I had the great pleasure of “meeting” Zöe Wheddon, author of Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd, online earlier this year. Her book immediate caught my eye because I’ve always been intrigued by the friendship between Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd. (You can read my book review here.) We started to chat and instantly hit it off. She’s a kindred spirit for sure!

The following is my interview with Zöe about her writing process, her thoughts on friendship, and some of her favorite highlights from her research for Jane Austen’s Best Friend. Zöe grew up and lives in Austen’s Hampshire countryside, and I think you’ll enjoy her unique perspective.

Question: What was it about Jane and Martha’s friendship that intrigued you and what inspired you to write this book?

Answer: I had been reading lots of biographies about Jane Austen following taking part in the Basingstoke Book Bench Art Trail to commemorate the bicentenary of her death and I was volunteering at Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House, at Chawton in Alton. Martha just seemed to pop out of her bedroom one day and say hello to me. I was so compelled to find out more when I discovered that Martha had lived with Jane for such a long long time. It struck me as a rare and poignant position that she held within the household, a quiet yet fundamental person in Janes’ circle, someone very close knit with her but who was not a blood relative. I had to know more about this person – I knew she must have been pretty special for Jane to keep her so close and for so long. I was so surprised to learn that there was nothing much written about Martha and the more I researched the more amazed and intrigued I became.  I was delighted to learn that this lovely lady had been there for Jane and it honestly made me so happy to find out about the different elements of their friendship, I just had to find out more.

Question: Can you tell us about some of the ways Martha impacted Jane’s life as a woman and as a writer? Why did Jane and Martha have such a strong bond?

Answer: Jane met Martha at an important time in her life, she was fresh back from boarding school and turning 13, when Martha moved into the neighbourhood. 10 years older than Jane, she was a breath of fresh air, with that curious mixture of sense and sense of humour and the pair became thick as thieves. I think that Martha and Jane were kindred spirits who brought out the best in one another. The fact that they had so much in common helped, but that they both wanted to explore their talents and creative ideas also drew them closer together. They were the type of best friends that shared that special and unique blend of being able to encourage each other and also, at the same time, to not let each other off the hook. Their strongest bond was their shared Christian faith which meant so much to them both in terms of identity but their sense of humour was the glue that held them together. 

Question: Describe your research process for this book. What were some of your personal highlights?

Answer: I started by reading all of Jane’s letters and looking for any reference to Martha and her family – we don’t have many of Jane’s letters left, for as we know her sister Cassandra burnt them all, which was an Austen family tradition, but we have quite a few either written to Martha or talking about her. I loved the humorous side eye that Jane gave Martha in them – I felt as if I was listening in on one of their private conversations.

I also read lots of family diaries, including the pocket books that belonged to Martha’s sister Mary and family Wills and letters. I truly love being in an archive, as it is thrilling to open up original documents that are hundreds of years old.

I also visited lots of significant places in Martha’s life. I was struck at how the scenery and landscape of their shared Hampshire experiences reflected that of Jane’s novels. It was so incredible to go back to different locations and see what is left too. Sometimes there was a whole building or church, albeit extended and amended, sometimes there was one simple entrance tower, as in the case of the church where Martha married Francis Austen, and sometimes there was a housing estate built right on top – How I would have loved to have seen the real Portsdown Lodge.

I also did lots and lots of reading and spent many hours curled up on the floor in my local library or typing away in a coffee shop. Reading and researching and then heading back out on their trail and discovering different elements that still existed was a huge thrill. Visiting Martha’s grave was very special, to trace her life from start to finish and to marvel at all she had experienced was humbling.

I started out being very envious of Martha, being Jane’s best friend, but by the end of my journey, I was pretty envious of Jane – Martha was one amazing lady.

Question: How have your friendships shaped your life and why do you think close friendships are so important?

Answer: Like Jane Austen, I too have a small circle of friends, and it is a cliché to say it, but my husband, Matt, who I have been married to for 30 years really is my best friend. We have grown up together, having got married quite young at 19 and 21 respectively. There is something so lovely about having so many memories and in jokes and that sort of short hand that best friends have. I have another special friend who goes back years too, and the best thing is that it doesn’t matter if we don’t see each other for a while – we just seem to pick up where we left off, which is lovely. I also have a friend with whom I can keep everything real, we know we can tell each other how we are truly feeling and that we will be understood, without any judgement. I think everyone needs at least one friend that they know they can call in the middle of the night or the middle of an emergency – knowing that they are in your corner helps keep us sane.

Question: What has your experience been growing up and living in Jane Austen’s Hampshire?

Answer: My grandparents lived in Overton, a village just next door to Jane Austen’s Steventon and I visited often as a child. I feel so lucky to be able to relate to the settings and the countryside in Jane’s novels, as they always seem like another character in themselves to me, and through this shared experience, I have always felt such a personal and profound connection to Jane Austen. Locally we are so proud of Jane. For the bicentenary of her death the town commissioned a statue of her, to be placed in the market square, just outside the Town Hall and opposite where she is believed to have danced at local balls. Knowing that she lived and moved and had her being in the same places as I do has always felt magical.

In fact, the reason I started researching Martha Lloyd in the first place was after taking part in an Art Trail of Book Benches scattered across the local Hampshire area; at sites Jane visited, stayed at and lived in. Each bench was designed and painted by a local artist. (See photo below of me sitting on the one outside St. Nicholas’ Church in Steventon.) This experience plunged me into a reading frenzy. I read every biography of Jane that I could get my hands on. As I read more, I started volunteering at Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House and I kept hearing Martha’s name mentioned here and there.  I spotted her in my mind’s eye, on the edge of this special family group. I imagined what that must have felt like, and so I started following her – I had to know more. I felt that Martha might be able to teach me something about Jane that other biographers could not. Thrillingly, I was right.

Question: Do you continue to visit the Jane Austen sites often? 

Answer: I visit Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House on a regular basis, as often as I can and at least twice a year, because they feel like such special places. Truly. With just a short, 45-minute drive I can be walking where Jane walked, taking in the views which are fundamentally unchanged from when she gazed upon the same verdure. I just love it.

Question: When did you start reading Austen?

Answer: I started reading Austen at the age of about 9. I remember being intrigued by a set of books with such long and unusual titles. I loved the alliteration ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and even though I didn’t really know what they meant, they seemed so enigmatic to me. I wish I still had those copies.

Question: Do you feel as though being a “Hampshire girl” yourself has given you special insight into Austen’s life?

Answer: I have always felt deeply rooted in Hampshire; I love that I have the same feeling of ‘home’ there that Jane and Martha did. Researching the book and venturing out into the local environs, I tangibly felt their strong bond weaved within their shared environment and surroundings. They both adored walking, getting out and about, exploring and enjoying the natural world. To a large extent time stands still when you are out in the countryside and it is a privilege that as a Hampshire girl one can feel closer to them there, out in the fields, than anywhere else. 

Thank you to Zöe for taking the time to answer my questions! I’m sure you can now see why I was interested in this book and in knowing more about Zöe’s life and writing. It’s especially lovely to read a book about our beloved Jane that is written from the viewpoint of an author who is a Hampshire girl herself. -Rachel


A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zöe Wheddon lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their 3 grown up children and their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, Zöe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen. People can get to know her better at www.zoewheddon.co.uk.

Zoe Wheddon, Author


Instagram – Zoe_Wheddon
Website – www.zoewheddon.co.uk
Twitter – @ZoeWheddon
Facebook – @authorzoewheddon


JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD is a heart-warming examination of the ‘recipe for friendship’ between Jane Austen, (with whom all Janeites are best friends in their imaginations,) and Martha Lloyd. In looking back somewhat longingly at Martha and Jane’s strong and enduring bond we can examine all their interests, including the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats.

Through an examination of the defining moments of their shared lives together, the book gives readers an insight into the inner circle of the famously enigmatic and private authoress and the life changing force of their friendship.

All fans for Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that. JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Each chapter details fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

Available in the USA with Pen and Sword/Casemate.


Amazon (US)
Barnes and Noble (US)
Bookshop.org (UK)

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Inquiring Readers: Servants and the working class are ever present as background characters in Jane Austen’s novels. Readers in her time were well aware of their important duties in all levels of Regency households. They were essential in the running of daily life and/or an estate, and therefore were given no distinction in Austen’s novels unless their roles moved the plot forward.


Without much explanation, Austen’s contemporaries could easily gauge the number of servants that the Bertrams or the Woodhouses employed (at least 7-9 inside their grand houses and more in the fields and gardens) against the socially downward turn the Elliot family and Dashwood women experienced by the number of their reduced help, which in the latter instance was three. The Dashwood women were able to maintain some kind of social status within their unenviable income of £500 a year and with the help of a friendly (and very rich) Mrs. Jennings.

Mrs and Miss Bates employed a maid of all work to help them with their daily chores, although they were dependent on the kindness of their neighbors to help make ends meet. Fanny Price’s parents in Portsmouth engaged two housemaids, impoverished as they were, their poverty due no doubt to Mr. Price’s drinking and meager income, which needed to stretch to clothe and feed a family of 12. Only Mrs Smith, Anne Elliot’s old school friend, an impoverished widow, was too poor to “afford herself the comfort of a servant.” (Persuasion, Chapter 16.) She lived in public accommodations in Bath, whose landlady employed only one servant for her lodgers.

Hogarth portrait of 6 Georgian servants, 3 men (boy to older men) and 3 women, all wearing caps

Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, mid 1770’s. Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons , via the Tate Gallery.

Austen’s descriptions of her characters reveal much about the way they treated their help. Imagine having to work under Mrs. Norris’s direction or Mrs. Elton’s! Those two exacting women, neither of whom possessed an ounce of compassion, set the most stringent standards, yet still found time to complain about their staff’s performances.

Compare their attitude to Colonel Brandon’s, who treated underlings with respect and caring, or Mr. Darcy, whose housekeeper’s admiration for her master helped change Elizabeth’s opinion of the man she rejected for being too proud, distant, and arrogant. 

Austen’s oblique descriptions of other characters’ interactions with their servants – Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father), for example – causes the reader to contemplate poor James’s situation as his coachman. James was asked to ferry guests like Mrs and Miss Bates back and forth, regardless of time or weather, which was considered a terrible imposition by Austen’s contemporaries. Mr. Woodhouse’s cook, who probably failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards for boiling an egg or making gruel, must have suffered silently through his passive aggressive sighs of disappointment for not achieving perfection. 

Then there is Sir Walter Elliot, whose ego was twelve sizes larger than his income, and whose ability to employ the help he was accustomed to was reduced to such a degree that his daughter Elizabeth chose not to invite the Musgroves to dinner, but only to an evening get-together where the lack of servants would not be so obvious. Sir Walter’s major sin in the eyes of Austen’s contemporaries was to squander his fortune to such an extent that he had to rent out his estate and downsize to a mere townhouse in Bath.

Watercolor of a busy office in which prospective employers interview and look over potential servant applicants

Register Office for the Hiring of Servants, Thomas Rowlandson, Watercolour, 1800-1805, Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons, Yale Center for British Art.

Servants and help in the Austen family’s household:

The Austens lived a rural life in Steventon Rectory, a life that fed Jane’s budding creativity. Servants in small villages did not necessarily live with their employers. A few might have lived with the Austens, but others worked during the day and returned to their families at night, or worked only the hours they were needed. (Worsley, p. 95.) Laundresses, for example, were employed only on certain days, for their work was strenuous, with intensive labor required for this task. 

“The Austen household was large, with eight children – six boys and two girls – as well as additional pupils, for Rev. George Austen supplemented his clerical income by taking in boy pupils as boarders. There was also a small farm, to supply the family with meat and vegetables, and there were maids and manservants to help with the work. – Jane Austen: A Life

As the above quote suggests, an active working family managed Steventon Rectory. The house sat on Glebe land, or land that yielded revenue to a parish church. An 1821 plan of the Glebe land shows Steventon house, its outbuildings, a yard, and fields. (Robinson Walker, detail from the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.) The family were hardworking. Rev. Austen visited his parishes, collected tithes, raised sheep and pigs, supervised the farm, oversaw the workmen, and taught a boarding school of young boys, among many duties. Mrs Austen tended to the kitchen, the kitchen gardens, chickens, and her alderney cow (which produced a copious amount of milk for its small size, which resulted in a rich butter). She guided her family, the household (including the boarders), and house servants. According to Maggie Lane in Jane Austen and Food, (p. 7):

“…though the family always kept a cook, they did not aspire to a housekeeper to plan meals, organise stores and superintend the daily work of the kitchen. This was done first by Jane’s mother, later by Jane’s sister Cassandra, with Jane herself as subordinate…”

Linda Robinson Walker (Why Was Jane Austen Sent Away to School at Seven?) created an impressive table that shows the number of family members, students, and servants living, studying, and working in the rectory between 1775 and 1795. The chart totals the number of people living in the house, which ranged from 9-20 during that time. Within that total number she included 4-8 servants.

In a letter to Cassandra, Jane wrote fondly of Nanny Littlewart dressing her hair. Nanny is Anne Littleworth, who fostered Jane and Cassandra when they were quite young. Jane mentions as many as nine servants in her letters in 1798. The laundry, for example, “was to be handed over from Mrs Bushell to Mrs Steevens; there was a new maid: ‘we have felt the inconvenience of being without a maid so long, that we are determined to like her.’” (Worsley, p.95.)

In 1801, after Rev. Austen retired and the Austen parents and their two daughters moved to Bath, Mrs Austen expressed her desire to retain two maids, although she kept Rev. Austen in the dark regarding those plans. (Le Faye, Letter 29, p.69.)  At this time, the family’s income was drastically diminished, as were the number of servants. Not until the women moved into Chawton Cottage, did their peripatetic life become stable and a semblance of normalcy re-establish itself, including Mrs. Austen’s work in the gardens, with overseeing the chickens and kitchens and servants. 

Jane also visited many great houses: Stoneleigh Abbey, her mother’s ancestral home; Godmersham Park and Chawton House, both owned by her brother Edward, and Manydown Park, where she received, accepted, and then rejected a proposal from Harris Big-Whither, its heir. These visits acquainted her with the management of great houses and the numbers of servants required to service them and their extensive grounds. Her personal observations were reflected especially in her letters. 

Engraving of Godmersham Park, Kent

Godmersham Park, Kent, 1824, John Preston Neal, digitized by the British Library.  Creative Commons. Wikimedia CommonsWikipedia.

Gossip and the lack of privacy between servant and employer: 

And now to the servant “problem,” meaning the lack of privacy they represented to those who were served, and the gossip among the servants that irked their employers. In Japanese cultures, where dividing walls consisted of screens largely made of wood frames and rice paper, people learned not to actively listen to their neighbors and intrude on their privacy. 

Servants in Austen’s era, who dressed, bathed, fed, and catered to their employers needs and whims could not help but notice their moods, hear their private conversations, or know about their most intimate habits.

In turn, as a form of self protection, employers simply chose not to notice their staff. Their schedules also did not coincide, for the staff were the first to awaken and the last to retire to bed. They entered rooms to stoke fires when their employers were still asleep, or cleaned and dusted them when those rooms were empty. If they did encounter each other, few exchanges, if any, occurred. 

There were some personal interactions, of course. A master spoke to his valet, steward and/or butler; the mistress to her personal maid, and to give instructions to the cook and housekeeper. These individuals acted as buffers between the employers and the majority of the staff. 

“A good servant was scarcely noticed by his or her employer. To serve is to wear a cloak of invisibility, as it is in Persuasion:

‘Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?’ [Mrs Smith]

‘No. Was it not Mrs Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular.’ [Anne Elliot]” – (Worsley, 2017, pp 95-96) “

This short discussion in Persuasion demonstrated the matter of factness with which Austen (and Anne) regarded this exchange.

Servants were human, however. They gossiped about their betters below stairs or in the kitchens. Often, they were the source of gossip for their employers. Mrs Smith, who, as a cripple, lived a solitary life, learned all she wanted to know through Nurse Rook, who kindly helped her and told her about all the goings on. 

“Call it gossip if you will; but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation I assure you is a treat.” – Mrs. Smith, Persuasion, Ch 17.

Some individuals, like Lydia Bennet, lost all decorum when she ran to show off her engagement ring to the servants. This was another method by which Austen alerted her readers to Lydia’s recklessness.


While Austen’s details of her characters and daily life were spare in her novels, her letters revealed personal observations that filled in the gaps for today’s readers. Suffice it to say that Jane’s contemporary readers easily understood her characters when she described their attitudes and treatments towards staff. Two hundred years later we have lost much of that knowledge and require annotation to fully understand the customs of that bygone era, but a lady in Austen’s time would have known how to maintain her dignity despite all the familiarity..

The most fitting ending to this short essay is a quote by Lucy Worsley about Mrs Smith’s network of information (p 96): 

“ Mrs Smith [revealed] to Anne the hidden spy network of servants, nurses and maids that brings her all the Bath gossip. Like Mrs Smith, Jane would notice more than most people did about the invisible people who kept households running.” 



Giles, K. Help! – Servants During the Regency, Randolph College, downloaded 6/2/21.

Jane Austen: A Life, Jane Austen’s House, downloaded 6/2/21

Lane, M. (2018) Jane Austen and Food, Lume Books (Kindle)

Le Faye, D. Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.) Oxford University Press

Mulan, J. (2013). What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. Chapter 8: “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?” (1st ed. U.S.). Bloomsbury Press.

Robinson Walker, L. (2005). Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question. Persuasions On-Line, 26 (No. 1 (Winter)). http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol26no1/walker.htm

Worsley, L. (2017). Jane Austen at Home (1st ed. U.S.). St. Martin’s Press

Posts about servants on this blog:

The Green Baize Door: Dividing Line Between Servant and Master, January 2012.

Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian Era, August, 2012.

Laundry, Georgian Style, August, 2011

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work, June, 2009.

Hiring Servants in the Regency Era and Later, May, 2009.

Footmen: Male Servants in The Regency Era, January, 2008.

Regency Life: Finding a Job as a Servant, June, 2008

Every Day Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washer Women, July 2007.

The Scullery Maid, November 2006.

Book cover of Jane Austen: The Missing Pieces by Harvey T. Dearden, using the popular profile image as a puzzle.Inquiring readers: Not only did I enjoy reading Jane Austen: The Missing Pieces, but spent many silent hours debating with its author, Harvey T. Dearden, agreeing or disagreeing with his points of view, and thinking back on my history of reading about and researching her life to find how I arrived at my own conclusions. This succinctly written book, only 168 pages long, including endnotes and bibliography, is packed with ideas and suppositions based on Jane Austen’s letters, novels, history, and the scholarly articles and books written about her. 


Like me, author Harvey Dearden is an amateur Janeite with a  keen interest in the topic, but whose area of expertise is in another subject area. In Mr. Dearden’s case, it is as an engineer; in mine it is as a professional development trainer. We do not pretend to be academics. Like amateur scientists in the 19th century who formed societies in pursuit of scientific knowledge, Mr. Dearden and I resemble Janeite enthusiasts the world over – those who study Austen’s novels and life to become well informed and are curious to learn more.

Mr. Dearden’s book, which examines questions regarding the many missing pieces in Jane Austen’s life and work, is divided into short chapters in a variety of topics, all of which pose questions or suppositions which readers and scholars have addressed about Austen for ages. Supporting evidence in these instances may be hard to find or might once have existed (such as in her letters to Cassandra and members of her family) but have either been destroyed or might be hiding undiscovered in an attic. 

Jane’s Face:

Here’s how my reaction and silent debate with Mr. Rearden’s conjectures worked, and why I took longer to read this book than I at first anticipated:

One tantalizing question most of us have is: “What Did Jane Austen Look Like?” The author addresses this in a chapter titled “Jane’s Face.” (p.99.) He refers to Cassandra’s small watercolor portrait of her sister, (which, in my instance, I saw as an American tourist in the National Portrait Gallery) and which he (and most of us) characterizes as an amateurish attempt; the engraved image included in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt, which was a supposed “improvement” upon Cassandra’s real life attempt; Jane’s engraved image on the 10 pound bank note; and recent forensic artists’ attempts at recreating her image in painting and sculpture according to family descriptions, family portrait resemblances, and physical traits that descendants have in common with the Austen bloodline. (Compare the images of actress Anna Chancellor, a direct descendent of the Austen family, [she played Caroline Bingley in P&P 1995] to Cassandra’s portrait of Jane and one of her father,  and you will see a family resemblance in the dark eyes, long nose, and smallish, tight mouth.)

Mr. Dearden’s clear language, his engineer’s logic, and his talented wife, Linda’s, lovely pencil portrait of Jane Austen, based on a portrait bust by sculpturist Suzie Zamit, makes sense from his POV and logic. I respect his conclusion and the two artist’s representations, so why am I introducing my own interpretation? First, because Mr. Dearden invites inquiry and makes it clear that our informed guesses are as good as his.

Second, because I’ve been trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art and practiced as a successful local artist in Charlottesville for ten years. My experience painting a family member’s portrait places me in a unique position to discuss the difficulty of capturing a likeness of a stern-faced woman. Mom and Dad Sanborn (my in-laws) had their portraits captured by a local artist, a talented man who delineated their features perfectly. Dad’s face showed a kind, smiling man. Mom looked like a mirthless, tight-lipped school marm. She framed Dad’s portrait, hung it in his study, and tore her portrait up. She then commissioned me to paint her. Aaargh! 

I could have fallen into a trap, for I considered her first portrait an accurate representation of her features. What the artist did not capture was her personality. So I asked the family how they viewed her, and thought about my relationship with her and her kindness, sweetness, and willingness to put family and friends above herself. The changes I made in her portrait were to enlarge her eyes slightly and soften her prim mouth into a half smile. I removed many of her wrinkles and worked on the pencil sketches a long time before embarking on the painting. She loved it. The family loved it. And none realized that I had cheated in favor of personality over feature accuracy. What they saw in my portrait was MOM.

This brings me to Cassandra’s watercolor of her sister. We Janeites have formed a personal connection to Jane Austen and have our own perceptions of how she might have looked. Cassandra’s watercolor, drawn and painted by an amateur, portrays a tight-faced woman with arms crossed in a protective, stay-away-from-me body language. The painting is extremely small and I would have used a smaller brush to paint her features, but it also lacks any semblance to the descriptions that Jane’s family gave us: her sparkling eyes, her liveliness and sense of humor, and one who enjoyed a loving relationship as a daughter, sister, and aunt.

I speculate that Jane felt comfortable to be totally herself in front of Cassandra, and that she might have been thinking about writing, editing, or correcting a particularly difficult passage she’d been working on, thus the “resting bitch face.”  As for us, her fans, we are still searching for that illusive image that reflects our knowledge of her, our personal relationship with her, and our own interpretation of what she might have looked like.

I spent a long time on my reaction to this 7-page chapter to illustrate that, while Mr. Dearden’s book is succinct, well-thought out, and clearly written, his speculations inspired me to examine my knowledge of Austen and how and why I reacted the way I did to her many mysteries. At times I agreed with him completely, but at other times I paused to think back on how I came to a different conclusion. 

I suspect Mr. Dearden would enjoy a healthy debate, as would I. I’d like to add that reading this book gave me great enjoyment and pleasure, and much food for thought.

Addendum: Denise Holcomb contributed her image of Austen portraits in a Will & Jane exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. in 2016.  She took an image of the progression of 3 portraits of Austen, from Cassandra’s rendition to the Memoir engraving.

The book’s organization:

This book is organized in such a fashion as to facilitate how the author arrived at his conclusions. Sources are listed after each chapter. The bibliography lists most of the books and resources I’ve used, but a few are included from authors that I have not read before, such as Marian Veevers.  Mr. Dearden backs up his arguments using Austen’s letters from Deirdre LeFaye’s excellent, fully inclusive edition, direct quotes from family and friends, evidence in Jane’s novels, and examples of her manuscripts digitized online at the Bodleian Library, for example.

Images of Jane Austen taken in progression from 1810 to an engraved portrait in 1870, Folger Exhibit, 2016.

Image taken by D. Holcomb at the Folger Exhibit, 2016.

I loved how the author used his engineer’s logic to consider the size and weight of the quatros of letters from Jane that Cassandra must have stored over the years, and the difficulty and the considerable time it would have taken her to burn those that she did not want to keep for posterity. He used both LeFaye’s information and his precise mathematical skills to calculate the sheer effort it would have taken Cassandra to burn those letters. 

I feel that Mr. Dearden missed one opportunity when he introduced Charlotte Bronte’s three letters regarding her opinion about Austen’s talent and genius. I loved that he reproduced the letters in full, which placed some of her more controversial opinions in context. Bronte could not have known of Austen’s Juvenilia at this time, but it bears repeating that the lack of passion that she accuses Austen of not having was displayed in full in these exuberant scribblings of a young and budding genius. 

For Janeites who are new to this conversation, this book will be a valuable addition. I see it as a great conversation starter for a book group who could use its list of topics for discussion over a year of meetings, or as a source of Austen resources that add value to any Janeite’s library collection. The bibliography for the neophyte Janeite, combined with Le Faye’s meticulous listing of all her known existing letters, provide an immediate resource for those who are only familiar with Austen’s novels and would like to know more about Austen’s conversational style and the missing information about her.

Riddles and word games abound in Emma. This book puzzles out the many mysteries in Austen’s life and continues that tradition. Dearden’s conclusion fits my assessment of Austen and why her novels attract readers with different political backgrounds, religions, sexes, and ages the world over.

“She is celebrated for the nicety of her language and, preferring the rapier to the bludgeon, she could use it in a most cutting manner. There is plenty of evidence for this in her private correspondence. There is with Jane no self-indulgent ornamentation beyond the immediate purpose of her stories. She would have wielded Occam’s razor with admirable zeal.” 

Purchase the book:

Amazon US: Click here

Amazon UK: Click here

About the author: 

Harvey T. Dearden Linked In portrait

Author Harvey T. Dearden

Harvey T. Dearden is a Chartered Engineer who works as a consultant in the process industries (power, oil and gas, chemicals, etc.; basically those with something in a pipe)…He is married to an Anglesey girl and lives in north Wales. He has one child who is mum to Otts [to whom this book is dedicated.]

This book is a family affair and I wish to record my gratitude to my daughter, Lucy Dearden Jones for the editing, my wife, Linda Dearden, for the portrait sketch of Jane and first proofreading, and to my niece, Alexandra Parkinson, for the book cover.

By Brenda S. Cox

“”By our sufferings, since ye brought us 

To the man-degrading mart,— 

All sustain’d by patience, 

taught us Only by a broken heart,— 

Deem our nation brutes no longer . . .” – Quote opening The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. The quote is from William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Such narratives at this time often began with quotes from Cowper’s anti-slavery poems, or from the Bible.

We’ve been looking at the situation of black people in Jane Austen’s England. We started with “‘Women of Colour’ in Literature of Jane Austen’s England,” considering Miss Lambe of Sanditon, Olivia of The Woman of Colour, and other fictional women of the time. Next, we learned a little about black people in general in Austen’s England, based on statistics and records, in “Black England: No Wall of Separation?” 

What about the lives of individual black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England? Most of those people were in the lowest “ranks” of society and didn’t leave journals or diaries. Scholars are trying to piece together some of their lives. For an example, listen to Gretchen Gerzina’s talk on Pero Jones and Fanny Coker, an enslaved man and a free woman working as servants in a 1780s Bristol household. 

Today I’ll introduce you to some of the most well-known black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England; people that Jane Austen may have heard of or read about. I can only give you a brief taste of their fascinating stories. For each one, I’ll give you links so you can explore further if you wish. For some, you can read their stories in their own words.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) by David Martin (1737-1797). Public Domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg

Dido Belle

Austen must have known about one real mixed-race woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804). Dido’s father was a British naval captain, Sir John Lindsay, and her mother was a black enslaved woman named Maria. Lindsay was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, who became Chief Justice of England and made several rulings benefiting black people in England. Lindsay asked his childless uncle and aunt to raise Dido, and she grew up in the Mansfield household.

When another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, lost her mother at the age of six, the earl and his wife took her in and raised her along with Dido; they were around the same age. A portrait of the two girls as young ladies shows an apparently close relationship, though the white girl takes the central place in the picture. It is unclear exactly what Dido’s position was in the household. One guest noted that she did not eat dinner with the family and their guests, but joined them afterwards. She then walked arm-in-arm in the garden with her cousin.

The earl became very attached to Dido. In his will he confirmed her freedom and left her money. Dido married a white French servant, John Davinier. Her money enabled him to rise to the status of “gentleman.”

Dido’s white cousin Elizabeth Murray married wealthy George Finch-Hatton, a friend of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. On a visit to her brother in 1805, Jane visited the Finch-Hattons. She was not impressed with Lady Elizabeth, writing on Aug. 24, 1805, “Lady Elizabeth for a woman in her age & situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself.”

It seems likely that Austen would have known about Elizabeth’s adoptive sister. She might conceivably have met her if Dido visited while Jane was at Godmersham, though we have no record of a meeting. Perhaps Austen was imagining how Dido Belle became a beloved member of the Earl of Mansfield’s family when she wrote Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is a little like Dido in that she arrives as a marginalized member of the household, but eventually becomes a valued family member.

For more on Dido Belle, you can listen to “Dido Belle and Francis Barber” or read Paula Byrne’s Belle.  (Byrne also has a chapter (12) on Dido in The Real Jane Austen.) The movie Belle  gives an imaginative portrayal of what Dido Belle’s life might have been like, based on the few facts that we have. Etienne Daly has been researching Dido and her family, and you can find his posts on All Things Georgian

Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), 1768. Public domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IgnatiusSancho.jpg

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), born on a slave ship, ended up in England. The Duke of Montague took an interest him, educated him, and made him his valet, then his butler. Sancho eventually owned a grocer’s shop in Westminster. He was also a composer and art critic. He mixed with people like Thomas Gainsborough, who painted his portrait. Sancho married a black woman and had six children. He owned enough property that he could vote; he is the first known African-background person in England to have voted in a general election.

Sancho’s letters were published in 1782, after his death. Sancho supported the abolition movement; one letter condemns “the Christians’ abominable traffic in slaves” as “uniformly wicked.” In another he expresses his faith by looking forward to heaven, “the promise of never, never-ending existence and felicity.” He also wrote to encourage a young man who had recently gone to India to stay firm in his faith: “Read your Bible—As day follows night, God’s blessing follows virtue—honor and riches bring up the rear—and the end is peace—Courage, my boy—I have done preaching.”

You can read the original Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1784), with a memoir of his life. Modernized paperback versions with more commentary are also available, as well as Dr. Gerzina’s talk on Sancho

Samuel Johnson, one of Austen’s favorite authors, left most of his possessions to his black manservant, Francis Barber. Samuel Johnson, from a portrait attributed to John Opie R.A., 1911.

Francis Barber

Samuel Johnson, whose writings Jane Austen appreciated, thought highly of his black manservant, Francis Barber (1745-1801). Born enslaved in Jamaica, Barber was brought to England as a child by his master Richard Bathurst. Bathurst had him baptized him and named him. When Bathurst died, his will freed the boy.

Barber worked as Johnson’s servant. Johnson, who was against slavery, educated Barber and treated him like a son. Barber’s black friends came to visit him in Johnson’s home. Barber left Johnson for a few years, working for an apothecary, and then in the navy. Johnson got him out of the navy and brought him back. Barber married a white wife, Elizabeth, and had five children. They all lived in Johnson’s home.

When Johnson died, he left money, an annuity (yearly income of £70), and most of his possessions to Barber: property, books and papers, and other items. Barber and his wife moved to Lichfield, where he eventually ran a village school. 

Barber’s children and grandchildren married white people. Most became manual laborers, blending in with the poorer population of London. Barber’s son Samuel grew up to become a Methodist lay-minister (a preacher who was not ordained).⁠

For more on Francis Barber, you can check out Dr. Gerzina’s talk, or this biography.

Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography went through multiple editions and was published in multiple languages. archive.org/details/lifeofolaudahequ00equi_0

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was the most famous formerly-enslaved person in Austen’s England. From the Igbo people group in Nigeria, he was enslaved as a child, owned by a series of people and traveled the world. Through trade, he earned enough to buy his freedom from a Quaker master when he was about 21. After several people in Georgia and the West Indies attempted to kidnap Equiano and re-enslave him, he decided to move to England. From there he worked as a seaman on long voyages.

Equiano became a leader of the movement for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. His autobiography was published in 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  ran through nine editions in England, and was widely read in the US and translated into Dutch, German, and Russian. (Equiano’s owners gave him several names when he was young; Gustavus Vassa was one that he continued using in England.) Equiano traveled around the country promoting his book and campaigning against slavery.

Equiano vividly describes his African childhood and his experiences on a slave ship and as an enslaved man. (Some scholars believe he was actually born in South Carolina rather than in Africa, but his autobiography describes his childhood in Africa.) He tells of the abuses suffered by slaves, and the challenges he faced as a free black man.

In 1774, Equiano was dramatically converted to Christianity. More than 20 pages of his autobiography describe the various people who shared passages from the Bible with him, his own conviction of sin, and finally his vision of “bright beams of heavenly light” coming into a “dark place” as he accepted Jesus’s death for his sins. He became a member of the Church of England. Equiano often tried to persuade others to become Christians. He attempted to get ordained and go as a missionary to Africa, but the bishop chose not to ordain him.

In 1786, Equiano was asked to help with a new project. At first he was enthusiastic about the idea. The government was planning to send a group of black people to Sierra Leone in Africa to set up a colony there. Equiano was to supervise the provisioning of the ships. However, he complained of corruption and poor, insufficient supplies, and was dismissed from his position. The expedition did take place, but the colony faced huge difficulties and many died.

Equiano closed his autobiography with a plea to end slavery, and instead to trade with Africa for goods like indigo and cotton. He went on to explain that he had included many seemingly small details of his life, since he had learned to see the hand of God in all those details, and to learn lessons “of morality and religion” from all that happened; he hoped his readers would also learn from his experiences.

For more on Equiano’s life, I recommend his autobiography. It was very popular in the eighteenth century, though we don’t know if Jane Austen ever read it. Modern versions with additional material are also available. For a briefer survey, listen to Dr. Gerzina’s talk.

Like many black writers of the time, Gronniosaw included his Christian testimony in his memoir.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c. 1705-1775), an African prince from Nigeria, became a Christian while he was enslaved in America. Like many of the formerly-enslaved people who wrote their stories at this time, he includes his faith experiences. His owner was a Reformed Dutch minister who sent him to school. Gronniosaw was converted when he read Richard Baxter’s A Call to the Unconverted, so he was obviously very literate. He wrote, “I was so drawn out of myself, and so fill’d and awed by the Presence of God that I saw (or thought I saw) light inexpressible dart down from heaven upon me . . . I seemed to possess a full assurance that my sins were forgiven me. I went home all my way rejoicing . . .”.

Gronniosaw was eventually freed and settled in England. He was influenced by multiple denominations there. He became friends with the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, joined a Baptist church, shared his testimony with Dutch Calvinists, and received help from Quakers. When he wanted to marry a white English woman who had helped him grow in his faith, the leaders of his church objected: not because of race, but because she was poor. He paid off her debts and married her anyway. She was a weaver; he worked at whatever jobs he could find.

 Gronniosaw, like most black people in Britain, was not born in a British parish and therefore not eligible for parish help when he was in need. In his memoir he describes one severe winter when he and his wife were both unemployed and “reduc’d to the greatest distress imaginable.” He did not want to beg, but when their “last bit of bread was gone” he had to ask for help. They moved elsewhere and his wife found work again as a weaver, but the situation was still difficult. He thanks God for the “charitable assistance” of others and looks forward to relief in heaven.

You can read Gronniosaw’s story in his own words in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.

Mary Prince’s autobiography increased public outrage over the abuses experienced by enslaved people in the West Indies.

Mary Prince

The only autobiography of a black woman in England that we have from this time is the story of Mary Prince (1788-183?). Mary was born into slavery in Bermuda. She later lived in Antigua, where Moravian missionaries taught her to read and write in a Bible class. She joined the Moravian church, which helped many enslaved people in Antigua. Mary married a freeman in the church, though the Church of England there apparently did not allow slaves to marry. A Moravian missionary attempted to buy Mary’s freedom, but her owner, John Wood, refused to let her go. He took her away from her husband and brought her to England.

In England she fled from the Wood family’s cruelty. The Anti-Slavery Society took her in. She worked as a servant for the secretary of the society, and the society helped her published her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, in 1831. At the end of her story, she is enjoying the kindness and hospitality of Christians in the Anti-Slavery Society, and appreciates going to church three times on Sunday. But she longs for her husband and her home, and cannot return because that would mean returning to slavery.

Gretchen Gerzina shares some of Mary’s story on Britain’s Black Past,  using some of Mary’s own words. You can read Mary Prince’s autobiography in various editions, and on google books. The Moravians also record information about Mary.

Black Clergy

We also know of a few black or mixed-race clergymen in Austen’s England. Brian Mackey, the son of a white father and a black West Indian woman, held two church livings in 1805.  We only know about his racial background because one of his contemporaries, clergyman William Holland, was his parents’ neighbor and wrote about Mackey in his diary. Nathaniel Wells, mentioned in last month’s post, had two sons who became clergymen. Philip Quaque (or Kwekwe) was a black African who studied in England, was ordained, and married an English wife. In 1766 he returned to Cape Coast, Africa, as the Church of England’s first African missionary. For more on black people in the Church of England, I recommend Black Voices: The Shaping of Our Christian Experience by David Killingray and Joel Edwards, which includes extensive quotes from black people in England over the centuries.

These are only a few of the many black people who lived at least part of their lives in Austen’s England. I hope you will have a chance to read some of their stories in more detail. And please tell us about others you are familiar with!

Note: Last month when I talked about mixed-race Nathaniel Wells and his wealth and position in society, I should also have said that Wells, as his slave-owning father’s heir, owned slave plantations, and the enslaved people apparently were not treated well. Gretchen Gerzina tells more of his troubling story in Britain’s Black Past

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

Other Sources

  • William Holland, Paupers and Pig Killers, 106. Jan. 25, 1805. (On Brian Mackey)
  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)
  • Dr. Johnson’s portrait is from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Johnson_(1911)_Frontispiece.png
  • You can find further resources here.

For more on individual black lives in Austen’s England, check out Professor Gretchen Gerzina’s series, “Britain’s Black Past,” on BBC radio.

I also recommend recordings of this year’s excellent Race and the Regency series from Jane Austen and Co.

Inquiring readers: Earlier this week, Tony Grant wrote about the history of Robert Geffrye and the Almshouses in Shoreditch. This post discusses his experience as a guide in an 18th century room. This post links to online images to that room. Enjoy!

Almshouse, number 14, has been set up to show what a pensioner’s rooms would have been like in the 1780s and also a hundred years later in the 1880s. The almshouses were used as charitable houses for the poor for 200 years.

Plan of houses

One of the things I do as a volunteer at the museum is to take visitors around these historic rooms and discuss the history of the building and the lifestyle of the pensioners who lived there. 

The ground floor consists of the 1850s rooms. Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, and these almshouses existed and were in use throughout her lifetime. The world she portrays in her novels is often of the rich landowning gentry and the village community. This other world of poor, mostly  illiterate people lived at the same time as she, and I think we should be aware of them.

When I bring a group into the almshouses, we enter the front door and assemble in the downstairs room with display boards, and a few chairs and a table to show some handling artefacts. By this point, as we walk from the reception area on the opposite side of the almshouses, I have already given the group some background information about Robert Geffrye and the building, and the purpose of the almshouses. 

Once inside the building, I give a quick health safety talk about moving around the almshouses and point out low door lintels. It is important that visitors touch nothing. All are original artefacts from the 18th century.  I tell them about the meeting point if the fire alarms are set off. The room we are in is located in the first ground floor rooms. Another room of the same size and shape is located on the opposite side  of the entrance door on the ground floor and there are two more rooms on the first floor at the top of the flight of stairs. Each almshouse was built  for four pensioners, hence the four room layout.

I then take the group into the room opposite.

Let’s return to the year 1780 in Shoreditch, just north of the City of London at The Geffrye Almshouses on The Kingsland Road. This ground floor room is set out as it would have been during the 1780s, the first century the almshouses existed.

Map of The Museum of The home (2)

The room appears sparsely furnished. The windows show some light entering the room. The giant London Plane Trees that replaced the original lime trees over 100 hundred years ago cast a shadow in the room, especially in the summer when the trees have their full leaf canopy. The windows today are the Victorian sash windows that replaced the original shuttered windows, but apart from that, everything is as it would have been in 1780. 

A gnarled oak table is positioned under the window, with the wood grain deeply fissured in places. On the table are a pewter plate, a horn mug, and iron and bone handled knife and fork. An iron candlestick holds a candle. I usually light the candles in this room for the visitors to get the full effect of how lighting would have been. Nowadays, we use modern candles with the flame standing bright and true and straight. 

A cylindrical tin hanging on the wall gives us more of an idea of the lighting in this room in the 18th century. It contains tallow candles. These were made from animal fat. They were cheap. When lit they generally smoked and gave off an unpleasant smell. The reason they were kept in this tin container is so that the rats could not eat them. A pair of what look like iron scissors lie near the tallow candles. By trimming the candle wick the smoking, and, hence the smell, could be reduced.  A small iron cone with a long thin handle was used to snuff the candles.  

I always point out the floorboards. This was a luxury for poor people. Generally, workers’ homes had earth floors, which got damp in wet weather and rotted their wooden furniture. Two of the chairs in the room look rather low, with their seats close to the floor. You can see how the legs have been strengthened with cross pieces. The legs have been gradually cut down as they rotted from the floor upwards. 

The bed is a strong wooden frame with ropes stretched across the frame to make a netting for the straw filled mattress to lie on. A coarse woollen blanket covers the bed. Underneath the bed you see a large chamber pot. This was the container the occupants would urinate and defecate in. Each day they emptied their chamber pots into a cesspit at the back of the buildings. The cesspit was emptied regularly by night soil men.

As the diet was mostly vegetables, I surmise that the contents of the cesspit was put onto the local market garden fields as compost. 

Water was obtained from two pumps within the grounds outside of the almshouses. The Geffrye Pensioner was provided with clean fresh water from the “New River,” a canalisation of the River Lea from James Ist’s time. The River Lea starts from a country town called Ware thirty miles north of London. Many springs, including those at Sadlers Wells, feed the river during its course. 

Many Londoners did not have the benefit of clean fresh water. Some aquifers around the city supplied a few pumps, but many people got their water from The Thames, which became more and more filthy as the decades went by. One of the almshouse rules actually stated that the pensioners must not sell water to the local people. The pumps were padlocked and the pensioners were supplied with keys to access the pumps.

The fireplace is an interesting point in this room. It has an iron grate, and iron hooks allow pots to be hung over the flames. A bucket with coal was used to fuel the fire. A tinder box with a piece of flint , a piece of iron to strike a spark, and oiled wool to catch the sparks were used to ignite the fire.

A large iron pot that stands next to the fire was for cooking a vegetable stew called pottage, which was their main diet. Meat was expensive and, unless they managed to trap and catch a rabbit in the local fields or once in a while got hold of an old chicken, they very seldom had meat. 

Pewter plates are interesting. In the 18th century, pewter was an amalgam of tin, antimony, and lead. They didn’t know that lead was poisonous, probably because the effects took a long time to build up in the body. By the cuts and scrapes on the surface of the pewter plates in this room small grains of lead must have gotten into their bodies with every meal.

There is no evidence of written material in this room:  the pensioners in the 18th century were probably illiterate, although they had skills in the iron trade and had been very talented ironworkers.

The small room attached to this main living area stored items such as jugs, plates, brushes, and other utensils.

I then take the visitors into the basement to view the store rooms for coal and the washing facilities for their clothes. A large cauldron, heated by coal from underneath, was used to boil a mixture of water, an alkali made from wood ash, and a certain amount of urine as a bleaching agent. The smell must have been awful. I really can’t imagine they often washed their clothes. Maybe once a year. They had to dry their clothing either in front of the fires in their rooms or in an area at the back of the almshouses. Washing could not be hung at the front for passersby to see. 

And so a visit to some of the poor of the 18th century ends. 

The Museum of the Home encourages us to ask questions about what ”home” means. Because of the history of the buildings themselves, however, we have to ask questions about  Sir Robert Geffrye.  What is his legacy today?



  • Kathy Haslam : A History of the Geffrye Almshouses,  Published by The Geffrye Museum 
  • Penelope Hunting :  Riot and Revolution ( Sir Robert Geffrye 1613-1704)  Published by The Geffrye Museum 2013

Early Life of Robert Geffrye

Robert Geffrye was born at Tredinnick Farm near Landrake in Cornwall in 1613. His father was a yeoman farmer. That meant, unlike a tenant farmer, he owned his own land. He was baptised at St Michael’s Church in Landrake on the 24th May 1613. The local vicar, Roger Jope, chose children from the area to teach the basics of reading and writing. He discovered in Robert a quick and intelligent child. At that time, learning to read and write opened opportunities to any able boy.

A number of national and international incidents happened in the early years of Robert Geffrye’s life. In 1623 and again in 1630, storms affected the crops and many families were left hungry. In 1618, the 30 Years War began in Europe. A period of continuous war over three decades between Catholic and Protestant states in Europe and particularly amongst the Germanic states ensued. Even though Britain was not officially a participant in these wars, James Ist still provided an army of 30,000 English troops to support his Protestant allies. In 1625, three hundred young Cornishmen were conscripted to fight. In 1627 a failed raid on La Rochelle saw the returning English army of 5000 men billeted on Cornish households. Landrake was no exception. Because of the unruly nature of some bands of troops stationed in Cornwall, martial law was imposed on the area. Poor prospects and many dangers beset the young teenage Robert Geffrye.

A young man wanting to get on in life obtained an apprenticeship, especially with one of the great livery companies in the City of London. This was a route to prosperity and advancement. Many Cornish men had made their fortunes by joining such livery companies and many prominent Cornishmen had links to the livery companies. For instance, Richard Randall the Deputy Vice Admiral in Devon had a longstanding connection with The Ironmongers Company. Richard Peate, another Cornishman, made a lucrative career with The Ironmongers and became their senior warden. Robert Geffrye went to London at the age of 17 and applied successfully to join the Ironmongers as an apprentice with Richard Peate.

Robert Geffrye’s father paid Robert Peate the £200 apprenticeship fee. Apprentices became part of their masters family and boarded with them for the seven years the apprenticeship lasted. Robert Geffrye lived with the Peates at Whitecross Street, Finsbury, and initially would have been set to work sweeping the warehouse floor, and packing and weighing goods. Towards the latter years of his apprenticeship he would have worked in the counting house dealing with bills, and learning the elements of book keeping and correspondence, and so became acquainted with Peate’s customers. Daniel Defoe had been an apprentice with the Butchers company. He wrote that on the completion of an apprenticeship, a young man could, 

“turn his hand to anything, or deal in anything or everything.”

Robert Geffrye completed his apprenticeship with credit in August 1637. He was given the freedom of the city, which gave him privileges within the city. He later became a liveryman of the company, putting him in a position of authority, checking standards, and attending church services, dinners, and ceremonies in the name of the company. His dealings were with men who had trained and achieved the same status he had. This put him on a trajectory within the political and trading establishment of the city. 

In 1667 and again in 1687, Geoffrey became the Master of the Ironmongers Company. In 1674 he became the Sherriff of London, an important role in the 17th century. Officeholders had important judicial responsibilities and attended the justices at the Central Criminal Court, The Old Bailey. In 1676, Robert Geffrey became an Alderman and eventually the Lord Mayor of London in 1685. 

Painting of ca, 1745, Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers Company

Samuel Scott, ca, 1745, Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers Company – Google Art Project.

Robert Geffrey’s life and his rise in importance and influence came during a tumultuous time, starting in his youth with The Thirty Years War, the reign of Charles 1st during the English Civil war, when war was waged between the Parliamentarians known as The Roundheads, who were who were mostly Puritan, and the Cavaliers who were monarchists and Church of England followers. The monarchy was defeated, leading to the execution of Charles 1in 1649. Scotland proclaimed his son, also Charles, as King Charles II, whose army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, when he escaped to The Netherlands.

The following nine years were known as The  English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell died, Charles II was invited back to England in 1660 and was welcomed in London in May of that year. Charles II died in 1685 and his brother James became King James II. 

Robert Geffrye lived through The Plague year of 1665, followed by The Great Fire of London in 1666. More conflict followed, including a successful attack by Charles II, a Roman Catholic, on The Medway ports with a Dutch fleet. The victory caused problems among many of the Protestant aristocracy and  government ministers. They wanted to get rid of Charles II and, backed by the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, to usurp him. Monmouth’s army was defeated at The Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. He was captured and executed and many of his followers were pursued by Judge Jeffryes  and condemned to death at the famous Bloody Assizes.

James II was able to consolidate his power and reigned until 1688, when he was deposed by William of Orange. During this tumultuous time, Robert Geffrye must have been a very astute politician and able administrator to navigate those times. You have to admire him for his tenacity.

Later life and the Almshouses

During his life Robert married a mercer’s daughter, Priscilla Cropely. They lived in Lime Street, very close to Leadenhall Market in the City and by the Ironmongers Hall. They had no children.

In 1653 he joined The Levant trading company. It is recorded that he traded cloth to Leghorn in Italy. Robert Geffrye  became an administrator in The Levant Company trading with Northern Europe, the Mediterranean  and Turkey. In 1670 he profited from the slave trade by his investments and involvement in the Royal African Company, and in 1680 Robert Geffrye became a joint owner of the trading ship, The China Merchant. He and his fellow owners wanted to hire their ship at first to The East India Company. 

He  became an administrator in The Royal African Company whose whole purpose was the ”Triangular Trade” with the Guinea Coast of West Africa, The West Indies, and Britain. All these great trading companies had strong links to The Ironmongers Company, trading in cloth, tin, lead, pewter, calico, spices, pepper and slaves. It is rather chilling seeing a list of their trading interests with slavery as just one more item on the list.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Robert Geffrye devoted his time to charitable work. He became the president of Bethlem and Bridewell Hospitals. Sir Robert Geffrye and his wife Priscilla were childless. She predeceased him by many years. When he died in 1704 at the age of 91 years, he left a small fortune of £13000. In his will, some of the money went to financing a school in his home village of Landrake in Cornwall, but a substantial amount of the  £13000 was left to build almshouses for poor deserving people who had worked mainly for the ironmongers and fell on hard times when they retired. 

Photo of the Geffrye Almshouse

The Geffrye Almshouses, image by Tony Grant

An almshouse is a charitable home for poor people of good character. The Ironmongers Company set up a group of officers called the Geffrye Charity Committee. They took nearly nine years to find a suitable site to build the almshouses–a site near the city so it had convenient access to the committee based at Ironmongers Hall.

They wanted the site to be conspicuous to passers-by so that Robert Geffrye’s legacy could be seen and admired. They first looked at a site in Old Street that the Ironmongers owned and a site in Bow was also considered. By 1711, the committee was still looking for a site and in November of that year they published an advertisement. A Mr Hunt, who owned a large plot of land fronting the Kingsland Road, responded, and sold the site to the Ironmongers for £200. 

There were other charitable foundations in The Kingsland Road too. Just to the north of this new site, The Drapers had built an almshouse. To the south, The Framework Knitters also had their almshouses. The area, although close to The City, consisted mostly of market gardens and arable farming. Clay pits in the area provided clay for brickmaking. In 1712, the Geffrye Charity Committee drew up their architectural plans for the almshouses. Someone who was not an architect must have been a competent draughtsman, for the plans were very good. The almshouses were well designed in a typical 18th century style copying Christopher Wren and aspects of Inigo Jones.

Tenders were submitted in 1712 for building the houses. Robert Burford, a carpenter, was employed to build the central great room and six almshouses located on the north side. Mr Halsaul, also called a carpenter in the documents, was contracted to build six more almshouses on the south side. In the documents they are merely called carpenters, but they were more likely to have been members of the Carpenters Guild, who had their own building apprentices. The central Great Room was used as a meeting place and to socialise for the first two years of its existence. It was soon turned into a chapel  for Sunday services, which the pensioners were required to attend.

The chosen site sloped to the west. To make it flat, the Committee encouraged people to dump their waste on the land to fill in the dip. Six hundred carts of soil were transported to cover the ground. The actual buildings were constructed at the back on solid ground that had not needed levelling. This provided ground for a solid foundation and left the front area to be grassed over as a  lawn for recreation, and room for Lime trees to be planted. Twelve houses were completed by 1712 with the great room in the middle. Two more houses were added, one to each wing in the following two years, making fourteen altogether.

The Geffrye Charity Committee insisted on high quality materials for the buildings. Today you can see how well constructed they are. The interiors are well designed. The floors are made of strong sturdy oak boards and the interior walls and ceilings are plastered. An American lady I showed round once finished the tour by saying, “ I’m ready to move in now.”

Statue of Robert Geffryes, Founder of the Hospital

Statue of Robert Geffryes, Founder of the Hospital

In December 1714, the first pensioners moved in. The criteria for becoming a pensioner was that you had to be 56 years old at least, poor, and of good character. The rules in the Geffrye Charity Committees documents state, 

“any member or their widow that shall have been Liveryman or Freeman of The Company of Ironmongers shall be preferred.” 

This did not mean that people who were not from the Ironmongers Company could not get in, but Ironmongers were given preference. Until 1740, on average between forty to fifty pensioners lived in the almshouses.

Robert Geffryes’ endowment provided a  Geffrye pensioner with a single room that had a small walk-in cupboard in one corner. They were given a pension of £6 a year. Each pensioner was provided with six sacks of coal a year. A new gown was given to each every Lady Day ( March 23rd). They were required to make ,”petticoats,” from their old gowns. Some of these official pensioners – male – often had wives, and it is thought some even had children living with them. £6 per year was not enough to live on for some. They could petition for extra funds from the almshouse poor box or the Ironmongers Companies estate. Many received extra money in this way. Some were also employed in work in the almshouses. The matron, groundskeeper and chapel clerk were employed from among the pensioners. A chaplain was also employed but he was not a pensioner. The Chaplain held a position of authority over the pensioners.

The committee made up rules for the pensioners to live by and were based on the rules enforced by other almshouses, so they were not unique. 

  • Pensioners could be fined for blasphemy. In this case they would be expelled from the almshouses to return to their parishes. This was not a good thing to happen. Living off their parish made them extremely poor. 
  •  If they were found guilty of adultery or lewdness they could be expelled. 
  • Staying out overnight could bring a fine. The gates were closed from 7pm in the winter and from 9pm in the summer.
  • Rule number 8 stated that a pensioner had to be. “of good life and conversation.” They were expected to get on well with the other pensioners and support each other when ill. Rule number 10 related to drunkenness. A fine would be given. Cases were heard at the Geffrye Charity Committee meetings held in the great room, to begin with. Generally, they were  lenient and expulsion was very rare. 

The almshouses today are called “The Museum of The Home.” Over the last three years a government grant from the lottery fund of £18 million pounds has been given to the museum to extend and develop its work. The basement has been lowered and refurbished to contain exhibitions and displays on the theme of The Home, which covers many aspects. Documentary films have been made about the home lives of local Shoreditch residents and their background. Various themes, such as migrant camps, sleeping rough on the streets ,”games in the home,” and other aspects of home life are covered. The key element about these new exhibitions and displays is to instigate discussion and to ask questions.

The ground floor has remained as the middle class English period rooms from Tudor times to the 21st century. A new addition called “The West Indian Front Room” has been installed as the 1970s room. Eventually, over time, the museum will move away from being predominantly a museum of middle class rooms to rooms that cover all of society. The roof has been opened up to contain a research library.

An important element of the museum’s work is its ground-breaking educational work with schools, colleges, and universities.  A new education block has been built at the back, a major element of the museum. The museum is now famous for its important outreach into the local community. Molly Harrison, the curator of the museum from 1949 into the 50s and 60s, developed child-centred exploratory education techniques, which many museums in Britain and the world over still use today. 

The second part of this series, which is a guided tour of the 18th century room in the Almshouses, will be posted on Thursday of this week. “Welcome to a Guided Tour of the 18th Century Room in the Museum of the Home at the Geffrye Almshouses, Part II.”



  • Kathy Haslam : A History of the Geffrye Almshouses,  Published by The Geffrye Museum 
  • Penelope Hunting :  Riot and Revolution ( Sir Robert Geffrye 1613-1704)  Published by The Geffrye Museum 2013

I’ve always been intrigued by the friendship between Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd. (Who wouldn’t want to be close friends with Jane Austen?) When I saw Zöe Wheddon’s new book, Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd, I knew I had to have it.

As a lifelong student of Jane Austen’s life and works, I particularly enjoy books that focus on one aspect of her life. It’s helpful to have gathered into one place all of the information I want to read on a certain topic. Jane Austen’s Best Friend tells the story of Jane and Martha’s friendship and brings together many of the finer details of Martha’s life and her impact on Jane as a person and a writer.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Dodge

I was personally touched by the closeness that was shared by Cassandra, Jane, and Martha. Jane’s deep affection and care for both her sister and her friend are clear. I took note of the fact that Jane formed her strongest bonds with women who were wise and clever, devoted and kind. Her active mind needed people who could keep up with her quick wit—and even challenge her and keep her on her toes—and Martha seems to have fit the bill perfectly.

“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power.—She is very cunning, but I see through her design;–she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”

Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, June 11, 1799.

While this book takes on a lighter, more modern tone, the research is thorough and detailed. Jane’s letters to and about Martha reveal yet another warm, loving relationship in her close circle. The early years of their friendship were marked by silliness, witty remarks, dresses, and balls. Later, their relationship deepened as they walked through pain, loss, change, and grief together. Martha’s inner strength seems to have been particularly important in Jane’s life, especially as she grew older, began to see success as an author, and later became ill.

When I set out to read Jane Austen’s Best Friend, I wasn’t sure how much information could be found about Martha herself, but after reading it, I was amazed at just how much there is to learn about Martha Lloyd. While I enjoyed reading about the bosom friendship between Jane and Martha, I was blown away by Martha herself. She was truly a remarkable woman, and I could have just as happily read a book based solely on her life. It’s easy to see why she and Jane became as close as sisters. I’ve always wished I could spend a day with Jane Austen, but now I’d like to spend a day with these two friends. It certainly seems like they never ran out of things to say or do—and they always had a lot of fun along the way.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Martha Lloyd and her friendship with Jane Austen, this is the place to start!

Stay tuned next month as I interview Zöe and share details about her inspiration for Jane Austen’s Best friend, her thoughts on friendship, and some of her favorite highlights from her research for the book.


A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zöe lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their 3 grown up children and their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, Zöe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen. People can get to know her better at www.zoewheddon.co.uk.

Zoe Wheddon, Author


JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD is a heart-warming examination of the ‘recipe for friendship’ between Jane Austen, (with whom all Janeites are best friends in their imaginations,) and Martha Lloyd. In looking back somewhat longingly at Martha and Jane’s strong and enduring bond we can examine all their interests, including the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats.

Through an examination of the defining moments of their shared lives together, the book gives readers an insight into the inner circle of the famously enigmatic and private authoress and the life changing force of their friendship.

All fans for Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that. JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Each chapter details fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

Available in the USA with Pen and Sword/Casemate.


Amazon (US)
Barnes and Noble (US)
Bookshop.org (UK)


Instagram – Zoe_Wheddon
Website – www.zoewheddon.co.uk
Twitter – @ZoeWheddon
Facebook – @authorzoewheddon

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

The Matthews Project


Inquiring readers,

The teacher who supervised the creation of this project, Ben John Wiebracht, contacted Vic Sanborn of Jane Austen’s World in the summer of 2020 to propose a research project his students would work on in the fall. After hearing the details, she instantly agreed to publish the finished result in a post, and to create a page for this blog to share with other teachers and students. (My apologies to Dr. Wiebracht for editing this document. I’ve placed quotations around his writing whenever I’ve made no changes.)

The project, entitled “A Day in Catherine Morland’s Bath,” was published on January 4, 2021. It is still attracting readers and is approaching 1,300 readers!

The Basics:

The teacher: 

Dr. Ben John Wiebracht, English teacher at Stanford Online High School, a private high school under the umbrella of Stanford University.

The class:

The class chose a senior-level elective called “Love Stories” which tracked the evolution of love stories from the classical era to the early nineteenth century. The final unit was on Northanger Abbey. (Virtual book, Little, Brown, and Company, 1903, Internet Archive). 

The students:

The article was researched, written, and designed by LiYuan Byrne, Josephine Chan, Ariana Desai, Carolyn Engargiola, Ava Giles, Macy Levin, Gage Miles, Sophia Romagnoli, Kate Snyder, Oscar Steinhardt, Lauren Stoneman, Alexandria Thomas, and Varsha Venkatram.

Image of the Adumbration class of 13 students and teacher Ben John Wiebracht.

The class and teacher.

The Article and its Inspiration (The What):

  1.  “A Day in Catherine Morland’s Bath.” (Posted January 4, 2021 in Jane Austen’s World.) As the title suggests, the goal of the article is to give the reader a sense of how Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey, and tourists like her would have spent their time when they visited the city.
  2. The article was based on a long-forgotten Georgian poem that Dr. Wiebracht dug out of the archives over the summer: “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme” (1795), by the physician and poet John Matthews. 
    1. “The poem has a wealth of information on the amusements and absurdities of Bath, but it’s tough sledding for a modern reader, chock-full as it is of now-obscure allusions to Bath customs and institutions. Our job was to track them down.”
    2. “A fun example: Matthews mentions at one point a “priest” by the name of “King.” Eh? It turns out he’s referring to a fellow named James King, who wasn’t a priest at all but one of the city’s two “Masters of Ceremonies” – responsible for “presiding over social functions, welcoming newcomers, and enforcing an official code of regulations designed to preserve decorum and promote social interaction” (Gores, Psychosocial Spaces: Verbal and Visual Readings of British Culture, 1750-1820, p. 71). Matthews calls him a priest to poke fun at the city’s almost religious devotion to entertainment. And this same King plays a brief but important role in Northanger Abbey: he introduces Catherine and Henry. All of which is to say, paying close attention to Matthews can often lead to a fuller appreciation of Austen.”

Note from the Teacher: Searching for a Unique Contribution (The Why):

“The previous sentence begins to answer this question: we wanted to make a serious contribution to the study of Northanger Abbey

But let me speak as a teacher now, and not just a scholar. Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the standard way of teaching writing and research at the high-school level: the five-page essay. A thesis statement establishing the argument, some body paragraphs elaborating or demonstrating the argument, plenty of quotations and analysis – chances are you’ve written a couple in your day! In defense of the form, it does offer a space in which students can practice rhetorical and argumentative skills. My problem with the form is that it has no authentic audience, and the kids know it. Now I might pretend it has an audience by telling them, “imagine you’re writing for someone who is familiar with the text, but hasn’t studied it in depth.” Yeah right! In the history of the world, no one has ever thought: “I’m mildly interested in Northanger Abbey; now let me go find some five-page close-readings of it, but only ones with clear thesis statements and at least two quotes per paragraph.” Nope, the only audience for these essays is the teacher, and the teacher is bringing a very different attitude to the piece and making a very different set of judgments about it than the hypothetical “curious reader.” So the poor students have to pretend to be addressing one audience that for them does not exist, in order to please a very different audience. A recipe for stress – not to mention strained and awkward writing.

What if we changed the equation? What if there were ways to really give students an audience for their academic writing? If we could pull it off, I think it would send the message that the work we ask of students is meaningful and important – that the study of literature itself is important. That’s what the football coaches do, after all (the arch-rivals of us English teachers). How do they convince the kids that running into each other at high speeds is a meaningful, important endeavor? They stick them in a stadium where a bunch of people watch them do it, and it becomes immediately, empirically obvious to the students that football matters. In short, they give the kids an audience.

These were the considerations that prompted me to devise the Matthews project and to reach out to Vic about potentially publishing it on JAW – a forum with a thriving conversation about Austen. And this leads to the practical section of this page.”

Working with Your Students (The How):

If you’re interested in running a project like this with your kids, here are some tips to make it work.

  1. Canon-adjacent may be better than canon. What does that mean? It means that if you’re teaching Pride and Prejudice, it’s going to be tough for your students to break new ground simply by scrutinizing that text. But, if you can find some neglected texts whose study might shed light on Pride and Prejudice, then the picture changes. What about some of her juvenilia? What about Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, which found an appreciative reader in Mr. Collins? What about some Georgian satire making fun of pompous clergymen? This is something to do over the summer, when you’re planning the class, and it might take some digging: the text has to be obscure enough that it isn’t already saturated with criticism, but relevant enough to your main text that there are readers out there who might care about it. “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme” fit the bill: almost untouched by scholarship, but with clear connections to Northanger Abbey.
  2. Line up your venue in advance. This is key: you want the kids to know who their audience is from the beginning. Are you going to create an exhibit for a local public library? Will you try to get something published on a blog? Will you self-publish the students’ work on Amazon or some such service? Whatever the case, the students, like all writers, will do better work if they have a clear idea of whom they are addressing, and in what form. 
  3. Make sure students’ research tasks are well-defined. In our case, that meant combing through the poem, asking questions about various lines. Who are Tyson and King? What is a “macaroni”? Then students volunteered to tackle a certain number of research questions in groups. As a teacher, one of your roles is to be the executive planner, making sure there is the right number of students working on the right things.
  4. Offer continuous feedback. My students turned up all kinds of fascinating stuff in the course of their research, but of course they embarked on some rabbit trails as well. In order to help them make the most of their efforts, it’s a good idea to keep track of what students are doing while they’re doing it, rather than waiting to assess their work at the end. How can you do this? By creating a single google doc to which everybody contributes. Ours had a list of research questions, and I would simply check in every few days to see what students had added. Then I would leave comments offering encouragement, advice, and, if necessary, redirection. 
  5. Dive in yourself. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of writing and research of your own. Remember that your students are still learning the ropes of our discipline. If you want to produce a publishable class project, you’ll probably have to do more than simply split up duties and set deadlines. You’ll have to integrate and harmonize the students’ efforts, and fill in some of the gaps yourself. It can change the classroom dynamic in a refreshing way, too, to join in the action. It’s a bit like the old master-apprentice relationship, according to which teaching is a matter of showing, doing, and collaborating, not just telling or advising.
  6. Don’t grade. Or, if you must, do it on completion alone. A grade is what you give to practice scholarship, to performative scholarship – the five-page essay and other such readerless forms. The point of the project I’m describing is to allow students to do some real work. And a particularly good way to make it real is to remove yourself, the teacher, as the audience. For the purpose of this project, you’re the opposite of an audience, you’re a co-author, and the real audience is what all good writing deserves: an interested public.

Sub pages:

Link to “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme, 1795,” John Matthews

Plans for Going Forward: 

Our class ended last December, but currently about half the students and I are working on a new project: a scholarly edition of “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme,” complete with an introduction and notes. We’ll be publishing it with Kindle Direct, an Amazon service. Digital copies of the edition will be available to the public at no cost, and hardcopies for under ten dollars.

In the long term, I hope to start a book series to which successive classes can contribute. It might be called something like “Forgotten Contemporaries of Jane Austen.” The goal of the series would be to recover Georgian and Regency writers whose work has fallen out of print, but whose study can shed fresh light on Austen’s life and work. As with the Matthews project, the students and I would work together to introduce and annotate these texts. We would also share the nitty-gritty tasks of publication — obtaining an ISBN, formatting, that sort of thing.

Jane Austen’s World’s Participation in the Project and Two Powerpoint Presentations: Tony Grant and Victoire Sanborn

About the PowerPoints:  

For a visit to Bath and a visual background, Dr. Wiebracht scheduled two workshops, one for Tony Grant, who lives in England and has served as a tour guide to visitors interested in learning more about the places where Jane Austen lived or visited. His PowerPoint and talk were given first, and should be viewed first for those who are interested.

Vic Sanborn’s presentation came the following month. She, too, had visited Bath and used a few of her own photographs, but mostly she concentrated on discussing the years of 1795-98, when Matthews wrote the Adumbration and when Thomas Rowlandson created his illustrations for “The Comforts of Bath.” Tony’s PowerPoint sets up Vic’s perfectly, for her notes are not in the PPT slides. Enjoy!

  • Link to Tony Grant’s PowerPoint Presentation on a Virtual Tour of Bath, given October 2020. This PPT, consisting of Tony’s photographs of his trips to Bath as both a visitor and a guide, comes with descriptions and annotations. If you use his photographs, please give him attribution.
  • Link to Vic Sanborn’s PowerPoint Presentation of Bath 1795, the year the Adumbration was written. The PPT is without explanatory text or the presenter’s voice. A majority of the images are from Thomas Rowlandson’s Prints of “The Comforts of Bath” from 1798. The images, on Wikipedia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are in the public domain. If Vic Sanborn’s photos are used, please give her attribution. 

By Brenda S. Cox

“Well! I am really haunted by black shadows. Men of colour in the rank of gentleman, a black Lady cover’d with finery, in the Pit at the Opera, and tawny children playing in . . . the gardens of the squares . . . afford ample proofs of Hannah More and Mr. Wilberforce’s success towards breaking down the wall of separation.” –Letter from Hester Thrale to Mrs. Pennington, June 19, 1802 (Hannah More and William Wilberforce were leaders in the campaign to abolish the slave trade.)

Last month we looked at what fiction like The Woman of Colour can show us about the lives of black people in Jane Austen’s England. This week let’s consider what we can learn from records of the time.

Kathleen Chater, author of Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807, researched the lives of black people in eighteenth century England. She searched parish records, newspaper accounts, trial accounts, and private diaries and letters. She found that the term black was often used for any darker-skinned people, including immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and China. In official records, those from Africa might be identified as Negro, black, or many other terms. (Jane Austen seems to use the word black for people with dark hair and eyes and tanned skin, but it’s not likely that official records would use that definition.) So it’s not always easy to tell which people group records refer to.

Kathleen Chater examined a wide variety of records, including parish records, trial records, newspaper articles, and private diaries and letters, researching the situation of black people in eighteenth century England.

Based on Chater’s data, Jane Austen likely saw black African people in London. Chater writes, “Wherever they went, upper- and middle-class people must have seen Blacks, because many were the servants of the upper classes, employed in highly visible positions. They opened doors to visitors, they served meals, they drove coaches in the streets.” Wealthy women liked to have a black page boy or footman serving them. Black musicians played in Army bands and led the Guards through London to Hyde Park. Other black Londoners were soldiers, sailors, shopkeepers, or a variety of other occupations.

An estimated three to five thousand black people lived in Austen’s London, with smaller numbers in the slave ports of Liverpool and Bristol. (Another estimate is that there were around 15,000 black people in 18th century England, but Chater doubts that number, which is not reflected in records of the time.) Many black people in the port cities were transient; they were mariners who were only in England for short periods of time. Some were fugitives from America. An estimated ten thousand black people were spread out through the rest of England (0.1 % of the population).

Black sailors were treated as equals on board ship. Public domain image by George Cruikshank and Lieut. John Sheringham, R.N., 1822,

Despite an intensive search, Chater did not find evidence of any specifically black communities or black churches at that time. About 80% of the black people in England were men. Many of them married white people, and they and their children became part of the English spouse’s community.

The situation for black people in England was different than it was in the Americas. Their numbers were much smaller in England, so people may not have perceived them as a threat to their society as countries with large numbers of enslaved people did. Slavery as an institution was not practiced in England. Enslaved people were sometimes brought to England, though, from America or the West Indies. The Mansfield judgment in 1772 implied that they were free in England, but it wasn’t totally clear. Enslaved visitors sometimes escaped or were freed, and settled in England. Others were taken back to the overseas colonies. Britain had a self-contradictory position on black people. They treated them as property to be exploited on the plantations of the West Indies, yet gave them human rights in England.

Lord Mansfield, whose name may have inspired the title of Mansfield Park, raised his mixed-race great-niece Dido Belle. He also made several rulings opposing slavery and the slave trade, but could not abolish either. Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo, about 1737, public domain.

Chater found little evidence of institutionalized racial discrimination, though there were individual racist incidents. It appears that black people in England generally had the same rights as white people. Black people were allowed to testify in court just as white people were, as long as they had been baptized. (Baptism was required to make sure that they acknowledged God’s authority and so would tell the truth. A Muslim was allowed to swear on the Quran, so this was not a matter of religious prejudice.) Some black servants received wages, and others did not; the same was true of white servants. Black people could hold parish offices: Chater lists a black churchwarden, a black parish constable, and a black sexton. There were limitations on apprenticeships for black people, but similar restrictions applied to all “foreigners”; most black people in England at this time came from outside the country. 

In Austen’s England, a person’s social class, or rank (as Austen calls it), was the most important factor of their identity, not skin color. Black working-class people were treated more or less like white working-class people. Mixed-race children of middle- or upper-class people were treated much like their white fathers.

For example, Nathaniel Wells was the son of a white plantation owner in St. Kitts and a black enslaved woman. He inherited great wealth, moved to England, and bought an estate in Monmouthshire. One visitor described him as “a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro.” However, his color did not bar him from the life of a country gentleman. Wells married the daughter of George II’s former chaplain. He served as a justice of the peace, a county sheriff, and deputy lieutenant for the county. He was also a churchwarden from 1804 to 1843. Two of his sons became clergymen, holding church livings.

For worship, black servants generally attended parish churches along with others in their households. Black people were baptized, married, and buried at Anglican churches, like most people in Britain. They were often baptized as adolescents or adults rather than as babies, since most were not born in England. Enslaved Africans brought into the country sometimes sought baptism under the mistaken idea that baptism would make them free. Others sought baptism because of a genuine religious conversion experience. Some were baptized and took “Christian names” in order to become a full part of the community or to get married. Cather found records that black people were part of all the religious groups of the time, except for the Jews and Quakers. (It is possible, however, that the Quakers simply did not record the race of their adherents.)

According to Chater, most people in England who had black servants “seem to have felt accountable for their Black servants’ spiritual welfare. Not only did servants attend church with them, they also took part in family prayers at home, a practice which reinforced the bonds between members of the family and their household.” This was also true of white servants, of course. In English society, those in higher positions were responsible for dependents in lower positions.

Memorials in churches around England show the esteem that some families felt for their black servants. One in Lancashire, dated 1793, describes “Augustin Leonard, A Black Man” as “a faithful servant And affectionate husband And sincere friend And Beautiful companion.” Another in Cornwall, dated 1700, says Philip Scipio was “an African whose Quality might have done Honour To any Nation or Climate And Give us to See that Virtue is Confined to no Country or Complexion Here Weep Uncorrupted Fidelity And Plain Honesty.” Some today may look on such inscriptions, for black or white servants, as patronizing. However, within the social structure that was taken for granted at that time, they seem to have been meant sincerely. 

Black and white servants appear to have had equal status “below stairs.” Thomas Rowlandson, 1810, public domain. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/811400

In London, however, many black people were not attached to white households. Some had difficulty finding work and became beggars. In about a month’s time in 1786, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor gave financial help to almost 2,000 black people in London. This was not necessarily 2,000 different individuals, of course. Some were probably repeat visitors, and some may have been from outside London.

Far fewer black people lived in the English countryside. Austen may not have known any in the country villages where she lived, unless a local squire had a black servant. In the town of Moreton in Devon, a black man caused great excitement. One witness wrote that “Peter the black servant to General Rochambeau” was the first black person to get married in Moreton. For this great event, “The Bells rang merely all day. . . . a great number assembled in the Church yard, and paraded down the street with them.”⁠

It appears black and mixed-race people in England were accepted as part of society, though such people did face some prejudices. Sadly, the people of England seemed to be blind to the suffering of enslaved people on their overseas plantations. Long campaigns had to take place before the slave trade, and then slavery, were outlawed in the British Empire. As Hester Thrale wrote in the letter quoted at the beginning of this article, Christian leaders like William Wilberforce and Hannah More led those campaigns. Two writers Austen loved, Thomas Clarkson and William Cowper, also contributed. Women supported the campaigns greatly by boycotting West Indian sugar. Free black people in England made major contributions as well. Many such men and women helped white Britons see enslaved people as human beings like themselves who deserved freedom.

Next month we’ll look at the stories of some individual black people at various levels of society who lived in Jane Austen’s England.

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

This Tuesday, April 27, Professor Gretchen Gerzina will be speaking on “The Black Woman in Nineteenth Century Studies” at 5 PM EST. The announcement says, “Black and mixed-race women in nineteenth-century Britain were represented in fiction, drama and high and low art. However the reality of their actual presence couldn’t be more different from these exaggerated representations.” Sign up and attend to learn what Dr. Gerzina has to add to this discussion!

Yesterday Chawton House and the Newton and Cowper Museum hosted a study day about William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Videos, which are still available, include a fascinating talk on Cowper and Abolition. Cowper’s poems not only contributed to the fight for abolition in England, but also to the fight against slavery in the United States. For links to the other talks, which were also excellent, click here.


  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Silvester Treleaven, Oct. 17, 1808. 
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)

You can find further resources here.

Vic’s Review

Mary-Bennet-Cover-Smaller-VersionImagine a mystery novel that features Mary Bennet as its investigative heroine! Author Katherine Cowley’s choice of Mary, the largely unnoticed Bennet daughter in Pride and Prejudice, piqued my interest. While Cowley kept some of Mary’s idiosyncrasies and insecurities as the middle child, she has created a sympathetic character, whose strengths as a keen observer accustomed to sitting on the sidelines help her solve a murder.

The book opens just after Mr Bennet’s death, with 19-year-old Mary sitting vigil near her father’s body at Longbourn. It is night and the house is deathly quiet. As she reminisces about past regrets and current events, she comes to dread her future as an unmarried daughter. Her safest choice would be to live with Mrs Bennet, but Mary wants to leave Meryton and wonders if she should take the bold step of earning her own way in life, as a governess perhaps? 

Her reveries are interrupted by the sound of a carriage. Not expecting company at such a late hour, Mary reluctantly asks a maid to let the mysterious visitors in. The door opens to two strangers, Lady Trafford, a strong-willed woman who rarely considers the word “no” as an answer to her requests, and her secretive nephew, Mr. Withrow. Lady Trafford ostensibly came to pay her respects to the mourning family, claiming kinship, but the reason for her visit soon becomes clear—to offer Mary an invitation to live with her at Castle Durrington in Sussex, for reasons that don’t quite make sense to the young woman.

After some persuasion and mental list-making, Mary accepts Lady Trafford’s invitation, and so her adventures as a sleuth begin. The following passage with Mrs Bennet, Lady Trafford, and Mary gives you some idea of Cowley’s writing style, which is her own, but echoes Jane Austen’s in a delightful way:

“Surely it is owed to us, Mary, for you to have such an opportunity. Especially as you are not beautiful like your sisters, and you have had no suitors.”

“I have already made up my mind, Mother.”

“You cannot possibly think to turn down Lady Trafford’s offer! What an inconsiderate child you are.”

“I did not say how I had made up my mind.”

“What do you say, Miss Bennet? Will you join me at Castle Durrington?”

“How big is your library?” asked Mary. “And do you have a pianoforte?”- p.56

In her first days at the castle, Mary becomes embroiled in a mystery. Then, during a brisk walk to the Sussex coast, she stumbles upon a body lying face down in the sea. After meeting a few more characters and getting to know Lady Trafford and Mr Withrow better, she no longer knows who to trust. Given free rein to Castle Durrington’s library, her research leads her to more unsettling truths. 

Cowley writes the book from Mary’s point of view, which is refreshing, for we come to know her as a fully realized person, one who is willing to learn and eager to take lessons to improve herself. She is a careful list maker and planner, and one who combines the characteristics of a good investigator—that of an observant, nondescript, determined, and note-taking woman—who people seldom notice. 

This first published book by Katherine Cowley will appeal to readers who enjoy murder mysteries set in the Regency era with a castle and rugged English coastline as a setting. Readers are also given a host of suspects to suss out until the solution is revealed. I had a great time sussing wilst arriving at my own conclusions to the mystery in this novel!

Interview with Katherine Cowley 

  1. Photo of Katherine Cowley

    Katherine Cowley

    What about Mary Bennet’s character appealed to you to write about her? Which of her traits in Pride and Prejudice did you develop to further and enhance your mystery plot for this novel and make her more interesting?

One of the things that appealed to me most about Mary Bennet is the fact that others overlook her—she is ignored, dismissed, and snubbed. And shouldn’t those who are quiet and overlooked be able to have their own stories, their own adventures?

Mary Bennet is very analytical, she loves to read, and she’s good at remembering things. Like Mary, I know what it’s like to say the wrong thing in a group setting, or to embarrass myself in conversation, or to not feel comfortable in all situations. 

So much is left open about Mary’s character—what is it that she wants? It’s clear that she wants to read and play the pianoforte and have peace and quiet, and there’s a brief mention by Austen that Mary had hoped Mr. Collins would propose to her. But beyond that, we don’t know what Mary wants. In part, I wrote this book to figure that out.

In terms of characteristics that I developed, I played up Mary’s observational skills, and I gave her a desire to learn French and drawing. Also, if Mary does not know what to do in a situation, she’ll think about what one of her sisters would do in such a moment, and often that ends up being the perfect action for her to take.

  1. Briefly describe your writing process for us (if this is possible). What I mean is, did you develop a plot outline first (with the ending always in mind)? And then allowed the characters to speak to you as you wrote about them? Or did you “stay with the program?” You also mentioned a community of writing help in your acknowledgments—how did they influence your thoughts before, during, and after the process?

I would categorize myself as both an outliner and a discovery writer. I did write an outline before the first draft, with some of the major events I wanted in the story (for example, I knew I wanted French and drawing lessons, and I knew I needed a big ball scene that had all sorts of mystery and intrigue and would also act as an important moment for Mary’s character). I also had a very clear vision of what the final chapter would look like. 

But then I “discovered” (or figured out as I went along) all sorts of characters and events and situations as I wrote.

I don’t know the exact how length of my first draft, but the second draft of the novel was about 55,000 words. While there was mystery, there was not a dead body—it was not yet a murder mystery. That came in a later draft.

I wrote five drafts of the novel before querying literary agents. My writing group read one chapter a month and gave me feedback, and I sent the second, third, and fourth draft of my novel to new sets of readers—a mixture of other writers and trusted readers who love Jane Austen. This community was so helpful in helping me refine my ideas, improve my writing, solve plot problems, and figure out what was and was not working.

I wrote two additional drafts with my literary agent (the first was a major revision, and the second was a minor revision). After my book was acquired by my publisher, I did a revision with the editor, a second revision to shorten the book by 1000 words, a copy edit, and proofreads.

Now that it’s finished, the novel is about 90,000 words (so 35,000 words longer than the second draft). It was a lengthy process to get the story from where it started to where it is today.

  1. In this day and age, it is unusual for a new author to have a book published, but you have two more Mary Bennet mystery sequels in the pipeline. Kudos! I suspect this has more to do with hard work than luck. What advice would you give to other hopeful authors who are writing their first books?

If you’re writing a first book, my biggest advice is to keep writing, and to push through and finish the book. When I first began trying to write books, I started a lot of novels that I never finished, sometimes due to perfectionism or not knowing what I wanted to do with the story or because I became distracted by a shiny new idea.

I learned a lot from books that helped me understand structure and plot, and there’s so much you can learn about writing craft from the Internet, from books, and from writing conferences. But there’s a lot that you can only learn by doing it. Push through, finish a first draft, and let go of perfectionism. And then take the time to get feedback from other writers and revise, revise, revise. Then, if you would like to publish the book, make sure to take the time to learn all you can about publication and different publishing options.

The book will be available on April 22nd, 2021. Find purchase information for preordering in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and other locations on Katherine Cowley’s site.

After sharing my book review of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice by Jasmine A. Stirling, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jasmine about her background, her writing process, and the inspiration behind her book. Thank you to Jasmine for her time and her thoughtful answers to my questions!

Q. What initially inspired you to write A Most Clever Girl? Describe your vision for the book and your writing process.

A. When I set out to write this book, I chose Jane Austen because I admire her life and her work, and because I believe she is one of the most misunderstood women in history. Jane Austen was far from being the prim, prudish, “dear Aunt Jane” depicted by her brother Henry and her nephew Edward in their biographies of the author. She is also far from being an author of swoony romances, as we are sometimes led to believe.

These discrepancies between the popular image of Austen and the real Jane Austen gripped me. I wanted to help young people understand Austen the rebel, Austen the humorist, and Austen the artist, so that when they encountered her work later on, they might better be able to fully appreciate and enjoy it.

However, as I delved into my research, it became clear that Jane Austen was a perfect subject for a children’s book about creativity and persistence, because her upbringing, life struggles, and triumphs tell us a great deal about what a writer needs in order to fully master her craft. Of course, I still hope that A Most Clever Girl will help kids relate to the real Jane Austen and encourage them to pick up her novels when they get a little older.

As for my process, it was extensive. I read widely on Austen—both primary and secondary sources—for two years before I wrote a single word. Then, I sat down and wrote a draft of the book in less than an hour. Of course, it was mediocre. It was my first attempt at creative writing as an adult. I was a beginner.

Over the next ten months, I worked for hours each week rewriting and revising the manuscript based on feedback from dozens of people—writers, kids, freelance editors, and agents. I continued to refer to and pull things from primary and secondary sources as I went. Ultimately, I rewrote or revised my initial draft more than 60 times. The final story was unrecognizable when compared with the first draft.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was figuring out how to explain the literary significance of what Jane Austen did—pioneer her witty realist style, rich with social commentary and moral imperatives—to very young people who have no idea what literature was like in Regency England and have scant understanding of what a writer’s voice is all about. Hopefully I pulled it off!

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Q. What do you hope young readers and the worldwide Jane Austen community will gain from reading this book?

A. A Most Clever Girl is about the process of creative mastery. It’s about all those boring, mundane aspects of creative achievement that our culture doesn’t like to talk about—being rooted in place, having community support, getting consistent feedback, having time, money, and a room of one’s own, discipline, and maturity—which are critical for an artist to bloom.

My hope is that if children (and adults!) study and learn more about how someone becomes a great writer, or filmmaker, or painter, or musician, it will give them insight into how to nurture their own talents—whatever they may be—to greatness.

The message, I hope, is an empowering one. If one begins a project and it isn’t coming out quite as nicely as one expected, do not despair! Set aside ninety minutes each day before or after school or work and keep at it. Find your community. Get feedback. Advocate for the time and space to work on your craft. Be patient.

Although Jane Austen had written drafts of her most famous and beloved novels by her mid 20s, it was not until more than a decade later that she had fully developed her voice as a writer. In fact, by the time Austen had mastered her craft, she had been writing for more than a quarter of a century.

In short, creative mastery is not born of a flash of inspiration. Inspiration plays a part, but not the major part, in any creative endeavor.

Q. When did you first discover Jane Austen and how have her books touched your life?

A. I first fell in love with Jane Austen while reading Persuasion at age nineteen while studying abroad as an associate member of Keble College at the University of Oxford. I also adore Pride and Prejudice.

One way in which Austen inspires me is in her ability to create literature that is fun and escapist and yet anything but light. I am dazzled by Austen’s depth and skill as an artist, and love that she challenges our notion that great art must be a moody, dark, and bitter tonic. Austen, like Shakespeare, is able to work simultaneously on many levels at once. While distracting us with her perfect sentences and tidy plotlines, she entertains and amuses while also viciously satirizing patriarchy, the church, the aristocracy, and conventional views of women. Her characters are of her time and yet distinctively modern. She is perennially relevant, offering each new generation corrective wisdom without being gauche or overbearing.

Q. What was your research process for A Most Clever Girl and what sources did you consult? Have you visited any of the Jane Austen sites in England?

A. One of the things that I think is unique about A Most Clever Girl among children’s books is its liberal use of and reliance on primary sources. Austen’s letters are used to describe details of her life in three spreads. Actual examples from her juvenilia are referenced right at the beginning of the book. Quotes from her novels are sprinkled liberally throughout the text (in italics) to describe Austen’s own creative journey. Every detail, from what young Jane is reading in the second spread to what she thought about her how brother James cut up his turkey, is grounded in a primary source and laid out on an accurate timeline.

Each decision I made was carefully considered, often in agonizing detail. For example, several biographies state that Austen fainted upon hearing the news that the family would move to Bath. On further investigation, I concluded that, based on the primary sources used to develop this theory, this might not have occurred. So although I had included it in an early draft, I wrote it out later on. The last thing a biographer for children wants to do is to perpetuate inaccurate information about someone in history.

I was painfully aware throughout my writing process that Austen is a unique subject. Her enormous popularity and the vast number of professional and novice Austen experts means that anyone writing about her needs to be particularly sensitive about the many versions of the Austen narrative. I tried to tread that line respectfully while also making sure my own version of her story had real heft and direction.

When I was a student at Oxford I had the opportunity to visit many of the sites mentioned in my book. My college friends from those days are currently planning an Oxford reunion (when things open up again) and we plan to revisit the sites in A Most Clever Girl on the same trip.

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Q. The illustrations for the book are charming! Tell us about those and any other special features in the book.

A. I love that Vesper Stamper visited the sites that she illustrated for the book on a research trip to the UK. Her work emphasizes the three-dimensional portrait of Austen I worked hard to evoke in my writing. Vesper’s Austen sparkles with mischief and wit. At the same time, her illustrations are gorgeous and lush and tap into that escapism that I think make Austen such a delight for grownups to read.

Q. This book traces Jane Austen’s journey as a writer, from Steventon to Bath to Chawton, and explores the way she found her voice. What parts of her story were particularly meaningful for you? In what ways do you relate to Austen as a writer?

A. My journey mirrors Austen’s in that, as a child, I wrote prolifically. From the age of three, I regularly composed poems in my head and dictated them to my mother to write down. I wrote throughout my childhood and into my young adult life. But as an adult, I stopped writing completely, until a few years ago, when I began my first creative writing project—a picture book biography of Jane Austen.

My reasons for abandoning creative writing are probably not dissimilar to Austen’s. In hindsight, I wish I had understood more about how creative achievement works. I think it would have motivated me to carve out time for writing during those years, even when I struggled with where to begin.

Q. If you could step into one of Jane Austen’s novels, which one would it be and which character would you like to play?

A. I would most like to be Anne Eliot in Persuasion. I appreciate that Captain Wentworth is a self-made man, and that he does not come with a large estate. We would be free to make our own, new home together. I think his industriousness, good sense, and lack of inherited wealth would put me at ease. Furthermore, Wentworth writes the most romantic and self-aware letter in human history when he proposes to Anne. That letter would get me through many a quarrel in later years as we raised children and managed a household together.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I have a 450-page YA/New Adult narrative nonfiction book coming out next year about the women’s suffrage movement titled: We Demand An Equal Voice: Carrie Chapman Catt and Votes for Women. I am also working on a novel.

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Thank you again to Jasmine for her wonderful interview! If you haven’t read my book review of A Most Clever Girl, you can read it here. I found the book utterly charming. I’m planning to give copies to my friends at birthday parties, baby showers, and graduations–and pretty much every other occasion I can think of. I hope you do too! –Rachel


Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.

In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.



Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.

Follow Jasmine on Instagram and Facebook @jasmine.a.stirling.author where she posts about kidlit and life with two young girls.

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

by Brenda S. Cox

Last week I started a series about people of color in Austen’s England, looking through different lenses of history. We began with Sanditon, The Woman of Colour, and other literature. We’ll be continuing with a post each month. 

If you want to do some of your own exploring, the following are resources that I have found helpful. (These are also listed under the History tab above.) If you know of other good resources that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments section so I can add them. Or if you’ve read any of these and want to comment on them, please do!

Black History, Black People in Austen’s England


Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater examines the records of churches, courts, newspapers, and other sources to see what they show about black people in England, 1660-1807.

Individual Black People in Austen’s England

Black Clergy 
  • Clergy of African Descent in England,” Church Times, Oct. 23, 2015. 
  • Barber, Samuel. My Primitive Methodists. Mixed-race Methodist lay minister. Son of Francis Barber (see previous section).
  • Philip Quaque, black Anglican priest and missionary
  • John Jea, The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. Black African minister who visited England. 
  • John Marrant, The Journal of John Marrant, 3. Black African minister who visited England.
  • Boston King, “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher,” from The Methodist Magazine, March-June 1798, 264. Black African minister who visited England.
Paula Byrne’s Belle explores what we know of Dido Belle, the mixed-race great-niece of Lord Mansfield.

Slavery and Abolition

Gretchen Gerzina’s Black London explores the lives of black people in London through art, individual stories, and other lenses.

Happy Easter, gentle readers. Many of the customs followed in the early 19th century by Jane Austen and her family are still followed today in one fashion or another. For this blog post, I have gathered information already known to many, and some that might be new. The following quote sums this holiday up nicely:

Easter during the Regency was both a holy day and a holiday.” – Lesley-Ann McCleod

Pancake Races Before Lent:

The 40 days before Easter or Lent began on Wednesday with a church service. This day was preceded by Shrove Tuesday, on which one would confess one’s sins. The date was also the last day to eat all the foods that would be prohibited during abstinence. This meant emptying the larder of rich foods, such as milk, eggs, butter, fat, wheat flour, and spices—ingredients commonly found in pancakes. An alternate name in Britain for Shrove Tuesday was Pancake Tuesday! Pancakes were made for consumption or for public races:

At the sound of a pancake bell, often the bell from the local church, women ran a course carrying a frying pan with a pancake in it. They had to successfully flip the pancake at least three times before they reached the goal. Some communities held pancake parties, with people dressed up [as] the Protector of the Pancakes, irst Founder of the Fritters, Baron of Bacon-flitch, and the Earl of Egg-baskets.” –  Regina Scott, guest author on The Regency Blog of Lesley-Anne McLeod

Pancake races with female contestants are still held today. In addition, street football, or hurling, where teams of men (country men against city dwellers, for instance) hurled the ball against the opposing team until one team won, is also a time-honored Easter tradition.

Easter Sermons:

Easter Sunday, which commemorated Christ’s resurrection from the dead, was a solemn occasion and one of obligation for parishioners, such as the Austen family and the community of worshipers. In the book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins writes that clergymen in Jane Austen’s day were not expected to write original sermons every Sunday, except on a few occasions.

Henry Crawford, assessing Edmund Bertram’s commitments at Thornton Lacey, judged that ‘a sermon at Christmas and Easter ‘would be’ the sum total of the sacrifice.”

She also wrote that Mr. Collins produced only two sermons between his ordination at Easter and his visit to Longbourn in November of the same year.- p. 96. Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins, August 1, 2002.

cover of Religion and Philosophy of a stack of Bibles and the title of a sermon Thomas Lloyd preached in a parish church on Easter-Day, April 8th, 1787

Easter Music

I will always remember Sunday Easter service with my parents when singing this uplifting Methodist Church hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” (14th C. song rewritten in 1739 by: Lyricist Charles Wesley, Composer Samuel Arnold, initially titled Hymn for Easter Day). This hymn was also popular during Jane Austen’s day. My emotions well up when I watch this YouTube video of the King’s College choir singing the hymn.

Easter in Pride and Prejudice

When Elizabeth Bennet visits Hunsford and Rosings, she becomes aware of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s omission in inviting the Collins’ and their guests in advance for this most important holiday:

In this quiet way, the first fortnight of her visit soon passed away. Easter was approaching, and the week preceding it was to bring an addition to the family at Rosings, which in so small a circle must be important.”

Elizabeth understands that Lady Lady Catherine de Bourgh has no time for herself or Mr and Mrs Collins, but an invitation finally came:

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of either Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr. Darcy they had only seen at church.”

The ladies, we presume, arrived wearing their new Easter bonnets and gowns made especially for such an important holiday. One assumes that Easter must have presented a busy schedule for Mr Collins, the vicar of his parish. Elizabeth Hawksley, who has written an interesting article about the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels, describes Mr Collins during the days surrounding Easter. His schedule is far from busy:

So what did the vicar of a parish actually do? Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.” – Jane Austen and the Clergy: How the System Worked, Elizabeth Hawksley.

Tithing at Easter

Interestingly, people were punished for non-payment of tithes or attendance at Easter. In his book, The Parish Registers of England, Charles Cox (1843-1919) writes:

“…On conviction for divers of the less serious offences, such as non-payment of tithes or Easter dues, or for the non-observance of Sundays or Saints’ Days, offenders were admonished, and if obstinate excommunicated; but in such cases absolution and discharge could  usually be obtained on payment of a fine…”

The Monday After Easter—Merriment at Greenwich Park:

This image depicts Easter day for the masses in Greenwich Park in London. At the top of the hill is the Royal Observatory with astronomical equipment. According to a contemporary description, a sojourn to the park is well worth the visitors’ time! The Monday after Easter the park is filled with throngs of merry makers (ten to thirty thousand) from all walks of life and many ages. The hill is steep, with celebrants running down it in pairs or groups of males and females, sometimes tumbling head over heels, and most likely giggling.

Black and white engraving of Greenwich Park with crowds celebrating Easter

Greenwich Park with the Royal Observatory on Easter Monday, Modern London, Edward Pugh

Greenwich is crowded at these holidays.  In the public-houses is dancing from morning to evening.  Almost every private house of the lower and middle sort make tea and coffee; yet it is often difficult to find room even for a small company; and it is very usual for parties to take a cold repast and wine with them, and dine beneath the trees in the Park, in spots a little retired from the throng. “Mapping Modern London, Horwood’s Map, Greenwich Park

To view the incredible details of the park, click on an image, which will open to enlarged version.


Hot cross buns, ham, lamb in season, and potatoes were common dishes at Easter, as were colored eggs for an Easter egg hunt. These foods are still popular today. Kirstin Olsen writes about Pastor Woodforde, the author of Diary of a Country Parson,

Woodforde and his friends tended…to prefer the grass lamb, and it is in the spring that most of his references to eating lamb occur.” – Kirstin Olsen, Cooking with Jane Austen (pp. 66-67)

Grass lamb, or young lambs that still drink milk from their mothers were prized by many. Soon after they are born, the lambs start to eat hay, grass, or grain, but much of their food intake is still from their mothers’ rich milk. The lambs are slaughtered within 2-15 months of birth, weigh from 135 to 140 lbs, and are available only from April to September. Their taste is not as intense as an older lamb’s, but it is one that Pastor Woodforde prefered.

Jane Austen’s Easter

This 2011 article from the Jane Austen Centre, written by Laura Boyle, is worth reading in full. It is a comprehensive discussion about Jane Austen’s celebration of Easter, both as a solemn religious holiday and as a festive event. Click here to enter it.

All Things Georgian

I also recommend this website and its many fact-filled blog posts with well-researched, hard to find information. This link lead to an article entitled “An Early Easter Miscellany.”


Have a happy Easter everyone. As with many of you, mine will be spent with the family. The sky is cloudless, the day is warm and perfect for the smaller fry to find Easter eggs.

by Brenda S. Cox

“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon

This is the only time Jane Austen clearly introduces a black or mixed-race character in her fiction. And we don’t know what direction she was going to go with this young lady. (Though obviously the producers of Sanditon have made their own speculations, as have the authors of completions of the novel. My favorite completion, by the way, is here.)

My favorite completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is by Jane Austen and “Another Lady.”

Austen’s inclusion of a mixed-race character raises questions for us today:

  • How many black and mixed-race people were there in Austen’s England?
  • Is she likely to have known any of them?
  • What were their lives like?
  • How did Austen’s society view them and treat them?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic, and it’s hard to find solid answers. However, the series of posts that I’m starting today will look at the question from different angles. We’ll start today with some indications from fiction of Austen’s time. Then we’ll look at statistics from official records, using Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories.  We’ll also look at what art of the time can tell us, and consider the lives of some individual black and mixed-race people. Each of these lenses will give us a little clearer picture of black people’s lives in Austen’s England.

Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe is “half mulatto.” Nowadays “mulatto” is an offensive term, as it is based on the word “mule”; mixed-race people were believed to be sterile like mules. (Though there must have been plenty of evidence to the contrary!) But I don’t think Austen is using it pejoratively. She is simply describing Miss Lambe’s background. It sounds like Miss Lambe had a parent who was half-black and half-white, most likely her mother, and a white parent. Such pairings were quite common in the West Indies. A plantation owner might well leave his wealth to a mixed-race child.

Austen calls Miss Lambe “chilly and tender.” “Chilly” probably meant that the weather of England was too cold for her, compared to the West Indies where she grew up. “Tender” probably meant that she was delicate, easily becoming ill. Though as I imagine Miss Lambe, I like to think that “tender” also meant she was kind and gentle.

Austen sometimes describes people, such as Marianne Dashwood and Henry Tilney, as having a “brown” complexion. There’s been some speculation that she may mean to imply mixed racial backgrounds. That’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely to me. It sounds like Austen is just describing minor variations in skin tones. She usually pairs “brown” skin with dark eyes and dark hair. In one other reference, Miss Bingley says Elizabeth Bennet has become “brown and coarse.” Darcy says she is tanned from traveling in the summer.

The Woman of Colour is an anonymous novel published in 1808 about an heiress like Miss Lambe. The modern version edited by Lyndon J. Dominique includes much helpful background information and excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time.

Back to Miss Lambe. We can get some idea of what her life might have been like from a novel of the time. The Woman of Colour: A Tale  was published anonymously in London in 1808, nine years before Austen began writing Sanditon. Professor Lyndon J. Dominique has edited a modern version, full of helpful background information.

Modern scholars speculate that the writer was herself a “woman of colour,” the mixed-race daughter of a West Indies planter, but we don’t know for sure who wrote the book. “People of color” may be used today to describe people of various races. However, eighteenth-century British people used it to refer to certain groups of free people in the Americas. Some included free black people, but others used the term only for those of mixed race (p. 21 in The Woman of Colour).

The novel is a series of letters from Olivia Fairfield to her former governess in Jamaica. Olivia, the daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave, is on her way to England. Her loving father knows that because of her skin color she will never be treated as an equal by the planters of Jamaica. So he arranges that after his death she will travel to England. In England, laws and attitudes toward mixed-race people were less harsh, and tender-hearted Olivia wouldn’t have to see the suffering of the black people she identifies with. Her father, in his will, has arranged for her to marry her cousin, who will then inherit her fortune.

Already we find an interesting contrast. While black people were often treated horrifically in the West Indies, they found more acceptance in England itself.


The story shows some examples of prejudices that black and mixed-race people experienced in England at this time. Olivia and her black maid are called names, and yet they earn a place in society.

At her first English ball, Olivia is “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84). She says, “My colour, you know, renders me remarkable” (84). People stare at her “as if they had been invited purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece!” However, one gentleman, who calls her a “native,” adds, “In native elegance unrivalled! . . . More grace, more expression, more characteristic dignity, I never yet beheld in one female figure!” His friend calls her a “sable goddess.” Olivia enjoys the dancing, but complains that rather than rational people, she finds only “folly and dissimulation” (88).

Olivia’s maid Dido is a black woman. Though not enslaved, she seems the stereotype of the faithful black slave. She speaks in “half-broken language” (57), presumably a Jamaican dialect. She loves Olivia dearly and serves her faithfully. Olivia also loves Dido. In town, Dido says she is called names like “blacky” and “wowsky” and “squabby” and “guashy,” “and all because she has a skin not quite so white,–God Almighty help them all.” (“Wowski” was the name of an American Indian woman in a novel of 1787; “Quasheba” was the name of dark-skinned characters in novels of 1767 and 1798.) Dido says even a maid treats her like a slave. But she looks forward to their home in the countryside, where she will be the housekeeper and be in charge. Once in the country, she wins the affection of the “peasants” with her warm heart (105).

Olivia’s husband’s young nephew George thinks Olivia’s skin is “dirty” and Dido’s even dirtier. Olivia explains to him, “The same God that made you made me . . . the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of the world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black” (79).

They go on to discuss the evils of slavery. The child has heard the coachman saying that “black slaves are no better than horses over there,” and Olivia explains, “Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses . . . but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” Olivia says that human feelings and religious principles, as well as “kindred claims,” impel her to pray for the end of slavery, the emancipation of her brethren (80-81).

Once Olivia is married and living in the countryside, she meets “East Indian Nabobs,” a family who made their fortune in India, and finds them proud and selfish. However, she is completely accepted into the social circles of her area. The most prejudice she experiences is from her sister-in-law, who is a conniving, selfish woman.

The Woman of Colour: A Tale  shows some of the prejudices against black and mixed-race people in England. Nevertheless, it also implies that people of color were fully accepted in English society, particularly if they had wealth, like Austen’s Miss Lambe.

Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy made the earliest attempt to complete Sanditon.

Religious Themes

The novel has many Christian themes. At this time, Christians in England, led by William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” were pushing strongly to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Literature was one of their most important means of raising public awareness and calling for compassion for oppressed people. Evangelical Hannah More was writing tracts like “The Sorrows of Yamba: or, The Negro Woman’s Lament,” a story about an enslaved woman whose baby died in her arms on a slave ship. William Cowper, Jane Austen’s beloved poet, wrote poems condemning slavery. Cowper wrote, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? . . . 
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.” (This wasn’t strictly true, in legal terms, but was widely believed. It does point out the radical difference, though, between British colonies where slavery was part of the economy, and Britain itself.) While we don’t know who wrote The Woman of Colour, the book seems to fit with other such literature that put a human face on enslaved peoples and called for Christian compassion toward them.

Olivia’s mother was her father’s slave and his mistress. He taught her Christian faith, which she accepted eagerly. But she also learned from the church that her relationship with him was wrong, since they weren’t married. She confronted him, but he was too proud and too prejudiced to marry her. She died in childbirth. Olivia’s father raised her, gave her a good education, then sent her to England.

Her cousin Augustus, a good man, is at first repelled by Olivia’s dark complexion. However, he soon realizes that she has “a noble and dignified soul.”

Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration . . . a superior being, and . . . the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!—She is accomplished and elegant; but her accomplishments are not the superficial acquirements of the day,–they are the result of application and genius in unison” (102-3).

In fact, Augustus and Olivia, both epitomes of beauty, intelligence, and virtue, seem to be made for each other. They marry and live happily. But—I won’t spoil it—something happens to destroy their happiness. Interestingly, the person who destroys their marriage is motivated by greed, jealousy, and class prejudices, not racial prejudices.

Olivia ends up alone, but she bears it well and peacefully. Throughout the story, she turns to God in all her trials and fears. The story ends by spelling out the moral: In times of calamity, we should seek God. Faith in God can enable us to become resigned to any hard situation.

The original editor adds that if the book can “teach [even] one skeptical European to look with a compassionate eye towards the despised native of Africa—then, whether Olivia Fairfield’s be a real or an imaginary character, I shall not regret that I have edited the Letters of a Woman of Colour!” (189)

Another cover for Sanditon completed by “Another Lady”; other completions are also available by other authors.

Other Fiction of Austen’s Time

Lyndon J. Dominique, who edited the modern version of The Woman of Colour: A Tale, provides a timeline of “Women of Color in Drama and Long Prose Fiction” from 1605 to 1861. He lists 37 publications during Austen’s lifetime with black or mixed-race characters, including Sanditon. It seems likely that as an avid reader, Austen was probably familiar with some of these, or earlier ones.

Dominique includes excerpts from a few of these works, including:

Lucy Peacock’s “The Creole” (1786). A creole heiress (who may be white or mixed-race) loses her fortune to an unscrupulous husband. Only her “honest negroes” console her (196). Again there is a Christian message. The creole lady writes, “Surely . . . we have no right to tyrannize over, and treat as brutes, those who will doubtless one day be made partakers with us of an immortality. Have they not the same faculties, the same passions, and the same innate sense of good and evil? Should we, then, who are enlightened by the holy precepts of Christianity, refuse to stretch forth the friendly hand, to point these human affections to the most laudable purposes, the glory of God, and the real advantage of society?” (196) She frees her slaves.

Agnes Musgrave’s Solemn Injunctions (1798).  At a boarding school, a girl is jealous of a talented, amiable young lady from the West Indies. So she “insinuates” that the girl has black ancestry and should be rejected. The other West Indian girls bring the prejudices of the islands with them to school. “In the West Indies the distinction is kept up by the women with so scrupulous an exactness, as never to mix, on equal terms, with people so descended”: they would not mix with any “child of mixed blood whose ancestors within the fourth degree of descent were negroes” (215). Here again the prejudices of the West Indies are much stronger than the prejudices of England.

Other stories include mixed-race heiresses like Olivia who are beautiful, well-educated, and virtuous Christians. They also include people who condemn “vulgar” black people. It appears that some of these stories, like The Woman of Colour, were written at least partly to help counteract prejudices and support anti-slavery causes.

I suspect Jane Austen’s Miss Lambe would have been a more balanced character then those we find in other novels of the time. Austen did not write stereotypes. However, Austen was strongly opposed to slavery* and probably would have presented Miss Lambe positively.

The Woman of Colour also includes nonfiction excerpts of the time which confirm some of the attitudes and situations represented in the novel. For example, a copy of a Jamaican planter’s will, leaving his fortune to his “reputed daughters” born of his black mistress, shows that there were mixed-race West Indian heiresses.

Next month we’ll look at who the black people in England were at this time, how they got there, and what social classes they belonged to. Scholar Kathleen Chater searched through a huge number of primary sources to find that information, so I’ll share some of that with you, from her book Untold Histories.


If you are familiar with other fiction of Austen’s era that includes black characters, tell us about those characters! Or, if you’ve read The Woman of Colour, what did you learn from it or think about it?


Learning More

On Friday, April 9, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM EDT, Professor Dominique will be giving an online seminar on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” discussing the novel he edited. You can sign up at Jane Austen & Co. The recorded talk is now available there.


If you want to start exploring more on this topic on your own, in the tabs above, under History, scroll down until you find the section I’ve added on Black History, or see Resources. It will give you a wide variety of resources to start investigating.

*I don’t intend to look at slavery in the British colonies, or abolition, in this series, but you’ll also find sources addressing those areas among the resources listed. “Austen and Antigua—Slavery in Her Time”  is a good discussion of Jane Austen’s comments on slavery and her family’s connections with slave plantations.

In light of Women’s History Month, I’m pleased to share my review of a beautiful new book by Jasmine A. Stirling that is sure to delight the hearts of Jane Austen fans of all ages entitled A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Found Her Voice.

This exquisitely illustrated, full-color book traces Austen’s writing journey from her younger years at Steventon, to her “quiet” years in Bath after her father died, and finally to her years of astonishing creativity at Chawton. This is a book you’ll want to read for yourself, give as a gift, and display on your coffee table.

The writing by Jasmine A. Stirling and the illustrations by Vesper Stamper truly make this book a feast for the eyes and the heart. As a lifelong Austen fan, I found myself swept up in Stirling’s writing style. Her exploration of Austen’s talent, her heart, and her genius brought me new-found joy. This book vividly captures Austen’s experiences as a writer and shows us why her writing still endures today.

Jasmine and I connected on social media several months ago, and I was intrigued by her book because it is a fictional telling of what I and many others have noticed about Austen’s writing career: that she found her perfect time and place to write when she came to Chawton. (You can read my article on this topic here: New Beginnings at Chawton Cottage.)

Jasmine’s book explores the early foundations of Austen’s literary upbringing, the depth of character that Austen’s life experiences produced, and the intriguing set of circumstances that allowed Austen to discover her unique writer’s voice at Chawton.

I highly recommend A Most Clever Girl to any Austen fan of any age. I especially like the idea that I can give this book as a gift to my friends and family members who have younger children so that their children can be exposed to Jane Austen at an early age and be inspired to follow her example as a person and as a creative.

Please continue reading below for the book details, purchase links, and details for a lovely giveaway contest which includes a Jane Austen-themed picnic basket and a hardcover copy of A Most Clever Girl autographed by Jasmine A. Stirling!


A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Found Her Voice
Written by Jasmine A. Stirling
Illustrated by Vesper Stamper
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Release date: March 30, 2021

Publisher’s Synopsis: Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.

In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.



Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.

Jasmine first fell in love with Jane Austen as a student at Oxford, where she read her favorite of Jane’s six masterful novels, Persuasion. A Most Clever Girl is her dream project, done with her dream team—award-winning illustrator Vesper Stamper and Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing. Jasmine also has a YA/New Adult history of the women’s suffrage movement out soon, titled We Demand An Equal Voice.

Visit www.jasmineastirling.com to get a free Jane Austen paper doll kit with the purchase of A Most Clever Girl. While you’re there, enter to win a Regency tea party gift basket!

Follow Jasmine on Instagram and Facebook @jasmine.a.stirling.author where she posts about kidlit and life with two young girls.


Enter for a chance to win a glorious Jane Austen-themed picnic basket, including a hardcover copy of A Most Clever Girl autographed by Jasmine A. Stirling!


One (1) grand prize winner receives:

  • A picnic basket filled with:
    • A copy of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, signed by author Jasmine A. Stirling
    • A vintage teacup
    • 1 oz of tea From Adagio Teas
    • Truffles from Moonstruck Chocolates
    • Gardenia hand cream
    • A set of Jane Austen playing cards

Two (2) winners receive:

  • A copy of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, signed by author Jasmine A. Stirling

The giveaway begins March 16, 2021, at 12:01 A.M. MT, and ends April 16, 2021, at 11:59 P.M. MT.


March 16The Children’s Book Reviewhttps://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/Book Review
March 17Life is What It’s Calledwww.lifeiswhatitscalled.blogspot.comInterview
March 18Library Lady’s Kid Lithttps://janemouttet.wordpress.com/Book Review & Guest Post
March 19Austen Prosehttps://austenprose.com/Book Preview & Guest Post
March 20A Dream Within A Dreamhttp://adreamwithindream.blogspot.comBook Review
March 21Barbara Ann Mojica’s Bloghttps://bamauthor.meBook Review
March 22Jane Austen’s Worldhttps://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/Interview
March 23Satisfaction for Insatiable Readershttps://insatiablereaders.blogspot.comBook Review & Guest Post
March 24icefairy’s Treasure Chesthttp://icefairystreasurechest.blogspot.com/Book Review
March 25Heart to Hearttynea-lewis.comBook Review
March 26Confessions of a Book Addicthttp://www.confessionsofabookaddict.comGuest Post
March 27Eccentric Eclectic Womanhttp://finamoon.blogspot.comBook Review
March 28J.R.s Book Reviewshttps://jrsbookreviews.wordpress.com/Book Review
March 29My Jane Austen Book Clubhttp://thesecretunderstandingofthehearts.blogspot.com/Interview
March 30Jane Austen in Vermonthttps://janeausteninvermont.blog/Book Review & Guest Post
March 31Some the Wiserhttps://somethewiser.comBook Review
April 1Austenesque Reviewswww.AustenesqueReviews.comBook Review
April 2Absolutely Austenhttps://absolutelyausten.com/Book Review
April 3Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austenbrendascox.wordpress.comBook Review
April 4Fairview Elementary School (Library)https://fveslibrary.blogspot.com/Book Review
April 5Comfy Chair Bookshttps://comfychairbooks.com/Book Review
April 6Reading Is My SuperPowerhttps://readingismysuperpower.orgBook Review
April 7ShootingStarsMagwww.shootingstarsmag.netA Beyond the Book Activity
April 8Glass of Wine, Glass of Milkglassofwineglassofmilk.blogspot.comBook Review
April 9Book Q&As with Deborah Kalbhttp://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com/Interview
April 10The Fictional Cafehttps://www.fictionalcafe.com/Review + Interview
April 11Ingenious Babyhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkNfesiHAPnqc4STgBn-LjwInterview
April 12The Children’s Book Reviewhttps://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/Guest Post
April 13Tucked In Tuesdayhttps://www.instagram.com/tutoringyoutoexcellence/Instagram Live: Tucked in Tuesday

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Inquiring readers, I can’t gush enough about this website, which started out as a research project by Matthew Sangster “to explore the life and culture in London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” I discovered the site when I wanted to trace Jane Austen’s trip from her brother Henry’s house on Henrietta Street to Carlton House, the home of the Prince Regent, after the Prince’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, invited her to visit in 1815, just as she was completing the final touches on Emma. I found the route in Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster in the Borough of Southwark, and Parts Adjoining Shewing every House (1792-99).

Logo of the title

Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster in the Borough of Southwark, and Parts Adjoining Shewing every House (1792-99).

Romantic London, the website, is divided into a number of topics of vast interest to historians, lovers of Jane Austen and the Regency era, authors, researchers, and teachers and students. In addition to Horwood’s Plan, Sangster offers tabs entitled Harrris’s List (1788), Antiquities (1791), Picturesque Tour (1792-1801), Modern London (1804), Microcosm (1804–10), Life in London (1821), and Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850). He includes a blog and provides an email address for those with questions.

It is worth your while to read the introduction to each section, starting with Introducing Romantic London. I’ll describe a few of the wonderful features on this site, and will leave the rest for you to discover on your own.

Horwood’s Map (1792-9):

Image of the full Horwood Map

Notice the 32 pages that comprise Horwood’s Map. Image from Sangster’s website.

The entire map, as drawn, is composed of grids or 32 sheets. All one needs to do with this digital map is to place a cursor over an area. I chose one near Mayfair, and pressed “+” until I honed in on Carlton House. Click anywhere on this map and explore to your heart’s content.

Closeup of Carlton House and surroundings, with pale coloration of grass, trees, and squares

Detail of Carlton House, Carlton House Gardens, St. James’s Square, and Kings Mews.

The level of detail in this close up image is simply amazing. We see Carlton House and Carlton House Gardens in a bird’s eye view. All houses, with their back yards, stables or mews, common areas and gardens are delineated. Pale colors mark squares, grassy areas, and trees.

Included in this tab is a history and texts that show how Sangster uses Horwood’s Map for his and our benefit. As an example, let’s study the tab, Modern London, which is an 1804 guide to the city, published by Richard Phillips.

Modern London (1804):

While the guide was written by Richard Phillips, the 22 views of key buildings and landscapes were engraved from designs by Edward Pugh and images of street traders and seller by William Marshall Craig. Many of us are already familiar with these images, but where were they exactly located? This tab answers that question in detail.

Orange markers and gray arrows superimposed over the entire Horwood's Map

Markers showing the locations described in Modern London

Superimposed on Horwood’s entire map are orange hiker tabs and gray arrow tabs. Hover your cursor over one, and the location is identified with a title of the images created by Pugh or Craig.

Black and white engraving of Greenwich Park with crowds celebrating Easter

Greenwich Park with the Royal Observatory on Easter Monday, Modern London, Edward Pugh

A street trader image:

Image of woman, dressed in red and blue, pushing a wheelbarrow with new potatoes past Middlesex Hospital

New Potatoes, Middlesex Hospital, by William Marshall Craig

Other tabs of note:

All the tabs lead to information for those of us interested in Austen’s era. In this section, I will detail only a few—those with images of and information about London created during Austen’s life. Each tab is designed like the one described in Modern London. You will first see Horwood’s Map with corresponding tabs, and then the engravings or lithographs and their descriptions (if they exist).

  • Antiquities (1791-1800) by John Thomas Smith shows plates of buildings, architectural details, and objects found in London.
  • Malton’s Picturesque Tour (1792-1801) consists of black and white engravings of major buildings and thoroughfares. 
  • Microcosm of London features images of Rudolph Ackermann’s famous Microcosm of London (1808-10). 
  • Select Views, or Select Views of London; with Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Some of the Most Interesting of its Public Buildings (1816) compiled by John B. Papworth and published by Rudolph Ackermann. 

In conclusion:

One reason this site excites me is that with Horwood’s map I can trace Austen’s visits to the places she and her family mentioned while staying with Henry in London, such as the Wedgwood Shop in Regent’s street. In the accompanying images that sit at the bottom of the various tabs, I can view how London looked in her day, and read contemporary accounts about these locations.

I am struck by how quickly London turns from city streets to rural surroundings; how closely houses are stacked together in the city’s center, each with their own chimneys and need for refuse removal. I can imagine how, on dry windy days, the dust from unpaved streets must have settled everywhere, and the smell of urine and feces from horses and cattle driven by drovers to Smithfield Market must have permeated through every nook and cranny, and windows and door cracks on hot summer days.

This map and the accompanying images, along with current accounts and subsequent histories, provide us (as readers and authors), with a way to follow the movements of historical and fictional people who resided in the largest city in Europe. It will also allow me to map my next visit to London, and choose specific locations to visit as I learn more about the time in which Jane Austen and her contemporaries lived.


British Library: Online Gallery: Plan of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER, Richard Horwood, 1795, includes a zoomable image, full size printable image, and a short history.

Layers of London: London Maps: Choose historical maps of London, and overlay them with information about a range of topics and themes.

Inquiring readers: I saw Emma. 2020 last March with my friend and neighbor, Jane, who was delighted with her first exposure to Austen’s favorite heroine. I began to write about the film, but laid the post aside when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly. I recently re-watched the DVD multiple times. The more I viewed the movie, the more I appreciated director Autumn de Wilde’s choices for retelling Emma’s story.

Many admirable reviews have already been written about this film and Autumn de Wilde’s directing, acting, fashion, sets and locations. The comedic and more absurd scenes were those that stayed longest with me. They, and the sumptuousness of the film’s photography, set it apart from other Emma adaptations. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

Emma. 2020 begins with a contraction of Austen’s opening line:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

The first scene demonstrates much of Austen’s opening statement. At dawn, just before sunrise, we see Emma walking across a lawn with a female servant and a footman, who holds a lantern to light the way. Inside a greenhouse, our heroine points to flowers, which the servant snips. While the scene is not in the book, Autumn de Wilde economically sets the stage for the viewer. Only a high born lady behaves in this manner, for Emma could have cut the blooms herself. I laughed silently in the theater; in private viewings I laughed out loud.

This sequence demonstrates that Emma is beautiful and rich, and that a rare life event has come to distress her—the loss of a beloved governess and mother figure. Miss Taylor is to wed Mr. Weston and move to his house, hence Emma’s reason for choosing the flowers for the wedding bouquet. The scene also demonstrates de Wilde’s eye for art and beauty. The colors and setting of this scene, and its quiet calm remind me of one of my favorite paintings by John Singer Sargent, although its subject matter is different.

Painting of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent. The Tate Gallery. Public domain image.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent. The Tate Gallery. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons

Inside the wedding chapel, we see the citizens of Highbury and their reverential attitude towards the Woodhouses as they take their seats in the front row pew. We also meet Mr. Elton (Josh O’Conor), whose exaggerated gestures and hand movements are a sight to behold, and Miss Bates, played to perfection by comedian Miranda Hart. More about both later.

But, But, Butt!

We first see Mr George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) astride his fine steed heading towards his magnificent house (Wilton House). He walks to his chambers through an exquisite interior filled with furniture draped in Holland covers, and enters his personal rooms. His valet awaits him as he undresses. My heart flutters, females around me gasp, and male viewers wonder what all the fuss is about, as we feast our eyes on Mr Knightley’s sculpted backside. He casually shaves in the nude and washes himself from a basin, then is dressed by his manservant. His attitude in this intimate setting is as casual as Emma’s when she directed someone else to cut flowers for her.

In another scene, a lady’s maid, who has just finished dressing Emma, leaves her alone. As she warms herself in front of the fire, we see that Regency ladies did not wear underpants. These items were considered shocking, for ladies wore stockings and a chemise under their gowns, while knickers and drawers were worn only by lower and working class women. This is the most flesh that any Emma in any film adaptation has shown, albeit in profile. I wonder if de Wilde drew inspiration from this 1796 caricature entitled “Comfort” by Matthew G. Lewis?

print cartoon of a lady warming her bare backside near a fire.

Comfort, 1796, M.G. Lewis. New York Public Library digital collection, Public domain print.

The heroine and hero, Emma Woodhouse and Mr George Knightley

Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma), possesses the fine acting skills necessary to play this complex young woman. After seeing her in The Queen’s Gambit, I (we all) predict a stellar career for this young actress, who was 23 when she was cast. Her expressive face changes like a chameleon’s, and her unusual features–beautiful at times, but not so pretty when she’s being haughty, argumentative, angry, or devious–sets her apart from the other blander-faced actresses who have portrayed Emma.

Taylor-Joy, as well as 36-year-old Johnny Flynn (Mr Knightley) are well cast for their roles and each other. George Knightley, the hero of the piece, is 16 years older than Emma, a not unrealistic age difference given that it was common for a young woman to marry an older man in Austen’s day. In this film, the actors are physically well matched. Both are unusually handsome people who share an undeniable chemistry on screen. This attractive combination overcomes any distaste the viewer might have towards Mr Knightley’s tendency to preach at Emma like a stuffy old uncle, or to her misguided and almost ruinous interference in Harriet Smith’s life.

Screenshot of the actors in the film

Screenshot of thumbnail images for Emma. 2020

Mr. Woodhouse transformed

Mr. Woodhouse, played by Bill Nighy, is still the fearful hypochondriac Austen created, but in this film the man is broadly comical, which audiences acquainted with Nighy’s acting roles would naturally expect. Austen readers will not quite recognize Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse, whose first entrance as a vigorous man, bounding down the stairway and landing with a jump, is a surprise and good for a chuckle. Emma caters to him as usual, but more as a fussy daughter than as someone caring for an infirm man old before his time. Nighy’s facial ticks and physical mannerisms are priceless, but his outer awareness of Emma’s needs and emotions, while touching in the film, are not in Austen’s book (unless I missed something). The actor’s interpretation is of a pampered man who spends his cozy, privileged life in fear of germs, drafts, and rich foods, and losing the last of his family (an adoring daughter) to marriage. He wants his comforts to stay exactly the same.

Bartholomew and James, the draft dodgers

Nighy and the two footmen, Batholomew and James, form a Regency version of the Marx brothers, and provide a series of comedic interludes. While the two footmen never speak, viewers know from their expressions and physical mannerism exactly what they’re thinking. Aside from their usual footmen duties, which are onerous, they are in charge of anticipating Mr Woodhouse’s every need and defending him from drafts—whether from a window or cold air entering an insufficiently heated room, or to hide their master behind a series of screens to provide privacy for Emma and George Knightley at the end of the film. (Austen’s Mr Woodhouse would not have been so observant.) 

Mr Woodhouse surrounded by screens to protect him from drafts

Publicity still of Mr Woodhouse protected from drafts

B & J’s crowning moment comes when they unveil Emma’s simple watercolor portrait of Harriet in a too ornate frame selected by Mr Elton. As they reveal the portrait within the awful frame, their eyebrows twitch, their eyes brighten with excitement, and their mouths and cheeks emanate humorous contempt. A tight-lipped Mr Knightley, knowing what Mr Elton intends, remains sternly quiet.

James and Bartholomew flank the frame as Mr Elton is about to reveal its contents.

The moment before James and Bartholomew reveal the portrait in Mr Elton’s frame. Detail of publicity still.

Food, food, glorious food

Regency tables were indeed laden with an outrageous variety and quantity of foods during special occasions, such as a wedding breakfast, private ball, or holiday dinner. In this film, the food served during tea service was over the top insane. During Austen’s era, afternoon tea was meant to be a small stopgap meal between breakfast and a dinner that was served quite late by the upper classes. Emma would have offered visitors, such as Harriet and the Eltons, simple sandwiches, biscuits, and small cakes with a cuppa.

Still, it gave me a chuckle to see Harriet Smith’s eyes bug out at the sight of all the goodies on the tables in front of her and behind her, and look to Emma for direction on when to start eating, which never came. Better yet, in a later scene in honor of Mr Elton’s new bride, both tables groaned with even more sponge and tea cakes, cucumber sandwiches, strawberries, cookies, crumpets, chocolate truffles, and more. When Mr. Elton reaches for a cookie, Mrs Elton instantly slaps her caro sposo’s hand away, telling us in no uncertain terms who wears the knickers in that family!

Image of Mr and Mrs Elton taking tea

Mr and Mrs Elton at Emma’s tea. Publicity still, cropped

The most memorable table scene is reserved for Miss Bates, who shouts at a dinner in honor of Miss Fairfax, “MOTHER, YOU MUST SAMPLE THE TART!” Whereupon Mr Woodhouse persuades the always silent, nearly deaf Mrs Bates to sample something less rich so as not to upset the digestion. (Miss Hart’s unforgettable delivery earned a place in the film’s promotional ads.) 

He loves me, he loves me not. Oh, no! I love another man! Oh, drat. I was wrong.

Harriet Smith is Emma’s naive victim and putty her hands. Played by Mia Goth, she is, in my opinion, the best Harriet of all the actresses who have portrayed her. After Miss Taylor wed Mr. Weston (whose successful union Emma credits herself for achieving), she casts around for another match making opportunity and settles on Harriet, the natural daughter of an unknown somebody. Despite Mr Knightey’s warnings, Emma convinces herself of Harriet’s noble connections and takes the gullible young girl under her wing.

Mia Goth’s interpretation of this naive and fickle young woman, so easily persuaded by her betters, is priceless—from her wide-eyed expressions, innocent reactions, cute duck-ish gait, to her puppy-ish adoration of Emma. More importantly, this Harriet’s inconstancy is believable, for she craves Emma’s approval. In short order, she falls for Mr. Martin, rejects his sincere proposal of marriage (in the hope of pleasing Emma); is persuaded to fall for Mr. Elton, only to soulfully mourn his rejection; then falls for Mr Knightley when he asks her to dance after Mr Elton cuts her to the quick at the Weston’s ball. When she realizes she was wrong in her perception about Mr Knightley returning her affection, she is easily persuaded to fall for Mr Martin again after he renews his pledge of love and offer of wedded bliss. (Whew, gentle reader, that was a mouthful!)

Pretty maids in a row

The one visual that instantly brings Emma. 2020 to our minds is of the long line of young ladies in Mrs Goddard’s boarding school walking around Highbury (Lower Slaughter) and the countryside in bright red robes, which were actually popular during this period, and dutifully following Mrs Goddard, with Harriet Smith among them. Their frequent appearances puts a smile on my face, but they also eerily remind me of A Handmaid’s Tale.

Image of a line of girls in red robes

screenshot of girls following Mrs Goddard two by two through Highbury

Miss Bates and her jabbering

Miss Bates in both book and film regurgitates inane reams of monopolizing blather. Miranda Hart plays the spinster to perfection. Despite her character’s deficiencies as a sensible communicator, Miranda projects Miss Bates’s tenderheartedness and vulnerability at the same time. When Emma is corralled by Miss Bates in the haberdashery shop, her face barely disguises her chagrin and she does all but turns somersaults to get away. Miss Bates, not deterred, follows Emma around the shop, babbling all the while.

Miss Bates plays a crucial role in the pivotal Box Hill scene (Leith Hill in the film), where Emma cruelly points out the spinster’s talent in making more than three dull statements. Almost instantly Emma realizes how callous she sounded. As Miss Bates fights off tears, the silence in the group is so awkward that even Augusta Elton holds her tongue. No one spares Emma any sympathy. After Mr Knightley tells her angrily, “It was badly done, indeed!” he reminds her of Miss Bates’s humble situation and lower status. Sitting alone in her carriage, she finally begins to understand how others see her and the picture isn’t pretty.

The Eltons

We now come to the Eltons, a comically awful couple written for the film much as Jane Austen envisioned them–ridiculous and puffed up with their own consequence. I recall reading somewhere that Augusta Elton (Tanya Reynolds) mirrors Emma’s worst traits stretched to the nth degree. It is fitting that this nouveau riche upstart, whose father made his fortune in trade, has a brother-in-law named Mr Suckling. Autumn de Wilde chose to dress Augusta in an exaggerated way. She wears too much jewelry and chooses gowns with too many ribbons and ruffles and too bright colors. Her hairstyle did not exist until at least 7-12 years after Emma was published, but it suits the character to a tee.

Mr Elton leaves Highbury in a huff after Emma forcefully rejects his proposal. This comedy of misunderstandings resulted from Emma believing he was wooing Harriet, when in fact he was wooing her. Alone in a carriage with his love, and away from Harriet or any other interference, Mr Elton declares his undying devotion. Emma is horrified, and reminds him of Harriet. Mr Elton, still dewy-eyed, says unctuously, “Who can think of Miss Smith when Miss Woodhouse is near?” Taylor-Joy is outraged and disgusted at the same time, and all but blurts out “Ewww!” before decisively rejecting him. The true Mr Elton appears instantly—a nasty, mean, and spiteful man. Pounding the carriage roof he shouts, “Stop the carriage!” When it doesn’t stop soon enough, he screams, “STOP THE CARRIAGE!” Before he knows it, he’s left out in the snow, leaving Emma clueless as to how she read the tea leaves wrong. The constancy of his love becomes clear when he is engaged to the very rich Augusta within four weeks of meeting her!

A dance, and a proposal in the nosebleed section

Mr Knightley and Emma fall in love dancing in a scene at the Weston’s ball that is exactly right and, oh, so romantic. She witnesses him rescuing Harriet from Mr Elton’s cruel rejection of the young girl as a dance partner, and dances with her himself. Emma turns all mushy inside thinking of Mr Knightley as, well, a knight. They dance. They fall in love…but, wait. How can this be? It is not the end of the film!

A few more misunderstandings ensue, causing our hero and heroine to pull away, despite their burning desire for each other. Mr Knightley believes that Emma harbors real feelings for Frank Churchill. Meanwhile, she has discovered that Harriet has fallen in love with her knight. Then Mr Knightley learns of Frank’s engagement to Jane Fairfax, and rushes to Hartfield to console Emma. Emma feels guilty about Harriet and… well, see for yourself:

I learned one new medical fact in a google search: Nosebleeds can indeed result from stress or anxiety. Rumor has it that Anya Taylor-Joy had a nosebleed on cue. What an actress!

A tisket, a tasket, humble pie in my basket

Emma’s visits with baskets for her victims mark turning points in her self-awareness. After the disastrous picnic at Box Hill, she visits Miss Bates in her small rooms. The spinster is gracious and grateful for the food, which makes Emma feel even worse. This is a true humble pie moment.

Her next basket visit is to Mr Martin’s farm to apologize. It is just as cringe worthy. She carries a freshly killed goose, some jams or jellies, and her rolled up watercolor of Harriet. Her arrival in person with kind words and a gift signify strong hints meant to encourage the farmer to try his suit with Harriet again. Thankfully, he takes the hint.

All’s well that ends well

Mr Knighley and Emma marry in a lovely wedding. Mr Woodhouse is not unhappy, knowing that Mr Knightley will come to live at Hartfield so that Emma won’t move away. The Westons have a baby, and Harriet Smith will meet her papa (finally), who turns out to be a tradesman. She and Mr Martin are seen as a couple at church. The ending is fittingly romantic, and my heart flutters once again.

In conclusion and in all seriousness

Emma. 2020 is director Autumn de Wilde’s first full length feature film. Before this project, she’d directed music videos and published several books. She is also well-known for her work as a portrait photographer. In this film, she told Emma’s story in a little over 2 hours. Many plot lines from Austen’s second longest book were cut, and a number, such as the opening sequence and bullet pudding game, deviate completely from the novel. The divisions into the four seasons is a smart way to show the passage of time, and the film’s fashions, locations, and sets are breathtaking. Historians caution viewers in general that the houses in Austen films, especially Wilton House, are too grand for her characters, who are often country gentry. Wilton House is the seat of the Earls of Pembroke, a peerage title first created in the 12th century. While Mr. Knightley is quite wealthy, it beggars belief that he could afford a house as grand as this, but this story is filmed as a fairy tale after all.

Additional Resources:

View ten short clips of movie scenes from Focus Features https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Emma+2020+focus+features

By Brenda S. Cox

“I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school” — Elizabeth Watson in The Watsons

No doubt you’ve heard how restrictive Austen’s world was for women. When a woman got married, all her wealth became the property of her husband (unless she had a good lawyer who arranged things differently). A lady without money or a husband might end up a governess (Jane Fairfax compares that to slavery) or a teacher at a girl’s school (Elizabeth Watson would “rather do anything than be a teacher at a school”). A man could divorce his wife by accusing her of adultery (even if there wasn’t what we would consider clear proof), but a woman was almost never able to divorce her husband.

Despite all that, there were outstanding women of the Georgian era who broke through those barriers. Some were widows, some were single, some were married.

Two fascinating books tell us about some of these boundary-breaking women. Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era (Pen & Sword 2018) brings us seventeen women from the eighteenth-century who made outstanding contributions in Arts & Literature; The Scientific World; Business & Commerce; and Reform and Education. Rendell explains the legal position of women in Austen’s world, and after each short biography gives a wider picture. For example, at the end of the chapter on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who promoted smallpox inoculation in England, we learn more about smallpox, “the most dreadful scourge of the human species” (according to Edward Jenner, who developed vaccinations). At the end of Trailblazing Women, Rendell continues the saga of women’s achievements in England, into the present.

Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, by Mike Rendell, tells the story of 17 boundary-breaking women.

In a complementary book, What Regency Women Did For Us (Pen & Sword 2017), Rachel Knowles shares the lives of twelve Regency women who made an impact on their communities and on our world today. Knowles does not give such wide coverage as Rendell, but tells the fascinating story of each woman in more depth. She is more focused on the Regency period, while Rendell adds earlier women from the 18th century.

What Regency Women Did For Us, by Rachel Knowles, tells the stories of a dozen Regency women who impacted our world today.

Rendell and Knowles chose some of the same women and some different ones. Both introduce actress Sarah Siddons, scientific book writer Jane Marcet, engineer/inventor Sarah Guppy, artificial stone manufacturer Eleanor Coade, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Rendell adds businesswomen, writers, an anti-slavery campaigner (Lady Middleton), and others, while Knowles adds mountaineer Mary Parminter, fossilist Mary Anning, astronomer Caroline Herschel, our own Jane Austen, and more.

Let’s look at a few of my favorites, out of all these fascinating women.

Jane Marcet: Author of Science Books for Women

Rendell identifies Jane Marcet as a “scientific book writer,” while Knowles calls her “Faraday’s teacher.” I love that Marcet wrote science books for girls and women in an age when many thought that reading and arithmetic, embroidery and music, were all that women needed to know. I can imagine Fanny Price reading Marcet’s books and developing her love for the natural world.

Like Jane Marcet, I love chemistry, and I love to write about complex issues, making them clear and understandable. So Marcet seems like a kindred spirit to me. Her husband was a doctor who enjoyed chemistry. They attended lectures together at the Royal Institution in London to hear Humphry Davy explain the latest chemical discoveries. Jane Marcet had been given a basic grounding in science at home and even learned some Latin, which Regency girls rarely studied.  However, she still needed her husband’s help in understanding the scientific vocabulary that Davy and other lecturers used.

A page from Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry, which taught science to young women and many young men, using discussions, pictures, and everyday examples.

Marcet wrote a book, Conversations on Chemistry, to help other women understand those lectures. In dialogues between a woman teacher and two female students, Marcet explains basic chemical concepts in clear language with everyday illustrations. Practical experiments, questions and answers, and Jane Marcet’s own illustrations make the book even easier to understand. She published it anonymously in 1805 (as Jane Austen published her books anonymously), but her name was later added to it. The book was very popular in both England and America.

Conversations on Chemistry became a standard school textbook for teaching science to girls, as well as for teaching at home. But Marcet’s book didn’t just benefit girls. Boys without access to much schooling also learned from it. Marcet’s book introduced Michael Faraday, who had little formal education, to chemistry. Faraday went on to make major discoveries in chemistry and electricity and also lectured to the public at the Royal Institution.

Jane Marcet went on to write popular books teaching economics, natural philosophy (science), and botany, as well as Conversations on the Evidences of Christianity. She helped revolutionize education, particularly for women, making these subjects accessible to all.

Hester Bateman: Silversmith and Business Owner

When I visited colonial Williamsburg during the 2019 JASNA AGM, I was surprised to learn that most eighteenth-century trades included women. In England, Hester Bateman was a well-known silversmith, with her own company. Like many Georgian women who made names for themselves, her career began when her husband died. He was a silver worker who taught his wife to assist him. She was illiterate herself, but he bequeathed his tools to her, rather than to their sons, and she immediately took over the business, calling it “Hester Bateman and Company.” She registered her own mark, “HB,” which still identifies her work today.

Hester Bateman developed beautiful, simple, classical designs for the dining rooms and tea tables of the upwardly-mobile middle classes. Her family business expanded into  a workshop across the backs of three houses. She and her company produced many thousands of silver objects. Her sons, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren eventually took over the prosperous business. But Hester herself ran the company until she died at age 82.

This mustard-pot is lined with blue glass so the mustard does not react with the silver. It was made in 1774 by Hester Bateman, a lady silversmith with her own mark. Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, gift of Thomas M. and Harriet S. Gibbons, used by permission.

In Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, Rendell tells us about other Georgian businesswomen who made lace, sold stocks, manufactured artificial stone (used for anything from tiny ornaments to giant statues), owned a print shop, wrote and sold cookbooks, and manufactured chocolates. He even includes a “bigamist, litigant and courtesan,” Teresia ‘Con’ Phillips, as a businesswoman, to show the limited avenues available for women. He wonders why there were not more Georgian businesswomen. However, I’m impressed that, despite the restrictions on women owning property and having their own money, there were so many Georgian businesswomen that we still know about today.

Madame Tussaud: Artist and Businesswoman

Rachel Knowles calls Marie Tussaud “Entrepreneur Extraordinaire.” Madame Tussaud was a talented artist and craftswoman as well as a smart and creative businesswoman.The wax museums she developed are still popular today.

Waxwork of Marie Tussaud, at Madame Tussaud’s in London

Marie’s mother was housekeeper to a Swiss doctor, Philippe Curtius, who adopted Marie as his daughter. Curtius made wax models to show the anatomy of the human body. His models were so successful that he left medicine and set up a waxworks in Paris. He taught Marie how to make wax models and how to run a business. During the French Revolution, Marie and Curtius made wax models of the royal family, of people who had been guillotined, and of prisoners and revolutionaries. Marie took impressions of people’s heads shortly after they were cut off—quite a gruesome job.

When Curtius died, he left his waxworks and other property to Marie. She married François Tussaud, but her marriage settlement ensured that she kept control of her own property—that was unusual in France, as in England. It was a good move, since her husband turned out to be irresponsible with money. In 1802 she moved her exhibition to England. Her husband stayed in France, and she eventually gave him her French property, but she kept the waxworks and her income from it.

After some difficult years and an unprofitable partnership with an English businessman, Madame Tussaud developed her exhibition into a popular traveling show. In 1833 she set up a permanent exhibit in London. Her sons took it over—she transferred it into their names to keep her husband from getting it.  The waxworks survived the centuries and Madame Tussaud’s is still one of the most popular attractions in London, with related wax museums around the world.

In What Regency Women Did for Us, Knowles includes other women with unusual stories, such as Harriet Mellon, the penniless Irish peasant who became a wealthy banker and left a fortune to a Victorian woman philanthropist. Mary Parminter, another unusual Regency woman, took the Grand Tour of Europe (usually a men’s activity) with her cousins while they were unmarried, and climbed mountains. Mary stayed single, keeping control of her extensive fortune and using it to build a lovely chapel and provide homes for independent single women.

If you have been thinking that teaching and writing were the only occupations open to Georgian and Regency women, these two books will open your eyes. Many women pushed outside the boundaries of societal expectations and left lasting legacies. In both Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era and Rachel Knowles’ What Regency Women Did For Us you will meet many such women and enjoy their exciting stories.

You can find Mike Rendell at Georgian Gentleman. Rendell has written books on other aspects of Georgian society, including Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.

You can find Rachel Knowles at Regency History. For an additional review of What Regency Women Did For Us, see “Women of Science, Women of Faith.” Rachel has also written a fun Regency novel, A Perfect Matchand is about to release a second book in the series, A Reason for Romance.

Turnspit Dogs

When I visited Bath in the U.K., I made a point of seeing No. 1 Royal Crescent, a fascinating museum whose interior was decorated in the Georgian style of the late 18th century/early 19th century. One had the feeling when entering the house that it may have been inhabited by people Jane Austen might have met in the Pump Room or the Upper Assembly Rooms. 

Completion of the Royal Crescent, Thomas Malton, 1769. No. 1 Royal Crescent sits towards the front.

Completion of the Royal Crescent, Thomas Malton, 1769. No. 1 Royal Crescent sits towards the front. Image in the public domain. Wikimedia.

My one lasting memory is of the kitchen and a contraption near the ceiling. It hung in the far corner near a fire place and looked like a torture instrument. Inside the wooden wheel was a stuffed dog, popularly known in its time as a turnspit dog, which represented a breed that no longer exists. They were small, long-bodied, and sturdy; had short crooked legs; and were trained to run inside a wheel that turned a roasting spit. These long-suffering, hard-working canines, resembled curs not purebreds, and saved cooks (or menial boys of the lowest servant order) the task of turning roasting spits by hand for hours. 


Turnspit dog, 1862. H Weir – Illustrated Natural History, Rev JG Wood.  Image in the public domain. Wikipedia 

The dogs were first mentioned in 1576 under the name “Turnespete”(Wikipedia). Their lives were hot, tedious, strenuous, and short. They were considered more kitchen utensils than pets, this during the centuries when animal cruelty was casual and baiting animals was a sport. 


A dog at work inside a wheel near the ceiling; from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales (1800). Wikipedia, public domain image

“To train the dog to run faster, a glowing coal was thrown into the wheel”- Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur, NPR

Their breed was considered so common that its origins are unknown, although some experts think the turnspit dog was related to a terrier or perhaps the Welsh Corgi. Imagine the life of this dog–confined to a wheel for hours, forced to run near a fireplace while smelling the roasting meat of an animal that was out of their reach, tired, aching, and thirsting for water. 

“The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”- NPR

As we all know, heat rises, so one wonders how well that placement worked! Turnspit dogs worked in alternating teams of two and were regularly relieved by an equally hardworking companion dog. They often were given Sundays off, not because their owners cared about their well being, but because they acted as foot warmers in cold church pews (Kitchensisters). One must imagine their relief for these few hours of rest.


Whiskey, the last known turnspit dog, now on view in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales.

These tiny unloved dogs were prevalent in the mid 18th century, but by 1900 mechanical spit turning machines replaced them. Since they were considered ugly and lowly, their breed became extinct. Whiskey, the last known surviving turnspit dog, lives on as a taxidermied specimen in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. 

As an interesting footnote, in the United States the plight of the turnspit dog inspired the founding of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

“In 1850, founder of the ASPCA, Henry Bergh, was so moved by the appalling conditions in which the Turnspits were found in Manhattan hotels, that its horrific living conditions contributed to the birth of the organization in 1866. Coincidentally, this was around the time the dogs had become scarce, and 50 years later, they completely disappeared.”- Barkpost

Note: Before COVID-19, Vic volunteered with the local SPCA, which is a no-kill shelter. She’s also been privileged to live with two rescue dogs, both of whom were (aside from friends and family) the loves of her life. Neither dog revealed their living conditions before she adopted them.

More References:

Spit Roast Doggie, Richard Wyatt, September 21, 2014, Day by Day. Bath News Museum

A Breed You’ve Never Heard Of Is The Reason We Fight Animal Cruelty Today, Bark Post

Inquiring readers: While our world travels have been curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can think of no better a way to take a tour than with Tony Grant, who has served as a guide in Jane Austen country for many years.

Map of Surrey

Map of Surrey

Map of Surrey

Jane Austen criss crossed the county of Surrey many, many times in her lifetime. Surrey is the county north of Hampshire. All the direct routes from Basingstoke, Steventon and Chawton to London pass through Surrey. She mentions Surrey places in her letters, providing a sense of what it was like to travel the roads of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Emma, her completed Surrey novel, is set in the fictitious Highbury and Hartfield located right in the middle of the county, surrounded by the real Surrey, Dorking, Mickleham, Box Hill, Cobham and with Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames to the north. Jane’s earlier attempt at another Surrey novel, The Watsons, begun while living in Bath in 1804 was never completed. The few pages of The Watsons that were completed set the action mostly in Dorking but also some outlying places.  Croydon, a large town, is repeatedly referred to and,” a village about three miles distant,” from Dorking, Westhumble, is a template for Stanton. Jane stayed at Great Bookham just north of Dorking with her relations, the Cookes. It is a short carriage ride away from Box Hill. Just north of Great Bookham is Leatherhead which has a debatable role in this account and to the north west of Great Bookham is Cobham, another place of interest mentioned in Emma. Interestingly a well-known, famous town in Surrey–Epsom– also gets a passing mention in Pride and Prejudice. It is amazing to see how the places and locations in Surrey came together in Jane’s imagination and how she used them in her novels. It’s like pieces of a jigsaw fitting together neatly. 

Great Bookham

Photo of St. Nicholas, Great Bookham

St. Nicholas, Great Bookham. Photo by Tony Grant

I am going to introduce Great Bookham first, because although Jane knew many places in Surrey well and visited most of them many times she actually spent lengthy periods of time in Great Bookham, staying with her aunt and uncle and cousins, the Cookes. Cassandra Cooke, her mother’s cousin, was Jane ‘s aunt. You might notice, the name Cassandra seems popular within the extended family as well as her immediate family. It is the same name as both Jane’s sister and mother. Cassandra Cooke was a budding writer. A forgotten novel called, Battleridge, is her contribution to posterity. Jane’s uncle Samuel Cooke was the vicar of St Nicholas Church in Great Bookham. The Cookes were well acquainted with Fanny Burney, who lived in the village with her husband, General D’Arblay, and their young son. The Reverend Cooke asked Fanny Burney‘s father for advice about church music. Burneys father, Charles Burney, was a reputed musician and composer. It is from Great Bookham that Jane first visited Box Hill a few miles away. Great Bookham, like Highbury and Hartfield, is at the centre of the geographical world of both The Watsons and Emma.

Box Hill

Image Mickleham to the right of Box Hill

Mickleham to the right of Box Hill. Photo by Tony Grant

So, to Box Hill, a mere few miles east of Great Bookham.

“They had a very fine day for Box Hill……. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and everybody had a burst of admiration on first arriving.” Emma

Later, Frank Churchill, as though proclaiming from a vast church pulpit, (which indeed, if you stand on the top of Box Hill and look out over the surrounding countryside, does feel like that,) announces grandly and perhaps grandiosely

“Let everybody on the hill hear me if they can. Let my accents swell to Mickleham on one side and Dorking on the other.”

Box Hill is part of the chalk incline that forms the North Downs in Surrey. It was a beauty spot, where visitors loved to look out on the beautiful surrounding countryside in Jane’s time and that is the situation still today. A National Trust shop and café is at the top. A 19th century fort built as part of a line of forts to help repulse a French invasion is there too. Throughout the 18th and most of the 19th century, France was always a threat to Britain real and imaginary. Pre Raphaelite artists painted there, poets wrote poetry about the countryside and John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television, carried out experiments from his cottage at the top of the hill. It is a nature reserve, the site of a very strange burial, and is still a great picnic site, as Emma was anticipating.



Mickleham, photo by Tony Grant

If you do as Frank Churchill informs us, look out from Box Hill with Mickleham to one side and Dorking to the other you will be facing west straight towards Great Bookham. Mickleham is located at the foot of Box Hill on its north west side. It is home to a  junior school called Box Hill School. St Michael’s Church in the village is where Fanny Burney and General D’Arblay were married. General D’Arblay was a French exile, who fled France for England after the rise of Maximillian Robespierre. He and other emigres were living at Juniper Hall on the edge of Mickleham. The house was leased from 1792 to 1793 by David Jenkinson, a wealthy landowner, to a group of French emigres which included Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, a writer who Jane Austen admired, although de Stael was dismissive of Jane Austen’s writing. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PérigordLouis, comte de Narbonne-Lara grandson of King Louis XV of France, and General Alexandre D’Arblay were among the key emigres staying at Juniper Hall. D’Arblay met Fanny Burney in the Templeton Room here. 


Image Dorking, the Red Lion Hotel, 1904 Postcard

Dorking, the Red Lion Hotel, 1904 Postcard

Dorking is located south west of Box Hill. From Stanton ( Mickleham) the two Watson sisters  travelled by the turnpike road which led to the east end of the town. As they entered the town they could see the White Hart Inn on their right, where the ball they were so anticipating was to take place, and the church steeple of St Martins just behind the inn. In the Penguin Classic version of The Watsons the editor, Claire Lamoy suggests that The White Hart was in reality The Red Lion Inn, located in Dorking High Street which Jane visited while staying at Great Bookham. The Red Lion backed on to the churchyard of St Martins Church. The inn does not exist nowadays. A modern row of shops stands in its place. Many buildings in Dorking do originate from the 18th century and some earlier. It is an ancient market town. Dorking has links to The Pilgrim fathers. William Mullins a shoe maker from Dorking was on that first voyage of The Mayflower. His shop still stands in the High Street and is now a coffee shop. There are also connections to Dickens and Vaughn Williams, the 20th century composer.


Image of Croydon Town Hall and Art Gallery, by Tony Grant

Croydon Town Hall and Art Gallery. Photo by Tony Grant.

In The Watsons the town of Croydon, about 17 miles from Dorking, is mentioned a number of times. Rich relations of the Watsons live there. It is where Emma Watson has been living with an aunt. When the story starts her aunt has died and Emma has recently returned to her family in Stanton.


Image of Cobham churchyard

Cobham churchyard photo by Tony Grant

Cobham, north west of Great Bookham, has a cameo appearance in Emma. John Knightley’s wife Isabella, in praise of Mr Weston, states,

“and ever since his kindness last September twelvemonth in writing that note, at twelve o’clock at night, on purpose to assure me that there was no scarlet fever at Cobham, I have been convinced there could not be a more feeling heart nor a better man in existence.”

I have always thought that Cobham fits a description of Highbury and Hartfield. Many of the features of Cobham are the same. But you can find similar features in most country towns and large villages. There are the church, a mill, a local school, old coaching inns, houses for the local gentry and a large estate such as Mr Knightley’s a mile from the centre of town. Cobham has Painshill Park on its outskirts and Jane herself mentions it in a letter to Cassandra when travelling through leafy Surrey on one of her many visits to London. 

Kingston upon Thames

Image of O Druids head coaching inn Kingston

O Druids head coaching inn, Kingston. Photo by Tony Grant.

Kingston upon Thames is an important location in Emma. Mr Martin and also Mr Knightley go to Kingston regularly.

Harriet after meeting Robert Martin in the street reports to Emma

“He has not been able to get, “The Romance of the Forest,” yet. He was so busy the last time he was in Kingston that he quite forgot it, but he goes again tomorrow.”

Kingston used to have a large cattle market on the edge of town The area where it was located is still called The Cattle Market to this day. The municipal swimming baths and sports centre is on the site. It had an apple market, and that spot is still called The Apple Market, and also a large central market in the middle of the town where fishmongers, butchers, and fruit and vegetables from market gardens were sold. Fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables are sold from market stalls in the same location today. A few of the 18th century coaching inns still exist, The Griffin and The Druids Head are still pubs and inns, and the site of The Crown Inn that Jane Austen knew well is a department store that still retains a magnificent 18th century carved oak staircase. She often mentioned her visits to Kingston in letters to Cassandra as she travelled on the way to London. Kingston was an important place for carriages to change horses.

To Cassandra. Wednesday 15-Thursday 16 September 1813 from Henrietta Street

“… We had a very good journey-Weather and roads excellent-the three stages for 1s-6d & our only misadventure the being delayed about a quarter of an hour at Kingston for Horse, & being obliged to put up with a pair belonging to a Hackney Coach & their Coachman which left no room on the Barouche box for Lizzy.”

Jerry Abershaw

Black and white etching of Louis Jeremiah or Jerry Abershaw, 1773-1795. Highwayman, National Gallery of Scotland

Louis Jeremiah or Jerry Abershaw, 1773-1795. Highwayman, National Gallery of Scotland

Kingston has a more chilling aspect to i,t which has a relevance to Northanger Abbey. On the main road from Kingston into the centre of London the route passed through a remote wild area of heath and woodland. In 1795, at Tibbets Corner (the Putney, Wandsworth and Wimbledon Village junction) beside Wimbledon Common, a young highwayman called Jerry Abershawe was detained and executed. His body hung at Tibbets Corner inside a gibbet to rot and be picked to pieces by carrion crows as a warning to all highwaymen. In Northangar Abbey General Tilney sends the teenage Catherine Moreland away from the Abbey by herself in a public coach. Highwaymen were a danger. Even Jane’s brothers would not let her travel independently. Perhaps Jane and Cassandra witnessed Abershawe’s body in the gibbet. His body would have been left there until nothing was left. It would take a year or two to disappear.

Richmond upon Thames

Photo of Richmond Green The Churchills lived here.

Richmond Green. The Churchills lived here. Photo by Tony Grant.

Richmond upon Thames further north along The Thames from Kingston also has an importance in Emma. The Churchill’s removed from London to Richmond because of Mrs Churchill’s health.  

“It soon appeared that London was not the place for her. She could not endure its noise. Her nerves were under continual irritation and suffering; and by the ten days’ end, her nephew’s letter to Randalls communicated a change of plan. They were going to remove to Richmond. Mrs Churchill had been recommended to the medical skill of an eminent person there.”

I know Richmond well. It is just seven miles north of Richmond Park from where I live. It has an amazing history with connections to the nobility and the Monarchy. A Tudor palace was located at Richmond and also just outside of Richmond is Kew Gardens and Kew Palace where George III and his family spent a lot of time. Richmond was a very well connected town. Jane used this in Emma as an underlying comment about Frank Churchill.


Image of Epsom Centre, by Tony Grant

Epsom Centre photo by Tony Grant

Epsom, at the foot of the north downs and famous for the Derby Racecourse, the forerunner of all Derbys around the world, gets a mention in Pride and Prejudice. When Wickham and Lydia elope from Brighton, where Wickham’s regiment is stationed, they of course have to pass through the county of Surrey to reach London. They change horses at Epsom. 

Lydia had disappeared with Wickham and Mr Bennet had turned into a man of action. Elizabeth enquired.

“She then proceeded to enquire into the measures which her father had intended to pursue, while in town, for the recovery of his daughter.”

“He meant,” I believe, “replied Jane, to go to Epsom, the place where they last changed horses, see the postilions and try if anything could be made out … His principal object must be to discover the number of the hackney coach which took them …”

Epsom, is a lovely market town and has an amazing central clock tower and wide thoroughfare for the market stalls set up there. There is also a well preserved 18th century Assembly Rooms called, “The Assembly Rooms,” which is now a Weatherspoon’s pub and restaurant. I have indeed imbibed a pint or two in there. There are many 18th century buildings still in the town.


Image of leatherhead museum

Leatherhead Museum. Photo by Tony Grant

I must mention Leatherhead, very close to Great Bookham and Box Hill. It is a town Jane would have visited and probably knew well. It has become somewhat a cause celebre in the world of Jane Austen and generally causes arguments.  Highbury and Hartfield are fictitious places set within the real world of Surrey. There are those, however, who are  convinced that Leatherhead is indeed Highbury and Hartfield. They point out all the places that are in and around Leatherhead which they think fit Jane’s descriptions in Emma. It cannot be forgotten that Emma is a fiction, all said and done. Highbury and Hartfield are the quintessential 18th century English villages. Jane is concerned about the lives and relationships of people within a community.  That is what really counts.

There are many places in Surrey that Jane knew. I have included an overall map to show some of the key places I mention in this article and here are a few more places she mentions either in her novels or in her letters.

Guildford, Streatham, The Hogsback (A long hill outside of Guildford) Ripley, Painshill, Clapham, Battersea, Barnes and Egham.

To Cassandra Austen Thursday 20th May 1813

“We left Guildford at 20 minutes before 12- (I hope somebody cares for these minutes) & were at Esher in about 2 hours more.- I was very much pleased with the country in general-;- between Guildford and Ripley I thought it particularly pretty, also about Painshill & everywhere else; & from a Mr Spicer’s Grounds at Esher which we Walked into before dinner, the views were beautiful. I cannot say what we did not see but I should think there could not be a wood or a meadow or a palace or a remarkable spot in England that was not spread out us on one side or another.-“

Streatham is interesting, located  in South London at Tooting. It is where Dr Johnson lived for a while with Esther Thrale and her husband in their grand house next to the common and where many of the artistic glitterati of the 18th century met.


  • Austen J. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon Penguin Classics (first published 1974) Revised edition published 2015
  • Austen J. Emma, Penguin Classics (Published in Penguin Classics 1996) reissued 2003.
  • Austen J. Pride and Prejudice, (published by Penguin Classics 1996) reissued 2003.
  • Austen J. Northanger Abbey, (published by Penguin Classics 1996) reissued 2003.
  • Le Faye D. Jane Austen’s Letters, (Third Edition) Oxford University Press 1995.

TONY’S OTHER BLOG POSTS: Below are some of the blog posts I have written connected with places I have mentioned in this article located in Surrey and South London where I live.

London Calling, Tony’s blog

Jane Austen in Vermont, Tony’s guest posts

Jane Austen’s World, Tony’s posts

Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliot at the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion has long been heralded as one of the most romantic letters—and moments—in English literature. But does Wentworth’s letter live up to today’s standards of a really well-written love letter?

If you look up how to write the perfect love letter on the Internet, quite a lot of interesting information comes up. One article that might be of particular interest to a man like Captain Wentworth is this one: “How to Write a Love Letter” by Brett and Kate McKay from the web site, The Art of Manliness.

First, the article states that, “A handwritten letter is something tangible that we touch and hold and then pass to another to touch and hold. And they are preserved and cherished in a way that text messages or email never will be.” Captain Wentworth’s letter certainly meets this criteria. He writes his letter to Anne by hand, folds the paper “hastily,” and writes a “hardly legible” direction “to ‘Miss A. E.— ’” on the outside. (As to whether his letter will be preserved and cherished, I’ll leave that up to your excellent imaginations.)

Captain Wentworth pens his letter.

Next, there is the mode of delivery. For lovers who are separated by miles, an envelope and a stamp do the job nicely. Others might choose to leave their letters under a door mat, on a bedside table, or beside a dinner plate. As for Wentworth, he prefers the rather intense (and covert) personal delivery system for his letter to Anne:

[Wentworth] drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a time, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs Musgrove was aware of his being in it: the work of an instant!

Jane Austen’s Persuasion
“Placed it before Anne.” Illustration by C.E. Brock, 1909.

Finally, we must consider the contents of the letter. Wentworth hastily writes his letter at a writing table as he listens in on Anne and Captain Harville’s conversation about love and constancy. But does his hurried letter check all the boxes of a first-rate love letter?

The Art of Manliness suggests that every good love letter much include six major elements. Let’s go through the checklist and find out if Wentworth’s letter to Anne makes the grade:

Six Keys to a Good Love Letter

1. Start off by stating the purpose of your letter. Captain Wentworth certainly doesn’t waste any time getting to the point and stating his purpose. There is no question that this is a passionate love letter right from the start:

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.”

2. Recall a romantic memory. Though their past is painful, Wentworth lets Anne know that his memories of her—and his love for her—have never faded, no matter what has happened between them or what he has tried to do to heal and forget her:

“Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”

3. Tell her all the things you love about her. For Captain Wentworth, every word out of Anne’s mouth is like water to his thirsty soul. He knows her voice better than anyone else and hangs on her every word:

“I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed.”

4. Tell her how your life has changed since meeting her. Wentworth could probably write a whole book about this (indeed, Austen did), but his letter checks this box in a rather dramatic way as he reveals that Anne is the only thing he cares about and that she is the sole focus of all his thoughts and plans:

“You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.”

5. Reaffirm your love and commitment. Wentworth declares his love several times in this letter and has no trouble expressing his commitment to Anne. He clearly asks for her hand in marriage:

“I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.” He declares his love in absolute terms: “I have loved none but you.” And after listening to her conversation with Captain Harville, he closes his letter with another affirmation of his fervent and undying love for her:

“You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.”

6. End with a line that sums up your love. One might actually think Captain Wentworth was a contributing writer for The Art of Manliness because he accomplishes this task with an eloquent post script, asking for one word or look from Anne to seal his fate:

“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Captain Wentworth’s Letter by TurtleDoves.

The Right Response

Wentworth’s letter certainly seems to satisfy the most important aspects of an eloquent love letter, but the true test of any romantic letter is the addressee’s response. For that, we must go to Anne herself for her reaction to the letter:

Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from. Half an hour’s solitude and reflection might have tranquillized her; but the ten minutes only which now passed before she was interrupted, with all the restraints of her situation, could do nothing towards tranquillity. Every moment rather brought fresh agitation. It was overpowering happiness.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Indeed, Wentworth’s letter is a complete success. When they meet in the street, Anne returns his pointed look and the “cheeks which had been pale now glowed, and the movements which had hesitated were decided.” There, in the street, they exchange “again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement.”

Truly, “such a letter” is not to be “soon recovered from.” By Anne or by us.

The sky’s the limit with letter writing. And love letters are never to be outdone by “newsy,” handwritten letters that fly back and forth between friends. But if you do write a love letter, make sure you take some pointers from Captain Wentworth.

For more information about the digitized version of Captain Wentworth’s Letter by TurtleDoves on Etsy (pictured above), click HERE.

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. “Persuasion.” The Project Gutenberg E-Text of Persuasion, by Jane Austen, 2019, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/105/105-h/105-h.htm.

McKay, Brett and Kate. “30 Days to a Better Man Day 28: Write a Love Letter.” The Art of Manliness, 2 Oct. 2020, http://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/30-days-to-a-better-man-day-28-write-a-love-letter/.

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She is the author of Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen and The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Inquiring readers: The lists in this blog post describe us (Vic, Rachel, Brenda, and Tony) and our interests to a tee. If we were to remove our names heralding our choices, you could probably guess who chose which list. The books mentioned are those that we read in 2020 and that have influenced our interests, thoughts, and research. Enjoy! Feel free to leave your own book suggestions in the comment section!

Vic Sanborn

1. Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World, Mike Rendell, Pen & Sword History, Pen & Sword Books LTD, 2018.

This useful reference details the contributions of 18th century women (despite their lack of legal standing) in the arts, literature, sciences, business, commerce, reform, and education. Some women, like Frances Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft, are well known to us today. How many of us know about Mary Darly, Jane Marcet, Elizabeth Fry, or Ann Damer? This is a beautiful book well worth owning.

2. What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, John Mullan. 2003, Bloomsbury Press

John Mullan’s book was highly recommended to me. In it he discusses diverse topics in 20 chapters, such as: “How Much Does Age Matter?,” “Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?,” “How Do Jane Austen’s Characters Look?,” “When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?,” and more. Mr. Mullan’s analysis prompts me to reread crucial passages in Austen’s novels; he helps me understand how much I still need to explore in her novels after all these years.

3. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, Paula Byrne, 2014, Harper Perennial.

I decided to purchase this book after watching “Bridgerton.” I did not see “Belle,” the movie, but have read short descriptions of the remarkable life of this illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African American woman.

4. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman: 1776-1800, National Trust, a primary source.

This extremely short book (62 pages) was not noticed until it was printed in 1952. Whatman’s observations on household management was for personal use only. It provides a snapshot of how an 18th century housewife managed a household, and describes her expectations and relationship with her servants. This primary source is extremely useful for anyone interested in the servant/mistress relationship during that time.

5. Hamnet, kindle edition, by Maggie O’Farrell, Deckle Edge, July 2020, mentioned as one of the 10 best books of 2020. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is my only entry that was recently published. My Janeite friend, Deb Barnum, could not praise the book enough and urged me to read it. O’Farrell’s tale about the death of William Shakespeare’s son is told in prose so beautiful, lyrical, poignant and magical that one enters another world entirely. The tale is sad, for Hamnet died of the plague, but the topic speaks to the grief that so many families in this world are feeling as they mourn lost ones due to the pandemic.

Brenda Cox

1. Jane Austen and Religion, by William Jarvis. ISBN: 095271261X

This fascinating little book gives more insight into the role of religion in Austen’s life and novels. Quite easy to read, unlike some of the other books on this topic.

2. Paupers & Pig Killers: The Diary of William Holland, A Somerset Parson, 1799-1818, edited by Jack Ayres. ISBN-10 : 0750932015

These selections from a parson’s diary give you an idea of what the daily lives of Austen’s family might have been like (since her father and two of her brothers were country parsons).

3. Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807, by Kathleen Chater. 2011. ISBN-10 : 0719085977

If you’d like to know about black people in Jane Austen’s England and their lives, this book is based on extensive research from primary sources. See the History tab above, the section Black History, for more resources.

4. The Woman of Colour, anonymous, edited by Lyndon Dominique. ISBN-10 : 0719085977

This novel of 1808, possibly written by a woman of color, gives you a more personal view of the situation for black people in Austen’s England. It includes contemporary accounts from the slave-holding colonies.

5. Jane Austen & Crime, by Susannah Fullerton. ISBN-10 : 0976353954

This novel is full of great insights into law and crime in Austen’s England and in her life and her novels.

6. Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal. ISBN-10 : 0525486488

This book is a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. Lots of fun. See my review.

Rachel Dodge

1. Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis by Patti Callahan. ISBN-10: 0785224505

“In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.”

This book is perfect for fans of C.S. Lewis who want to know more about his wife, Joy Davidman. This novelized version of Joy’s life is hard to put down! I loved getting to know more about the brilliant mind and life of the woman Lewis called “my whole world.”

2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: ISBN-10 : 1846140498

This novel is one of my best memories of 2020 and one of my greatest achievements as a reader. I read this with an online read-along group for six months and fell in love with the novel and with Hugo’s writing. I could have never finished it without the group to help me stay on track. We had weekly online discussions that were incredibly invigorating. I highly recommend Les Mis to anyone who hasn’t read it — but if you can, read it with a buddy or a group. There’s nothing like it!

3. Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller: ISBN-10 : 006268535X

“In this novel authorized by the Little House Heritage Trust, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before—Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books.”

This book gives a detailed view of the Little House books as told from Caroline “Ma” Ingalls’ perspective. It is meticulously researched and written, and I was mesmerized by the story of this incredibly strong woman. I have always wondered about the “real Ma” and how she handled even the worst situations with such grit and grace.

4. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery:mISBN-10 : 1402289367

“Valancy Stirling is 29 and has never been in love. She’s spent her entire life on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. But one day she receives a shocking, life-altering letter―and decides then and there that everything needs to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels.”

I’m including this on my list because it’s one of L.M. Montgomery’s best books–and many people have never read it. It is one of only two books Montgomery wrote for an adult audience, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t enjoy it. If you need a fun, quick, and invigorating read, this is a great one to pick up. You will love Valancy and Barney.

Tony Grant

1. A Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce. Published by the Penguin Group 1992 (First published 1914-15.)

Published in 1916, the book plots the course of the early life of Stephen Daedalus, his struggles with religion, education and relationships. All the things that matter in life. At that time the way people lived in Ireland was strongly controlled by the Catholic Church. We all know how that has turned out. As a lapsed catholic, even I shuddered and felt troubled by the four page description of hell.

2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Published by the Penguin Group1999 (First published 1839)

I like a good dose of Dickens every now and then. I read Nicholas Nickleby recently. If you want a roller coaster of emotions, good, bad and ugly this is for you. The evil Ralph Nickleby and the Yorkshire headmaster, Squeers of Do The Boys Hall, are counterbalanced by the angelic Brothers Cheeryble and a few ,”Madonna,” like young women.It wouldn’t be Dickens without an angelic, perfect, beautiful young woman, defenceless waiting to be saved. Its Dickens at his best, mining the depths of humanity, sending your emotions in all directions like a firework display.

3. The Neopolitan Novels by Ellena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, and published by Europa Editions (2012-2015). Four novels entitled:

  • My Brilliant Friend.

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

  • The Story of a New Name.

  • The Story of the Lost Child.

Even if you read just one of these amazing novels it is worth it. The quartet is a powerful evocation of humanity. Like all of us, the characters in these novels make awful mistakes and some terrible things happen to them but nevertheless their lives move forward. Lina and Ellena, two friends who have known each other from birth, brought up in the back streets of Naples live off their innate animal intelligence. Ferrante plots their lives. If you think in terms of soul mates these two are each one half of the same organism. Both brilliant in different ways, their lives diverge but the link between them always remains. Their power and strength is derived from their connection. Together they are a force of nature. It is tough reading at times . There is not much humour but you feel that you have gone through a cathartic experience. This is Joyce and Dickens combined. Ferrante is a genius.

4. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber and Faber, 2017

This is the book Rooney wrote before, “Normal People.” Set in Ireland in the present time, it plots the love lives of young people. Rooney writes about her own age group. She is a great writer, plotting human relations through many hard, confusing, elating and passionate moments. Her characters are on a journey. The novel feels real, honest and gritty, with tenderness mixed in. Even at my advanced age I can empathise with the way their relationships pan out. This is the book James Joyce wanted to write, tried to write and for which he was virtually kicked out of Ireland.

5. The Rio Tape/Slide Show (Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 1980s)

Published by Isola Press London (IsolaPress.com) October 2020.

Ok, this is not a novel but it engaged and absorbed me completely. I felt so inspired I wrote a long review for my blog, London Calling. Hackney is a London Borough in the east end of London. In the 1980s, there was a lot of unemployment and poverty. It was a whole melting pot of different cultures and ethnic minorities. People were bullied by the police and government policies made life even harder. The Rio Tape Slide project based at The Rio Cinema in Kingsland Road began community initiatives. They educated the local people in ideas, photography, art workshops, news reporting, writing and community action. News reals, shown at the cinema, were made by local people who went out with cameras to record and write about their community. The project brought people together to form very effective action groups. This is Gandhi’s peaceful action alongside Martin Luther King’s ideas about community . As well as the photographs illustrating much of what went on, there are essays written by some of the original organisers of the campaigns that occurred. They explain their philosophy and thinking behind their actions. This should be read by everybody. It is a template for grass roots social action. I kept thinking,” this is how it’s done!!” Politics can be beneficial.


And, so, gentle readers. Which books have you read? Which of them would you recommend? Which new books would you add to our list in the comments?  Curious minds want to know. Thank you for participating!

By Brenda S. Cox

“. . . we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.” –Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney is criticizing Catherine’s modern usage of the word “nice.”

“. . . like my dear Dr. Johnson, I believe I have dealt more in notions than facts.”—Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra, Feb. 8, 1807, quoting from a letter from Johnson to Boswell.

Nowadays, we take dictionaries for granted. When an author is writing a book, she can access all kinds of dictionaries online. Even before the internet, we had a wide variety of reference books, and any author would have at least one dictionary.

However, in Jane Austen’s England, dictionaries were still relatively rare and expensive. Jane Austen may not have owned one. However, she had access, at least some of the time, to her brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park and his library at Chawton House. The Godmersham library has been recreated online, so we can see some of the books she might have used. The 1818 library catalog lists twenty dictionaries. Most are for specialized categories. For example, the Knights owned a dictionary of heraldry, a farming dictionary, a law dictionary, and a classical dictionary.

Early Dictionaries

It took time for our modern style of dictionary to develop.

In the 1500s, some bilingual dictionaries were produced, translating from Latin, French, or Italian into English. The Knights owned a Latin dictionary published much later, in 1816.

In 1604, the first English-to-English dictionary was published, by Robert Cawdrey. However, his dictionary and later dictionaries of that century focused only on difficult, unusual words; slang expressions; or words from certain fields of study or regions of the country. They listed such words and explained them in simpler English. Some of these dictionaries were rather pretentious, including rare words like abequitate and commotrix. Cawdrey intended his dictionary to “benefit & help” “Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskillful persons” to better understand difficult English words they might hear or read in the Bible or in sermons, and to use those words themselves. Everyday words were not defined.

The Knight Collection included one such dictionary, by Edward Phillips, published in 1678. It listed “Terms that conduce to the understanding of any of the Arts or Sciences.” Sciences at that time were simply areas of knowledge. (Austen calls dancing a science, for example.) The areas listed for this dictionary range from theology to astrology to jewelling to hunting to much more.

Nathaniel Bailey made the first attempt at a complete English-to-English dictionary in 1721.

The first attempt to include all the words of English in a dictionary was in 1721, when Nathaniel Bailey produced his Universal Etymological English Dictionary. (Etymological means giving the original sources of words; many entries, however, do not include etymologies.) Thirty editions appeared between 1721 and 1802; the last was about 900 pages long. The Knights and their family and friends could look words up in the fourteenth edition of this dictionary, published in 1751.

While Bailey’s dictionary included “many Thousand Words more” than any previous English dictionary, it was still not complete enough. Literary leaders such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift called for a better source to standardize the English language.

Johnson’s Dictionary

Jane Austen’s “dear Dr. Johnson” took up the challenge. Simon Winchester calls Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language “an unparalleled triumph . . . a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.”

In 1746, a group of London booksellers hired Samuel Johnson to produce a new dictionary. He hired six men as scribes and spent the following years compiling his dictionary.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary became the definitive dictionary of English in England for the next century.

How do you write a dictionary? Johnson began by reading. He bought or borrowed stacks and stacks of books. He went through them, reading hundreds of thousands of pages. He listed and organized all the words he found.

Since he couldn’t go through all of history (as the later Oxford English Dictionary would do), he chose books from a time period of about 150 years: beginning with Sir Philip Sydney, who died in 1586, and ending with authors who had recently died in Johnson’s own time (plus a little Chaucer thrown in here and there).

As Johnson read, he marked the words he wanted and chose good sentences illustrating all the varied meanings of each word. His assistants wrote the sentences on slips of paper, which he filed.

Four years later, in 1750, Johnson had finished gathering words. Then he spent another four years sorting, choosing, and editing his 118,000 sample quotations (which he occasionally altered!). Finally, he wrote definitions for the 43,500 words included. Sometimes he based the definitions on earlier dictionaries, but many were entirely his own.

Imagine how much work this was, for one man! No wonder he defined lexicographer as “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” There must have been a great deal of drudgery involved in digging out and organizing so many words, with no help from a computer or even a typewriter. While a few definitions, like lexicographer, show Johnson’s personal opinion, most are careful and exact.

I learned in a linguistics class that it is very hard to write definitions. You need to use only words that are simpler than the word you are defining, explain clearly what the word means and rule out what it doesn’t mean, and not use circular definitions (defining Word A as meaning B, but when you look up B you find it means A). Try making up a definition for an everyday word, and you’ll get some appreciation for Johnson’s task. Then you might want to compare your definition with Johnson’s.

Johnson’s dictionary was very thorough, including most of the words in use at the time. As in modern dictionaries, many words have multiple definitions. The word take, for example, is followed by 134 definitions. All are supported by at least one quotation from literature, and most have several.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1756

When Johnson was almost ready to publish his dictionary, he convinced Oxford University to give him an honorary degree, so he would have letters to put after his name (Samuel Johnson, A. M.), and the dictionary was published in 1755.

The final dictionary was over 2300 pages long. It was printed on high quality paper in large, heavy, expensive volumes. Jane’s parents probably could not have afforded a set.

The fact that Godmersham had two copies of this dictionary shows us something of the Knight family’s wealth. They owned a first edition, published in 1755, and a  twelfth edition, published in 1810; each was in two volumes.

Samuel Johnson’s was England’s definitive dictionary of English until 1928, when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was completed. Simon Winchester tells the enthralling story of the OED in his book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Most of this article comes from his section on Johnson’s dictionary. For the OED, a team of thousands of volunteers sent the compilers over six million slips of paper with sample sentences on them, from works in English throughout history. After five years, the compilers had only gotten to the word ant.  It took from 1879 to 1928 to produce all ten volumes of the dictionary. The OED has been constantly updated since then, because of course language is always changing.

(In America, of course, Noah Webster published the first dictionary of American English in 1806. American and British dialects and spelling were already diverging at that point.)

Austen and Johnson’s Dictionary

We don’t know how much Jane Austen consulted Johnson’s Dictionary, but we do know that she loved to read Dr. Johnson’s works, so she probably read some of the dictionary when she could. There might have been a copy at Chawton House near her cottage.  Also, shorter, smaller abridged versions, without all the quotes, were published later in her lifetime, so perhaps she owned one of those.

Shortened versions of Johnson’s Dictionary were soon produced, like this one in 1806.

Henry Tilney is “Nice”

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney have a discussion about a word and its definition:

Catherine: “But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

Henry: “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.”

“Nice” in Samuel Johnson’s original dictionary

So how did Samuel Johnson define the word nice? He gave these definitions:

  1. Accurate in judgment to minute exactness; superfluously exact. (This may describe Tilney himself in the discussion, as his sister says.)
  2. Delicate; scrupulously and minutely cautious.
  3. Fastidious; squeamish
  4. Easily injured; delicate
  5. Formed with minute exactness (Perhaps this is the definition by which Tilney says the book’s binding may be nice.)
  6. Requiring scrupulous exactness
  7. Refined
  8. Having lucky hits (a meaning no longer in use)

Catherine, however, was using the word more as we would use it today, to simply mean something good or pleasant. Apparently, when Johnson wrote his dictionary forty years earlier, nice was not often used that way, at least in books. Even an 1817 short version of his dictionary still defines nice as “accurate, scrupulous, delicate.” Henry Tilney was overly scrupulous, or too nice, in his use of words.

(By the way, Eleanor refers to “Johnson and Blair.” Blair is Dr. Hugh Blair, a Scottish minister who wrote books of sermons that Mary Crawford mentions in Mansfield Park. He also wrote Blair’s Rhetoric, teaching good writing and speaking, which is what Eleanor mentions here.)

“Nice” in an 1806 abridged version of Johnson’s Dictionary

“Nice” Austen Quotes in the Oxford English Dictionary

The current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) quotes Jane Austen in three of its 44 definitions of nice (24 of these definitions are now obsolete, 2 others are rare).

For the obsolete definition 3c, “Particular, strict, or careful with regard to a specific point or thing,” this example appears from Persuasion, 1817: “Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential.”

The OED’s definition 14a of nice, “That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive,” is illustrated of course by Catherine and Henry’s conversation in Northanger Abbey. (It’s not the first example, though–that came from actor David Garrick in 1749, just a little too late to be included in Johnson’s Dictionary.)

And there’s one more “nice” example from Austen in definition 14d, where nice is “used ironically”: the very instance is from Jane Austen’s letter of Dec. 24, 1798: “We are to have Company to dinner on friday; the three Digweeds & James.—We shall be a nice silent party I suppose.”

Language has changed so much that we sometimes need dictionaries to understand writers of former ages. It would be easy to assume that wherever we see the word nice, for example, it means “pleasant,” but in Austen’s time it was much more likely to mean something else. In my research on the church in Austen’s time, I’ve found a number of words that had religious meanings in her time, words like principle and serious, that are now used differently. The word candour has changed almost entirely; it meant assuming the best of a person (which is why Jane Bennet is an example of candour), rather than plain speaking.

What are your favorite examples of words used in Jane Austen which now have different meanings, or are obsolete now? And, what’s your favorite dictionary or website where you look them up?

Further Resources

Johnson’s Dictionary: Myths and Reality, by linguist David Crystal

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, British Library

Johnson’s Dictionary Online is a fantastic free resource. You can look up any word in the original 1755 dictionary. Page view is available for all the words (click on the letters at the top), and some have been transcribed (search in the search window). If you want to know what words were in use in Jane Austen’s England, and how they were used, this is the book for you. If you want a later edition, archive.org has volumes of the dictionary from later dates.

Dr. Johnson, His House, Jane Austen, and a Cat Called Hodge,” by Tony Grant (who writes for Jane Austen’s World), gives a fascinating overview of Johnson’s life, Jane Austen’s comments about Johnson, and lovely photos of Johnson’s house. He also includes the intriguing story of Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber, who was like a son to Johnson; Johnson left most of his estate to Barber.

Dr. Johnson’s House, a museum of Samuel Johnson, can be visited in London (though it is currently closed for covid; check the website before going).

The Oxford English Dictionary will give you more detail and more quotations, but if you are not part of a library or university with access to it, it’s quite expensive. (Currently subscriptions are deeply discounted, at $90 per year.)

Simon Winchester tells the fascinating story of English dictionaries, especially the OED, in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The movie, The Professor and the Madman (2019), is based on this book and is well done, though it adds some imaginative twists.

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

Inquiring readers: One of the activities I have missed the most during this year of COVID-19 is traveling abroad. In this blog post, Tony Grant takes us on a tour to The Vyne, which is one of England’s grand houses and is closely associated with Jane Austen and her family. Enjoy!

Gentle readers: Please note: this post is updated with corrections about the Stained Glass Windows and Flemish Tiles, as indicated in the comments by Stuart Hall, Tour Guide, The Vyne.

Image of The_Vyne_House wikipediaThe Vyne, Sherborne St John Hampshire, Image from Wikipedia

The Vyne, is an 18th century mansion near the village of Sherbourne St John. It is just north of the town of  Basingstoke; eight miles from Steventon, which is located south west of Basingstoke; eighteen miles from Chawton; twenty miles north of Winchester; and just over fifty miles from the centre of London. It is a typical grand house that, although its present appearance is 18th century, has been developed and adapted over the centuries to fit different periods. In the late 18th century its proximity to Basingstoke and Steventon put it and the Chute family, who owned it, within Jane Austen’s family local connections. George and Cassandra Austen, after their marriage in Bath, moved to Steventon in 1764 when George and Cassandra Austen first took up the living of Steventon Parish and were set to start their family with their first child, James, born on February 13th, 1765. Jane, the Austen’s eighth child, was born 16th December, 1775. As the vicar of Steventon, George Austen associated with the country gentry and landowners in the area and these included the Chutes at The Vyne in Sherborne St John.

The Vyne Estate, The National Trust Map, image by Tony Grant

The Vyne Estate, The National Trust Map, image by Tony Grant

The Vyne was first built as a large Tudor mansion by William, 1st Lord Sandys, Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain who died in 1540. The King himself, was entertained three times at The Vyne by Lord Sandys. The wealth of the Sandys family declined slowly through the centuries, but the Civil Wars 1642 – 1651 finished the family as an authority in the country and their wealth declined drastically. In 1653 the estate was sold to Chaloner Chute, who was the Speaker in the House, a role which had great power in Parliament shaping how Parliament debated issues and passed legislation during the last Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was set up after the execution of Charles 1st and continued to a little after Oliver Cromwell’s death and the reinstatement of the monarchy. Chaloner Chute was a very important man in the country. He reduced the size of the original Tudor mansion and modernised it, employing John Webb, a talented pupil of Inigo Jones to redesign it.

Floorplan of The VyneThe floor plan of The Vyne, The National Trust

Chute died in 1659 and not much more was done to the house for the next hundred years. His great grandson, John Chute (1701-76) inherited the house in 1754. John Chute was a talented architect and along with his friend Horace Walpole helped Walpole design the Gothic interiors of Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s house at Twickenham. Along with Walpole he also redesigned the Gothic interior of the chapel at The Vyne. In his early thirties, he brought back mementoes from his grand tour of Europe which remain in the house today. 

John Chute died without heirs in 1776 and the house passed to his cousin Thomas Lobb (1721-90), the son of a Thomas Lobb of Norfolk who had married Elizabeth Chute (d 1725) in 1720, hence the family connection. This second Thomas Lobb assumed the name of Chute when John Chute died and passed the Vyne to him, thus keeping the family name extant. Thomas (Lobb) Chute married Anne Rachael Wiggett (1733-90) in 1753.

They had two sons, William John Chute (1757-1824) and Thomas Chute (1772-1827). William, who inherited the house in 1790, married Elizabeth Smith in 1794.

Upon his death in 1824 the Vyne passed to his younger brother Thomas, a clergyman. As neither William nor Thomas had issue, the house was left in 1827 to William John Chute’s godson and part of the Wiggett family, William Lyde Wiggett (1800-79). THIS William assumed the name of Chute in 1827 and succeeded to the Vyne in 1842 when Elizabeth Smith Chute passed away.


James Austen, Jane Austen’s eldest brother (above image on the right), became a close and lifelong friend of Tom Chute, William John Chute’s brother. They both loved fox hunting and often rode with the hounds together. On his clergyman’s income, James Austen was able to keep his own pack of hounds. As rector of Steventon, George Austen, Jane’s father, was also a visitor to the Chute family home.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet and the Bennet girls were all a flutter at wealthy landowners, such as Fitzwilliam Darcy, came to live in their neighbourhood. The game was on to get her daughters married into a wealthy strata of society and rise in the world. You had to be ambitious if nothing else and take a chance.

The local clergy were regularly invited to the local landowner’s home for dinner; they became almost a part of the family in many ways. Mr Collins waxed lyrical about his great honour of being invited to Rosings by Lady Catherine de Bourgh. 

“She had asked him twice to dine at Rosings and had sent for him only the Saturday before  to make up her pool of quadrille in the evening… she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbourhood.”

We can gather that James Austen became closely associated with the Chute family, first because of his father’s connections and subsequently as the vicar of  Sherborne St John, the parish in which The Vyne was located.  Later he took over the incumbency of Steventon Parish from his father, a mere eight miles from The Vyne, which kept him close to the Chutes and the great house.  

James accumulated parishes throughout his clerical career. Deirdre le Faye enumerates the following. 

“curate of Stoke Charity , Hants, 1788, (the year he completed his studies with an MA from Oxford), the curate at Overton Hants in 1790, the vicar at Sherborne St John in 1791, the curate of Deane in 1791, the vicar of Cubbington in 1792, the perpetual curate of Hunningham in 1805  curate of Steventon (under his father) in 1801 and finally the vicar of Steventon  between 1805 and 1819 (died 1819).” 

Photo of The grave of James and Mary Austen at Steventon

James is buried alongside his wife in Steventon Churchyard. Image courtesy of Tony Grant.

Jane and Cassandra fully took part in local society, including friendships formed through family associations and connections provided by their father and brothers. Jane often wrote about her acquaintances and the local activities she took part in, including information she knew Cassandra would be interested in, often referring to the Chutes of The Vyne.

Thursday 14th – Friday 15th January 1796

“Friday- At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over- My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea. William Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being so civil. There is a report that Tom ( Chute)  is going to be married to a Litchfield Lass.”

On Saturday 1st November 1800, Jane went to a ball , presumably at Basingstoke.

“It was a pleasant ball, and still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly 60 people and sometimes we had 17 couples-The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals and Clerks were there and all the meaner and more unusual etc etc’s- There was a scarcity of men in general and a still greater scarcity of any that were much good for much .- I danced nine dances out of ten, five with Steven Terry, T. Chute and James Digwood and four with Catherine-“

Saturday 9th November 1800

“Mary fully intended writing to you by Mr Chutes frank and only happened intirely (JA’s spelling) to forget it- but will write soon-“

On Saturday3rd January 1801 Jane saw Tom Chute when she visited Ash Park. On Friday 9th January  a few days later she saw him again at Deane. These are all houses belonging to the local gentry in Hampshire.

On Monday 22nd April 1805 she hears of Tom Chute’s fall from a horse.

“I am waiting to know how it happened before I begin pitying him.”

On the 8th January 1807, Jane adds another news item to her letter to Cassandra

“…. and another that Tom Chute is going to settle in Norfolk.” This was of course where another Chute family property was located, through the Wiggett connection.”

In January 1813, she again refers to the use of Mr Chute’s franks.

And probably most intriguing of all on Wednesday, February 26th 1817 Jane writes,

“I am sorry to hear of Caroline Wiggetts being so ill. Mrs Chute would feel almost like a mother in losing her.”

The reference to using the Chutes’ “frank” refers to the means by which the Chutes addressed an envelope. The MP wrote the address, dated it properly, and wrote the word “FREE” in the middle of his signature. This  meant that the recipient of the letter didn’t pay for its delivery (which was the custom), but that the Chutes would pay.  At the time of this last message Jane was still in the process of writing Sanditon and she had a mere few months left to live. Jane died in Winchester on the 18th July 1817. The Chutes remained in her sphere of interest to the last. 

Claire Tomalin makes links between Jane Austen’s real life associations, the Chutes, etc., and some of her novels’ characters. She surmises that William John Chute and Elizabeth Chute nee Smith could have inspired some of her ideas about Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Jane and Elizabeth Chute did not become great friends but Elizabeth Chute was well read and was an intelligent person from all accounts. There is also the matter of Caroline Wiggett, who was mentioned in the letter above. Caroline was a second cousin of William’s mother, who came to live with Elizabeth and William and thought of them as her Aunt and Uncle. She was brought up at The Vyne from 1803. From Caroline’s reminiscences we learn that she had a rather lonely childhood at The Vyne. Could she have been an inspiration for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park? Tomlin rightly warns us about making too many assumptions. Writers use many experiences from their lives but use them creatively within their works. A writer will not use personal experiences in a factual way, but aspects of their experiences can inevitably be adapted, drawn upon, and used fictionally.

However, what attracts me most about Jane’s letters, which is clearly obvious in the quotations above, is her humorous tone, often teasing, and making fun of those people and situations she writes about. Of course these letters are private letters to her dear sister Cassandra. She and Cassandra would have had their private jokes and opinions, not for publication. Haven’t we all?

Eventually in 1956, upon the death of Sir Charles Chute, the final Chute owner, The Vyne was bequeathed to The National Trust, who take care of the house today. It is open to the public.

Photo of a National Trust membership cardNational Trust Membership card.

A few years ago, Emily, one of our daughters, bought us a National Trust membership as a Christmas present. The trust looks after hundreds of old houses, estates, gardens, coastal paths and wild areas of the British Isles. With membership we get free entry into these estates, gardens and historic houses, which is an amazing thing. 

In March 2017, Marilyn and I went to visit The Vyne. I had heard of the Austen connection, of course, and also the connection with Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and the Gothic Revival movement. After university, Emily had worked as an intern at Strawberry Hill House, Walpole’s mansion at Twickenham, and we visited Strawberry Hill with Emily as our guide. We were expecting to see something of the Gothic Revival style of interior design at The Vyne, just as we had seen at Strawberry Hill. 

Photo of Sherborne St John road sign Sherborne St John. Image courtesy of Tony Grant

I have focused a lot of this article on the period when the Austens lived at Steventon and on the connections between the Austen family and the Chutes. In an earlier period, Horace Walpole was best friends with John Chute (1701-1776) before William John Chute and Thomas Chute, the Austens’ acquaintances.

The Vyne is rich in objects and paintings brought to The Vyne after John Chute returned from his grand tour of Europe. At 39, John was older than his fellow travellers. His cousin Francis Whitehead, who he went on tour with, was 23, and the friends he made on the tour, including Horace Walpole, were virtually a generation younger.

Photo of Some of John Chute's porcelain collectionPorcelain brought back by John Chute from his Grand Tour. Image courtesy of Tony Grant.

Marilyn and I entered through the entrance on the south side overlooking the extensive surrounding parkland and the lake.  Each room is attended by a guide. Once you ask a question you are inundated with the most interesting and detailed, in-depth information about the Chutes, the house, and the very room you might be standing in at the given moment.

Photo of the Vyne library, National TrustThe library. Image from The National Trust

We walked through the rooms packed with objects and paintings. The library has two large globes of the world, a fantastic ornate baroque fireplace, full length portraits of the Chutes, and walls with shelf upon shelf of books. I must admit to a quirky disposition when I walk through libraries in old houses. You must not touch the books. They are rare, ancient, bound in leather and cost a fortune. I have an enormous urge, which I have to fight against, to spend time with the said books, take them off the shelves and read them. It is always a difficult time having to merely walk past them. I spent a moment reading the titles on the spines though. 

We walked along the oak gallery, the walls lined with portraits and landscapes. The floor is of oak timbers. The walls are faced with oak wainscoting with an intricate “folded linen” effect carved and finely chiselled into the surface of each panel.  They are similar to the panelling I have seen in the Tudor Palace at Hampton Court and other Tudor mansions around the country. This is a fantastic example of the Gothic Revival on the walls, created in the 18th century and not the 16th century.

Photo of linen fold panelingLinen fold oak panelling. Image courtesy of Tony Grant

The chapel attached to the eastern wing of the house is a sight to behold. It is the epitome of Gothic Revival. We think Jane Austen did visit The Vyne, so there is a good chance she too gasped at what you see today. Horace Walpole advised on the decoration. John Chute employed an Italian craftsman called Spiridore Roma, who worked on the chapel between 1769-1771. He used a technique called trompe l’oeil, to create a three dimensional effect of buttresses, Gothic arched windows, and fan ceilings.

Photo of Trompe l'oeil in the chapel National Trust pictureTrompe l’oeil in the chapel. National Trust image.

I have seen the real thing in Bath Abbey and other medieval churches and cathedrals and it is obvious that this is not the real thing, but this paint effect is very impressive indeed. There are medieval-styled tiles on the floor and stained glass windows–all of 16th century medieval originals. The effect is glorious.

Image of Tudor floor tiles (Gothic Revival)

Image of Tudor Revival Gothic floor tiles, courtesy of Tony Grant

Next to the chapel is the Tomb Chamber. It is set out like a Gothic cathedral chapter house. It has valuabele 16th century stained glass windows and a stone slab floor, but the centre piece is a table tomb with a reclining white marble statue of Speaker Chute  (Chaloner Chute 1595- 1659) lying full length with his head propped up on an elbow. Horace Walpole wanted to create the emotions derived from Gothic architecture and in this chapel and tomb chamber he aided John Chute, his friend in recreating that Gothic moment.

Photo of Challoner Chutes tombChaloner Chutes tomb. Image courtesy of Tony Grant

After our tour inside the great house Marilyn and I walked in the grounds. We had a wonderful view of the long lake, smooth green lawns, and the massive cedar trees. We went inside the brick summer house and looked up at its web-like beamed ceiling.

Photo of the summer houseThe Summer House. Image courtesy of Tony Grant

We walked through the walled garden where the National Trust is recreating a great houses kitchen garden with a variety of shrubs, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables.

Photo of the kitchen garden by Tony GrantThe walled kitchen garden. Image courtesy of Tony Grant

 We walked along the Lime Walk and listened to the wind in the branches and birds singing in the canopy.

Photo of The lawns and lake at the front of The Vyne

The lawns and lake at the front of The Vyne. Image courtesy of Tony Grant

Visiting a National Trust property such as The Vyne lifts the spirits, and provides beauty, natural and man-made, that soothes the soul. Afterwards, we drove into the village of Sherborne St Peter nearby and walked to the church where James Austen was vicar.


“The Vyne Hampshire,” published by The National Trust  1998 (revised 2015)

Jane Austen A Life, by Claire Tomalin published by Penguin Books 1997.

Jane Austen’s Letters Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye (Third Edition)  Published by Oxford University Press 1997.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen  Published by Penguin Classics 1996

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen  Published by The Penguin English Library 1966

Tony Grant Posts:


As we enter a new year, it’s intriguing to think about the power of a fresh start. Jane Austen herself seems to have entered into a new season when she came back to the Hampshire countryside in 1809, after leaving Steventon for Bath with her family in 1801.

During her time away from the Hampshire of her youth, Austen’s writing activity slowed and she experienced a period marked by loss and change. But once she and Mrs. Austen and Cassandra moved into the cottage on her brother Edward’s property in Chawton, she started writing prolifically—revising earlier manuscripts, drafting new ones, and beginning her publishing journey.

An Unsettled Season

There are many thoughts on why Austen didn’t write as much during those years, but it’s important to note two important factors. First, not only did Austen move away from her childhood home, but she also experienced grief, including the loss of her dear friend Mrs. Anne Lefroy (December 1804), her own beloved father Reverend Austen (January 1805), and her sister-in-law Elizabeth Austen (1808).

Second, after the Reverend Austen’s death, the Austen women stayed on in Bath, moving several times. They then moved to Southampton in 1806, living first with Francis and Mary Austen and then in Castle Square. The Austen women remained unsettled for quite some time.

Sydney Place in Bath where Austen lived 1801-1804 (photo by Rachel Dodge)

As many of us know firsthand, losing a loved one is at the top of most stress charts. Moving to a new home is thought to be highly stressful as well. It’s possible that the combination of grief and frequent moves may have impacted Austen’s creativity.

A Fresh Start

After living away from the quiet of the Hampshire countryside for so many years, and having moved houses several times, moving to Chawton must have been a relief for the Austen women. It also seems to have provided just the right time and place for Austen’s writing to flourish. Almost as soon as they settled into the house there, Austen began revising and writing at a terrific pace.

It’s also interesting to note that when Austen moved to Chawton she picked back up her manuscript for Sense and Sensibility (originally titled “Elinor and Marianne”), a story about a recently widowed woman and her daughters who go to live in a small cottage on the property of a male relative. The Dashwood women, in need of a fresh start, find their new beginning in Barton. The Austen women found theirs in Chawton.

This intriguing quote from Sense and Sensibility almost seems as though it could have been written from the Austens’ point of view:

The Dashwoods were now settled at Barton with tolerable comfort to themselves. The house and the garden, with all the objects surrounding them, were now become familiar, and the ordinary pursuits which had given to Norland half its charms were engaged in again with far greater enjoyment than Norland had been able to afford, since the loss of their father.

Sense and Sensibility, Ch. 9

To view an image of a contemporary watercolor of Chawton Cottage, as Austen may have known it, you can see it here on the JASNA site, in a fascinating Persuasions article entitled “Chawton Cottage Transfigured” by Joan Austen-Leigh (1982).

At Chawton, Austen revised and published Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813); wrote and published Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815); reacquired Northanger Abbey and wrote Persuasion (both of which were published after her death in 1817); and started “Sanditon.”

St Nicholas Church at Chawton
(photo by Rachel Dodge)

Storing Up Inspiration

It seems that Austen’s time away from her beloved Hampshire countryside actually played an important role in her writing journey. Even if she didn’t write as much during those years, she was evidently storing up experiences, people, places, and inspiration all along the way. Coming “home” to the countryside and settling down sparked new creativity.

There are many factors that may have led to Austen’s fresh spurt of writing at Chawton, but here are a few that come to mind:

  • Feeling at home and settled in their own house
  • Time and space to walk, think, and listen
  • Slower pace and quieter surroundings
  • Familiar scenery, sounds, and walks
  • Extended family, nieces and nephews, and friends nearby
  • New experiences and settings for inspiration (Bath, Southampton, Godmersham, and Lyme Regis)
  • New books to read (at Chawton House and Godmersham Park)
  • The society of local families

One might say that Austen herself was living in her own ideal setting at Chawton: As she wrote to Anna Austen in 1814, “You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;—3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on” (emphasis mine).

For Austen, perhaps a country village was not only the perfect thing to work on but also the perfect place in which to work. That setting—the “delight” of her life—seems to be where she worked best.

It’s heartening to consider new beginnings like these. After difficulty and heartache, light dawned once more for Austen. And the unsettled years certainly weren’t wasted; they provided Austen with new experiences and fresh inspiration.

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She is the author of Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen and The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

This article was researched, written, and designed by LiYuan Byrne, Josephine Chan, Ariana Desai, Carolyn Engargiola, Ava Giles, Macy Levin, Gage Miles, Sophia Romagnoli, Kate Snyder, Oscar Steinhardt, Lauren Stoneman, Alexandria Thomas, Varsha Venkatram, and Dr. Ben Wiebracht.

Introduction to this class project

This article is by the teacher and students of “Advanced Topics: Love Stories” at Stanford Online High School. It is part of a class-wide project to explore the city that so dazzled Catherine Morland, but about which Austen herself had mixed feelings. We started with the 1795 satire “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme” – a roughly eight page poem by little-known poet John Matthews. The poem is chock-full of allusions and references to Bath institutions – some still familiar, like the Pump Room and the Royal Crescent; others long forgotten, like the riding school of Jonathan Dash. Working in small groups, the students consulted a wide array of sources to track down these many references, and in so doing reconstruct a typical day in the life of a Georgian visitor to Bath. They looked through old guidebooks to the city, published scholarship on Georgian Bath, old Parliamentary records, newspapers from the time, and much else. They also had the benefit of a virtual visit from two experts familiar to readers of JAW: Vic Sanborn and Tony Grant. Then, they distilled their mountain of research into what we hope is an informative and enjoyable article, one that does justice to the playful spirit of our poem, and indeed, of Northanger Abbey itself.

When Northanger Abbey was finally being prepared for publication in 1817, nearly twenty years after its composition, Austen worried that the novel had missed its moment. Anticipating criticism on that score, she included an “Advertisement” warning that “places, manners, books and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” This was particularly true of the city of Bath, where the first half of the novel is set. The thriving Georgian resort town that Catherine Morland discovers had lost much of its luster by the late Regency as the upper classes, disdainful of the new, middle-class visitors to the city, sought out other retreats (see Akiko Takei, “Sanditon and the Uncertain Prospects of a Resort Business”). Austen’s advertisement is a reminder that her novels, immortal though they may be as works of art, are still very much grounded in time and place.

This semester, my students and I have been working to recover the Bath of the 1790s. Our rather unexpected guide has been a long-forgotten satirical poem that I discovered over the summer: “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme” (1795), by the Herefordshire physician and poetaster John Matthews (see the full text here). The poem describes a typical day in the Bath season, from the morning trip to the Pump Room to an afternoon stroll along the Royal Crescent to the inevitable evening ball at the Upper or Lower Assembly Rooms. The poem is hardly fine verse, but it is a fun read, tripping along in four-beat couplets and cracking good-natured jokes about the vanity of Bath life. For readers of Jane Austen, it is also a rich source of information. As Matthews ribs and roasts his way through the town, he touches on many of the places and customs that Catherine herself experiences, often in ways that help us better appreciate Austen’s own treatment of the city.

The students spent almost two months tracking down the allusions in this poem, placing it in its literary and historical context, and drawing connections between it and Northanger Abbey. Our article is truly a collaborative project – both the research and the prose. And, we’re not quite done with Matthews yet! Next semester, we hope to publish a new edition of Matthews’ “Adumbration,” complete with an introduction and annotations, and designed specifically for readers of Jane Austen. For now, we offer you a day in Catherine Morland’s Bath, courtesy of John Matthews!


The Pump Room

Two images. Left: “Comforts of Bath: Pump Room,” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1798 (image credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection); The Pump Room, overlooking the baths (image credit: Tony Grant)

Of all the gay cities in Britain renowned,

Dear Bath is the place where most pleasure is found.

There alone is true breeding, politeness, and ease;

You have nothing to do, but each other to please.

There the circle of day is one scene of delight,

From morning to noon, from noon until night;

For if dull in the morning, you open your eyes,

You may run to the Pump Room as soon as you rise,


So the Beaux in their boots, the Belles in their slippers,

Come to walk up and down and peep at the dippers,

For though strange it appears, I’d have you to know,

Whilst you’re drinking above, some are bathing below,

And each glass of water, brought up by the pumps,

Contains the quintessence of half-a-score rumps.

Oh my! Our poem begins with some rather indecorous insinuations. Could it really be true that the supposed healing waters of Bath were literal bath waters, and that lecherous men could watch women bathe from the Pump Room?

In reality, the Pump Room was located at the site of the old Roman baths, where mineral water from hot springs was ingeniously pumped up and served to guests. The water was thought to have curative properties, thus making Bath a popular destination for wealthy invalids. Eighteenth-century aristocrats had the choice between descending below to relax in the baths, or drinking the mineral water in the Pump Room above the pools, giving some the perfect vantage point to peep at the underdressed bathers (cotton tends to mold to the skin!). Matthews’ racy joke that some may have visited the Pump Room to catch a glimpse of others bathing was, surprisingly, true. Fortunately, despite what rumor-mongers like Matthews might say, it was completely untrue that drinking water was pumped up from the baths below, and that those who frequented the Pump Room partook of the “quintessence of rumps”! 

And frequent they did: the Pump Room was a staple of the Bath morning routine. It was a popular, casual meeting place for visitors to “parade up and down for an hour,” conduct private conversations with friends, or search for their crush! Catherine hastens to the Pump Room several times over the course of her stay in Bath, once anxiously checking the Pump Room book to see if Henry Tilney is still in Bath, and another time consulting it for his address. The Pump Room book was a register with the names of everyone currently staying in Bath: a good way to keep tabs on interesting young men or women! All in all, the Pump Room was an important institution in the Bath marriage market. With a register of guests (with addresses), inbuilt opportunities to spy on the opposite sex, and a standard morning routine that nearly everyone followed, the Pump Room treated lovesickness at least as effectively as gout!

The New Arrivals

Image of “Comforts of Bath: Coaches Arriving,” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1798 (public domain)

Having there drank enough to banish the spleen,

You go home to breakfast with appetite keen;

But as strong tea is apt to give people the vapours,

After that ‘twill be proper to read the newspapers,

To behold where your own name appears in the list

Of arrivals at Bath, where Sir Sawny MacTwist,

And Lady O’Connor, with Mynheer Van Prow,

All figure away in the very same row.

Sure such honor as this, must make a man vain,

And chase all the megrims that trouble his brain.

Leaving behind the Pump Room and its dubious refreshments, Matthews escorts us back to our rented lodgings for breakfast – one of the few private moments a visitor was likely to enjoy during a day in Bath. There we peruse the newspapers, but not for news. The Bath papers all featured a weekly list of new arrivals in town, organized by rank. For January 7, 1784, to take an example at random, the Bath Chronicle begins the list with “Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire,” proceeds through an array of lesser nobility and gentry, and concludes with (one suspects) a number of spinsters: “Miss Mitchell, Miss Hervey, Miss Praed, Miss Danvers, Miss Portley, &c. &c.” Where you fell in the list, as Matthews hints, was a matter of some concern. 

The famous list of Bath arrivals does, interestingly enough, make an appearance in Austen’s novels, and exactly where you would expect it to. Sir Walter Elliott learns from it that his aristocratic relatives Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret have arrived in Bath. If anyone in Bath were to be studying the list of arrivals, it would be the intensely rank-conscious Sir Walter!


Town and Country

Image of “The Macaroni,” Philip Dawe, 1773 (public domain)

When you’ve with politics done, the beauties to meet,

You may stroll for an hour up and down Milsom Street;

Where the Misses so smart, at ev’ry fine shop,

Like rabbits in burrows, just in and out pop;

Where booted and spurred, the gay macaronies,

Bestride Mandell’s counter instead of their ponies,

Preferring the pleasure of ‘tending the fair,

To breathing the freshness of Lansdown’s pure air;

Besides, ‘tis the tippy’ and more in the flash,

To canter away in the school of old Dash.

Time to sally forth again! From breakfast, Matthews shifts the scene to fashionable Milsom Street, where the best shopping in Bath was to be had. In the shop of the milliner Elizabeth Mandell, we meet a swaggering set of “macaronies” – foppish, overdressed fellows who embody both the pleasure-loving spirit of Bath and its absurd vanity. Despite their flashy spurs, these pompous bachelors are apparently less interested in riding than preening for the ladies. When they do ride, they limit themselves to a trot around the yard of Jonathan Dash’s riding school. Lansdown Hill, a popular and scenic destination nine miles from the city proper, is much beyond their range. Thus the town-bound macaronies will never know the pleasure of “pure air” – one of the few luxuries not for sale in crowded, smelly Bath (more on the aromas of Bath later…).

Matthews suggests that a young man might venture to Lansdown instead of “’tending the fair,” (read: courting the ladies), but as John Thorpe shows, the two could be done at the same time. Careful readers of Northanger Abbey might remember that John Thorpe offers Catherine a ride up Lansdown Hill during their first meeting in Bath. The Tilneys and Catherine, on the other hand, choose to traverse Beechen Cliff – the closer, more natural, and perhaps less frequented location. Jane Austen walked both Lansdown Hill and Beechen Cliff during her time in Bath, and in Northanger Abbey, she may be using the two locations to draw a distinction between Catherine’s two suitors. The hour-to-two-hours-long carriage ride to Lansdown Hill would provide the perfect occasion for Bath gallants hoping to be in close quarters with young women — how scandalous! Mr. Allen questions the propriety of such carriage rides, thinking it “an odd appearance, if young ladies are frequently driven about in them by young men, to whom they are not even related.” It makes sense that the cocksure, indecorous John Thorpe would propose such a thing to Catherine. Henry’s choice of the more respectable walking trip to Beechen Cliff (with his sister accompanying them) may be Austen’s way of offering him as the more thoughtful and substantive option for Catherine.

The Masters of Ceremony

Two images: Left: Etching of Richard Tyson, Master of Ceremonies for the Upper Rooms, 1782 (© The Trustees of the British Museum); Right: James King, Master of Ceremonies for the Lower Assembly Rooms, 1805 (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Next on the parades, you must walk for a while,

Then to lounge at the pump again is the style;

For at Bath, goddess Trivia has ‘stablished her throne,

And even Pleasure is managed by rules of her own,

And her laws are so good, that ‘twere pity to break ‘em,

So there’s appointed two priests, to make people keep ‘em.

Them her Masters of Ceremony Folly here calls,

Who preside o’er the concerts, the assemblies, and balls;

The one is named Tyson, the other called King,

Who wear each a gold medal, tied fast to a string.

On grave Tyson’s bright bauble, Minerva is seen,

But on King’s (much more proper) is Beauty’s fair Queen;

For Wisdom with Fashion can never be found,

But too often with Folly does Beauty abound.

Baubles? Kings and Queens? What is Mr. Matthews talking about here? Well, Richard Tyson and James King were Masters of Ceremony in Bath, responsible for “presiding over social functions, welcoming newcomers, and enforcing an official code of regulations designed to preserve decorum and promote social interaction” (Gores, Psychosocial Spaces: Verbal and Visual Readings of British Culture, 1750-1820, p. 71). Though it wasn’t part of the official job description, the Masters of Ceremony were also matchmakers, personally visiting everyone who arrived at Bath and then, especially at balls, seamlessly introducing them to each other. Indeed, were it not for Mr. King, who oversaw the Lower Assembly Rooms, Henry and Catherine may never have met at all: “the master of the ceremonies introduced [Catherine] to a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner;- his name was Tilney”! As for the “gold medals,” the Masters of Ceremony were given official medallions for their roles as Arbitres Elegantiarum or “Judges of Style”. Mr. Tyson’s medallion was engraved with the somber Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, whom the city’s Roman founders associated with the hot springs. Mr. King’s medallion, meanwhile, featured the graceful Venus, goddess of beauty and love. Matthews considers Venus the “more proper” patroness for the city. While there isn’t much wisdom to be found among the fashionable follies of Bath, there is, he concedes, plenty of beauty! (See The New Bath Guide, 1799, p. 67).

This isn’t the only passage, by the way, in which Matthews invokes classical gods and goddesses. The poem abounds with such references. This was characteristic of the eighteenth-century “mock epic” style, which found humor in describing trivial events in a lofty tone. Seen another way, though, the Roman gods may have actually provided an appropriate parallel for Bath life. Despite their power and beauty, the Roman gods had terrible tempers, exploited their inferiors (mortals) for their own gratification, and were generally rather rotten to each other: not a far cry from General Tilney and his rakish elder son.


The Belles of the Ball

Image of “The Fancy Ball at the Upper Rooms, Bath,” by Isaac Cruikshank, 1826 (Public Domain)

Having paraded the Crescent full two hours or more,

For our dinners, ‘tis usual to part about four,

In eating and dressing, employ ‘till near nine,

And then to the ball to repair it is time,

That scene of enchantment, so truly divine,

Where mortals, like angels, transcendently shine.

To attempt to describe it, I fear is in vain:

So much beauty on all sides, quite turns my weak brain.

But I’ll muster up courage, and banish my fears,

For who can be silent, when Witham appears?

In the minuet so graceful, who’ere sees her move

Must than marble be harder or else he must love.

When the Gubbins advance, arrayed with each grace,

You’d swear they were daughters of Aether’s soft race;

And Browne’s diamond eyes, armed with love-piercing darts,

Whenever they’re seen, wound a hundred fond hearts.

Ah, the public ball – the apex of Bath amusement, and a near-daily ritual for some Bath-goers. If, reading Northanger Abbey, it seemed to you as though Catherine was at some ball or other almost every night, you weren’t far off. There were four public balls a week during the Bath season, two at the Upper Assembly Rooms and two at the Lower Assembly Rooms. Each one consisted of two sets of dances: first the more precise minuets, then the livelier and less formal country dances, with a break for tea in between. Benches were set up in the ballroom for those who preferred to watch the dancing, and there was a room set aside for cards as well.

Who are the paragons who dazzle the company in this passage: Witham, the Gubbins’, and Browne? At first, we assumed Matthews had made them up. “Gubbins” in particular didn’t strike us as a plausible name, and we knew from elsewhere in the poem that Matthews delighted in the invention of ridiculous designations (“Lady Flutter,” “Miss Di-Puddle,” “Colonel Mushroom”). However, according to the Bath papers, a certain Hon. Miss Browne, daughter of Lady Browne, did visit Bath several times in the early nineties, and often led the minuets thanks to her high rank. And indeed, it turns out that a pair of sisters by the name of Gubbins also resided at Bath during the time. One, Honora, was a beauty and an accomplished singer, remembered at her death as the “accomplished and lovely Honora Gubbins, whose amiable disposition, vocal powers, and refined taste, were the theme of universal praise.” (The Athenaeum, 1807).

It is interesting to picture these long-forgotten belles of the ball alongside our own, humbler Catherine, who excited no “rapturous wonder, no eager inquiry” upon her debut in Bath. The Hon. Miss Browne and the accomplished and lovely Honora Gubbins may have ruled the ballroom in their day, but it is their unassuming fictional sister, with not much more than a good heart and a love of life to recommend her, who has lived on in the world’s imagination ever since. 

A Mad Dash for Tea

Image of “Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room,” by George Cruikshank, 1818 (public domain)

The minuets over, see the crowd how it presses,

What havoc is made on the ladies’ fine dresses!

Distinction of rank, in a moment is gone,

And all eager for tea in one mass now move on;

Even the peeresses’ selves, for whom benches were kept,

Angry with the torrent, impetuous are swept;

And Mistress O’ Darby, the dealer in butter,

Now sweats by the side of the sweet Lady Flutter,

Who would certainly faint, but her senses so nice,

Are supported by smelling fat Alderman Spice;

Whilst his Worship’s white wig, almost smothers the face

Of her dainty young cousin, the dear Lady Grace.

The Countess of Pharo is forced to huddle

Between Doctor Squirt and his niece, Miss Di-Puddle;

Sir Stephen Newmarket, Sir Simon Profuse,

The Ladies St. Larum, and old Madam Goose;

For Commoners now so saucy are grown,

That Cabbage the tailor, Lady Tombstone,

The Duchess of Basset, and Marquis de Frieze

All bundle together in one loving squeeze.

One of the most memorable moments in a Bath ball was the transition from the first set of dances to tea. Matthews devotes about a tenth of his poem to those few chaotic minutes, and for good reason: they are comedic gold. If the minuet was a picture of Bath society at its best – a graceful display of beauty and breeding – the mad stampede to the tea room was Bath society at its hilarious worst.

The most immediate danger was simply that of being squashed. Even before the rush, it was hard enough navigating the jam-packed ballroom. Mrs. Allen and Catherine Morland are nearly “torn asunder” as they try to squeeze through, and Tobias Smollett’s Matthew Bramble contracts a sort of “sea-sickness” from the churning of the crowd (The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. The imagery of waves and currents was common in descriptions of the crowds, perhaps a joke on the bathing sites the city was known for). But when the crowd reached the bottleneck of the tea-room door, all best were off. It was the fortunate lady who escaped with her sartorial integrity intact. Mrs. Allen, Catherine Morland’s chaperone in Bath, is relieved to have “preserved her gown from injury” during the tea-room rush, but few of the ladies in the “Adumbration”’s ball, we suspect, have been so lucky.

Image “The Circular Room, or a Squeeze at Carlton Palace,” by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 1825 (image source: Birmingham Museum of Art). A woman faints at the far right.

Then there was the assault on the senses. Little as we see of the phenomenon in BBC period pieces, the Georgians sweat. When they crowded themselves into a poorly ventilated ballroom and danced vigorously for several hours under chandeliers of candles dripping hot wax, on polished wooden floors that trapped heat, they sweat all the more. And Matthews isn’t about to let us forget it: noblemen sweat (“Sir Simon Profuse”) and professional men sweat (“Dr. Squirt”); males sweat and females sweat (“Miss Di-Puddle”). And when they sweat, they smelled. Matthews’ limits himself to a light joke on the subject of stenches: the delicate Lady Flutter nearly faints in the presence of Mistress O’Darby, but rallies, as though by hartshorn, thanks to the even more pungent “Alderman Spice.” Other satirists were less restrained. Smollett’s Matthew Bramble offers this rather gruesome description of the smells of a Bath ball: 

Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odours, arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies, rank armpits, sweating feet, running sores and issues, plasters, ointments, and embrocations, hungary-water, spirit of lavender, assafoetida drops, musk, hartshorn, and sal volatile; besides a thousand frowsy steams, which I could not analyze. Such, O Dick! is the fragrant aether we breathe in the polite assemblies of Bath. (The Expedition of Humphry Clinker)

But Matthews hints at a larger danger in this scene as well: the danger of social mixing. To be sure, some mixing of the classes was part of the charm of Bath. As the 1796 edition of The New Bath Guide puts it, “Ceremony beyond the essential rules of politeness is totally exploded; every one mixes in the Rooms upon an equality.” During a ball, this vision would be fully realized. The flowing currents of the minuet would swirl the visitors together without excessive regard for station or birth. Exciting affairs of the heart would precipitate out of the joyful mixture. The magic certainly works for Catherine and Henry. She is the daughter of a middle-class clergyman in rural Wiltshire; he is the son of a fabulously wealthy landowner living eleven hours away. Their social circles are totally separate. Where is such to pair to meet, but at a public ball in Bath? As Matthews’ crowd squeezes through the doors to the tea-room, however, we get a very different picture of social mixing: duchesses and baronets quite literally colliding with tailors and merchants. The absurd competition for tea and personal space between Mistress O’Darby (who sells butter) and Lady Flutter is a particularly obvious affront to the British class system. Evidently, Mistress O’Darby’s awe and respect for nobility don’t go for much when refreshments are on the line!

Interestingly enough, it was just such an influx of lower-middle-class visitors that eventually drove the gentry and aristocracy out of Bath. We see a little of this snobbery already in Northanger Abbey, when General Tilney declares that there is “nothing to detain me longer in Bath” after two of his upper-crusty friends – a marquis and another general – fail to show up.

Tea Time

Photo of The tea room at the Upper Rooms, Bath (image credit: Charles DP Miller; under creative commons license)

Arrived at the tea room and compliments past,

Behold them sat down into parties at last:

But the tea-table-chat so fully is known,

‘Tis scarcely worthwhile by the Muse to be shown.

There’s such a damned noise and such a cursed clatter,

A bawling for sugar, for cream, and hot water,

None seem very anxious a long time to stay,

But just swallow their tea, and hasten away;

For the young ones, allured by the fiddle’s brisk notes,

Make their mothers and aunts near scald their old throats;

So many a character ‘scapes being dissected,

And Scandal, for once, is for dancing neglected.

After battling their way to the tea-room, Matthews’ ball-goers are finally seated, only for fresh commotions to break out as the guests clamor for their tea. While Matthews emphasizes the noisiness of the scene, the tea-drinking process was actually a rule-bound affair. To enter the tea-room, guests would have to pay an extra sixpence on top of the pricey seasonal subscription that granted them access to the balls. After paying this fee, women had yet another obstacle in acquiring refreshments: they could not eat without a man’s help. The food was generally set at a long table at one end of the room but women, for decorum’s sake, were not permitted to go up and get it. A man had to serve them. During Catherine’s first ball at Bath in Northanger Abbey, she and Mrs. Allen find themselves in this hungry predicament — in the tea-room but with no man to bring them anything. When a gentleman at their table finally notices them and makes an “offer of tea,” no wonder it is “thankfully accepted”!  But even with refreshments secured, tea at a Bath ball was hardly an opportunity for leisure or relaxed conversation. Matthews notes the way ball-goers “swallow their tea, and hasten away” and how the young people “[m]ake their mothers and aunts, near scald their old throats” trying to quickly return to some more intriguing or exciting aspect of the ball (usually the dancing). All in all, Matthews’ view is that tea at a Bath ball was something to be accomplished rather than enjoyed.

What about Austen? To be sure, during her first ball, Catherine mainly yawns her way through the tea break – with no one but Mrs. Allen and a transient, if polite, gentleman neighbor to talk to. But at her second ball, a certain Mr. Tilney changes the equation: the two converse happily through the entire tea break, and dance again when it is over. Tilney provides an escape for Catherine from the otherwise shallow “tea-table-chat”; in fact, the first words we hear from Henry in the novel are a mocking imitation of that chat:

I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent—but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.”

This is a sign that Henry both understands how tea-room conversations were done in Bath, and has the wit and originality to do them differently.

The Country Dances

Image 9

Country dance, of all others, best pleases the fair,

When the Belles and the Beaux so agreeably pair,

When each lovesick nymph may hear her dear swain,

In whispering murmurs, declare his sweet pain;

Where the sigh, and the smile, and the soft gentle squeeze,

All contribute the hearts of each other to ease;

Where no prudish aunts, through old-maidenly spite,

Can hinder these symptoms of youthful delight.

But stop, my rash pen, it is time you should cease;

‘Tis dangerous to dwell on such subjects as these.

For if, presumptuous, you venture to trace

In the maze of the dance, who moves with most grace,

You will find it a task, not so easy to tell:

It’s an art wherein beauties so many excel.

But yet, I should hold you not a little to blame,

Forgot you to mention the charming Miss Vane;

The Butlers and Hamilton, Vassal and Mays,

So justly entitled to share in your praise.

Rehydrated and refreshed, the Bath-ites hit the ballroom for one more round of dances! It is no surprise that the country dance “best pleases the fair” as it provides more of a chance to converse, or perhaps flirt, than other ballroom dances such as the minuet. This is because each couple spent a good part of the dance waiting for other couples to complete their movements, allowing for more conversation. Thus, while Catherine and Mr. Tilney have “little leisure for speaking” while dancing a minuet at their first meeting, they are able to have a complete, lively conversation during the country-dances at a later ball. But the country-dances certainly weren’t all talk! The hand-in-hand steps afforded moments of physical intimacy, too. All of which is to say, the “whispering murmurs” and the “soft gentle squeeze” that Matthews hints at here are both quite plausible. 

Matthews also gives us a taste of who might be enjoying the country-dances by singling out five names among the rest of the charming “beauties.” We believe that, as in his account of the minuets, he is referring to real women here. One Elizabeth Vassall, for example, daughter of the wealthy American landowner and loyalist John Vassall, resided in Bath during the early 1790s. But the more suggestive name is Hamilton. Could Matthews be referring to the dazzling Lady Emma Hamilton, best remembered today as the lover of Admiral Nelson, but already famous in the early 1790s for her high-profile affairs and stunning beauty? In the 1780s, she was the subject of a series of paintings by the great portrait artist George Romney, who also painted John Matthews and his wife. And she made a memorable appearance at Bath in 1791, during which she exhibited for the Duchess of Devonshire her “attitudes” – artistic poses meant to evoke characters and scenes from antiquity. But while Lady Hamilton may have been beautiful and graceful, but she was also a socially disruptive character who challenged Georgian notions of respectability and class. The English aristocracy sniffed at her mean origins and were shocked (or pretended to be shocked) by her affairs, even as they gaped at her portraits and devoured the papers for news of her doings. All in all, if the Lady Hamilton is present at Matthews’ ball, it instantly becomes a much spicier affair! 

The Card Room

Image of “Lady Godina’s Rout,” showing various shenanigans in a public card-room, by James Gillray, 1796 (©The Trustees of the British Museum)

But the ballroom’s so hot, ‘tis stifling to stay,

So now to the cardroom, let’s hasten away!

See old Mistress Macardo and Counsellor Gabble,

Young Colonel Mushroom and Alderman Dabble,

At whist down together most lovingly sit;

Was ever a party so happily met?

The first, who though toothless, her prayers never said;

A lawyer the next, who a brief never read;

The third, a field officer, just out of the cradle;

And the last, an old beast who lives but at table.

As the country dances heat up (literally), Matthews escorts us to the cooler air of the card room, where those disinclined to dance could play. He introduces us to a party playing whist, a four-player, trick-building game that, according to historian Daniel Pool, had something of a “stodgy” reputation in Austen’s time (see What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, p. 62-66). Playing largely in silence, a whist party in the card room would have seemed stodgy indeed compared to the spinning, hopping, chatting dancers next door. Nevertheless, in Bath, which attracted so many gouty invalids, seated entertainment was a necessity. Austen’s Mr. Allen heads straight for the card room as soon as he arrives at the Upper Rooms, and doesn’t emerge again until the ball is wrapping up. Hopefully he found a more engaging party there than the one Matthews describes! Among other non-entities, Matthews shows us a lawyer who has never read a brief and a colonel far too young for the rank: more proof of the emptiness of titles among so much of the English upper class.

To Bed

Map of Bath, c. 1780 (public domain)

Though much more of the rooms, the concerts, and play

‘Tis true (if he chose it), the Poet might say.

But as through one day of folly you’ve safely been led,

He’ll wish you good night and retire home to bed.

And so Matthews hits the hay after treating us to this “day of folly.” While he is pretty uniformly critical of Bath life – its vanity and pretentiousness, its overly packed ballrooms and possibly contaminated waters – one can’t help but wonder: did Matthews, in the end, actually like the place? 

On Richard Tyson’s official medallion as a Master of Ceremonies was a strange pairing: the visage of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and beneath it, the cheeky inscription Dulce est desipere in Loco: “It is sweet to act foolish sometimes.” Wisdom and folly sharing the same medallion? It feels like a contradiction! But if so, it was one that suited late Georgian Bath. If you came to the city in a sour mood, determined to stand aloof, you’d have the pleasure of feeling superior and not much else. But if you came with a friendly sense of humor – able to laugh at the place and yet still join in the fun – then you might find that Bath still did have the power to refresh and renew. Wisdom in folly! John Matthews mocks the town, but given the detail of his descriptions, he clearly took full part in its pleasures as well. Henry Tilney makes fun of Bath dances… while in the very act of dancing, and dancing quite happily! And Catherine, while amused by Henry’s satire, doesn’t let it spoil for a moment her delight in the balls, the concerts, the operas, the walks: somehow the satire only makes them more fun! A lesson for life: sometimes the only people who “get the joke” are the ones willing to be part of it.

Questions to the Reader

Reader, we’re curious what you make of John Matthews’ take on late Georgian Bath? Are Matthews and Austen on a wavelength here? Or does the poem rather show us just how original Austen’s satire in Northanger Abbey was? We’re interested in your thoughts and insights!

A note of Thanks: The authors thank Vic Sanborn and Tony Grant for sharing their abundant knowledge of Georgian Bath; Latinist extraordinaire Dr. Thomas Hendrickson for helping with the Latin; and librarian Anna Levia for showing us the ropes of the Stanford Libraries.

by Brenda S. Cox

“Here, sir,” taking out his pocket book, “if you will do me the favor of casting your eye over these advertisements which I cut out myself . . .”—Mr. Parker in Sanditon

What did ladies carry in those beautiful little reticules? In Part 1 we looked at some of the items that author Candice Hern has collected. We began with the necessary items: a fan, a vinaigrette, and a coin purse. Then we added some optional items: a perfume étui (a little container for a perfume bottle) and a cosmetics case. What else might ladies have carried in their reticules?


Candice says they carried books in their reticules! That sounds right up my alley. I often carry a book or my Kindle in my purse. But these were very specific kinds of books, made very small to fit in the reticule. Candice showed us two types, pocket books and almanacs.

Pocket Books

The pocket book, perhaps like Mr. Parker’s, was the Regency version of a Day-Timer®. It was about 3” by 5”, usually covered with leather. A foldover flap kept it closed in the reticule. Many publishers produced these, so apparently they were a popular item.

Each began with a title page and a foldout fashion plate. Most pages showed a week’s calendar on one page, opposite a page to list expenses for that week. The lady might list items she bought, losses at cards, and gifts to poor people. A tiny pencil would probably accompany the pocketbook.

Pocket books also included short stories, essays, poetry, and even games. I hope these ladies had good eyes!

This English Ladies Pocket Book was published in Birmingham in 1803. The foldout shows ladies in some interesting bonnets. The book also includes calendar pages, expense pages, and things to read.


Another book that might be in a ladies’ reticule was a miniature almanac (or, as they would have written it, almanack). These were published yearly from 1690 to 1885. You could buy them at stationers’ shops and give them as Christmas gifts. Or, your dressmaker or milliner might give you one if you were a regular customer, as companies today might give out calendars.

These almanacs were either 1 1/8” square, or 1 1/8” by 2 ¼”. They included pictures; calendars showing holidays, phases of the moon, etc.; lists of the Kings and Queens of England and the Lord Mayors and Sheriffs of London; and information about coins and currency.

By the way, do you know why phases of the moon were important? Most evening visiting was done when the moon was full, so there was enough light to travel in your carriage by night. For example, in Sense and Sensibility when Sir John Middleton wants to invite a lot of people over, he wasn’t able to because “it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements.” So the phases of the moon were part of people’s social planning.

This miniature almanac from 1788 shows phases of the moon, dates of holidays, the church calendar, and dates for terms at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

The tiny almanac came in a lovely case of tooled and gilded leather, to protect it in the reticule.

What else might have been in a ladies’ reticule?

A few years ago I had the privilege of attending the first few days of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Way up in Upper Camden Place, near where the Elliots lived in Persuasion, Jane Tapley gave a fascinating talk called “Rummaging Through the Reticule.” She added many more ideas on what might have been in the reticule. Of course reticules were not just carried to parties and visits. They were also used for travel; perhaps they had larger ones for that purpose. Besides some of the items Candice showed, Jane Tapley suggested that the reticule might have included:

  • dressy shoes (silk, satin, or starched cotton), so they wouldn’t get dirty or scuffed on the way to and from the party
  • ostrich feather for your hat (so it didn’t blow away on the way)
  • a small chamber pot if the lady was traveling; they would use it in a coach under their skirts, then dump it through a trap door in the bottom of the coach! Or they might bring one going out to dinner. It could also be carried in your muff. It would have been about the size and shape of a gravy boat.
  • cutlery (silver or wood), including a spoon, probably silver, to be used all during your lifetime
  • a cup, fork, corkscrew, and a little pot for mustard, salt, or pepper, all in a small set for traveling or visits
  • traveling drinking cup made of horn or silver

When traveling, a lady might carry her own cutlery and even salt. Items from Jane Tapley’s collection, photo by Brenda S. Cox

  • a small case (or étui) specifically for sewing. It might include a needle case, scissors case, ivory bobbin winder, silver thimble, ivory pincushion, and a little penknife for cutting thread, plus a box of colored beads and a fine needle for beading. A small sewing kit might be called a huswife or a housewife.
  • little lead pencils or a writing set
  • a tiny book like The Merchant of Venice
  • a silhouette of your sweetheart

Little books were made small enough to carry in the reticule. A silhouette was a way to carry a picture with you. (Items from Jane Tapley’s collection, photo by Brenda S. Cox)

  • glasses or magnifying glasses
  • lorgnettes (folding glasses on a string, worn on a chain around the neck)

Glasses, embroidered handkerchiefs, and sewing supplies might also come in handy in your reticule. (Items from Jane Tapley’s collection, photo by Brenda S. Cox)

  • a half sovereign case that carried two half-sovereigns
  • potpourri or pomanders to keep away body odors
  • handkerchiefs with fine embroidery
  • invitations

Now, imagine that you’re going with Jane Austen to an evening party. What will you carry in your reticule, out of these many options? Or, if you’re traveling with her to another town, what would you carry then?

To find out more about her and her work, look for her on:




Regency World

To see more of her lovely collections, go to her Regency Collections.


You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

by Brenda S. Cox

When Emma encountered Mrs. Elton visiting Jane Fairfax, “she saw [Mrs. Elton] with a sort of anxious parade of mystery fold up a letter which she had apparently been reading aloud to Miss Fairfax, and return it into the purple and gold ridicule by her side,”—Emma, Volume 3, chapter 16, Cambridge edition

If you’ve ever made yourself a Jane Austen-era costume, you know that a reticule is an essential accessory. These lovely small purses hung by a drawstring from the lady’s wrist.

In previous generations, wide skirts had allowed for two huge pockets, one on each hip, to hold essential items. But with the slim new Regency style, there was no longer room for pockets. So the pockets were externalized and made small and beautiful.

If you have a reticule, you realize that it doesn’t hold nearly as much as a modern purse. Nowadays we might put our phone and a credit card, driver’s license, and little cash in the reticule. But what did Jane Austen’s ladies carry in theirs?

Candice Hern recently gave three lovely presentations for the JASNA AGM*. She showed her collection of items an Austen-era lady might have carried in her reticule. First, she pointed out that Jane Austen would probably not have used the word reticule! This little purse was more often called a ridicule.  This was the word used in ladies’ magazines of the time. That’s why, in the quote above from the original 1816 edition of Emma, Mrs. Elton has a purple and gold ridicule, not a reticule.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists sources calling it a ridicule from 1799 to 1999, and sources calling it a reticule from 1801 to 2004. So the terms were used interchangeably for a long time. Both words apparently came from the French word réticule for a small handbag. That word came from the Latin rēticulum for a small meshwork bag. Ridicule may have been a pun on the French word, though no one seems to know for sure.

The only time Jane Austen mentions a reticule, or ridicule, is in the above passage from Emma. Mrs. Elton slips a letter into her ridicule, which is, of course, a showy purple and gold one. Austen may have purposely chosen the form ridicule because Mrs. Elton is so often ridiculous! But modern versions usually change it to reticule.

So, we know that reticules could be used to carry letters. The Cambridge edition of Emma tells me that reticules might also hold handkerchiefs, snuff boxes, or sweets. However, snuff boxes seem to have been a gentleman’s item, so I doubt ladies would have often carried them. (Though some ladies did take snuff, though not as widely as men did.)

Candice Hern tells us that Regency reticules might range from only two inches long up to about ten inches long. So everything that ladies carried began to be made smaller. This created some lovely, tiny treasures.

Here are some of the items Candice showed us, with photos she kindly provided from her collection:

Reticule Essentials: the Fan, the Coin Purse, and the Vinaigrette


For hot evenings in the “crush” of a crowded ball or party, women carried fans. In Austen’s novels, she says Catherine Morland carried a fan at a dance. At Fanny Price’s ball, it seems her brother fanned her with his partner’s fan. Austen talks about her own “white fan” in a letter of Jan. 8, 1799.

Before and after this period, fans were about 10-12 inches long. (This is the length of the fan sticks; the open fan would be almost twice that in width.) But, to fit in the reticule, fans were made smaller, only about 7 inches long. They were most often made from ivory. Some were pierced with a tiny jeweler’s saw, to give a lacy effect. This was called brisé (pronounced bree-ZAY). Here are two of Candice’s (and my) favorites:

This gorgeous brisé fan is made of mother-of-pearl. It would shine and sparkle in a candlelit ballroom. The guard sticks, at each end of the fan, are made of faceted and polished steel. It also sparkles like jewels. Each stick is pierced identically, but the sticks are placed in alternating directions to form a pattern. c. 1810-1815.

The top section of this fan is painted rather than pierced. The birds and butterflies are made of real feathers. The flowers were created with tiny pieces of velvet.

On the lower part, sticks of three different pierced patterns are arranged to form a more complex pattern. The sticks are 6 ½” long. c. 1810-1820, or earlier.

For more lovely fans, see Candice’s website.

Coin Purses

Regency women didn’t have wallets like we carry today. In small reticules, they may have carried loose coins. But in larger reticules they kept coins in a coin purse so they could find them easily. Ladies usually made these purses, which might be beaded, knitted, or netted. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley marvels at the accomplishments of young ladies, who can all “net purses.”

Some coin purses closed with drawstrings, while others had a metal closure at the top. The closure might be made of pinchbeck—a cheap metal alloy that looks golden—or other metals. Ladies also made coin purses for men. Austen’s favorite poet, William Cowper, wrote a poem thanking his cousin for making him a network purse. Gentlemen’s purses were sometimes called miser’s purses.

A lady probably bought the sterling silver frame (dated 1816) for this coin purse, then netted it with pink and silver metallic thread. It is 3 ¾” long, plus the tassel.


If a woman began to swoon, in an airless room or when she learned something unpleasant, a vinaigrette was pulled out of a reticule and waved under her nose. These tiny metal boxes held a sponge soaked in vinegar and perfumed oils, with a grille over the sponge to let out the fumes. The grille might be dotted with holes, or might be pierced in a lovely design. Vinaigrettes were made of various materials and in many shapes and designs; those in Candice’s collection are silver.

The sponge might alternatively be soaked in something sweet-smelling, like rose water or lavender water. Many places in the Regency era stank, and a sweet smell could help the lady tolerate them.

Austen doesn’t mention vinaigrettes, but she does mention smelling salts, which were used similarly. Candice thinks these salts would actually have been a solution in vinegar, kept in a vinaigrette.

Regency vinaigrettes were tiny and delicate; Candice’s range from ½” across to 1 ¾” across.

This vinaigrette is made of silver but gilded inside, so the vinegar did not discolor the silver. It still contained a ratty sponge when Candice bought it. It could be carried in a reticule, or, with the metal ring, attached to a chatelaine: chains used for hanging things to a woman’s belt. Marked 1802, made in Birmingham.

Other Items That Might be Carried in a Reticule: Perfumes and Cosmetics

Perfume étuis

Perfume also counteracted bad smells. In Austen’s age, when bathing was not very common, perfumes were essential. However, perfume bottles were breakable, easily spilled, and too large to carry in a reticule.

So a lady would carry a perfume étui (pronounced ay-twee), a tiny container that could hold a glass vial of perfume and be fastened tightly shut. (Other types of étuis were used to carry sewing materials, writing materials, eating utensils, and other items; the word is French for any portable case.)

Perfume étuis were made of enamel, metal, tortoiseshell, shagreen, or other materials. Shagreen was a cheap option. It was shark’s skin, usually dyed green, with a knobbly texture. Shagreen étuis were probably used by middle-class women, while upper-class women used more expensive materials.

This painted enamel étui with brass fittings is about 2 ½” high. It held a tiny glass bottle of perfume with a screw-on metal top. 1760s to 1780s.

This shagreen étui is only 1 ¾” tall. It holds two tiny bottles of scent, so the lady can choose which she wants to use.

Cosmetic Cases

Some ladies also carried small cosmetic cases in their reticules. These were similar to today’s compacts. When open, the top was a polished mirror, and the bottom might contain rouge and/or lip color, and an applicator.

This 2 ½” wide cosmetic case still had traces of rouge in it when Candice bought it. The applicator brush is made of ivory. The outside of this case is shagreen (dyed shark skin), with silver decoration. 1770s or 1780s.

Next time, in Part 2, we’ll look at some other fun items a woman might have carried in her reticule. What else do you guess a lady might have carried?

*JASNA AGM—the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting, which this year was held online in October.

Candice Hern writes Regency-era novels.

To find out more about her and her work, look for her on:




Regency World

To see more of her lovely collections, go to her Regency Collections.

Links in the article above take you to Candice’s articles about specific items.

All images courtesy of Candice Hern, used by permission.

For more information, see also:

Fans: Essential Accessories, including the language of the fan

Reticule: The Regency Purse

A Fashionable Accessory

The Reticule and Purse


You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

IDress in the Age of Jane Austennquiring readers, Today is one of celebration for those of us who honor Christ’s birth. This is a year of challenge for so many in our communities whose jobs and families have been affected by COVID-19. Inspired by the Georgians in times past, I do what I can in my community and for those in need. Austen describes this community/family/friend caring so well in her novels, a theme that Rachel Dodge covered in a recent post , and Brenda Cox in a post entitled “Thankfulness in Jane Austen’s Novels.”

Charity and the sharing of bounty with the less fortunate was an appropriately pious response to the season.” — Hilary Davidson

One book I purchased this year was written by Hilary Davidson entitled Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion. Yale Books offers a blog post with information from this book entitled “A Jane Austen Christmas.” Enjoy!

Image of Wool cape, last third of the eighteenth century, The Met Museum, New York. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1969.

Wool cape, Met Museum 

The team of Jane Austen’s World blog: Vic Sanborn, Tony Grant, Rachel Dodge, and Brenda Cox.

Other Christmas posts on this blog: Click here to view many choices!


Inquiring readers, I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was fourteen years old. The novel was a Christmas gift from my parents. One of the first Christmas songs this Dutch girl learned in English was “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a song that was popularized in an arrangement by Frederic Austin in 1909. We all know the tune, but do we know the words as Jane Austen wrote them? After singing the song, please stay to answer a few questions.–Enjoy & Merry Christmas! Vic

Image of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, 1995[Verse 1]

On the first day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
A HERO named Mister Darcy

[Verse 2]

Image of Lizzy and Jane Bennet from Jennifer Ehle BlogspotOn the second day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy

[Verse 3]

Pride_and_Prejudice_CH_19-collins proposalOn the third day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy

[Verse 4]

Hugh Thomson illustration of Mr. Bingley entering the Meryton Assembly Ball with his guestsOn the fourth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy

[Verse 5]

Hugh Thomson image of the five Bennet girlsOn the fifth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 6]

Image of Mary Crawford playing harp-C.E.BrockOn the sixth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 7]

On the seventh day of ChristImage of the Colinses visiting Lady Catherine de Bourg, 1995 Pride and Prejudice filmmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Seven days at Hunsford
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 8]

Image of Adrian Lucas as Mr. Bingley, 1995 P&POn the eighth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Eight charms of Wickham
Seven days at Hunsford
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 9]

On the ninth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to meQuadrille_RegencyW
Nine ladies dancing
Eight charms of Wickham
Seven days at Hunsford
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 10]

Image of Lydia and Mr. Wickham eloping-she happy, he bored, P&P 1995On the tenth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Lydia eloping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight charms of Wickham
Seven days at Hunsford
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 11]

Image of Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet falling for Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, 1995 film of Pride and PrejudiceOn the eleventh day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
Lizzy’s eyes a’ opening
Lydia eloping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight charms of Wickham
Seven days at Hunsford
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!

[Verse 12]

LadyCatherine_&_ElisabethOn the twelfth day of Christmas, Jane Austen sent to me
L C’s condescensions
Lizzy’s eyes a’ opening
Lydia eloping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight charms of Wickham
Seven days at Hunsford
Six accomplished women

Four Bingley dances,
Three various suitors,
Two wise Bennet girls, and
A HERO named Mister Darcy!


Now, Gentle Readers, I shall pose a few questions. How do you respond to Pride and Prejudice? How are you disposed towards a few characters? (Your opinions are most welcome.) As you can see, I favor the 1995 Firth/Ehle film version of P&P! So, don’t be shy in sharing your thoughts.

  1. L C’s condescension:  In your estimation, what is the most memorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s condescending statement?
  2. Lizzy’s eyes a’ opening: What events changed Elizabeth’s attitude towards Mr. Darcy? Which one stands out in your mind?
  3. Lydia eloping: How old was Lydia when she ran off with Mr. Wickham? What, in her naivete, did she hope her life would have been like with him, away from her family?
  4. Nine ladies dancing: Think of the ladies Austen mentioned in Pride and Prejudice. Which women would have most likely danced at the Netherfield Ball?
  5. Eight charms of Wickham: Can you name Mr. Wickham’s charms, be they true or false, as Austen described them?
  6. Seven days at Hunsford: How did Lizzy spend her days at Hunsford? What memorable scenes occurred during this time?
  7. Six accomplished women: Who first mentioned six accomplished women? How did the conversation come up and where?
  8. Please name all the five single girls and their primary characteristic (in your opinion).
  9. Four Bingley dances: This phrase refers to an event at the beginning of the novel.
  10. Three various suitors: Name all the suitors you can think of in the novel. Who had three? Who are they?
  11. Two wise Bennet girls: Who are they? How would you personally describe them?
  12. A HERO named Mister Darcy! Why are we so mesmerized by Austen’s most memorable hero? What are the characteristics that make him stand out to you?

After this C.E. Brock composite image of Pride and Prejudice, I’ve added my own observations to a few of the questions. Thank you for participating. May you have a lovely holiday season. Please love and take care of each other in your family, your neighbors, and your community.


Continue Reading »

“Look with compassion upon the afflicted of every condition, assuage the pangs of disease, comfort the broken in spirit.” Jane Austen, Prayers

This time of year—especially during 2020—many people are in need of comfort and compassion. I find it particularly touching that Jane Austen’s own timeless novels and prayers provide messages of hope that never seem to fade or wear out.

When Marianne Dashwood falls ill in Sense and Sensibility, she is “afflicted” in both body and heart. She doesn’t just need the physical “pangs of disease” assuaged; she needs comfort for her broken spirit. Sick at heart, she also lies sick in bed. It is during these difficult days that we see family members and friends coming to her aid to provide the love and care she needs.

First, Elinor spends her days “attending and nursing” Marianne and “carefully administering the cordials prescribed” (ch. 43). When Marianne worsens on the evening of the third day, Elinor notices her altered condition and stays with Marianne while Mrs. Jennings goes to bed, “knowing nothing of any change in the patient.” Anxious to see Marianne rest quietly, she resolves “to sit with her” as she sleeps. When Marianne’s pulse becomes “lower and quicker than ever,” and she suffers hours of “sleepless pain and delirium,” Elinor anxiously calls for the apothecary, sends Colonel Brandon for her mother, and never leaves her bedside.

Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) and Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield)

This example of sisterly love is similar to the type of care Jane and Cassandra Austen provided for their own family members when they were unwell. When their brother Henry became suddenly and severely ill during one of Jane’s visits to him in London, Jane and Cassandra both helped to nurse him. Caroline Austen provides this detail in her memoir, My Aunt Jane: “Aunt Cass. stayed on nearly a month, and Aunt Jane remained some weeks longer, to nurse the convalescent.” And when Jane herself fell ill, Cassandra, along with Mrs. Mary Austen (née Lloyd), to “take a share in the necessary attendance,” went with her and cared for her in Winchester.

Even once Marianne begins to improve, Elinor stays by her side, “with little intermission . . . calming every fear, satisfying every inquiry of her enfeebled spirits, supplying every succour, and watching almost every look and every breath” (ch. 43). It is only when Elinor is absolutely sure that Marianne is peaceful and sleeping soundly that she can “silence every doubt” and finally quit her post.

Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy) and Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs)

Mrs. Jennings, “with a kindness of heart which made Elinor really love her,” also provides as much comfort and practical help as she can during Marianne’s illness: She sends for the Palmers’ apothecary and endeavors, “by her own attentive care, to supply to her the place of the mother she had taken her from.” Elinor quickly finds Mrs. Jennings “on every occasion a most willing and active helpmate, desirous to share in all her fatigues, and often by her better experience in nursing, of material use.”

 The morning after Marianne’s long, difficult night, Mrs. Jennings greets Elinor “[w]ith strong concern, and with many reproaches for not being called to their aid.” Austen tells us “[h]er heart was really grieved.” She is “struck” with concern for Marianne’s life, one who “had been for three months her companion, was still under her care, and . . . was known to have been greatly injured, and long unhappy.” She imagines the “distress” Elinor feels and is awakened to the fact that Marianne must be to Mrs. Dashwood what her own daughter Charlotte is to her: and “her sympathy in HER sufferings was very sincere.”

Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman)

Finally, Colonel Brandon helps the Dashwood family by staying close at all times and volunteering to bring Mrs. Dashwood to town when Marianne becomes delirious and asks for her mother. When Elinor goes downstairs to the drawing room to ask his advice, “her difficulties were instantly obviated, for with a readiness that seemed to speak the occasion, and the service pre-arranged in his mind, he offered himself as the messenger who should fetch Mrs. Dashwood.”

The entire Dashwood family is greatly relieved by Colonel Brandon’s help:

“The comfort of such a friend at that moment as Colonel Brandon—or such a companion for her mother,—how gratefully was it felt!—a companion whose judgment would guide, whose attendance must relieve, and whose friendship might soothe her!—as far as the shock of such a summons COULD be lessened to her, his presence, his manners, his assistance, would lessen it.”

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Again, during Marianne’s recovery, Colonel Brandon is never far away. He stays in town, visits often, and only returns home when Marianne is well enough to travel back to Barton Cottage with her family.

True to Jane Austen’s style, this portion of the novel also provides us with a message of hope. It’s not just that Marianne’s health improves; it’s also the idea that the long night of anxious waiting doesn’t last forever. That dark hour for Elinor and Marianne does pass. A new day dawns, their mother arrives, and Marianne heals in body and in spirit. Back at Barton Cottage, she once again finds great delight in music and books, walks and nature. And she is eventually able to move forward, finding a deeper, truer love in her marriage to Colonel Brandon than she previously thought possible.

As we enter into this holiday season, perhaps we can find inspiration and hope in the example set by Austen and her characters. Though things look a lot different this year for many of us, we can still provide comfort and compassion in a variety of creative ways. Like Elinor, we can check in and keep careful watch over those who are vulnerable or lonely. Like Mrs. Jennings, we can sympathize and provide for others with genuine concern and generosity. Or, like Colonel Brandon, we can anticipate needs and jump in to help wherever we’re needed.

This year more than ever, we have the opportunity to help those around us, provide care where needed, and extend small kindnesses. We can write, we can call, and we can meet online. We can send gifts and treats and little surprises. And we can share with others those things which give us the most comfort—whether it be a handwritten card, a prayer, a poem, a verse, a piece of music, a handmade gift, or a copy of one of Austen’s beautiful novels.

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She is the author of Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen and The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.