RNA Conference: Canals and Costumes

Francesca and Elaine have a look at two aspects of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s recent conference that sparked their imaginations.

View from Queen Mary's

View from Queen Mary’s

Francesca: I know many of the RNA conference attendees will be writing about the occasion (brilliant as always), so I thought I’d cover something related but a little different, namely our location. Location, or setting, is, of course, very important to writers. The conference this year was held at the Queen Mary campus of the University of London in Mile End. Unlike some of the other locations for the conference, this is smack bang in the middle of a busy and built up area. However, running alongside it is the picturesque Regent’s Canal.

Ain't Miss Behavin'! Karen Aldous and Wendy Clarke

Ain’t Miss Behavin’! Karen Aldous and Wendy Clarke

On the second evening I took a walk along the canal with writers Karen Aldous and Wendy Clarke. Gone was the noise of the surrounding streets, evident even from our bedrooms, to be replaced by the tranquil sound of lapping water.



A little further along we had a surprise, as the barges came to life and revealed what amounted to a village strung along the water’s edge. Many of the owners were sitting on their crafts, enjoying the evening, watching the world go by, eating, drinking, and in one case, strumming a guitar. In the centre of this was a barge set up as a mini pub, with its punters sitting on the grassed area next to the path, enjoying a glass of something. I guess this was the equivalent of a village pub. Several of the residents wished us, ‘Good evening,’ as we sauntered past (and it had been such a warm, busy day we were definitely reduced to sauntering!).

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Old and new: Canary Wharf in the background

It isn’t surprising that we found it an inspiring setting. Many books have included barges or houseboats: Elizabeth Goudge’s The Herb of Grace and Elizabeth Haynes’s Revenge of the Tide are two that come immediately to mind. It will be interesting to see if this setting ever makes it into one of our novels. 

Photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.


Francesca’s biography on The Write Place



The Boned Corset Completed the Underwear

Elaine: Writers set the stage, time period, season and setting with clothing and accessories. As many of you know, my current work in progress is a Victorian saga. I’m sure you can imagine my delight when the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) Conference paperwork came through and Mireille Weller was holding a workshop on how to dress a Victorian woman. It was at 3:15pm on Sunday, when most of the delegates were travelling home. There were less than a dozen of us watching Mireille layer herself in clothing.


The First of Three Petticoats

She started with her under garments and small ankle boots, because the boned corset wouldn’t have allowed her to reach her feet. The corset had taken an impressive inch and a half off her waist before she added three petticoats, one with wired hoops and bustle, with layers of frills to give it bounce. Then the overskirt was added, followed by a decorative apron that sat over it to give more decoration. There was a jacket for daywear and if the lady of the house intended going out in the evening, only the top would be changed to make it look more formal.

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The Hairpiece Added The Curls

Mireille explained that the gentleman had to hold the back of the chair while the lady lowered herself down onto it, otherwise she couldn’t sit.

Ladies also had to lift their skirts and shuffle over the toilet to go, so in modern terms they would be facing the cistern.


The Fan Completed The Look

It was a wonderful way to spend an hour and I haven’t touched on how the poor sold their hair for money and the rich wore it as hairpieces. The whole thing was fascinating and not only gave a real insight into how the Victorians dressed, but also how they lived.

I would like to thank Mireille for allowing us to take photographs while giving us an informative and enjoyable time.


Elaine’s biography on The Write Place



9 thoughts on “RNA Conference: Canals and Costumes

  1. Like you, Francesca, I was enthralled by the setting. Such an oasis in the middle of town. Like you, Elaine, I also attended Mireille’s explanation and demonstration. Thank you for bringing both back to me.

    • I couldn’t agree more Natalie. I felt the canal setting set the conference off to an excellent start as we sat next to it enjoying the sunshine and Mireille’s demonstration brought it to a memorable close for me. The whole conference was handwork but fabulous. Elaine

  2. Canals are, most definitely, tranquil sanctuaries in the middle of the great beating heart of cities, Francesca. As a country child I only knew rivers and streams, but canals offer a similar calm and benison . I loved your description of the canal. Cities need canals, as they need parks, and it’s heartening to see that, in recent years, much has been done to restore these waterways.
    Elaine, thanks for your description of the intricacies of Victorian dressing. We must all be so pleased that modern dressing is so easy and quick. Such resrictive clothes seem symbolic of the limited lives of Victorian women.
    I should think the demonstration was very useful if you’re setting a novel in Victorian times. I’m now rethinking some of the great Victorian literary women in terms of getting dressed in the mornings. Miss Havisham was probably stuck in the same corset for all those years! I wonder who had the privilege of dressing the redoubtable Queen who, I’m certain, was never amused.

    • The analogy of the beating heart is appropriate, Angela, as I feel the canals are a little like the arteries, or certainly were when they were working areas. I agree, it’s good to see them being restored.

    • Angela, I so miss your writing. You are quite right the demonstration of how a victorian woman got dressed did make me think how unconfined we are now. It was a really useful and entertaining session. Those corsets took nearly two inches from the waistline, now that is something I could do with! Elaine

  3. Francesca, your description of your canal-side walk reminded me of the canal-side location in London where my best friend used to live. It’s amazing, isn’t it, to find such a lovely place in the heart of London. Elaine, the history of costume is one of my interests so I loved your part of the blog. I hope lots of interesting snippets will find their way into your WIP.

    • It was a real surprise, Sue, to find the canal there, as I hadn’t even considered looking beforehand to see what was around the uni. Walking along it was an interesting contrast to being in the thick of the conference.

    • Thank you Sue for leaving your comment. Since I’ve been back I have added some extras that I hadn’t thought of, or been aware of so hopefully that will enrich my WIP. If you ever get a chance to see a demonstration of how a woman dressed in history I would certainly recommend it. Elaine

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