Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘18th Century England’ Category

When visiting Jane Austen’s England today, you can stroll through the gardens at Chawton House and Jane Austen’s House Museum, explore the churches at Steventon and Chawton, and tour the homes and churches where Jane Austen and her relatives lived and worshipped in Bath and other areas of England. But what about Steventon Rectory (or parsonage) where Jane Austen and her family lived for the first 25 years of her life?

At Steventon, you can see the site of the rectory and get an idea of where it used to sit before it was torn down in the 1820s. It’s a beautiful spot in the lovely Hampshire countryside. And there’s more to see than just the fields and lanes where Austen grew up.

The old rectory site where the parsonage once stood. A well is the only visible remnant of that house.

If you drive up the tree-canopied lane further, you come to St. Nicholas Church, where Jane’s father preached and where Jane and her family attended church. The church is usually open for visitors who want to look or sit or reflect.

Road to St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo @ Rachel Dodge.

The Rectory Landscape

Though we can’t take a tour of the gardens and property surrounding the Rectory, we do have detailed descriptions available to help us imagine what it once was like.

Deirdre Le Faye paints a descriptive picture of the Rectory garden in Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels: “Mr. Austen’s study was at the back of the house, on the warm southern side, overlooking the walled garden with its sundial, espaliered fruit trees, vegetable and flower beds and grassy walks.” Green meadows stretched beyond it, dotted with livestock.

In A Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh provides this further description of the landscape surrounding the Rectory:

“[T]he neighbourhood had its beauties of rustic lanes and hidden nooks; and Steventon, from the fall of the ground and the abundance of its timber, was one of the prettiest spots in it… It stood ‘in a shallow valley, surrounded by sloping meadows, well sprinkled with elm-trees, at the end of a small village of cottages, each well provided with a garden, scattered about prettily on either side of the road…”

Parsonage, Steventon

Austen-Leigh continues with this: “North of the house, the road from Deane to Popham Lane ran at a sufficient distance from the front to allow a carriage drive, through turf and trees. On the south side, the ground rose gently and was occupied by one of those old-fashioned gardens in which vegetables and flowers are combined, flanked and protected on the east by one of the thatched mud walls common in that country, and overshadowed by fine elms. Along the upper or southern side of the garden ran a terrace of the finest turf…”

Improvements

In Jane Austen’s England, Maggie Lane provides several details about the changes the Austens made during their residency there. She says one of the “constant themes of discussion at Steventon Rectory was ‘improvement.’ Much had been done even before Jane’s birth, but throughout her twenty-five years’ residence there her parents were enthusiastically planting and landscaping their modest grounds.”

The following are some of the grander changes the Austens made to the landscape:

  • They planted a “screen” of chestnuts and spruce fir to “shut out the view of the farm building.”
  • They cut “an imposing carriage ‘sweep’ through the turf to the front door.”
  • The Church Walk – a “broad hedgerow of mixed timber and shrub, carpeted by wild flowers and wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath for the greater shelter and privacy of the family in their frequent walks to the church.”
  • The Elm Walk (or Wood Walk) – a similar hedgerow walk that skirted the meadows and included the “occasional rustic seat” where “weary stollers” could sit or rest.

In Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, he provides further details about the walks and hedgerows:

“But the chief beauty of Steventon consisted in its hedgerows. A hedgerow in that country does not mean a thin formal line of quickset, but an irregular border of copse-wood and timber, often wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath, or a rough cart-track. Under its shelter the earliest primroses, anemones, and wild hyacinths were to be found; sometimes the first bird’s nest; and, now and then, the unwelcome adder. Two such hedgerows radiated, as it were, from the parsonage garden. One, a continuation of the turf terrace, proceeded westward, forming the southern boundary of the home meadows; and was formed into a rustic shrubbery, with occasional seats, entitled ‘The Wood Walk.’ The other ran straight up the hill, under the name of ‘The Church Walk,’ because it led to the parish church…”

Hampshire is still breathtaking; scenes like these give us a sense of the greenery and vegetation Austen might have known.

In October 1800, Jane wrote to Cassandra about the improvements her parents were undertaking at the time: “Our improvements have advanced very well; the bank along the elm wall is sloped down for the reception of thorns and lilacs, and it is settled that the other side of the path is to continue turfed, and to be planted with beech, ash, and larch.”

In November, she wrote again: “Hacker has been here to-day putting in the fruit trees. A new plan has been suggested concerning the plantation of the new inclosure (sic) of the right-hand side of the elm walk: the doubt is whether it would be better to make a little orchard of it by planting apples, pears, and cherries, or whether it should be larch, mountain ash, and acacia.”

Reading these descriptions, it’s easy to see why Jane Austen included “improvements” to the grounds of the estates featured in so many of her novels.

Food and Livestock

However, the Austens didn’t just improve their land to make it more pleasing to the eye or pleasurable for walking. Lane tells us that “the garden at Steventon Rectory was a happy compromise between fashionable ideas and down-to-earth utility – typical of the balanced Austen approach to life.”

In Mrs. Austen’s garden, “vegetables and flowers [were] combined” to balance beauty and provision. One can imagine how the garden must have looked in the spring, summer, and fall, with its tangled profusion of color.

Today, “companion planting” is popular for many gardeners who include flowers among their vegetables.

Beyond the gardens around the Rectory, the Austens kept livestock and grew crops. Mrs. Austen oversaw the poultry-yard and the dairy: “She supervised making all the butter and cheese, baking all the bread and brewing all the beer and wine required by a large household. With the exception of such commodities as tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, the Austens were virtually self-sufficient in food.” As for Rev. Austen, he grew “oats, barley and wheat, and reared cattle, pigs and sheep” and was able to “not only feed his family, but to sell the surplus.” (Lane)

“All the fruit, vegetables, and herbs consumed by the family were raised here. The Austens’ strawberry fields were famous, and Mrs. Austen was one of the first people in the neighbourhood to grow potatoes.” Taking this all into account, we get a better idea of the gardens and food Jane Austen enjoyed in her youth.

Today, strawberry crops are still grown and produced in Hampshire.

Reading these descriptions of the land surrounding Steventon Rectory can help us better envision what the gardens and fields looked like when Austen was growing up. It’s lovely to try to imagine where she walked and read and thought and imagined; what foods she ate; and what her parents did.

If there ever was a fundraising campaign I could get behind, it would be to someday see a replica (or a scale model) built of the Steventon Rectory and its surrounding gardens. Wouldn’t that be something? For now, I’ll keep dreaming and imagining, which almost just as nice.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the Steventon Rectory and its garden and farm, you can read “Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question” in Persuasions On-Line by Linda Robinson Walker.


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

Read Full Post »

During Jane Austen’s lifetime, conduct literature that advocated ideal conduct and character for young women was common. In the form of letters, pamphlets, and full-length novels, conduct literature covered an array of topics meant to instruct and inform.

Conduct manuals played a large part in forming Austen’s culture and the world of her novels. To better understand her world and her characters, let’s take a closer look at the world of conduct literature for young ladies.

Conduct Books

Whereas etiquette books of the last century, such as Emily Post’s Etiquette, stressed good manners and how to behave in specific social situations, the conduct manuals and letters written for young ladies in Jane Austen’s time focused mainly on propriety. The central purpose was to mold the character of a young woman and teach her how to think, act, and speak in a way that was both morally and socially proper.

Conduct manuals discussed a wide range of subjects, including household chores, religion, and what to look for in a husband. However, the underlying concern evident in most of the conduct pamphlets being written at this time was the cultivation of “virtue” in the female sex. As Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin states in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), “the main business of our lives is to learn to be virtuous.” And according to many eighteenth-century conduct books, a woman’s virtue was expressed in her attitudes, her carriage, her accomplishments, and her actions and speech. 

But what did these books, letters, and pamphlets actually say? Let’s take a closer look at three examples from the late 1700s to see what young ladies were taught during Austen’s youth and adolescence:

“A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters”

In John Gregory’s popular conduct book, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (first published in 1774), Gregory told his daughters that they should aspire to the kind of “virtue” their deceased mother possessed and put on “a certain gentleness of spirit and manners extremely engaging in [women].”


Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “A father’s legacy to his daughters.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The topics for this particular conduct book are as follows:

  • Religion
  • Conduct and Behaviour
  • Amusements
  • Friendship, Love, Marriage

On the topic of Amusements, Gregory has this to say:

Some amusements are conducive to health, as various kinds of exercise: some are connected with qualities really useful, as different kinds of women’s work, and all the domestic concerns of a family: some are elegant accomplishments, as dress, dancing, music, and drawing. Such books as improve your understandings, enlarge your knowledge, and cultivate your taste, may be considered in a higher point of view than mere amusements. There are a variety of others, which are neither useful nor ornamental, such as play of different kinds.

John Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters

On the topic of Friendship, Gregory makes these comments:

A happy choice of friends will be of the utmost consequence to you, as they may assist you by their advice and good offices. But the immediate gratification which friendship affords to a warm, open, and ingenuous heart, is of itself sufficient motive to court it. In the choice of your friends, have your principal regard to goodness of heart and fidelity. If they also possess taste and genius, that will still make them more agreeable and useful companions.

John Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters

“An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters”

In Lady Pennington’s An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters (1761), she covers many topics for young ladies, complete with an index of books her daughters should read as part of her discussion on how her daughters should make “mental improvements” through reading, which gives us insight into other literature of the time period that was considered edifying for young ladies:

Along with Gregory, Pennington suggests that virtue should be a person’s highest goal: “Aim at perfection, or you will never reach to an attainable height of virtue.”

She goes into great detail on an expansive number of subjects, but one interesting highlight that seems to have been common for Jane Austen herself and for her leading ladies is in regard to one’s daily schedule. She explains that mornings should be spent in domestic duties and “improvement.” Afternoons “may then be allowed to diversions” (which includes “company, books of the amusing kind, and entertaining productions of the needle, as well as plays, balls”).

But, she says, the former part of the day should be “devoted to more useful employments”:

One half hour, or more, either before or immediately after breakfast, I would have you constantly give to the attentive perusal of some rationally pious author, or to some part of the New Testament, with which, and indeed with the whole Scripture, you ought to make yourself perfectly acquainted, as the basis on which your religion is founded. From this practice you will reap more real benefit than can be supposed by those who have never made the experiment.”

Lady Pennington, An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters
Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters, in a letter to Miss Pennington,” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Further advice includes studying “your own language thoroughly, that you may speak correctly, and write grammatically.” She suggests being “well acquainted” with French and, if possible, Italian; the history of England other European nations; Geography, as this will “make history more entertaining to you;” Philosophy; and the “first four rules of Arithmetic.” Music and Drawing are humorously described as “accomplishments well worth the trouble of attaining, if your inclination and genius lead to either: if not, do not attempt them; for it will be only much time and labour unprofitably thrown away.”

Finally, a quote I found personally inspiring which I can imagine Austen might have agreed with:

Expect not many friends, but think yourself happy, if, through life, you meet with one or two who deserve that name, and have all the requisites for the valuable relation.

Lady Pennington, An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters

“An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex

Austen herself read a conduct manual titled An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, written by Thomas Gisborne (1797), which followed his popular “Enquiries into the Duties of Men.” It covers topics such as the differences between men and women, female education, introducing young women into society, conversation and letter writing, dress, entertainment, the employment of time, choosing a husband, the duties of parents, and so forth.

I am glad you recommended “Gisborne”, for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it.

Letter from Jane to Cassandra, 30 August 1805

To explain Austen’s possible reason for this common, the British Library has this to say:

“We don’t know why Austen had ‘determined not to read’ An Enquiry. Perhaps she expected it to be similar to the Mr Collins-endorsed Sermons to Young Women, referred to in Pride and Prejudice, which stresses the need for women to be submissive and modest. In fact, Gisborne praises woman’s capacity for ‘sprightliness and vivacity’, ‘quickness of perception’ and ‘fertility of invention’ – as well as the more traditional female virtues of offering comfort and cheer to those around them.

“Though Gisborne’s views seem conservative to modern readers, many of them are similar to those that Austen expresses in her novels. He urges women to spend time each day reading improving books, mentioning as particularly suitable the works of William Cowper, one of Austen’s favourite poets (p. 219). He warns against the ‘absurd and mischievous’ belief that a woman can reform a cruel and immoral man after marrying him (p. 238), and criticises mothers who prioritise wealth over happiness in choosing husbands for their daughters.” (British Library, Conduct Book for Women)

Forms of Conduct Literature

There were countless other conduct books, letters, and pamphlets written during Austen’s lifetime. These, along with sermons and religious writings, were the only kind of reading material that was thought proper for young ladies. Later, didactic novels that taught a moral lesson in story form, became more popular. Still within the genre of conduct literature, didactic novels were written to entertain and instruct. Stay tuned for more on that topic next month.

I encourage you to follow the links above and read some of these books for yourself. It’s quite interesting to find out what exactly young women were taught during Jane Austen’s time. And it’s easy to see where Austen may have found instruction, inspiration, and even, at times, amusement within their pages.


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. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Read Full Post »

Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

I am enjoying reading a brand-new book, Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo. I’m finding it easy to read and full of fascinating information and insights.

Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo, is an encyclopedic resource on Austen, her novels, and her world, full of fascinating insights.

The book is essentially an encyclopedia of Austen. Sample topic entries cover agriculture; animals and hunting; the Church of England and Anglicanism; and sensibility and sentimentality. She explores each topic in the context of Austen’s England and shows how it connects to Austen’s writing.

You’ll find people from Austen’s life, both family members and friends. I met a few new ones, including Brook Edward Bridges, who apparently proposed to Jane at one time, though he was “too young and thoughtless” to be an appropriate husband for her. While many books include Austen’s friends and family in her story, it’s helpful to have each one’s story told separately.

Dabundo also explores locations, ranging from Chawton House and Manor to Brighton to Tonbridge. Each is given its place in Austen’s life, novels, and world.

Longer, deeper entries describe Austen’s life and each of her novels and shorter works. Dabundo argues in her Introduction that Austen is quintessentially a Romantic era writer. The novels fit chronologically into the Romantic period of English literature, and explore the feelings and internal lives of individuals.

I’ve interviewed Dr. Dabundo, who is a retired college professor, asking her to tell us more about herself and her book.

Laura, thank you for putting together this great reference on Jane Austen.

How did you first get interested in Jane Austen, and how did your interest grow from there?

From childhood I loved reading Jane Austen. I did not study the works in my academic career, but afterwards I returned to reading for pleasure. I slowly began critically appraising, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, and publishing about Austen. Eventually, besides my personal interest in her, she became one of my principal scholarly interests.

What do you most love about Jane Austen and her novels?  

I can’t pin it down to any one thing, because she was a genius. Her vision of the world was anchored in morality and religion, but represented the great variety of humanity. I don’t mean the diversity of backgrounds our societies seek today, but she included the full range of human behavior, motivations, and actions. And, of course, she was a splendid crafter. She wove eloquence, themes, ideas, complicated characters, and more into her beautifully written works. 

What led you to write Jane Austen: A Companion?  

Such a book was not on my radar at all.  I was not familiar with the publisher (McFarland) or the series (McFarland Companions to 19th Century Literature). However, I had written book chapters and book reviews for the series editor, Larry Mazzeno, who works for different journals and publishers. He wrote me out of the blue to ask if I would be interested in writing this book. Of course, I was thrilled! I had to prepare a long, formal proposal according to the publisher’s specifications, and the editor and publisher asked me to write the book. 

There are other “companions” to Jane Austen available; what is special about yours? 

Thank you for this question! Maybe a dozen books about Austen include the word “companion” in the title. Mine is the only single-authored one, which means it is unified and consistent. I could include extensive cross-references because I knew all the material and how it was related.

Also, most other “companion” books are collections of scholarly and academic essays designed for scholars and graduate students. Mine is specifically aimed at an educated general audience. That may include scholars, students, Janeites, and anyone seeking to know more about Austen and the people, places, events, times, and tropes of her life and work. I also explore what I call the strange “literary-industrial complex” of her afterlife in later adaptations. Of course, I read tons of literary criticism in writing this book. But I wanted my version to be accessible and useful as an introduction, a review, and a resource covering the remarkable cultural phenomenon of Jane. 

I know that your publisher chose your title and cover image to match the rest of the series they are producing. What title and image would you have chosen for your book, and why?

I had hoped to use a beautiful, full-color watercolor of the Cobb at Lyme Regis on the cover. As you know, this artificial breakwater features at a climax of Persuasion. However, the publishers naturally wanted the book to look similar to others in the series. So they used Cassandra’s portrait of Jane, which is probably not very accurate and is certainly overused. The picture of the Cobb I had suggested appears as a black and white version opposite the Table of Contents. (See the original here, The Cobb, Lyme Regis.)

Similarly, I wanted to call the book “Here, There, and Everywhere with Jane Austen.” This quote from Sanditon would have set the book apart from other companions on the market and emphasized Austen’s wide appeal. But the title needed to fit the rest of the series.

“Here, there, and everywhere” is a quote from Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon about Sidney Parker. His brother says Sidney is “here and there and everywhere” (chapter 4).

What were some interesting things you learned when researching your book?

One thing I hadn’t realized was that Jane Austen’s cousin, Jane Cooper, spent much of her childhood with the Austen family, especially after her mother’s death. So really there were three girls in the house full of boys. Young Jane Austen had, in effect, the experience of two older sisters, not just one.

Also, I knew that her rich Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot was arrested, jailed, and tried for shoplifting in Bath and then cleared of the charge. I learned that her attorney believed her guilty and that she was later accused again of shoplifting. That time it was settled and hushed up quickly. I felt more sympathy for her when I learned of her background. When she was just six years old, she was dispatched from her home in Barbados to boarding school in England. Imagine what trauma that experience of separation from home and family and the long, lonely trans-Atlantic crossing must have done to her psyche!

I’ll leave you to read the book to find more insights about Austen’s novels and times and those who followed her and tried to keep her alive in their works! 

What parts of your book do you think a serious “Janeite” will find most interesting and illuminating?

It depends on their interests. I tried to be comprehensive as well as open-ended. Someone wanting to know about the times—for example, the Regency, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, slavery and abolition, or the Church of England—will find useful information. Those looking for coherent interpretations of the works of Austen and her contemporaries will find those. I included biographies of all her family members and a few friends, pulling together into single entries information which is scattered through Austen biographies as those people appear in and disappear from her life.

What part of the book did you most enjoy writing, and why?  

Whatever I was writing at the time! Even the historical stuff! I waited until the end to write about most of the novels, so I would know what I had already said, and because that would be the most fun to do. I believe in delayed gratification!

Tell us about what you have written about Jane Austen in the past, and any projects you have planned for the future.

My previous book is The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth. I argue that Austen and Wordsworth, the preeminent novelist and poet of English Romanticism, were at heart Christian writers. (That belief seeps into my latest book also, of course.) I examine their works separately and comparatively to make the point. My favorite parts are two essays that began as presentations. In one I compare Lady Catherine de Bourgh to the Tempter/Devil who confronts Jesus in the Wilderness. She comes to scold Elizabeth Bennet out of marriage to Darcy in the “wilderness” of Longbourn. The other was written for a JASNA AGM in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” where I was born. So I wrote about the City of Sisterly Love in Austen, developing the motifs of “city” and of sisters in Austen.

Professor Dabundo’s earlier book on Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth

When I sent the Companion manuscript off to the publisher, we were all stuck at home in the first round of Covid. I cast about for something else to write and hit upon three autobiographical prose pieces I had written over the years. I pulled them together into a memoir of my own personal spiritual journey. Wipf and Stock published it, to my delight, as When the Parallel Converge, with a better cover than I imagined. It is very short and not at all like my work on Austen, though I do mention her a couple times. 

Future projects will be more religiously and spiritually based, I think. I did just get an idea for something about Austen, but now I don’t know where I put that piece of paper!

I know you’ll be speaking at the JASNA AGM next month in Chicago, and that the talk will be based on material in this book. What will you be talking about, and why did you choose that topic?

At first I could not think of anything useful on my part to say about the Arts and Austen. But I realized I could write about popular/contemporary arts. That includes what I think is a unique section of my book, though it has been relegated to an Appendix. I have called it “the military-industrial complex” of Austen, though it is really a “literary-industrial complex.” In it I discuss, with examples and criticism, Austen’s “afterlife” of sequels, prequels, works in which Austen or her characters appear, movies, plays, and TV shows. The paper I will be presenting contains some new thoughts on those areas, though the book includes more than the presentation can cover.

I was privileged to hear a trial run of your talk, and I know AGM participants will enjoy it! Thank you for sharing with us, Laura.

Readers of JAW, you can read Jane Austen: A Companion straight through or dip into the parts that interest you. I am appreciating every section. I’ll be glad to have it as a handy reference on my shelf, and I recommend it to you.

Books by Laura Dabundo

Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo. McFarland Companions to 19th Century Literature, 2021. 

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo. Mercer University Press, 2012. 

When the Parallel Converge, by Laura Dabundo. Wipf and Stock Resource Publications, 2021. 

Laura Dabundo’s spiritual memoir

Read Full Post »

After my previous article on Regency Women: Beauty Behind the Scenes, I realized that the things I really want to know more about concerning Jane Austen’s Regency women aren’t (and weren’t) discussed as much as other topics such as beauty regimes.

I wanted to know about bodily functions (where in the world did a lady relieve herself if she was, say, at a ball?), feminine hygiene (what did women do during “that time of the month?”), and pregnancy and birth (why did so many women die as a result of childbirth?).

Finding this information wasn’t as easy as some of the other information I’ve researched over the years. Why? Because some of these topics (such as menstruation) weren’t discussed openly or written about during Jane Austen’s time. Scholarly authors and bloggers even sometimes make the joke, “maybe women didn’t menstruate back then!”

The truth is, Regency women had specific needs, just as women do now, but information about those needs was shared more discreetly. Women passed information, supplies, and advice to one another—from mother to daughter, sister to sister, cousin to cousin, and even friend to friend. Additionally, terms and nicknames were used for certain topics, such as “in that way” (pregnant); “lying-in” or “confinement” (nearing her due date); and “brought to bed” (gave birth). We can imagine that in some families, young women were informed about such topics without much or any discussion; in others, perhaps a bit more instruction was provided.

Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer, Sense and Sensibility

I can’t help wishing they had not travelled quite so fast, nor made such a long journey of it, for they came all round by London upon account of some business, for you know (nodding significantly and pointing to her daughter) it was wrong in her situation. I wanted her to stay at home and rest this morning, but she would come with us; she longed so much to see you all!”

Mrs. Palmer laughed, and said it would not do her any harm.

“She expects to be confined in February,” continued Mrs. Jennings.

Lady Middleton could no longer endure such a conversation, and therefore exerted herself to ask Mr. Palmer if there was any news in the paper.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (emphasis mine)

In attempt to shed some light on these topics, the following is an overview of each, along with a few resources that go into greater detail. As always, I heartily encourage our well-read JAW readers to comment with other resources that can help provide more information on these “privy” matters (pun intended).

Bodily Functions

At home, chamber pots were frequently used and kept under the bed, out of sight, and emptied and cleaned by a servant. A privy or outhouse was outside the home, away from the house. Many times, flowers were planted near the outhouse to help cover the odor. For an in-depth history of Regency plumbing, you can read this wonderful article from The Jane Austen Centre on The Development of Regency Plumbing.

But what about when a lady was traveling or at a ball? As some of you may already know, a fully dressed lady could (carefully) relieve herself using a small chamber pot called a bourdaloue (or bourdalou) without soiling her skirts. Her maid would stand nearby to help and/or receive the pot and empty it. (Note: Men were known to relieve themselves behind a screen into a chamber pot in the dining room.) For more on this strangely intriguing topic, you can read Vic’s engaging article, Regency Hygiene: The Bourdaloue.

Ladies Bourdaloue, a personal chamber pot.

Feminine hygiene and sanitary items

And what, pray tell, did a lady to do when menstruating? In her article “On ‘Flowers’: A short but frank post on how 18thC women dealt with menstruation,” Lucy Inglis has several interesting tidbits to share: Early sanitary pads were used by women in Georgian England, made from a variety of materials. “Women troubled by particularly heavy periods wrapped a belt or bandage about their hips and wore a baby’s muslin napkin looped over the front and back, with stitched ‘sanitary pads’ lining this loincloth.  These pads could be boiled and reused…”

As for tampons, this was surprisingly not unheard of. Early handbooks discuss “‘suppositories’ for the ‘privy place’ made from a smoothed stick, wrapped in absorbent linen rags and securely stitched. A long cord was sewn in. Some disposable; some boiled and reused” (Inglis). For menstrual cramps and other issues, herbal remedies were often used. For more on this topic and others like it, check out Inglis’ book Georgian London: Into the Streets.

Regency families were often large to account for high child mortality rates.

Pregnancy and childbirth

During the Regency era, childbirth was still one of the most dangerous threats to a woman’s health and life. Up to 20% of all women died either in childbirth, or immediately following birth, most often due to infection. (Many accounts place the infant mortality rate at about the same level.) The practice of washing hands, disinfecting instruments, and providing clean linens and ventilation in birthing chambers did not become common until about the 1840s, which then lowered the mortality rate from 18% to about 6% (Jane Austen Centre). To read an in-depth discussion of birth, birthing rooms, and advances in obstetrics, read here: “Developements in Childbirth in Regency and Victorian England: Childbirth and Lying-In during the Regency” by Kathleen Charon.

Some of the issues that plagued new mothers and babies were due to limited medical practices and a lack of simple hygiene, but there were other factors at play as well. For instance, instead of having women move, walk, and get a breath fresh air, a “lying-in” or “confinement” period was observed before, during, and even after giving birth.

During the birth, a midwife would likely be in attendance; in some instances, a doctor might come. The birthing room was heated and enclosed so that women would not catch cold; however, the stifling rooms often caused a host of other issues, including an increase in infection. After giving birth, women were kept in bed, often given only weak tea and a liquid diet, instead of hearty, nourishing foods to help her heal and gain strength.

I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o’clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over, and we were clever enough to prevent her having any suspicion of it…

Jane Austen’s Letters, Godmersham Park, 17 November 1798.
Queen Charlotte, King George IIIs consort, gave birth to 15 children in 21 years. These are their 6 eldest.

Indeed, life for women in Jane Austen’s Regency England, even as part of the upper classes, was uncomfortable, difficult, and dangerous. When I think of my own birth, and the births of my two children, by caesarean section, with the help modern medicine, I stand amazed at the bravery of the women who came before me. To say I’m thankful for the miraculous advances in medicine and obstetrics today would be an understatement.

This, I’m sure, is only the tip of the iceberg with these topics. If you have other resources to share, such as books, articles, podcasts, or talks, please include them in the comments! Next month, check back for my upcoming article, Regency Women: Pin Money and Private Expenses.


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 December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Read Full Post »

Regency women went to great lengths to achieve an effortless, romantic look with long, flowing lines to their dresses and hairstyles. Even their dresses, which appeared to have little underneath, had several layers hidden below the surface. As with everything, nothing in the Regency era is quite as simple as it seems.

And behind the scenes of every genteel woman’s daily beauty regime were servants who made it all possible. Without today’s modern household appliances, a whole team of people were required to make a household run smoothly. There were servants who laundered, mended, ironed, and polished. Maids who buckled, tied, boosted, and smoothed; carried clean, hot water for bathing; and emptied bathtubs and chamber pots. Men and women cleaned, cooked, served, polished, and dusted. All so that life could go on smoothly and seamlessly.

Women in Jane Austen’s world were expected to be many things, especially when it came to their personal appearance, but what went on behind the scenes to make these women appear so effortless and graceful?

Evening dresses, fronticepiece, The Mirror of Graces,, 1811
Evening dresses

[Mr. Bingley] came, and in such very good time that the ladies were none of them dressed. In ran Mrs. Bennet to her daughter’s room, in her dressing gown, and with her hair half finished, crying out:

“My dear Jane, make haste and hurry down. He is come—Mr. Bingley is come. He is, indeed. Make haste, make haste. Here, Sarah, come to Miss Bennet this moment, and help her on with her gown. Never mind Miss Lizzy’s hair.”

“We will be down as soon as we can,” said Jane; “but I dare say Kitty is forwarder than either of us, for she went up stairs half an hour ago.”

Oh! hang Kitty! what has she to do with it? Come be quick, be quick! Where is your sash, my dear?”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It took time to achieve the polished look of a Jane Austen heroine; thus, I’ve also included additional links for each of the topics below for those who want to delve deeper. Let’s look behind the scenes:

Bathing

Cleanliness then wasn’t quite what it is today. Bathing only became common during the 18th century in wealthy households. In Jane Austen’s time, baths were taken once a week (more or less depending on the season) with sponge baths in between. This was usually done by sponging off with a pitcher of water and a little basin on the bedroom dresser. To bathe, people sat in a larger tub or stood in a smallish tub on the floor and washed with a pitcher of water. (The Family, Sex & Marriage in England 1500-1800 by Laurence Stone)

A portable bath shower from the mid 19th c.

Affordable soaps of the time were soft and more caustic than the soaps, lathers, and body washes we enjoy today. Firm, refined bar soaps were scented and more costly (and therefore less frequently used). As for a woman’s hair, the same soap used for the body was also used for the hair, and the hair was washed far less often than today.

Oral Health

As for dental health, tooth brushes and tooth powder were used. In Sense and Sensibility, we read this: “He was giving orders for a toothpick-case for himself, and till its size, shape, and ornaments were determined, all of which, after examining and debating for a quarter of an hour over every toothpick-case in the shop, were finally arranged by his own inventive fancy…”

Toothpick Case, National Maritime Museum, 1806

From Austen’s own letters, we know that dentistry in her time was a grisly business:

The poor girls and their teeth! I have not mentioned them yet, but we were a whole hour at Spence’s, and Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again, and poor Marianne had two taken out after all, the two just beyond the eye teeth, to make room for those in front. When her doom was fixed, Fanny, Lizzy, and I walked into the next room, where we heard each of the two sharp and hasty screams.

The little girls’ teeth I can suppose in a critical state, but I think he must be a lover of teeth and money and mischief, to parade about Fanny’s. I would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth and double it. It was a disagreeable hour.

Jane Austen’s Letters, Henrietta St., 15 Sept. 1813

The advent of modern dentistry, and the use of anesthetics, wouldn’t come until long after Austen’s lifetime. I, for one, feel much more enthusiastic about my next dental cleaning after this. For more on the topic of Regency dentistry, you can read this JAW article on Dental Hygiene in the Regency Period.

Dressing and Undergarments

For the latest fashions, women often shared patterns and new fashions. Those who had lately traveled to London or even Bath brought back descriptions, clippings, and patterns to share with their friends and family member. In Pride and Prejudice, we read this about Mrs. Gardiner’s visit: “The first part of Mrs. Gardiner’s business on her arrival, was to distribute her presents and describe the newest fashions.”

Underdrawers belonging to the Duchess of Kent, 1810-1820

As fashions evolved, so did women’s undergarments. Under their slim, empire-waisted Regency dresses made of thinner material than previous years, women wore a shift, stays, a waist petticoat, stockings, and more. With so much to lace up and buckle, women needed help getting dressed. On the topic of stays, we know that Jane wrote this to Cassandra:

I learnt from Mrs Tickar’s young Lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the Bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.

Jane Austen’s Letters, September 1813

However, women did not yet wear “underwear,” drawers, or pantaloons. Drawers were considered immodest and improper, something only men wore, until the early to mid 1800s. Slowly they caught on, and by the mid-1800s they were a matter of course when hoop skirts became popular. You can find more here: Ladies Underdrawers in Regency Times: Regency Underwear.

Cosmetics

In terms of cosmetics, a more natural Romantic look took hold during Austen’s life, in large part aided by the blockade during the Napoleonic Wars. Ladies were still, nevertheless, never too far from their rouge pot (Beauty and Cosmetics, 1550-1950 by Sarah Jane Downing). Regardless of one’s complexion or skin tone, a rosy glow was part of achieving that healthy romantic look.

As for covering up body odor, deodorant was not yet used, while the perfumes of the time tended toward sweet, musky scents. To find out more about cosmetics and how they were made (many times out of materials we now know are dangerous), you can read this article: A Deadly Fashion: Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950 – A Review.

Hair

During Jane Austen’s lifetime, hairstyles for women became more natural and graceful. This meant instead of powder, wigs, and elaborate updos, the natural hair color became popular again. Women wore their hair swept up into simple twists, buns, and chignons with locks of hair curled around their faces. Curling tongs and curling papers and cloths were used to create this effect.

The fashions and hairstyles all came from the Greco Roman styling that became popular during Austen’s day. You can read more here: Greco Roman Influences on Women’s Hairstyles During the Georgian Era.

Combs used as hair accessories

With the bonnets and caps used at the time, curls were used to frame the face. For evening and dinner parties, accessories such as combs and ribbons were used. Often a maid helped fix a lady’s hair each morning and before an evening dinner or party. What might look like a very natural hairstyle could take quite a bit of time to perfect beforehand. For more, you can read about Regency Hairstyles and their Accessories. Additionally, you can view Vic’s stunning Pictorial History of Regency Hairstyles.

A Look Behind the Scenes

The world of a genteel Regency woman was complex and nuanced. Next month, I’ll discuss “Privy” Matters: Regency Feminine Hygiene, Bodily Functions, and Childbirth. We’ll take an even closer, behind-the-scenes look at a genteel woman’s private life in Jane Austen’s time. All to help us understand the real-life world of carriage rides, balls, dinners, and courtship that we so enjoy in Austen’s novels.

As much as I love dressing up for a Jane Austen event, all of this information reminds me, as ever, that as romantic as everything looks in a Jane Austen film, life for women of her time was anything but simple—even for those who were part of the landed gentry.

When I’ve dressed for the ball given at past JASNA AGMs, my outer layer tends to be the most historically accurate. I’ve yet to invest in undergarments, and I usually “make do” with my own homemade hair accessories, jewelry, and ballet flats. One day, I’d like to invest in a bonnet. As one wise woman once told me at an AGM, “It takes years to build your Regency wardrobe – just take it one piece at a time.” Do you own any Regency clothing? If so, what do you enjoy wearing most? -Rachel


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 December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: