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Archive for February, 2009

Domestic Happiness, Morland

Domestic Happiness, Morland

When we think of artists during the Georgian era, painters like Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Lawrence immediately come to mind. These days we rarely include George Morland. A prolific painter of rural scenes, he lived from 1763 to 1804. Many of his simple subjects would have been familiar to Jane Austen – children playing, women sewing, a family sitting by a fire, two men sitting outside an inn, people gathering firewood, men walking on a windy day, etc. Click on the first link below to view the most extensive collection on the web of this prolific artist’s paintings.

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libraryThe abstract of What Was Mr. Bennet Doing in His Library and What Does it Matter? by H.J. Jackson states:

In this article, Jackson uses the familiar example of the Bennet household in Pride and Prejudice to outline some of the practices associated with the establishment and maintenance of a library about 1800. Besides gathering clues from the novel itself and providing information about the resources likely to have been available in or near a market town like Meryton, this essay speculates that Mr. Bennet might have been writing in his books and surveys some of the ways of writing that would have been available to him.

This vastly interesting essay, part of a series of essays on Romantic Libraries, is filled with insights like these:

The possession of a library—of a dedicated space, as well as of a private collection of books—is a clear indicator of status in the novel, reflecting relatively recent social developments. The Bingleys, renting Netherfield, have a room but not many books; their new money will be put to use in this generation by the purchase of property and the beginning of a collection. Darcy has a fine library at Pemberley, “the work of many generations,” to which he is constantly adding. His idea of a “truly accomplished woman” is one who would put it to use, a goddess capable of improving “her mind by extensive reading”. “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these,” he says. His is the standard to which all aspire. The Bennet library is one of the bonds between Elizabeth’s family and the one that she will marry into: “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter,” as she defiantly but rather disingenuously declares to Lady Catherine. They have the same social values.

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Princess Charlotte's Court Dress, 1814-16, also known as the Bellflower Dress

Princess Charlotte's Court Dress, 1814-16, also known as the Bellflower Dress

embroidered-bellsWhen I saw Princess Charlotte’s bellflower court dress (1814-16) at the Museum of London I remember being transfixed and standing in front of the glass case for a half hour. I could not get over the exquisite details and embroidery of this gossamer thin gown, and wondered at the hours it took to create it, the number of seamstresses that must have toiled over it, and its cost. It was so beautiful that I mistook it for a wedding dress. The train, which showed slight damage where some of the embroidered bells were missing, is similar to the one on Princess Charlotte’s silver net wedding gown. Tradition has it that this court dress was made for Princess Charlotte on her engagement in 1814. The bellflowers were fashioned from silk covered wire and net decorated with silver thread darning and the tiny beads were made from blown glass. (The London Look, p 22)

The Museum of London website states that this sumptuous dress, which is “covered with hundreds of tiny three-dimensional bellflowers, exemplifies the technical excellence of London’s dress-makers in this period. The dress needed 600 hours of conservation work and is so fragile it may never be shown in public again.”

Detail of bells and net embroidery

Detail of bells and net embroidery

Short in stature and slightly dumpy, and not known for her fashion sense, Princess Charlotte could easily afford elaborate costumes. Her provisioners included the William King of Pall Mall, a silk mercer, and Mrs. Triaud and Mrs. Bean, London dressmakers who worked on her trousseau. (The London Look, p 22.)

According to a contemporary description, the Princess entered her mother’s drawing room in May 1815 in an exquisitely beautiful dress that (from the description) looked similar to the bellflower dress:

Gold lama and white draperies over a petticoat of rich white satin and gold twisted trimming; train of rich figured white satin, body elegantly trimmed with rich gold and blond lace; head-dress, plume of ostrich feathers, with a beautiful diadem of brilliants; necklace and ear-rings of diamonds. – The London Look, p 24

  • The London Look, Fashion from Street to Catwalk. By Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman, Caroline Evans, 2004

princess-charlotte-court-dress3Front of gown, Museum of London

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Image of Jane Austen's pelisse coat

Image of Jane Austen's pelisse coat

Isn’t Jane Austen’s pelisse coat pretty? It has an oak pattern on a beige and brown ground. The pelisse was donated to the Hamphire Museum in 1993 and can be viewed in this link. View close ups of the coat here.

According to Fashion-Era: “Both the late 18th century and the early 19th century pelisse were three quarter length coat. Later versions had a shoulder cape or capes. It was often trimmed with fur, ruched silk trimmings or satin along its edges.” Pelisses can be without sleeves or with sleeves and vary in length.

1819 Walking Dress, Ackermann's Repository

1819 Walking Dress, Ackermann's Repository

Lara Corsets and Gowns reproduced a pelisse coat from an 1819 Ackermann fashion plate.  The following is Catherine Decker’s description of this coat: “Walking Dress, featuring Pelisse. This grey pelisse is trimmed with ruby velvet and has a matching ruby velvet bonnet, with ostrich feathers dyed to match. The huge fur muff would stay popular for the next few years, but muffs in the late 1820s were generally of a more reasonable size.”

  • Click here to see the modern reproduction and for ordering information.

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young-girl-of-spirit-constance-hillIn December 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote this letter of recommendation to Parthenope Verney:

My dear [Parthenope Verney]

It occurred to me after writing yesterday if you are going to set up a needlewoman under the housekeeper, Mary Jenkins, Bathwoman, Dr. W. Johnson’s, Great Malvern, has a niece, living at Oxford, a first-rate needlewoman, eldest girl of a very large family, who wants or wanted a place. If she is at all like my good old friend, her aunt, she would be a very valuable servant. Perhaps her needlework would be almost too good for your place. I believe she is a qualified “young lady’s maid,” though when I heard of her, she had never been “out,” i.e., in service. Perhaps she has a place. I think it answers very well in a large house to have as much as possible done at home, as little as possible “put out.”

This domestic job as needlewoman – mending, embroidering, making clothes – sounds benign compared to the custom of the Regency and Victorian eras to overwork seamstresses. While plying the needle was a common domestic activity (Jane Austen was known to possess a particular talent in this direction), working class seamstresses were appallingly overworked and underpaid, especially during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Many women toiled for long hours in poor lighting conditions, with some going blind from their employment. An apprentice seamstress in a milliner’s shop worked under slightly better conditions, but during the Season when demand for new and fashionable dresses was high, these women would also be pressed to work into the wee hours of the night to complete an order.

The above illustration of Jane Austen sewing comes from Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends by Constance Hill. In Chapter XX, Constance makes the following observation about Jane Austen’s skill as a needlewoman:

Her needlework was exquisite. We have seen a muslin scarf embroidered by her in satin-stitch, and have held in our hands a tiny housewife of fairy-like proportions, which Jane worked at the age of sixteen as a gift for a friend. It consists of a narrow strip of flowered silk, embroidered at the back, which measures four inches by one and a quarter, and is furnished with minikin needles and fine thread. At one end there is a tiny pocket, containing a slip of paper upon which are some verses in diminutive handwriting with the date “Jany. 1792.” The little housewife, when rolled up, is tied with narrow ribbon. “Having been never used and carefully preserved, it is as fresh and bright as when it was first made.

For more on this topic, click on my other post The Life of a Seamstress.

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Biblical passages in workhouses reminded the poor of how lucky they were.

Biblical passages in workhouses reminded the poor how lucky they were.

There’s nothing romantic about PBS Masterpiece Classic’s excellent 2008 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist. Those of us who hold warm and fuzzy memories of the musical –  Oliver! – should put those singing and dancing images out of our minds. This film version depicts the seamy side of Victorian England that Dickens intended – purists will like it for staying true to the author’s gritty vision, and dislike it for the many changes in the plot, as with the character of Rose Maylie.

Oliver lost his mother within hours of his birth and began a twisted start.

Oliver lost his mother within hours of his birth and began a twisted start.

Oliver’s twisted start began not unlike the many orphans of unmarried mothers for whom charity was the only way to survive. In 1848, reformer Lord Ashley referred to the more than thirty thousand children living on the streets as, “naked, filthy, roaming, lawless, and deserted children.” They had no recourse but to live in workhouses, large industrial factories that needed a labor force.

Badly treated workhouse boy.

Badly treated workhouse boy.

Back in the mid-19th century workhouses were no better than concentration camps. Conditions were made purposefully harsh to discourage the destitute from asking for help. Those unlucky enough to qualify were given just enough calories to stay alive for the harsh labor they were forced to perform breaking stones or picking oakum*. In addition to the brutal conditions, parents were separated from their children, and wives were separated from their husbands to prevent more breeding.

William Miller as Oliver Twist

William Miller as Oliver Twist

In 1834 the average age of death for a person in industrial cities like Leeds and Manchester was nineteen. Almost 1/3 of children had lost at least one parent by the age of 15. The odds that a young child would be orphaned was around 8%.**  Such was the world that Charles Dickens grew up in. The child of a debtor and forced into labor in a workhouse at the age of 12, he managed to escape a life of relentless poverty to become one of the most popular and successful authors of his time.

The Board of Guardians eat lavishly while showing Oliver no compassion.

The Board of Guardians eat lavishly while showing Oliver no compassion.

Oliver Twist experienced the horrors of the workhouse from birth. Formerly known as almshouses, these places were supervised by a Board of Guardians, local officials whose aim was to keep the poor out of the way of the middle and upper classes. As in the movie, they treated the poor with complete disdain.

Noah (Adam Gillen) taunts Oliver.

Noah (Adam Gillen) taunts Oliver.

Class was relative. Noah Claypole, who made coffins for Mr. Sowerberry, felt superior to Oliver because he had parents while Oliver did not, and Noah taunted him mercilessly.

Oliver's view of the Sowerberrys, Mr. Bumble, Noah, and Charlotte just before his hair raising escape from the undertaker's establishment.

Oliver's view of the Sowerberrys, Mr. Bumble, Noah, and Charlotte just before his hair raising escape from the undertaker

The workhouse was administered by unpaid bureaucrats, headed by the Beadle, an elected official. These civil servants treated workhouse residents with scorn and cruelty, reminding them with Biblical passages how lucky they were (“Blessed are the poor…”). The workhouse staff received a somewhat better class of lodging and food for their efforts. – Down and Out in Victorian London

After his escape, Oliver walks to London 70 miles away.

After his escape, Oliver walks to London 70 miles away.

During his journey he spots a carriage that carries the mysterious Mr. Monk, who is searching for him.

During his journey he spots a carriage that carries the mysterious Mr. Monk, who is searching for him.

London streets are filled with noise and the clatter of carriages.

London streets are filled with noise and the clatter of carriages.

The lanes are narrow and crowded.

The lanes are narrow and crowded.

Oliver meets his first friendly Londoner, the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold)

Oliver meetshis first friendly Londoner, the Artful Dodger (Adam Arnold)

For an orphan like Oliver or a woman without family or husband like Nancy, Victorian London was as equally harsh an environment as the workhouse. Newly arrived in town, the Artful Dodger is the only friendly face Oliver sees.

Sophie Okonedo as Nancy

Sophie Okonedo as Nancy

Nancy, a thief and prostitute, had worked for Fagin since the age of 12. She’s one of the few conflicted characters in Dickens’ plot, someone who is neither totally evil, like Sikes or Fagin, or totally good, like Oliver or Rose. Talented actress Sophie Okonedo plays Nancy – the prostitute and thief with a heart of gold – without sentimentality. Although Nancy was a white woman in the novel, black servants were common in Britain, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine that illegitimate mulatto offspring would be forced to make their own way in the world.

Fagin (Timothy Spall) might seem like a nicer character than the Beadle, but he represents oppression of a different kind.

Fagin (Timothy Spall) might seem like a nicer character than the Beadle, but he represents oppression of a different kind.

Fagin, played with relish by Timothy Spall, trained his boys as pickpockets in “foul’d and frosty dens, where vice is closely packed and lacks the room to turn.”  Bill Sikes – evil and completely merciless as written by Dickens and played by Tom Hardy – was probably a product of the London slums or workhouse.

As described by Dickens, Bill Sikes (Tom Hardy) was a violent man and dog beater who terrorized those around him.

As described by Dickens, Bill Sikes (Tom Hardy) was a violent man and dog beater who terrorized those around him.

The scene in which young Oliver was sentenced to the gallows was entirely believable. Punishments were uneven and unbelievably harsh. Children as young as twelve were sentenced to death or sent to the penal colony in Australia for minor crimes like pickpocketing, stealing a penny’s worth of paint, or being found in the company of gypsies.

Oliver walks 70 miles to London.

Oliver walks 70 miles to London.

The director of the film, Coky Giedroyc, takes advantage of setting and color to depict Oliver’s world. The workhouse is bleak and gray and the cinematic colors remains so when Oliver works for Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker. The only bucolic scene is shot during Oliver’s long journey on foot to London, and even then it rains more often than not. London looks and feels crowded and claustrophobic as Oliver walks to the East End. When he enters Fagin’s den, surrounded by colorfully clad boys and stolen scarves, his world brightens, though it remains hemmed in.

Food and colorful scarves in Fagin's lair.

Food and colorful scarves in Fagin's lair.

Oliver wakes up in Mr. Brownlow’s house after being rescued from the gallows and his world brightens even more. Light floods over him and Rose and Mrs. Bedwin as they tenderly take care of him. This bright interlude in which Oliver gets a glimpse of another world is short lived. Before long he is plucked away from his sanctuary by Sikes and Fagin, who fear the young boy might reveal their names, location, and criminal operations.

Oliver mistakenly thinks he's died when he wakes up and sees Rose's gentle but concerned face.

Oliver mistakenly thinks he's died when he wakes up and sees Rose's (Morven Christie) gentle but concerned face.

Written as a serialized novel, Oliver Twist is filled with colorful characters, unsuspected plot twists, and suspense, which translate well into film. The result is a remarkably modern plot that has the feel of a detective story.

The Artful Dodger is always on the make.

The Artful Dodger is always on the make.

Everyone was discussing Oliver Twist, from the newly crowned teenage Queen Victoria (who said she disapproved of the novel for younger readers, but read on herself anyway) to Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (“…all about workhouses and coffin makers and pickpockets… I don’t like that low and debasing view of mankind”) to those who could never afford to buy the novel whole, but who could readily identify with the reality it described. All England found itself caught up in the tale of the lonely and mysterious orphan at the mercy of the parish welfare system. – The Rise of the Killer Serial

Mr. Brownlow (Edward Fox).

Mr. Brownlow (Edward Fox).

Mr. Brownlow, whose pocket was picked by the Artful Dodger, turns out to be Oliver’s grandfather. He gives Oliver shelter in his home after testifying on the boy’s behalf and saving him from the gallows. Only the reader/viewer knows early on about this coincidence. Rose Maylie is now Mr. Brownlow’s ward and lives with him – a plot change Dickensian purists will dislike. Edward, his grandson and Oliver’s half brother, walks a fine line between pretending concern over finding out what happened to Agnes, Oliver’s mother, and ordering his brother’s murder. Julian Rhind-Tutt plays Edward (Mr. Monk) with just the right amount of sleaziness, especially when courting Rose.

"We will find Agnes," the double talking Edward (Julian Rhind-Tutt) assures his grandfather.

"We will find Agnes," the double talking Edward (Julian Rhind-Tutt) assures his grandfather.

The first week’s episode ends with two shots fired in the dark and Oliver’s outcry. In Dickens’s tale, Rose Maylie lived in the mansion that Sikes was about to rob. Had this adaptation been more faithful to the book’s plot, she would have found Oliver and nursed him back to health, but Bill Sikes carries the wounded boy back to London instead, where Nancy nurses him. The tale ends with Oliver reunited with Mr. Brownlow and Rose; Nancy, Bill Sikes, and Fagin dead; Mr. Brumble marrying Mrs. Corney; and Edmund disgraced and disinherited.

Young William Miller, like all the Olivers before him, looks angelic. I found it strange, however, that despite being raised in the workhouse with the likes of Mr. Brumble and Mrs. Corney, his accent is so refined. And where did he learn his exquisite manners? Would nature truly be so triumphant over nurture in such a hard scrabble world? I think not, but this is not this production’s only failing.

Mrs. Corny tries to blackmail Monks.

Mrs. Corny tries to blackmail Monks.

While Mr. Brumble and Mrs. Corney do marry, as in the film, their tale does not end at the altar. They squander their ill gotten gains and wind up in the workhouse without hope of leaving and experiencing the same lack of compassion that they had meeted out.

Fagin guilty on all counts

Fagin guilty on all counts

In the book Edward teams up with Fagin – a sinister character as Dickens describes him and without a hint of the lovable traits depicted by Timothy Spall – to hunt after Oliver. In Dickens’ plot, Edward (Mr. Monks) is not cast out without a penny. After receiving half his inheritance from Mr. Brownlow, who hopes he will redeem himself, Edward travels to America, where he squanders his fortune and dies destitute in prison. Seeing him grovel in the film just did not seem quite in character and I found the scene  distasteful and discordant.

Oliver Returns

Oliver Returns

While the second half of this tale was much darker than the first installment, which was grim enough, the film’s pacing had me sitting on the edge of my seat towards the end. Fagin’s death was swift and merciless, and the deft visual touch of the Artful Dodger walking away with Bill Sikes’ dog showed how quickly life moves on. Before Fagin lay cold in his grave, his position had been replaced by one of the boys and his passing went largely unnoticed, except for the crowd. Such hanging scenes were common back then, and vendors sold food and drink as if the crowd was attending an entertainment, which in a strange way they were.  As for Sikes, in the book he dies in a gristly accident running from an angry mob. Death by his own hand seemed just a bit too merciful an ending for a merciless and inhumane man.

If you missed the second installment of this adaptation, click here to view it online. The video will be available on PBS’s site from Feb 23 – March 1.

More Links:

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excessively-diverted1Catherine Delors, blog editrix of one of my favorite blogs Versailles and More and author of Mistress of the Revolution, and Jane Odiwe, editrix of the excellent Jane Austen Sequels and author of Lydia Bennet’s Journal, have tagged Jane Austen’s World along with a bevy of other excessively diverting blogs. Thank you, Catherine and Jane! You both made my week. Looking at the nominees, I see that my blog has joined an august company.  I am to pick seven other blogs, a tough choice as there are so many worthy sites. I’ll follow my predilection for history and choose sites that are as obsessed with uncovering delicious details of the past as I am.

For those who were nominated, these are the rules: Recipients, please claim your award by copying the HTML code of the Excessively Diverting Blog Award badge, posting it on your blog, listing the name of the person who nominated you, and linking to their blog. Then nominate seven other blogs that you feel meet or exceed the standards set forth. Nominees may place the Excessively Diverting badge in their side bar and enjoy the appreciation of their fellow blogger for recognition of their talent.

  • Edwardian Promenade: Beautiful to view, fascinating to read, this blog’s author concentrates on only this fascinating era. Who knew that so many interesting events occurred in such a short time span?
  • Tea at Trianon: This fabulous blog covers a variety of subjects. Stop by for a visit and see what I mean.
  • Nineteen Teen: This blog annotates the regency era with fascinating and informative posts on being a teen in the 19th century.
  • Writing With Style: This stylish blog’s post concentrate more on writing than history. One never knows which topic the author chooses to cover.
  • Prima La Musica: This blog is all about Mozart. How divine. Even better, it is celebrating its 10th year anniversary. Now that’s what I call success!
  • Scandalous Women: Oooh, la la! Women of the past might have had few legal rights, but a number of them managed to live adventurous lives. Do visit this well researched blog and read about eye-popping scandals of the past.

To view the other nominated sites, visit these posts at Jane Austen Today and Austenprose.

What is the aim of this award you ask yourself? Why, just this: To acknowledge writing excellence in the spirit of Jane Austen’s genius in amusing and delighting readers with her irony, humor, wit, and talent for keen observation. Recipients will uphold the highest standards in the art of the sparkling banter, witty repartee, and gentle reprove. This award was created by the blogging team of Jane Austen Today to acknowledge superior writing over the Internet and promote Jane Austen’s brilliance.

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