Historical mystery novelist Susan Grossey says 'knickers'

Today’s guest is Susan Grossey, the inventor of Constable Sam Plank, one of my favourite law enforcers. “I have been in love with words ever since I realised, at age three, that those squiggles on the page actually meant something,” she says. Susan edited the school newspaper and managed to do lots more reading and writing at university (where, of course, she studied English). In real life, she runs her own anti-money laundering consultancy, which gives her plenty of opportunity to write a great deal about her very favourite subject – money laundering.

In her spare time, she can be found haunting the streets of 1820s London, in the company of magistrates’ constable Sam Plank. He is the narrator of her series of historical financial crime novels set in consecutive years in the 1820s – just before Victoria came to the throne, and in the (fascinating) policing period after the Bow Street Runners and before the Metropolitan Police.

Over to Susan!

I never expected to find myself writing a series of books. The first Sam Plank adventure, Fatal Forgerywas originally written from the point of view of the crooked banker at the heart of the story, but I just couldn’t warm to him. And I realised that if I didn’t like him much, then neither would any (at that time, imaginary) readers. Although the darn thing had taken me two years to write (I have a full-time job and do my writing at weekends) I bit the bullet and decided to write the book all over again, this time narrated by the man who arrested the banker – magistrates’ constable Samuel Plank. And I really warmed to him! So much so that, once Fatal Forgery was finished, I realised I couldn’t bear to let Sam go, and so I decided that he could have a whole series of adventures – seven in total.

I’m writing number six at the moment.  They are set in consecutive years in the 1820s and, with a small band of recurring characters living in one city in a small window of time, I have had to become quite an expert on urban life in Regency times.

Being a pedantic person at heart, and always infuriated when I find historical inaccuracies in whatever I am reading or watching (Don’t get me started on how Ross Poldark, no matter how fetching his torso or how warm the day, would not have scythed shirtless.), I am obsessive about getting the details right.  I research and research and research, and then research some more.  Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop researching and start writing. The ideal for which I aim is to know everything myself so that I can drop little details into the text, almost unobtrusively, so that the reader believes them absolutely and is being steeped in the Regency world without realising it.

One of my recent research projects was into knickers: Sam’s wife Martha had to undress and I wanted to be sure that she did it right.  It is sometimes rumoured that women of Martha’s generation did not wear knickers.  That is not strictly true: by the end of the eighteenth century, under-garments (no-one said “underwear” in those days) for your average woman would have included drawers.

Drawers were two separate leg pieces gathered into a band below the knee, tied around the waist, and – ahem – with no join at the crotch.  It would have been a bit breezy, but certainly saved time if you were caught short. Incidentally, the two legs detail is why we still talk about a pair of knickers, when it is actually only one garment.

Over her drawers Martha wore a chemise – a plain cotton shift a bit like a modern nightgown, and performing the same function as a slip today.  Martha, like all women of her time and class, bathed rarely, and washing her chemise was considerably easier than washing what went over it, so it served to absorb her sweat and protect her dresses.  And over the chemise went her petticoat, to give shape to those dresses and to keep her warm.

Martha also wore stockings, but not the sheer, lacy-topped things we might choose today.  Regency stockings were knitted – usually in thick wool but occasionally (and expensively) in fine silk.  There was no suspender belt to hold them up and so they were tied around the leg just below the knee (with a garter or ribbon), with the top of the stocking folded down over the garter or ribbon – as a result, they looked rather like modern knee-socks.

We cannot leave Martha’s undergarments without talking about her bust. The bra was not invented until more than a century after Martha would have needed it. Instead, women in the Regency era were slightly luckier than their Victorian daughters in that they wore only short stays (or corsets – both terms were both used) rather than the long ones.

Short stays stopped above the hips and were laced at the back in a zigzag fashion using one string and stiffened in the front with a carved wooden or bone busk which created a straight posture and separated the breasts. They were tricky to manage alone: if a lady had a maid, lacing stays was part of her work.

Ordinary women helped each other (mothers and daughters, sisters, etc.), and in my books Sam rather enjoys dealing with the removal of Martha’s stays.  What they choose to do next is none of our business.

Connect with Susan
For more research updates like this one and on life in Regency times, sign up to her monthly newsletter
Follow her blog: www.susangrossey.wordpress.com/current-project-blog
Sam occasionally ventures an opinion on Twitter as @ConstablePlank

What’s Faith, Hope and Trickery about?
Rose Welford, the wife of a bootmaker, is smothered in her bed in the summer of 1828. Her husband quickly confesses to the crime, claiming that a message from beyond the grave told him to do it. At ever more popular gatherings in fields, factories and fine houses, a charismatic preacher with a history of religious offences seems to be at the heart of it all – but who, and what, can be believed when fortunes are at stake?  In this fifth novel in the series, Constable Sam Plank is drawn into matters beyond his understanding when his wife Martha hears a message of her own and his junior constable Wilson makes a momentous choice.

Amazon UK   Amazon US

Faith, Hope and Trickery has been shortlisted for the Selfies Award 2019 – the winner will be announced at the London Book Fair on 12 March 2019. (Best of luck, Susan!)


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, will be out on 12 September 2019.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

3 comments to Historical mystery novelist Susan Grossey says ‘knickers’

  • I love Susan’s book (and I admire Sam, but am also very fond of Martha!) I know we say this about a lot of novels but I truly think Sam would make a wonderful TV drama series – something different to the usual ‘Cop show.’
    Susan, two questions: how did ladies manage to do up their stays if they were on their own? And did ALL ladies wear them, even the poor?

  • Richard Tearle

    Sam Plank is one of my favourite characters too. He’s so good that he and Martha should be on TV!

  • Hello Helen

    Doing up stays on your own would no doubt have been tricky. I assume you would have laced them as far as possible when they were off the body, then stepped into them and reached behind you – as with a modern bra – and pulled as tight as you could manage and then tied a bow (as with apron strings).

    As for whether poor women wore them, I think they did – except perhaps when doing hard manual labour such as cutting crops (which required a lot of bending). The dresses were cut to require structure underneath, and I suspect a women going without her stays would have looked a bit “baggy” – particularly older women whose figures were less, well, firm. I suspect women went without them in the home – much as we go without our bras and are greatly relieved! – but would have put them on to go outside. Of course they would have been much cheaper stays, made of cheaper materials and perhaps homemade, and poorer women would have kept them for longer than their wealthier counterparts, but they were an essential part of the woman’s outfit.

    And you know that I would be thrilled beyond imagining to see Sam and Martha on the Sunday evening screen!

    Best wishes from Susan

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