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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) is one of the literary ladies I'd most like to visit, if I could go back in time (apart from Jane Austen, of course). In particular, I'd like to do the 18th-century equivalent of an 'intervention' and free her from her father's overbearing critical influence.
Fanny (Frances) began writing in an age when it was considered unseemly for a lady to dabble in novel or play-writing, and when a teenager she burnt all her early writings, which is a great pity for posterity. Nevertheless, greatly daring, she published her first novel anonymously in 1778. Evelina was an overnight success, and four years later, Cecilia appeared. This novel about the trials and tribulations of an heiress probably inspired the final title of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In one scene a character says,'The whole of this unfortunate business...has been the result of pride and prejudice'.
However, Fanny's novel-writing career came to an abrupt halt when, following family pressure, she agreed to take a post in Queen Charlotte's household. She kept a diary, which is wonderfully evocative of the age. But the endless, boring routine of the royal court actually made Fanny ill, and eventually she resigned her position.
Fanny met the love of her life, General D'Arblay, shortly afterwards, and they married in 1793; they had a little boy the following year. Now restored to happiness, Fanny began work on a new novel, Camilla (1796); Jane Austen was one of the subscribers.
A real survivor, Fanny lived through the Napoleonic Wars (she was in Brussels during Waterloo), and famously endured a mastectomy without anaesthetic. After living to the grand old age of 87, she was buried at St Swithin's Church, Walcot, in Bath.
Jane Austen was a great admirer of Burney's works, and in a famous passage in Northanger Abbey, she defends the novel from its detractors: '"And what are you reading, Miss — ?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language'.

Engraving:Fanny Burney. Collotype after the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale, T.N. Foulis, 1910. Author’s collection. 
Photo: plaque commemorating Fanny Burney as St Swithin's Church, Walcot. © Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Love and Friendship Movie

Is a treat in store for Jane Austen fans? A movie of her novella, Lady Susan, is out now. Lady Susan is one of my favourite Austen works, not least because its eponymous anti-heroine is so unlike any other of Jane's characters in her more mature works. (It's believed that Jane probably wrote Lady Susan in her late teens). I haven't seen the movie yet, but the official website has a trailer, and the frocks and locations look lovely.
I have not been able to update my blogs for ages as I've been busy writing a new book, but I hope to resume normal service very soon and continue my literary theme on Jane Austen's predecessors as promised earlier this year.
Illustration: A satirical print of 1796 showing the latest fashions. Courtesy Library of Congress. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Pen Mightier Than The Pelisse?

In Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot seemingly mourns the disparity between women’s and men’s education, and women’s lack of representation in history and the arts: ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands’.

But in an age when society believed that a girl’s ultimate ambition should be a wife and mother, an increasing number of women (like Austen herself) took up their pens in the hope of earning some money of their own. In a letter to her brother Frank Austen in 1813, she told him of the success of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility: ‘I have now therefore written myself into £250 –which only makes me long for more' (worth approximately £16,000 in today's money).

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be taking a look at some of Austen’s predecessors and contemporaries who created a fresh role for themselves in society as authors. However, to avoid society's censure, like Austen, they often wrote under a cloak of anonymity. 

Frontispiece of a French edition of Persuasion, Jane Austen's 'La Famille Elliot' (1821) courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, 28 March 2016


Ladies expected their female domestics should be clean and tidily dressed in muslin (not lace) caps, cotton and stuff gowns and petticoats, sturdy shawls of demure colours, and straw bonnets when going outdoors. In Persuasion, Mrs Musgrove complained that her daughter-in-law Mary’s ‘nursery-maid... is always upon the gad, and...she is such a fine-dressing lady, that she is enough to ruin any servants she comes near.’

And in Mansfield Park, Mrs Price was discomposed if she saw her servant Rebecca 'pass by with a flower in her hat' when out walking on Sundays.

A good master or mistress ensured that their servants received good, plain, plentiful food, and paid their medical expenses if ill. Servants were permitted to visit their friends and relations occasionally; Sunday was usually the most convenient day.
Ladies took great care to select servants with good references, and if possible hired those recommended by friends or family. A careless or slovenly maid could cause havoc in a household.

In January 1802, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, 'We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side'.
Illustrations: 'High life below stairs'. George Cruikshank, 1799.
‘Work for the plumber’. Thomas Rowlandson, 1810.  Both courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Hugh Thomson illustration for Mansfield Park. Author's collection.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Mr Darcy Is Coming! Planning A Special Dinner

Mrs Elton with her housekeeper.

When planning a dinner or card party, hostesses set aside part of the day to organise menus with their housekeeper or cook. Emma’s new bride, Mrs Elton, complained: ‘I believe I was half an hour this morning shut up with my housekeeper.’ 
Mrs Elton and her pearls.
If only one course was served, the company was told ‘You see your dinner’ when they sat down to dine. But for a special dinner party, at least two courses were provided. When Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet invited Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy to a family dinner at Longbourn, she, ‘did not think anything less than two courses could be good enough for a man on whom she had such anxious designs, or satisfy the appetite and pride of one who had ten thousand a year.’

Perkins, 'Every Woman Her Own Housekeeper'.
All the dishes for the first course were placed on the table at the same time. Then the serving dishes were ‘removed’ for the second course, which was arranged in a similar fashion. Guests ate a little of what they fancy from the dishes closest to them, perhaps asking a servant to pass them a favourite dish, if wanted, from the far end of the table.

'The gentlemen did approach'.

Genteel hostesses dressed smartly though not over-grand, so that their guests did not feel inferior if only modestly attired; but for dinner parties, ladies and gentlemen normally wore full evening dress.
Charles Brock coloured illustrations for Emma, and black and white illustration for Pride and Prejudice, courtesy of Mollands.
A sample 3 course dinner for the month of March. John Perkins, Every Woman Her Own House-keeper, (London, 1796). Courtesy Google Books.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Dinner Time!

Dinner in the 1780s.

In Jane Austen’s day, dinner was a moveable feast, depending on whether you kept fashionable hours; country hours where normally earlier than in London. The haut ton did not dine until at least five or six o’clock, or even later. When Lady Newdigate (Hester Mundy) stayed at Stansted Park in 1795, she commented that: ‘The hours of ye family are what ye polite world w’d not conform to viz. Breakfast at 8½, dine at 3½, supper at 9 and go to bed at 10, but Everybody is at Liberty to order their own Breakfast, Dinner or Supper into their own Rooms and no questions ask’d.’
The Austen family dined at half-past three when living at Steventon Rectory in the 1790s. However, over Jane’s lifetime, their dinner hour changed. While staying with the Bridges family at Goodnestone in 1805, Jane mentions dining at four o'clock, so that they could go walking afterwards. Three years later, when the Austen ladies lived in Southampton, Jane noted in a letter, ‘We never dine now till five.’ During a visit to her brother Henry’s new residence in Henrietta St, London, Jane wrote to Cassandra (15 September 1813) that soon after five o’clock, shortly after her arrival, the family sat down to ‘a most comfortable dinner of soup, fish, bouilĂ©e, partridges, and an apple tart.’
Dessert time at the Ashmolean.
Following dinner, tea and cakes were normally served around seven, and the day ended with a light supper and wine (unless one had dined fashionably late). As the dinner hour got later and later, some people had a snack, perhaps some cold meat, in the early afternoon to fill the gap. By 1817 Sir Richard Phillips noted in his Morning’s Walk from London to Kew that the dinner hour of the polite world had ‘shifted to the unhealthy hours of eight or nine’ at night. 

Image © Sue Wilkes: A table set for dessert in the 1770s at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.