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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. What are you working on now?

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

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

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

ABOUT THE BOOK

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

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

PURCHASE LINKS:
Amazon
Bookshop.org


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABOUT THE BOOK

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

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

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

PURCHASE LINKS:
Amazon
Bookshop.org

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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

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

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

GIVEAWAY DETAILS

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

ENTER GIVEAWAY HERE

One (1) grand prize winner receives:

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

Two (2) winners receive:

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

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

BOOK TOUR SCHEDULE FOR A MOST CLEVER GIRL

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

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

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

Map of Surrey

Map of Surrey

Map of Surrey

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

Great Bookham

Photo of St. Nicholas, Great Bookham

St. Nicholas, Great Bookham. Photo by Tony Grant

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

Box Hill

Image Mickleham to the right of Box Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mickleham

Mickleham

Mickleham, photo by Tony Grant

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

Dorking

Image Dorking, the Red Lion Hotel, 1904 Postcard

Dorking, the Red Lion Hotel, 1904 Postcard

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

Croydon

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

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

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

Cobham

Image of Cobham churchyard

Cobham churchyard photo by Tony Grant

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

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

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

Kingston upon Thames

Image of O Druids head coaching inn Kingston

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

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

Harriet after meeting Robert Martin in the street reports to Emma

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

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

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

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

Jerry Abershaw

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

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

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

Richmond upon Thames

Photo of Richmond Green The Churchills lived here.

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

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

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

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

Epsom

Image of Epsom Centre, by Tony Grant

Epsom Centre photo by Tony Grant

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

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

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

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

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

Leatherhead

Image of leatherhead museum

Leatherhead Museum. Photo by Tony Grant

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

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

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

To Cassandra Austen Thursday 20th May 1813

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

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

REFERENCES:

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

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

London Calling, Tony’s blog

Jane Austen in Vermont, Tony’s guest posts

Jane Austen’s World, Tony’s posts

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You deserve a longer letter than this, but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…” – Jane Austen

Introduction:

In August, 1798, Rev George and Mrs. Austen and their daughters Cassandra and Jane visited Godmersham, Edward Austen-Knight’s estate near Godmersham, Kent, where he had moved with his family in November, 1797. While Jane and her parents returned to Steventon in October, Cassandra remained behind until March, 1799. Jane wrote the following letter on Christmas eve in the middle of Cassandra’s prolonged visit. 

Godmersham-Park-Public-Domain-1799-Wikipedia

Godmersham Park, 1799, Wikipedia public domain image

Jane Austen’s letter:

Steventon: Monday Night, Dec 24 [1798]

My dear Cassandra

Our ball was very thin, but by no means unpleasant. There were thirty-one people, and only eleven ladies out of the number, and but five single women in the room. Of the gentlemen present you may have some idea from the list of my partners—Mr. Wood, G. Lefroy, Rice, a Mr. Butcher (belonging to the Temples, a sailor and not of the 11th Light Dragoons). Mr. Temple (not the horrid one of all). Mr. Wm Orde (cousin to the Kingsclere man). Mr. John Harwood, and Mr. Calland, who appeared as usual with his hat in his hand, and stood every now and then behind Catherine and me to be talked to and abused for not dancing. We teased him, however, into it at last. I was very glad to see him again after so long a separation…

There were twenty dances, and I danced them all, and without any fatigue…My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everybody else in the room…Of my charities to the poor since I came home you shall have a faithful account. I have given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, and Dame Staples: a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins: amounting in all to about half a guinea…

I was to have dined at Deane today, but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of snow. We are to have company to dinner on Friday: the three Digweeds and James. We shall be a nice silent party. I suppose.

You deserve a longer letter than this, but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…God bless you!

Yours affectionately, Jane Austen

Image of Steventon Rectory, Wikimedia Commons

Steventon Parsonage, Wikimedia Commons

This short letter might reveal very little information to the contemporary reader, but Cassandra knew the context of every sentence Jane wrote. She knew the people, time, place, and setting, since she lived it. No detailed descriptions were needed for Cassandra to comprehend the letter’s full meaning

Thankfully for us, records and books exist that will help us make more sense of Jane’s cryptic words.

The Years Leading to Austen’s Letter

Jane and Cassandra had just experienced a number of eventful years. In 1796, Jane met and danced with Tom LeFroy at Deane. We know the details of this meeting in the first existing letter Jane wrote to Cassandra. In August, 1797,  Cassandra learned that Thomas Fowle, her fiance, died tragically of fever in the West Indies months earlier and was buried at sea. A little over a year after the shocking news, she must still have been in deep mourning.

By 1798, Jane had already written the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice, initially entitled First Impressions, and Sense and Sensibility, originally drafted as an epistolary novel entitled Elinor and Marianne. Just five months previously, her dear cousin Lady Williams (Jane Cooper) had died in a carriage accident, another cause for mourning. 

Timeline of events:

1795(?)Cassandra engaged to Thomas Fowle.
 MayMrs. James Austen died.
1795-6Mr. Tom Lefroy at Ashe.
1796 First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice) begun.
1797,Jan.James Austen married Mary Lloyd.
 Feb.Thomas Fowle died of fever in the W. Indies.
 Nov.Jane, with mother and sister, went to Bath.
  First Impressions refused by Cadell.
  Sense and Sensibility (already sketched in Elinor and Marianne) begun.
1798,Aug.Lady Williams (Jane Cooper) killed in a carriage accident.
  Mrs. Knight gave up Godmersham to the Edward Austens. Jane’s first visit there.
1798,Aug.First draft of Northanger Abbey begun.
Timeline/context of the letter in Project Gutenberg:  Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters, by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh

About Austen’s Letters

Deidre Le Faye in Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th Edition, listed Austen’s known letters in chronological order. At a glance one can see when and where the sisters were apart. Many casual readers think of Jane as a spinster and a homebody, but the list demonstrates how often and how extensively she and Casssandra traveled, largely in the south of England. This link leads to an interactive map of her travels in Smithsonian Magazine. 

Le Faye chronicles the ten letters Jane sent to Cassandra during her visit to Godmersham. They were written from October 24, 1798 to January 23, 1799. This letter, which described past and future events, was dated December 24th, Christmas eve. The ball had already occurred. Christmas festivities in 1798 were rather simple compared to festivities introduced during Queen Victoria’s time, (Click on this link to a Georgian Christmas). Jane must have missed her sister even more on this occasion.

Deirdre Le Faye, in her descriptive article for Persuasion #14, 1992, entitled Jane Austen’s Letters, described the letters as “often hasty and elliptical–the equivalent of chatty telephone conversations between the sisters, keeping each other informed of the events at home…interspersed with news of the day, both local and national.” (p. 82, Jane Austen’s Letters) 

Example of a cross written letter to save paper and postage, much as the Austens sent to each other. The recipient of the letter paid for the postage. Paper was saved by cross writing. Image in the public domain.

Example of a cross written letter to save paper and postage, much as the Austens sent to each other. The recipient of the letter paid for the postage. Paper was saved by cross writing. Image in the public domain.

When Jane and Cassandra were apart, they wrote each other every three days, or five letters in a fortnight. As soon as one was sent, they began to write the next one. The letters followed a pattern, telling the other of the journey, then about daily events and how life was at home, then talking about the visit at the destination, and finally of the journey home. This pattern helped Le Faye determine which letters (or set of letters) were missing or destroyed by Cassandra.

When Jane was ready to mail her letter, Mr. Austen dropped it off at the post box in Deane as he made his rounds throughout his parish. Cassandra bequeathed this letter to Fanny Knatchbull, née Austen-Knight, which eventually made its way into her son’s, Lord Brabourne’s, publication of Jane’s letters.

Events in the Letter: The Ball, the People, and the Setting

The setting

In her December 24th letter, Jane indicated her physical fitness – she danced all twenty dances without any fatigue. As a country girl who helped her family in the kitchen garden or with breakfast, and who walked into town, to church, or to visit neighbors at Deane or Ashe, she was in prime physical condition. View this map of Steventon, Deane, and Ashe.

She described the ball as being thin.

There were thirty-one people, and only eleven ladies out of the number, and but five single women in the room.

It is hard to tell if the ball was public or private. The word “thin,” however, indicated that it must have been public to anyone who had a subscription. If the ball had been private, then the hosts would have ensured that the correct number of persons of both sexes would have been invited. Once they accepted the invitation, good manners would have obliged them to show up. If the December ball had been private, Jane would surely have known who and how many were coming. There would have been few surprises. 

basinstoke town hall

Basingstoke Town Hall in the late 18th early 19th centuries.

Public assembly balls were held in Basingstoke’s town hall, which was a little over 7 miles from Steventon (an hour’s carriage ride in good weather, since horses pulling carriages traveled 6 miles per hour on average). Dancing was performed in a ballroom on the first floor that also held a card room for gentlemen like Mr. Austen, who might not have felt like dancing.

Frequent allusions are made in the “Letters” to the county balls at Basingstoke. These took place, it seems, once a month on a Thursday during the season. They were held in the Assembly Rooms, and were frequented by all the well-to-do families of the out-lying neighbourhood; many of them, like the Austens, coming from long distances, undeterred by the dangers of dark winter nights, lampless lanes, and stormy weather.” – Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends, Constance Hill, Illustrations by Ellen G. Hill, John Lane, The Bodley Head Limited, first Published 1901. Downloaded August 30, 2020.

The people

Dancers Jane described in her letter were:

Rev George and Mrs Anne Lefroy (née Brydges). The reverend obtained his living in Ashe in 1783, and Madam Lefroy, as she was locally known, was Jane’s good friend and mentor. In her letters, Jane talked of visiting friends and neighbors, such as the Lefroys of Ashe Park, which was within easy walking distance. In 1800, Jane wrote:

“We had a very pleasant day on Monday at Ashe (Park). We sat down fourteen to dinner in the study, the dining-room being not habitable from the storms having blown…down its chimney. There was a whist and a casino table…” – Constance Hill

Ashe Rectory-Hill

Ashe Rectory. Illustration by Ellen Hill

Mr. Wood: All we know about John Wood is that he was Jane’s dance partner. 

Rice is most likely Henry Rice, who married Jemima-Lucy Lefroy. He was known to be a fun-loving spendthrift who was often bailed out by his mother.

Mr. Temple, mostly likely Frank, who served in the navy. His friend was Samuel Butcher.

Mr. Butcher (belonging to the Temples, a sailor and not of the 11th Light Dragoons.) Samuel Butcher was five years older than Jane. He was appointed to HMS Sans Pareil in 1795.

Mr. Wm Orde (cousin to the Kingscler man) of Nunnykirk “perhaps.” He remained unmarried.

Mr. Calland, who Penelope Hughes-Hallett identified as the Rector of Bentworth. The joke in the Austen family was that he always appeared at any function with a hat in his hand, which Mrs. Austen made fun of with a poem. On this day, Jane and her friend Catherine teased him into dancing.

Catherine is Catherine Bigg, daughter of Mr. Bigg Wither of Manydown Park, and Jane’s good friend.

“Manydown is within easy reach of Basingstoke, and Jane often stayed there when the Assembly balls took place. She had done so on the present occasion.”- Constance Hill

18th century engraving of Manydown Park

18th century engraving of Manydown Park

Of my charities to the poor…

In this section of the letter, Jane listed the Steventon villagers who received her largesse:

I have given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, and Dame Staples: a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins:”

Hannah was Dame Staples’ daughter. Jane Austen, as a rector’s daughter of the most influential man (not the richest) in the parishes he served, was obligated to support the many poor ladies in Steventon. Her gifts, simple as they seemed, were multiplied by the gifts of food and clothing from the community at large and kept the villager women from dire extremes. Mrs. and Miss Bates in Emma depend on the kindness of neighbors to survive, as Jane wrote in scene after scene.

The Austens, while influential in Steventon, were not rich. They belonged, as Lucy Worsley writes in Jane Austen at Home, to the pseudo-gentry.

“Jane belonged to the pseudo-gentry; there was land in her family, but her parents and siblings didn’t own land, so they had to make do and mend and gloss things over.”

Pseudo-gentry kept up appearances even though their means fell short of their richer neighbors, friends, and relatives. Still, Jane managed from her meager yearly-pin money of around £20 to spend a sum “amounting in all to about half a guinea….”

Half a guinea was a gold coin minted from the Guinea Coast in Africa, which ceased to be minted around the time of this letter. The idea that Jane possessed a gold coin is far fetched. In Austen’s day, a guinea had a value of 21 shillings–this value could change depending on the quality of the coinage in use. Interestingly, the gold coin’s purchasing power (comparing Austen’s time to now), remains a little over 1 pound today. (CPI Inflation calendar).

The ball and dances

Balls in the days of Miss Austen consisted mainly of country dances, for the stately minuet was going out of vogue, while the rapid waltz had not yet come in. We must picture to ourselves the ladies and gentlemen ranged in two long rows facing one another, whilst the couples at the extreme ends danced down the set; the most important lady present having been privileged to “call” or lead off the dance.”… Constance Hill

Which dances did Jane Austen dance?

Country dances as late as 1798 had very little variation, with long lines of couples progressing up and down a set that could last from twenty minutes to as much as an hour. This and other dances mentioned by Austen included cotillions performed as a square by four couples. The boulanger was known as a “finishing” dance performed at the last. It was physically an easy dance to do and one that after a night of physical exertion was probably most welcome. – (“What did Jane Austen Dance,” Capering & Kickery, 2009)

Dances Austen might have danced in 1798, since they were popular during that time, were the Scotch reel, the minuet (rapidly going out of fashion), and Sir Roger de Coverley, another finishing dance (although no record exists of Jane mentioning this dance). One dance she and her contemporaries decidedly did not dance during this period was the waltz, although Jane might have heard its music. (Capering & Kickery.)

The Music

Jane adored music and she made eight volumes of her own collections, two of which she wrote by hand (copying sheets of music). The music included songs by Handel and English composers, and instrumental pieces by Correlli, Gluck and J.C. Bach. (Jane Austen and classical music: how Bath brought them together, Discover Music.)

'The London March', manuscript music copied by Jane Austen, image in the public domain

‘The London March’, manuscript music copied by Jane Austen, image in the public domain

Susan of Capering and Kickery reminds readers that dancers during the end of the 18th century and in the Regency era paid attention to fashionable “music in the moment.” Dancers would not have chosen to dance to music popular in the 17th or early 18th centuries. “Austen was no more likely to dance a 75- or 100-year old dance than she was to wear fashions from a hundred years earlier.”

Many contemporary comments regarding the music in the recent mini-series of “Sanditon” and the film, “Emma.” 2020, were scathing regarding the raw country tunes that were played in the dance scenes, many of which were Scottish airs and folk music, like “The Water is Wide,” which is popular to this day. Yet these movies have it wrong. 

“… dances like “Hole in the Wall,” “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot,” “Childgrove,” and “Grimstock” (all dating from 1650 to 1710) are nothing Jane Austen or her characters would have been caught dead dancing.”- Capering and Kickery

Yet, due to films, such as 1995’s “Pride and Prejudice” (an adaptation I admire), modern audiences accept these dance choices as authentic. Neither Cassandra nor Jane would have.

The Musicians

Well-paid musicians in London would have played more sophisticated pieces from the Continent interspersed with popular English music. Country balls, however, employed traveling musicians (from 5-6) who sought work from town to town. Villagers and townsmen might have sought out local talent, who consisted of anyone who could play an instrument, no matter the quality of their play. Think of Mary Bennet, whose talent at the piano forte was bad, versus an impresario like Jane Fairfax.  Elizabeth Bennet could play tolerably well and Anne Elliot was called upon to play at the piano forte as the family rolled up the carpet for an impromptu dance in the evening. 

Image of Henry Raeburn, violinist and composer, 1727-1807

Henry Raeburn, violinist and composer, 1727-1807

Ball dress:

The only reference Austen makes to her dress is:

My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everybody else in the room…”

At twenty-three years of age, Jane was almost on the shelf and in danger of becoming a spinster. She had begun to wear caps earlier than most other unmarried ladies, and in this respect her quote was not surprising. It is hard, however, to find a black cap in the fashion magazines of her day and before. Black hats were shown in the magazines, but not caps in that color. They were generally made of white muslin and sewn by the women who wore them. Tom Fowle’s death hit Cassandra hard (she was not to learn of his passing until months after the event when the ship made it back to port.)

Cassandra knew exactly what Jane was writing about regarding the cap; but we can only conjecture. Regency mourning customs were not as strict as in Victorian times, but wearing a black cap was perhaps Jane’s way of honoring his memory and perhaps Jane Cooper. The following quote from The British Library states:

The Gallery of Fashion shows a lot of mourning dresses. A woman might spend a considerable part of her life wearing mourning of some sort, for distant relatives as well as close ones, so it is not surprising that there was a pressure to remain fashionable while doing so.” – Gallery of Fashion, The British Library.

In any case, little is known of the black cap. The closeup of this image is the only 1798 full dress example I found online after hours of searching.

Detail, Fashion Plate, 'Full Dress for Decr. 1798' for 'Lady's Monthly Museum'

Detail, Fashion Plate, ‘Full Dress for Dec. 1798’ for ‘Lady’s Monthly Museum’

In 1798, ladies’ dresses made the transition from round gowns (so prettily drawn in Nicholas Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion (1794-1802) to sleeker, more figure hugging gowns popular in the early 19th century. 

Fashion Plate, 'Full Dress for Decr. 1798' for 'Lady's Monthly Museum', LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Fashion Plate, ‘Full Dress for Decr. 1798’ for ‘Lady’s Monthly Museum’, LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Women’s dresses during this decade sported trains. Austen’s gown in the ball she attended in 1798 was probably a full dress gown, since the senior Austens were too often strapped for income to afford a full array of morning gowns, walking gowns, dinner gowns, full dress gowns, and ball gowns for their two girls. 

Jane began to write Northanger Abbey in 1798, when gowns with trains were fashionable. This extra fabric must have gotten quite dirty during country walks and work around the house, and might have tripped the dancer and her partners if left to its own devices. This passage from her novel provided the solution:

The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set;” – Chapter 5, Northanger Abbey

Image of "Pinned up each others trains", Northanger Abbey illustration in the public domain, Hugh Thompson. British Library.

“Pinned up each others trains”, Northanger Abbey illustration in the public domain, Hugh Thompson. British Library.

Shoes and the accoutrements of a lady’s dance wardrobe

Interestingly, many shoes made for dancing lasted for only one evening or two. The slippers, constructed of cloth or delicate kid, barely lasted the full hours of physical exertion. The slippers were festooned with rosettes made with a fabric that matched or complimented the ladies’ gowns. Mrs. Austen made dance slippers of fabric for her grandchildren, much in this tradition.

Gloves not only came above the elbow, but were often made of kid leather, which were a buttery color. The gloves also were made with white or an assortment of pale, soft colored cloths. Gentlemen wore gloves as well, for it was unseemly for a gentleman and lady to touch each other with bare hands. Another necessity, especially on warm nights, or when candlelight and exertion overheated the ballroom, was a fan. 

Dance cards were not yet as popular as in the 19th century, but a lady knew not to commit to too many dances ahead of the ball in case a likely prospect entered the room later in the evening. A couple could dance only two sets together, for dancing more than two was considered ill-mannered.

As mentioned in this letter, only five single women danced in a room with twenty men, which meant that each female was quite busy and exhausted at the end of the night. After supper, served around midnight, the ladies and their partner sat with the lady’s family or chaperones. The etiquette of the ballroom was quite strict. Once a lady refused to dance with a gentleman, she had to sit out the rest of the dances for the evening.

In her novels, Jane used this convention to differentiate the villains from the obedient or the heroes and heroines, or to demonstrate personality quirks. Mr. Elton’s rudeness in refusing a dance with poor Harriet Smith in Emma humiliated the young woman and spoke ill of his character. Mr. Knightley, in inviting Harriet to dance, showed his heroic instincts. These actions demonstrated a gentleman’s quality better than any exposition Jane could have written. Her contemporary readers knew this, but we in the 21st century must learn these quirks of etiquette through research and reading.

Post Ball mentions

I was to have dined at Deane today, but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of snow. We are to have company to dinner on Friday: the three Digweeds and James. We shall be a nice silent party. I suppose.”

Deane House-Hill

Image of Deane House, Ellen Hill.

Dining at Deane meant dining in the old manor house of Deane with Squire Harwood and his family. In this house Jane had danced with Tom Lefroy in 1796. The Harwoods were very well off according to late 18th century standards, but this was not to last. Upon his death in 1813, it was discovered that John Harwood had mortgaged his estate to the hilt, leaving his heir in ruin and his widow and daughter with nothing.

As for not dining with the Harwoods in December, 1798, the narrow country lanes between Steventon, Deane and Ashe were filled with deep ruts. Wet snow would have deterred the company from visiting their good friends. 

Austen’s letter ends with a planned dinner with the Digweeds on Friday, December 28th. The Digweeds were tenants of Steventon Manor in Steventon Parish, who rented the land from Mr. Knight in Godmersham Park. (p. 18, Jane Austen’s Country Life.) The Digweeds and the Austens grazed hundreds of sheep around the village. (p. 21, Country Life.) Harry and William-Francis Digweed (who, with their brothers, were playmates with the Austen siblings) were joint tenants until 1798. James Digweed, ordained in 1797, became curate of Steventon in 1798. Jane, it seems, anticipated a quiet (boring?) evening.

Gentle reader: This analysis ends my research into this letter, which was sent shorthand to Cassandra. She would have mentally filled in the gaps easily and fluently, gaps that we today struggle to understand.   

Deirdre Le Fay, who passed away just a few weeks ago, painstakingly researched Austen’s letters and their corresponding information for her massive undertaking, Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition. With its lists of letters, the letters, abbreviations and citations, notes and general notes on the letters, select bibliography, biographical index, topographical index, subject index, and general index is 667 pages long. This world has lost a scholar of the first rank. 

References: 

Jane Austen’s Letters, Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press, 4th Edition (December 1, 2011), ISBN-100199576076, ISBN-13 : 978-0199576074

Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, Deidre Le Faye, Frances Lincoln (June 1, 2014) ISBN-100711231583, ISBN-13978-0711231580

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, Lucy Worsley, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017. Hardcover, 400 pages. ISBN-13978-1250131607, ISBN-10125013160X

A Dance With Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters went to the Ball, Susannah Fullerton, Frances Lincoln, 2012. ISBN-100711232458, ISBN-13 978-0711232457

“Historian Lucy Worsley goes around the houses with Jane Austen at York Literature Festival,” By Charles Hutchinson, The Press, 19th March 2018: Downloaded 8/25/2020, https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/16097178.historian-lucy-worsley-goes-around-houses-jane-austen-york-literature-festival/

A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England, Sue Wilkes, https://visitjaneaustensengland.blogspot.com/2015/07/down-on-farm.html

“The Three Churches of Steventon, Ashe, and Deane.” Downloaded 8-29-2020: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/england/hampshire/the-three-churches-of-steventon-ashe-and-deane?u=i

“Steventon, Basingstoke, Deane survey,” downloaded 8-29-2020: https://getoutside.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/local/steventon-basingstoke-and-deane

Shoe roses: downloaded August 30, 2020. https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/fashion-to-make/make-shoe-roses  “No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after; — the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.”–P&P Netherfield Ball

“What Did Jane Austen Dance?” Capering & Kickery, Nov 1, 2009: Downloaded Aug 30, 2020. https://www.kickery.com/2009/11/what-did-jane-austen-dance.html

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Inquiring readers: Today is the 203rd anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She lived from December 16th, 1775 to July 18, 1817, and managed to achieve more in 41 years than a majority of us in twice that time. My previous posts marking this occasion were somber. This one provides a more light hearted, science fictiony approach. The North American Friends of Chawton House sent a limited edition of Celebrity Jane, a bobblehead doll, after I made a contribution that qualified me for this gift. NAFCH challenges Celebrity Jane doll possessors to share photos of Bad Ass Jane, as I renamed her, in various locations in our lives. I chose home.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meeting her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

Bad Ass Jane meets her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

It was a dream. It must have been. I had been researching Jane Austen’s life in Steventon until I fell asleep. Then, when I awoke around 2 A.M., as I am wont to do, I saw a bad ass version of Jane Austen on my bookshelf, staring at a silhouette of herself. Only she wasn’t quite the spinsterish virgin that I knew and loved so well, Oh, no! She was Bad Ass! A Rocker Chick. A person who would have appealed to my rebellious younger self and my current, well, rebellious me.

She still wore her virginal cap, but from the neck down she wore a black tee, low rise jeans that bared her midriff, and leather boots! Best of all she carried a guitar. Regency Jane loved playing music every morning on her piano forte. Bad Ass Jane (BAJ) plays electric guitar at every opportunity. (How BAJ finds the time to write—heaven knows.)

I gruffed at this strange Jane, who wanted to discuss the books in my book shelf, most of which pertained to her life and history. I needed my beauty sleep and promised her a tour of my house and gardens the following morn, but she would have none of it. She desired my company NOW! Jane played a few tunes on her guitar, which woke me more efficiently than two cups of Moroccan coffee. She mesmerized me with her persistence, pluck, and talent.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meets Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

Bad Ass Jane visits Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

I pointed to a 5 foot tall doll house, in which my 7-year-old grand nieces played occasionally. “Here’s your family.” I gestured to the top floor of the house where two female adults and two children resided.

BAJ peered inside. “My family? They look strange and somehow not themselves. And the fashion! Oh, so revealing. Who are those children?”

“Dear Jane,” I said familiarly. “Recall that this is a dream and that this story is a mere figment of my imagination and the result of a host of wishes. Tom Fowle never died. He returned with Lord Craven from the West Indies healthy and hale and became the intended heir of a living in Shropshire. He and Cassy married and had two beautiful children. Your mama, Mrs. Austen, acquired a gorgeous necklace of pearls, brought back by Tom.”

Copy of Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

“How strange,” BAJ muttered. She wandered from the doll house to our ficus tree lit with fairy lights.

 

She then visited the wine corner. Recalling that she had a fondness for a tipple here and there, I offered a glass. Savoring the wine (a nice Australian Shiraz), we discussed her family, my family (our fathers, with their dry wit and extensive libraries had much in common), and our writing. She was better than me. Way. And more successful. Way. I felt humbled in her presence.

When BAJ learned about her enduring fame–the JASNA Societies, the JA groupies, the Austenesque novels and stories–her bobble head bobbled. “Goodness, I’m famous! Did I become rich?”

I shook my head sadly. “Not you, but Cassandra and your ancestors benefited most generously.”

When dawn broke, we walked into my back yard. BAJ played her guitar in the morning, much as she played her pianoforte before breakfast. I was mesmerized. It was time to greet the sun.

Image of Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

I pointed to my bird feeders, where my hungry hordes of wildlife shrieked for their breakfast: blue jays, red cardinals, musical wrens, and colorful goldfinches. The deer, chipmunks, and squirrels were silent but watchful. Their ferocious appetites challenged my meager resources weekly. All stood a respectful distance away as I filled tubs, tubes, platforms, and the ground.

An impatient BAJ wanted in on the action and hopped right on to the feeders. In an impeccable British accent, she asked, “Pray, where are they?”

birds-deer

The deer and their fawns and birds appeared as we stood still

“Gurl,” I said. “Your Bad Ass attitude must’ve scared them. Stay still and behold the magic.” Shy creatures appeared flock by flock and one by one from the forest within feet of us. BAJ noted with irony that the brown sparrows were as common in the U.K. as in my back yard.

We visited the flowers. “They’re nothing as fabulous as your English gardens,” I cautioned, and so we viewed several areas designed to be deer proof.

At the last, BAJ noticed a sign. “Pray, what is this?”

Image of BAJ posing with an American security sign

BAJ meets an American security sign

“The sign is for security,” I answered. “This deters burglars. We call in and help arrives within, well, whenever.”

She laughed and said, “Is not a dog more effective?,” and jumped into a West Highland Terrier planter.

Image of BAJ's Westie carriage

BAJ Westie carriage

I guffawed. Jennie, our Westie is all bark and no bite. Poof, my dream ended. Once again I missed the chance to ask BAJ the questions swirling in my head. I’d assumed that I had all the time in the world. Ah, well. The mystery that is Miss Jane Austen continues.

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