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Austenland, the Novel: A Review

9781596912854_custom-0253823464e253deda04e02d8445d304f1b4c7e5-s6-c30Having spent several years working in the children’s departments of various libraries, I considered myself fairly familiar with the authors of young adult fiction. I was surprised, therefore, to find Shannon Hale, famous for her adapted and created fairy tales, venturing into Jane Austen’s fiction. A giant, though not far-fetched, leap in my mind. After all, aren’t Austen’s novels ‘fairy tales’ for adults?

On opening Austenland, I found that Ms Hale had, with the style perfected through years of captivating storytelling in imaginary countries, managed to create her own perfect Austen inspired world—or at least, practically perfect in every way, if one can believe the brochure…

The Austenland novels (so far there are two) feature an old English estate that has been transformed into a Regency paradise (think Regency Houseparty on a grand, uncompromising scale). Run by the inscrutable Mrs. Wattlesbrook, it is far from being a Jane Austen theme park, as the title may imply, and those fortunate enough to be able to purchase a visit are able to fully immerse themselves in Regency life (no 21st century trappings allowed) surrounded by upper class, Georgian-style opulence and a cast of actors charged with meeting your every need and making your dreams come true (Capitalist investors, take note! Why has Austenland not *really* been created?)

The story centers on Jane Hayes, a New York City native, who finds herself not only in need of a vacation, but also the recipient of an all expenses paid trip to Austenland, as stipulated in her Great-Aunt’s will. Jane, who carries a torch for Mr. Darcy in the guise of Colin Firth, is reluctant to go, and despite her passion for Jane Austen, finds it difficult, after all, to leave all traces of modern life behind.


Sometimes, she watched Pride and Prejudice.
You know the BBC double DVD version, starring Colin First as the delicious Mr. Darcy, and that comely, busty English actress as the Elizabeth Bennet we had imagined all along. Jane watched, and rewatched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s a zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry. . .Ah!
– Austenland

Continue reading Austenland, the Novel: A Review

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The Well Ordered Nursery

Life in the Regency nursery

The Well Ordered Nursery

Many children, like Jane Austen herself, were sent to live with a wet nurse in the village for the first few years of life. These women were chosen for their patience and loving nature, as it was believed that the mother’s milk was endowed with the characteristics of its bestower. This arrangement seems to have done little harm—at least among the Austen children, who received early parental contact in the frequent visits of the Reverent and Mrs Austen. Brook John, Elizabeth Austen Knight’s eleventh child was not sent out, but rather received the ministrations of a wet nurse in his Godmersham home ‘four times daily’. (Elizabeth was taken suddenly ill and died a few days after her son’s birth.)

The overall care of the infant was superintended by the household’s head nurse, and if the mother herself suckled the child, the head nurse was by her side. During the first month of life, the child was bathed twice daily with warm water. During the second month it was advised that the water be gradually cooled to reach ‘spring’ water temperature. After bathing, the baby received a dusting of hair powder. Contrary to the earlier custom of swaddling, infants’ legs were now given as much freedom as possible. All the while the head nurse kept a vigilant eye over her charge for any symptoms of illness or infection. The diaries of Fanny Austen Knight record the usual flu, colds, mumps and whooping cough passing through the family at Godmersham Park; none of their illnesses was particularly sever. For an infected finger, Fanny received ‘electrification’, which, remarkably, appears to have been effective. She also mentions younger brothers and sisters recovering from inoculations for the cow pox. Their dental work—usually the extraction of teeth—was dealt with in London; Jane Austen mentions taking her nieces and nephews to see the dentist. Ill health was managed in the first instance by the housekeeper and cook, who prepared home remedies for complaints as varied as ‘the Staggers’, ‘swell’d neck’ and ‘Bite of a Mad Dog’. Recipes for a range of medical treatments were given in most cookery books of the period. Thereafter, the patient was under the management of the surgeon, the physician, the apothecary or, lastly, the unlicensed practitioner. Hartfield, in Emma, like most small towns or large villages, was typical in having only one apothecary.

Older children in the nursery were more the concern of the undernurse, while the nursery maid saw to the housework of the room that comprised the nursery, keeping everything clean and neat and the fire lit. The under-nurse awakened the children at seven, bathed and dressed them, and sent them off to breakfast at the nursery table, ‘in the most peaceful and orderly manner’, advised The Compleat Servant (1825). After breakfast the children were taken out for air and exercise. On returning, their hands and feet were washed, and afterwards they joined the governess in the school room for lessons. The governess, whose high office was the education and guidance of young ladies and gentlemen, was advised not to make herself too familiar with the domestic servants, and ‘to conduct herself in such a manner, as never to render an apology necessary for her presence at family parties.’ She taught her pupils English, literature, poetry, letter-writing, French, Italian (the language of music), arithmetic, geography, popular sciences and religion, as ‘no young persons should have these accomplishments and sources of knowledge withheld from them.’ Lessons lasted until dinner in the late afternoon, which for children was always taken in the nursery. After dinner, if the weather was good, the children might again have outdoor activities; otherwise they amused themselves with dancing, skipping-rope and dumbbells—all important for inducing exercise—or games such as chess and cards. Jane Austen entertained her visiting nephews with bilbocatch, spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums and cards. In the evening another session of instruction was undertaken, usually a combination of scholastics and art. It was the governess’s further responsibility to teach needlework (both plain and ornamental), dancing, drawing, and the first lessons on the piano forte, before this task was taken over by the music master. Bed was promptly at eight o’clock.

Excerpted from Jane Austen: In Style, written by Susan Watkins and photographed by Hugh Palmer. Published by Thames & Hudson Ltd in 1996, it is now out of print, but well worth tracking down. ISBN-10: 0500279004. ISBN-13: 978-0500279007

Portrait: Mrs Robert Shurlock and her daughter Ann, painted by her father, John Russell.

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Gentlemen’s Morning Attire

Gentlemen’s Morning Attire

It is hard to imagine, what, for example, Mr. Darcy would have worn to breakfast or what Mr. Bennet would have thrown on when awakened by the express rider with the news of Lydia’s elopement.
Early nightshirts, like the shift or chemise worn by women, would have been the shirt that had been worn all day long, tucked into pants or breeches.
This long shirt also filled the role of underwear for men, as drawers and the advent ofmodern day skivvies were still decades away from popular acceptance.

When dashing off ot breakfast, or lounging in the morning, however, one would not simply lie about in just a nightshirt. Nightgowns, a far cry from what we think of now, were worn like bathrobes are now, over the undergarments, providing a measure of modesty. These gowns could be heavy or lightweight depending on how warm they were meant to be. The Victorians used dressing gowns in a similar way. Surprisingly, many familiar Victorian characters, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Sherlock Holmes, come to mind dressed simply in nightclothes and a “nightgown” or dressing gown.

The following ensembles, part of the collection held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, give an idea of what Mr. Darcy’s nightgown would have looked like. The captions are taken from Four Hundred Years of Fashion, courtesy of Cathy Decker’s Regency Fashion Page.

“Double-Breasted Nightgown, quilted blue satin, English, late 18th early 19th century The matching waistcoat fronts are stitched to the inside of the gown. Pocket holes are let into the side seams at hip level. There is a pleat at the centre of the back.

Nightgowns of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were acknowledged items of informal dress worn over the shirt and breeches or trousers for comfort and warmth. Made in a variety of styles and often of exotic textiles, their cut and style was influenced by clothes and textiles brought back to Europe by traders of the English, French and Dutch East India Companies in the 17th and 18th centuries”

This lovely quilted robe would be the perfect thing to dress a regency romance hero in for an informal breakfast. The hero could button in the waistcoat and add breaches if going outside the bedroom to eat. The versatility of the nightgown to serve as what we might call “lounge wear” today is not something men still have–in fact, men today would never have a “nightgown,” only a nightshirt! The female equivalent would be morning dress.

“Nightgown, cream flannel with black wool tufts imitating ermine … [English] There are two pocket holes let into the side seams set close to the centre back pleat. The buttons are covered in linen. The edges trimmed with cream silk twill … [This nightgown was originally owned by] Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), founder of Coutts Bank …. `Cossack’ Trousers, unbleached linen [English] … The trousers are cut full, tapered to the ankles, and kept taut by buttoned straps under the instep. They are attached to a deep waistband and evenly gathered at the front. `Cossack’ trousers were introduced after 1814 when the Czar came to London for the peace celebrations and brought Cossack soldiers with his entourage” (149-50).

The nightgown is a type of dress men no longer have, sort of a combination of lounge wear, pajamas, and bathrobe. The fact that the nightgown is imitation ermine is interesting since men rarely wear fur today. While her husband wore such an outfit as this, a lady would probably wear morning dress.

Cathy Decker has created the Regency Fashion Page which catalogs fashion plates from 1790-1820. These plates include full color photographs of the original plates as well as descriptive notes. Her page has been recommended by the History Channel.

Four Hundred Years of Fashion
by Madeleine Ginsburg (Author), Avril Hart (Author), Valerie Mendes (Author), Natalie Rothstein (Editor)
List Price: £19.99
ISBN: 1851773010

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