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You deserve a longer letter than this, but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…” – Jane Austen

Introduction:

In August, 1798, Rev George and Mrs. Austen and their daughters Cassandra and Jane visited Godmersham, Edward Austen-Knight’s estate near Godmersham, Kent, where he had moved with his family in November, 1797. While Jane and her parents returned to Steventon in October, Cassandra remained behind until March, 1799. Jane wrote the following letter on Christmas eve in the middle of Cassandra’s prolonged visit. 

Godmersham-Park-Public-Domain-1799-Wikipedia

Godmersham Park, 1799, Wikipedia public domain image

Jane Austen’s letter:

Steventon: Monday Night, Dec 24 [1798]

My dear Cassandra

Our ball was very thin, but by no means unpleasant. There were thirty-one people, and only eleven ladies out of the number, and but five single women in the room. Of the gentlemen present you may have some idea from the list of my partners—Mr. Wood, G. Lefroy, Rice, a Mr. Butcher (belonging to the Temples, a sailor and not of the 11th Light Dragoons). Mr. Temple (not the horrid one of all). Mr. Wm Orde (cousin to the Kingsclere man). Mr. John Harwood, and Mr. Calland, who appeared as usual with his hat in his hand, and stood every now and then behind Catherine and me to be talked to and abused for not dancing. We teased him, however, into it at last. I was very glad to see him again after so long a separation…

There were twenty dances, and I danced them all, and without any fatigue…My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everybody else in the room…Of my charities to the poor since I came home you shall have a faithful account. I have given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, and Dame Staples: a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins: amounting in all to about half a guinea…

I was to have dined at Deane today, but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of snow. We are to have company to dinner on Friday: the three Digweeds and James. We shall be a nice silent party. I suppose.

You deserve a longer letter than this, but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…God bless you!

Yours affectionately, Jane Austen

Image of Steventon Rectory, Wikimedia Commons

Steventon Parsonage, Wikimedia Commons

This short letter might reveal very little information to the contemporary reader, but Cassandra knew the context of every sentence Jane wrote. She knew the people, time, place, and setting, since she lived it. No detailed descriptions were needed for Cassandra to comprehend the letter’s full meaning

Thankfully for us, records and books exist that will help us make more sense of Jane’s cryptic words.

The Years Leading to Austen’s Letter

Jane and Cassandra had just experienced a number of eventful years. In 1796, Jane met and danced with Tom LeFroy at Deane. We know the details of this meeting in the first existing letter Jane wrote to Cassandra. In August, 1797,  Cassandra learned that Thomas Fowle, her fiance, died tragically of fever in the West Indies months earlier and was buried at sea. A little over a year after the shocking news, she must still have been in deep mourning.

By 1798, Jane had already written the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice, initially entitled First Impressions, and Sense and Sensibility, originally drafted as an epistolary novel entitled Elinor and Marianne. Just five months previously, her dear cousin Lady Williams (Jane Cooper) had died in a carriage accident, another cause for mourning. 

Timeline of events:

1795(?)Cassandra engaged to Thomas Fowle.
 MayMrs. James Austen died.
1795-6Mr. Tom Lefroy at Ashe.
1796 First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice) begun.
1797,Jan.James Austen married Mary Lloyd.
 Feb.Thomas Fowle died of fever in the W. Indies.
 Nov.Jane, with mother and sister, went to Bath.
  First Impressions refused by Cadell.
  Sense and Sensibility (already sketched in Elinor and Marianne) begun.
1798,Aug.Lady Williams (Jane Cooper) killed in a carriage accident.
  Mrs. Knight gave up Godmersham to the Edward Austens. Jane’s first visit there.
1798,Aug.First draft of Northanger Abbey begun.
Timeline/context of the letter in Project Gutenberg:  Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters, by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh

About Austen’s Letters

Deidre Le Faye in Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th Edition, listed Austen’s known letters in chronological order. At a glance one can see when and where the sisters were apart. Many casual readers think of Jane as a spinster and a homebody, but the list demonstrates how often and how extensively she and Casssandra traveled, largely in the south of England. This link leads to an interactive map of her travels in Smithsonian Magazine. 

Le Faye chronicles the ten letters Jane sent to Cassandra during her visit to Godmersham. They were written from October 24, 1798 to January 23, 1799. This letter, which described past and future events, was dated December 24th, Christmas eve. The ball had already occurred. Christmas festivities in 1798 were rather simple compared to festivities introduced during Queen Victoria’s time, (Click on this link to a Georgian Christmas). Jane must have missed her sister even more on this occasion.

Deirdre Le Faye, in her descriptive article for Persuasion #14, 1992, entitled Jane Austen’s Letters, described the letters as “often hasty and elliptical–the equivalent of chatty telephone conversations between the sisters, keeping each other informed of the events at home…interspersed with news of the day, both local and national.” (p. 82, Jane Austen’s Letters) 

Example of a cross written letter to save paper and postage, much as the Austens sent to each other. The recipient of the letter paid for the postage. Paper was saved by cross writing. Image in the public domain.

Example of a cross written letter to save paper and postage, much as the Austens sent to each other. The recipient of the letter paid for the postage. Paper was saved by cross writing. Image in the public domain.

When Jane and Cassandra were apart, they wrote each other every three days, or five letters in a fortnight. As soon as one was sent, they began to write the next one. The letters followed a pattern, telling the other of the journey, then about daily events and how life was at home, then talking about the visit at the destination, and finally of the journey home. This pattern helped Le Faye determine which letters (or set of letters) were missing or destroyed by Cassandra.

When Jane was ready to mail her letter, Mr. Austen dropped it off at the post box in Deane as he made his rounds throughout his parish. Cassandra bequeathed this letter to Fanny Knatchbull, née Austen-Knight, which eventually made its way into her son’s, Lord Brabourne’s, publication of Jane’s letters.

Events in the Letter: The Ball, the People, and the Setting

The setting

In her December 24th letter, Jane indicated her physical fitness – she danced all twenty dances without any fatigue. As a country girl who helped her family in the kitchen garden or with breakfast, and who walked into town, to church, or to visit neighbors at Deane or Ashe, she was in prime physical condition. View this map of Steventon, Deane, and Ashe.

She described the ball as being thin.

There were thirty-one people, and only eleven ladies out of the number, and but five single women in the room.

It is hard to tell if the ball was public or private. The word “thin,” however, indicated that it must have been public to anyone who had a subscription. If the ball had been private, then the hosts would have ensured that the correct number of persons of both sexes would have been invited. Once they accepted the invitation, good manners would have obliged them to show up. If the December ball had been private, Jane would surely have known who and how many were coming. There would have been few surprises. 

basinstoke town hall

Basingstoke Town Hall in the late 18th early 19th centuries.

Public assembly balls were held in Basingstoke’s town hall, which was a little over 7 miles from Steventon (an hour’s carriage ride in good weather, since horses pulling carriages traveled 6 miles per hour on average). Dancing was performed in a ballroom on the first floor that also held a card room for gentlemen like Mr. Austen, who might not have felt like dancing.

Frequent allusions are made in the “Letters” to the county balls at Basingstoke. These took place, it seems, once a month on a Thursday during the season. They were held in the Assembly Rooms, and were frequented by all the well-to-do families of the out-lying neighbourhood; many of them, like the Austens, coming from long distances, undeterred by the dangers of dark winter nights, lampless lanes, and stormy weather.” – Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends, Constance Hill, Illustrations by Ellen G. Hill, John Lane, The Bodley Head Limited, first Published 1901. Downloaded August 30, 2020.

The people

Dancers Jane described in her letter were:

Rev George and Mrs Anne Lefroy (née Brydges). The reverend obtained his living in Ashe in 1783, and Madam Lefroy, as she was locally known, was Jane’s good friend and mentor. In her letters, Jane talked of visiting friends and neighbors, such as the Lefroys of Ashe Park, which was within easy walking distance. In 1800, Jane wrote:

“We had a very pleasant day on Monday at Ashe (Park). We sat down fourteen to dinner in the study, the dining-room being not habitable from the storms having blown…down its chimney. There was a whist and a casino table…” – Constance Hill

Ashe Rectory-Hill

Ashe Rectory. Illustration by Ellen Hill

Mr. Wood: All we know about John Wood is that he was Jane’s dance partner. 

Rice is most likely Henry Rice, who married Jemima-Lucy Lefroy. He was known to be a fun-loving spendthrift who was often bailed out by his mother.

Mr. Temple, mostly likely Frank, who served in the navy. His friend was Samuel Butcher.

Mr. Butcher (belonging to the Temples, a sailor and not of the 11th Light Dragoons.) Samuel Butcher was five years older than Jane. He was appointed to HMS Sans Pareil in 1795.

Mr. Wm Orde (cousin to the Kingscler man) of Nunnykirk “perhaps.” He remained unmarried.

Mr. Calland, who Penelope Hughes-Hallett identified as the Rector of Bentworth. The joke in the Austen family was that he always appeared at any function with a hat in his hand, which Mrs. Austen made fun of with a poem. On this day, Jane and her friend Catherine teased him into dancing.

Catherine is Catherine Bigg, daughter of Mr. Bigg Wither of Manydown Park, and Jane’s good friend.

“Manydown is within easy reach of Basingstoke, and Jane often stayed there when the Assembly balls took place. She had done so on the present occasion.”- Constance Hill

18th century engraving of Manydown Park

18th century engraving of Manydown Park

Of my charities to the poor…

In this section of the letter, Jane listed the Steventon villagers who received her largesse:

I have given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, and Dame Staples: a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins:”

Hannah was Dame Staples’ daughter. Jane Austen, as a rector’s daughter of the most influential man (not the richest) in the parishes he served, was obligated to support the many poor ladies in Steventon. Her gifts, simple as they seemed, were multiplied by the gifts of food and clothing from the community at large and kept the villager women from dire extremes. Mrs. and Miss Bates in Emma depend on the kindness of neighbors to survive, as Jane wrote in scene after scene.

The Austens, while influential in Steventon, were not rich. They belonged, as Lucy Worsley writes in Jane Austen at Home, to the pseudo-gentry.

“Jane belonged to the pseudo-gentry; there was land in her family, but her parents and siblings didn’t own land, so they had to make do and mend and gloss things over.”

Pseudo-gentry kept up appearances even though their means fell short of their richer neighbors, friends, and relatives. Still, Jane managed from her meager yearly-pin money of around £20 to spend a sum “amounting in all to about half a guinea….”

Half a guinea was a gold coin minted from the Guinea Coast in Africa, which ceased to be minted around the time of this letter. The idea that Jane possessed a gold coin is far fetched. In Austen’s day, a guinea had a value of 21 shillings–this value could change depending on the quality of the coinage in use. Interestingly, the gold coin’s purchasing power (comparing Austen’s time to now), remains a little over 1 pound today. (CPI Inflation calendar).

The ball and dances

Balls in the days of Miss Austen consisted mainly of country dances, for the stately minuet was going out of vogue, while the rapid waltz had not yet come in. We must picture to ourselves the ladies and gentlemen ranged in two long rows facing one another, whilst the couples at the extreme ends danced down the set; the most important lady present having been privileged to “call” or lead off the dance.”… Constance Hill

Which dances did Jane Austen dance?

Country dances as late as 1798 had very little variation, with long lines of couples progressing up and down a set that could last from twenty minutes to as much as an hour. This and other dances mentioned by Austen included cotillions performed as a square by four couples. The boulanger was known as a “finishing” dance performed at the last. It was physically an easy dance to do and one that after a night of physical exertion was probably most welcome. – (“What did Jane Austen Dance,” Capering & Kickery, 2009)

Dances Austen might have danced in 1798, since they were popular during that time, were the Scotch reel, the minuet (rapidly going out of fashion), and Sir Roger de Coverley, another finishing dance (although no record exists of Jane mentioning this dance). One dance she and her contemporaries decidedly did not dance during this period was the waltz, although Jane might have heard its music. (Capering & Kickery.)

The Music

Jane adored music and she made eight volumes of her own collections, two of which she wrote by hand (copying sheets of music). The music included songs by Handel and English composers, and instrumental pieces by Correlli, Gluck and J.C. Bach. (Jane Austen and classical music: how Bath brought them together, Discover Music.)

'The London March', manuscript music copied by Jane Austen, image in the public domain

‘The London March’, manuscript music copied by Jane Austen, image in the public domain

Susan of Capering and Kickery reminds readers that dancers during the end of the 18th century and in the Regency era paid attention to fashionable “music in the moment.” Dancers would not have chosen to dance to music popular in the 17th or early 18th centuries. “Austen was no more likely to dance a 75- or 100-year old dance than she was to wear fashions from a hundred years earlier.”

Many contemporary comments regarding the music in the recent mini-series of “Sanditon” and the film, “Emma.” 2020, were scathing regarding the raw country tunes that were played in the dance scenes, many of which were Scottish airs and folk music, like “The Water is Wide,” which is popular to this day. Yet these movies have it wrong. 

“… dances like “Hole in the Wall,” “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot,” “Childgrove,” and “Grimstock” (all dating from 1650 to 1710) are nothing Jane Austen or her characters would have been caught dead dancing.”- Capering and Kickery

Yet, due to films, such as 1995’s “Pride and Prejudice” (an adaptation I admire), modern audiences accept these dance choices as authentic. Neither Cassandra nor Jane would have.

The Musicians

Well-paid musicians in London would have played more sophisticated pieces from the Continent interspersed with popular English music. Country balls, however, employed traveling musicians (from 5-6) who sought work from town to town. Villagers and townsmen might have sought out local talent, who consisted of anyone who could play an instrument, no matter the quality of their play. Think of Mary Bennet, whose talent at the piano forte was bad, versus an impresario like Jane Fairfax.  Elizabeth Bennet could play tolerably well and Anne Elliot was called upon to play at the piano forte as the family rolled up the carpet for an impromptu dance in the evening. 

Image of Henry Raeburn, violinist and composer, 1727-1807

Henry Raeburn, violinist and composer, 1727-1807

Ball dress:

The only reference Austen makes to her dress is:

My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everybody else in the room…”

At twenty-three years of age, Jane was almost on the shelf and in danger of becoming a spinster. She had begun to wear caps earlier than most other unmarried ladies, and in this respect her quote was not surprising. It is hard, however, to find a black cap in the fashion magazines of her day and before. Black hats were shown in the magazines, but not caps in that color. They were generally made of white muslin and sewn by the women who wore them. Tom Fowle’s death hit Cassandra hard (she was not to learn of his passing until months after the event when the ship made it back to port.)

Cassandra knew exactly what Jane was writing about regarding the cap; but we can only conjecture. Regency mourning customs were not as strict as in Victorian times, but wearing a black cap was perhaps Jane’s way of honoring his memory and perhaps Jane Cooper. The following quote from The British Library states:

The Gallery of Fashion shows a lot of mourning dresses. A woman might spend a considerable part of her life wearing mourning of some sort, for distant relatives as well as close ones, so it is not surprising that there was a pressure to remain fashionable while doing so.” – Gallery of Fashion, The British Library.

In any case, little is known of the black cap. The closeup of this image is the only 1798 full dress example I found online after hours of searching.

Detail, Fashion Plate, 'Full Dress for Decr. 1798' for 'Lady's Monthly Museum'

Detail, Fashion Plate, ‘Full Dress for Dec. 1798’ for ‘Lady’s Monthly Museum’

In 1798, ladies’ dresses made the transition from round gowns (so prettily drawn in Nicholas Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion (1794-1802) to sleeker, more figure hugging gowns popular in the early 19th century. 

Fashion Plate, 'Full Dress for Decr. 1798' for 'Lady's Monthly Museum', LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Fashion Plate, ‘Full Dress for Decr. 1798’ for ‘Lady’s Monthly Museum’, LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Women’s dresses during this decade sported trains. Austen’s gown in the ball she attended in 1798 was probably a full dress gown, since the senior Austens were too often strapped for income to afford a full array of morning gowns, walking gowns, dinner gowns, full dress gowns, and ball gowns for their two girls. 

Jane began to write Northanger Abbey in 1798, when gowns with trains were fashionable. This extra fabric must have gotten quite dirty during country walks and work around the house, and might have tripped the dancer and her partners if left to its own devices. This passage from her novel provided the solution:

The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set;” – Chapter 5, Northanger Abbey

Image of "Pinned up each others trains", Northanger Abbey illustration in the public domain, Hugh Thompson. British Library.

“Pinned up each others trains”, Northanger Abbey illustration in the public domain, Hugh Thompson. British Library.

Shoes and the accoutrements of a lady’s dance wardrobe

Interestingly, many shoes made for dancing lasted for only one evening or two. The slippers, constructed of cloth or delicate kid, barely lasted the full hours of physical exertion. The slippers were festooned with rosettes made with a fabric that matched or complimented the ladies’ gowns. Mrs. Austen made dance slippers of fabric for her grandchildren, much in this tradition.

Gloves not only came above the elbow, but were often made of kid leather, which were a buttery color. The gloves also were made with white or an assortment of pale, soft colored cloths. Gentlemen wore gloves as well, for it was unseemly for a gentleman and lady to touch each other with bare hands. Another necessity, especially on warm nights, or when candlelight and exertion overheated the ballroom, was a fan. 

Dance cards were not yet as popular as in the 19th century, but a lady knew not to commit to too many dances ahead of the ball in case a likely prospect entered the room later in the evening. A couple could dance only two sets together, for dancing more than two was considered ill-mannered.

As mentioned in this letter, only five single women danced in a room with twenty men, which meant that each female was quite busy and exhausted at the end of the night. After supper, served around midnight, the ladies and their partner sat with the lady’s family or chaperones. The etiquette of the ballroom was quite strict. Once a lady refused to dance with a gentleman, she had to sit out the rest of the dances for the evening.

In her novels, Jane used this convention to differentiate the villains from the obedient or the heroes and heroines, or to demonstrate personality quirks. Mr. Elton’s rudeness in refusing a dance with poor Harriet Smith in Emma humiliated the young woman and spoke ill of his character. Mr. Knightley, in inviting Harriet to dance, showed his heroic instincts. These actions demonstrated a gentleman’s quality better than any exposition Jane could have written. Her contemporary readers knew this, but we in the 21st century must learn these quirks of etiquette through research and reading.

Post Ball mentions

I was to have dined at Deane today, but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of snow. We are to have company to dinner on Friday: the three Digweeds and James. We shall be a nice silent party. I suppose.”

Deane House-Hill

Image of Deane House, Ellen Hill.

Dining at Deane meant dining in the old manor house of Deane with Squire Harwood and his family. In this house Jane had danced with Tom Lefroy in 1796. The Harwoods were very well off according to late 18th century standards, but this was not to last. Upon his death in 1813, it was discovered that John Harwood had mortgaged his estate to the hilt, leaving his heir in ruin and his widow and daughter with nothing.

As for not dining with the Harwoods in December, 1798, the narrow country lanes between Steventon, Deane and Ashe were filled with deep ruts. Wet snow would have deterred the company from visiting their good friends. 

Austen’s letter ends with a planned dinner with the Digweeds on Friday, December 28th. The Digweeds were tenants of Steventon Manor in Steventon Parish, who rented the land from Mr. Knight in Godmersham Park. (p. 18, Jane Austen’s Country Life.) The Digweeds and the Austens grazed hundreds of sheep around the village. (p. 21, Country Life.) Harry and William-Francis Digweed (who, with their brothers, were playmates with the Austen siblings) were joint tenants until 1798. James Digweed, ordained in 1797, became curate of Steventon in 1798. Jane, it seems, anticipated a quiet (boring?) evening.

Gentle reader: This analysis ends my research into this letter, which was sent shorthand to Cassandra. She would have mentally filled in the gaps easily and fluently, gaps that we today struggle to understand.   

Deirdre Le Fay, who passed away just a few weeks ago, painstakingly researched Austen’s letters and their corresponding information for her massive undertaking, Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition. With its lists of letters, the letters, abbreviations and citations, notes and general notes on the letters, select bibliography, biographical index, topographical index, subject index, and general index is 667 pages long. This world has lost a scholar of the first rank. 

References: 

Jane Austen’s Letters, Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press, 4th Edition (December 1, 2011), ISBN-100199576076, ISBN-13 : 978-0199576074

Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, Deidre Le Faye, Frances Lincoln (June 1, 2014) ISBN-100711231583, ISBN-13978-0711231580

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, Lucy Worsley, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017. Hardcover, 400 pages. ISBN-13978-1250131607, ISBN-10125013160X

A Dance With Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters went to the Ball, Susannah Fullerton, Frances Lincoln, 2012. ISBN-100711232458, ISBN-13 978-0711232457

“Historian Lucy Worsley goes around the houses with Jane Austen at York Literature Festival,” By Charles Hutchinson, The Press, 19th March 2018: Downloaded 8/25/2020, https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/16097178.historian-lucy-worsley-goes-around-houses-jane-austen-york-literature-festival/

A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England, Sue Wilkes, https://visitjaneaustensengland.blogspot.com/2015/07/down-on-farm.html

“The Three Churches of Steventon, Ashe, and Deane.” Downloaded 8-29-2020: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/england/hampshire/the-three-churches-of-steventon-ashe-and-deane?u=i

“Steventon, Basingstoke, Deane survey,” downloaded 8-29-2020: https://getoutside.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/local/steventon-basingstoke-and-deane

Shoe roses: downloaded August 30, 2020. https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/fashion-to-make/make-shoe-roses  “No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after; — the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.”–P&P Netherfield Ball

“What Did Jane Austen Dance?” Capering & Kickery, Nov 1, 2009: Downloaded Aug 30, 2020. https://www.kickery.com/2009/11/what-did-jane-austen-dance.html

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Inquiring readers: Today is the 203rd anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She lived from December 16th, 1775 to July 18, 1817, and managed to achieve more in 41 years than a majority of us in twice that time. My previous posts marking this occasion were somber. This one provides a more light hearted, science fictiony approach. The North American Friends of Chawton House sent a limited edition of Celebrity Jane, a bobblehead doll, after I made a contribution that qualified me for this gift. NAFCH challenges Celebrity Jane doll possessors to share photos of Bad Ass Jane, as I renamed her, in various locations in our lives. I chose home.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meeting her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

Bad Ass Jane meets her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

It was a dream. It must have been. I had been researching Jane Austen’s life in Steventon until I fell asleep. Then, when I awoke around 2 A.M., as I am wont to do, I saw a bad ass version of Jane Austen on my bookshelf, staring at a silhouette of herself. Only she wasn’t quite the spinsterish virgin that I knew and loved so well, Oh, no! She was Bad Ass! A Rocker Chick. A person who would have appealed to my rebellious younger self and my current, well, rebellious me.

She still wore her virginal cap, but from the neck down she wore a black tee, low rise jeans that bared her midriff, and leather boots! Best of all she carried a guitar. Regency Jane loved playing music every morning on her piano forte. Bad Ass Jane (BAJ) plays electric guitar at every opportunity. (How BAJ finds the time to write—heaven knows.)

I gruffed at this strange Jane, who wanted to discuss the books in my book shelf, most of which pertained to her life and history. I needed my beauty sleep and promised her a tour of my house and gardens the following morn, but she would have none of it. She desired my company NOW! Jane played a few tunes on her guitar, which woke me more efficiently than two cups of Moroccan coffee. She mesmerized me with her persistence, pluck, and talent.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meets Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

Bad Ass Jane visits Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

I pointed to a 5 foot tall doll house, in which my 7-year-old grand nieces played occasionally. “Here’s your family.” I gestured to the top floor of the house where two female adults and two children resided.

BAJ peered inside. “My family? They look strange and somehow not themselves. And the fashion! Oh, so revealing. Who are those children?”

“Dear Jane,” I said familiarly. “Recall that this is a dream and that this story is a mere figment of my imagination and the result of a host of wishes. Tom Fowle never died. He returned with Lord Craven from the West Indies healthy and hale and became the intended heir of a living in Shropshire. He and Cassy married and had two beautiful children. Your mama, Mrs. Austen, acquired a gorgeous necklace of pearls, brought back by Tom.”

Copy of Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

“How strange,” BAJ muttered. She wandered from the doll house to our ficus tree lit with fairy lights.

 

She then visited the wine corner. Recalling that she had a fondness for a tipple here and there, I offered a glass. Savoring the wine (a nice Australian Shiraz), we discussed her family, my family (our fathers, with their dry wit and extensive libraries had much in common), and our writing. She was better than me. Way. And more successful. Way. I felt humbled in her presence.

When BAJ learned about her enduring fame–the JASNA Societies, the JA groupies, the Austenesque novels and stories–her bobble head bobbled. “Goodness, I’m famous! Did I become rich?”

I shook my head sadly. “Not you, but Cassandra and your ancestors benefited most generously.”

When dawn broke, we walked into my back yard. BAJ played her guitar in the morning, much as she played her pianoforte before breakfast. I was mesmerized. It was time to greet the sun.

Image of Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

I pointed to my bird feeders, where my hungry hordes of wildlife shrieked for their breakfast: blue jays, red cardinals, musical wrens, and colorful goldfinches. The deer, chipmunks, and squirrels were silent but watchful. Their ferocious appetites challenged my meager resources weekly. All stood a respectful distance away as I filled tubs, tubes, platforms, and the ground.

An impatient BAJ wanted in on the action and hopped right on to the feeders. In an impeccable British accent, she asked, “Pray, where are they?”

birds-deer

The deer and their fawns and birds appeared as we stood still

“Gurl,” I said. “Your Bad Ass attitude must’ve scared them. Stay still and behold the magic.” Shy creatures appeared flock by flock and one by one from the forest within feet of us. BAJ noted with irony that the brown sparrows were as common in the U.K. as in my back yard.

We visited the flowers. “They’re nothing as fabulous as your English gardens,” I cautioned, and so we viewed several areas designed to be deer proof.

At the last, BAJ noticed a sign. “Pray, what is this?”

Image of BAJ posing with an American security sign

BAJ meets an American security sign

“The sign is for security,” I answered. “This deters burglars. We call in and help arrives within, well, whenever.”

She laughed and said, “Is not a dog more effective?,” and jumped into a West Highland Terrier planter.

Image of BAJ's Westie carriage

BAJ Westie carriage

I guffawed. Jennie, our Westie is all bark and no bite. Poof, my dream ended. Once again I missed the chance to ask BAJ the questions swirling in my head. I’d assumed that I had all the time in the world. Ah, well. The mystery that is Miss Jane Austen continues.

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Inquiring readers: Covid-19 has meant making changes for us and our families, friends, and co-workers world wide. Rachel Dodge wrote this lovely article regarding stay-at-home activities in Jane Austen’s era that are still practiced. I think we can all relate!

As we practice social distancing and spend more time at home, I often think about what Jane would have done under similar circumstances. I can imagine she would miss making morning calls, traveling to visit family and friends, going to church on Sundays, and attending balls where she might dance “nine dances out of ten” (Jane Austen to Cassandra, November 1800).

With what we know of Austen’s home life in mind, I’ve compiled a list of activities that I hope will feed the minds, imaginations, and souls of my fellow Janeites:

 

Image of cover of Emma by Jane Austen, courtesy Rachel Dodge.

Image of cover of Emma by Jane Austen, courtesy of Rachel Dodge.

  • Read all the books

Books provided Austen with the intellectual stimulation and emotional escape her active mind required. (We can certainly relate!) She enjoyed a wide range of genres and didn’t limit herself to one category.

While libraries remain closed, we can follow our own literary pursuits to new places and take advantage of online resources, e-books (gasp!), and audiobooks. Better yet, we can go through our bookshelves and read the books we already own but haven’t read!

If you want to read the books Austen read, you can explore these resources:

Image of bookshelf courtesy of Rachel Dodge.

Image of bookshelf, courtesy of Rachel Dodge.

 

Use your creative gifts to connect with others

Austen enjoyed quiet moments by the fire and often found creative inspiration for her writing during those private reveries. Marianne Knight shares this memory: 

[Aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library, saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before.” (Constance Hill, Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends, 1901)

Later in the day, Austen would often share her creative work with her family, leading to hours of discussion and laughter. While sheltering in place, my friends and neighbors have taken turns sharing creative love offerings with one another—fresh flowers, special treats, recipes, wine, craft supplies, cards, and homemade bread. How can you share your gifts and talents with others during this time?

  • Play games

In the article “Spillikins,” The Jane Austen Centre (https://www.janeausten.co.uk/spillikins/) shares this: “Jane Austen was a very hands-on aunt, with numerous games and activities in her repertoire. Her nieces and nephews recall with fondness the many games, from paper ships to Battledore and Shuttlecock, that she would play with them by the hour.”

Spillikins was her particular favorite: “Our little visitor has just left us, & left us highly pleased with her… -Half her time here was spent at Spillikins; which I consider as a very valuable part of our Household furniture, & as not the least important Benefaction- from the family of Knight to that of Austen.” (Jane Austen to Cassandra, February 8, 1807)

If you have friends and family you’re missing right now, especially younger family members, try playing a game online or set up a Facetime game time. 

  • Enjoy walks and natural beauty

Austen (and many of her heroines) enjoyed a brisk walk. As we can see from her letters and novels, she liked the exercise and the beauty of her surroundings: 

We took a very charming walk from six to eight up Beacon Hill, and across some fields, to the village of Charlecombe, which is sweetly situated in a little green valley, as a village with such a name ought to be.” (Jane Austen to Cassandra, June 2, 1799)

My family likes to walk, bike, or go out on our deck when the weather is nice. We’ve paid closer attention to the beauty of a sunset, a mother duck with her ducklings, and the wildflowers blooming along our walking trail. If you can’t get outside, try an exercise program online. There’s something for everyone right now!

  • Pray with Jane

Image of Jane Austen's Prayers

Image courtesy of Rachel Dodge

The Austen family said morning and evening prayers together. You might take time to read through Austen’s prayers for a few days. She wrote three lovely prayers that cover many of the concerns of daily life. 

Austen herself was no stranger to distress and tribulation. She understood the dangerous realities of war, illness, childbearing, and sea travel during her lifetime. Some of the lines of her prayers are particularly fitting for times like these:

“Look with compassion upon the afflicted of every condition, assuage the pangs of disease, comfort the broken in spirit.” (Jane Austen, Prayers)

If you’d like to explore her prayers more fully, I created a 7-day Jane Austen prayer guide for COVID-19 here: https://www.racheldodge.com/7-days-prayer-jane-austen/

  • Write letters

Jane Austen wrote letters full of news and details. It was how she and her family and friends kept in close contact when they couldn’t be together in person. They shared everything – both the important and the mundane – in these missives!

I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.” (Jane Austen to Cassandra, January 3, 1801)

If you’re missing your friends and loved ones, why not write a letter? My daughter has been sending letters, stickers, and drawings back and forth in the mail with her best friend. They make their own envelopes and decorate them with colorful designs. 

  • Find comfort in familiar rhythms

Image of Tea with Jane Austen courtesy of Rachel Dodge

Image of Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson, image courtesy of Rachel Dodge

In Caroline Austen’s book My Aunt Jane: A Memoir, she describes her aunt Jane’s morning habits: “Aunt Jane began her day with music . . . before breakfast—when she could have the room to herself—.” (Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane: A Memoir, 1867)

Austen’s days had a certain cadence to them: She began the day with piano practice and letter writing. During the day, she wrote, sewed, visited with her family, and walked. In the evening, she and her family read out loud, played games, and talked. 

Keeping some of our routines as “normal” as possible (and finding new routines) helps give our days shape and definition. Perhaps you can host a weekly tea party or book discussion with your Jane Austen friends over Zoom!

Austen had an active imagination and would certainly have found many things with which to occupy her time. What else do you think Austen might have done? What routines do you find comforting in these turbulent times?

About the Author:

Rachel Dodge is a college English professor and the author of Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. You can find her online at http://www.RachelDodge.com.

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Inquiring readers,

During the Covid-19 lock down, I’ve missed traveling around my country. I intended to go abroad as well, but had to lay those plans aside. The internet affords me a way to satisfy my wanderlust.

Today as I e-searched Jane Austen’s gardens and her family’s use of fruits and herbs in making wines and home medicines, I discovered this lovely blog by author Susan Branch. Susan visited Chawton Cottage in 2012. Her photos and delightful narrative of her trip add to those I featured from blog contributors Tony Grant and Rachel Dodge. I’m publishing the first 20% of Susan’s post and will then link to her blog. Enjoy!

Image of Susan Branch's blog and post of her journey to Chawton Cottage

Image of Susan Branch’s blog and post of her journey to Chawton Cottage in 2012

Jane Austen

On our last day in England in the spring of 2012, just a few hours before boarding the Queen Mary 2 for our trip home, we stopped to visit Jane Austen’s house in a little country town called Chawton. I can’t say we saved the best for last, because everything we saw was “best.”  But this house was wonderful and better than I ever imagined it could be.  It’s in Hampshire, centrally located in the south of  England (very close to Southampton) — you can see it on the map on page six of my book chronicling this magical trip called   A FINE ROMANCE.

"Marry me, my wonderful darling friend" Quote by Mr. Knightley to Emma in the orchard

Crossroads

Sign to Chawton Cottage, the car park St. Nicholas church and Chawton House, and the village. Image courtesy Susan Branch.

First off, you have to know how this quiet neighborhood sounded this day!  The only sound missing is “my-toe-hurts-bet-tee” the nature national anthem of England, but there were wood pigeons cooing liltingly from every branch!

Chawton Cottage

Chawton Cottage with a view of the visitor entrance. Image courtesy of Susan Branch.

This is the 17th century house where Jane Austen did some of her most important work.  She lived here from 1809 to 1817, and published four novels during that time, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park.

How beautiful!  Let’s go find a parking space!

A Jack Russell terrier views Chawton Cottage from a house across the street. Image courtesy of Susan Branch.

A Jack Russell terrier views Chawton Cottage from a house across the street. Image courtesy of Susan Branch.

After parking, we walked for a little bit through the leafy old neighborhood and something interesting happened.  I took a picture of this little Jack Russell in a window of the house across the street from Jane’s and posted it here on the blog.  Later, after we returned home, I received an email from the owner of this house!  Her name is Mary and the dog’s name is Basil!  Mary had just happened upon our blog.  Isn’t that amazing? What a small world!  She’s actually written a cute children’s book about Basil which she sent to me . . .

Thatched roof cottage in Chawton. Image courtesy of Susan Branch.

Thatched roof cottage in Chawton. Image courtesy of Susan Branch.

 Many of the homes in Chawton have thatched roofs like Mary’s.  It’s a darling town ~ and we only had one afternoon. I wish we’d saved more time for this ~ there’s a lot of wonderfulness to see here.  Keep that in mind for when you go and have at least one full day.

To read the rest of this fascinating post, please click here  to enter Susan’s blog. Note her journey through Chawton village, the rooms through the cottage, and her walk in the gardens.

well behaved women rarely make history signBTW, I noticed on Susan’s sidebar a saying that I keep in my office. Sisters always have a way of finding each other!!

Other posts on this blog about Chawton Cottage and Chawton House

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Inquiring readers, 

Last April Brenda Cox shared a thought-provoking post about  a Jane Austen Sampler. Click here to read the article. Mrs. Cox writes that Deirdre Le Faye, an expert on Jane Austen, believes that the stitcher was another Jane Austen, probably a second cousin of the author of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’

Picture 1 Austen Sampler

Mrs. Cox has continued her research into this fascinating topic, and writes:

A few years ago, I bought a printed copy of the “Jane Austen sampler” at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. In 2018 I posted thoughts on my blog about that “Jane Austen Sampler.” However, I had no idea whether “our” Jane Austen had stitched it or not.

Then Deirdre Le Faye saw that post and directed me to her article for the Jane Austen Society. She speculated, for various reasons, that the sampler may have been done by a cousin of Jane Austen’s. In 2019 I wrote about her ideas in Jane Austen’s World. At the end of that article I asked if some genealogist might try to track down the history of the sampler.

Now the plot continues to thicken. Months later, Alden O’Brien, curator of the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C. saw those posts and wrote to me for details. She then did extensive research based on her specialties: the history of needlework and genealogical research. Exactly what we needed!

Ms. O’Brien posted her conclusions which I highly recommend you read: “Is This Jane Austen’s Sampler?

Sampler purportedly embroidered by Jane Austen

In summary:

For it to be “our” Jane Austen’s sampler, we need to assume that it originally said 1787 and stitches were pulled out to make it say 1797. Deirdre Le Faye thought this was highly unlikely. Alden O’Brien thinks it even more unlikely. From the photos we have (which admittedly are not great), there is no evidence in the fabric that stitches were removed. And O’Brien compared it to Cassandra Austen’s sampler which includes all the numbers. Presumably the sisters would have been using the same style of numbers. The “9” in the “Jane Austen sampler” looks much like Cassandra’s 9, but not completed. Cassandra’s 8 is a different shape, so it’s unlikely that the original said 1787.

Even more conclusively, O’Brien was able to trace the provenance given for the sampler. She found clear records from the sampler’s previous owners back to a Jane Austen who would have been about 12-14 in 1797, the right age for making such a sampler. It appears that this Jane grew up to marry the owner of a pub. One of her sons was a servant, and her daughter married an oyster fisherman. So she was from a lower social class than the author Jane Austen. O’Brien points out that even young women of this class often went to schools where they might produce samplers like this one.

The Mr. Frederick Nicholls of Whitstable who once owned the sampler is claimed to be “a grandson of a cousin of Jane Austen.” However, from this evidence, it appears he actually was a grandson of this (alternate) Jane Austen.

So, the bad news is that the sampler almost certainly was not sewn by the author Jane Austen. Still, it did come from her time period. And unraveling the mystery has been a story in itself!

 

 

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Image of the book cover Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Aiken HodgeIt is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Jane Aiken Hodge’s (JAH) biography of Jane Austen is characterized by the biographer’s distinctive voice. It is as clear as spring water and as refreshing. She expertly braids a variety of sources consisting of biographies, articles, letters, and Austen’s own novels to tell us about the author’s life. JAH uses a straightforward yet descriptive writing style that takes us effortlessly through the stages of Austen’s personal journey, career, triumphs, and struggles.

Aiken Hodge’s descriptions paint a vivid word picture of a gifted author living the double life of a proper lady in a bygone era, who, unbeknownst to contemporary readers, chose career over marriage, a daring move in an age when genteel women were expected to marry, rule a household, and breed heirs and spares. JAH’s conclusions, although not footnoted like an academic, are laid out persuasively and supported by her choice of the source materials available to her in 1972, the year this biography was first published.

The book begins with a description of Steventon Rectory in the context of the rising middle class and rising costs of goods resulting from war, societal changes brought about by the industrial revolution, vast improvements in travel created by a network of canals and macademised roads, changes in fashion (barely mentioned by Austen), the advent of circulating libraries, and more.  Aiken Hodge describes a rural world where a stage coach clattering through a small village drowned out bird song or the voice of a farmer calling out to his cattle.

The elder Austens worked hard to put food on the table and clothes on their family’s backs. They performed double duty in almost all aspects of life. Rev. George Austen used his horse to plow his glebe land and perform the functions of his ministry. He was both a rector and the head of a small boarding school. Mrs. Austen oversaw the household, diary and chickens, and the children (including Rev. Austen’s male students) yet found the time to create recipes in rhymes.

Unlike many girls of their time, Jane and her older sister Cassandra were given free reign of Rev. Austen’s extensive library (books were extremely expensive in that era). Their hard-working and resourceful, parents still found time to join in the fun of riddles, charades, and plays and journey forth for family visits. Jane’s writings, actively encouraged by her family, are preserved in 3 volumes of her Juvenilia, which she painstakingly copied as an adult. The Austen family adored reading novels, hence the title of this book, Only a Novel. This was an age when reading novels over serious fiction and nonfiction was a habit akin to liking reality tv today over serious, well-researched documentaries. (I humbly confess to still watching ‘Survivor’.)

The difference between the Austen boys’ freedom and her own and Cassandra’s must have rankled Jane, whose independent career choice was curtailed by conventions. Sons could ride horses and carriages and venture forth at will. Their actions were unrestrained compared to the girls’ strict upbringing. JAH describes at great length how both Jane and Cassandra could not travel unescorted. In order to arrange for transportation, they had to wait for proper chaperonage, even if this meant delaying a return trip for weeks.

We know today that through her novels and letters Jane displayed a lively and irreverent sense of humor. In public, however, she presented herself as quiet and restrained, especially after she donned a spinster’s cap and had given up all pretense of seeking a husband. Before the publication of her first novel, friends and neighbors knew Jane to be friendly yet unobtrusive. (Her family knew an entirely different and much livelier Jane.) After Pride and Prejudice and subsequent novels were published, acquaintances and neighbors became more cautious around this keen, sometimes acerbic observer, thus the full title of this biography, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen.

Aiken Hodge compares the rural settings of Steventon Rectory and Chawton Cottage to the city settings of Bath and London and the hectic, at times unpredictable, pace of her visits to family houses and friends. These events, including the shock of moving to Bath, Rev. Austen’s sudden death, and the Austen women’s peripatetic life for eight years, stood in the way of Jane’s creativity. Fortunately for posterity, her move to rural Chawton Cottage in 1809 spawned her productive period – her reworking of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, and creation of Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all masterpieces. These days we can also enjoy her incomplete works (Lady Susan and Sanditon ) and her Juvenilia. While this period in Austen’s life was adequately covered by Jane Aiken Hodge, especially regarding Jane’s relationship with her publishers (through her male relatives) and quest for an independent living as a single woman, I longed for more details, but I quibble. Aiken Hodge’s description of Chawton Cottage, which sat so close to Winchester Road (and which ran through Chawton Village), allowed passersby to view the Austen women dining intimately in the dining room or conversing, was like a snapshot in time.

Jane Austen’s fatal disease, characterized more by fatigue than pain (and still studied by modern diagnosticians), took her family a long time to accept as dire. Aiken Hodge writes about the events leading to Jane’s death without over-emotional hand wringing. Her restrained description of Austen’s last days allowed my imagination to take hold. I cried once again at my and the world’s loss of this talented author at the height of her writing power. Almost as an afterthought, JAH mentioned that only four male mourners (brothers Edward, Henry, and Frank, and nephew James-Edward) were present at her funeral, whereas neither her mother nor sister could attend, as it was not the custom of females to accompany the funeral cortege.

JAH concludes her biography by describing Austen’s close relationships with her family (she and sister Cassandra were “everything to each other”), including her nieces and nephews. She had, through these associations, a special affinity with children. I was struck by this recollection from a nephew after her death:

He expected particular happiness in that house [Chawton] and found it there no longer. The laughter had died…”

JAH concluded that the laughter lives on through Austen’s novels and characters. Letters saved by her kin and memoirs published after her death preserved precious memories before all first-hand memories about her were lost.

Image of Only a Novel by Jane Aiken Hodge with reviewer notesCompared to Claire Tomalin’s biography Jane Austen: A Life (1999), which is filled with images and illustrations and attachments with postscripts, two appendices, page notes, bibliography, family tree, and index consisting of 73 pages, Aiken Hodge’s Only A Novel provides six pages of notes and bibliography. Instead, JAHs bibliography uses the memoirs, letters, histories, biographies, and papers available to her in the early 70’s.  I loved reading this biography. From the photo on the right, you can see by the sticky notes how much interesting information I found. Aiken Hodge’s lovely writing style suits me to a tee. I also own another JAH biography, the wonderfully illustrated The Private World of Georgette Heyer, published in 1984 and which I have kept all these years. Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen is worth every penny of its purchase and has become a grand addition to my Austen library.

________

Image of author Jane Aiken Hodge

Jane Aiken Hodge

Jane Aiken Hodge was born in Massachusetts but moved with her family to East Sussex in Britain when she was three years old. After reading English in Somerville College, Oxford, she moved to the US to undertake a second degree at Radcliffe College. Whilst she was there, she spent time as a civil servant and worked for Time Magazine before returning to the UK to focus on her career as a novelist. In 1972 she became a British citizen. She is the daughter of the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Conrad Aiken.

Aiken Hodge is known for her works of historical romance. In a career spanning nearly fifty years, she published over thirty novels, exploring contemporary settings and the detective genre in her later life. She died in 2009, aged ninety-two.

Purchase the book:

Product details:

  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Agora Books (April 25, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1913099253
  • ISBN-13: 978-1913099251

Hashtag:  Please use the hashtag #OnlyANovel when posting or talking about Only a Novel on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Also, make sure you tag us – @AgoraBooksLDN on Twitter and Instagram!

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winter spruce branches-vjs

Image of evergreen branches © Vic Sanborn

Inquiring readers,
Spruce beer was a popular beverage during Jane Austen’s lifetime. On December 9, 1808, Austen wrote her sister Cassandra from Castle Square:

But all this,” as my dear Mrs. Piozzi says, “is flight and fancy, and nonsense, for my master has his great casks to mind and I have my little children.” It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask for we are brewing spruce beer again.”

(More about this quote later)

 

About spruce beer

According to Wikipedia, spruce beer describes an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink that is made from the buds and needles of spruce trees. The flavor depends on which species of spruce grows near the brewer, the season in which the needles and buds are collected, and the recipe used in the preparation.
The taste of spruce beer varies. Some describe a pleasant spruce tip bitterness to the alcoholic version, while another source states that spruce beer soda, a non-alcoholic soda largely made in Canada, tastes like

a Christmas tree in a glass … The soda itself was very effervescent and light, with very sharp flavor. It tasted like the smell of Vicks VapoRub and pine needles.” – Eater

Images of spruce beer show a dark brown-greenish concoction, which isn’t attractive to my eye but pleases a variety of palates. According to Andrew Schloss in an article for The Splendid Table, the taste of the “piney turpene flavor, ” reminiscent of the “essence of the forest,” is an acquired one.

 

A short history of spruce beer

Martin Cornell in “A Short History of Spruce Beer Part Two: The North American Connection” quotes Swedish-Finish botanist Pehr Kalm about the discovery of spruce beer by French, Dutch, and British settlers as early as the 17th century. Kalm wrote in letters to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

Spruce beer is chiefly used by the French in Canada; a considerable quantity is indeed made by the Dutch who live round Hudson’s river, in the most Northern parts, but the English seldom have it except in New England and New Scotland; because in Canada the tree is very common…”

The botanist visited the colonies from 1748-1752 when he observed that French Canadians largely drank spruce beer. The origins of spruce beer are not quite clear. According to Jim Dykstra in “A History of Spruce Beer,” Beer Connoisseur, 11/07/2016,

spruce beer has been around for quite some time. Depending on who you ask, it was either first made by indigenous North Americans pre-European Scandinavians – “Vikings purportedly brewed it for fertility and strength in battle.” – Jim Dykstra, A History of Spruce Beer: Old World Cheer, or Any Time of Year 

jane-austen-brewercol-vjsmed

Drawing © Vic Sanborn

Spruce beer was consumed to ward off scurvy

In the 18th Century the British navy encouraged drinking spruce beer as a treatment for scurvy. (Spruce and other evergreens, such as hemlock pine and juniper were used as sources for Vitamin C. – Small Beer Press). Captain James Cook wrote in Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784),

Besides fish, we had other refreshments in abundance. Scurvy-grass, celery and portable soup were boiled every day with the wheat and pease; and we had spruce beer for our drink. Such a regimen soon removed all seeds of the scurvy from our people, if any of them had contracted it. “– April Fulton, Don’t Waste That Christmas Tree: Turn it Into Spruce Beer, NPR

Fulton states that the connection between spruce beer and scurvy prevention, while strongly supported in the 18th and 19th centuries, has largely been debunked by modern medicine, since fermentation destroys vitamin C.  In “A History of Spruce Beer,” Jim Dykstra writes that the beer wasn’t always alcoholic and that native Americans tended to use spruce infusions, whereas colonists brewed and boiled the beverage, which significantly reduced its ability to prevent scurvy.

Still, the connection between spruce beer and Jane Austen’s sailor brothers, and the Georgian belief that the beer was a sort of elixir for scurvy cannot be ignored. European sailors spread word about spruce beer around the world. (Dykstra) Sadly, the recipe that Austen used is lost to time, but Benjamin Franklin, who was introduced to the beer during his stay in France (1776-1777) shared a recipe in French:

Way of Making Beer with Essence of Spruce:
For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence and 13 Pounds of Molases. – or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water: Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.” – Food History & Culture
“Don’t Waste That Christmas Tree: Turn It Into Spruce Beer,” April Fulton, NPR, January 4, 2013

This recipe must have produced enough beer for several weeks, if not months depending on the drinker’s daily intake. There are other, more modest recipes from this era easily found online, including recipes created for today’s palate.

 

Back to the Jane Austen spruce beer quote

In this section I venture a few “educated guesses” about segments of Jane Austen’s quote. “Mr. Piozzi in charge of the great casks” most likely explains that by the time Jane wrote her novels, brew masters, who had once predominantly been women, were replaced by men during the age of industrialization when public taverns began to make profits. In the 17th century, brewing, once thought of as a woman’s domain in the kitchen, was overtaken by men and widows, who inherited their husbands’ businesses. Mrs. Piozzi mentions her domestic duties “having her little children” with no connection to the great casks.

Then Jane Austen’s writes:

It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask for we are brewing spruce beer again.”

In this instance Cassandra was most likely minding her widowed brother James’s children, while Jane oversaw domestic duties.

While commercial brewing became the domain of men, home brewing remained in the hands of women in the countryside. Housewives, mothers, and daughters, as in Jane Austen’s case, brewed ales and beers, and made wines for household consumption. According to William Cobbett, this domestic habit continued until the last quarter of the 18th century (Van Dekken). Jane’s quote, written in 1808, proves that this domestic practice continued well beyond that date.

We don’t know if the recipe Austen used was alcoholic or nonalcoholic, and I wonder if it was influenced by her sailor brothers, whose concerns about scurvy while spending months at sea must have been on their minds. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British navy encouraged the use of spruce beer. Individuals sailing vast distances for months at sea or enduring long, harsh winters in the far north faced decreased access to vitamin C as fresh fruit was consumed or rotted. For sailors, stored casks of spruce beer became one way of staving off the debilitating results of scurvy. For colonists facing a long winter without fresh fruits and vegetables, making the brew from abundant fir trees became a life saver.

Thank you, Tony Grant, for forwarding the article “Jane Austen Brewed her own Specialty Beer” to me.

 

Sources:

 

 

Links in this blog:

 

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Jane Austen’s Christmas Day at Godmersham Park, her brother’s estate in the English countryside of Kent, was a merry one. As described by Claire Tomalin in Jane Austen: A Life , “Christmas was celebrated with carols, card games, blindman’s bluff, battledore, bullet pudding and dancing.”

Austen herself described the gaiety and revelry of Christmas in Persuasion, Chapter 14:

On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were trestles and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of the noise of the others.”

The games mentioned by Tomalin in her excellent biography of Austen included Hunt the Slipper, which, when played by children, would be fun and boisterous, and when played by adults at a country house gathering could have a naughty connotation, as in the 1802 image in the Hunt the Slipper: A Story, (Peabody Essex Museum).

Game directions for Hunt the Slipper

Hunt the Slipper game directions. (Hunt the Slipper, The American Folk Song Collection,  Kodaly Center, Holy Names University.

Image of Hunt the Slipper by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1787, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (GMII): Image in the public domain. Wikimedia

Francesco Bartolozzi, 1787, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (GMII): Image in the public domain. Wikimedia

Hunt the Slipper reminds me of musical chairs, only the slipper is passed secretly to the players until the song ends. This simple but fun song/game is still played today. You can view the “Hunt the Slipper” image by Kate Greenaway,  who lived in the last half of the 19th century, then read the 2008 description of the game in The Guardian at this link: click here. The rules over the centuries are remarkably similar.

In her book, Claire Tomalin mentioned a second song and game that the Austen family (and other families of the era) played called “Oranges and Lemons.” References to this traditional song and nursery rhyme appeared as early as the 17th century.

The first published record of Oranges and Lemons dates back to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, although it’s fair to assume it had been in circulation for some time before then. There is a reference to a square dance with the same name in a 1665 publication…– What is London’s Oranges and Lemons rhyme all about? by Benjamin Till, People Features, London, BBC Home, 13 November, 2014

Till discusses the many meanings of this song. In short, London’s churches, which are located in distinct districts within the city, are identified with certain trades.

References to “pancakes and fritters”, “kettles and pans” and “brick bats and tiles” tell us of bakers, coppersmiths and builders in areas around St Peter Upon Cornhill, St Anne’s and St Giles, Cripplegate respectively.” — Till, BBC Home

A version of the song can be heard on YouTube.

Many versions of this song exist, which makes one wonder which lyrics Jane Austen and her family sang. This is one version:

“Oranges and Lemons”

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,
Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,
Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,
Oranges and Lemmons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clemens,
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,
When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,
When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Pauls

Here is another version, date unknown by me:

Gay go up and gay go down,
To ring the bells of London town.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clements.

Bull’s eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Margret’s.

Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Giles’.

Halfpence and farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter’s.

Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells of Whitechapel.

Pokers and tongs,
Say the bells of St. John’s.

Kettles and pans,
Say the bells of St. Ann’s.

Old Father Baldpate,
Say the slow bells of Aldgate.

You owe me ten shillings,
Say the bells of St. Helen’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

Pray when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

Chop chop chop chop
The last man’s dead!

This YouTube video of Oranges and Lemons from Gresham College performs the earliest known version of the song by Catherine King. The illustration of the dance for “Oranges and Lemons,” which is copyright free, is by Agnes Rose Bouvier (1842 – 1892).

One can imagine how much fun Aunts Jane and Cassandra must have had singing these popular songs while dancing and playing the games during the Christmas season with their nieces and nephews and the family in general.

As I end this post, Christmas day has nearly come to an end. I wish you all a happy holiday season and New Year’s celebration. May you all find joy, dear readers, in the gifts and love of your family, faith, and friends.

Sources:

Tomalin, Claire, 1999. Jane Austen: A Life. New York, Random House, First Vintage Books Edition.

What is London’s Oranges and Lemons rhyme all about? by Benjamin Till, People Features, London, BBC Home, 13 November, 2014

Other Christmas Posts on this Blog:

Click on this link for posts related to the topic

Games Regency People Play: Blind Man’s Bluff

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“Ah! there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” This line from Mrs. Elton in Emma is quite humorous, but the quote itself holds an eternal truth for most of us. There really is no place like one’s own home.

For Jane Austen, “home” was in Hampshire, a lush, green county in the south of England. She seems to have been happiest there, and it’s no wonder. When I visited there in June, it was as lovely as ever. The narrow country roads wind slowly through gentle hills and are lined with tall trees and thick bushes. Large, green fields stretch out for miles beyond. Here and there, there are houses set far back from the road. The storybook villages that pop up every few miles are complete with thatched roofs, wood and brick buildings, and picket fences around the gardens.

The air is still and quiet there. But for the cars that pass by every so often, it’s like stepping back in time.

STEVENTON

Austen’s home for the first 25 years of her life was at the Rectory in Steventon, and it surely brought comfort to her in many ways. She grew up there, was educated there, and spent many happy years with her family there.

Image 1 Rectory Site (1)

Rectory site today. Image Rachel Dodge

The lanes become more and more narrow as you near Steventon. Queen Anne’s Lace grows in profusion and the undergrowth presses close to the road. Trees grow up over the roads to form deep green tunnels of dappled light. Though the Rectory was torn down long ago, one can see the place where it once stood. Today, it is a large green field dotted with white sheep.

Image 2 Steventon Walk to Church

Road to St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo Rachel Dodge.

Driving further up the lane to St. Nicholas Church, where her father Reverend George Austen was the rector, one enters a tunnel of trees that stretches around a bend and out of sight. It’s not hard to imagine Jane and Cassandra walking that beautiful lane on a fair Sunday morning to attend services at the church.

Image 3 Exterior Steventon Church

Exterior of St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Image Rachel Dodge

The church itself is still in use today and looks the same as it would have in Jane’s time, making it quite unique. It is a small, simple church, built around 1200 by the Normans. In the heat of summer, its thick stone walls provide a cool, quiet place to sit and look, ponder, or pray. People from the neighborhood are known to stop by to visit and pray.

Image 4 Interior Steventon Church (1)

Interior, St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo Rachel Dodge

Highlight: When we were there, one of the locals showed us how to open the door, which is kept unlocked for any who wish to visit and rest. The church is a place of stillness and beauty with its soft, rose colored-light from the mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Image 5 Wheatsheaf

Wheatsheaf Hotel, Basingstoke. Image Rachel Dodge

Up the road three miles is the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Basingstoke (known as the Wheatsheaf Inn during Austen’s life), where Austen walked to post letters and collect the family mail. Though it has since been expanded and updated, and now houses a lovely hotel and pub, the original building is still visible.

CHAWTON

The Austen family left Hampshire in 1801 when her father retired from his position as rector, and by all accounts, Jane Austen did not find that same home-comfort she had known at Steventon until she came back to Hampshire again years later. In 1809, several years after her father’s death, she moved with her mother and Cassandra into “the cottage” at her brother Edward’s estate in Chawton, Hampshire. Though Austen traveled frequently to visit family and friends during her adult years, Chawton Cottage and its surrounding areas once again became her true home.

Image 6 Jane's House Sign

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen’s house sign. Image Rachel Dodge

Jane Austen’s House Museum, or Chawton Cottage, is where Jane lived until she moved to Winchester to seek medical attention toward the end of her life. The lanes, the village, the church, and the areas surrounding Chawton became the happy backdrop for the most prolific period of writing in Austen’s life.

Image 7 Jane's House Front

Front of Chawton Cottage. Image Rachel Dodge

Jane Austen’s House is open for tours daily and is surrounded by beautiful flower gardens. Baskets of books by Austen sit on benches in the shade for any guest who wants to sit and read. In the kitchen, there is a station set up for making lavender sachets and another where visitors can practice writing with a quill. There are also straw bonnets and dresses for guests to borrow if they wish to enjoy a more authentic experience!

Image 8 Roses Entrance

Entrance to Chawton Cottage with rose bower. Image Rachel Dodge

Inside the home, there are many items that are original heirlooms belonging to the family or are similar to what Jane would have known. I sat and played the piano (left image), which they allow visitors to do if they are pianists. In the dining room, one can see the Knight family’s Wedgwood dinner service, the tea things Jane would have used to make tea, and Jane’s writing desk (right image). Upstairs, guests can view the bedrooms and read more about the history of the family.

Image 9 Piano

Piano, Chawton Cottage. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 10 desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk. Image Rachel Dodge.

Highlight: At Jane Austen’s House, I met and spoke with a descendant of Austen’s, Jeremy Knight. He grew up at Chawton House (or the “Great House”), as did his daughter Caroline. When I visited, he was standing in the bedroom of Chawton Cottage, where Jane and Cassandra once shared a room, happily sharing Jane Austen’s history with visitors. What a treat! For further information about Chawton Cottage, you can read more here: https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/

Image 11 Bed

Bed inside the room that Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, shared. Image Rachel Dodge.

St. Nicholas Church, Chawton is larger and more grand than the church at Steventon. Though it does not look as it did in Austen’s day, one can see the evidence of years of history inside and out. Like the church at Steventon, the church at Chawton is still a working parish church today.

Image 12 Chawton Church Exterior

Exterior, St. Nicholas, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 13 Chawton Church Int

Interior, St. Nicholas Church, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

Highlight: If you walk around the back of the church, you can see the graves of Jane Austen’s mother and sister there. (Austen’s grave and memorial are found at Winchester Cathedral in Winchester.) Both women lived long, full lives, unlike our dear Jane.

Image 14 Graves at Chawton

Gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister. Image Rachel Dodge

Chawton House and its gardens are open for public tours today. The Elizabethan era house, originally owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight, is now a library and study center devoted to women writers. There is also a tea shop inside the house.

Image 15 Chawton Great House Ext

Chawton House interior. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 16 Chawton House Int

Chawton House interior. Image Rachel Dodge

Highlight: Caroline Jane Knight, daughter of Jeremy Knight and 5th great-niece to Jane, released a book in June called Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage. It tells her personal story of growing up at Chawton House, the family’s Christmas traditions, baking with her Granny, and helping in the tea room. She is the last Austen descendent to have grown up in the house (before it was sold and later became the Chawton House Library).

Caroline has also formed the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to helping support literacy in communities in need worldwide. https://janeaustenlf.org/

For more on the history of Chawton House, you can read more here: https://chawtonhouse.org/about-us/our-story/

CELEBRATING 200 YEARS

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death later this month, there are many special events all around Hampshire this summer and throughout the year. The people there are proud of their Austen heritage.

As part of the 200th year celebration, Jane Austen’s House Museum has a special exhibit called “41 Objects.” The number 41 marks the number of years that Jane graced this earth, and the objects can be found in and around the museum. Read here for more: https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/41-objects

Image 17 41 Objects Plaque

Chawton Cottage plaque. Image Rachel Dodge

 

Image 18 41 Objects Wedgwood

Wedgwood china, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

One highlight for those visiting Hampshire during the “Jane Austen 200: A Life in Hampshire” celebration is the “Sitting with Jane” park benches. These “Book Benches” are scattered throughout the Hampshire area and are part of a public book trail. Each of the 24 benches focuses on a Jane Austen theme as interpreted by a professional artist. Fans can take photos sitting on the benches and post them to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #SittingWithJane. Visit http://www.sittingwithjane.com/ or search @SittingWithJane on Twitter to see the benches or learn more.

 

Image 19 Steventon Bench

Sitting with Jane bench. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 20 Chawton Bench

Sitting with Jane bench. Image Rachel Dodge

For a full list of the events and exhibits scheduled for this year, you can read more here: http://janeausten200.co.uk/

If you have the chance to travel to England, visiting Jane’s beautiful Hampshire countryside is a must. Hampshire has all of the charm and beauty of modern British culture alongside a long, rich, and vibrant history of the past.

Other posts about Steventon, Chawton Cottage, and Chawton on this blog – Click here to see posts.

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Inquiring readers,

In celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, frequent contributor, Tony Grant, visited Chawton House to view a special exhibit. Read his post about the exhibit on Jane Austen in Vermont in this link. Tony reserved a slew of photos for this blog and added his commentary. I inserted some observations by Constance Hill and Jane’s grand niece to round out this post. Enjoy!

Chawton is a Hampshire village and civil parish. It lies within the area of the South Downs National Park. The 2000 census shows that 380 people live in Chawton.

Google map

Google map of Chawton, and Chawton Cottage and Chawton House in relation to each other.

Chawton village is first mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book which was administered from Winchester, the first capital of England, under William the Conqueror,after 1066. The fact that the village lies on a main route from London to Portsmouth by way of Winchester suggests that because of its important position there must have been a Saxon settlement there before 1066 and possibly going back to Iron Age times. The Normans did instigate the creation of new villages such as at West Meon a few miles south of Chawton but most settlements were continued from previous ages. Its location shows it as perhaps a stopping place on a major route but its prime importance would have been farming.

Farming must have been its main importance right up to and after the second world war. Chawton House and its estate has sheep and horses on it to this day. There are still many farms in the area. However the population today is not what it would have been in the past. In previous centuries there would have been representatives of the whole range of the class system.

The Great House

The great house at Chawton owned by the Knight family, image by Tony Grant

The Knight family owned the great house and estate and most famously from the early nineteenth century, Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s brother. The middle classes would have been represented by Jane Austen and her family and perhaps the local vicar of the parish of St Nicholas and some minor landowners and farmers. Probably the working class and farm labourer class predominated though. There are plenty of small Victorian cottages, Georgian cottages and cottages dating back to the 16th century and before in Chawton and surrounding areas. These would have been accommodation for farm workers. Nowadays though these cottages surrounded by idealistic country gardens, climbing roses and wisteria, looking picture postcard perfect, are owned by wealthy people who work in the City and use them as weekend homes.

There are examples of large Georgian and Victorian mansions in the village. They can only be owned by company directors or wealthy bankers and other people of that ilk. Looking at estate agent web sites for Chawton, a mansion such as the one you can see at the start of the long driveway that leads to Chawton House, is priced at £2,000,000. The small picture postcard cottages start at about £350,000. The prices of the two properties I have quoted are the top and bottom of the range.

The ordinary, everyday worker is excluded. I am sure there are no farm labourers are living in Chawton these days.This is a shame because local customs are lost. The rich diverse local customs formed over time by families living there for their whole lives, generation after generation, is lost and although Chawton looks lovely today it has lost to a certain extent, its heart. It has lost its soul.

car park

Chawton Car Park, Image Google earth

All is not lost. The other day I walked from the car park, opposite Jane Austen’s cottage next to the Greyfriar pub, along the road to Chawton House Library. On my left, through the trees and across the children’s playground a gentleman was sitting astride a motor mower cutting the grass on the village cricket pitch. I could see that the sight screens were in place for a match and the cricket club flag was flying from the club house flagpole.

Sight screen on the cricket pitch

Sight of village cricket pitch. Image by Tony Grant

As I approached the Great House I passed Chawton Village Junior School on my right. Put in mind that this was midweek, a Wednesday, and the time was 12.30. The school was in the middle of its lunch break and a whole mass of children were playing in the playground on climbing frames and ladders. They were yelling and whooping and having the time of their lives. I always feel heart warmed at the sound of children. I have spent my whole working life as a teacher teaching them after all. So really there are three things.

Chawton has a great pub, The Greyfriars, it has a wonderful vibrant school and the village a cricket team. A new heart has been created perhaps? Yes, not all is lost.

junction

Jane Austen’s Chawton Cottage is straight ahead. To the right is Cassandra’s Cup, a tea house attached to The Greyfriar pub.

Chawton Cottage, a former steward’s cottage, was previously home to local farmers. Between 1781 and 1787, the house was briefly a public house called The New Inn. This pub was the site of two murders. After the second murder, the house was let by Edward Austen Knight to a Bailiff Bridger Seward. (Wikipedia)

Edward then allowed his mother and sisters to move permanently into the residence. Jane lived there with her mother and sister, Cassandra, and long time family friend Martha Lloyd, from 1809 until May 1817, when she moved to Winchester to be near her physician before her death in June of that year. (Wikipedia

Through the window

View of Jane Austen’s writing desk from the cottage window. Image Tony Grant

Later in the 18th century, Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight (who had been adopted by the Knights) succeeded, and in 1809 was able to move his mother and sisters to a cottage in the village. Jane would spend among the most contented, productive years of her life here.

 

trees

A glimpse of the cottage’s garden.

“I remember the garden well,” writes Miss Lefroy [a grand-daughter of the Rev. James Austen]. “A very high thick hedge divided it from the (Winchester) road, and road it was a pleasant shrubbery walk, with a rough bench or two where no doubt Mrs. Austen and Cassandra and Jane spent many a summer afternoon.”

Miss Lefroy recalls her mother’s happy memories with her Aunt Jane, Aunt Cassandra, and grandmother in Chawton.

“As may be supposed a great deal of intercourse was kept up between Steventon and Chawton. Our grandfather was a most attentive son, and one of the pleasures of my mother’s youth was sometimes riding with him to see her grandmother and aunts through the pretty cross roads and rough lanes, inaccessible to wheels, which lay between the two places . . . In her Aunt Jane, who was the object of her most enthusiastic admiration, she found a sympathy and a companionship which was the delight of her girlhood, and of which she always retained the most grateful remembrance . . . But I will copy my mother’s own account.

‘”The two years before my marriage and the three afterwards, during which we lived near Chawton, were the years in which my great intimacy with her was formed; when the original seventeen years between us seemed reduced to seven or none at all. It was my amusement during part of a summer visit to the cottage to procure novels from the circulating library at Alton, and after running them over to narrate and turn into ridicule their stories to Aunt Jane, much to her amusement, as she sat over some needlework which was nearly always for the poor. We both enjoyed the fun, as did Aunt Cassandra in her quiet way though, as one piece of nonsense led to another, she would exclaim at our folly, and beg us not to make her laugh so much.'” – Constance Hill, Jane Austen: her homes & her friends, 1902.

view from chawton cottage

View from Chawton Cottage in the early 19th century painted by Ellen Hill

 

The village of Chawton lies in a specially beautiful part of Hampshire, about five miles from Gilbert White’s own Selborne, and, like it, famed for its hop fields and its graceful ‘hangers.'”

Chawton Cottage stands at the further end of the village, being the last house on the right-hand side of the way just where the Winchester road branches off from that to Gosport, and where a space of grass and a small pond lie in the fork of those roads.”

 

Chawton has a single church, St Nicholas. A church has stood on the site in Chawton since at least 1270 when it was mentioned in a diocesan document. The church suffered a disastrous fire in 1871 which destroyed all but the chancel. The rebuilt church was designed by Sir Arthuer Blomfield and is now listed Grade 2.” – (Wikipedia)

The two Cassandras

The Knight family is buried in the churchyard. Jane Austen’s mother and sister are buried there also.

“The ‘Great House’ and the cottage lie within a few hundred yards of each other, the gates of the park opening upon the Gosport road. The house, a fine old Elizabethan mansion, with its Tudor porch, and its heavy mullioned windows, may be seen by the passer-by, standing on rising ground; while a little below it, in a gentle hollow, lies the old church of Chawton–a small grey stone edifice embowered in trees.”- Constance Hill

chawtoncottage_chawtonhouse

Chawton has only two road exits, one leading to a roundabout connected to the A31 and the A32, and the other to the A339/B3006 Selborne Road.

The village of Chawton lies in a specially beautiful part of Hampshire, about five miles from Gilbert White’s own Selborne, and, like it, famed for its hop field and graceful “hangers”; while within easy reach is the cheerful little town of Alton.” – Hill

 

Selborne Rd

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happy birthday Jane AustenJane Austen was born on a bitterly cold night on December 16, 1775.

Little is known about birthday celebrations on one’s natal day during the Regency era. Jane makes no mention of them, as far as I know, in her letters and novels. Please correct me if I am wrong. Common sense tells us that family members recognized this important day, but how? Perhaps a special meal was made and a handsome present or two were given. In Persuasion, Jane described a Christmas celebration in Uppercross, which gives us a sense of how a boisterous family celebrated an important event:

On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of all the noise of the others.

The rich might have made more of a fuss for a loved one’s birthday – gifting a girl with a diamond brooch or a pearl pendant or the young heir with a sporty phaeton.

In celebration of Jane Austen’s 240th birthday, I’ve made a list of the gifts that people exchanged in Jane’s day, and came up with a variety of items that her family and friends might have given her:

  • Brother Edward, a plump goose and a brace of pheasants from his lands
  • Brother Charles, a gift of exotic spices and tea from the West Indies.
  • Sister Cassandra, an exquisite embroidered shawl made from fine cloth given by brother Frank.
  • Her friend, Madame Lefroy, a year’s subscription to a circulating library.
  • Brother Henry, several music sheets of songs that were the current rage in London.
  • Her mother, a clever poem in her honor, and her father, ink, goose quills, and paper for her literary pursuits.
  • Her good friend Martha, special recipes to prepare Edward’s gifts of food.

 

An other article about Jane’s birthday on this blog:

Baby Jane Austen’s First Two years: Happy 235th Birthday, Jane!

 

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The blog, Carla-at-Home features an interesting post on the progression of Regency fashion. The images were taken from John Peacock’s book: Costume 1066 – 1966, A Complete Guide to English Costume Design and History (copyrighted 1986). Mr. Peacock was the senior costume designer for BBC Television when the book was printed. Here is one of the images. Click on the link above to visit the site and see the rest of them. You can see that over time the hemlines raised to show the ankle and how increasingly intricate the hems became. Also, the English bosom tended to be covered up during the day, but at night even shy ladies showed their assets.

Image @Carla-at-Home. Click on image to view a larger version.

1800- 1811. Image @Carla-at-Home. Click on image to view a larger version.

Below are images of some dresses that were prevalent between 1800-1811. The gowns are classic and tend to be free of frills. The hems in the fashion plates below are longer than in the modern image above. Earlier in the century even the day gowns still sported trains. Hats were embellished with ribbons and feathers, but not with many fruits or flowers.  In these fashion images, bosoms are covered during the day and exposed in the evening. The waist rises until it can go no higher, as in the 1806 image. In the 1810 image, you see that waists start to lower again. Gloves are often made of kid, but can also be fashioned from fabric.

Ladies Monthly Museum, afternoon dress, 1800

Ladies Monthly Museum, afternoon dress, 1800

The fashion plates of 1800 and 1801 show round gowns with skirts that are fuller than later fashions that sported a more columnar silhouette. (See 1804, 1805).

Nicholas Heidelof, morning gowns. 1801

Nicholas Heidelof, morning gowns. 1801

The period between 1800 and 1811 was a time of turmoil for Jane Austen. She was 25 in 1800, perilously close to sitting on the shelf, and a confirmed spinster at 36 when her brother, Edward, gave the Chawton Cottage to his mother and sisters and their friend, Martha Lloyd, to live in, providing them with some stability and security. During these 11 years, Jane was to live in all the places she was ever to call home, except for the last one in Winchester, where she died in 1817. During her prime adulthood, she and her sister Cassandra would have worn fashions that were similar to (but remarkably plainer and less costly than) the fashions depicted in the fashion plates below.  The Austen family lived in Steventon until 1801 and then moved to Sydney Place in Bath until 1804. In 1802, Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Jane (then 27), who accepted him in the evening and rejected his suit the following morning.

1802 Ladies Monthly Museum

1802 Ladies Monthly Museum

1803 must have brought Jane some joy, for her novel, Susan, was sold to the publisher Crosby for £10. She was to be a published author. Sadly, the novel (to be renamed Northanger Abbey after Jane’s death) languished on Crosby’s shelves for 10 years.

Mirroir de la Mode, undress, 1803

Mirroir de la Mode, morning gown, 1803

Fashions of London and Paris, 1804. @Museum of London

Fashions of London and Paris, 1804. @Museum of London

After the lease in Sydney Place ran out in 1804,  the Austens moved to Green Park buildings. A few months later,  Rev. George Austen died suddenly in January 1805.

Fashions of London and Paris, evening dresses, 1805. @Museum of London

Fashions of London and Paris, evening dresses, 1805. @Museum of London

Their income severely reduced, the women found lodging in Gay Street, Bath from 1805 to 1806. The Jane Austen Centre is located at this building today. During this sad time, I can’t quite imagine Jane attending a ball in the Bath Assembly Rooms wearing an evening gown with an exposed bosom, such as the dresses worn by the women below.

La Belle Assemblee, opera and drawing room gowns, 1806

La Belle Assemblee, opera and drawing room gowns, 1806

In the first half of 1806, the Austen women lived for a short time in Trim Street, then lived a peripatetic life from 1806 through 1807, visiting friends and family, and always on the move.

John Bell, full dress, roxborough jacket, 1807

John Bell, full dress, roxborough jacket, 1807

They landed in Southampton in March of 1807 at the invitation of Frank Austen, who was newly married. Jane, Cassandra, their mother and friend Martha Lloyd, and new sister-in-law, Mary Austen (nee Gibson),  lived there until July, 1809. With money in short supply, the womens’ gowns must have been simple and largely refashioned from older gowns that were still wearable and sturdy.

La Belle Assemblee, walking dresses, 1808

La Belle Assemblee, walking dresses, 1808

Fabric was quite expensive in an era before easy mass production, which is why clothes were recycled. There were occasions when the Austen women needed to purchase cloth for new clothes, but the quality wasn’t always guaranteed. In this letter to Cassandra, written while she lived in Southampton, Jane complains about a tradesman in that city:

As for Mr Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation; how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There is four shillings thrown away.”

Sadly, the Austen women were in no position to fritter away their money, and this poorly made cloth must have been a low blow for Jane’s finances.

Ackermann, walking dresses, 1809

Ackermann, walking dresses, 1809. The overdress with lace edging at the hem is lovely.

In 1809, Edward Austen invited his mother, sisters, and Martha to live in  Chawton Cottage, which began an era of fruitful creativity for Jane and her writing.

Ackermann, walking and morning dresses, 1810

Ackermann, walking and morning dresses, 1810

As you can see, the classically simple fashions depicted in these fashion plates were popular during a time when Jane Austen’s life was in a state of constant uprooting and confusion. She did not regain her equilibrium as a writer until she was settled in Chawton Cottage. When Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, Jane might well have worn a more simple version of the elegant gowns depicted in this last Ackermann plate.

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