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Archive for April, 2009

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The wretchedness of a scheme to Box Hill was in Emma’s thoughts all the evening. How it might be considered by the rest of the party, she could not tell. They, in their different homes, and their different ways, might be looking back on it with pleasure; but in her view it was a morning more completely misspent, more totally bare of rational satisfaction at the time, and more to be abhorred in recollection, than any she had ever passed. – Emma, Jane Austen, Chapter 44

  • Re-reading Box Hill: Reading the Practice of Reading Everyday Life offers five articles on the topic of Box Hill. How astounding. Click here to enter the site.

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Society was aware of Mr and Mrs Merdle. Society had said ‘Let us license them; let us know them.

The Merdles and Sparkler

The Merdles and Sparkler

Mr Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, ‘Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?’ And, the reply being in the negative, had said, ‘Then I won’t look at you.’

This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest of crimson and gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom to repose upon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr Merdle wanted something to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for the purpose. Storr and Mortimer might have married on the same speculation.

Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The jewels showed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Society approving, Mr Merdle was satisfied. He was the most disinterested of men,–did everything for Society, and got as little for himself out of all his gain and care, as a man might. - Charles Dickens, Book the First: Poverty, Chapter 21: Mr Merdle’s Complaint

Mr. Merdle kisses Fanny's hand

Mr. Merdle kisses Fanny's hand

For those who have not read the book or seen the last installment, spoilers ahead:

The Merdles  take front and center stage at the start of the last installment of PBS Masterpiece Classic’s Little Dorrit, fulfilling the promises that this film’s theme of bankruptcy and fallen fortunes is a relevant one in today’s world. Mr. Merdle, played by Anton Lesser, was the Man of the Age. He made money for his investors seemingly out of thin air and they loved him for it. Yet Mr. Merdle (the last name is a play on the French word Merde, meaning shit) seemed to be chronically unhappy, despite his showy wife, elegant house, and sterling reputation.  The viewer soon learns what had been keeping him preoccupied: he was stealing from one fund to pay for another (shades of Bernard Madoff), and issuing shares without collatoral.  His house of cards tumbled down, and along with it, all his investors. Instead of facing the consequences, Merdle committed suicide with a pen knife he has borrowed from his daughter-in-law Fanny. To deaden the pain of stabbing his jugular vein with a blunt knive, he drank laudanum, leaving others to literally clean up his messes. Merdle’s demise affected a score of people, but except for the money they lost and their uncertain financial future, his wife, daughter-in-law and stepson did not seem greatly affected by his suicide. Fanny wondered when her pen knife would be returned and the butler took off  soon after learning that the family was bankrupt, leaving his post without notice. With a few deft touches, Charles Dickens showed how quickly the mighty can fall and that the world really doesn’t give a shit except in the instance where it is affected.

Anton Lesser and Nick Jones as Mr. Merdle and his butler

Anton Lesser and Nick Jones as Mr. Merdle and his butler

Most people could and still can lose other people’s money without much conscience, but during this and the Regency era debt was considered to be a matter of honor (would that it was today).  Social historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that “Bankruptcy was, according to economic theory, the penalty of inefficient businessmen, and its spectre haunts the novels of Victorian England.”  (Victorian Web) Mounting debts affected people in different ways. George Brummel fled to France in 1817 rather than face debtor’s prison when he fell out of favor with the Prince Regent and could not repay his creditors. He was not the only gentleman to flee to the continent due to insolvency. The cost of gambling, bad investments, horses, carriages, fine food and a decent wardrobe could tip a modest – even a great – fortune over the edge. Other individuals, like William Dorrit and Arthur Clennam, were sent to debtor’s prison. Some chose suicide, like Mr. Merdle, leaving their families to face the consequences.

Bath house where Merdle committed suicide

Bath house where Merdle committed suicide

The tale of Little Dorrit is not only based on Dicken’s personal experience of watching his father incarcerated in the Marshalsea, but the novel is also set against the backdrop of real bank failures:

Little Dorrit was originally published between 1855 and 1857 (many of Dickens’ works first appeared in serial form) at a time when the collapse of the Royal British Bank was receiving much publicity. The collapse was a result of the bank having channelled most of its capital into Welsh gold mines in the vain hope the Wales would prove to be the next California. (The discoveries which sparked the California Gold Rush had been made in 1848). After the bank’s collapse it was discovered that the directors had made secret loans to themselves and their friends.

Dickens used the preface to Little Dorrit to defend what he called “that extravagant conception, Mr. Merdle, by alluding to “a certain Irish bank” – the Tipperary Bank which failed in 1857 – and he also mentioned “the curious coincidence” that the public examination of the former directors of the Royal British Bank took place when he was finishing the book. – The Financial Fiction Genre

Arthur and Amy on their wedding day

Arthur and Amy on their wedding day

After losing his and his partner’s investments in Merdle’s schemes, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Mcfadyen) went willingly to the Marshalsea instead of escaping his obligations. After his debts were paid he settled for a “modest life of usefulness and happiness” by marrying Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy).

More links:

Missed an episode? Watch episodes online at this link through May 3rd.

A happy ending after all

A happy ending after all

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Inquiring Readers,

Joan Hassall's portrait of Jane Austen

Joan Hassall's portrait of Jane Austen

Every once in a while I contribute a small amount of information to Wikipedia, and only when I think I can add to the general pool of knowledge. When I consulted Wikipedia’s entry on Joan Hassall, the exquisitely talented wood engraver, I found it woefully lacking and added what little I knew. The best online information about her life (1906-1988) sits at this site: Joan Hassall Wood Engraver: Textualities. Between 1957 and 1962, Joan was commissioned to create wood engravings for the Folio Society editions of Jane Austen’s novels, which is her main association with the author. These editions have been frequently reprinted, but the  first folio editions of Austen’s works are now quite scarce.

Joan was known for carving detailed illustrations using an exacting medium that allowed for few mistakes. One wrong move with an engraving tool and a wood block could be ruined. She also had to plan backwards, for dark areas on the wood block printed light and light areas filled up with ink and came out as lines or shadows. Printed on paper, the image came out in reverse. The wood had to have just the right firmness and even texture. The grain could not present resistance to cutting, yet it had to be hard enough to withstand wear and permit a sharp edge to the line. Fruitwoods, such as pear or cherry were ideal candidates for this medium, whereas American oak or walnut were considered much too hard. – Technique for the Color Woodcut: Cutting

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Joan Hassall

Joan Hassall

C. E. Brock and Hugh Thomson are better known illustrators of Jane Austen’s novels, however I find it interesting that Joan Hassell, who resembled a matronly British lady, created more forceful images than these two famous men. Brock’s and Thomson’s works are delicate and airy, while Hassall’s are stark and masculine. Her style was defined by her medium – the wood block. Hassall generally worked in black and white, scraping out thin  and thick lines with engraving tools, and adding stippled variations in between, yet she attained an astonishing amount of detail with an unerring hand. One of the reasons why I like her image of Fanny Price in Portsmouth is not only because of the robustness of the scene, but because I can practically smell the sea air. She managed to evoke waves dashing against the shore, children playing, clouds scudding by, and a stiff breeze blowing against the ribbons and short capes of the strollers. In less capable hands, this scene would have been nearly impossible to attempt in such a small area. She also moves from light to shadow effortlessly. Witness how the ships’ masts are outlined against the white cloud bank and how the legs of the little boy on the right, who stands in dark shadows, are limned by a single light line. Masterful.

Fanny Price in Portsmouth, Mansfield Park, Folio Society, illustrated by Joan Hassall

Fanny Price in Portsmouth, Mansfield Park, Folio Society, illustrated by Joan Hassall

Hassall’s talents as a wood engraver did not mean that she did not possess a delicate hand, as this exquisite watercolor invitation for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 demonstrates. The queen commissioned Joan to create an invitation especially for Prince Charles, who was only five years old at the time. It is still proudly displayed in the royal collection.

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Imagine the young Prince Charles’s delight when he saw these whimsical details:

Lion detail, Prince Charles's Invitation

Lion detail, Prince Charles's Invitation

Unicorn detail, Invitation to the royal coronation

Unicorn detail, Invitation to the royal coronation

The Saturday Book, Joan Hassall dust jacket, 1951

The Saturday Book, Joan Hassall dust jacket, 1951

This 1951 dust jacket for The Saturday Book shows how expertly Joan can handle a brush as well as an engraver’s tool.

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Joan’s themes also ran to nature, and she was so well known for her natural studies that people like Flora Thompson, the author of Lark Rise to Candleford, collected her individual prints. In a 1989 JASNA article (Illustrating Jane Austen), Keiko Parker discusses Hassall’s ability to add interesting details in this wood engraving of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet as they take a turn in the “prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn.” The print demonstrates Joan’s ability to add exquisite details. You can even see the leaves between the scrollwork of the bench. One errant slip, and the back of the bench would have been ruined. Her handling of the leaves, grass, and dirt path are reminiscent of her nature studies; and she even manages to create a vista, leading one’s eye to the waiting carriage and the road that will take Lady Catherine back to her home.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet

Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet

Hassall’s talents as a carver were recognized by her peers and she was the first woman to be elected as a master member to the Art Workers Guild (1964). In 1950 she designed an edition of Robert Burns poems and created a series of illustration that are among her most delightful small prints, especially the one of a tiny mouse rolling in the grass.
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The Old Tree, 1950

The Old Tree, 1950

Joan’s family members led lives that were as interesting and creative as hers. Her father was John Hassall, an illustrator of posters and childrens books, whose most famous work of art, a 1908 poster of The Jolly Fisherman, still promotes Skegness as a seaside resort today. Joan’s brother, Christopher Hassall, was a poet, actor, and librettist famous for his collaborations with composer Ivor Novello. Modern audiences have heard  I Can Give You the Starlight, sung by Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park. The words by Christopher and Ivor’s melody evoke “Britishness” in the 1930′s to a tee.

Learn more about Joan Hassall at these links:

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Inquiring readers,

This fashion plate and accompanying description come from La Belle Assemblée Or, Bell’s Court Fashionable Magazine, August 1807, Volume III edition. The descriptions about dress are directly from the magazine. The publication featured quality engravings and advice about women’s fashions that became an essential part of the magazine, and also offered a special supplement of advertisements in the back that became a permanent record of commerce and fashion of the time. – A Magazine of Her Own, Margaret Beetham, p. 32. By the 1830′s, La Belle Assemblee, which had been such a force during the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, had merged with Lady’s Magazine before quietly dropping out of sight.

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La Belle Assemblée Or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine

We scarcely ever witnessed a period when taste and fashion were more perfectly in unison, nor any season when elegance and grace shone with such unrivalled fascination. Not only amidst the ranks of assemblies and opulence, but in those simple unobtrusive adornments appropriated to the intermediate station — in those chaste habits becoming such as move in a more domesticated sphere, have our fair country women exhibited testimonies of their advancement in taste and the graces of life.

The era is long since past when the daughters of our Isle condescended to turn copyists; and the females of a neighbouring kingdom are now happy to aid their exhausted inventions by adopting the correct graces of English style.

Frocks of coloured muslin or Italian crape with a painted border of shells in Mosaic worn over white sarsnet slip, are a new and elegant article; and French veils of coloured gauze forming at once the head dress and drapery are considered as most graceful ornaments. They are usually worn with a plain white sarsnet or muslin gown, with flowers or wreaths in front of the hair, placed towards the left side so as nearly obscure the eyebrow. La Belle Assemblée Or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, 1807

Fronticepiece of the magazine

Fronticepiece of the magazine

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the-governess-1739-jean-simeon-chardin2“With the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace, and hope, to penance and mortification forever” – Jane Austen about Jane Fairfax in Emma

Working as a governess meant a life of limbo for the poor gentlewoman who was forced to support herself due to reduced financial cirdumstances. Jane Fairfax had every reason to fear her future employment. Governesses were a threat to both their employers and the servants of the house,  reminding their female employers of how close they were to finding themselves in a similar predicament. Because of their genteel upbringing governesses lived a life of isolation, not fitting in with the servants belowstairs, not even the housekeeper, butler, or nanny, who, while they belonged to the upper ranks of servants, came from humble origins. Governesses seldom earned enough to save for their old age, and their services were often exploited and undervalued.  Dinah Birch writes in her review of Other People’s Daughter: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon:

Their “predicament was earnestly debated in journals, advice books and manuals, educational treatises, newspapers, charitable commissions, lectures, reviews and memoirs. She became the object of inadequate charity, useless compassion and offensive condescension. Worse still, she had to endure the sense of having fallen from her proper place in the world, for most governesses had been brought up amid domestic comforts and cheerful expectations.”  

This passage from  The Uneasy World Between describes the governesses’ dilemma succinctly:

The governess was often perceived as being an emotional and social threat. Many gentlewomen were forced into the role by some financial catastrophe, reminding the families they worked for of a terrible possibility. Moreover, their intimacy with children often roused the mother’s hostility, and a war for the child’s love was the result. By the middle of the century, a spate of bank failures had hugely oversupplied the market with under- educated would-be governesses, some of whom were reduced to working for £20 a year, or even for nothing except bed and board. What happened to these when they grew too old to work — perhaps only at 40 — does not bear thinking about. Only very few governesses earned more than £200 a year; Sir George Stephen in 1844 only found a dozen. Charlotte Brontë, paid £20 a year in 1841, was much more typical. The social inequality flowed, however, in an unexpected way. Many governesses, more ladylike than their employers, were expected to give a sheen of social elegance to the children of the nouveaux riches. Resentment tended to flow both from the employers and from the servants’ hall. ‘I don’t like them governesses, Pinner,’ the cook in Vanity Fair says of Becky Sharp. ‘They give themselves the hairs and hupstarts of ladies, and their wages is no better than you nor me.’ The ugly situation was very clear to the more thoughtful women in this class. ‘I should be shut out from society,’ Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘and be debarred the imperfect pleasures of friendship — as I should on every side be surrounded by unequals.’The one truly typical story here, perhaps, is that of a crushed and struggling woman, Nelly Weeton. We only know about her because she wrote a journal, discovered long after her death, cataloguing with great ill-humour and resentment the treatment she received at the hands of her drunken and snobbish employers, her bullying father and brother and ultimately an appalling husband. She’s not an attractive figure, full of self-pity and complaint, but her tragic story shows how much governesses at the bottom end of the market had to put up with.

The classic governess in our collective minds is Jane Eyre. She came from a relatively humble background,  but many a young governess came from a background and breeding that equalled  her employers. This definition written in 1849 in The Living Age  describes how  untenable the situation could be:

“…the real definition of a governess in the English sense is a being who is our equal in birth manners and education but our inferior in worldly wealth.  Take a lady in every meaning of the word born and bred and let her father pass through the gazette and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children…There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be in birth mind and manners above their station in order to fit them for their station. From this peculiarity in their very qualifications for office result all the peculiar and most painful anomalies of their professional existence. The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant.

Governesses depended on the kindness of their employers. Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, who later became Mrs. Weston, was fortunate enough to be treated like a member of the family. One surmises  that she was one of the few to make closer to the  £200 per year described above, than the average of  £20 pounds per year that most governesses earned. In real life, Agnes Porter (c. 1750-1814) was one of the lucky women to be treated with respect when she worked as a governess to the children and grandchildren of the second Earl of Ilchester. She wrote down her thoughts as an unmarried, employed gentlewoman in journals and letters that have been published. A devoted parent, Lord Ilchester took his children with him on on trips, leaving Agnes with enough  free time to entertain friends in her private apartments. She was also invited to dine  in with the family or spend an evening with them.  While Agnes’s experience was a relatively good one, she still would have preferred to be married. Becoming someone’s wife was a desirable goal, since prospects were bleak for a woman who was not “the property’ by anyone. ‘I could not forbear partially and deeply reflecting on the ills that single women are exposed to, even at the hour of death, from being the property of no one.’ ” (Information from: A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter). 

In 1886, novelist Wilkie Collins wrote the following dialogue about the governess, Miss Westerfield,  in The Evil Genius: The Story:

Mrs. Linley returned to the subject of the governess.

“I don’t at all say what my mother says,” she resumed; “but was it not just a little indiscreet to engage Miss Westerfield without any references?”

“Unless I am utterly mistaken,” Linley replied, “you would have been quite as indiscreet, in my place. If you had seen the horrible woman who persecuted and insulted her–”

His wife interrupted him. “How did all this happen, Herbert? Who first introduced you to Miss Westerfield?”

Linley mentioned the advertisement, and described his interview with the schoolmistress. Having next acknowledged that he had received a visit from Miss Westerfield herself, he repeated all that she had been able to tell him of her father’s wasted life and melancholy end. Really interested by this time, Mrs. Linley was eager for more information. Her husband hesitated. “I would rather you heard the rest of it from Miss Westerfield,” he said, “in my absence.”

“Why in your absence?”

“Because she can speak to you more freely, when I am not present. Hear her tell her own story, and then let me know whether you think I have made a mistake. I submit to your decision beforehand, whichever way it may incline.”

The implication, of course, was that anyone with compassion would have hired Miss Westerfield. Learn more about the governess in the following links:

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The Dorrits in Venice

The Dorrits in Venice

In Little Dorrit, Mr. William Dorrit followed an age old tradition when he decided to take his family on a Grand Tour of the Continent in order to educate them and expose them to the sights and monuments that influenced Western Civilization. Through Mrs. General, he introduced lessons of deportment and elocution to his children. Amy, who was the least willing to leave, made sure that the Plornishes and Maggy were well-provided for before the family departed.

Pam Ferris as Mrs. General

Pam Ferris as Mrs. General

The Grand Tour took more than a year because transportation before the advent of the railway was slow. Itineraries varied, although Paris and Rome were favorite destinations. Before the Napoleonic Wars, young gentlemen were expected to go on a 1-2 year Grand Tour with a tutor. The results were often mixed. (Click on this link to read my post on the topic.) Some heirs returned with souvenirs and their heads stuffed with knowledge, and others frittered their time away, or worse, lost their fortune at the gaming tables. Travels to the Continent ceased during the Peninsular Wars, but picked up again as soon as Napoleon was defeated. As the 19th century progressed, more and more women began to travel abroad with their families and/or chaperones. The Grand Tour began to make inroads with the rising middle class, as well as with Americans, and survives to this day in the form of a “world tour,” with (typically) recent college graduates and retirees taking several months to a year traveling.

The Dorrits likely departed England from Dover and landed at Calais, the same route as today’s  Chunnel. In the early 19th century, the short voyage across the English Channel was fraught with danger. People risked seasickness or a shipwreck should a sudden storm appear. It took three days to make the journey from Dover to Paris.  Lodging would have been provided by inns along the way, hotels, friends of the family, or, as in the case of the Dorrits, a convent or monastery set up for the purpose of putting guests up for the night. It was at such a lodging that the Dorrits met Rigaud, who was traveling with the newly married Gowan and a concerned and downhearted Pet. Much to Amy’s distress, the Frenchman took an inordinate interest in her as well. As the Dorrits crossed the Swiss Alps towards Italy, Amy was seen to be the only member of the family to appreciate the natural wonders of her surroundings or to show genuine curiosity.

Map of a modern grand tour

Map of a modern grand tour

After the St. Bernard Pass, the Dorrits would have encountered Turin before journeying on to Venice.

Henry Gowan, William Dorrit, and Rigaud at their lodging

Henry Gowan, William Dorrit, and Rigaud at their lodging

It was traditional for Grand Tour visitors to remain for several months in a major destination city, as the Dorrits did in Venice. Visitors did not carry a great deal of cash, for fear of robbery, but brought letters of credit that they would present at the nearest bank. Unlike other cities in Western Europe, Venice had been an independent maritime state for over a thousand years. Its wealthy merchants had created a sumptuous city that was influenced culturally and artistically by the East. Saint Mark’s Basilica is one of the most recognizable and beautiful examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. The city’s watery setting also made it unique and unforgettable. In a letter written on a grand tour in 1932, the author reveals that little had changed in Venice in over a century, or indeed through today:

Journeying by gondola

Journeying by gondola

I suppose most people think that one cannot go anywhere in Venice except by gondola. That is not so at all. There are sidewalks and narrow streets and alleys that lead all over the city. The small canals from 15 to 40 feet wide are traversed by gondolas and sometimes small motorboats. The houses rise directly from the water’s edge in many cases. Thus along the Grand Canal the front steps lead right into the water where private or public gondolas are waiting — taxis, you know. Some of these palaces are very beautiful. Each has tall mooring posts, decorated with the family arms or gay stripesGrand Tour 1932

Mrs. Merdle and William Dorrit in Venice

Mrs. Merdle and William Dorrit in Venice

Spoiler Alert for those who have not read the book: William Dorrit was never able to escape the influence of 23 years in the Marshalsea, and on the evening of his death in Venice he imagined he was back in prison again. Of his children, only Amy remained humble and true to herself throughout the journey. Although it was evident that she deeply appreciated her beautiful surroundings, she never stopped missing England or the friends she had left behind.

Missed an episode on Masterpiece Classic? You can watch past episodes online until early May at this link.

Fanny visits the museum

Fanny visits the museum

More About the Grand Tour

My other Little Dorrit Reviews:

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“Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns,
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot Cross Buns.”

- Street Cry on Good Friday in England

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  • Easter Fun at Chawton House this year will depend on good weather. Then again, there’s nothing like a sturdy pair of Wellies and an umbrella to deal with spring showers.
  • Here is a fun project on Belly Timber to make decorative boxes that will hold your Easter eggs or candy.

Jane Austen mentions Easter in a peripheral way. Fanny Price pines for Mansfield Park hoping to return soon to the Bertrams after her ‘exile’ to Portsmouth. However, by Easter she still has not received a summons to come ‘home.’:

Easter came particularly late this year, as Fanny had most sorrowfully considered, on first learning that she had no chance of leaving Portsmouth till after it. It came, and she had yet heard nothing of her return–nothing even of the going to London, which was to precede her return. Her aunt often expressed a wish for her, but there was no notice, no message from the uncle on whom all depended. She supposed he could not yet leave his son, but it was a cruel, a terrible delay to her. The end of April was coming on; it would soon be almost three months, instead of two, that she had been absent from them all, and that her days had been passing in a state of penance, which she loved them too well to hope they would thoroughly understand; and who could yet say when there might be leisure to think of or fetch her? – Mansfield Park, Chapter 45

Happy Easter One and All.

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A person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”- Jane Austen

jane-writesIn Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams as Jane Austen is seen at her sloped writing box writing her novels or composing letters during her visits to Chawton House. While portable writing desks similar to Jane’s were popular all through the 19th century, they did not become widespread until travel became more convenient for the middle and upper classes in the late 18th century. Writing boxes were versatile and portable and could easily be carried. They were placed on a table or one’s lap, and were as personal as a diary, containing  paper, pens, ink, and hidden compartments.

Sample of Persuasion in Jane Austen's handwriting

Sample of Persuasion in Jane Austen's handwriting

Today, Jane Austen’s writing box, spectacles, and the History of England and two cancelled chapters of Persuasion can be viewed at the John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library. Jane was a careful and meticulous writer, and the two chapters that have survived in her own hand show her creative mind at work. Crossed out lines and revisions and margin notes are quite evident. At Chawton, Jane placed her writing slope on a tiny round table next to a window in the sitting room.  (View images here and here on flickr)

Austen did not like to write in front of other people, and would hide her work as soon as the squeak of her door announced the presence of a visitor. She wrote Persuasion on very small pieces of paper so she could easily conceal the pages when interrupted. Jane Austen in London

The little round writing table at Chawton.

The little round writing table at Chawton.

Jane’s father most likely purchased the writing slope for her in December of 1794. I have wondered if he gave it to her on her birthday.

Jane's window

Jane's window

Hidden for generations, the desk resurfaced in 1999 when Joan Austen-Leigh, the great-granddaughter of Jane’s biographer and nephew, James Austen-Leigh, donated it to the British library. The desk had been kept by the family for over 40 years in a suitcase in a closet in Canada. (Jane Austen for Dummies)

writing-box1The wood rectangular box opened to reveal a sloped writing surface embossed in leather. Compartments stored writing implements like paper, pens, ink, stamps, sealing wax, etc. From the black and white image of Jane’s writing desk, hers seems to be a simpler model than the Sheraton writing box depicted above.

Image of Jane’s writing slope from JASA

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Slippers 1800

Slippers 1800

The Bata Shoe Museum’s website features a podcast about beautifully preserved dancing shoes from 1700. Last year, Regency Ramble offered a comprehensive post about shoes worn in the Regency Period. Additional information sits on Cathy Decker’s Regency Footwear Page that features a variety of links and images.

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Dickens recounts how when his father and he went into the prison they both wept very much and his father warned him that if a man had 20 pounds a year and spent 19 pounds, 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. – A.S. Byat, Within Those Walls

Born in prison

Born in prison

The first surprise I encountered watching Little Dorrit on Masterpiece Classic was to see little Amy born in the Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison to which her father had been sentenced for owing £400. William Dorritt, also know as the “Father of the Marshalsea”, was incarcerated for 23 years, slowly rotting from the inside out and living a life without hope of becoming a free man again. He was allowed to bring in his family, a tradition of those bygone days. Sadly, Mrs. Dorrit died before her husband could repay his debt. Amy has never known a life other than in prison.

Life without hope for William Dorrit

Life without hope for William Dorrit

John Howard, a reformer, visited Marshalsea eight times between 1774 and 1783, and made the following observations:

There are in the whole near sixty rooms; and yet only six of them left for common-side debtors. Of the other rooms – five were let to a man who was not a prisoner; in one of them he kept a chandler’s shop, in two he lived with his family; the other two he let to prisoners….The chamber rent wants regulation, for in several rooms where four lie in two beds, and in some rooms where two lie in one bed, each pays 3 p 6d for his lodgings.

The prison is greatly out of repair. No infirmary. The court is well supplied with water. In it the prisoners play at rackets etc., and in a little back court, the Park, at skittles.

In March 1775 when the number of prisoners was 175, there were with them in this incommodious prison wives and children 46. – The Chronicles of London, Saint and Darley, New York, 1994, p 150.

william-dorrit

The prison had not much changed when Charles Dickens lived there, for William Dorrit’s nightmare was his own. In 1824, when Dickens was twelve, his father, John, had been taken there for debts he could not repay. Instead of going to school, Dickens left the Marshalsea each day to work at Warren’s boot-blacking factory, where he was paid six shillings a week.

The family [Dickens] writes, lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it, They were waited on still by the maid of all work from Bayham Street, the orphan girl from Chatham workhouse from whose sharp little worldly, yet also kindly, ways I took my first impressions of the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop. Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford

His father’s experience in the Marshalsea left an indelible impression. Dickens must have written these lines from the heart: “She looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen, with her father in it.” Unlike William Dorrit, who spent nearly a quarter of a century in prison, John Dickens walked out after six months when one of his relatives died and left enough money in the will to pay off the debt.

"It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

"It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

Once a man of substance, William Dorrit (played by Tom Courtenay) tried to live with some dignity inside the high spiked walls, but much of his self-consequence came at the expense of his youngest daughter, Amy (Little Dorrit), who devoted her young life catering to her father.  “In his deepest heart he knows that he’s made an utter mess of his and his beloved children’s lives, but he would never openly admit to this failure. For his sake, the family all keep up the pretence of respectability.” ( BBC)  Even at his lowest ebb, William Dorrit finds comfort in the title of “Father of the Marshalsea.” He adheres to social standards, blinding himself to his son’s Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and daughter Fanny’s less than acceptable career as a dancer,  and dines in state on the food that Amy has set aside from her own repasts.

The family’s ability to come and go from prison within the curfew hours so surprised me that I wanted to research the topic. Only the debtor remained imprisoned. In reality, as Dickens attests, life inside those walls was not much worse than life outside it – for the destitute. The friendship between Amy and John Chivery was genuine. John performed his duties with humanity, and Amy recognized that the Assistant Turnkey was simply following orders.

Leaving the Marshalsea in state

Leaving the Marshalsea in state

Even when freed, William Dorrit does not step outside his prison. When he is finally released, due to an inheritance found through Arthur Clennam’s perseverance, his heart is as pinched as his confined world had once been.  Charles Dickens wrote about the character:

Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out. If he had been a man with strength of purpose to face those troubles and fight them, he might have broken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he languidly slipped into this smooth descent, and never more took one step upward.

Instead of thanking Arthur, he avoids him and puts on airs of grandiosity. His children are given lessons of deportment by Mrs. General as they traipse across Europe on a Grand Tour. They are lessons in futility, for Fanny and Edward are beyond help, and Amy is uninterested in the trappings of wealth. And yet despite his opulent surroundings, William was unable to escape the effects of the Marshalsea and his mind remained imprisoned. He returns to London, but instead of enjoying the high life, he is constantly plagued by reminders of his past and falls into a great depression.

William Dorrit in London

William Dorrit in London

In real life, a man who was confined in the Marshalsea just like William Dorrit, reacted to his imprisonment in a much different way. John Howard recalled:

Mr. Henry Allnot, who was many years hence a prisoner here, had during his confinement a large estate bequeathed to him. He learnt sympathy by his sufferings, and left £100 a year for discharging poor debtors from hence whose debts do not exceed £4. As he bound his manor of Goring in Oxfordshire for charitable uses, this is called the Oxford charity.  Many are cleared by it every year. – The Chronicles of London, p. 150

remaining-wall-of-the-marshalsea-prison

Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1842, and all that remains today is a long brick wall and two gated arches.

In 1856 whilst engaged in the purchase of Gad’s Hill, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the Marshalsea, then in the course of demolition, to see what traces were left of the prison of which he had received such early and vivid impressions as a boy, and which he had been able to rebuild almost brick by brick in Little Dorritt by the aid of his wonderfully retentive memory. He writes to his friend John Forster, “Went to the Borough yesterday morning before going to Gad’s Hill to see if I could find any ruins of the Marshalsea. Found a great part of the original building now Marshalsea Place. I found the rooms that had been in my mind’s eye in the story…There is a room there still standing that I think of taking. It is the room through which the ever memorable signers of Captain Porter’s petition filed off in my boyhood. The spikes are gone and the wall is lowered, and any body can go out now who likes to go and is not bed ridden.”  Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford

My other Little Dorrit Reviews:

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pride_prejudice_zombies1wI read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and it made me chuckle, but purists will vomit from the moment they read the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains will be in want of more brains.” If ever a classic was treated with tongue in cheek irreverence, author Seth Grahame-Smith managed to do it. Oh, I imagine that the coldly calculated jingle of cash was also a great motivator. After all, Seth allowed Jane Austen to do the bulk of the writing (85% of the text is hers) and she had already plotted the basic outline of the book. To give him his due, he’s given her half the credit, although he and his publisher will be raking in all the profits of this high concept book.

So what’s all the fuss about and why are film studios fighting over film rights to this story? Well, long ago in the island of Britain a zombie plague threatened its inhabitants. Thankfully, zombies are slow moving, dead, and stupid, else they would have overwhelmed the English population, decimating the land. The longer zombies have been dead, the less recognizable as humans they become, having lost eyes and limbs and patches of skin, and wearing clothes that are rotten and in tatters. Some zombies are so gross in both looks and eating habits that they cause the observer to vomit, The merest scratch from a zombie will turn a human into one, as poor Charlotte Collins discovers. A comic character rather than a tragic one, her tongue and mouth degenerate early on, causing Charlotte to lisp and talk like, well, a zombie. The thing is, nobody but Elizabeth notices. Hah! In the land of the dead and stupid, even the living are stupid. This plague has been threatening England for at least a generation, but people are still dumb enough to sit near windows at Assembly Balls where zombies can get at them and scoop out their brains, or open doors and windows in steamy kitchens, as the cooks did at Netherfield Park, so that those who were making dinner BECAME dinner.

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The Bennet family lives in an age when they must be ever vigilant if the girls are to survive until marriage and beyond. Mr. Bennet ships his girls off to China to learn the fine art of fighting zombies with sword and knife. Elizabeth Bennet becomes an especially talented fighter, and is renowned for the ease with which she can fend off an entire horde of zombies, slicing and dicing with the best of them. She had to do just that when she walked three miles to Netherfield Park to check on her ill sister, Jane. A skeptical Lady Catherine de Bourgh tests her mettle by siccing her Ninja Warriors on her at Rosings, but Elizabeth dispatches them so quickly that she nary raises a sweat. Mr. Darcy is a fine zombie slayer as well, but the Bingley sisters can’t even carry a sword or knife. You get the drift. In Seth’s book, if you’re a poor zombie slayer you are either the villain or your brain is toast. The entire book is a satire, from the inclusion of the gross but well-drawn illustrations to the suggested book club questions at the end, which are quite clever. You must read this novel with an open mind and maintain a sense of humor or, like the denizens of Meryton when they see a zombie feast on one of their friends, you will upchuck your lunch.

The Bennet Sisters in a perfect pentacle fight formation

The Bennet Sisters in a perfect pentacle fight formation

Seth makes one huge miscalculation in his otherwise spot on satire. Not knowing the workings of the female brain, he makes a mess of Wickham, a bad boy who is secretly admired by over half of Jane’s female fans. While they admit he is a scoundrel, they would not mind having a go at taming this deliciously fun male character. But Seth turns Wickham into a diapered mess of a man, who must be constantly tended after wetting his bed. Not well done, Seth. That’s like forcing Willoughby to drive a donkey cart when you know full well he is a phaeton man. This plot development tells me that Seth wrote the book more for teenage boys and girls, not women.

I predict that Seth Grahame-Smith will become rich and famous from this endeavor. Drat the man for thinking of this high concept first, but there are still five Jane Austen books left to cannibalize and I thought I’d pitch a few ideas of my own. Like Seth’s, my books will be co-written with Jane. I readily admit a desire for earning cold hard cash and that I am willing to prostitute my high ideals in order to obtain the wealth that I think I so richly deserve. Are you reading this blog Quirk Books and Random House? Please tell Dream Works and Universal to hop on over too. My plots are available to the highest bidder, starting at a cool mil and upward. Let the auction begin:

Rosemary’s and Henry Tilney’s Baby – Inspiration: Northanger Abbey and Rosemary’s Baby

The book opens with Catherine Morland feeling she is the luckiest woman alive in England. She has married her Mr. Tilney, who turns out to be as witty in bed as out of it. Better yet, General Tilney died of apoplexy upon hearing that his son was to wed her, and Captain Tilney died in a duel over cheating at cards, making Catherine the mistress of Northanger Abbey. She has spent her days and nights dismantling General Tilney’s improvements, including the Rumford fireplace,  and returning Northanger Abey to its Gothic, spider-webbed origins. One day, Catherine follows the sound of mewling down a long, dark, and dank corridor. Opening a creaking door, she enters a redecorated space that is light and airy and (quelle horreur) modern. Catherine approaches a cradle and peeks inside. She gasps when she sees the baby – a miniature Henry, only with yellow slanted eyes, two horn buds sprouting from its forehead, and cloven feet. Catherine doesn’t know which emotion affects her more: the one of betrayal or disappointment that the nursery has been remodeled in the modern neoclassical style.

Willoughby’s Tell-Tale Heart – Inspiration: Sense and Sensibility and The Tell-Tale Heart

After Willoughby’s rejection, Marianne Dashwood falls ill. When she awakens from her fever, she overhears Willoughby reveal to Elinor that he loves Marianne but that he has no choice but to marry for money. The knowledge pushes the poor girl over the edge. While everyone is asleep, a still weakened Marianne sneaks out of the house, rides to Comb Magnum, creeps into Willoughby’s bedroom and stabs him in the heart as he lies snoring. She cuts out his still beating heart, wanting something of Willoughby to remember him by. Marianne tries to live a normal life and agrees to marry Colonel Brandon. But not once can she take her mind off Willoughby (whose murder goes unsolved), or his heart, which has now shriveled and dessicated to 1/10th its size. Regardless, she still can hear it beating 24/7. Desperate to get away from the sound, Marianne encases the organ in a cement box and buries it under the floorboards in the basement, but the constant thump thump thump of Willoughby’s beating heart drives her wild. Colonel Brandon, not knowing what is wrong with his crazed bride, tries to tempt her with sweetmeats and poetry and lovemaking. One day, a wild-eyed Marianne hands the colonel a small cement box.”There”, she cries out. “There is Willoughby’s beating heart!” Upon opening the box, the colonel sees only a shriveled up prune and has his wife committed.

Dr. Jekyll and Fanny Price – Inspiration: Mansfield Park and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Angered that Fanny has attracted the attentions of rich Henry Crawford, Mrs. Norris arranges for Dr. Jekyll to create a potion that will turn the sweet girl into a vicious and nasty harridan. Unbeknownst to Dr. Jekyll as he was making the potion, drops of Mrs. Norris’s sweat plopped into the boiling cauldron as she watched him stir it, infusing her evil personality into the liquid. After Fanny drinks some tea (which to her mind was foul and bitter, but which she politely sipped anyway), she feels Mrs. Norris’s anger and spite invade her bloodstream. While she remains sweet and tractable during the day, she turns loathsome at night, waking the servants at all hours to do her bidding, clean every nook and cranny in the house, and muck out the stalls. One by one the staff drop dead from exhaustion or quit, unable to perform double duty without a moment’s rest. While Edmund is turned off by the new Fanny, Henry is enthralled with her transformation, for he had harbored some doubts that she’d be capable of overseeing the staff of his houses. Servants come a dime a dozen, but a capable wife comes only once in a lifetime.

Persuading Moby – Inspiration: Persuasion and Moby Dick

Captain Wentworth and his new bride Anne are sailing the high seas on his fine boat as they ply the waters defending England’s shores from pirates, boot-leggers, and invasions. Anne revels in her life on board ship, loving the rocking motion of both the boat and marital bed. Then one day Captain Wentworth spies a white whale and Anne’s life changes. Her husband becomes obsessed, wanting to hunt the whale down and kill it, for, as he tells his bride, albinos lead a tough life out in the wild. They can’t camouflage their color and hide from danger. “We might as well put the poor creature out of its misery,” he gallantly says. But the whale, whom Anne had secretly named Moby, was not easily persuaded to swim within catching distance. The captain, consumed by his obsession, begins to neglect Anne. After a few weeks of putting up with the Captain’s distraction and lack of amorous advances, Anne decides to take matters into her own hands. She commandeers a rowboat and heads towards the whale, who, not scared of a puny boat with a mere woman in it, stays around long enough to listen. This provides Anne with ample time to persuade Moby to leave under cover of night and go blow his blowhole elsewhere.

Bride of FrankChurchillStein – Inspiration: Emma and Bride of Frankenstein

Jane Fairfax is no longer beautiful, having fallen asleep in her tester bed waiting for Frank to return from a night of gambling, carousing, and drinking. The spark from a sputtering candle ignited the bedsheets, burning the house down and rendering poor Jane lifeless and burnt crisp to the bone. Frank, distraught and feeling guilty for neglecting his long-suffering bride, directs a dissipated priest to unearth Jane from her grave and return her to him by enacting an undead ritual he found in an ancient Egyptian manuscript. Jane does indeed come back to life, but she is not quite herself, looking more like a roasted quail than a human. Angered that Frank yanked her out of Heaven to resume her life of living hell with him, she extracts her revenge with cool and deliberate calculation, murdering all of Frank’s cronies and mistresses. Frank, desperate to undo the spell, discovers to his horror that Jane has killed the priest. Frank sinks into despair knowing his cushy days of debauchery are over for as long as his reconstituted Jane roams the earth.

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veritysdressThe author of this recent post writes about the unfaithfully depicted hairstyles in recent period film adaptations. Her rant is similar to the one I wrote about inaccurate costumes in period films, especially in terms of showing or covering the bosom.

Read more about these topics in the following links:

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