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Archive for November, 2010

Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

Gilbert White

Claire Tomlin’s biography of Jane Austen called Jane Austen A Life begins with:

The Winter of 1775 was a hard one. On 11th November the naturalist, Gilbert White saw that the trees around his Hampshire village of Selborne had almost lost all their leaves. “Trees begin to be naked,” he wrote in his diary. Fifteen miles away, higher up in the Downs, in the village of Steventon, the rectors wife was expecting the birth of her seventh child from day to day as the leaves fell.”

And thus we have the first introduction to Jane, still inside her mother’s womb, with a reference to the reverend Gilbert White of Selborne.

Map of Selborne

Selborne is a village about five miles to the east of Chawton. Gilbert White was in his 55th year just as Jane began her first year. His writing was to become the most continuously published piece of writing in the English language. It has been published more often than Jane’s own writing and the Bible. It is still on the shelves of all good bookshops today and new editions are always being prepared.

Mayflies, Gilbert White, 1771

Gilbert White was born in 1720. He was educated in the town of Basingstoke, the town Jane knew well. Thomas Wharton was his schoolmaster. He then embarked on an academic career at Oriel College Oxford. Following his grandfather and uncle into the church, he became ordained as a church of England priest. From an early age he took a deep interest in the natural history and the plants and animals in his native Hampshire.

Gilbert White's journal. Image @Tony Grant

Gilbert White is best known for his collection of letters compiled in a volume called Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, (1789) The book comprised his correspondence with two of the leading naturalists of the time, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. In the letters White discussed his theories about the local flora and fauna.

Vegetable garden. Image @Tony Grant

Gilbert White was also a keen gardener and grew many species of flowers, vegetables and fruit. What made him different and unique and applicable to naturalists today was that he observed things closely in their natural state. Naturalists, during his lifetime and before him, tended to examine the dead carcasses of animals brought to them.

Natural collection. Image @Tony Grant

They would dissect and examine in detail the animal or plant before them; dead, cut off, out of it’s natural environment, there, on their table or desk. White performed some of this type of research, but what really made him different was his observations of animals and plants in their natural habitat. We would not think of studying an animal today without knowing it’s habitat, life cycle, and breeding habits. This is what made White unique for his time. His records are unique also in the length of time he kept them and the systematic detail of his observations. Darwin quoted some of Gilbert White’s observations in his own research.

Martin, The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White

Gilbert White especially studied the species known as hirundines. These are what we know as swallows, house martins and swifts. He observed them flying, soaring, whirling about the great hanger that stood behind the village of Selborne . The base of the hanger was literally at the bottom of his garden. A hanger is a large, very steep hill, with almost vertical sides. Trees adorn its face and seem to ”hang” there. The hanger at Selborne was home to a vast variety of flora and fauna. It is very much the same today as it was in Gilbert White’s time.

The hanger at Selborne. Image @Tony Grant

In fact, by using his letters as guides, you can follow the very same paths and walks he took all those years ago and see the plants and wild life he observed. And, yes, you can still see his beloved hirundines, whirling and twirling and flickering , darting and swooping about the hanger in the springtime and summer months.

Gilbert White's house at Selborne. Image @Tony Grant

Most of Gilbert White’s contemporaries were convinced that swallows hibernated during the winter months in hollows and under the mud of local ponds. White disputed this and tried throughout his life to gain evidence to prove or disprove this. Unfortunately he never reached a definitive conclusion.

Interior, Gilbert White's house. Image @Tony Grant.

Gilbert White’s brother, Benjamin, who was a publisher of natural history, introduced him to Thomas Pennant, the foremost zoologist of the time, and to Daines Barrington. He corresponded with them and other naturalists, such as Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

Pennant and Barrington

In his first letter to Thomas Pennant,  White describes Selborne and it’s situation.

At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands lies the village, which consists of one straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale and running parallel with the hanger. The houses are divided from the hill by a vein of stiff clay (good wheat land), yet stand a rock of white stone, little in appearance removed from chalk; but seems so far from being calcareous, that it endures extreme heat.”

Selborne from the hanger. Image @Tony Grant

Just in this short extract we can see White’s eye for detail, his wondering mind, and his clarity of recording.

Selborne cottage. Image @Tony Grant.

In LetterXL to Thomas Pennant on September 2nd, 1774, White writes:

Nightingales, when their young first come abroad, and are helpless, make a plaintive and jarring noise; and also a snapping or cracking, pursuing people along the hedges as they walk; these last sounds seem intended for menace and defiance.”

The Hoopoe, The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White

You can imagine Gilbert White being hounded and bothered in this way as he walked the lanes around Selborne, and being utterly fascinated and engrossed in this behaviour. Maybe our beloved Jane experienced such sights with the same wildlife too on her daily walks in Chawton five miles away?

Selborne Church. Image @Tony Grant

In a letter to Danes Barrington November 20th, 1773, Gilbert White writes about house martins.

A few house- martins begin to appear about the sixteenth of April; usually some few days later than the swallow. For some time after they appear the hirundines in general pay no attention to the business of nidification ( the act of building a nest), but play and sport about either to recruit from the fatigue of their journey, if they do migrate at all, or else that their blood may recover it’s true tone and texture after it has been so long benumbed by the severities of the winter.”

Church window. Image @Tony Grant

Gilbert is not sure, do they migrate or do they hibernate? This is the crux of his life long investigation.

Memorial window dedication. Image @Tony Grant

Every Spring, Gilbert White looked forward to the return of the hirundines and when reading his letters at that time of the year you can sense his uplifted spirits. His friends have returned.

Gilbert White's grave. Image @Tony Grant

Bibliography:

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen A Life, Penguin Books, 1998 (revised edition 2000). Read Chapter One here.

Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (First published 1788-9). Reprinted by Penguin Classics, 1987.

Cimex linearus

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Copright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Katie Couric interviewed Colin Firth in this half hour interview about The King’s Speech and King George VI’s stammer. Click on this link to view the video.

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Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. In A Triple Tragedy: How Princess Charlotte’s Death in 1817 Changed Obstetrics, I discussed the two approaches to obstetrics in the early 19th century – the conservative approach, which meant no intervention, and the more radical intervention approach. I included no image of a physician examining a woman.

Morbid Anatomy, one of my new favorite sites, features three images of a physician examining a woman (circa 1800). These images came without attribution, but are interesting nevertheless. Click here to see them all.

Internal examination of a woman, circa 1800

In the early 1800’s there was also a growing number of formally trained doctors who took great pains to distinguish themselves from the host of lay practitioners. The most important real distinction was that the formally trained, or “regular” doctors as they called themselves, were male, usually middle class, and almost always more expensive than the lay competition. The “regulars'” practices were largely confined to middle and upper class people who could afford the prestige of being treated by a “gentleman” of their own class. By 1800, fashion even dictated that upper and middle class women employ male “regular” doctors for obstetrical care—a custom which plainer people regarded as grossly indecent.” – Witches, Midwives, and Nurses A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

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Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

In 1754 David Garrick became the lessee first and finally bought the house, which was to become his villa beside The Thames.

Garrick's villa, 1783

It became his country retreat and the place where he and his wife entertained friends. He began to alter the original building, which had parts that dated back to the middle ages, and employed his friend Robert Adam to redesign the façade in a classical style.Capability Brown advised on the layout of the gardens. The Kingston to Staines Road runs outside the front of the house today and it did also in the 18th century.

Temple doorway. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick had a tunnel dug  from the front of his villa under the road to his gardens beside The Thames which today is called, Garrick’s Lawn. On this lawn, beside The Thames, Garrick had a temple to Shakespeare built. Inside was placed a very fine statue of Shakespeare designed by Roubiliac, another friend. When Garrick died, his wife Eva, gave it to the British Museum. A copy of the statue now has been placed inside the temple.

Garrick's dorric Temple. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick  added an orangery at the far end of the main garden which backs onto Bushy Park. Adam also designed the orangery in the main garden with a corinthian façade and classical entablature. Garrick owned much of the farmland, which is now Bushy Park. He also bought other houses in Hampton, including Orme House in Church Street, The Six Bells pub, later named The White Heart, Garrick’s Ait, the island opposite the temple and the villa and three other aits on The Thames. Just before his death, Garrick bought The Cedars, now called Garrick House, which you drive past on the Kingston Road.

The villa under wraps after the fire. Image @Tony Grant

In 2008 some work was being done on the villa when a fire broke out. The entire roof of the grade 1 listed building collapsed. The second floor also caught fire. It took ten fire engines to bring the blaze under control and save the shell of the house. It is now undergoing extensive rebuilding. The house is a symbol  of the English Theatre and must not be lost to the nation and the world.

David Garrick in Hamlet. Image @Wikimedia Commons

David Garrick came from humble origins in Leicestershire. His family were Huguenot immigrants who had to struggle and fight for their survival and success. Garrick  continued this need for success. He had an incredible talent as writer, actor and innovator. His greatness can only be measured by his influence on theatre and acting today.

Garrick Estate Auction, 1921

What is interesting is his need to acquire property and land, to have the best in architecture and to keep acquiring, throughout his life. Was this the sign of an inner drive to stay successful, to gain security, to not allow himself to revert to lowly circumstances? Was he a driven personality? This reminds me of another driven personality, Charles Dickens, who literally worked himself to death. He too saw property and one house in particular, as a sign to himself and others that he was at the top, that he had made it.

Tony Grant at Gads Hill. Image @Tony Grant

The house was Gads Hill in Kent just outside of Rochester and Chatham. After Dickens death, John Foster, a great publishing friend of Dickens wrote, “ upon first seeing it (Gads Hill) as he came from Chatham with his father and looking upon it with much admiration he had been promised that he might himself live in it or in some such house when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough.”

Gads Hill front door. Image @Tony Grant

Of course Dickens did work. He probably had more need to stay at the top than even Garrick. His father was notorious for getting into debt and had ended up in debtors prison. Cahrles Dickens had had to work in a blacking factory in almost slave like conditions. This affected Dickens for the rest of his life.

Ducks on the Thames. Image @Tony Grant

Both Dickens and Garrick were influenced greatly by Shakespeare. Garrick as actor and theatre owner. Garrick’s greatest performance was playing Richard III. Dicken’s house at Gads Hill was the very spot, in Henry IV part I, where Prince Hal waylays and robs Falstaff as a  prank or joke. Of course Dickens absolutely loved this connection. There is another rather obscure link with Garrick. David Garrick had a tunnel dug under the road in front of his villa to get to his garden beside The Thames. Dickens purchased the land on the opposite side of the road to his house at Gads Hill and had a tunnel dug in front of his house under the road to get to it.

Gads Hill tunnel. Image @Tony Grant

Dickens had a small wooden Swiss Chalet built on the other side of the road where, towards the end of his life, he wrote. Passing through a tunnel to the beautiful scenery of The Thames or to a place to work could be read as having deep psychological meaning I am sure.

Dickens's Swiss Chalet. Image @Tony Grant

David Garrick’s  villa can be seen as his badge of success. A symbol of all his striving and hard work.

Where do our middle class ambitions get us? Are we driven? Where have we come from and where do we want to go? Are we working like Garrick and Dickens to prove something? How desperate are we and are we happy with it? I wonder if Dickens was ever happy? Maybe in the heightened hyper reality that he achieved  in his live readings, but that was fleeting. He was driven, so was Garrick and are we?

Garrick's villa, 1824

I know this an odd request on this site but you never know who might read this stuff. To any Hollywood Super Star out there. You owe everything, your whole profession, to David Garrick. If you have some spare cash, go on, pay for the refurbishment of Garrick’s Villa. It could be your real contribution to the world.

Garrick's temple, sunset. Image @Tony Grant

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Copryright (c) Jane Austen’s World. This post is in honor of Thanksgiving and all the cooks, feminine or masculine, who toil hard in the kitchen to feed their families on this special holiday.

I am sure that the ladies there had nothing to do with the mysteries of the stew-pot or the preserving-pan” – James Edward Austen-Leigh, writing about his aunts, Jane and Cassandra Austen, and grandmother, Mrs Austen, when they lived at Steventon Rectory.

18th century kitchen servants prepare a meal. Image @Jane Austen Cookbook

In 1747, Mrs.Hannah Glasse wrote her historic The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, an easy-to-understand cookbook for the lower class chefs who cooked for the rich. Her recipes were simple and came with detailed instructions, a revolutionary thought at the time.

The Art of Cookery’s first distinction was simplicity – simple instructions, accessible ingredients, an accent on thrift, easy recipes and practical help with weights and timing. Out went the bewildering text of former cookery books (“pass it off brown” became “fry it brown in some good butter”; “draw him with parsley” became “throw some parsley over him”). Out went French nonsense: no complicated patisserie that an ordinary cook could not hope to cook successfully. Glasse took into account the limitations of the average middle-class kitchen: the small number of staff, the basic cooking equipment, limited funds. - Hannah Glasse, The Original Domestic Goddess forum

Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

Until Mrs. Glasse wrote her popular cookery book (17 editions appeared in the 18th century), these instructional books had been largely written by male chefs who offered complicated French recipes without detailed or practical directions. (To see what I mean, check Antonin Careme’s recipe for Les Petits Vol-Au-Vents a la Nesle at this link.) Like Jane Austen, Hannah signed her books “By a Lady”.

Antonin Careme's cookbook

Mrs. Glasse had always intended to sell her cookery book to mistresses of gentry families or the rising middle class, who would then instruct their cooks to prepare foods from her simplified recipes, which she collected. “My Intention is to instruct the lower Sort [so that] every servant who can read will be capable of making a tolerable good Cook,” she wrote in her preface.

Frontispiece from William Augustus Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor, 6th edition, c.1800. This same picture appeared in the very first edition of c.1791and it shows the mistress presenting the cookery book to her servant, while a young man is instructed in the art of carving with the aid of another book.*

Hanna’s revolutionary approach, which included the first known printed recipe for curry and instructions for making a hamburger, made sense. In the morning, it was the custom of the mistress of the household to speak to the cook or housekeeper about the day’s meals and give directions for the day. The servants in turn would interpret her instructions. (Often their mistress had to read the recipes to them, for many lower class people still could not read.)

In theory, the recipes from Hannah’s cookbook would help the lady of the house stay out of the kitchen and enjoy a few moments of free time. But the servant turnover rate was high and often the mistress had to roll up her sleeves and actively participate in the kitchen. Many households with just two or three servants could not afford a mistress of leisure, and they, like Mrs. Austen in the kitchens of Steventon Rectory and Chawton Cottage, would toil alongside their cook staff.

The simple kitchen at Chawton cottage. Image @Tony Grant

At the start of the 18th century the French courtly way of cooking still prevailed in genteel households. As the century progressed, more and more women like Hannah Glasse began to write cookery books that offered not only simpler versions of French recipes, but instructions for making traditional English pies, tarts, and cakes as well. Compared to the expensive cookbooks written by male chefs, cookery books written by women were quite affordable, for they were priced between 2 s. and 6 d.

Hannah Glasse's practical directions for boiling and broiling

Publishers took advantage of the brisk trade, for with the changes in agricultural practices,  food was becoming more abundant for the rising middle classes. Large editions of cheap English cookery books by a variety of female cooks were distributed to a wide new audience of less wealthy and largely female readers who had money to spend on food. Before Hannah Glasse and her cohort, cooks and housewives  had been accustomed to sharing recipes in private journals (such as Marthat Lloyd’s) or handing them down by word-of-mouth.

Martha Lloyd's recipe for caraway cake written in her journal.

Female authors tended to share their native English recipes in their cookery books. As the century progressed, the content of these cookery books began to change. Aside from printing recipes, these books began to include medical instructions for poultices and the like; bills of fare for certain seasons or special gatherings; household and marketing tips; etc.

Bill of fare for November, The Universal Cook, 1792

By the end of the 18th century, cookery books also included heavy doses of servant etiquette and moral advice. At this time plain English fare had replaced French cuisine, although wealthy households continued to employ French chefs as expensive status symbols.  In the mid-19th century cookery books that targeted the working classes, such as Mrs. Beeton’s famous book on Household Management, began to be serialized in magazines, as well as published in book form.

Family at meal time

Before ending this post, I would like to refer you back to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s quote at top. In contrast to what he wrote (for he did not know his aunts or grandmother well), Jane Austen scholar Maggie Lane reminds us that housewives who consulted with their cook and housekeeper  about the day’s meals still felt comfortable working in the kitchen. She writes in Jane Austen and Food:

“though they may not have stirred the pot or the pan themselves, Mrs. Austen and her daughters perfectly understood what was going on within them…The fact that their friend and one-time house-mate Martha Lloyd made a collection of recipes to which Mrs. Austen contributed is proof that the processes of cookery were understood by women of their class.”

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Copryright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

For four days last week, I was working in a school in Staines near Heathrow Airport. To get there from Wimbledon I had to drive past David Garrick’s Villa and his temple to Shakespeare, at Hampton on The Thames.

Garrick's Villa, 1783

David Garrick was an 18th century actor, playwright and owner of Drury Lane Theatre. He was innovative, and the forerunner of a new acting style. He was regarded as the greatest actor of his time and arguably is one of the great actors of all time. He had a profound interest in Shakespeare. It is easy to see connections between David Garrick and his career and the career and  driven personality of Dickens. Perhaps they are both a mirror in which we can see something of ourselves.

Garrick

David Garrick was the second son of Peter and Arabella Garrick. He was born at The Angel Inn in Hereford on the 19th February 1717. For a while he was the pupil of Samuel Johnson at the little school at Edial near Lichfield. In 1773 Garrick and Johnson went to London together both with little money to support them. Garrick at first worked as a salesman in his family’s wine firm. However he turned to playwriting and acting. He write a version of, “Lethe,” that was used by Henry Giffard’s company at Drury Lane. He then joined Giffard’s company and worked at the theatre in Tankard street in Ipswich. At first Garrick took the stage name of Lyddall. On the 19th October 1741 he played Richard III at Goodman’s Fields Theatre in East London. He was an overnight sensation.

David Garrick as Richard III, 1745. William Hogarth

His acting style was new and innovative. He began a more naturalistic style. Rather than use the exaggerated bombastic style that was popular. On 28th November that year he got rid of his stage name and began to use his real name. His real name appeared on the posters advertising, “The Orphan,” in which he played the character, Chamont.. As a sign of his meteoric rise to fame within two months William Pitt decalerd that the 22 year old Garrick was the best actor the British stage had ever produced. Garrick became the dominant force in British theatre from then on.

Drury Lane 1808

In 1747 with a new partner, James Lacey he took over the management of Drury Lane Theatre. For 29 years he directed repertory company in Europe. He developed new rehearsal techniques and discipline. His ideas included analysing characters, restoring the original texts of Shakespeare. Much of Shakespeare’s plays in the 18th century had been written in a bombastic and alliterative style. He didn’t always keep to Shakespeare’s original texts himself. He did tend to leave out bits and add bits to emphasise the character he was playing. Garrick was one of the leading playwrights of his day and wrote The Clandestine Marriage, Cymon, The Lying Valet and The Guardian. Garricks influence became the yardstick by which all other acting and drama was measured throughout Europe.

William Garrick and his wife, Eva Maria Vegel, by William Hogarth

In 1749 Garrick married the Viennese dancer, Eva Maria Vegel. They had no children and she outlived him by 43 years.They were so famous the crowned heads of Europe, the nobility and the leading figures of the London literary, art and social circles came to visit him.He owned residences at No 27 Southampton Street in Covent garden, in the Sdelphi, and his villa at Hampton on The Thames.You can imagine the elite of Europe coming to Hampton to visit garrick at his Thameside retreat, walking by The Thames, visiting his temple to Shakespeare and rowing out to the aits (river islands) Garrick owned along his stretch of the river to have sylvan parties in a beautiful natural surround.

Garrick's temple close up. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick gave up Drury Lane and made his last performance at Drury Lane during a series of final performances in June 1776. He died in his house in the Adelphi on 20 th January 1779. He was buried at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.

View of the Thames from the Temple. Image @Tony Grant

Gentle reader: This is the first of two articles about David Garrick by Tony Grant. The second will concentrate on the actor’s beautiful house and temple on the Thames.

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Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World.

Hear what a male writer has observed on the fashion of exposing the bosom! A woman, proud of her beauty, says he, may possibly be nothing but a coquet: one who makes a public display of her bosom, is something worse.” – The Mirror of  Graces, by A Lady of Distinction, 1811, p. 120

Could the above statement possibly be true in light of our modern assumptions that the Georgian bossom was displayed in all its soft glory for all to see?

Waiting on the ladies

Our modern perception is heavily influenced by the caricatures of the period that make fun of unrestricted Regency gowns. But how much did contemporary cartoonists exaggerate? And what sort of woman would have exposed her bosom to such an extent that she would have been regarded as worse than a coquet? To be fair, the above image depicts a time (the 1820s) when the waist had gone as high as it could go under a woman’s bosom, skirts had widened and become conical shaped, and hems were festooned and decorated and shortened to reveal slippers and ankles.

Regarding the bosom, the proof is in the pudding, and the best way to assuage our curiosity is to view contemporary examples year by year.

From left, upper row: 1794-1795 walking gowns. 1795-1800 round gown. From left, lower row: 1797 Countess of Oxford. 1798, round gown.

Gentle reader, as you peruse the gallery of images, please look for a pattern. You shall begin to see a distinction between day and evening dress, regardless of the time of year.

1st column, top: 1800, Salucci family. Bottom: 1800 V&A gown. 2nd column, top: 1801 April day gowns. Bottom: 1801 Marie Denise Villiers

While I believe that a variety of cleavages were on display during the Regency era (and I shall delve more into this topic later), the top left portrait of Mrs. Salucci is one of the few instances in which a shadowed cleavage is clearly painted or drawn.

1802 Bosoms. Top right: Princess Augusta. Other two images from Ladies Monthly Museum.

Why is this? One can safely assume that a voluptuous woman with large breasts, even when wearing a dress with a modest neckline, would reveal some cleavage. Thin girls or women with small bosoms would not have as much difficulty following the rules of decorum. Before the 20th century, the feminine ideal was a woman whose curves were bounteous and whose figures were pleasingly plumb. Rich husbands and fathers were proud to show off their well-fed women. Only the poor, who toiled all day and never had enough to eat, or the sick, or those who were metabolically overchallenged, were thin and scrawny. Thus, it made sense that during the Regency heaving bosoms were de rigueur. But were they?

In this image I have included both French, English, and American gowns. Left to right, clockwise, starting at the top. 1803, Costume Parisien. 1803, Mirroir de la Mode. 1805, American neoclassical gown. 1805, English cotton muslin, Kyoto costume Institute. 1804, three French Promenade dresses.

Regardless of nationality, a woman could choose to be as modest (or daring) as she liked. As far as I can tell from fashion images and portraits, modesty won hands down. High necklines, chemisette inserts,  and high collars ruled the day. But night provided a different story.

1806 gowns. Top left, Binney sisters. Top right, Opera and drawing room gowns. Bottom image, Lady Codrington.

In the above composite image of 1806 gowns, more of the bosom is revealed than in previous images. Consider the sources. The Binney sisters and Lady Codrington, who were sitting for their portraits, would have chosen their best gowns to wear. Full dress, or evening dress, revealed more skin. The third image also depicts evening wear. In those two images you can more readily understand why empire gowns created such a stir at first:

Observers of the period frequently deplored the absence of modesty conveyed by a style that was predicated on the prominence and exposure of the breasts and on the barely veiled body….Sheer, narrow dresses … caused a sensation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, more because of their contrast with the elaborate hooped costumes of previous decades than for any real immodesty. – Source: Two dresses [French] (1983.6.1,07.146.5) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1807 Regency gown fashion plates

By now you have seen enough examples to have noticed a trend. Examine the above fashion plate images. Which necklines belong to full dress, or evening gowns, and which belong to day gowns or walking gowns? Of the five necklines, only the top left can be construed as revealing. And this neckline, depending on the size of the woman’s breasts, could be both modest or plunging.

1810 Regency gowns

The 1810 Regency gowns demonstrate a variety of necklines and layers of clothing. As in Cassandra’s portrait of Jane Austen,  chemissetes were widely used. Fichus, shawls, tippets, and pelerines were also popular. The widow in the evening mourning gown (top middle) wears a cross that lies inside her cleavage. The white embroidered gowns (top right and lower left) demonstrate how the neckline is determined by whether the gown is worn for day (top right) or for evening (lower left, image of French gowns, Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Jane Austen by Cassandra, 1810

In the image painted by Cassandra, Jane wears a simple gown, much like the Binney sisters were wearing. You can observe her chemisette under the low neckline, which created a more modest look for day time.

Regency gowns, 1811-1814

Princess Charlotte’s 1814 bellflower court gown (lower right), while breathtaking, did not reveal her bosom. The image of the 1812 full dress (second from top on the left) is a bit misleading, for the decorative drooping elements give the illusion that the neckline is lower than it actually is.  (In this example, it is hard to see the line of the silk fabric running across the top.) The other day gowns cover the torso quite modestly.

1815-1816 Regency Gowns

The high necklines of the 1815 morning gown at top left and Mrs. Jens Wolff’s 1815 satin dress at top right would make a Quaker lady proud. The two 1816 evening gowns show a relatively modest neckline (lower left) and one that could be quite daring (lower right).

Until now I have not discussed the role that corsets played in propping up the bust line. Regency stays, which were darted and laced in the back, were quite short and were much less constricting than earlier Georgian models that cinched in the waist. The purpose of the Regency stay was to support a woman’s bust and create the distinctive Regency “shelf” silhouette.

1819 stays (short on left, long on right with inserted busk). Image @ Kyoto Costume Institute

A rigid wood or bone busk, which served to separate the breasts and encourage good posture, was inserted in the stays (or corseted petticoat).

1810 German copy of James Gillray's cartoon. The lady inserts her busk as her maid ties her stays.

Busks might provide one explanation of why so few drawings and paintings of the era depict a deep, shadowed cleavage, for the breasts were splayed aside. The busks were often hand-carved and decorated by a woman’s sweetheart. The exerpt from a poem entitled: On a Juniper Tree, cut down to make Busks, waxes eloquently about the tree’s sacrifice for beauty.

She cut me down, and did translate,

My being to a happier state.

No martyr for religion died

With half that unconsidering pride;

My top was on that altar laid,

Where Love his softest offerings paid:

And was as fragrant incense burned,

My body into busks was turned:

Where I still guard the sacred store,

And of Love’s temple keep the door.

1817-1820 dresses

By 1817, the stark neoclassical outlines of empire gowns at the turn of the century had given way to a fancier more decorative outline, in which embellishments were added both at the top of the gown and at its hem. The 1817 portrait of Princess Charlotte (top left) is bittersweet, for she died in fall of that year in childbirth. Once again, the popular princess fails to exhibit her cleavage.

Rolinda Sharples’ painting of the cloak room at Clifton Assembly Rooms (top right) shows a woman with a small bust wearing a low décolleté ball dress. Countess Blessington (second from bottom, left) also wore a daring neckline for her sitting for her portrait by Thomas Lawrence. The two evening gowns at the bottom are modest, and the 1820 beige walking dress with its high ruff neck demonstrates the Tudor influences in dress embellishments. Also note the lowered waistline.

1823-1825 dresses

By 1823, Jane Austen had been dead for six years. She would have been shocked to see how many furlebows, tucks, rows of lace, and ribbons decorated ladies gowns. At this time, the waistline was gradually lowering back to its natural position. Gone was the neoclassical Regency empire silhouette. Note how the three ball gowns shown in this series of images provide hardly any chance for a lady to show off her cleavage.

One can see the hint of shadow of the woman’s breasts in the large 1823 La Belle Assemblee image in the center and how the artist accommodated the influence of the busk. I included the plain every day green 1825 American gown to show the kind of dress an ordinary woman would sew for herself and wear.

I hope this post has cast a light on a Regency lady’s bosom. A Lady of Distinction wrote in 1811:

Let the youthful female exhibit without shade as much of her bust as shall come within the limits of fashion, without infringing on the borders of immodesty. Let the fair of riper years appear less exposed. To sensible and tasteful women a hint is merely required.”

A tasteful hint? I can only conclude that exposing too much of one’s bosom was not considered lady-like behavior. Thin and small breasted women experienced an easier time following society’s strictures. The well-endowed had a tougher row to hoe, although an enterprising young virgin could always insert a handy nosegay to hide her feminine bounty or add  a pretty bow or a lace embellishment at the precise spot where a gentleman’s eyes should not stray.

Brazen hussies, light skirts, and women of easy virtue could bare as much skin as they pleased, having no reputation to protect. A very rich matron, whose place in society was secure, might be tempted to show more of her bosom than was prudent, but even she would refrain from displaying too many of her feminine allures before she was married!

Next, I will discuss heaving bosoms in Regency films and on book covers, and how the two media have influenced our perception of Regency bustlines.

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