Here today, gondola tomorrow


Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it to you exactly:

‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,

Carved at the prow, built lightly, but compactly;

Row’d by two rowers, each call’d ‘Gondolier,’

It glides along the water looking blackly,

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

(Lord Byron, Beppo)

Thus opens Chapter One of Your Scandalous Ways.

Thanks to all the screen adaptations of Jane Austen's work, most readers have some idea of what, say, an early 19th C carriage looks like. But the early 19th C gondola--the carriage of Venice, whose streets are mostly water--may not be quite so clear.


Since gondolas play a big role in Your Scandalous Ways--much as a carriage might in one of my English-set “road books”--I’m going to expand on Byron’s evocative and witty description. And, as always, I shall supply visual aids.


The first thing we modern readers need to get used to is the cabin or felze. People think of a gondola ride today as romantic, but the passengers are in public view. In the time of my story, the passengers were likely to be inside the felze. It would have a door, casement windows, Venetian blinds, and a cushy interior. (Katherine Shaw kindly sent me this photo. Please scroll down this page to see another.)


Thus Byron’s “coffin clapt in a canoe.” It was quite private--and yes, in Your Scandalous Ways, I take advantage of that privacy in more than one scene, as in this excerpt.

He needed desperately to be taught a lesson.

Unhurriedly she slid shut the casement beside her and closed the blinds. She reached across him, letting her bosom brush against his chest, and closed the window and blinds on his side.

As she moved back to her place, she felt his chest rise and fall a little faster than it had done a moment earlier.

She folded her hands in her lap. “There,” she said. “No one can see.”

“There won’t be anything to see,” he said.

“We’ll see,” she said.

Today, a gondola ride is an expensive luxury, reserved mainly for tourists. It's faster and much cheaper (and noisier) to board one of the water taxis or buses. In Byron’s time the gondolas


were everywhere. Picture these black vessels with their little cabins, like black taxicabs, converging on a theater. “And round the theatres, a sable throng,” as Byron puts it.

Here's a recent view of the rear of La Fenice opera house, where Francesca's gondola would be waiting to collect her after the performance. Below it is a (mid?) 19th C view.


"After midnight, when the theaters let out and the parties began, the lights of hundreds of gondolas danced over the canals and candlelight twinkled in the windows of the palaces. Here, where no coach wheels and horses’ hooves clattered over pavement, one moved in a quiet punctuated only by voices. Carried over the water, conversations ebbed and flowed around her, as though in a great drawing room."


And no, the gondoliers did not then wear the straw hats with the ribbons and they did not sing.

In the time of my story, one would glide along in the vessel in a quiet world. As Lord Byron's friend Hobhouse wrote, “during the night a profound stillness reigns though the canals and streets, interrupted only by the warning cry of the gondoliers, and the drop of their paddles, or by the tinkling of some solitary guitar."

Research is the closest I can come to time travel. The challenge is to make my hero and heroine’s surroundings vivid in the reader’s mind without letting it intrude. I don’t spend pages going into all the details of gondolas. And I cannot illustrate my books. That's where blogs come in so handy.

Originally posted at Word Wenches.