Jane Austen and her World

In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery. Sometimes it was a simple grassy area with shrubs and a few trees; sometimes there was an attractive bench beside a winding gravel path where a young lady could sit and enjoy nature; and it could be as large or small as the owner wanted. In essence, it was the antithesis of the more formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.

Formal gardens proclaimed the owner’s status

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Georgette Heyer’s Venetia was first published in 1958 and it is one of the books I turn to when things are difficult. It was one of Georgette Heyer’s own favourites, she called it (and The Unknown Ajax) ‘the best of my later works’. Lord Damerel’s journey from a cynical rake, gambler, drinker and profligate to a man who is worthy of the heroine, Venetia, is a long, thorny path with many twists and turns. He had had a difficult childhood with cold, censorious, unloving parents which turned him into dissolute libertine and a man who allows himself to be cast as a villain by others. It takes him much of the book to realize that its a role he’s outgrown.

Cover by Arthur Barbosa for ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer, 1958

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My late 19th century copy of Manners and Rules of Good Society by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’ deals with everything a novelist or reader could possibly want to know about how Society operated and, as far as I can tell, the same rules applied in the Regency period. This week, I want to look at the knotty question of how one introduces somebody to someone else with regard to Jane Austen’s novels, or, indeed, any Historical novel set before the First World War.

‘Manners and Rules of Good Society’ by a Member of the Aristocracy. My copy is an 18th edition which dates from 1892

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This week, I’ve been reading up on late 18th to early 19th century’s ladies’ underwear. What, I found myself wondering, was the difference – if any – between stays and corsets; or smocks, shifts and chemises?

I discovered that the Radical essayist and poet Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), had something to say about it.

The 19th century corset – constraining or revealing?

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I have long loved the stylish and witty novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) and I know that I am not alone. The actor, playwright and composer, Noël Coward, also enjoyed her novels and admired her technique – especially her clever use of irony. The novelist A.S. Byatt itemized why Heyer’s Regency novels were so successful: ‘Paradise of ideal solutions, knowing it for what it is, comforted by its temporary actuality, nostalgically refreshed for coping with the quite different tangle of preconceptions, conventions and social emphases we have to live with. Which is what good escape literature is about.’  Heyer did her research properly; her Regency world may be limited in its social range but she undoubtedly had the gift of drawing her readers in, holding them spellbound, and making them laugh and feel better.

The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer 1951

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At first glance, Mrs Bennet seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a mother. Jane Austen, who had a sharp tongue when she’d a mind to, tells us that, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ This harsh judgement is corroborated by Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, where he doesn’t hesitate to point out  Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’. And poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother showed up her ill-breeding when she came to Netherfield when Jane was ill.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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Re-reading Emma recently, it struck me that, far more than Jane Austen’s other novels, it is permeated by a sort of unease about class. On the surface, it’s a socially stable society with the Woodhouses at Hartfield and Mr Knightley at Donwell Abbey at the apex. Their wealth and status has obviously been established for many generations – that socially damning word ‘trade’ is no part of their financial inheritance. It is the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, who is the most conscious of social class and she believes that she knows to a T where everyone fits into the class structure. It is Emma who is the most unforgiving about people wanting to climb above their ‘proper’  – as she sees it – place.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870 courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), artist, and author of a brilliant diary, is somewhat neglected nowadays, though he was an interesting man and counted Keats, Hazlitt and Wordsworth among his friends. He was a good portrait painter – as his 1842 portrait of Wordsworth below attests – but, unfortunately, he passionately believed in the old-fashioned 18th century notion that Great Painting should concentrate on historical and religious subjects in the Grand Manner.

William Wordsworth against a background of the majestic Helvellyn, in the Lake District,  by Benjamin Haydon, 1842. Once a staunch Radical and Romantic poet, Wordsworth, by 1842, had become an establishment figure and would become Poet Laureate in the following year. 

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Re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice recently, I found myself wondering why everyone in the Lucas family, calls Elizabeth Bennet ‘Eliza’, rather than ‘Lizzy’, which is what her family call her. Is she a slightly different person when she is ‘Eliza’? And why is she Charlotte Lucas’s ‘intimate friend’, anyway? Jane Austen describes Charlotte as, ‘a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven’. Elizabeth is twenty, and we know that she has a close relationship with her twenty-two-year-old sister Jane. Normally, at twenty, one’s friends tend to be one’s own age, for example, Kitty Bennet is a close friend of Charlotte’s sister, Maria, who is more or less her own age, so we are allowed to ask what Elizabeth gets from her friendship with Charlotte that she doesn’t get from Jane.

Mr Collins accosting Mr Darcy at the Netherfield Ball by Charles E Brock

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I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that novelists choose the surnames of their characters with great care. I certainly agonise over mine. I was reminded of this when reading Maggie Lane’s brilliant Jane Austen and Food. In it, she makes the perceptive point that Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is ironically named – from the French nourrice, a nurse. She behaves in the most un-nurturing way towards Fanny Price and seems to take every opportunity to put her down.

‘My dear Sir Thomas, Fanny can walk.’ says Mrs Norris. Illustration by Hugh Thomson for Mansfield Park

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