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Archive for the ‘18th Century England’ Category

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

 

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