J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

“Apprehension that She Might Break Off in the Middle”

Late in life, Boston native Royall Tyler (1757-1826) tried rewriting his bestselling novel, The Algerine Captive, with new material, hoping for another success. He and his wife Mary lost the race to finish that task before he died of a terrible facial cancer. The patched-together manuscript, titled “The Bay-Boy,” was first published in The Prose of Royall Tyler in 1972.

Tyler’s manuscript is most valuable as a look back on upper-class Massachusetts just before the Revolution, the years when Tyler grew up as the son of a merchant and popular Boston official (whose name he took). Between the lapses of memory and the exaggerations of satire, I don’t think “The Bay-Boy” is an exact description of life in that society, but it certainly gives a flavor.

Here’s the narrator’s description of his mother, wife of the owner of a country estate:

The crown and cap sheaf of all her accomplishments was her performance on the spinet. I wish, reader, you could have seen her as she has been represented to me in all the pride and costume of her maiden glory, seated on her tent stitch joint stool as erect and attractive as a polished shaft from the quiver of Cupid, her hair craped on her lovely head—an operation which required the labor of the barber for only five hours—but no time was lost in the process, as the hair thus fashionably craped would continue five months without the application of the comb.

Upon the tip of this toupee a diminutive triangular cap, called a fly cap, cocked like a man’s hat, richly edged with point lace, was conspicuous; but what the cap lacked in its main structure was made up in its train, as from behind was depended two log pinners which reached halfway down her neck.

Her hair was turned up behind and secured to the back of her head by a tortoise shell comb resplendent with French paste, excepting one lock, called by the ladies a “favorite” and by the beaux a “love lock,” which was suffered to stray over the left shoulder, and wanton down her lovely neck—this with a black patch as big as a pea stuck under her right eye and another at the corner of her mouth gave an air of smartness to the fair one altogether irresistible to the eye of taste.

Her neck was clasped by a brilliant necklace with its dependent solitaire and of the same pattern were her earrings magnified by many a pendant and drop. Her negligee of rich brocade, with deep ruffle cuffs which, as she sat, almost touched the ground, these enclosing ruffles of the finest Brussels lace.

Her bust clasped by a stiff pair of stays which terminated in sharp angles at the bottom before and behind and so tightly laced as to excite apprehension that she might break off in the middle, but this was happily prevented by the busk; a silver stayhook set with jewels adorned her lap and served to confine the strings of her short apron; a pocket hoop and plumpers by their broad expanse served to relieve the slender circuitry of the waist.

Shoes of white satin ornamented on the instep by a broad fillet of silver lace and heels two inches and a half high were clasped with paste buckles. A pin cushion and scissors suspended by a silver hook and chain completed this attractive costume.
Consider this the equivalent of the satirical prints of the day, a caricature of something familiar.

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