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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Offering of the Magi, Gentleman's Magazine, 1824.
Lady's Monthly Museum, 1798.
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers! I look forward to sharing more aspects of Jane Austen's world with you next year!
The illustration on the left shows full dress for December 1798 - a lovely gown for a Christmas ball!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A Regency Kissing Game!

If you attended a private party in Jane Austen's England, the fun was not necessarily confined to dancing, wining and dining. You might take your chances at whist, or enjoy a 'nice comfortable noisy game of lottery tickets' (as at Mrs Philips' home in Pride & Prejudice), or play some parlour games. If you lost when playing a game, you would be asked to pay a forfeit.
A lady might be asked to 'kiss a candlestick' held up high by a gentleman; when she tried to kiss it, the gentleman could steal the kiss for himself. 'Le Baiser a la Capucine' (kiss of the monkey) was more complicated. The gentleman and lady knelt on the floor, back to back, and had to try and kiss each other. Somehow one can't imagine the stately Mr Darcy performing Le Baiser.
If a lady was asked to 'kiss the person you love best without any one else knowing it', she would be kissed by several gentlemen in the room - a real penance if one of them was Mr Collins!

Le Baiser a la Capucine, engraving by Schenker, Le Bon Genre, c.1814. Author's collection.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

'A Tooth Amiss'

Charles Brock illustration for Emma.
A London dentist in the 18th century. 
If you had a ‘tooth amiss’, like Harriet Smith in Emma (published 200 years ago this year), you would consult a dentist (if in staying in town) or a ‘tooth-drawer’. Local barbers would pull out rotting teeth, too. 

But if living in the countryside, you may have had to resort to the local blacksmith to have your teeth extracted.
If you required new teeth, you could buy a set of the new ‘mineral’ (porcelain) teeth from France.

Or your dentist might equip you with ‘Waterloo teeth’ - dentures of human teeth extracted from the soldiers’ bodies strewn across the battlefield. 

Teeth were also harvested from corpses (the fresher the better) supplied by the ‘resurrection men’, as grave-robbers were jocularly known.

‘Resurrection men’ illegally dug up freshly buried corpses from graveyards to supply surgeons with bodies so that they could practise their dissection skills. Their depredations were so notorious that watchmen were employed to guard churchyards overnight. 

Watchtower, Eyemouth, Scotland.
To keep their teeth clean, Regency ladies used tooth-powder made from charcoal or coconut shells.‘Ashes of tobacco’ were said to ‘make the teeth white’, but were deemed ‘too indelicate’ for ladies’ use (Lady’s Magazine, September 1775).  
Toothpicks made from goose quills, or ivory, or precious metals like gold and silver helped to keep teeth clean after meals. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters were detained for some time at Gray’s (the jeweller’s) in Sackville St while gentleman Robert Ferrars hesitated over choosing a toothpick case: ‘At last the affair was decided.  The ivory, the gold, and the pearls, all received their appointment; and the gentleman having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the toothpick-case, drew on his gloves with leisurely care and … walked off with a happy air of real conceit and affected indifference’. 

Charles Brock illustration courtesy of Mollands. 'A London Dentist' courtesy Library of Congress.
Photo of Eyemouth watch tower © Sue Wilkes.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Dr Johnson's House

17 Gough Square

In 1755, twenty years before Jane Austen was born, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published. According to its preface, this mammoth undertaking rescued the English language, ‘hitherto neglected’ from the corruption of ignorance, and caprices of innovation’.
The parlour

We know from Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice of his sister that Dr Johnson was Jane’s favourite moral writer in prose. Northanger Abbey contains a well-known reference to Johnson and his Dictionary: Henry Tilney’s joking reproof to Catherine Morland. 

When Catherine (not the brightest of Austen’s heroines) discusses her favourite novel with her friend Eleanor Tilney and her brother, she asks: ‘Do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?’
The powdering closet in the parlour.
Henry replies: ‘The nicest: by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding’. 
Johnson's chair from the Cock Tavern.

‘Henry’, said Miss Tilney, ‘you are very impertinent. Miss Morland…the word “nicest”, as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way’.

The first floor.

The author in 18th century dress. Without the heels!
Like Jane Austen, I love Johnson’s wit and wisdom, and I was thrilled when I finally got a chance to visit his house at 17 Gough Square. It’s packed with memorabilia, portraits and prints, and a fabulous library of 18th century works. I even got a chance to dress up as an eighteenth-century lady! The wig was very hot, I assure you.  
The first floor.
Mrs Thrale's tea set.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Unique Church

St Chad's
During our exploration of Shrewsbury, we came across a most unusual church. St Chad's, built in 1792, is the only Grade I listed circular Georgian church in England.

The church, which is very beautiful inside, has circular pews and a splendid plaster ceiling.

St Chad's ceiling

John Simpson memorial.

Charles Darwin was baptised here on 15 November 1809.
There are several interesting monuments including a memorial to John Simpson, a master mason who worked on the Caledonian Canal, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and St Chad's.
Pews in St Chad's.

The circular design was actually a mistake because of a misunderstanding between the architect, George Steuart, and the church trustees.

The remains of the original church, Old St Chad's, can be seen near College Hill. This 13th century building suffered a catastrophic collapse in 1788, and it was decided a change of site was best. All photos © Sue Wilkes.

Old St Chad's

Monday, 5 October 2015

A Famous Coaching Inn

Assembly Room chandeliers.
Lion Hotel.
You never know what historic gems you may find when out exploring, and I was thrilled to discover a splendid Assembly Room in a famous coaching inn at Shrewsbury.

The Lion Hotel, formerly the Red Lion, dates back to at least the fifteenth century. The beautiful lion above the entrance, and the Assembly Room, were probably built in 1777.

According to John Newman, the wonderful plasterwork in the Assembly Room, in the style of the Adam brothers, is by local architect Joseph Bromfield.

Plaque on the Lion Hotel.

Detail of musicians' gallery.

Lion above front door.
In the early 19th century, Shrewsbury was an important halt on the London to Holyhead road, built by Thomas Telford. The Hotel has had many famous guests including William IV, Thomas de Quincey, and even (allegedly) a ghost!

It was very exciting to climb the elegant hotel staircase, open the huge doors into the ballroom, and imagine the dancers twirling in 'an irresistible waltz' like Emma Woodhouse enjoyed with Frank Churchill in Jane Austen's Emma.
Assembly Room.
All photos © Sue Wilkes.

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Great Undressed

Courtesy Library of Congress.

Traditionally, English fashion followed Parisian modes. The French Revolution (1789) overturned fashion as well as society and ladies abandoned the courtly styles of the ancien regime. They adopted a simple ‘Grecian’ or ‘classical’ look with bare arms, and gowns as straight as a wax candle. 
Lady's Monthly Museum, Dec 1798.

La Belle AssemblĂ©e (September 1807) recalled this startling change, led by the daring Mme Tallien of Paris: ‘Nakedness, absolute nakedness, and nothing but nakedness, was therefore seen at the play-houses, at the opera, at the concerts, routs, and in public walks as well as in private assemblies. When one lady left off a fichue [a piece of linen pinned or tied across the bodice], another laid aside a petticoat.  When one uncovered her arms, another exposed her legs or thighs.  Had the progress of stripping continued a little longer...French ladies would in some months have reduced themselves to be admired, envied, or blamed, as the Eves of the eighteenth century’. Mme Tallien’s rival, Mme de Beauharnois, wore ‘flesh coloured satin pantaloons, leaving off all petticoats’ under a ‘clear muslin gown’. 

White muslin gowns were a fashion staple: the elegant Miss Tilney in Austen’s Northanger Abbey ‘always wears white’.Dresses with trains were worn for morning and full dress: heroine Catherine Morland and her friend Isabella ‘pinned up each other’s trains for the dance’. However, a few years later trains fell out of favour even for full dress as gowns became shorter.
Courtesy Library of Congress. Note the short gowns.

The train’s disappearance had an unfortunate side-effect because of the diaphanous gowns in fashion. One's bottom was practically on show, so fundamentally modest ladies wore an ‘invisible petticoat’ to hide their nether regions.  This was a band of very finely knitted material, tightly fitted so that it did not slip down, but it made walking difficult. Luckily by the winter of 1807 trains trimmed with broad lace reappeared for evening dress, although petticoats were now so short that ladies' ankles could be seen by admiring gentlemen.