We all know about the twelve days of Christmas, but often it’s the two weeks before Christmas that really make the difference. Especially when one’s decided to go all the way: Christmas tree, Christmas letter, elaborate Christmas dinner and the perfect presents for all of the special people in one’s life.
Which is why today I’m accompanying Lady B outside of her ballroom, on a shopping excursion through the most fashionable areas.
I’m playing it cool but underneath my urbane exterior, I’m brimming with excitement. As an author, there is nothing better than first hand experience, and after today it should be much easier to describe the experience of frequenting the shops of Regency London.
Bundled in warm cloaks, we make our way through the shops. First stop: Harding, Howell, and Co., on Pall Mall, which Lady B claims is one of largest emporiums in London. We stroll through numerous departments—draperies, fabrics, ribbons, gloves and more—each neatly separated by gleaming polished mahogany dividers. Lady B picks up three bright ribbons for her niece and a painted fan for Lord B’s sister, Charlotte. I try to keep step with Lady B, who is clearly a seasoned shopper, as I stare at everything, running my fingers over silks, muslins and brocades. Sensory overload.
Then we make a stop at Hatchard’s (because I begged), where I reverently peer at the books.
Lady B orders a copy of Sense and Sensibility by “A Lady” to be bound in blue leather to match the rest of her library. I hold myself back from mentioning the author’s name.
Finally our last stop is on a Piccadilly corner: Fortnum & Mason
Sabrina: Ooh I’ve been here! Though I think they’ve remodeled a bit in the last two hundred years. In fact, I was just looking at their website yesterday. Have you seen the hampers they put together?
I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
Lady B is staring at me and I quickly think through what I said.
Sabrina: I mean I was thinking of ordering a few of their dried fruits and preserves to give as gifts.
Lady B: Ah. You speak so fast, Miss Darby, that you often sound as if you are saying nonsense. I know an excellent tutor of elocution. One of my second cousins married a young woman from Cornwall and we couldn’t understand a word she said for months. The tutor performed miracles.
Sabrina: I’ll do my best to enunciate. (And to avoid mentioning websites and other anachronisms.)
Lady B: I rarely visit myself, but there are certain commissions a woman cannot entrust to a servant.
We enter the store, apparently embarked on a mission to choose a new set of china for Christmas dinner, as two of the old place settings were smashed during some festivities a month ago. Lady B has not yet revealed exactly how they were destroyed but from the way she keeps avoiding the subject, I suspect an interesting story.
The interior of Fortnum & Mason looks equally different from my previous experience. Wood counters flank us on either side and behind them neatly dressed clerks move about with intent. Rather like a hive of bees. We march past potted food, spices and teas—scents that make my mouth water. When we reach the room where the china is displayed, I leave Lady B to her meticulous taste and wander back toward the food. It’s different from the way the food hall is these days—chocolate truffles and ready-made lunch are not yet de rigueur, but there is still enough eye candy to amuse me.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a familiar yellow bonnet and turn to Lady B, who is consulting her scrap of paper with a rather concerned expression.
I try to peek at her list but she quickly turns it away.
Sabrina: What’s wrong?
She peers at me, chewing on her lip in a manner I’ve normally only see in ingénue romance book heroines. Then she appears to make a decision.
Lady B: It’s Lord B. You see, we made a small wager. Which of us could pick the most unusual gift. And whoever wins… well, I suppose you don’t need to know that.
Oh, but I do!
Sabrina: (prodding) Whoever wins?
Lady B: It hardly matters, for I have only one week left to shop and I am convinced he will win. I’ve considered hats and gloves, a carved jade shaving handle, even an opium kit from India, although I quickly scratched that idea. Far of purchasing a small lion for him, he is a man who has everything! Why must shopping for men be so difficult?
For all the differences between Regency England and today, some things haven’t changed.
I want to help Lady B. After all, she’s been more than generous. And perhaps she’ll reveal just what that wager was…So I’m turning to all of you. What is the most unusual gift Lady B could purchase for the Regency gentleman who has everything?