More Rabbit-Trailing, or: White Cliffs and China Clay

I’m still rabbit-trailing, uh, sorry, researching. And for some reason, I always seem to arrive in the early 19th century again – the time of the Regency, Jane Austen, the Brothers Grimm. What’s with that?

This is how the rabbit trail ran today: I was looking at the creation of porcelain or china (because that’s important for Septimus book #3, Checkmate, which I’m editing at the moment). Unlike regular clay, which you can just dig out of the ground and use more-or-less straight up, the clay body that makes up porcelain is a mixture – the recipe varies depending on what kind of china it is. Bone china, the fine English stuff invented by Josiah Spode in the late 18th century, contains a sizable proportion of actual bone (cow, for the most part, apparently), which is burned and ground up before it gets mixed with the other ingredients. Recipes for china clay were a closely guarded trade secret; in fact, when in 1712 a French Jesuit missionary transmitted the secret of how to make porcelain from China, where he was working, to Europe, it was considered one of the first instances of industrial espionage (however, some German scientists had already figured it out for themselves a couple of years earlier, establishing the porcelain manufacture in Meissen. Science beats spy work – so there!).

Now, that key “other ingredient” in porcelain is kaolin, also called, for obvious reasons, china clay. Kaolin, one of my sources informs me, is really white, and is primarily found in Malaysia and in Cornwall, England. And here’s where today’s rabbit trail comes in: my mind goes, “White deposits of mineral? In Southern England? Wait – the White Cliffs of Dover?” Back to Google I go, to find out what you probably already knew and I remembered just before Google brought it up, namely that the White Cliffs of Dover are made of chalk, not kaolin clay.

Caspar_David_Friedrich's_Chalk_Cliffs_on_RügenAnd then Wikipedia told me that the ones in Dover are by no means the only chalk cliffs around Europe, and that another famous instance of white-cliff-ness occurs on the German Island of Rügen. So, of course, I had to look that up, and remembered and found the famous work by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “Chalk Cliffs on Rügen”, from 1818.

And there you have it: the research rabbit trail arrived in the second decade of the 19th century. Just look at that dress, and the hairstyle of the lady! In 1818, Persuasion was published – can we picture Anne Elliot in that outfit? If it wasn’t for the two gentleman in the picture obviously being civilians, it might well be showing Captain and Mrs Wentworth on their honeymoon (they took a friend along on the hike to the cliffs, okay? There’s nothing wrong with spending time with friends, even if it is your honeymoon). Or it might be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, on holiday with their sister Lotte. And when they get back to their Pension (bed-and-breakfast, or inn), they’ll have a lovely Kaffee und Kuchen (afternoon coffee & cake) off a set of Meissen porcelain.

Life, the Universe, and Rabbit Trails from China to Jane Austen. The pleasures of a writer’s life.

4 thoughts on “More Rabbit-Trailing, or: White Cliffs and China Clay”

  1. I love real bone china. Have you ever gone for afternoon tea to a real English tea party, or to an authentic English tea house? After living in Victoria for years, I have had occasion to visit a couple. And I’m talking tea and crumpets and all manner of feminine dainties with real tea pots and tea cups and saucers. It’s like travelling back in time, and there’s something to be said about one of the few remaining modern Western traditions that is all about manners and old world culture. Plus I love all that sweet whipped butter and fancy sandwiches.

  2. Tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria is still on my bucket list. I love fancy teas. But the aforementioned Kaffee & Kuchen is the equivalent German ritual – usually had at about 4:00 PM on Sundays and holidays. No sandwiches, but all-you-can-eat cakes, and of course coffee or tea, and cocoa or juice for the kids. And most definitely fine china. I miss it…

    1. Are you checking into china for “Checkmate”? The dainty white kind? Teehee. I’m almost finished it by the way. Very good so far… Will get back to you shortly. And I apologize again for taking so blasted long to get this simple 118 pages read!! Geez!

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