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Posts Tagged ‘Regency middle class’

Jane Austen’s novels did not ignore the rising middle class and successful merchants and tradesmen, the nouveau riche of her era. Mr. Bingley and his sisters were the fortunate offspring of a tradesman. Mrs. Bennet’s,  Mrs. Jennings’, and Mrs. Elton’s vulgarities cannot be denied and add spice to her tales.  A real life representative of the rich bourgeois class was Mrs. Smith, once married to a trader named Kinnear. I would imagine that if a stranger met her, there would be no mistake from her demeanor and accent where her origins lay. She dressed well, according to an eye witness, and managed to live out her years in comfort.

Mrs. Smith, 1795

MRS SMITH IN THE COSTUME OF 1795. That this Portraiture was sketched without a sitting may be conjectured from a memorandum by the artist, which states that when the lady heard of his intention to publish her likeness, she sent for him to come and get a proper look at her, but he did not choose to accept the invitation. Those who remember Mrs Smith will have little difficulty in recognising a strong likeness to her in the Etching. Mrs, or rather Luckie Smith, for so in her later years she was uniformly styled, is dressed in the somewhat ridiculous fashion prevailing towards the close of [the] last century. The Print bears the date 1795, and at that period she resided in South Bridge Street. Some years afterwards, she removed to a house purchased for her in Blackfriar’s Wynd. Mrs Smith was a native of Aberdeen, and had in early life been married to a trader of the name of Kinnear, by whom she had a son and two daughters. After the death of her husband, she resumed her maiden name of Smith. Her favourite walk was the Meadows. She was a stout, comely looking woman, and usually dressed well. She lived to old age in the enjoyment of two annuities, one of which she derived from a gentleman of fortune, the husband of one of her daughters. The other daughter was also well married, and we believe is now in America. Mrs Smith died in January, 1836. – A series of original portraits and caricature etchings, Volume 2, Part 2 (Google eBook), John Kay, 1838, p425.

The description might remind Georgette Heyer fans of Mrs. Floore from Bath Tangle. That “redoubtable old lady had inherited, besides two fortunes, considerable interest in her father’s soap factory, and her husband’s shipyard.” Hah!

Here is another telling description of Mrs. Floore, and how an aristocrat, comfortable in her own skin, would find such a creature fascinating:

Upon several occasions, both [Serena} and Fanny had been diverted by the startling appearance presented by an elderly female of little height but astonishing girth, who, while she adhered, perhaps wisely, to the fashions of her youth, was not wise enough to resist the lure of bright colours. She had a jolly, masterful countenance, with three chins beneath it, and a profusion of improbable black ringlets above it, imperfectly confined by caps of various designs, worn under hats of amazing opulence. Serena drew giggling protests from Fanny by asserting that she had counted five ostrich plumes, one bunch of grapes, two of cherries, three large roses, and two rosettes on one of these creations. An inquiry elicited from Mr King the information that the lady was the widow of a rich merchant of Bristol—or he might have been a shipowner: Mr King could not take it upon himself to say. No doubt a very good sort of a woman in her way, but (her la’ship would agree) sadly out of place in such a select place as Bath.” – Chapter 6

Can you imagine the Miss Bingleys hobnobbing with Mrs. Floore, or Sir Walter Elliot entertaining her in his house in Bath?

Can you imagine Sir Walter Elliot or Lady Dalrymple conversing with Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Poole? (Hugh Thompson, Persuasion)

In Bath Tangle, an adventurous Serena is quite taken by Mrs. Floore, whereas her timid stepmother, Fanny, is aghast:

‘Serena!’ breathed Fanny. ‘What an extraordinary creature!

‘Yes, but quite delightful, I promise you!’

‘But, Serena, she is dreadfully vulgar! You cannot really mean to visit her!’

Serena did visit Mrs. Floore, which few ladies of refinement would do, but she was secure in her position in Society and bored out of her gourd, and Mrs. Poole, besides being a nice and sensible person, provided her with entertainment. A reluctant Fanny accompanies her:

The call was paid, though without the suggested prelude; and the welcome accorded to the ladies was so good-natured and unaffected that Fanny was brought to acknowledge that however vulgar Mrs Floore might be she had a great deal of drollery, and was certainly no toad-eater. She declined a civil invitation to return the visit, saying, with paralysing candour, that it was one thing for their ladyships to visit in Beaufort Square whenever they felt so inclined, and quite another for them to be entertaining her in Laura Place, and very likely making all their acquaintance wonder what kind of company they had got into. – Chapter 7

Hugh Thompsons illustration of a vulgar, dashing widow. (Emma)

Times were a-changing. The rising middle classes were able and willing to lay out ready cash to move up in the world. What they lacked (aside from refinement) were land and a nice title. The aristocrats had these aplenty. Since many a landed family had squandered their fortunes, it was inevitable that the lines of distinction would begin to blur as the nouveau riche began to snap up estates in foreclosure or shove their very rich daughters in front of impoverished heirs.

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