I love this 1790 hand-colored etching by Thomas Rowlandson from the Royal Collection Trust, which depicts 12 vignettes of everyday life and work in Georgian England. Sketches like these offer us a glimpse of ordinary life in the 18th century, much as photos and videos today. These vignettes are drawn from life, and unlike the serious, well-thought out poses of formal portraits, they show people of a bygone era going about their ordinary business.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote of the militia visiting Meryton and Brighton. In her day, soldiers were encamped throughout Great Britain, ready to go to war at a moment’s notice or defend the homeland from invasions. Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, and Kitty were enamored with the smart bright uniforms of officers, who they regarded as quite the catch. The men passing through town provided new faces as well as relief from the routine of village life, for village folk (most of whom rarely traveled beyond the confines of their counties) moved in small and familiar social circles, for better or worse. (Mrs. Elton, anyone?)
The well-fed officer above assesses new recruits, who are obviously not officer material. One imagines that their lives in the army will not be as cushy as Captain Denny’s or Mr. Wickham’s, and that they would perform the most plebeian tasks.
High perch phaetons were the race cars of their day and a status of wealth. It is obvious that this woman is a skilled driver, but her escort remains close at hand to ensure her safety.
Increasingly throughout this century, women were allowed to marry for love, but ensuring one’s future as a wife could be a risky business. What if she married for love and her husband turned out to be a ne’er-do-well, barely able to support his family, as with Fanny Price’s father? Aristocratic women had no choice but to follow family dictates in order maintain the family’s status or improve their fortune. Other families sought to move up social ranks through their daughter’s mate. One wonders in the image below if the young woman is married to her escort … or if she is simply taking a stroll with her father or uncle? We can only guess.
The trio below seems to be promenading along a street (or park). The women look chic in their walking outfits, the younger one wearing a hat with feathers and carrying a fan; the older woman, no doubt, making sure that her charge’s reputation remains spotless. Jane Austen began writing Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice at the end of the 18th century, when these garments were fashionable. It’s one of the many reasons why we glimpse such a variety of costumes in various Austen film adaptations. In creating movie costumes, some costume designers choose the era in which Austen wrote the first drafts of those early novels; others choose to dress their actresses in the filmy empire gowns that were popular when the books were published.
Taking tea was not as formalized a ceremony at the end of the 18th century as it would become later during the 19th century. Tea was quite an expensive commodity, kept under lock and key by the mistress of the house. At Chawton Cottage, Jane was in charge of the tea chest and making tea in the morning. Servants often brewed tea from leaves that had been used by their betters, thereby imbibing a much weaker beverage.
In this group, the hostess at right dispenses the tea one guest at a time, which her footman delivers to each in turn, with the ladies having been served first. It is an afternoon tea, for the ladies are not dressed for the evening. Mrs and Miss Bates would have been often invited to tea to Hartfield, but rarely to dine, a privilege reserved for more exalted guests, like Mr. Knightley. This was just the way of the world.
It is hard to tell if this young woman is about to ride in Hyde Park or in the country. For both instances, she is suitably dressed.
One can only imagine how boring the daily routine was for the average Georgian woman, whose life was constrained by society’s strictures and who was not allowed to “work” for a living. Woman’s work consisted of sewing, overseeing the kitchens, or, as in Mrs. Austen’s case, actively taking a part in cooking, and making wines and preserves. While many ladies of the house did not sully their hands in the kitchen, they actively collected recipes, which they passed down to their cooks. On an interesting note, while tailors made men’s clothes, they did not sew the shirts. This task was left to the women, who hand-stitched shirts for their men and made clothing for their babies and the poor. Jane and Cassandra Austen often made shirts for their brothers, a fact mentioned in letters.
The image above causes me to believe that the woman being ogled may not be entirely suitable for polite company, or she may well be a widow who cares not a fig about her reputation. Her companion is openly eyeing her through his eye glass. To be sure, they might well be standing in the Pump Room in Bath, where they would be surrounded by a crowd of people. Can you imagine Lizzy Bennet holding still under such scrutiny? Methinks not.
Entertainment was left to professional performers, many of whom roamed from town to town, and to talented family members. One can imagine how quiet and uneventful life in the country must have been! Had Emma liked Jane Fairfax, this scene could have shown Jane playing the pianoforte as Emma sang. Women in general contributed much to a family’s entertainment. Jane Austen wrote comedic plays in her younger years (and made up fanciful stories for her nieces and nephews as a spinster), and her mother wrote poetry. Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have been a proficient if she had ever bothered to apply herself to the pianoforte (Hah!). Modest Elizabeth Bennet considered her musical skills merely pedestrian, although Mr. Darcy was charmed by her efforts. Marianne Dashwood probably found an outlet for her passions while at the pianoforte. Austen characterized her heroines by their talents. Instead of energetically joining the family during impromptu dances, mousy Anne Elliot made herself useful at the instrument. Mary Crawford’s extraordinary talents with the harp made Edmund Bertram fall even more in love with her, whereas poor Mary Bennet committed one social faux pas after another by failing to understand that her musical talents were painful to witness.
Emma’s planned outing to Box Hill was no doubt accompanied by servants, who carried the food, plates, and cutlery and laid out the repast for the party. In this scene, it seems that the soldiers performed the offices of serving the food to the ladies. Except for the boatman, I can find no evidence of servants, unless they are assembled inside the tent, which makes no sense. One soldier plays the flute to his companion, another couple promenades as they talk. A group sits on a blanket, finishing their repast and drinking wine or ale.
A dog sleeps peacefully among the assembly and a female guest rests while leaning against the tent. Inside, a man sits at a table. It must have taken some effort to transport all that food and equipment, and I wonder if this was done via the boat and river earlier in the day as the rest of the party walked from the country house (visible in the background) to the picnic site. One thing is for certain, Rowlandson’s contemporaries would have known first-hand how such a picnic was contrived.
A foppish gentleman in the image below examines a bill, while the inn keeper (?) looks on and a servant carries his case. This image must have been duplicated at many roadside inns and coach houses, and would not be unusual today. This scene was labeled “exchanging” money, which explains the merchant’s/innkeeper’s outstretched hand.
The man below is peering through a telescope at … what? A balloon ascent? Birds? A boat on the horizon? Curious minds want to know.
The last scene depicts vendors selling their wares, either from a stall, from containers on the pavement, or from baskets attached to donkeys. A variety of shoppers, some better dressed than others, are shown examining goods or purchasing items.
Our moderns sensibilities are struck by the unhygienic way that food was sold by street vendors back then. There were no disposable plates, so one can only assume that used plates and cups were merely wiped with a wet cloth before food was ladled out to serve another diner. Many individuals lived in small one or two room “apartments” that had no kitchens. For them, eating street food was common … if they had the money.
Items of clothing seem to be sold in the stall, while bulk food (potatoes, grain?) is carried by the donkeys. When the Austen family moved from Steventon to Bath, their diets changed drastically, for they had to depend on food purchased at local markets. They had grown their own vegetables in the country, and owned a cow and a few chickens and pigs. In Steventon, the Austen family could largely eat off the bounty of their land, stretching their budget, but in Bath they depended on food carted in from surrounding farms and milk from anemic city cows who lived in dank stalls and were put out to pasture in public parks. Purchased food was often doctored, and it was almost impossible to eat fresh seafood, unless one lived near the coast. For many reasons, including the matter of finding fresh and affordable food, Jane Austen must have been in shock the entire time she lived in Bath.
More about the image:
Creator: Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) (etcher)
27 Jun 1790
38.5 x 28.0 cm
A hand-coloured print with 12 vignettes of everyday life and work. Included in the designs are: Assessing new recruits for the army; carriage driving; promenading; a tea party; horse-riding; a woman with needlework; flirtation; a woman playing the harpsichord whilst another woman sings; a picnic by a river; a man looking through a telescope; an exchange of money between one man and another man and street vendors. Plate 7.
Inscribed in the plate: Pub June 27 1790 by S.W. Fores N 3 Piccadilly. Click here to go to The Royal Collection.