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Archive for the ‘Lady’s work’ 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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A Review by Brenda S. Cox

“I was all in a fright for fear your sister should ask us for the huswifes she had gave us a day or two before”—Anne Steele, Sense and Sensibility, chapter 38

Christmas Ideas

I just finished a fall design, perfect for November. It adorns a “housewife”  (or “huswife”) sewing organizer I’ll give as a Christmas gift. If, like me, you enjoy sewing gifts for people, Jane Austen Embroidery will give you great ideas and patterns. Or, if you want something for a Jane Austen fan, or for someone who enjoys sewing and embroidery, the book itself would be a great gift for them!

Jane Austen Embroidery

Jane Austen Embroidery: Regency Patterns Reimagined for Modern Stitchers, by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin, is a gorgeous book. With glossy pages full of beautiful photos, it’s a delight to read. I have done cross-stitch for many years, and dabbled in other kinds of embroidery, so I enjoyed learning more about stitching in Austen’s England.

Jane Austen Embroidery by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin gives fascinating views of embroidery in Austen’s life and times, and projects for modern stitchers based on patterns of Austen’s time.

The book begins with an introduction exploring “Embroidery in Jane Austen’s Britain.” We learn about Austen’s enjoyment of needlework (which was often just called “work,” in her novels and elsewhere). Some of her contemporaries, including Mary Wollstonecraft, complained that it was drudgery and meaningless work. However, Austen’s letters show that she enjoyed style and had fun fashioning trimmings and garments.

The Lady’s Magazine

The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832) is the source for the designs in the book. The authors explore the magazine’s history. It covered politics, science, cosmetics, essays, travel writing, poetry, serialized novels, music, and much more. According to Jane Austen Embroidery, The Lady’s Magazine balanced “traditionally feminine and intellectual accomplishments,” encouraging women to take up “the pen, as well as the needle.” Austen did both!

Embroidery patterns in the magazine were usually removed for use. It took the authors five years to track down sixty issues which still had intact patterns.

Readers of the magazine used the patterns with their own choices of colors, sizes, materials, and applications. Jenny Batchelor and Alison Larkin have adapted the patterns to modern materials and uses. They give detailed instructions.

The Lady’s Magazine covered many topics, ranging from politics to cosmetics. It encouraged women to take up the pen as well as the needle. Embroidery patterns were supplied regularly. Lady’s Magazine, August, 1770, public domain via Wikipedia

Overview of Jane Austen Embroidery

Seventeen pages explain in clear detail your options for tools, fabrics, thread, transferring the patterns to fabric, framing, working the stitches, and finishing your projects. I read this all the way through; even experienced stitchers will find helpful ideas here.

Three main sections make up the book: “Embroidered Clothes: Dressed to Impress,” “Embroidered Accessories: How Do You Like My Trimming?”, and “Embroidery for the Home: A ‘Nest of Comforts.” Each begins with an extensive discussion of uses of embroidery in Austen’s England aas well as references in her novels and letters.  For example, the authors say that in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney was telling Catherine what she might write in her journal, he was complimenting her in an indirect way. He said that she “appeared to much advantage” in her “sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings.” Sprigs were flowers or sprays of flowers, hand embroidered or printed onto the fabric.

Sewing Projects

Each section offers five projects with detailed instructions. Projects are marked “Beginner,” “Intermediate,” and “Advanced.” I didn’t notice this until I had already bought the material for an “Advanced” project, but I decided to go with it anyway!

For Beginners, in the first section the book offers a “simple sprig pattern” of two flowers on a stem, and a beaded pencil case with a swirling design from a gown pattern. Intermediate stitchers might sew a sequined evening clutch purse, embroidered from a waistcoat pattern, or an apron with an intricate “fireflower” pattern. Advanced stitchers can try  a “housewife” sewing organizer decorated with an autumn pattern.

Later sections offer a napkin set, cell phone pouch, tablet sleeve, reticule or jewelry pouch, muslin shawl, tea box top, work bag, cushion, sewing set, and tablecloth. All are lovely.

The Regency-Style Reticule or Jewelry Pouch, embroidered and beaded in bronze and gold, would add a lovely accessory to any Regency gown. Jane Austen Embroidery

The book tended to go a little freely between Austen’s time and modern times, so I wasn’t always sure whether techniques, materials, and designs were modern or traditional. But I was usually able to figure it out. Also I would have liked a few more pictures of embroidered items of Austen’s time; these were discussed but few were shown. Though I suppose more pictures would have added to the expense of the book, and it’s not too difficult to find pictures online.

The projects that interest me most were items actually used in Austen’s time: the housewife, reticule, shawl, tea box top, work bag, and sewing set. But modern stitchers might enjoy making things they can use daily, like a cell phone pouch or a tablet sleeve. There are plenty of options!

“Workbags were essential items for every needlewoman in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 126). This Beginner-level project is a “glittering gold and green work bag.” Jane Austen Embroidery

The Housewife (Huswife or Hussif)

To really try this book out, I decided to make the Harvest Housewife. A “housewife”—pronounced “hussif”—was “a folded, rolled purse-like object with internal compartments for carrying needles and needlework accessories” (66). It could also be used for carrying coins, letters, and other items. Miss Bates finds a letter under her housewife or huswif in Emma.

The housewife, huswife, or hussif was a sewing kit. Jane Austen made one for her sister-in-law and wrote a poem to go with it. This is the project in the book. Jane Austen Embroidery

We also know that Jane Austen made a housewife for her friend Mary Lloyd, which Jane’s nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh described in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

He wrote:

“Her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent, and might almost have put a sewing machine to shame. She was considered especially great in satin stitch. She spent much time in these occupations, and some of her merriest talk was over clothes which she and her companions were making, sometimes for themselves, and sometimes for the poor.

There still remains a curious specimen of her needlework made for a sister-in-law, my mother. In a very small bag is deposited a little rolled up housewife, furnished with minikin needles and fine thread. In the housewife is a tiny pocket, and in the pocket is enclosed a slip of paper, on which, written as with a crow quill, are these lines:  

‘This little bag, I hope, will prove

To be not vainly made;

For should you thread and needles want,

It will afford you aid.  

‘And, as we are about to part,

‘T will serve another end:

For, when you look upon this bag,

You’ll recollect your friend.’ 

“It is the kind of article that some benevolent fairy might be supposed to give as a reward to a diligent little girl. The whole is of flowered silk, and having been never used and carefully preserved, it is as fresh and bright as when it was first made seventy years ago; and shows that the same hand which painted so exquisitely with the pen could work as delicately with the needle.”

As far as I can find out, that housewife is no longer around; at least, I could not find pictures of it. The Jane Austen House Museum does have a little needle case, made of cardstock and felt, which Jane Austen made for her niece; that would be fun to try to recreate.

The Georgian Sewing Set includes a needle case, scissors case, and pincushion. The embroidery designs are from patterns for decorating shoes. Jane Austen Embroidery

My Project

The housewife was definitely an advanced project. Putting together all the pockets and attachments inside was complicated. I asked Alison for a photo of the finished product to help me out, which she cheerfully supplied (see my blog). In the end, however, I made my own modifications to it, so it would hold cross-stich supplies. That was fun and worked well.

The samples in the book are beautifully hand-sewn with silk fabric and threads. However, my money and time are limited, so I decided to use cheaper fabric, DMC thread, and a sewing machine. I spent less than $20. The book lists substitute colors for those who want to use DMC or Anchor thread instead of silks.

I was very pleased with the results. For details, see my post on my blog. My experience shows that you do not need to be an expert stitcher, or spend a lot of money, to make beautiful projects with this book.

My “housewife,” made with inexpensive materials, opened out. See my blog for more detail.

Next I may make an easier project, for myself.

Check this book out if you love sewing and love Jane Austen. Or, give it to your friends who do.

Happy sewing!

Jane Austen Embroidery by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin is published by Dover Publications in the US and Canada, and by Pavilion Books in the UK.

Photographs from the book are by Penny Wincer; used by permission.

You can find Jennie’s fascinating talk on “Crafting with Jane Austen” at Jane Austen & Co. (Go down to the Staying Home with Jane Austen series, then click through the videos listed horizontally below that until you get to “Crafting with Jane Austen.”)

Jennie Batchelor’s website also links to other talks she has given.

Alison Larkin’s website includes blog posts on Georgian embroidery and lovely images

See also my post on Making a Housewife Sewing Organizer.

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Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease, John Collet, 1770-1775

Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease, John Collet, 1770-1775

In this article, Erin McCafferty asked: What was life like for a lady living in the 18th century? Unwilling to speculate, Erin decided to follow the schedule of a rich Dublin socialite named Mary Granville Pendarvis (1700-1788), who married Patrick Delany in 1743 and who was known for throwing glamorous parties. Later in life, she became a particular friend of King George III and Queen Charlotte. The article is full of insights that remind me a wee bit of Bridget Jones’s Diary:

Venturing out in the city centre proves problematic. Narrow doorways were not made for these types of dresses and getting on the bus is a nightmare; I get stuck in the doorway and I can’t sit down so I have to stand up taking up far too much space at rush hour. Mental note to self: Don’t walk to work when wearing 18th-century gown.

Mary is famous today for her botanical collages, which she began to make at the age of 72, and for her autobiography and correspondence. This is her description of  Lord Hillsborough’s house party at his landed estate:

Lord Hillsborough is very well bred, sensible and entertaining, and nothing could be more polite that he was to all his company. Sally and I being the only women, we had the principal share of his address; he is handsome and genteel … we were twelve in company … Lord Hillsborough was very merry and said a great many lively and comical things … After the ladies had given their toasts they were desired to `command the house’; the hint was taken and I said I would upon that liberty go and prepare the tea-table for the gentlemen. Sally and I took a little step out into the garden to look at the prospect, but the weather soon drove us back. Candles lighted, tea-table and gentlemen soon came together. I made the tea. Cribbage was proposed, and I consented to be of the party, thinking it would be some relief to Lord Hillsborough; at ten we went to supper, at eleven to bed; met at nine the next morning at breakfast.

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Illustration from Modes et Manieres Du Jour, 1798 – 1808

I have changed my mind, & changed the trimmings on my Cap this morning, they are now much as you suggested, – I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions, & I think it makes me look more like Lady Conyngham now than it did before, which is all that one lives for now. Jane Austen to Cassandra, December 18-19, 1798

Women during the Regency period wore headdresses outdoors as a matter of course. When a woman married, or if she was a spinster in her late twenties, she would also take to wearing a cap indoors. This image from Wikipedia shows Mme. Seriziat wearing a bergere, or shepherdess-style straw bonnet over a cap, as was the custom back then. When her child was a baby, he might have worn a simple bonnet, as infants still do today.

Aside from sheltering delicate skin from the sun or hair from the elements, or protecting one’s head in drafty rooms, headdresses took on many other functions. They denoted class and economic status, as well as fashion sense and one’s marital state. Hats were also worn as a sign of respect, inside a church, for instance, and this custom remained widely popular until well into the 20th-century.

Lace caps, mob caps, or draped caps, were made of lace, white linen or delicate muslin, and trimmed with ribbon. They could be ruffled, embroidered, or plain, depending on who wore them and their status. A housekeeper, for example, would wear a more elaborate cap than a scullery maid, whose mob cap was simple by comparison. In Pride and Prejudice 1995, Mrs. Bennet wore such frilly caps with so many ruffles and trimmings that they complimented her image as a silly woman. One can imagine how much fancier her caps were than her maid’s!

Trimming and redecorating old bonnets provided a topic of conversation for women of all ages and social strata. In her novels and letters, Jane Austen frequently mentioned trimming new hats and making over old bonnets as a female activity. According to Penelope Byrde in A Frivolous Distinction, it was quite the fad during the last decade of the 18th century to adorn hats and bonnets with artificial fruits and flowers. As Jane Austen wrote Cassandra in June, 1799 (tongue in cheek we suspect):

Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing – Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots – There are likewise Almonds& raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats.

In addition to professional milliners and modistes, there was quite a large cottage industry for making caps, hats, and turbans from home, which provided a meager salary for women who needed the income. The materials used in making headdresses were as varied as their styles: straw (chip or strip), beaver, velvet, silk, crape, satin, muslin or cloth (Byrde, p 6). Trims included ribbons, the above mentioned artificial fruits and flowers, veils, net, lace, or feathers, and even beads, pins, and brooches.

For a more detailed explanation of the headdresses worn during this era and to view additional illustrations, please click on the following links.

  • Hats and Bonnets, Victoriana: Scroll to the bottom of this page to see illustrations from 1811 and 1812.
  • Fileblogs, Regency Caps, Linore Rose Burkhart: Linore describes the various hat styles in this link, along with materials and trims.

For people interested in ordering their own Regency caps, or in trying their hand at making a bonnet, the following links will lead you to patterns, suppliers, and resources:

  • Louise MacDonald Millinery (link suggested by Laurel Ann, see above image). Louise created the caps for Pride & Prejudice 1995, and describes making them for the movie.

Byrde, Penelope, A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the works of Jane Austen, Bath City Council, 1979.

Four Hundred Years of Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum, edited by Natalie Rothstein, V&A Publications, 1984.

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For centuries, every lady was skilled in the fine art of sewing, mending, and embroidery, and beautiful examples of their fragile handiwork still exist. During Jane Austen’s time, embroidery patterns were created sometimes by experts, as for Lady Middleton, and sometimes by amateurs. They were tacked onto the cloth on an embroidery frame, as in the image above from the Republic of Pemberley. The embroidery pattern below was most likely made by an expert because of its elegant, expert lines. It would have been used for a dress or apron.

Lady Middleton was the daughter of the first Earl of Chichester. She married in 1778 and died in childbirth five years later. View a sampling of her embroidery patterns in the following site: Whitework embroidery patterns

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