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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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“after descending to the brink of the river for the better inspection of some curious water-plant, . . .” –Pride and Prejudice, chapter 43; Elizabeth Bennet, the Gardiners, and Mr. Darcy do a bit of “botanizing” during their walk at Pemberley.

On May 30 and 31, 2020, Chawton House hosted a refreshing Virtual Garden Festival. If you missed it, you can still watch most of it online. You can virtually tour the beautiful Chawton House Gardens with Chawton House volunteer Yvette Carpenter or walk the Jane Austen Garden Trail with Clio O’Sullivan. An intriguing section of the gardens highlights a pioneering woman botanist of the eighteenth century. She lived in an era when science was the nearly-exclusive province of men.

The Elizabeth Blackwell Herbal Garden

The Elizabeth Blackwell Herb Garden is inside the Walled Garden built by Edward Knight. In Jane Austen’s letter of July 3-6, 1813, she wrote from her home, Chawton Cottage, that her brother Edward Knight was enjoying his property at nearby Chawton House. She said, “He talks of making a new Garden . . . at the top of the Lawn behind his own house—We like to have him proving & strengthening his attachment to the place by making it better.” The garden Edward built (which was finished after Austen’s death) has been restored, and the Herb Garden was added in 2016. 

Each section of the Elizabeth Blackwell Herb Garden is planted with medicinal herbs that were used to treat different parts of the body. For example, the Chest Bed includes herbs used to treat ailments of a person’s chest, such as coughs. The other sections are Head Beds, Digestion Beds, and Skin Beds. Carpenter tells us that many of these medicinal herbs, such as rosemary, were also used in cooking. Others have -wort as part of their names, indicating they were used for healing. For example, doctors today still recommend the use of St. John’s Wort for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. In the 1700s, Blackwell said it was used against “melancholy and madness.” Other herbs, as the narrator points out, sound magical, like the dragon tree, snakeweed, and mandrake.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Blackwell, Lady Botanist

The plants in this garden are described in a book owned by the Chawton House Library. A Curious Herbal (1737-9), by Elizabeth Blackwell, is said to be the first herbal produced by a woman. It was also far superior to other herbals available at the time. An “herbal” was a book of plants used as medicines. Blackwell drew and colored 500 meticulously-detailed color plates, each of a different plant, with its flower, seeds, and fruit. Along with each plate is the name of the plant in various languages, a description of it, and how it was used medically. The British Library shows 42 pages of A Curious Herbal online, with summarized information about 38 of the plants. (The Biodiversity Heritage Library offers a complete scanned version.)

Amanda Edmiston, an herbalist and professional storyteller, tells Elizabeth Blackwell’s story. According to Edmiston, Elizabeth was born around 1707 in Aberdeen, Scotland. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Elizabeth eloped with a physician named Alexander Blackwell. His medical credentials were called into question, so they fled to London and she set him up in a printing business. (In Scotland, unlike England, women kept their own property after marriage, so she had the money to do this.) Unfortunately, Alexander was also not qualified to be a printer. He got deep into debt, and ended up in debtor’s prison. Elizabeth, penniless, stayed loyal to her husband, and looked for a way to support herself and their young son, and to pay off his debts. 

Elizabeth Blackwell came up with a plan as she and her son enjoyed the Chelsea Physic Garden. Physic meant medical; the plants in this garden were used to treat illnesses. It was filled with exotic plants. Sir Hans Sloane, a respected doctor and renowned naturalist, had collected the plants on his botanical journeys around the world. Many, including cocoa, came from the Americas. Elizabeth became friends with Sir Hans, as well as with the director and the head gardener of the Physic Garden. They supported her idea of creating a whole new herbal, including both native and imported plants. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, who rented the garden from Sir Hans Sloane, also officially approved her project. This support was crucial, since otherwise the scientific work of Blackwell, a woman, would probably not have been accepted and respected. 

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Even after Blackwell’s achievement, women botanists of the 1760s had to disguise themselves as men to study plants. In the 1790s, a clergyman wrote that it was “unseemly” for girls to study botany. But with the approval of medical and botanical experts, Elizabeth had been able to publish her groundbreaking Curious Herbal

A Curious Herbal

Before this time, most plants in herbals were not drawn from life. For example, mandrakes were often drawn with the root in the shape of an actual man and were said to scream as they were uprooted (as Harry Potter experiences in his magical herbology classes!). Elizabeth Blackwell, however, drew all 500 plants directly from real plants, some from the Physic Garden and others from other collections in Europe. Her illustrations were thus completely accurate. They can still be used today to clearly identify plants. 

It was said that her husband Alexander wrote the text of the book while he was in prison. Edmiston speculates that it’s more likely that Elizabeth did the writing herself. She had access to experts and to a library including texts that she often references. The idea that Alexander, a male physician, had written the text was probably a fiction to make the book more acceptable.

Elizabeth Blackwell published a section of the herbal with four plants every week, from 1737 to 1739 (about forty years before Jane Austen’s birth). Serial publication made her knowledge available and affordable for many, as well as giving her a regular income. The book did well and raised enough money for her to pay her husband’s debts and get him out of prison. However, he then took a job in Sweden. He got caught up in a plot there to overthrow the king and was executed, just as his wife was about to travel to join him. So Elizabeth and her son were on their own again; we don’t know much about the rest of her life.

 

 

 

In Edmiston’s further videos, she tells stories about many of the plants in Blackwell’s herbal. In Afternoon Tea with the Curious Herbal, we learn about cucumbers, tomatoes, green tea, chocolate, and coffee. Part 3, A Walk Through a Garden, includes stories about rosemary, St. John’s wort, lavender, yarrow, sage, and lemon balm. Take a look!

Other Lady Botanists

Blackwell was not the only woman botanist who published about plants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In “The Women Who Wrote Plants,” Katie Childs introduces us to other women whose books on botany are in the Chawton House Library. 

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Cover of the Penguin Classics edition

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Cover of the Penguin Classics edition

My favorite title is The Wonders of the Vegetable Kingdom, by Mary Roberts, published in 1822. The “wonders” are described in a series of letters; perhaps imitating the approach of the famous naturalist Gilbert White. (Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne in 1789 was a groundbreaking book on the natural world and ecology. You can visit his house, which is now a fascinating museum, just a short drive from Jane Austen’s house at Chawton.) Roberts also wrote A Popular History of the Mollusca, with 18 color plates showing varieties of seashells and the creatures that live in them. It doesn’t sound like a “popular” subject, but perhaps it was in her day!

While women were not expected to write adult books on botany during Austen’s lifetime, it was fine for them to write botany textbooks for children’s education. These are quite detailed, like adult books. Priscilla Wakefield’s text for children, Introduction to Botany, was published in 1796. She wrote it as a series of letters, with color illustrations. In Katie Childs’ presentation, she tells us that Wakefield was a Quaker social reformer who started a maternity hospital. Elizabeth Fry, the famous Quaker prison reformer, was Wakefield’s niece.

Cover of An Introduction to Botany by Priscilla Wakefield, Cambridge Library Collection.

An Introduction to Botany by Priscilla Wakefield, Cambridge Library Collection. 

Botany did become a fashionable pursuit for elegant ladies. Botanical Rambles (1826), by Lucy Sarah Atkins, is subtitled, “Designed as an Early and Familiar Introduction to the Elegant and Pleasing Study of Botany.” The ability to draw plants accurately became an “accomplishment” ladies aspired to. Books were written specifically on how to draw plants, including information about the plants themselves. Watch Ms. Childs’ talk for more about early female botanical writers, and to see illustrations from their books.

Beatrix Potter, Expert on Fungi!

Speaking of discrimination against women in science, especially in botany: Much later, in 1897, a paper on fungi by Beatrix Potter (yes, the author of Peter Rabbit) was presented at the Linnaean Society in London. However, since she was a woman, she was not allowed to present, or even to attend the meeting. Her paper, presented by her uncle, was not taken seriously since it was written by a woman. Today, though, Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of various fungi are used around the world to identify species of mushrooms.

Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter book cover, French Edition, ABE Books. ISBN 10: 2909808211 / ISBN 13: 9782909808215

Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter book cover, French Edition, ABE Books, ISBN 10: 2909808211 / ISBN 13: 9782909808215.

Highlight of the Festival: Gardens in Jane Austen

On Sunday, the Garden Festival offered some presentations specifically for gardeners, so if gardening is one of your passions, you may want to check those out.

For Jane Austen lovers like me, though, the highlight of the festival was “Love in the Shrubbery: Gardens in Jane Austen’s Life and Works.” Kim Wilson, author of In the Garden with Jane Austen, finished out the festival with this charming presentation. In it, she shows us gardens Austen knew. She also explains and illustrates those terms like shrubbery and wilderness, describing places where Austen’s ladies and gentlemen walk. Did you know that shrubberies had paths made of gravel to keep the ladies’ feet dry, since wet feet were considered potentially fatal? (Think of Marianne Dashwood, sitting in wet shoes and stockings before her near-fatal illness.) If you only have time to watch one video from the Chawton House Virtual Garden Festival, I recommend this delightful 28-minute presentation.

I also joined in an engaging creative writing workshop led by Claire Thurlow, “A Garden Writing Retreat.” Claire encouraged the participants to imagine ourselves in our own special gardens as we write. While that workshop is not available online, you might use Kim Wilson’s talk, or any of the virtual garden tours from the festival, to enjoy time in a virtual garden today. I hope it will refresh your soul.

Note for anyone who might be wondering: There was also a later Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to graduate in medicine in the United States, in 1849. Both Blackwells were pioneering women in the medical field of their times.

A Word About the Author: Brenda S. Cox blogs on “Faith, Science, Joy, . . . and Jane Austen!” at brendascox.wordpress.com . Under the category “Science” at her site, you will find other articles on science in Jane Austen’s England, including women of science like Caroline Herschel and Mary Anning.

Quote from Austen’s letters is from p. 224 of Deirdre Le Faye’s fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters.

Links embedded in the article:

 

 

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“Ah! there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” This line from Mrs. Elton in Emma is quite humorous, but the quote itself holds an eternal truth for most of us. There really is no place like one’s own home.

For Jane Austen, “home” was in Hampshire, a lush, green county in the south of England. She seems to have been happiest there, and it’s no wonder. When I visited there in June, it was as lovely as ever. The narrow country roads wind slowly through gentle hills and are lined with tall trees and thick bushes. Large, green fields stretch out for miles beyond. Here and there, there are houses set far back from the road. The storybook villages that pop up every few miles are complete with thatched roofs, wood and brick buildings, and picket fences around the gardens.

The air is still and quiet there. But for the cars that pass by every so often, it’s like stepping back in time.

STEVENTON

Austen’s home for the first 25 years of her life was at the Rectory in Steventon, and it surely brought comfort to her in many ways. She grew up there, was educated there, and spent many happy years with her family there.

Image 1 Rectory Site (1)

Rectory site today. Image Rachel Dodge

The lanes become more and more narrow as you near Steventon. Queen Anne’s Lace grows in profusion and the undergrowth presses close to the road. Trees grow up over the roads to form deep green tunnels of dappled light. Though the Rectory was torn down long ago, one can see the place where it once stood. Today, it is a large green field dotted with white sheep.

Image 2 Steventon Walk to Church

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

Driving further up the lane to St. Nicholas Church, where her father Reverend George Austen was the rector, one enters a tunnel of trees that stretches around a bend and out of sight. It’s not hard to imagine Jane and Cassandra walking that beautiful lane on a fair Sunday morning to attend services at the church.

Image 3 Exterior Steventon Church

Exterior of St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Image Rachel Dodge

The church itself is still in use today and looks the same as it would have in Jane’s time, making it quite unique. It is a small, simple church, built around 1200 by the Normans. In the heat of summer, its thick stone walls provide a cool, quiet place to sit and look, ponder, or pray. People from the neighborhood are known to stop by to visit and pray.

Image 4 Interior Steventon Church (1)

Interior, St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo Rachel Dodge

Highlight: When we were there, one of the locals showed us how to open the door, which is kept unlocked for any who wish to visit and rest. The church is a place of stillness and beauty with its soft, rose colored-light from the mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Image 5 Wheatsheaf

Wheatsheaf Hotel, Basingstoke. Image Rachel Dodge

Up the road three miles is the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Basingstoke (known as the Wheatsheaf Inn during Austen’s life), where Austen walked to post letters and collect the family mail. Though it has since been expanded and updated, and now houses a lovely hotel and pub, the original building is still visible.

CHAWTON

The Austen family left Hampshire in 1801 when her father retired from his position as rector, and by all accounts, Jane Austen did not find that same home-comfort she had known at Steventon until she came back to Hampshire again years later. In 1809, several years after her father’s death, she moved with her mother and Cassandra into “the cottage” at her brother Edward’s estate in Chawton, Hampshire. Though Austen traveled frequently to visit family and friends during her adult years, Chawton Cottage and its surrounding areas once again became her true home.

Image 6 Jane's House Sign

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen’s house sign. Image Rachel Dodge

Jane Austen’s House Museum, or Chawton Cottage, is where Jane lived until she moved to Winchester to seek medical attention toward the end of her life. The lanes, the village, the church, and the areas surrounding Chawton became the happy backdrop for the most prolific period of writing in Austen’s life.

Image 7 Jane's House Front

Front of Chawton Cottage. Image Rachel Dodge

Jane Austen’s House is open for tours daily and is surrounded by beautiful flower gardens. Baskets of books by Austen sit on benches in the shade for any guest who wants to sit and read. In the kitchen, there is a station set up for making lavender sachets and another where visitors can practice writing with a quill. There are also straw bonnets and dresses for guests to borrow if they wish to enjoy a more authentic experience!

Image 8 Roses Entrance

Entrance to Chawton Cottage with rose bower. Image Rachel Dodge

Inside the home, there are many items that are original heirlooms belonging to the family or are similar to what Jane would have known. I sat and played the piano (left image), which they allow visitors to do if they are pianists. In the dining room, one can see the Knight family’s Wedgwood dinner service, the tea things Jane would have used to make tea, and Jane’s writing desk (right image). Upstairs, guests can view the bedrooms and read more about the history of the family.

Image 9 Piano

Piano, Chawton Cottage. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 10 desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk. Image Rachel Dodge.

Highlight: At Jane Austen’s House, I met and spoke with a descendant of Austen’s, Jeremy Knight. He grew up at Chawton House (or the “Great House”), as did his daughter Caroline. When I visited, he was standing in the bedroom of Chawton Cottage, where Jane and Cassandra once shared a room, happily sharing Jane Austen’s history with visitors. What a treat! For further information about Chawton Cottage, you can read more here: https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/

Image 11 Bed

Bed inside the room that Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, shared. Image Rachel Dodge.

St. Nicholas Church, Chawton is larger and more grand than the church at Steventon. Though it does not look as it did in Austen’s day, one can see the evidence of years of history inside and out. Like the church at Steventon, the church at Chawton is still a working parish church today.

Image 12 Chawton Church Exterior

Exterior, St. Nicholas, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 13 Chawton Church Int

Interior, St. Nicholas Church, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

Highlight: If you walk around the back of the church, you can see the graves of Jane Austen’s mother and sister there. (Austen’s grave and memorial are found at Winchester Cathedral in Winchester.) Both women lived long, full lives, unlike our dear Jane.

Image 14 Graves at Chawton

Gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister. Image Rachel Dodge

Chawton House and its gardens are open for public tours today. The Elizabethan era house, originally owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight, is now a library and study center devoted to women writers. There is also a tea shop inside the house.

Image 15 Chawton Great House Ext

Chawton House interior. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 16 Chawton House Int

Chawton House interior. Image Rachel Dodge

Highlight: Caroline Jane Knight, daughter of Jeremy Knight and 5th great-niece to Jane, released a book in June called Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage. It tells her personal story of growing up at Chawton House, the family’s Christmas traditions, baking with her Granny, and helping in the tea room. She is the last Austen descendent to have grown up in the house (before it was sold and later became the Chawton House Library).

Caroline has also formed the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to helping support literacy in communities in need worldwide. https://janeaustenlf.org/

For more on the history of Chawton House, you can read more here: https://chawtonhouse.org/about-us/our-story/

CELEBRATING 200 YEARS

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death later this month, there are many special events all around Hampshire this summer and throughout the year. The people there are proud of their Austen heritage.

As part of the 200th year celebration, Jane Austen’s House Museum has a special exhibit called “41 Objects.” The number 41 marks the number of years that Jane graced this earth, and the objects can be found in and around the museum. Read here for more: https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/41-objects

Image 17 41 Objects Plaque

Chawton Cottage plaque. Image Rachel Dodge

 

Image 18 41 Objects Wedgwood

Wedgwood china, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

One highlight for those visiting Hampshire during the “Jane Austen 200: A Life in Hampshire” celebration is the “Sitting with Jane” park benches. These “Book Benches” are scattered throughout the Hampshire area and are part of a public book trail. Each of the 24 benches focuses on a Jane Austen theme as interpreted by a professional artist. Fans can take photos sitting on the benches and post them to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #SittingWithJane. Visit http://www.sittingwithjane.com/ or search @SittingWithJane on Twitter to see the benches or learn more.

 

Image 19 Steventon Bench

Sitting with Jane bench. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 20 Chawton Bench

Sitting with Jane bench. Image Rachel Dodge

For a full list of the events and exhibits scheduled for this year, you can read more here: http://janeausten200.co.uk/

If you have the chance to travel to England, visiting Jane’s beautiful Hampshire countryside is a must. Hampshire has all of the charm and beauty of modern British culture alongside a long, rich, and vibrant history of the past.

Other posts about Steventon, Chawton Cottage, and Chawton on this blog – Click here to see posts.

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Inquiring readers, It’s such a delight to receive first-hand information from a friend who lives in the U.K. Frequent contributor, Tony Grant, writes about his impressions of seeing the BBC2 special last Sunday entitled Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball. The scenes were filmed in Chawton House wherein a Regency ball was reconstructed in a way that Jane Austen’s contemporaries knew well, but whose meanings in many instances have been lost to us. I had the privilege of watching the show as well and have interspersed my comments as if Tony and I were engaged in a dialogue. (Italics represent my comments.)  Let’s hope this special will be available soon the world over.

Amanda Vickery. Image courtesy of

Amanda Vickery and Alistair Sooke. Image courtesy of BBC2

It is Winter, 1813.

Amanda Vickery and Alaister Sooke, the art critic for The Daily Telegraph and who also presents art history programmes for the BBC, present this amazing programme. It is one and a half hours long and, being a BBC production, there are no breaks or intermissions.

The programme is a tribute to the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. The producers have taken the Netherfield Ball as their focus. They did not choose the Merryton Assembly ball, which was a public ball where everybody from the butcher, baker and candlestick maker was eligible to attend. The Netherfield Ball was a more intimate and select affair and by invitation only. One would be assured to rub shoulders with only the best families in the community.

Jane and her sister and mother lived in Chawton Cottage, where Pride and Prejudice was prepared for publication. It was a time when courtship was a serious business. “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing and drawing,” Jane wrote, and a man had to marry well if he was to secure his dynasty.

Research into costumes, food, dance, music, carriages, conversation and so on focussed on the year 1813.

Filming at night on Chawton House grounds

Filming at night on Chawton House grounds. Image courtesy of Chawton House

The writers and producers consulted and interviewed professors and experts about the minutiae of Georgian life. One professor, Jeanice Brooks at Southampton University, showed Alexander Sooke the very music manuscripts that Jane Austen wrote out by her hand with little cartoon doodlings in the margin.

Jane Austen doodle in a music manuscript

Jane Austen’s doodle in her music manuscript. Image @BBC2

That was one of the many wow moments for this viewer. (For me too, Tony!)

Popular music was widely collected at the time and summarized for the piano. Jane Austen must have spent hours copying music in her neat hand, for there are quite a number of her music manuscripts still in existence. 

ivan day food expert

Ivan day, historic food expert. Image @BBC2

The food was researched to the minutest degree. Ivan Day and his kitchen staff used Georgian cooking implements, although the Georgian cooking range at Chawton House was not in working order, so they used modern ovens. The recipes were authentic and came from Martha Lloyd’s cook book and other original Georgian documents.

Martha Lloyd's recipe for white soup, a common dish served at supper dances.

Martha Lloyd’s recipe for white soup, a common dish served at supper dances.

Food denoted status. Game shot on a gentleman’s land was turned into a partridge pie, a symbol of upper class dining. At the Netherfield Ball, Mr. Bingley would be sure to provide only the most excellent food, such as fresh grapes, nectarines and peaches in winter, which would have been expensive to import or grow indoors in hot houses. The grand spectacle of the supper table, with its silver platters, silver dishes, and silver tureens, gave an overall impression of austentation [sic] and of the host’s status. 

Ivan Day's recreation of Solomon's Temple, a very difficult flummery to recreate.

Ivan Day’s recreation of Solomon’s Temple, a very difficult flummery (Georgian jelly) to recreate. Image @BBC2

Stuart Marsden, an expert in Georgian dances and a former ballet dancer, assembled students from the dance department of Surrey University at Guildford, about twenty miles north of Chawton, to dance at the ball. Although these young dancers were fit and professional, in their Georgian costumes and in the full glare of hundreds of candles, they suffered from heat and encroaching exhaustion as the evening went on.

This fan served to cool the dancer and as a crib sheet, in which the steps of intricate dances were written down. Usually made of paper, few have survived.

This fan served to cool the dancer and as a crib sheet, in which the steps of intricate dances were written down. Usually made of paper, few of these fans have survived. As all fans of the Regency know, they also served as the perfect tool for flirtation. Image @BBC2

During the course of the evening, the dancers were supplied with Portugese wine and fortified negus punch. Punch a la Romaine, or Roman punch, was a mixture of rum or brandy with lemon water, lemon meringue and a very hot syrup. It was a sort of creamy iced drink that was 30 or 40 percent alcohol, a Georgian equivalent of a cold Coca Cola that cooled the dancers down between dances.

Punch a la Romaine

Punch a la Romaine. By the end of the night the dancers were a little tipsy, shall we say. The spoons used in the production belonged to the Prince Regent and came from Brighton Pavilion. Image @BBC.

Although Chawton House is large, the room where the dance was held seemed rather crowded once all the dancers were assembled. Candles blazed everywhere. The men wore stiff jackets, waistcoats, and neck high cravats. The ladies, whose bosoms were exposed, also wore many layers. They had donned swaths of petticoats under their skirts, and wore long stockings and long gloves. One can imagine that with the press of bodies, heat from the candles, constant exertion in long dance sets, and frequent imbibing of alcohol that the assembly quickly felt heated.

One can see from this image how crowded the ball room was and how 300 candles and all that exertion might have heated the dancers.

One can see from this image how crowded the ball room was, and how the blaze from 300 candles and hours of exertion might have heated the dancers. I was amazed at the lack of evident sweat.

It was interesting to find out that everybody knew how a long a dance would last from the length and quality of the candles. There were four-hour candles and six-hour candles. For this production eight-hour candles were used.

The finest, most expensive and clean burning candles were made of beeswax. Up to 300 might be used for a ball – quite an expense, for the cost was around £15, or a year’s wages for a manservant. Less expensive (and smokier and stinkier) were tallow candles, which were purchased by the less wealthy. The very poor had to make do with rush sticks, which didn’t last very long.

Peoples’ wealth and position in the upper and gentry classes were evident from the outset. Hierarchy pervaded all strata of Regency society. Social signifiers included the materials used for clothes, their style and the embellishments they had personally chosen for their costumes, the cut of the material and garment, the very buttons they had on their costumes, and so on. These details would reveal not only their status but their personalities too.

Professor Hillary Davidson explains the personal involvement that people had in their clothes, which were hand made.

Professor Hillary Davidson explains the personal involvement that people had in their clothes, which were hand made and reflected personal taste and input. In addition, the outfits “reflected the range of social rank and social division by cut, color, and texture.” Appearance meant everything at a ball. Many refashioned their frocks from hand-me-downs from an older sister or cousin, creating “hybrid” fashions, for the value of these outfits lay in the material, not the design of the dress. Individual details and features were immediately evident to Jane Austen’s contemporaries, for fashion and jewelry represented a public display of one’s assets. Image @BBC2

Silk would be worn by Miss Bingley, for it was a rich and expensive fabric. Miss Bingley and Miss Hurst would have worn the latest fashions from London, which is quite evident in the film costumes of Pride and Prejudice 1995. Lydia Bennet would have chosen a fine gown,  for she was fashion forward for a country girl (and her mama’s favorite), whereas Mrs. Bennet would have worn a print gown with a frilly but modest matronly cap that denoted her status as a woman with some authority. The Bingley sisters would have sneered at the simply styled hybrid dress that the Bennet sisters might have refashioned from a combination of old clothes and newer fabrics.  If you were a good needlewoman, such a gown might have been embellished with embroidery, lace, or ribbons.

Simple hybrid dress, much as Elizabeth Bennet might have worn. Notice the coral necklace.

Simple hybrid dress, much as Elizabeth Bennet might have worn. Notice the coral necklace.

Shoes were changed in the cloak room, for some people walked quite a distance to get to the ball, and even soldiers exchanged their Hessian boots for dancing slippers. Over the course of the evening, delicate dance slippers might be worn down to a thread.

Historical makeup and rouge pots. Too much, and a lady might be labeled a trollop.

These are Sally Pointer’s historical makeup and rouge pots for rosy cheeks (even for the redcoats, like Wickham). Apply too much color and a lady might be labeled a trollop. Image @BBC2

Everything – one’s clothes, actions, and relationships – how you arrived at the ball – could be read and interpreted. This was one of the main points made by the programme.

It’s not so different today, really, is it Tony? At a glance we can tell who is fashion forward, who is a frump. Whose jewelry reeks of Tiffany’s and who shopped at Walmart. We know from each others speech, friends and business associations, educational background, and other social signifiers who belongs in our social strata and who does not. My mother especially had a keen sense of which of my suitors suited and who did not. Her primary social signifiers were persons of moral character and compassion. It was who that person was inside that mattered, not what they wore or what possessions they had acquired. I suspect that during the Regency such distinctions were also important. Jane Austen was a genius at distinguishing wheat from chaff, and ferreting out the foibles of her contemporaries.

Walking to the ball carrying lanterns.

Walking to the ball carrying lanterns. The hooded cloaks reminded me of the medieval era and monks. Image@BBC2

I noticed how most of the actors in the production walked to the ball holding lanterns. Carriages were expensive. If possible, those who had carriages would arrange to pick others up and bring them. If not, the guests walked to the ball. A similar scene was shown in Becoming Jane, where guests arrived on foot and walked along a lane strung with lanterns. Back in those days balls were planned to coincide with a full moon for maximum light at night and for a bit of safety from bandits and robbers. One wonders about such well-laid plans in rainy England, where a blanket of storm clouds would block the moonlight and rain would soil the hems of delicate ball gowns.

The most interesting thing I found from the programme was the meaning of the dance. This Darcy quote, “every savage can dance,” is used to highlight that the dance alludes to something primal. Elizabeth and Darcy have their most unguarded conversation during a dance. Interestingly, the Savage Dance was a craze in 1813 and taken from a song and dance routine from a musical based on Robinson Crusoe.

Balls, to quote Amanda Vickery, were sexual arenas of social interaction. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Elizabeth dance around their sexual attraction for each other. The truth is that in those days single men and well-protected young and unmarried ladies could not spend one moment in private with each other before they were officially engaged. But at a dance they could touch each other (through gloved hands) and flirt and talk at length without a chaperon breathing down their necks. The long dance sets were strenuous and required stamina, however. To quote Amanda Vickery, “The entire ball is hard work, with physical, social, and emotional investment and cost.” The cost being one of expenditure (looking one’s best) and exertion (maintaining one’s stamina.) 

dance chawton

Dancing the cotillion. Image @BBC2

Young ladies and young gentlemen practiced and prepared for the balls from childhood on. They had to be good and graceful at dancing to be admired and looked at. This was necessary for their futures, for they were actually dancing for their lives. You were likely to dance with a person from the same rank and expertise: they endured these dances for a very long time with one partner. There were moments of physical contact and movement. Aristocratic young men like Darcy sought strong and accomplished women to be the mother of their children for the sake of inheritance and future generations of their families. Young women needed to attract a good catch for their happiness and futures too. So much effort and hope was invested in the “ball,” for a girl’s future could be sealed at a dance.

No wonder the excitable Lydia Bennet went ballistic when the Netherfield Ball was announced! She was not only man crazy, but she had a competitive streak in her, frequently pitting herself against her older sisters. I was also struck by how much dancing masters could make per person from dance lessons. Every young boy and girl from a respectable family was expected to practice dance steps. It was quite a telling detail for Jane Austen’s contemporary readers that Mr. Collins is a poor dancer and that Mr. Elton exhibited such ungentlemanly conduct towards Miss Smith at the Crown Inn ball, where Mr. Knightley (a true knight in shining armour) came to her rescue and saved her from public humiliation. Mr. Elton’s reaction towards Miss Smith pointed out how much Emma misjudged Miss Smith’s tenuous connection to the gentry, for Mr. Elton thinks too highly of himself and his own social standing to ally himself to the bastard daughter of a gentleman.

 Alaister Sooke makes the comment that for all its finery and sophistication the ball (it was decorous and tightly controlled) was also primeval, with the subconscious very much in play. The way the dancers were dressed, with women revealing lots of cleavage and the men revealing their groins in tight-fitting trousers, was totally sexual in nature.

men's breeches

The dancers get fitted for their breeches, which revealed quite a bit of the male anatomy, especially the groin area. Image @BBC2.

You are so right, Tony. Let’s take the case of menswear ca. 1813. Although the colors were muted, the silhoutte was quite athletic. The front of a man’s coat was cut high so that his body was fully revealed in front from the waist down. Men tucked their long shirt tails between their legs, which served as underwear. Because their calves were exposed, it was important for men to dance well, since all their steps were in full view. Women’s legs were hidden by their skirts and they could make a mistake or two without much notice.  I was struck by how much the modern dancers enjoyed the evening and how much their costumes and the setting affected them.

corset

The ladies in the series wore authentic underwear. Underneath the muslins  and silks they wore undergarments consisting of a chemise and petticoat. There was actually a lot going on below the skirt, but the ladies  generally went knickerless. Even when women wore underdrawers, the crotch area remained open and they remained so until the late 19th c. or early 20th century.  Crotchless knickers were the norm! Image @BBC2

A courting couple made sure to reserve the supper dance for each other (or the dance just before the evening meal), for this meant that they could extend the time they spent together to include the meal, which was generally served at midnight. In the series, Ivan Day and his staff slaved to make the dishes, for they were served à la française (in the French style), or all at once. Preparing dishes for such a service required a great deal of skill and Herculean effort, for hot meals needed to be served hot, while delicate ices needed to remain frozen until they were consumed. At the dinner table in this special, a mild scene of chaos ensued, with servants bringing platters from one end of the table to the other, guests handing platters around, and others reaching across the table to sample a tidbit. Ragout of Veal, one of Jane Austen’s favorite dishes, was served. This dish was frequently mentioned by her, particularly in Pride and Prejudice. As an aside, one could readily discern at the supper ball which guests had manners and those who did not.

Ragout of

The ragout of veal at the supper dance was associated with high living. Image @BBC2

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Inquiring readers, periodically Christine Stewart sends us her impressions in her quest to understand Jane Austen and study her novels and life in Embarking on a Course of Study. Here is her latest submission. Sandy Lerner, whose successful career as co-founder of Cisco Systems provided her with the fortune to renovate Chawton House, Edward Austen Knight’s  second grand house, and found Chawton House Library, spoke about Jane Austen’s concept of money and wealth in “Money Then and Now: Has Anything Changed?” at the JASNA AGM in NYC earlier this month. While I found her talk to be riveting (the salon was packed) and thought-provoking, some of us disagreed with a number of points she made. (More about that speech in a later post.) Christine also recently heard Sandy speak at Goucher College. Here are her impressions.

Sandy Lerner, savior of Chawton House, now Library, author of the P&P sequel, Second Impressions, visited Goucher last night to give a talk, a reading, and sign copies of her book.

Sandy Lerner at Goucher, image @Christine Stewart

About Sandy Lerner

If you’re not familiar with Lerner:  “Lerner in 1992 bought and restored an estate once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, called Chawton House, in Hampshire, England. She has transformed it into the Center for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing, and is currently underwriting the digitization of the works of female authors who lived in England between 1600 and 1830. The 10,000 volumes, not all of them novels, include works by Austen, Mary Shelley, Frances Sheridan and Maria Edgeworth, among many others, as well as a collection of cookbooks by Quakers.” (Piedmont Maverick by Suzanne Gannon). Lerner co-founded Cisco Systems with her (now ex) husband, and later a cosmetic company called Urban Decay, which sold unusual (at the time) nail colors like green and blue. Their slogan was ‘Does Pink Make You Puke?’ She once posed naked on horseback for Forbes Magazine. In short, she is an interesting, eccentric, wicked smart woman who owns a farm in Ayrshire, Virginia. She bought a 125 year lease on Chawton House in 1993.

My friend Clare and I went to the talk at Goucher College in the (still shiny and new!) Athenaeum. This is where Alberta Burke’s famous Jane Austen Collection  is housed. The Batza Room, where the Jane Austen Scholars talk every two years, was packed (50-75 people). So were the chairs. We were all pretty much sitting on top of each other, so that made it rather unpleasant when a man reeking of onions and gin sat down next to poor Clare. She bore it bravely, but we joked about how much we wished women still carried lavender scented handkerchiefs to bury their noses in.

Goucher’s president Sanford (Sandy) Ungar was there, which always signals that the visitor is a big deal, as if we didn’t know! Outside the door, the table was laden with the very prettily bound books (sort of blue and leathery looking) and elaborate bookmarks from Chawton Library, which you received when you bought the book. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the table because of the swarm of people.

Sandy Lerner at Goucher College

When Lerner took the podium, the first thing she said was that she had just decided what she was going to talk about, which might give you an indication of how well prepared she was. Clare and I enjoyed the talk, for what it was, a quick summary of her love of Austen and buying Chawton and what it is today, and a quick recap of writing the book, with some lamenting about not receiving the proper reviews, how agents and editors won’t talk to her, because she self-published. I think she spoke for, maybe 15 minutes?  (My notes on her talk will follow the post.) There was an awkward pause and she offered to read, but didn’t have a book (!). One was borrowed from the audience and she read for 10 minutes, a very quick scene between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Read more for my notes about writing the book on my blog, Embarking on a Course of Studyhttp://www.embarkingonacourseofstudy.com/2012/10/sandy-lerner-visits-goucher-second-impressions.html

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