Charades, Riddles, and Literary Societies in the 18th Century
My first protects from wind and my second from earth, while my whole cures boredom of mind.
In A Dash of Romance, we met a group of four ladies who made up the Ladies' Literary Society. This group not only critiqued each other's writing in hopes of future publication, but also wrote articles for the village newspaper and read books together as a book club. In A Touch of Romance, this group has expanded to involve a writers' retreat. The story opens with the ladies in attendance of an invitation-only writers' retreat wherein we see an intriguing mixture of private writing, group critiques, group book readings, charade and riddle games, playacting and theatricals, and more. Have you ever been part of a book club or a writing group or even attended a writers' retreat? The rise in popularity of these kinds of groups (and the advent of the book club, specifically) occurred in none other than the 18th century!
This exploration hopes to offer a brief look at each element we see in A Touch of Romance, along with including a plethora of links to blogs and scholarly journals so you can dig deeper into which elements interest you the most.
Writing critique groups are a common occurrence now, especially at local libraries or community centers and sometimes at coffeehouses and private homes. I've lost count as to how many writing critique groups I've been part of over the years, some being fantastic for writing help and others being a bit lackluster, but then I suppose it depends on what you're looking for in a group. Each group I've taken part of has had a different energy and goal. Some share resources, some critique writing, some discuss writing techniques and strategies, some invite guest speakers to discuss various topics about writing and publication, others include a mixture of all or a few of these, and so forth. Well, the 18th century saw the first writing critique groups form.
Technically, they began in the 17th century, but that was in France. It wasn't until the 18th century that the concept made its way to England. In France, these groups went by a variety of names, but were notably referred to as salons. The first such salon (we're still in France) was hosted by Marquess de Rambouillet. The literary set of Paris attended by invitation. Rambouillet hosted informal gatherings that included games and socializing, as well as literary discussions. Once we see the popularity of these salons make its rise across the channel, we see the Britons do what they do best--they formalized and structured the salons to be more formal and far more focused on literature, debate, and education. A great little blog post about this can be found from Alphahistory.com. The post discusses not only more details about the history but also some of the most famous hosts and groups in France.
It was women who popularized the literary circles in England in the 18th century. The gentlemen had their coffeehouses and private clubs, so women embraced the salon concept and created their own literary societies. Within these groups, they would share their writing, critique each other's writing, and network ways in which to publish. One of the best articles I've found to discuss these lady-led writing groups is "A French Phenomenon Embraced: The Literary Salon in Eighteenth-Century Britain" by Amy Prendergast. A couple more must-read articles that discuss this and literary societies in general: "Enlightenment Salons: The Convergence of Female and Philosophic Ambitions" by Dena Goodman, and another article by Amy Prendergast "Literary Salons Across Britain and Ireland in the Long Eighteen Century."
The 19th century and early 20th century saw some of the most famous writing groups, made popular by the works produced from their encouragement and challenges. Take, for instance, Lord Byron's writing retreat at Villa Diodati in 1816, which prompted the ghost story challenge that inspired the writing of Frankenstein and The Vampyre (which then influenced the writing of Dracula), among other tales. Read more about the group's history-making meeting at Villa Diodati from Greg Buzwell's article at The British Library. I don't think you'll find many who deny this next group (of which Virginia Woolf was a member) as being one of the, if not the, most famous writing groups: the Bloomsbury Group.
Not all writing groups focused just on writing, and not all literary societies were about writing critiques because not all booklovers were writers (goes without saying!). Book clubs developed during the 18th century as a way for people to read without having to pay the hefty price for a book. Before the circulating and subscription libraries, only the wealthy could purchase books, and even after the libraries came on the scene, it still cost a fee. To make more money, publishing houses did not publish novels in a single volume as we see them now, rather they published them in three parts (or more, but usually the magic number was three), which meant you would have to purchase all three volumes if you wanted to read the whole book. Book clubs were a way around this. The group could chip in to purchase books or to pay the subscription fee for one member, then meet together to read each book (by way of reading the book aloud at meetings). This article by Stephen Clocough discusses the development and importance of book clubs in the 18th century: "The Circulating Library, Book Club and Subscription Library: Readers and Reading Communities, 1770-1800."
A fun blog post by Sarah Laskow explores the bookish elements of book clubs, as well as the more social aspects. While the primary purpose of a book club was, obviously, to read and discuss books, it also provided the opportunity to socialize and eat, something we see in A Touch of Romance, and in the right company, discuss ideas, philosophies, and politics. That said, it might not surprise you to know so many of the gentlemen's book clubs took place in coffeehouses while the ladies' book clubs took place in the hostess' salon. Some book clubs took a different approach and were hosted as dinner parties. The previously linked blog post by Laskow offers some great examples of the most well-attended and well-known book clubs, one of which was attended by Branwell Brontë. To learn more about the rise of subscription libraries (including their cost) that instigated book clubs, check out this post from JaneAusten.co.uk.
Let's change focus to two of the games we see occur at the writers' retreat in A Touch of Romance. These were both exceedingly popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries and both seen within Jane Austen novels and personal letters, not to mention referenced in newspapers and beyond at the time. Would these games have occurred at a book club or writing group? Undoubtedly! Charades and Home Theatricals.
The charades of the 18th and early 19th centuries were literary riddles, unlike what we now know as charades. There are entire books of the original literary charades for your game hosting enjoyment! The Victorian era (always the Victorians...) altered the literary charades to be acted charades. They were still literary in nature, but the syllables were acted out instead of read, such as we see in Jane Eyre when Mr. Rochester and Miss Ingram playact for the guests. This style of acted charades continued until WWI, after which the nature of the game transitioned again, this time into a pantomime.
Prior to WWI, and as we see represented in multiple of Jane Austen's works, charades were literary riddles following a written formula that would hint at the word or phrase by breaking it into syllable clues (each syllable being separated into a different word before the final clue brings it all together). This blog gives a brief history of charades. A typical charade would be a minimum of 3 lines with the opening referring to "My first," the middle referring to "My second," and the closing referring to "My whole." The first and second are the syllable clues, and the whole hinted to the uniting of the clues. Have you solved the charade at the beginning of this post? "My first protects from wind and my second from earth, while my whole cures boredom of mind." The first is "shawl," the second "rod," and if we put it together it's charade!
One of the most well-known charades appears in Austen's Emma: "My first doth affliction denote,/ Which my second is destin’d to feel; And my whole is the best antidote/ That affliction to soften and heal." The first is "woe," the second "man," and if we put that together, we get "woman." Fun, right? This blog post is a must read to test your skills at charades! JAFF author Sharon Lathan of AustenAuthors.net has created a series of her very own charades to challenge you.
In addition to literary riddles, home theatricals were popular. We see these not only in the literature of the time, but also in the lives and letters of the time. Notably, Jane Austen's family enjoyed them and even playacted some of Austen's own writing. Home theatricals were informal and amateur performances--several or all guests/family members having a part in the play. It was not uncommon to go all out with these by designing costumes and stage props (imagine the fun a family might have in sewing the costumes and crafting props in the parlor every night for a few weeks until they were ready to perform!).
So popular were home theatricals that some of the wealthier in society went so far as to build indoor and/or outdoor theaters intended to entertain guests and family. Staged performances would not be hired out, rather the host would have the guests/family themselves act out the parts, all as an interactive way to be entertained--being the play rather than watching the play. A fantastic scholarly article that showcases Jane Austen's experiences with home theatricals and her references of theatricals within her novels is Jane Austen and The Theatre by Penny Gay. A briefer and more informal discussion of theatricals in general can be found in this post from The Republic of Pemberley. This blog post from English Historical Fiction Authors delves into how we see these theatricals referenced morally in literary works, politics, and art.
For your next dinner party, retreat, book club, or writing group, consider incorporating a home theatrical or game of charades. Could be fun! If not, at least you can enjoy the activities vicariously in A Touch of Romance.