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The Regency Fashions of Childhood

the fashions of childhood

The Regency Fashions of Childhood

While children are not usually thought of in the world of high fashion, with his debut of The Repository of Fashion… in 1809, Rudolph Ackerman provided modern readers with a record of what was worn by even the smallest of the Ton during the 20 years his magazine was published.

As fashion evolved during the Regency, and figure hugging corsets gave way to loose, diaphanous gowns, so too, the fashions of childhood became simpler and while they still mimicked the clothes of their elders, a new style of short dresses and easy to wear pants and jackets came into vogue with overtones that can be seen even in today’s children’s wear.

What Ackermann did, in showing his “models” engaged in many different types of activities with their children, was prove motherhood to be fashionable- or at least something not to be hidden away and relegated to the attic nurseries of country estates. In doing so, he also left a legacy of the fashions of childhood unequalled by any other period source.

Aside from fashion plates and art prints, the only other visual reference to the time that we have are portraits from the period. These, too clearly show relation between the changing attitudes in parenting and clothing styles over Jane Austen’s lifetime. Even a cursory glance at those below will prove the point.

The first, by Joshua Reynolds, shows Margaret, Lady Spencer and her daughter Georgiana (later to be the famous Duchess of Devonshire) in 1759, a few years before Jane Austen’s birth in 1775. You can see the young girl is dressed almost as a miniature adult and, small as she is (about 2), stands stock still.

In 1787, Reynolds would paint the Marsham children. Jane Austen would have been 11 or 12 at the time– about the same age as the oldest girl in the picture. Here the children are given at least some childlike pastimes to entertain them while being painted and their clothes show the shift in fashion that came with the French Revolution. Though still mimicking the adults, their styles are much more comfortable and easy to wear.

A few years later, in 1794, Thomas Lawrence painted the famous Pinkie portrait. Here, a young girl stands with her back to the sea. The setting is out of doors, like the former, but much more casual in style, as both parenting and fashion had become. Her gown reflects the new “Regency Style” similar to the one seen in The Rice Portrait, which some believe to be Jane Austen, painted in 1790.

A portrait of The Fluyder Children painted in 1805 and a later one of Mrs. Henry Baring and her Children (1817) shows the complete turnover from stiff and formal attire, parenting and painting styles, to loose, playful and involved.

Many thanks to Heather Laurence for supplying high resolution scans of fashion plates, especially the fashions of childhood, in her collection. See more of her work and collection on her site, Solitary Elegance.


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Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons a review by Heather Laurence

Castle of Wolfenbach

The Castle of Wolfenbach – Eliza Parsons

“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”
–Northanger Abbey


If you were recently introduced to Northanger Abbey through the ITV film, or if you’ve already read the book, you may be curious to know more about the Gothic novels Catherine and Isabella planned to read together.

The Castle of Wolfenbach was written by Eliza Parsons and published in 1793. Our heroine is a “wretched Matilda” as per Henry Tilney’s Gothic pastiche, and we meet her in flight from her lecherous uncle, seeking refuge in the suitably ancient and haunted Castle of Wolfenbach. As in Northanger Abbey, Matilda explores a forbidden wing of the castle, and makes the very discovery Catherine Morland had hoped for: the horrifying mystery of the missing Countess of Wolfenbach. But when Matilda’s uncle tracks her down, can she escape his despicable intentions? Will she ever discover the secret of her parentage? And what must and will happen to throw a suitable hero in her way?

Other Northanger touches include Mademoiselle de Fontelle and the young widow Mrs. Courtney, who feign friendship with Matilda while slandering her and poaching her beau – these two could be older sisters of Isabella Thorpe. Matilda’s true friend, Adelaide de Bouville, is a modest and cultivated young lady (not unlike Eleanor Tilney) who just happens to have an unmarried older brother. And our valiant hero, Count de Bouville, makes a desperate port-to-port chase around the Mediterranean in pursuit of Matilda, who is imprisoned on a Turkish pirate ship (!). Henry Tilney got off easy: he only had to ride as far as Fullerton.

The Castle of Wolfenbach is much shorter than Ann Radcliffe’s novels, and does not indulge in the lengthy descriptions of the picturesque which may make The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian slow reading. Melodramatic plot and characters and the heavy-handed anti-French, pro-Protestant English propaganda make Radcliffe seem moderate by comparison, but these excesses provide a lively (and snark-worthy) read: for example, Matilda spends the book alternating between fainting and crying, and when reunited with her long-lost mother, they simultaneously sob and swoon. (The apple didn’t fall far from that tree.) It’s easy to imagine Jane Austen, who warned against fainting fits in Love and Freindship, having a laugh over this overly sentimental scene.

Castle of WolfenbachValancourt Books, an independent press based in Chicago, is in the process of publishing a complete set of the “horrid” novels on Isabella Thorpe’s list. Many of these books have been out of print for several years, and until they were described in Michael Sadleir’s 1927 essay, The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen, there was some question whether Jane Austen had simply made up the titles. Now a few editions can be found with some detective work, but Valancourt’s series is readily available and especially useful to Jane Austen fans:

I’m in the process of reading Valancourt’s “Northanger Novels” and have found the editor’s notes very interesting and useful. Notes typically include the author’s background, discussion of each novel’s contribution to Gothicism, and how it applies to Northanger Abbey. To date, Valancourt Books has published The Italian, Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, and the most recently published Necromancer of the Black Forest. Also available: The Veiled Picture by Ann Radcliffe, a chapbook reduction of The Mysteries of Udolpho for those who are wild to know what lurks behind the black veil, but perhaps are put off by the length of the original. Valancourt Books is a treasure trove of rare and previously out-of-print Gothic goodies, and their web site is well worth a look.

Northanger Abbey is a lively, entertaining novel in its own right; knowledge of the Gothic tradition is not at all necessary to enjoy it. As I work my way through Isabella’s list, my appreciation grows: I admire Jane Austen’s ability to pack so many rich, clever references into such a concise and elegant package.

List Price: £8.99

Publisher: Valencourt Books

ISBN-10: 0977784169

ISBN-13: 978-0977784165


Like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, Heather Laurence enjoys country walks and horrid novels. Her web site Solitary Elegance is best known as a resource for all Northanger Abbey-related radio plays, stage plays, and screenplays. She also writes for AustenBlog and lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and two sons.

This review orginally appeared on Austenblog. Used with kind permission.