Posts Tagged ‘Northanger Abbey’

During the late 18th century, early 19th century, trains on gowns were de rigueur. I chose to show the two gowns below, since the styles were popular when Jane Austen was a teenager (first image) and wrote the first editions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice (second and third images).

1785-90 Sheer embroidered cotton muslin lined with pink silk taffeta - Galliera

Sheer embroidered cotton muslin, lined with pink silk taffeta, 1785-1790. Galliera

Silk Dress 1795 The Kyoto Costume Institute

Silk Dress, Kyoto Costume Institute, 1795

Robe ayant appartenu, 1797

Robe ayant appartenu, 1797

As Regency styles evolved and the 19th century  progressed, trains were worn largely on evening dresses.


1805-1810 French evening dress, V&A museum

1805-1810 French evening dress, V&A museum

I have often wondered how delicate muslin gowns survived the harsh laundering that was required to remove stains made from dusty floors and muddy pathways. Even the grandest ladies wearing the most expensive dresses promenaded on gravel walkways or shopped along city or village streets. How did they manage to keep their hems clean in an era when paved roads and sidewalks were almost impossible to find?

Dirt road, a view near New Cross Deptford in Kent, 1770. artist unknown Yale University, Mellon Collection.

Dirt road, a view near New Cross Deptford in Kent, 1770. artist unknown Yale University, Mellon Collection.

Until macadam roads became widespread, roads across most of Great Britain remained unpaved. Village roads were especially notorious for becoming muddy quagmires during rainy days. The deep ruts in this village scene, illustrated just five years before Jane Austen’s birth, say it all.


Detail of  the road in New Cross Deptford

Dresses worn by working class women stopped at or above the ankles, and for good reason! These women wore sturdy leather shoes that could withstand the dirt.


Paul Sandby drawing of two vendors, 18th c.

City streets were barely better than country roads. While sidewalks protected dress hems, roads were still made of dirt. People tossed out garbage from their windows, and horse droppings made crossings all but impassible for pedestrians.

Dirt road_St. George, Bloomsbury

Dirt road, detail of St. George, Bloomsbury

Crossing sweepers were stationed along major intersections, sweeping a clearing for anyone willing to give a tip. Not only did horses pull carriages and wagons, but drovers led animals to market through village and city streets. The stench from their droppings must have been unbelievable.

street sweeper and wheeled plank Vernet_street_print

This enterprising street sweeper places a wheeled plank at strategic points to help pedestrians cross dirty roads. Print by Carle Vernet.


With time, machines began to replace manual labor, as this unhappy street sweeper notes.

By 1829, machines began to replace manual labor, as this unhappy street sweeper notes in “The Scavenger’s Lamentation.” Observe the piles of horse and animal dung left behind.

Jane Austen mentioned wearing pattens when she lived in Steventon. These devices elevated shoes above the dirt, but by the turn of the 19th century, pattens were no longer considered fashionable and were largely worn by the working classes, such as the midwife below.

Rowlandson, Midwife going to a labour.

Rowlandson. AMidwife Going to a Labour.


early 19th century pattens. Museum of Fine Art, Boston

early 19th century pattens. Museum of Fine Art, Boston

I always view contemporary images for clues. Diana Sperling created some wonderful watercolours around the topic. In this painting, you can see how the trains of the dresses have somehow been hitched up in the back, especially with the first and third women.

dirt road_hazards of walking sperling

Hazards of walking, by Diana Sperling

After Elizabeth Bennet walks to Netherfield to visit her sick sister, Jane, Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Bingley speak disparagingly about the state of her dress:

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”

“She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office.” – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8

Bingley’s citified and nouveau riche sisters were horrified at Elizabeth’s lack of decorum. To them, appearances are more important than sisterly devotion. One imagines that they would not have ventured out until the sun had dried the mud and they could be assured of a carriage. From the image below, one can readily see why Elizabeth’s hems were in such sad shape after her long walk in fields made wet by heavy rain.

Dirt roads

One wonders how helpful pattens were when dirt roads became quagmires. Although she was young when she painted these watercolours, Diana Sperling demonstrates a decided sense of humor in her paintings.

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella and Catherine became quickly inseparable, even calling each other by their first names in an age when only intimate friends and family could be on such terms.

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; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. 

They pinned up the trains of each others’ evening gowns to prevent tripping, but also staining, I suspect.  (It must be noted that guests changed from their street shoes to dancing slippers before entering a ballroom, which probably reduced the amount of dirt trailed inside.) Nothing could stop the girls from seeing each other, not even “dirt” or muddy streets.

There were many ways to protect trains. In this film still, Gwynneth Paltrow’s Emma hitches her train on a loop over her wrist.

Note the train in this image of the 1996 version of Emma

Note the train in this image of the 1996 version of Emma

These French images from the late 18th century provide the best evidence in how ladies would protect their delicate dresses out of doors. While we assume that ladies did not expose their ankles to the public (they certainly did not in the Victorian era, but the Regency was a different time), the illustrations point out the practical habit of hitching a train over one’s arm.

corte de pelo a la victima

This French fashionista with her short, pert hair cut, reveals her roman style slippers as she promenades with her train carried over her arm.

Les Merveilleuses, by carle vernet

While this 1797 satiric image by Carle Vernet is making fun of fashionistas, one can surmise that the habit of carrying long skirts over the fore arm was widespread.

Wind and open windows swept dirt and dust continually into houses and visitors trod in dirt. No wonder maids needed to sweep floors daily!

Regardless of the efforts to keep streets, sidewalks, and floors clean, one wonders about the condition of the hems on women’s garments. Clothes were expensive before the advent of mass-produced cloth and were carefully recycled, even by the well-off.

Laundresses took an enormous amount of effort to keep clothes clean. One can only assume that the majority of women wore clothes with stained hems, and that only the rich could afford the expense of keeping their clothes looking spotless. Eleanor Tilney wore only white gowns, which told contemporary readers more about her economic status than pages of explanations ever could. In Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris frowned on maidservants wearing white gowns. These white clothes were not only above their stations, but they would require an enormous amount of time spent on maintenance.

Also on this blog: Trains on Dresses



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It is interesting to know that the 18th Century author, Fanny Burney, introduced several new words into the English language through the literary form. Through Evelina, she is the first known person to use words which are still so commonplace now, such as a-shopping, seeing sights, break down and grumpy.

Have you ever wondered what inspired Jane Austen to use dialogue as a clever way to personify her characters? Was the romantic charlatan, Mr Willoughby, a product of Jane’s imagination or an imprint of her early reading? Read on!

In her novels and letters, Jane Austen made several references to her favourite authors, and amongst her favourites were always Frances (Fanny) Burney and Maria Edgeworth. Fanny Burney wrote Evelina in the 1770’s, when Jane Austen was still an infant, and Cecilia soon after, and Jane grew up reading these stories. As you read through her novels, it becomes evident that Jane Austen drew inspiration from them.

Evelina is a lengthy novel, which was originally written in 3 volumes, according to the custom of the time. Like Northanger Abbey, Evelina is a coming-of-age novel, with the apt subtitle “The History of the Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World”. The heroine is a girl of obscure birth who has been raised by her loving foster father, Mr Villars, in a comfortable home. Like Catherine, Evelina is set to ‘come out’ and enter the society to lure the attentions of eligible young men.

Evelina is chaperoned to London, where she visits the numerous theatres, operas and pleasure gardens frequented by fashionable society. As Evelina enters into society, she comes across one odious character after another and must defend her virtue against characters of low morals. Not unlike Catherine, Evelina is all innocence and youthfulness and is shocked to experience the realities of London society. She is repulsed by the lewd behaviour of men that she meets and soon wishes that she had never left Berry Hill, her home. In short, her trips are a journey from innocence to experience (to quote Blake).

Evelina is a satire of fashionable life. Like Jane Austen, Frances Burney is an excellent satirist and parodies characters through her excellent mimicry. It is in the dialogue that she really shows her ingenuity. In the preface of Evelina, Burney describes her style as follows:

To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times, is the attempted plan…”

As a key component of her style, Burney reveals personality through her use of language. Her highest-ranking characters (e.g. Lord Orville, Lady Louisa) use extremely formal register, as opposed to the lower-ranking, more vulgar characters (e.g. Captain Mirvan, Madame Duval), who Burney mimics endlessly.

The grotesque Captain Mirvan who enjoys abusing the would-be French woman, Madame Duval, uses crass language with plenty of nautical references.

The old buck is safe – but we must sheer off directly, or we shall be all aground.”

On the other hand, Madame Duval’s bad grammar reveals her lack of breed and education.

This is prettier than all the rest! I declare, in all my travels, I never see nothing eleganter.”

As Evelina meets her ‘vulgar’ cousins in London, the scene reminds me of Mansfield Park where Fanny meets her real family in Portsmouth after several years and feels out of place, having got used to the genteel, polished manners of a country house (Burney uses the word “low-bred” to describe Evelina’s relatives).

Like Austen’s novels, Evelina too is written in somewhat archaic 18th Century language with a preference for long, complex sentences – a style that Jane Austen certainly assumed. Thankfully, this Oxford edition has been carefully edited by Edward Bloom, with detailed notes on 18th Century vocabulary and manners… to read the rest of the post, click here to enter Austenised by Anna.

Thank you, Anna, for giving me permission to link to your post!

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Two years ago PBS offered Northanger Abbey during Jane Austen Season. Tonight we are having an encore presentation. Such fun! For information about this series, click on this PBS link.

John Thorpe, Catherine Morland, Isabella Thorpe, and James Morland

For my original review and others, click on the links below!

Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland

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If you know about Librivox and haven’t returned because you were unhappy with the recordings, give the site a second try. You will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of new recordings of several beloved novels. The audio recordings are free, and the site lists thousands of classics that are now in the public domain, including Jane Austen’s novels.

It seems that people with good voices and who know how to read and take on the right inflection for each character have been busy rerecording certain books. I am thinking specifically of Pride and Prejudice, Version 3, read by Karen Savage, and Northanger Abbey, Version 2, and Persuasion, Version 2, both read by Elizabeth Klett. Elizabeth is an American, but her ability to take on a British accent and do it well (to my ears) is uncanny. More versions are in the works for some of the other novels, including a third version of Persuasion by someone whose voice sounds quite lovely. Notably, no plans are afoot to rerecord Mansfield Park, which had so many different readers that I became quite dizzy keeping track of them all.

You can listen to these free audio files on your computer or MP3 players. I am so hooked on listening to Jane Austen’s novels while I am driving that I own two nanno Ipods – one for Jane’s works alone. Today I shall drive to my parents’ place for Mother’s Day. I am looking forward to the experience, as I am halfway through Northanger Abbey, and then plan on switching to Version 2 of Persuasion. Life is good.

Click here to view a listing of all Librivox’s recordings of Jane Austen’s novels.

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