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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s letters’ Category

Illustration from Modes et Manieres Du Jour, 1798 – 1808

I have changed my mind, & changed the trimmings on my Cap this morning, they are now much as you suggested, – I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions, & I think it makes me look more like Lady Conyngham now than it did before, which is all that one lives for now. Jane Austen to Cassandra, December 18-19, 1798

Women during the Regency period wore headdresses outdoors as a matter of course. When a woman married, or if she was a spinster in her late twenties, she would also take to wearing a cap indoors. This image from Wikipedia shows Mme. Seriziat wearing a bergere, or shepherdess-style straw bonnet over a cap, as was the custom back then. When her child was a baby, he might have worn a simple bonnet, as infants still do today.

Aside from sheltering delicate skin from the sun or hair from the elements, or protecting one’s head in drafty rooms, headdresses took on many other functions. They denoted class and economic status, as well as fashion sense and one’s marital state. Hats were also worn as a sign of respect, inside a church, for instance, and this custom remained widely popular until well into the 20th-century.

Lace caps, mob caps, or draped caps, were made of lace, white linen or delicate muslin, and trimmed with ribbon. They could be ruffled, embroidered, or plain, depending on who wore them and their status. A housekeeper, for example, would wear a more elaborate cap than a scullery maid, whose mob cap was simple by comparison. In Pride and Prejudice 1995, Mrs. Bennet wore such frilly caps with so many ruffles and trimmings that they complimented her image as a silly woman. One can imagine how much fancier her caps were than her maid’s!

Trimming and redecorating old bonnets provided a topic of conversation for women of all ages and social strata. In her novels and letters, Jane Austen frequently mentioned trimming new hats and making over old bonnets as a female activity. According to Penelope Byrde in A Frivolous Distinction, it was quite the fad during the last decade of the 18th century to adorn hats and bonnets with artificial fruits and flowers. As Jane Austen wrote Cassandra in June, 1799 (tongue in cheek we suspect):

Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing – Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots – There are likewise Almonds& raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats.

In addition to professional milliners and modistes, there was quite a large cottage industry for making caps, hats, and turbans from home, which provided a meager salary for women who needed the income. The materials used in making headdresses were as varied as their styles: straw (chip or strip), beaver, velvet, silk, crape, satin, muslin or cloth (Byrde, p 6). Trims included ribbons, the above mentioned artificial fruits and flowers, veils, net, lace, or feathers, and even beads, pins, and brooches.

For a more detailed explanation of the headdresses worn during this era and to view additional illustrations, please click on the following links.

  • Hats and Bonnets, Victoriana: Scroll to the bottom of this page to see illustrations from 1811 and 1812.
  • Fileblogs, Regency Caps, Linore Rose Burkhart: Linore describes the various hat styles in this link, along with materials and trims.

For people interested in ordering their own Regency caps, or in trying their hand at making a bonnet, the following links will lead you to patterns, suppliers, and resources:

  • Louise MacDonald Millinery (link suggested by Laurel Ann, see above image). Louise created the caps for Pride & Prejudice 1995, and describes making them for the movie.

Byrde, Penelope, A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the works of Jane Austen, Bath City Council, 1979.

Four Hundred Years of Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum, edited by Natalie Rothstein, V&A Publications, 1984.

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In 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra:

The invitation to the Fair was general; Edwd* positively declined his share of that, & I was very glad to do the same.-It is likely to be a baddish Fair-not much upon the Stall, & neither Mary O. nor Mary P.-it is hoped that the Portfolio may be in Canty* this morng*.Sackree’s sister found it at Croydon and took it to Town with her, but unluckily did not send it down till she had directions. Fanny C’s. screens can be done nothing with, but there are parts of workbags in the parcel, very important in their way.-Three of the Deedes girls are to be at Goodnestone.-We shall not be much settled till this visit is over-settled as to employment I mean;-Fanny and I are to go on with Modern Europe together, but hitherto have advanced only 25 Pages, something or other has always happened to delay or curtail the reading hour.-I ought to have told you before of a purchase of Edward’s in Town, he desired.Language evolves, and words do not have the same meaning for us as they did in 1813. The author of Adventures in Reading posted an interesting article this week about the language Jane Austen uses. The post reviews a book, The Language of Jane Austen: A Study of Some Aspects of her Vocabulary (1991) by Myra Stokes. Ms. Stokes discusses, for example, that “morning calling hours” generally did not occur before noon*, that the words “London” and “Town” were often interchangeable, or that being sent up or down meant in relation to one’s position in London, not whether one was heading south.

I won’t go into much more detail, for the post is worth reading. As we pursue our love for all things Austen, it is good to be reminded how much the meaning of words have changed and that one must pay particular attention reading a Jane Austen novel, or any work of past times, referring frequently to anthologies or one’s dictionary to get the nuances just right.

*Update on the term ‘Morning Calling Hours’: In The Jane Austen Handbook, Margaret C. Sullivan defines the time when visitors may call in the morning: “between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, or the time between rising and eating dinner. “

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During her short life, Jane Austen was a prolific writer of letters, yet few survive. It is widely known that a majority of Jane’s letters were burned by her sister Cassandra and destroyed by other members of her family. Their reasons were varied. This excerpt from Jim and Ellen Moody’s website: English and Continental Literature, discusses the destruction of these letters and the reasons for it:

Not all the Austens of Jane’s generation and increasingly fewer who belonged to the later generations wanted the family’s private papers destroyed. It was not Jane but Cassandra who burnt ‘the greater part’ of Jane’s letters, and she only committed them to the fire when in 1842 she understood her own death could not be far off. Jane’s letters to Eliza and Henry and hers to them were left in Henry’s hands, and they have not survived. However, Frank, throughout a long mobile life, carefully preserved Jane’s letters to his first wife, Mary Gibson, and her packets of letters to himself and to Martha Lloyd (who became his second wife). It was Frank’s youngest daughter, Fanny-Sophia, who destroyed these and she did so after her father’s death (Family Record, p. 252). She acted without consulting anyone beforehand because by that time mores had changed and other of Frank’s children and grandchildren would have objected. Happily Philadelphia Walker had no direct descendants who felt their reputations or self-esteem put at risk by the existence of Eliza’s letters to her, and she lived long enough so that upon her death these letters fell into the hands of someone disinterested enough to save them, though in a somewhat mutilated state. A record of Jane Austen’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen’s steady courage, which enabled Jane’s branch of the family to maintain the status of gentleman and amass wealth and prestige, survives in a seventeenth century manuscript because several generations of Austens who descended from her second oldest son, the attorney, Francis Austen of Sevenoaks, preserved it (Austen Papers, p. 2).

As a result of the destruction of Jane’s own words, biographers have over the years come to widely different conclusions about Jane’s thoughts and motives. Ellen Moody outlines some of these varying interpretations in the link I have provided.

To read Jane’s letters, click on the following sites:

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