Another moment sufficed to explain the mystery. A dress of very elegant materials, but of very simple form, was drawn forth by the dainty hands of Mrs. Selby, and displayed before the wondering eyes of her mistress. It consisted of a very full short petticoat, the fabric of which it was composed being very rich satin, but the colour of that dark, sombre tint of which the homely duffle garments of the west-country peasants were generally made, before the high-pressure cotton-mills had caused all local peculiarities of costume to give place to their patterned calicos. The upper part of the dress was of very delicate cambric, and bore a picturesque approximation to the short-sleeved under-garment of the females of all lands.
But the most remarkable feature of the dress was a small red cloak, such as little Red Riding-Hood has made immortal throughout the world of Romance, but which has the more solemn stamp of historical renown accorded to it in the Duchy of Cornwall. The head-dress was a somewhat fantastical little black hat, fastened under the chin by a blue ribbon, while the dainty and diminutive black shoes, though the material was black satin, had buckles high up on the instep, and heels that marked a very remote period in the art of shoe-making, lint the whole dress, such as it was, would decidedly have required an interpreter, had it not been made familiar to the London world by a very popular picture recently exhibited, which bore in the catalogue the title of—”The Cornish Heroine.”
Mrs. Cuthbert certainly contemplated this dress with more surprise than satisfaction. She was by no means ignorant of the tradition which attributed the safety of the Cornish coast, at a moment of threatened invasion, to the imposing appearance of a multitude of red cloaks, so arranged as to make the wearers mistaken for cohorts of the stouter sex; but she could trace no connection between this old story, and her present position as the honoured mistress of a mansion favoured by the presence of the Sovereign.
-The days of the Regency, George the fourth; or, Town and country
By Frances Trollope, 1857
The cold winter day I popped into my favorite second hand bookstore (St. Mary’s Books) in the town I didn’t expect to find anything. I was out taking photos; I needed to thaw out my hands (any excuse). While combing the history section for Medieval knights I caught sight of the words “Mrs Hurst Dancing”. My brain didn’t even compute the smaller print on the spine. The size of the book suggested it contained lots of pictures. Being a curious wench, I wanted to know why someone would write a book about some married woman who danced. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the cover. There in my hands was a book I’d never heard of called (now that my brain bothered to read the subtitle) ‘Mrs Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes From Regency Life 1812-1823 Watercolours by Diana Sperling…’
I held my breath as I opened the cover to find the penciled price. It was only £6. I clutched it to my chest and laughed as I resisted dancing in the confined space. I flipped through a few pages and was enchanted. I quickly closed the book and decided it would be one of my Christmas presents which means I didn’t look at more than five of the 70 plates till Christmas day. If you love the Regency era, and you’ve never seen this book, you will want your own copy. Diana Sperling, the young woman painting scenes from her life, had a great sense of humor and clearly a love of the absurd. I had to share a few of the pictures. These aren’t even the best ones (though I include my single favorite). These few give a flavor of the rest. Diana was part of a wealthy family (her father was Lord of the Manor) who were happy and content regardless of what was going on outside their little world. The first painting introduces most of the main people in her paintings…
(The notes in italic are from the book and are written by Gordon Mingay) The family at dinner, around 1812/1813. At the head of the table sits Diana’s brother-in-law Henry Van Hagen, who had, it seems just arrived as the servant is taking his coat. On the left are her two brothers, Henry (Harry) John, the elder of the two, and Charles Robert Sperling; then comes her younger sister Isabella, and Diana herself. At the foot of the table, sitting on a sofa beside a birdcage apparently containing a parrot, is Mrs Sperling, Diana’s mother. With their backs towards us are (left to right) Mrs Van Hagen, Henry’s mother; Mr John Sperling, Diana’s father; and another sister Harriet Van Hagen, Henry’s wife, who appears to be feeding her dog Fairy with tidbits from the table. I love this picture…the mismatched chairs and the mother sitting on a settee at the table…with a bird next to her…so it wouldn’t get lonely? It’s so bizarre…I love it.