Monday, April 27, 2015

In and Out of Jane Austen's Window

Today's post is a year old, brought from my other blog. It was written by a great fan of Jane Austen's work, a good friend to many of us, now deceased.

by M.M. Bennetts

We do love our period costume dramas, don't we?

I mean, what could be more restful than slipping back into a slower age, a more peaceful idyllic age, when horses clip-clopped their ways across the country, the corn was green in the fields, they wore elegant clothes that looked soft and weren't all black, and society was stable and one found one's Captain Wentworth or John Thornton in a garden of yellow roses? Or driving a high-perch phaeton with scarlet-wheels, wearing an eight-caped greatcoat, with a team of matched greys?

And that must be how it was, mustn't it, because Austen for one never mentions a world beyond that charming and charmed existence, does she?

But here's the thing, we tend to forget that Austen was actually--and this may come as a bit of a shocker--quite an experimental novelist. That is to say, without exaggerating, in many ways, she must be credited as one of the inventors of the novel.

And when she was putting quill to paper, there were no rules. Such a thing as a how-to-write-a-novel manuals hadn't even been imagined! She wrote what she chose. No one was there to tell her differently. And if she decided not to write about the realities of her existence and the daily life about which she knew everybody already knew, who was there to criticise or complain?

(And let's be honest, those gardens, those carriages, those clothes and the great houses do make for excellent cinematography.)


One of the great surprises/shocks to me as I've researched the period of the early 19th century in England has been how many people walked everywhere. And no, I'm not just talking about the working classes and rural poor. I'm talking everyone. We think they had horses coming out of the wazoo and of all those photogenic carriages. They actually walked.

There's an account of a young doctor from Ireland who was training in Edinburgh and when the peace came in 1814 with Napoleonic France, he was accepted for further study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

How did he get to France? He had the money. So did he take the stage or mail coach to Dover? No, he bought himself a stout pair of boots and he walked there. 960 miles in six weeks. And as he walked the length of Britain, he wasn't alone. Never alone. Not by a long chalk.

Every road and pikeroad upon which he trudged--about twenty miles a day--from north to south was chock-a-block with of every description of person: itinerant labourers from every county--hedgers and ditchers, tinkers, drovers with their flocks, ballad-singers, harvesters, preachers, pedlars...

And not only but also, during the early 19th century, when Britain was on a full-war footing against Napoleonic France, a great deal of the training of the thousands of soldiers and militia included marching hundreds of miles from county to county.

Imagine it...

Thus our young doctor encountered on every not-quiet lane, a press of people walking, always walking. Because everyone, unless they were wealthy or very fortunately placed, had no other option.

Yes, there were coaches, but they were expensive. And the early 19th century was a period of immense inflation due to the war (taxes--war costs so much more than anybody really wants to contemplate). Also the weather which was abominable--they were in the midst of a mini-Ice Age though they didn't know it--with failed harvest after failed harvest, sending the cost of food sky-high.

And betwixt and between this mass of trudging humanity, there were of course the farmers and their carts bringing their produce to the nearest market town or perhaps to London where the prices would be better.

But again, it's not like in the films--carts were employed to transport heavy loads--everything from coal to produce to road-building materials either long or short distances. The horse--usually a heavy cob or pack-horse pulling these carts--walked at foot-pace, no clip-clopping merrily, straining on the inclines (and England is covered with hills and Downland) with their masters walking alongside, one hand on the harness and in the other a whip or goad.

(Walking was also the new Romantic pursuit of choice. It wasn't just William Wordsworth who bought himself, yes, a pair of stout boots, to walk in and much admire the hills of Cumbria. Viscount Castlereagh, husband to one of Almack's patronesses and a powerful politician in his own right as Foreign Secretary, loved nothing better than buying a pair of stout boots and walking the hills and peaks of Northumberland whenever he could get away.)

(I'm still working out how they dried out their sopping wet clothes after all the rain--probably every house and inn from John o'Groats to Land's End stank of wet, drying wool all year long! And wet dog.)

But what of inside?

Those candlelit scenes look lovely on-screen, don't they? So flattering and soft--everyone looks great. But, for example, reading by one candle or oil lamp is not so great. And if that's the only light in the one room where everyone is gathered because that's the only room with a fire in the grate, well, that's pretty dark.

Also, what is so easy to forget is just how far north Great Britain lies on the lines of latitude. During the winter months, darkness falls (earlier in the north) by half past four. Daylight comes trickling in somewhat eight-ish. So there are a great many unlit by sunlight hours...And again, due to inflation and the war, the price of candles was sky-high. So one economised. As certainly Miss Austen and her mother and sister would have done at Chawton.

But another thing that I didn't really recognise until one day a few years ago when I was visiting the mediaeval manor owned by the National Trust, Cotehele. Now this house is just a mediaeval beauty! But it is unlit by modern technology. And on this particular day, a black thunderstorm came over the Tamar Valley and obliterated all light--and they are a common feature of this island.

I was in this oak panelled hallway and it was obsidian as a coal shaft! So what if one were myopic in an age without good eyeglasses? (Servants?) Well, one would be bumping into everything! And then I understood even more--how did the Puritans cope--and no wonder our ancestors loved colour and light clothes--it meant they could at least make out the other figures in the room in all that darkness.

Moreover, all those single candles, all those candelabra on the tables, above each on the ceiling will be stained with a roundel of black soot, and somebody had to clean those in an age when the cleaning products did not come from the grocers, they came from hartshorn or other natural ingredients and one made these oneself.

Finally, I'd just like to say a word about our perception of the aristocratic and gentry women of the age. We look at Eliza Bennet and imagine her bountiful happiness at taking on the role of mistress of Pemberley.

But we too often have no clue what that must have entailed. A big house, such as Pemberley or Chatsworth or any of the other great houses, required a mistress who was trained to the position of basically running a large hotel to put it bluntly. And we know, for example, from the biographies of several ladies of the late 18th and early 19th century, that this was at the best of times a struggle. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, really had her work cut out for her when she took on Chatsworth--and she was brought up to the job.

Amongst the responsibilities of the mistress of such a place was the care and oversight of all the indoor servants--that might be upwards of 30 people-- including dressing them. (Except for the very grand houses and aristocratic families, servants of this period did not wear livery; they wore serviceable clothes, all of which were provided...brown or grey being a popular choice as it didn't shew the dirt.)

These ladies were also responsible for approving all menus, for ensuring that everyone in the household was fed, and when anyone on the estate was sick looked after. She was also expected to supervise her children's education, thus she needed a degree of education herself. She also managed, as it were, the stream of guests--bearing in mind this is a rural society, so one invites one's friends to visit and stay--and that includes their servants as well--so more people and activities to manage, often for weeks or months.

(Imagine the amount of bed linen such a house must have--and just how labour-intensive the washing thereof! And no Fairy powder neither!)

Oh, and there was the absolute necessity of providing that necessity--an heir and to spare.

But if our lady's husband traveled a great deal, was in the army or Royal Navy, or preferred London society to hers, our lady is at home, managing not the just the household, but the estate and farm as well. Which on the one hand meant that they really hadn't the time to get up to anything but paying taxes, the servant's wages, overseeing the income and vast expenditure and hiring in the local builders to mend the leaking ceiling after that last thunderstorm...

And yet these women did more. Often, we know from their letters that it was they who were responsible for restoring, rebuilding, adding on wings and furnishing these glorious houses--not the men. (One of my favourite women for this is Theresa Parker, mistress of Saltram.)

Amazing, isn't it all? Different from the images we cherish from our favourite 19th century novels and costume dramas, perhaps. But you know, I do feel that the real thing is just so breathtakingly wondrous, a panoramic of this fantabulous world of ours 200 years ago, I kind of prefer those many roads upon which all those stories are walking...


(M.M. Bennetts was a specialist in early 19th century Britain and the Napoleonic wars and wrote two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, both of which are set amidst the world of walkers and wonders...and are available at Amazon.)


  1. It's the candlelight that impresses me. We had a power outage, and I was in the kitchen trying to prepare dinner by the light of a candle. It's hard enough chopping the onion, but trying to make sure it doesn't burn? No wonder they ate dinner so early. The cook needed daylight to see what she was doing!

    1. Apparently your stove is not electric! Congrats on that. :)

  2. Charming post. True, we romanticize the past from the novels we've read, but it would be so hard to live that way again. Perhaps what I might enjoy out of it all would be the walks - although not the mileage you mentioned. :-)

    1. It would be hard for us to go back. They saw it as normal life, though. It was healthier in some ways and not in others.

  3. I've often wondered about all that laundry - sheets and towels and clothes, and no washer in sight!
    Fun post.

    1. MM's posts were always fun. Have you read her blog? It is titled M.M. Bennetts.

    2. Yes, it's wonderful. Never knew the lady, but wish I'd had the pleasure.

    3. Yes, it's wonderful. Never knew the lady, but wish I'd had the pleasure.

  4. I wonder if Miss Austen had so many candles in her stories because she wished for them so ardently herself.

  5. Love this! Miss her terribly, but loved reading this! Thank you.

    1. I'm glad you found the post, Jenni, and got to "hear her voice" again.


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