outrageous folly and a stylistic phantasmagoria. Whatever you decide about it, it has always been, beyond all dispute, an astonishing flight of the Romantic fancy.”

For a quick look at the Pavilion, author Ashley Kath-Bilsky suggests the videos made by the Brighton Museum, narrated by Andrew Barlow, the former Keeper of the Royal Pavilion at “He gives some interesting back-story to the history of the Pavilion, i.e., the wood and wrought iron that was made to look like bamboo, or the 16 x 10 foot marble  bathtub that could hold 6,000 gallons of fresh or salt water.”

Brighton and Hove.

Dale, Antony. Fashionable Brighton. London: Oriel Press, 1947.

The Marine Pavilion. Georgian Net.

About the author: Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning Regency writer who tries to visit England twice a year. (In her dreams….) New book set near Brighton!


Check out the Amazon page for Regencies by Rasley.

v     Rakish heroes.

v     Reckless heroines.

v     Elegant stories.

Tracking the hero’s journey in Heyer’s books

I love road stories, especially when told by the great comic writer Georgette Heyer. I’m reading Sprig Muslin today, where the hero is stuck with a teenaged runaway and has to chase her around Cambridgeshire. All we get are names of towns and villages– Brampton, Huntington, Thrapston, St. Ives– some of which (esp. St. Ives, which is the name of an important Cornwall town, and on the other side of the country!) lead to confusion. Thank goodness for Google. I put in some of the names mentioned by Heyer as destinations or waystations in the hero’s chase of Amanda, and zing, up came a map, and now I know where they are!,-0.4208967,11.5z


sprig muslin map

What are some other books where we can track the characters’ movements? I want to try that with some Christie novels. Maybe I can find St. Mary’s Mead!

Lady Susan movie

Jane Austen adaptations are still popular!  This is a costume drama based on her Lady Susan.

h/t Martha Tonkin

So why her plots and characters still appeal to modern audiences?


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A happy holidays wish from the past

My great-grandmother Helen Pustek emigrated from Slovakia in (I think) 1902. (My granddad, her oldest son, was born in 1904, as I recall.) I remember her in her eighties as a tiny birdlike woman. I don’t think she ever learned to speak English. My cousin Charlotte found a Christmas card from her in some old papers and sent this jpeg. The card is (I assume) in Slovak. Imagine that– it’s not like there were millions of Slovaks here! I can’t read the language, but I think it’s Slovak. The ornate but thin font is like I remember from my grandparents’ Slovak bible.

I notice that someone else has written “Mother” before her signature. (The card was sent to her son, Uncle Rube as we called him — John.) I bet she could write her name because it would be the same in Slovak, but probably wouldn’t know how to write the English word Mother.

great grandma3


Can you nominate my book? Just one click, no obligation

Would you click this link and nominate my book?
I have just finished a new novel, and I’m trying something new, the Kindle Scout program. And I hope you’ll help me by clicking this link and “nominating” the book.

This is a program where Amazon Kindle chooses certain submissions for publication based partly on nominations from the public. Would you nominate my book? All it takes is following this link for my Regency-England mystery novel Tryst at the Brighton Inn and clicking the blue Nominate button (right under the description of the book).

Tryst at the Brighton Inn

There’s an excerpt from the book there on the campaign page. If the book gets chosen for publication, you’ll get a free e-copy.  Thanks!

Grand Sophy film?

The grand sophyAn adaptation of Georgette Heyer’s most famous book.

What a great idea!

This is the duo who produced  Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the BBC is involved, so there’s some possibility that it will get made.

The Jane Austen Film Club asks us to sign the petition to get it made:

The Jane Austen Film Club: The Grand Sophy film- A Georgette Heyer adaptation at last?

If you haven’t yet signed the petition for a Georgette Heyer film, the link is here below. We have over 1400 signatures from all over the world, so I think we have proven an audience for a Heyer film. Join us!


Regency Medicine Part 2

Part 2

Medical Practice

Most doctors in the Regency era were surgeons of the older sort, those who had learned their craft through apprenticeships and hands-on experience. They served villages and towns, and in most areas of London too.  However, “physicians” would be the medical professionals sought after by the ton for their greater training and expertise (and price).

The life of a physician back then was considerably different than experienced today. For one thing, a medical career didn’t put a doctor squarely in the elite as it might today. A few were knighted, mostly for doctoring the royal family or for coming up with some important medical advance.  But few physicians would be invited to ton parties, except those perhaps who tended to the duke or the countess and might be needed in a crisis.

He could make an adequate living, equivalent perhaps to that of a seacaptain (300 pounds a year), or if a specialist or “consulting physician” earn considerably more, up to 2000 pounds after the Regency. But physicians didn’t become wealthy then, for theirs was a mostly retail practice—housecalls to sick patients, holding “surgery” for those able to walk in to the office. Payment was generally by the incident (sometimes with barter of farm goods or other services). But some physicians had something of a “subscription practice,” what we’d now call “concierge medical treatment,” where the richer families paid a fee per annum to keep him on retainer.

A slightly later (mid-century) account of a young physician’s practice can be found in

Middlemarch, where the promising young doctor Mr. Lydgate is thought to have married “up” when he weds the daughter of minor (untitled) gentry.  As he was just starting his practice in a new town (rather than taking over his father’s or uncle’s or mentor’s practice, which was more common), he has to woo the landed families in the area, sometimes seducing them away from established physicians. Though Middlemarch takes place a few decades after the Regency, its account of a village surgeon tells of a life similar to that of Regency practicioners.

Physicians and surgeons did have privileges (as now) in hospitals. However, most hospitals were in the cities, and seldom used by the majority of the populace. In fact, they were long considered sources of contagion. Just superimpose a Google map of hospitals in London over the map of old London. Most hospitals are, even now, outside of where the old City gates would have been, because they were where plague, TB, and other infectious patients would be sent.

Most doctors in the Regency era practiced in villages and towns, and seldom visited a hospital. Many did try to keep up with medical advances, such as they were in that time before the “age of miracles,” before medicine became a science.

Medical Learning on the Job

The great 17th Century doctor William Harvey famously told his students, “Don’t think, try.” This advice demonstrates how doctors in the centuries before the great modern advances still managed to practice good medicine and even cure diseases.

The network of physician correspondence and medical journals of the period shows the Regency patient or physician was not relegated to leech applications and mustard poultices. In fact, without ringing the Walgreens to order up a Cipro prescription, a Regency-era physician had plenty of tools at his disposal (yes, they were almost all “him,” but there were women nurses, midwives, and healers then).  Just remember, though, that medical knowledge was mostly inductively attained then, through experience, observation, and experimentation.

“Inductive” means making conclusions from evidence.  For example (going ahead a couple decades), Florence Nightingale used the evidence of many battlefield hospital deaths by infection to start an experiment of “clean water and clean hands”.  Just that technique cut deaths from 42% to 2% in four months, an outcome striking enough, and visible enough, to get her discoveries published and promulgated. However, she would probably not have been the first health care worker to have noticed this. So yes, a Regency doctor could certainly wash his hands between patients. He might not know exactly why, but he’ll know it helps save lives.
Another example, reported by Robert and Nancy Mayer, is the treatment of scurvy by ships’ surgeons in the Royal Navy. Some ship surgeons noticed how sufferers craved green vegetables, and correctly supposed that filling up on fresh produce during landfalls would cure the disease. Other surgeons, trying to figure out how to maintain health during long voyages, settled on citric juice and crystals as easily preserved nostrums.  They didn’t have to know much about vitamins to observe the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.

Physicians of this pre-modern period were always observing and sharing realizations and revelations in the Regency-equivalent of an internet list, the formal journals put out by medical societies and the informal networks of posted letters and reports. For example, the letters of Edward Jenner (the small pox guy) show that he was constantly sending and receiving letters from other doctors speculating about medical issues and reporting on observations. In one letter, Jenner anticipated (in the 18th century!) modern cardiology when he traced heart problems to arterial narrowing. Many of these informal physician correspondences are collected in medical school libraries and the Royal College of Physicians.

Medical journals were also sources of information and research for doctors in the Regency period. However, these journals could be expensive, so poorer doctors might share a subscription and post the issues back and forth. A scanned copy of the very first (1809) issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine “Medico-Chirurgical Transactions” can be found here at the NIH’s Pub Med Central, which has been digitizing millions of pages of medical journals. This includes an article titled “A case of violent and obstinate Cough, cured by a preparation of Iron“.  The Royal Navy surgeons, who were responsible for the health of a hundred thousand seamen, had several journals for reading and reporting. Even more common was the circulation of surgeons’ logs and private journals. Accounts of these have been collected in the British National Archives.

Doctors also learned by experimenting, sometimes to the detriment of the current patient.  Stephen Maturin, the ever-curious physician in the Patrick O’Brian “Aubrey” series (a must read) once reported to his captain about a “successful” surgery where he and another surgeon had tried out a new technique in opening up and stitching together a wound. Captain Aubrey said gladly, “Mr. Brown came through, then.” But Stephen shakes his head. Well, no, the patient died—but the operation was still a success, because they’d learned from it.

In fact, earlier medicine tends to come to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons—keep that in mind when you want to have the physician explain his miracles. The medieval concept of “bile,” for example, turns out not to be so determinative, but the physicians then were certainly correct that certain bodily fluids could transmit disease.  Use this “right for the wrong reason” to help your doctor soothe his patients. For instance, the novelist Umberto Eco has two madhouse doctors discussing a profoundly hypochondriac patient. These doctors believe in the late 19th C magnetism therapy, where a steel rod is placed against the flesh of a patient to “attract” the disease away from the body.  Of course, we would think of this as a big scam, but guess what? It worked. Why? Those doctors didn’t know what the “placebo effect” was, but the “double-blind placebo” has always been a solution to some mental illnesses. If both the doctor and the patient believe this will work, well, why not try it?  Maybe the “cure” is psychological, but maybe the illness is too.

Go to Part 3.