Search this Blog

Monday, June 19, 2017

Glimpses of a Sunny and Jolly Regency Day in Alton

Today I travelled to Alton with a friend of mine and our children to participate in the Regency Day celebrations. The event takes place as part of the annual Regency Week, and this is the first time that I have attended this part of the event. 

It was a lovely, sunny day, and the high street bustled with activity but was thankfully devoid of huge crowds. Stalls of Regency style clothes and accessories, samples of local history books and antiques lined up Alton High Street. Morris dancers and brass bands added to the period feel of the event, and it was wonderful to see so many people in costume. 

How I wished I'd had a parasol like that!

The highlight for us has to have been our horse carriage ride around Alton, pulled by two beautiful shire horses and driven by coachmen in tailcoats and top hats. 

Lydia and Kitty would have approved of this man in his regimentals!

An outfit like Mr Wentworth would have worn, complete with genuine gilded buttons. An outfit like this would now cost around £3500. 

There were three different naval uniforms on display. The one on the right was a replica of the one that Nelson wore on board HMS Victory. 

We also tried on some antique hats. The velvety black top hat in the photo was from the 1890's, how interesting to hold it and try it on!

I thoroughly enjoyed the friendly, jolly atmosphere of the event and applaud the helpful re-enactors who were so willing to have their photos taken and to share stories about their outfits.

We also visited the small Jane Austen exhibition, "Jane and her Alton Apothecary" at the Allen Gallery but I shall describe that in another post.

You can read more about Alton in my previous post here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

“The Real Mr Darcy” or Perhaps Not?

Having just visited the “Jane Austen Among Family and Friends” mini exhibition at the British Library, I thought I would share my thoughts about the exhibition, but decided against it, as something else quite captivating has cropped up! Don’t take me wrong, I did enjoy the exhibition, which forms part of the several Jane Austen 200 festivities that take place around Britain this year to mark the bicentenary of her death. It was interesting to see some of Jane Austen’s teenage writings, as well as many of her original letters where she lists people’s opinions on her works and describes important personal events, such as her father’s death. The touching writing desk and glasses were exhibited at Willis Museum in Basingstoke last year. However, for understandable reasons, photography is not allowed at the British Library and I didn’t come back with much to share.

However, I thought I should mention my thoughts regarding the current hot topic of “The Real Mr Darcy”! It amuses me how scholars have taken up a criticism of the current representation of Mr Darcy in popular culture and have gone to lengths to prove that the popular image of Mr Darcy is utterly wrong! The topic has been on all the leading UK newsmedia with sensational headlines, such as “the 'Real’ Mr Darcy was nothing like Colin Firth” (the BBC) and “Real Mr Darcy was more ballet dancer than beefcake” (The Times), and so on and so forth. The whole discussion has left austenites almost betrayed, begging to keep the “hot Mr Darcy” of their imagination.

Watch the making of the portrait: 

The whole discussion is based on revelations made by professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery who spent a month researching the male beauty norms of Georgian England, and actually commissioned “the first historically accurate portrait” of Mr Darcy, created by the artist Nick Hardcastle. The portrait shows a pale-skinned man with narrow shoulders and strong, defined legs, with long, powdered hair, a narrow jaw and a long, pointy nose. The portrait would appear to be a contrast to the muscular, angular-jawed Colin Firth who in the adaptation has short, dark hair and slightly tanned skin.

Now I do feel that there is truth in that the noblemen of the period would probably have spent a great deal of time indoors and been quite pale in general, which clearly was the beauty norm of the day. It is also quite likely that muscular torsos were associated with the working classes and, as the main sports popular at the time were horse-riding and fencing, gentlemen must have been more slender and had muscular legs rather than well-built upper bodies. Many of the icons of the time period did have long, narrow jaws and long, pointy noses, as did the Austen brothers in their portraits.

However, I am not at all convinced that the hairstyle sported by Mr Darcy would necessarily have been long and powdered or that he would have worn a wig. Jane Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice, then called "First Impressions", in 1796-1797, which she revised for publication in 1811-1812. As I have written previously, the fashion revolution that significantly reduced the use of wigs and powder took place in 1795, the same year as hair powder tax was introduced. After that, powder was mainly used by liveried servants, lawyers and perhaps the older generations, who in many ways preferred the old styles of fashion. Most young people must have switched to the more modern, relaxed, shorter hairstyles that required no powder. And I believe that Mr Darcy must have been at the forefront of fashion, mixing with the fashionable crowds of London.

I am also skeptical of the claim that the character of Mr Darcy was inspired by the First Earl of Morley. I don’t think that Jane Austen would have admired him, as he was known to be mired in a sex scandal and that is a topic that Jane Austen dealt with strictly in Mansfield Park. She was a moral writer, with a strong sense of responsibility, critical of "loose morals", and Morley simply wasn't her type. 

The novel is clearly a product of the Georgian rather than of the Regency period, but we will never know for sure exactly how Mr Darcy would have looked in the author’s imagination. Does it really matter?

What is so great about Colin Firth is not whether his looks are a historically accurate match for Mr Darcy, but that he really brought the character to life, appealing to the modern audience. Thanks to the adaptation, Pride and Prejudice is now much better known all around the world, and I’m thankful for it.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Regency Christmas at Mompesson House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Last year I celebrated this day at Jane Austen's House in Chawton, and what a memorable, beautiful day that was, singing carols and enjoying some mulled wine and mince pies at Chawton, perusing the Emma exhibition and trying on bonnets with my two-year-old dress-up enthusiast. 

This year, I didn't make it to Chawton Cottage but I did visit Mompesson House in Salisbury for their Regency Christmas display at the weekend. 

Mompesson House is a Georgian house situated in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury. You may have seen the house in the beautiful 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility where the house was used as a location for Mrs Jennings' Chelsea home. Both the exterior and the entrance hall were used in the film.

In the film, Mrs Jennings walks the staircase with authority, greeting her parrot on the way. Elinor climbs the staircase with Lucy Steele, discussing Marianne's rumoured wedding. 

The drawing room upstairs was also used in the film, but the upstairs rooms were closed for visitors. However, I enjoyed the display downstairs and remember seeing a similar exhibition at Fairfax House in York years ago.

The downstairs rooms of Mompesson House were decorated with greenery, ribbons, fruit and candles in the fashion of the late 18th and early 19th century. Fireplaces, shelves and windows were adorned with evergreens, such as holly and mistletoe, the most common Christmas decorations during the Georgian period. 

Fruit, such as pears and clove oranges made beautiful, aromatic decorations. 

There was also festive period food on display, with Christmas breakfast set in the Library.

A lavish spread of Dessert is set in the Drawing Room. 

                                                              Christmas pudding 

Fruit, cake and nuts

Bullet pudding, which actually involves a game. 

Parties and gatherings were hosted during the festive period, and card games were popular entertainment. 

At the end of Christmas, on the 12th Night, a beautifully decorated cake was served as the main highlight of the celebration. 

Christmas trees were not yet popular, becoming more widespread in the Victorian period. However, Princess Charlotte did have a tree similar to this one.

I was delighted to discover that the tree was decorated with familiar quotes from Jane Austen's books! Now there's an idea for us Austenites! 

The upstairs was closed for the time being, which only calls for another visit! The Christmas display continues for another two days until December 18th. 

Hope you have all had a lovely Jane Austen day. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Mrs Clay's Freckles Under Cosmetic Treatment

May I just reiterate once again how much I love living in Hampshire? One Austenesque event after another happening around me... so much so that I struggle to attend all of them!

Last week there was a talk at my local library, interestingly titled "Mrs Clay's Freckles", given by Annalie Talent - the Learning Officer at Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton. Persuasion being my favourite Jane Austen novel, I could immediately tell that the talk was about beauty in Jane Austen's time.

In the novel Persuasion, Mrs Clay is companion to Anne Elliott's sister, Elizabeth, who aspires to become Sir Walter Elliott's wife. The incredibly vain Sir Walter approves of Mrs Clay with the exception of her buck teeth and freckles, which he keeps remarking on in her absence. 

Did you know that mice fur was used to accentuate the eyebrows in the 18th Century? 

And that fresh air and exercise was considered to be the best blusher in the Regency era?

The talk, captivating and entertaining from the first moment, focused on beauty throughout the Georgian and Regency periods, with plenty of images, references from Jane Austen's books and letters, and interesting artifacts on display. Ms Talent compared the old and new concepts of beauty and the remarkable changes that happened in fashion and beauty during the turn of the 18th Century. 

Ms Talent showed several images of beauties of the Georgian era, demonstrating how important the application of makeup was during the period. The look of the time was very artificial, with extremely pale faces, highly rouged cheeks and powdered wigs being in vogue. 

The look was described in the 1780 by Jane's cousin, Eliza De Feuillide, who socialised within the French court circles. She wrote, "powder is generally worn, & in very large quantities, no one would dare to appear in the public without it, the Heads in general look as if they have been "dipped in a meal-tub". 

                                                                                                                                Powder puff and curling tongs

Cosmetic lotions were often damaging to health, requiring women to bleach their faces with lead, causing pockmarks and hair fall, sometimes ending up in untimely death due to blood poisoning, as happened to a widely admired beauty, Maria - Countess of Coventry, who died at the age of 27.

Dark eyebrows were all the rage, making the skin look paler. Mice were aplenty in houses and therefore the hide and fur of mice were used to blacken the eyebrows that very often had fallen off as a result of excessive use of lead. People also prepared their own concoctions to blacken their eyebrows, consisting of iron sulfate, binder gum and gall nuts (from trees) - this was comparable to using ink on your eyebrows, being similar to the recipe for ink that was written by Jane Austen's friend and housemate, Martha Lloyd, in her cookbook.

                                                          Glasses case, powder box, tweezers, beauty patch boxes and a powder puff. 

Beauty patches were popular in the period, partly as they helped disguise faults in the skin, such as pockmarks that have come about as a result of disease. However, fine ladies would only use one patch on their faces, several being the sign of a "loose woman". Patches were kept in intricately decorated patch boxes (below), which were sometimes bought as souvenirs from seaside resorts or given as gifts to one's lover.

Beauty patch boxes 

By the Regency period after the turn of the century, artificial looks gave way to a more natural ideal of beauty, as people no longer wished to associate themselves with the (largely deceased) French aristocracy. I described the changes in fashion here and here. Being "highly rouged" was no longer considered beautiful, as scorned by Jane Austen in 1801. She wrote about a Mrs Badcock, "She was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly and contentedly silly than anything else". Intellectuals, such as Rousseau, had been praising life "au naturel", and there was a shift towards Greek and Roman classical silhouettes. Hair was still artificially curled, but more natural makeup was preferred. Due to a tax on hair powder being introduced in 1795, powdered wigs were no longer popular.

People were also starting to realise how harmful cosmetics could be and it was recommended that one took the benefit of exercise outdoors to bring colour and exuberance to one's looks. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield "face glowing with the warmth of exercise", and Mr Darcy admires "the brilliancy which exercise had given her complexion" (ch. 7).

Likewise, Emma Woodhouse is the image of health and vitality; she has "the true hazel eye - and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion - oh, what a bloom of full health" (ch. 5), as opposed to Jane Fairfax, who is pale and has an air of ill health about her.

Dark eyes were indeed considered beautiful and, unaware of its dangers, belladonna was dropped into eyes to dilate one's pupils, which could make you blind.

How did people learn about fashion at the time? 

Women's magazines were popular, such as the Belle Assemblee, and ladies also peeked at the fashion plates from the Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce and Fashion, which were on display at the talk (see below). There were several adverts for cosmetics and clothing, such as stays, in the magazines, along with news (read: gossip). Quite often, adverts would be written in the form of poetry, which I thought, was quite a refreshing idea!

Fashion plates and musical notes

A ladies' magazine. 

So, if ladies no longer used lead to bleach their faces, how would one protect oneself from evils, such as freckles and tans? Of course, one wore protective clothing while outdoors, never being seen without a bonnet, gloves and a parasol when sunny. In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliott recommends that Mrs Clay use Gowlands Lotion, which gave a chemical peel and actually contained some mercuric chloride. The lotion was commonly used, along with more natural, homemade lotions, such as a mix of egg whites and fard or almonds and honey. Martha Lloyd has written recipes for various cosmetic lotions in her cookbook that used ingredients from the Austen ladies' garden, such as roses, beeswax and lavender. I believe that Jane Austen herself must have been in favour of these natural beauty treatments, especially while living in the country and having easy accessibility to natural ingredients. Perhaps she resorted to using Gowlands Lotion while living in Bath?

Now what was Jane Austen's take on all this? 

We know for a fact that Jane Austen herself was interested in fashion and beauty, making several references to fashion in her letters. We also know from her letters that she was amused by the excessive application of makeup and found it distasteful. Ms Talent aptly pointed out that Jane Austen was known always to wear a cap indoors from the age of around 33-34, when she moved to Chawton, a clear sign of early spinsterhood. 

She wrote as early as 1798, "I have made myself two or three caps to wear of evenings since I came home, and they save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing, which at present gives me no trouble beyond washing and brushing, for my long hair is always plaited up out of sight, and my short hair curls well enough to want no papering (curlers)". 

Jane Austen was certainly not vain although she appears to have had an appreciation for simple elegance. 

I thoroughy enjoyed and learnt so much from Ms Talent's highly entertaining and informative talk, full of humour and drama. I hope you enjoyed reading about beauty in Jane Austen's times!


Amy, H. (2015) The Jane Austen Files: A Complete Anthology of Letters and Family Recollections. Amberley Books. 
Black, M. & Le Faye, D. (2002) The Jane Austen Cookbook. McClelland and Stewart. s
Burne, P. (2014) The Real Jane Austen - A Life in Small Things. Harper Perennial. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Back from Bath!

This weekend was very special for me as I got to experience the Jane Austen Festival for the first time. Due to family commitments, I only had the chance to attend one day of the festival, but it was lovely to be part of the event and especially the most important part: the Grand Costumed Promenade. 

I really enjoyed the fact that the festival felt very communal and it seemed as if lots of people knew each other having returned year after year. There are tons of interesting events to choose from, but unfortunately I was too late in booking and most of the events were sold out. However, it was an amazing experience to dress up in period costume along with hundreds of other fellow Austenites, stroll along the streets so well known to Jane Austen, and to spend time at the Assembly Rooms where she used to attend balls.

The hustle and bustle at the Assembly Rooms must have been quite similar to how it was back in the day! Beautiful gowns, interesting hats and bonnets, in all manner of styles varying from late Georgian to late Regency and some with a modern twist. 

We set off in the rain, a sea of umbrellas moving ahead with tons of followers taking in and documenting the unusual sight. 

                                                                            Oui, c'est moi.

                                                            Hem six inches deep in mud, quite appropriate...

It was a quite a strange feeling being photographed while walking along the streets of Bath that day, with tourists clicking away at every opportunity and I even spotted the Mayor of London (Mr Khan) in the audience! 


We walked for well over an hour and then returned to the Assembly Rooms where there were some children dancing and a Regency Fayre with several stalls selling Regency clothes and accessories. 

There was a silhouette cutter, too, which proved very popular.

Luckily I found a stall selling all kinds of feather and I purchased a taller, more appropriate, white feather for my bonnet. 

Later in the afternoon, I returned to the Assembly Rooms to watch a short theatrical version of Pride and Prejudice. The theatrical was performed exceedingly well by only two actors, and was a very entertaining, hilarious take on my favourite novel, summarised in just 20 minutes!

Interesting wall art in the Cards Room. 

Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley and Mr Bennet all in one!

Marry Mr Darcy? Good heavens, no!

I hope to be back next year and catch many more interesting events in my beloved city of Bath...

Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Straw Bonnet

Displaying 33EA9785-4D71-47A5-9DE9-84B93CFEE7D5.JPG

Here's a glimpse of my little project for this week: a Regency bonnet. I don't think I'm particularly handy but I had to have one as I'm going to participate in the Jane Austen festival promenade tomorrow. I'm very excited as I've always wanted to go to the festival and now I will finally get the chance to use my Regency gown again (I've only ever used it once).

Not sure how authentic my bonnet looks, but it is a bonnet and it completes my outfit. Watch this space!