Archive for the ‘People in History’ Category

Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine of France (1773), by François-Hubert Drouais.

Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine of France (1773), by François-Hubert Drouais.

What immediately springs to your mind when the name Marie Antoinette is mentioned?

Pretty? Fashionable? Selfish? Expensive?

She is often remembered as the most famous Queen of France. Sometimes even as the Cause of the French Revolution, with that infamous and outrageous (and untrue) quote “if they [the poor people of France] don’t have bread, let them eat cake”, which had been circulated about other foreign princesses throughout the eighteenth century. Even more graphically (and literally) she could be remembered as The Head of the French Revolution.

There have been movies that have depicted Marie Antoinette as an extravagant, shallow, and flighty Queen, a spendthrift, and even a bit mentally unstable. And she was portrayed in an even more derogatory light in the contemporary press of eighteenth century France. However, it is interesting to ponder what she was like as a person, and particularly how she was known by those closest to her.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (year).

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (2002).

Antonia Fraser’s book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, explores a very personal account of this well known woman, using first hand accounts of those people who knew her best and most intimately. This is an insightful account of Marie Antoinette The Person, rather than the more public figure of Marie Antoinette The Queen.


Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the fifteenth child (of sixteen) born to the Emperor and Empress of Austria, and as one of the many archduchesses of the realm was destined to make a marriage alliance for the good of her country.

However, because she was the last female child born to the Royal family and because she had seven older sisters whose responsibility it was to also make important political marriages, her own importance in making a political alliance for her empire was not initially uppermost in the minds of her parents.

During her childhood, Marie Antoinette was often left alone with her younger siblings to play and it was not until she was older that her mother discovered she had a remarkably poor education by royal standards. She later ascribed her inability to concentrate on matters of the state (surely a task that is necessary to a Queen) as being due to an inadequately supervised childhood.

A brief summary of the lives of Marie Antoinette's sisters. There were four other daughters who did not survive infancy.

A brief summary of the lives of Marie Antoinette’s sisters. There were four additional daughters who did not survive infancy.

Due to several cruel twists of fate, four of her older sisters died, became ill or were permanently disfigured, which prevented them from marrying. One of her sisters, Maria Christine, married her second cousin for love, which left only three of the sisters to make marriage alliances for the Austrian Empire. In the end, Maria Antonia (as she was christened) was married to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI. In short, of all of her sisters she had made the most illustrious match, one day to be Queen of the powerful nation of France, yet she had the least preparation for it.

Preparation for Marriage

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI was always going to be fraught with difficulties, particularly when you examine the ways in which they had both been prepared for their positions.

They are born to obey, and must learn to do so in good time.

Maria Theresa on her daughters (1756)

Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, held a firm view that a wife, and more particularly a Queen, should be deferent and submissive to her noble husband. In this way she could endear herself to him and then – in return – he would be likely to love, adore and trust her. In the Empress’s opinion, everything depended on the wife.

Everything depends on the wife, if she is willing, sweet and amusante.

Maria Theresa in a letter to Marie Antoinette

However, despite her sermons on how it should be done, she offered her daughters a very different model of reality in the form of herself. Maria Theresa, while displaying respect and love for her husband, was anything but meek and subservient. She was strong in her ideas and decisive in her plans. She would spend hours at her state papers while her much more placid husband went hunting.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes, by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775).

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes, by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty (1775). Image source: Wikipedia.

Marie Antoinette did not share this strong personality with her mother. Instead, as a child she was pretty and graceful, but also compassionate, maternal, soft-hearted and eager to please. Upon her marriage and removal to France, one cannot help feeling sorry for Marie Antoinette as she received instructions from her mother on how she should be submissive, obedient, never introducing new customs to the French court, but following the lead of others and making herself agreeable to them. Yet in other letters the contradictory, and even harsh, missives flowed. She should not go riding with her husband, although he had asked her to; she should strive to share a bedroom (and bed) with her spouse, even though it was not the practice in Versailles; she should exert more influence on her husband in matters of the state, for the good of her home country.

You are a stranger and a subject; you must learn to conform; […] you must not seem to dominate […] you know we are subjects of our husbands and owe them obedience.

Maria Theresa to her daughter Amalia on her marriage

So Marie Antoinette began her role as the Dauphine of France with what surely must have been a great deal of confusion as to what was expected of her.

Louis Auguste

Likewise, Louis Auguste (1754-1793) had received his own particularly woeful preparation for his eventual position as king and husband. At the time of his birth his grandfather, Louis XV, was king and Louis Auguste was in line for the throne after his father, his oldest brother, and his second brother (who died in infancy just before Louis was born). However, tragedy continued to haunt the family with the death of the eldest brother in 1761, and of the father in 1765, after which the eleven-year-old Louis Auguste became the new Dauphin of France.

His confidence as the future king had already been eroded upon the death of his eldest brother, whom he was unfavourable compared to by the Governor of the Children of France. The resulting feelings of inadequacy for his new role were compounded by his clumsiness, weight problems, and difficulties participating in the court life at Versailles. In the face of this, his favourite and frequent retreat was hunting. These circumstances made the contrast between the current king and the future king very stark, as Louis XV was – in looks and personality – the sort of king that Louis Auguste could never be.

To further complicate Louis’ marriage to, and relationship with, Marie Antoinette, he had been warned in his childhood of Austrian archduchesses and their predilection for domination. This domination over a head of state by a foreign woman was something that always needed to be resisted, and this lesson had the unfortunate later consequence of denying the already unconfident, indecisive and uncertain King Louis XVI of an understanding ally, that of his very tender-hearted and kind (but not domineering) Queen.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution, where the French people overthrew the aristocracy in an attempt to change the way the country was governed, was the result of the complex interrelationship of many factors within and around France during the eighteenth century. One of these factors was the relationship between the royal family and the French people, which had become increasingly strained towards the end of the century.

After examining the backdrop of the King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, it seems apparent that they were possibly both ill-equipped to deal with the situation that confronted them.

Louis XVI was far from firm or decisive, but this was a time when both firmness and decisiveness was required. He struggled to stand up to the aristocracy who refused to pay taxes and whose claims on the state treasury were bankrupting it. He also struggled to make decisive decisions that would have a positive impact on the issues that the French people were dealing with, such as food shortages and Enlightenment ideals.

Marie Antoinette (1783), painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

Marie Antoinette (1783), painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Likewise, Marie Antoinette struggled to know how to help her husband overcome his weaknesses. Her husband’s unwillingness to listen to her advice contributed to this, but her lack of early education regarding political affairs made it hard for her to concentrate and learn in this environment.

The French state had been so eroded during the course of Louis XV’s reign that it would have taken an expert hand to guide France to better times, and unfortunately the two hands that guided it seemed to lack the qualities to make their reign successful.

This book provides a fascinatingly detailed and in-depth description of Marie Antoinette’s life in its entirety, and attempts to paint a realistic picture of who she really was. I highly recommend it!

Note: All quotes are obtained from Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser.

Related Posts

Farewell, My Queen

The Case for a Dictator

Sources and Relevant Links

First image source: Marie Antoinette in purple – by Versailles and More

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

Marie Antoinette’s sisters, by History and Other Thoughts

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I always find it interesting to read about different women’s experiences throughout history. During each stage of history, there is always a backdrop by which to understand the people of a particular time. This backdrop includes social, economical, political, and cultural factors that all roll together to influence what people believe and how people behave. And the key to understanding people properly is to understand their “backdrop”.

The Weaker Vessel: Women's Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

I have recently finished reading The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser, about women and their role in seventeenth century England. It is a fascinating account of real women and what they did during this period.

During the seventeenth century, it was often proclaimed that women were the weaker sex. This term was preached from the pulpit, professed in poetic verse, and generally acknowledged by everyone. However, it was unclear exactly how far to extend that precept. Women were certainly weaker than men physically, but there was more uncertainty as to whether women were weaker spiritually or intellectually.

In any case, women often viewed themselves (that is, their own sex) as weak, so much so that they often apologised when a show of strength was required in order to endure whatever circumstances confronted them.

Marriage and Love

No passion could be long lived, and such as were most in love forgot that ever they had been so within a twelvemonth after they were married.

Henry  Osborne

Fraser examines women in the context of marriage in the seventeenth century, where marriage, at least in the upper classes, was often a financial transaction settled between parents. Whilst there was consideration for the suitability of the prospective spouses for each other, this manner of arranged marriage did result in some unhappy marriages but it also resulted in some happy ones too. What we would call love was not actively sought when marriage was contemplated, and was even thought to somehow damage the offspring of such a match. However, Fraser gives several examples of couples who had somehow developed this mutual love in their relationship (or beforehand) and there is little doubt that they certainly enjoyed their life together more.

“Dost thou love me?”, Elizabeth Walker would ask of her husband, smiling. To which he would reply, “Most dearly.” “I know it abundantly,” she would answer, “to my comfort; but I love to hear thee tell me so.”

Often, after the death of a spouse, the obituaries or memoirs conveyed hauntingly how treasured this love had been that had developed during a marriage. Ann Fanshawe had endured much with her husband, Richard, during his life, including an escape from a plague-ridden town after first fleeing Cromwell’s troops. They also had an eventful – and frightening – voyage to Spain which included an imminent capture by a Turkish ship and a violent storm which almost resulted in shipwreck. However, their lives together were peppered with that very mutual respect and even, on occasion, passion [God forbid!] that good marriages are built on. Ann, when writing to her son after her husband’s death, said:

Now you will expect I should say something that may remain of us jointly, which I will do, though it makes my eyes gush out with tears, and cuts me to the soul, to remember and in part express the joys I was blessed with in him. Glory to God we never had but one mind throughout our lives, our souls were wrapped up in each other, our aims and designs one, our loves one, and our resentments one. We so studied one the other that we knew each other’s mind by our looks; whatever was real happiness, God gave it me in him…”

Ann Lady Fanshawe


There are many accounts of women greatly fearing the pain accompanying child-bearing. And it was not only the pain, but the reasonable expectation of death – either during or afterwards.

These are doubtless the greatest of all pains the Women naturally undergo upon Earth.

Jane Sharp (midwife)

And labour was not the only peril of motherhood. The high infant and child mortality rate meant that many women buried many more of their children than they reared. The grief of losing children, and sometimes losing many children, was often enormous and was not lessened by the fact that death could be reasonably expected. Fraser cites many first-hand accounts of parents whose “great affliction” was all-encompassing.

We are so comfortably sure that the poor innocent babies are taken out of a naughty world to be very happy, that I have often wondered at the excessive sorrow I have sometimes seen on these occasions.

Anne Digby, Countess of Sunderland


One of the things that most intrigues me about history is the up-and-down nature of progress. Often we think of the rise of women’s rights, for instance, as progressing in a rather linear manner; that is, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one. However, quite often generations “lose” the advantages, progresses or knowledge of previous generations. This is particularly so in the case of women’s education in the seventeenth century.

The sixteenth century had been presided over by a particularly strong woman, that of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign it became acceptable, even a mark of elegance, for a woman to learn the classics, including Latin, Greek, arithmetic, writing, and music. Indeed, even the Queen could translate Latin to Greek! However, the next monarch, James I, did not share the same opinions as his predecessors and so education declined to a more basic sort for young women (music, dancing and French), which inevitably lead to a decline in female literacy.

This verse written by Anne Bradstreet summed up the change well;

Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know ’tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the sisters Queen Mary II and Queen Anne had lamentable education for their eventual roles as monarchs. Mary, luckily able to leave state matters to her husband, William III, confined herself to refined accomplishments such as needlework, while Anne was known to have an appalling knowledge of history and geography with dreadful spelling and grammar. They are in stark contrast to the Queen of the previous century.

The most advantageous daughters, in terms of education, were those who had a learned father who believed in the importance of education, and Fraser cites several examples where a significant parent radically altered the educational experience of their daughter.

In Wartime

During the middle of the seventeenth century a civil war raged in England. Charles I had taken great liberties with his powers of kingship and had eventually been overthrown, put on trial and executed. Oliver Cromwell took the reigns of government and what ensued was a nine year war between the exiled heir to the throne, Charles II, and Cromwell’s troops. Naturally the nation divided. On one side stood the Parliamentarians and on the other the Royalists.

There are many examples of women taking extraordinary roles during this period of wartime, generally involving feats of strategy, strength, determination and cunning that was deemed beyond the bounds of female ability but was applauded nonetheless.

My dear wife endured much hardship, and yet with little show of trouble; and though by nature, according to her sex, timorous, yet in greatest danger would not be daunted, but shewed a courage even above her sex.”

Sir Hugh Cholmley

There were great ladies who defended their great homes when under siege. The Countess of Derby successfully defended Lathom House against attack for over three months until reinforcements could arrive. The Marchioness of Winchester was valiant in the siege of Basing House, with her and her ladies casting bullets out of the lead stripped from the castle, and held out for over two years before falling to their attackers. Lady Bankes of Corfe Castle only had her daughters, her waiting women and a garrison of 5 soldiers to defend her home, and managed to hold out successfully against a troop of 500 men. Eventually this castle fell in a subsequent siege when one of her soldiers smuggled enemy troops into the castle under the guise of reinforcements. Brilliana Lady Harley successfully defended Brampton Bryan Castle from attack for 10 months. After only one month of relief the siege began again but this time she became sick with an illness and died, leaving her great house to fall to its attackers within three months of her death.

Then there were other women who defended their towns from attack by helping to construct fortifications. They fought fires, threw stones and suffered injuries.

Still other women dressed like men and went to war so that they could follow their husbands. In these cases it was often expedient to adopt soldier’s dress, but there is evidence that some women actually fought (with weapons) as – what came to be known as – “she-soldiers”.

Her Husband was a Souldier, and to the wars did go,
And she would be his Comrade, the truth of all is so.
She put on Man’s Apparel, and bore him company,
As many in the Army for truth can testify.

The Gallant She-Souldier (1655)

In Business

Women of the lower and middle classes needed an income like anyone else, and could often be found working as ale-house keepers, linen drapers, tobacco sellers, booksellers, merchants, and shop-keepers. The type of occupation a woman had was usually a result of some sort of family connection to a particular industry. Mrs Constance Pley assisted her husband with his business in the manufacture of sailcloth, which was supplied to Cromwell’s Navy. However, when the business became a partnership and was expanded to include manufacture of hemp and cordage and the importation of canvas, Mrs Pley became a key part in keeping the business productive. One of her roles was to correspond with many navy officials, often demanding outstanding payments for wares already delivered. Her business partner, Mr Bullen Reymes, even said that the business “would have been aground long since but for his woman partner.”

Pray be punctual with her [Mrs Pley], she being as famous a she merchant as you have met with in England, one who turns and winds thirty thousand pounds a year…

Colonel Reymes

Sometimes a widow, able to control her assets after the death of her husband, was able to use her capital to start her own business. Joan Dant, a widow, became a pedlar and imported and sold wares in and around London. By her death, she was able to bequeath 9000 pounds to be distributed by her executors.

The upper classes of women would normally rely on income from the family estates, but women here could also conducted business. Anne Russell, the Countess of Bristol, had a licence to import and sell wine, and did so until she was 80.

There are many more illustrations of actual women and the lives that they led within this book – religious women, women teachers, actresses, prostitutes, and midwives – more than I could include here. Each one serves to illustrate the breadth of experience of life that women had in the seventeenth century. Far from being the mere seventeenth century ideal in virtuosity and obedience, in reality there were many women who led much more active lives within their social circles. It makes for interesting reading.

To conclude, I found one particularly poignant sentiment communicated between a mother and her daughter; one which probably still applies today.

Believe me, child, life is a continual labour, checkered with care and pleasure, therefore rejoice in your position, take the world as you find it, and you will I trust find heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Rachel Lady Russell (1695)

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Sources and Relevant Links

All quotes from The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

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Last week I took my newborn to see his first movie! It was an attempt to begin early the parental practice of educating children in the “cultured arts”, which (by my definition) includes – but is not limited to – exposure to all types of musicals, plays, literature and historical movies (and probably costuming too…).

The danger of taking a two-week-old baby to a movie for their “education” is there is always a risk that they will do the unthinkable and sleep through it… which, of course, he did. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed myself!

Farewell, My Queen is a movie based on a novel of the same name, written by Chantal Thomas, which is now on my list of books to read. The story follows a servant, Sidonie Laborde, who is Reader to Queen Marie Antoinette. It is set during the early days of the French Revolution, in July 1789, when the Bastille was stormed by the French people.

Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

The storming of the Bastille represented the brutal beginnings of the French Revolution, where the long standing and deep resentment of the French people towards the French court began to take the form of violent upheaval. This movie depicts the uncertainty surrounding the Royal family as King Louis XVI began to capitulate to the demands of the people in an attempt to preserve control, while much of the remainder of the French royalty and nobility hurriedly fled the country.

One of the focal points of the movie is the friendship between the Duchess de Polignac and Marie Antoinette, who pleads with her to leave France when the ferocity of the people against Versailles is made clear.

The story is ultimately told through the eyes of the fictional character, Sidonie Laborde, of whom we know little. She, as Reader to the Queen, has the opportunity to see the Queen’s progression from her fanciful preoccupation with novels and fabric swatches before the fall of the Bastille, to her distress as she attempts to plan her family’s escape to Metz, a plan later abandoned by the King.

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde, in Farewell My Queen (2012).

This movie offers such a brief perspective of Marie Antoinette’s life – only 4 days – that it is difficult to see the complexities of the Queen as a person. Likewise, with an equally limited view of the complexities in the main character of Sidonie, it is hard to get a full appreciation of her as a character. What is clear is the way in which Sidonie is impacted by the decisions of the Queen, both negatively and positively, which must have often been the fate of servants in a feudal society.

One of the things I always enjoy in historical movies are the costumes, and they were lovely in this film, even though many of the characters were servants and were dressed in much more ordinary fashions.

The photography in and around the palace of Versailles was also beautiful and gave a real sense of the grandeur of the times.

I also thought that having a film in French (with English subtitles) made the story more genuine and believable. In fact, it reminded me of the stark difference between this movie and Marie Antoinette (2006), starring Kirsten Dunst, where the Queen spoke with a very strong American accent.

Unfortunately this movie only screened in select cinemas for an extremely short time in Australia, but it is one I would love to add to my collection. I find movies set in the 18th century are such good costume inspiration! They are my cup of tea!

Related Posts

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The Case for a Dictator

Sources and Relevant Links

Farewell, My Queen (2013) – the movie

Farewell, My Queen: A Novel, by Chantal Thomas

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser – buy through Amazon

Marie Antoinette (2006) – the movie

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In my first post in this series, I looked at the movies Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008) and began to explore the ways in which these movies are historically accurate. In my second post, I elaborated on the known details of a number of suitors that were attracted to Jane Austen during her life, and discussed the likelihood of Jane having “her very own love story”. In this post, I am examining the likely career prospects that Jane Austen could have had (if she had lived longer) when compared to other female writers of her era.

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen.

Jane’s Career Prospects

In Regency society, career options for gentlewomen were few. Lower classes of women generally had more options for earning money, but Jane Austen was a member of the gentry, traditionally country landowners. Men and women of the gentry generally lived off the income from their land or investments, and whilst younger sons of the gentry were required to have a career to supplement their income, the women were not expected to work for money.

Unmarried women of the gentry would be supported by their fathers and, upon their father’s death, their father’s estate or their brothers would provide them with income. Unmarried women from richer families could also inherit funds or property that would provide them with an independent source of income. (It is this reason that Emma (from Emma, by Jane Austen) could reasonably decide that she had no wish to marry, as she would have had an independent source of income from her father’s estate upon his death.)

However, upon marriage any property would generally transfer to the husband. Married women could still keep property or funds given to them in a trust or specifically for their own use, but they needed their husband’s consent to dispose of it. Often the fathers of these women would work into a marriage agreement that the woman’s inherited property was for her use alone, limiting the husband’s automatic rights to ownership. However, a married woman (by law) did not have exclusive rights to her own wages, that is if she was in a position to earn any.

Rather than being concerned with earning money, women of the gentry generally did other things with their time. They ran their household, cared for the poor or sick living within their area, completed handiwork such as embroidery, and developed their musical accomplishments. There were women who sought more active employment within their sphere of influence, such as Jane Austen’s friend, Mrs Lefroy, who taught the local poor children to read.

Many women of both the eighteenth century and Regency periods expressed concern that there was not adequate education for girls and women. I have also read the personal accounts of women who frequently felt disempowered to make any real difference in the world because they lacked the opportunities to do so. However, women of the gentry during the eighteenth century and Regency times did not view careers for earning money in the same way it is viewed today, that is, as a way of becoming financially independent and of developing a sense of self outside of domestic duties.

Jane Austen is represented in both Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets as being quite concerned with poverty and her family’s lack of money, even to the point that she feels pressure to provide for them. She is also portrayed as having a strong desire to cultivate a career for herself. When the historical background of the Regency era is taken into account, as well as the voice of Jane in her own letters, I have wondered if the modern representations of Jane Austen in movies are at odds with this evidence.

Would Jane have felt pressure to provide for her mother and sister?

As the youngest child of eight, and a daughter, it is unlikely that Jane should have been expected to provide for her mother and sister after her father’s death. After Mr Austen died, the Austen brothers rallied together to help their mother and unmarried sisters with a supplemented income. The brothers managed to increase the income from 210 pounds to 460 pounds a year. Whilst this was still a smaller income than the women were used to, and it required them to move from Bath to cheaper lodgings in Southhampton, it was still enough for them to keep a servant.

Did Jane Austen want to be famous?

Early in her life, Jane appears to have written for the enjoyment of herself, her family and her closest friends. Her first attempts at publication were at the encouragement of her father, and she remained quite obsessive in her secrecy about her writing throughout her life. She published her books anonymously (which was common for women authors of this period), instead attributing the authorship to “A Lady”, and some of her own nieces and nephews were unaware of the true author when her first books were published.

Once her brother Henry dropped the secret and her name became more widely known, she still persisted in her reluctance to attend functions where she might meet other influential literary people. She seemed to consistently deny all appearances of fame that people tried to put upon her, even refusing an invitation to a party to meet the famous authoress, Madame Germaine Da Stael. From these instances, as well as her own letters, she did not seem to write particularly to achieve fame.

Could Jane Austen have made her fortune in the career of an authoress?

Jane Austen made 140 pounds from the publication of her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, and her total earnings from her writing was 684 pounds at the end of her life. Whilst her six novels were all published within seven years (1811-1818), most of them had been started much earlier in her life and had undergone a long process of revision. Even if she had continued to write a novel every year from then onwards, she would have struggled to produce a very large fortune by her pen.

Looking at other female authors of the time, monetary compensation for a writing career was generally low when you consider what sort of income a member of the gentry considered appropriate to live on. In addition, both male and female writers usually did not merely live by the income made from writing novels. They often had other forms of income in the form of royal pensions, earnings from investments or estates, or other forms of writing such as literary reviews or submissions to journals or magazines.

At this point, it is interesting to examine the careers of other female authors during the time of Austen, compiled in the table below. I have only included women writers who wrote in the fiction genre (the newly emerging novel form), as Jane Austen did. There were, of course, other women during this era who were influential in writing other forms of material, such as educational pamphlets and conduct literature.

Copyright Kelly Lock. Disclaimer: This information was compiled using limited web-based research. Any inaccuracies will be amended once discovered.

Copyright: Tea in a Teacup. Disclaimer: This information was compiled using limited web-based research. As there is often not enough available information on the particular earnings of authors, I have included as much information regarding earnings as I could accurately discover. Any inaccuracies will be amended once discovered.

By this rather brief and simplistic comparison, one could conclude that Jane Austen was underpaid when compared to several of her contemporaries. It has been suggested by others that, by leaving the financial negotiations to her father and brother, she may have unwittingly limited her income because they were unskilled at such negotiations. It is unclear how she could have combated this though, as Charlotte Turner Smith managed all her own negotiations with her publishers and still struggled to enhance her financial position.

One significant difference between Jane Austen and other women writers of her time is that most of the other women actively sought patronage from notable peers known to them or their families, sometimes even asking permission for their works to be dedicated to them. Most of the women listed in the table also moved actively in literary circles, often getting to know other famous authors such as Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, and Hester Thrale, and other female authors. Whilst Jane Austen was not interested in actively promoting herself in literary circles, she did manage to attract the patronage of the Prince Regent who offered her “permission to ask for permission” to dedicate Emma to him, which she seemed to do fairly reluctantly and only after advice from her family. 

Even if Jane Austen could have managed to overcome some of these differences, it is probably still inaccurate to say that she could have made her fortune by writing novels. Whilst she had several unfinished manuscripts in progress when she died (The Watsons and Sanditon) as well as an unpublished epistolary novel (Lady Susan), she still may not have been able to produce a novel every year, especially considering her previous propensity to spend much time revising and perfecting her work. This natural restriction of time frame would – itself – have limited her income.

In order to live comfortably as an English gentleman or lady, it was desirable to have at least 300 pounds per annum for each individual within the family unit, equating to roughly the annual interest on 6,000 pounds. Unless Jane Austen could save that amount for herself (as well as for her mother and sister), there would have been little hope that she could have lived in such a comfortable situation once she eventually stopped writing later in life. Indeed, many of the women who, by necessity, had lived solely on the proceeds from their writing ended their lives in poverty as their writing income dried up.

So, whilst Jane Austen would have certainly made more money from writing more novels if she had lived longer, and she could well have been able to better negotiate her earnings with her publishers, seek out some form of patronage and promote herself in literary circles, it still seems unlikely that she could have lived a comfortable life as a member of the gentry purely on the earnings of writing her novels.

Was Jane Austen a meek and mild, content-to-be-at-home, aunt?

I have read criticism of the popular conception of “Aunt Jane” as a “meek and mild”, family-focused woman who refrained from devoting herself fully to her writing in favour of availing herself to her nieces, nephews, and other family members. Certainly, from reading her letters I never had this impression of her!

Portrait of Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The Victorian version of Cassandra’s portrait of her sister Jane, published in James Austen-Leigh’s Memoirs (1869).

It appears that this picture of Jane Austen could have come from her portrayal to the public during the Victorian era, probably because Austen’s Victorian relations wanted their “dear Aunt” to appear as their version of a “proper” woman, or a woman that deserved their Victorian esteem. In this way, the Victorian perspective of Jane Austen may not be accurate.

However, it is just as dangerous for us – as people wedged firmly in the 21st Century – that we not assume that Jane was just like us! That she wanted to have a career because she wanted to be independent. Or that she wanted to fall in love and elope. Or even that she held feminist ideals before her time. If we do this, we could be accused of painting that same sort of inaccurate picture that we accuse the Victorians of doing! That is, painting a picture of Jane Austen that does not accurately represent who she was in the context of the time she lived.

Biographer David Cecil expresses it well when he says:

I have come across critics who discuss [Jane Austen] and her view of life and character as if they were those of a contemporary of their own. The result is a portrait comically misleading. For, as we should have learned both from social historians and common observation, we are all largely the creatures of the world we happen to have been born into and our outlook is conditioned by its assumptions and beliefs and conventions and customs.

In summary, whilst I enjoy movies depicting Jane Austen’s life, I do find it problematic when they are not historically accurate. Sometimes modern movies tend embellish these historical characters with values that we – as modern men and women – think are important, particularly in the area of the rights of women. In essence, these movies could sometimes say more about our own 21st Century ideals than they say about the reality of Jane Austen, her perspective and her life.

Related Posts

Jane Austen. Who? – Part 2

Aunt Jane!? An Author!?

A Happy New Year – letter from Jane Austen to her niece, Cassy

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – Amazon

Becoming Jane (2007) – the movie

Review: Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence – by AustenBlog

Fact and Fiction in Becoming Jane – by Following Austen

Miss Austen Regrets (2008) – the movie

Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy – an article by The Independant (April 2008)

Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne’s edition – read online

Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh – read online

Women and Literature in Britain: 1800-1900, edited by Joanne Shattock – buy through Booktopia

Pride and Prejudice Economics – by Jane Austen’s World

Other Jane Austen Biographies

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

Jane Austen: A Life, by Carol Sheilds

Jane Austen: A Family Record, by Deirdre La Faye

Jane Austen: A Biography, by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Life of Jane Austen, by John Halperin

Jane Austen: Her Life, by Park Honan

Jane Austen: A Life, by David Nokes

Jane Austen in Context (a collection of essays), edited by Janet Todd

Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence

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In my previous post about Jane Austen, I looked at the movies Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008) and questioned how historically accurate they were. There are obvious discrepancies taken in the name of artistic licence, such as the names and situations of her suitors, but there are also more subtle differences, like the more modern representations of her attitudes towards having a career.

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

The best way to get a sense of who a person was – short of talking to them yourself – is to read what they have written. Obviously reading more personal accounts, such as journals and personal letters, allows you to see the person in the way they saw themselves. Their other writings, such as novels, poetry, and published pamphlets or articles, also give a sense of their voice and an idea of what interested them. Reading other people’s first-hand accounts give a sense of how other people perceived this person. Biographies, although a secondary source of information, are valuable in giving a sense of the circumstances and background of the person’s life. So it is in these places that I have sought information on the realities of Jane’s life.

Jane’s Suitors

Thomas Lefroy (years lived)

Thomas Lefroy (1776-1869)

Jane did meet Tom Lefroy in 1795 while she was still living at Steventon, aged 20, and mentions him in her letters to Cassandra. However, there is little evidence that marriage between them was ever seriously contemplated.

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved, Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking the the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago.

9 January, 1796.

John Warren (1771-1831), who proposed to Jane in Becoming Jane, was at Oxford at the same time as James Austen. He also became a pupil of Jane’s father, George Austen. Mr Warren and Jane were always good friends and he was occasionally mentioned in her letters. The following excerpt was written immediately after the above quote regarding Tom Lefroy, in the same letter to her sister.

We left Warren at Dean Gate, in our way home last night, and he is now on his road to town. He left his love, &c., to you, and I will deliver it when we meet. Henry goes to Harden to-day in his way to his Master’s degree. We shall feel the loss of these two most agreeable young men exceedingly, and shall have nothing to console us till the arrival of the Coopers on Tuesday.

9 January, 1796.

Samuel Blackall met Jane in 1798 while visiting the Lefroy’s and soon became an admirer of her. He had intended to visit again at Christmas but upon his return to Cambridge, where he was a Fellow, he discovered that he was not in a position to marry at present, and wrote to Mrs Lefroy to tell her so. In any event, his admiration does not appear to be returned by Jane.

She [Mrs Lefroy] showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs Russell to his notice at Cambridge), towards the end of which was a sentence to this effect: ‘I am very sorry to hear of Mrs Austen’s illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving myself with that family – with a hope of creating to myself nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.’

Jane then goes on to comment on this to her sister:

This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it that sometimes appears before, and I am well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing him.

17 November, 1798.

There was one mysterious love interest that occurred in 1801, while Jane’s family was on a visit to Sidmouth from their new home in Bath. We only know this by a few scant remarks that Cassandra had made to several of her nieces and nephews later in her life. Biographer David Cecil goes into some detail about the incident. This man was handsome, intelligent and quite charming, and became quite attached to Jane over the two or three weeks that he was in town. Unfortunately, the gentleman was forced to leave on account of some business and it was understood that he would return soon to see the Austen family again. Before he could do so, the Austen’s received a letter from his brother saying that he had suddenly died. There are very few letters of Jane’s that survive from May 1801 to 1805, which leaves this period of her life quite blank.

Harris Bigg-Wither (1781-1833)

Harris Bigg-Wither (1781-1833)

In 1802, Jane was proposed to by Harris Bigg-Wither, when she was aged 27, on a visit to the family with her sister. She accepted the offer, but then withdrew it the next morning and hurriedly left with her sister to return to Bath. Biographer David Cecil suggests that her reluctance to marry Harris Bigg-Wither might be related to the brief but strong affection she felt for the Sidmouth man.

In 1808, upon a visit to Godmersham, it appears possible that Mr Edward Bridges (1779-1825), made her an offer of marriage. She makes a curious mention of it in a letter to Cassandra, which has led Deirdre LaFaye – an Austen expert – to suggest that it is possible that he did make her an offer, but that she refused.

I wish you may be able to accept Lady Bridges’ invitation, though I could not her son Edward’s; she is a nice woman and honours me by her remembrance.

October 7, 1808.

One thing I can say for certain about Jane and her view of marriage is that she was well aware of the advantages of having money upon marrying. However, she also seemed firm in her views that a marriage without affection was as equally undesirable as one without money. She gave some very pertinent advice to her young niece Fanny in one of her letters, about her suitor Mr Plumtre.

There are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand, as the Creature You and I should think perfection. Where Grace and Spirit are united to Worth, where the Manners are equal to the Heart and Understanding. But such a person may not come in your way, or if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a Man of Fortune, the brother of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country. Think of this Fanny. Mr J.P. has advantages which do not often meet in one person. […] And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself further, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection…

18 November, 1814.

When I first discovered, early in my “Austen education”, that Jane Austen had never married, I remember being shocked! It seemed unthinkable that a person who could write such moving stories about life and love – stories that have stood the test of time and have charmed people born long after her death – never had her own love story.

Even though Jane never married, it is clear that she had a variety of experiences in her relationships with marriageable men; some consisted of mutual friendship, others mere attraction and flirtation, at least one with a more financial allure, and possibly one with a deeper affection that Regency women regarded as a foundation for marriage.

Whilst this tendency to want Jane Austen to have had a love story of her own is understandable, it is possible that this modern appetite for love and romance may cloud our perception of the realities in Jane’s life. It can prevent us understanding the way a Regency woman would perceive her own situation of singleness within the context of her own time.

As someone who is interested in history, I tend to find it more interesting to try to understand this historical context of a person rather than merely watch an entertaining movie about them. Actually, this interest has often driven me from the movie theatre to the nearest bookshop in search of more information – which I can then devour over a cup of tea!

Due to space, I have decided to make a Part 3 to this post which will endeavour to explore the realities of Jane’s career prospects as a female author in the Regency era.

Related Posts

Jane Austen. Who? – Part 1

Aunt Jane!? An Author!?

A Happy New Year – letter from Jane Austen to her niece, Cassy

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen – a book review

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – Amazon

Becoming Jane (2007) – the movie

Review: Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence – by AustenBlog

The Truth about Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy – by Following Austen

Fact and Fiction in Becoming Jane – by Following Austen

John Warren at the Dean Gate Inn – by Austenonly

Miss Austen Regrets (2008) – the movie

Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy – an article by The Independant (April 2008)

Miss Austen Regrets: Brook Edward Bridges – by Jane Austen Society of North America

Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne’s edition – read online

Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh – read online

Other Jane Austen Biographies (and there are many more!)

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin – buy through Amazon

The Life of Jane Austen, by John Halperin – buy through Amazon

Jane Austen The Woman: Some Biographical Insights, by George Holbert Tucker – buy through Amazon

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There seems to have always been a remarkable interest in who Jane Austen was, from the very moment the authorship of her novels was revealed. This interest extended into the Victorian era when her letters and other unpublished novels were made available to the public. Even now, Jane Austen has an ever-growing army of dedicated fans who avidly devour new movie adaptations and “new sequels” of the Austen novels, as well as movies about Jane’s life itself. Recently I have had the opportunity to watch some movie portrayals of the famous Regency authoress.

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, in Becoming Jane (2007).

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, in Becoming Jane (2007).

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane (2007) is loosely based on the speculative biography Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence. It focuses on the life of Jane Austen during her years living at Steventon, before her family moved to Bath. Starring Anne Hathaway as the 20-year-old Jane, the movie shows the close relationship she has with her sister, Cassandra, and her family.

The movie focuses on the period of Jane Austen’s life when most young women of her time would have been looking for a husband. She meets Mr Tom Lefroy at a family party and strikes up an emotionally charged friendship, despite the initial conflict of his rudeness. They fall in love but realise the impossibility of their union unless they can convince his uncle to agree, as Tom is wholly dependant on his uncle for money and career connections. They end up eloping but Jane suddenly decides en route that their love would not survive their eventual poverty and goes back home.

In addition to Tom Lefroy, Jane is also pursued by a (fictional), Mr Wisely, who is the nephew and heir of rich Lady Gresham. She also has a third proposal from Mr John Warren at the conclusion of the movie.

Jane’s family prefer the match with Mr Wisely, as the marriage will provide their daughter with money and security. As she does not have much dowry, attracting a husband who is not already rich will be difficult for her. Jane talks frequently of her hopes of making her fortune by her pen, rather than by marriage, however her family – whilst they encourage her writing – seem to be skeptical about this.

I remember really liking this movie when it was first released, thinking that it seemed to portray the vivaciousness and wittiness that I believed was accurate to the author’s voice in her novels. It also seemed to cleverly link some of the everyday occasions in Jane’s life to the events in her novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, thus illustrating the ways in which she could have gleaned inspiration from her life. Unfortunately, as I began to research Jane Austen’s life in more detail it became apparent (and irritatingly annoying) that Becoming Jane was almost completely fiction!

Olivia as Jane Austen, in Miss Austen Regrets (2008).

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen, in Miss Austen Regrets (2008).

Miss Austen Regrets

I have also recently seen the movie Miss Austen Regrets (2008), starring Olivia Williams, which follows Jane’s later life as a much-loved spinster aunt and burgeoning author when she lived at Chawton Cottage.

This portrayal sees Jane spending time with her niece Fanny (daughter of her brother, Edward Knight) as she tries to decide whether or not to marry a charming Mr Plumtree. Jane uses her previous experiences in love and life to help guide her young niece in her decision.

The movie focuses on the fact that Jane remained unmarried and was poorer than she might have been if she had chosen to marry. Jane is made to feel responsible for not furthering the family fortunes when she refused to marry Harris Bigg in her earlier years, and maybe it is for this reason that she is preoccupied about writing for money in order to provide for her mother and sister.

The other love interest featured in this movie is that of Reverend Edward Bridges, who was the brother-in-law to Jane’s brother, Edward Knight. According to the screenplay, he had proposed to Jane several years earlier and been refused and had then married a Miss Harriet Foote. As could be expected, their conversations are peppered with the what-if’s and the could-have-been’s that one naturally has when considering what could have happened if a different decision had been made.

Whilst this movie is fairly soundly based on the letters of Jane Austen that were written between 1813 and 1815, the portrayal of Jane as a character seems markedly more melancholy and regretful than her letters indicate her to be. In fact, her conversations often bordered on being bitter and her relationship with her sister seemed equally strained. I found it hard to imagine that Jane could be like this after reading her letters.

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

So just who was Jane Austen?

Whilst I enjoyed both of these movies in different ways, I was initially puzzled as to why these portrayals of Jane Austen did not match up with the sort of person I had experienced through reading her personal letters.

One thing that bothered me was that these depictions of Jane seemed to be overly modern in terms of ideology. It was almost as though we, as a 21st century world, had infused our own more modern feminist ideologies on this Regency woman, such as the desire to have a career, to earn an independent living, and to marry for love. Whilst these modern ideals are important to the women of today, it is probably not accurate to suggest that the same ideals are ones that Regency women – or Jane in particular – aspired to, at least not in the same way that modern women value them.

However, it could be more simple than that. It could be more to do with movie producers generating a bottom dollar by striving to make a screenplay acceptable to a modern audience, regardless of whether the resulting movie is accurate in its depiction of a historical figure. This makes sense really. These days movies need to have a good storyline with maybe some action or romance to help them attract interest and make money in the box office. In short, the content of a movie (historical or otherwise) needs to meet the ideals and expectations of a modern audience. It is possible that a truly accurate portrayal of Jane Austen might be just too boring for us all to watch!? Heaven forbid, but that could be true!

What are your reflections on these movies? Do they fit with your picture of who Jane Austen was? Do you prefer a historical accurate film or one with a good storyline?

In my next post on this topic, I will attempt to examine some of the realities of Jane’s life, including the men who featured in her life as possible suitors. I will also explore some of the ways in which our modern ideologies may have affected our view of who Jane Austen was. For instance, is it accurate to suggest that she wanted to have a career or that she wanted to be famous, and is it realistic to assume that she could have become rich?

Related Posts

Aunt Jane!? An Author!?

Christmas with Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – a book review

Lady Susan: an eighteenth century epistolary novella – a book review

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – Amazon

Becoming Jane (2007) – the movie

Review: Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence – by AustenBlog

The Truth about Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy – by Following Austen

Fact and Fiction in Becoming Jane – by Following Austen

Miss Austen Regrets (2008) – the movie

Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy – an article by The Independant (April 2008)

Miss Austen Regrets: Brook Edward Bridges – by Jane Austen Society of North America

Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne’s edition – read online

Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh – read online

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The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century, by Jeremy Black (2003).

The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century, by Jeremy Black (2003).

The eighteenth century is my favourite period in history and this means that I end up reading a lot about it! I have recently read The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century, by Jeremy Black.

This very detailed book covers a great amount of information about the British on their Grand Tour of the Continent during the eighteenth century, at a time when tourism was increasing in popularity.

The Destinations

Whilst the conventional tour was generally limited to France and Italy, sometimes people decided to venture further afield according to their particular interests. Switzerland, the Low Countries (modern day Austria, Netherlands, and Holland), and Germany were all sometimes added to the itinerary. Some places were visited less commonly, such as the Balkans, Turkey, Scandinavia, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and Greece.

The Travellers

The traditional concept of the Grand Tour is principally that of travelling young noblemen and gentlemen of the aristocracy, whom had finished their education in England but were too young to have the management of their estates. For these young men, travel was seen as a way to keep them out of trouble and hopefully further their education by more extensive and firsthand knowledge of how things operated in other countries.

It is interesting to note that there were other types of tourists as well, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century. Older tourists, women, family groups, people who travelled for health reasons, and the ‘middling sort’ were all frequenters to the Continent, and this marked a change in the purposes of tourism, from primarily an educative focus to one of leisure.

The Cost

Eighteenth century tourists had to pay for very similar things as modern tourists do: accommodation, travel (boat, carriage and horses), food, and souvenirs (like artworks). They also had other expenses, such as gambling, hairdressing and tailoring, entertainments (theatre and opera), dancing and language ‘masters’, and tipping for servants.

Overall, the amount tourists spent depended largely on their means, some spending a little as 250 pounds per annum and some as great as 5,000 pounds. Naturally, their level of means determined the sort of activities they engaged in. One source states that in 1785, “150 pounds per month [is] the sum generally allowed by persons who travel with an equipage.”

Naturally, the people who travelled needed to have an independent income from home. Sometimes this income was supplied by parents or guardians who funded the trips of their children. For others this income came in the form of their estates or investments. It is misleading to assume that those travelling were all the richest Earls or Lords or even titled gentlemen, however those that did venture out of England did need to have sufficient income to meet the expenses incumbent on an often lengthy trip.

"The Landing of Sir John Bull and his family at Bolougne sur mer", by James Gillray (1792)

“The Landing of Sir John Bull and his family at Boulogne sur Mer”, by James Gillray (1792)

Difficulties Frequently Encountered

There were often difficulties with transport. The roads were often difficult to negotiate, and delays could occur from damage to carriages or from scarcity of post horses. Tourists had to endure complications from bad weather, river crossings, and snowy mountain terrain. When boat travel was the only option, bad winds, bad weather, or indifferent seamen all played a part in aggravating the poor travel-worn tourists. One feels sorry for one gentleman leaving Cologne, when:

We had not gone far on our way to Dusseldorf when we perceived our postilion to be a very obstinate fellow, who notwithstanding all the signs we could make, would not move beyond a foot’s pace, till the gentleman got out to walk, and then he endeavoured to ride away from them. We were near four hours going ten miles to Opladen; here the master of inn used all his eloquence to make us pass the night, but finding it was all labour lost, he was near 40 minutes before he produced the horses with a postilion as slow as the last. Threats, entreaties, signs were as ineffectual as with the other. We still moved on, our accustomed funereal pace […] between one and two [am] the carriage stopped at the gates of Dusseldorf, having been nine hours coming 21 miles […] We found, as we knew we should, the gates of the city shut, and had therefore the pleasure of sitting in the carriage till five o’clock when they were opened.

The quality of accommodation between major towns and cities was often poor. Tourists who ended up stranded for some reason or other often found it difficult to find a decent bed. One tourist wrote “on account of the road [we were] detained one night in a public house consisting of only one room which was occupied by 11 human creatures besides dogs, cats and a pig. As however we had luckily had a great deal of exercise that day we slept soundly upon some straw on the floor.”

The options for food and drink were also often limited when travelling through the countryside. Tourists often resorted to carrying food with them on their journeys, such as cold meat, bread, eggs and wine. Tourists visiting larger cities often complained about the differences between the traditional English meals they were used to and the more spiced Continental foods. Even with such differences in cuisine, many people also recorded good reports of the foods they encountered in different areas.

There were also the dangers of war, ill health (possibly leading to death), accidents (particularly carriage accidents), and crime, for these intrepid travellers to combat. On one particularly amusing occasion in 1751, a gentleman experienced:

… the worst roads I have yet seen in Germany. The carriage broke into pieces before we got to the end of our journey, fairly separating the fore part of the chaise, from the hind, leaving us miserable and ridiculous spectators in the middle of the highway, whilst the postilion drove away with the coach box and fore wheels. Mr Hubert was fast asleep when this happened, and I was reading Peregrine Pickle’s verses on Lady Vane, but we were both obliged to change our easy situation for that of a hard trotting chaise horse, with miserable saddles so bad that we were ashamed to ride into the town, therefore alighted at the gate and walked to the inn.

Miseries of Travelling, by ... (1807)

Miseries of Travelling, by Thomas Rowlandson (1807): “Just as you are going off with only one other person on your side of the coach, who you flatter yourself is the last – seeing the door suddenly opened and the Landlady, Coachman, Guard &c – craning, shoving, buttressing up an overgrown puffing, greazy human Hog of the butcher or grazier breed, the whole machine straining and groaning under its cargo from the box to the basket – By dint of incredible efforts and contrivances, the Carcass is at length weighed up to the door where it has next to struggle with various obstructions in the passage.”


Sexual adventure and intrigue was one aspect of entertainment available in the large Continental cities, such as Paris and Venice. The contraction of venereal disease was often one of the unfortunate results, but it was not always a big deterrent as eighteenth century medicine was believed to cure the distemper. The sexual choices ranged, with a ready availability of street prostitutes and whore houses, as well as paid mistresses and married women who were prepared to have sexual liaisons.

It is observable, that the French allow their women all imaginable freedoms, and are seldom troubled with jealousy; nay, a Frenchman will almost suffer you to court his wife before his face, and is even angry if you do not admire her person: And, indeed, by the liberties I have often seen a married lady use, I have been at a loss to distinguish her husband from the rest of the company.

Gambling was also a prevalent entertainment in polite society, as admission to these circles required tourists to gamble large amounts for long periods. It appears to have been harder to avoid than it was in England, due to the lack of alternative company in foreign lands.

It is a great misfortune for a stranger not to be able to play but yet a greater to love it. Without gaming one can’t enter into that sort of company that usurps the name of Beau Monde, and no other qualification but that and money are requisite to recommend to the first company in France…

Drinking was another popular pastime with young men making their Grand Tour. One poor man could not get to sleep in his lodgings in Milan, because:

…last night a party of them, about a dozen, drank thirty-six bottles of burgundy, claret, and champaign, (as our landlord showed us in his book) and made such a noise till six in the morning we could not sleep.

Other more constructive entertainments included music (operas and orchestral concerts), theatre, viewing and purchasing artworks (both paintings and sculptures), and interest in architecture. It is apparent that the British were appreciative of all aspects of the arts, often giving insightful critiques in their letters home. The musical culture in London was well established, giving the tourists ample opportunity to appreciate good music, and many of the richer portion of tourists spent much time and money purchasing antiquities to take home.

Other Benefits of the Tour

One of the primary benefits that the Grand Tour was supposed to provide to a class of gentleman who would soon play a role in the governance of their own country, was to educate them about the political systems in other countries. Often this information was difficult to arrive at due to language barriers and the need for access to the Court, and even when these hurdles were overcome sometimes political conversations were not encouraged.

Political issues were usually related to social issues, which were often easily seen from a traveller’s perspective. The political issues prevalent in the eighteenth century concerned absolutist states and despotic rulers, republican states, the principle and practise of constitutions, feudal powers, ecclesiastical powers, Protestantism versus Catholicism, and peasant poverty versus aristocratic riches. In 1783, one tourist wrote of Evian that there was:

little to be seen but the appearance of dirt and poverty – the people in its neighbourhood are like its inhabitants – effect of bad government and high taxes. It is said that the Kind or Sardinia draws annually 170,000 pounds from his subjects in Savoy, which is supposed to be equal to 3/4 of the product of their labour and property.

The End of the Grand Tour

The French Revolution ultimately put an end to the Grand Tour. Initially the events in France were a great curiosity and did not seem overly menacing, with a few tourists even visiting Paris with the intention to witness some of the revolutionary beginnings. However, during 1792 there were surges in crime in France and war was declared between France and Austria. In 1793 the Reign of Terror began, where the highly unstable French government was continually overthrown and ruled by various political parties, who each promptly killed all their opposition, or “enemies of the revolution”, when they were in power. Prussia, Britain, Holland, and Spain all became involved and Continental travel was never quite the same.

This book has enormous and sometime tedious details of the personal accounts of people who embarked on the Grand Tour. Whilst the level of detail could be boring to those who are not as interested in history, it does give a wonderful sense of the complexity and variety of eighteenth century experiences across the Continent. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys delving into the depths of historical personal experience and is interested in the details and differences between these experiences, rather than those who prefer a general historical overview.

Related Posts

The Case for a Dictator – despotism and democracy in the eighteenth century

Sources and Relevant Links

All quotes from: The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century, by Jeremy Black – buy on Amazon

Image Source: The Landing of Sir John Bull and his Family at Boulogne sur Mer, by Gillray (1792), National Portrait Gallery

Image Source: Miseries of Travelling, by Rowlandson (1807), from The Lewis Walpole Library

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Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh (1954)

Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh (1954)

This week I received a new book in the mail! Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh, was first published in 1954, and has been invaluable to costumers ever since. I have been desperate to get a copy for ages and I finally made the plunge for my birthday!

The book has some photos of extant undergarments, as well as some patterns drawn from extant undergarments. It also contains quite an amount of text describing the fashions of particular historical eras, and the inclusion of historical texts that mention particular aspects of clothing.

As I was perusing it last night in bed, I came across a very interesting quote by a Spanish monk, Fray Fernando de Talavera, in 1477. It concerns the alarming fashions of women of the day, who were seeking to make their bodies altered in appearance by the use of whaleboned bodies and farthingales.

Women's fashions at the end of the 15th century changed from the long, thin style of medieval dress, and began to become bigger around the bottom of the dress. This picture is from 1450.

Women’s fashions at the end of the 15th century changed from the long, thin style of medieval dress, and began to become bigger around the bottom of the dress. This picture is a female Parisian in 1450.

There is another dress which is very ugly, for it makes women appear very fat and as wide as tongues. It is true that by nature women should be short, with slender or narrow shoulders, breasts and back, and small heads, and that thier faces should be thin and small … and also that they should be wide and big round the back and belly and hips so that they can have space for the children they conceive and carry for nine months … But although this is true, the aforesaid dress greatly exceeds and more than greatly exceeds, the natural proportions, and instead of making woman beautiful and well-proportioned, makes them ugly, monstrous and deformed until they cease to look like women and look like bells…

And, of course, just in case no one listens to such sage advice, it is always advisable to try and do everything to make such fashions morally wrong.

Finally, such dress is very deceitful and ugly. It is in truth great deceit in a woman who is slender, hipless, and very thin, to give herself hips and a shape with cloth and wool; if carried out in moderation it might be overlooked and at most would be a venial sin. But done in such a way, without moderation and with exaggeration, it is undoubtedly a deception and a lie of great guilt and consequently a great sin…

I always find it fascinating that historically, people seemed to concentrate on how a person looks to determine if they are sinful. I am sure there were many other examples of sin in the world at the time, such as injustice and mistreatment, but they seem to be much less focused on. And the monk concludes:

Thus it is a sin when women who are small of stature wear chopines [see picture] to feign a height they do not possess, especially as Our Lord has willed it that women are usually short of body and smaller than men, since they have to be ruled by them as their superiors, or when they with rags, wool, petticoats or hoops, affect a width which they do not possess. There is no doubt that deception and lies are a mortal sin when carried out in the above evil and sinful manner; thus the padded hips and hoop skirts are very harmful and very wicked garments; with reason they have been forbidden under pain of excommunication.

These chopines are dated to 1550, and were initially designed to enable the wearer to keep out of the mud. However, by 1600 the height of the shoes had risen to 20 inches!

These chopines are dated to 1550, and were initially designed to enable the wearer to keep out of the mud. However, by 1600 the height of the shoes had risen to 20 inches!

I am sure the poor monk has briefly forgotten in what other circumstances deception and lies are a mortal sin, especially when carried out in an evil and sinful manner… Indeed, I can think of many medieval examples!

At every step of history, fashion excesses have been either denounced from the pulpit or ridiculed in the press. And I have always wondered why. I wonder if it might be an indication of how threatening change was to these people we read about in history. And when you think about it, people haven’t changed all that much! Think about how it feels when your boss proposes radical changes in your workplace… We are still all a bit resistant to change.

It makes for very interesting reading!

Related Posts

More extremes in fashion!

The Rococo: The Extremities of Hoops in the 1740’s

The Rococo: The Extremities of Hairstyles in the 1770’s

Sources and Relevant Links

Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh – buy on Amazon

Picture Source: Of a Lady of Paris, 1450 – from the Costumer’s Manifesto

Chopines – information from The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art

Picture Source: Chopines of Tooled Leather, c. 1600 – with lots of other images of chopines as well.

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What would you do if you found out your very own Aunt Jane was the famous author of Sense and Sensibility?

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

Jane Austen was a very private person and throughout her career as an author she seemed to shrink from the personal acclamation that arose from the publication of her novels. Whilst her literary pursuits had always been celebrated within her immediate family circle by being read, performed and discussed, very few of her friends read her novels in their draft form.

Her first publication seemed to be a great secret; Sense and Sensibility, a novel, By A Lady, was published in 1811. Her immediate family did know of the pending publication; her brother, Henry, had acted on her behalf with the publishers, and her mother and sister were left at Chawton while Jane went to London to read the proofs before the novel’s publication. But Jane did not tell her niece, Anna, aged 18 at the time and to whom she was close. David Cecil, in his biography, relates an incident where Aunt Jane and Anna were perusing books together in the library:

…the two of them, looking at the novels in the Alton Circulating Library, saw Sense and Sensibility lying on the counter. Anna picked up the first volume. ‘It must be nonsense with a title like that’, she said and put it back again. Jane watched her amused and silent.

Jane had always expressed her desire to remain an anonymous writer and so was quite dismayed when her brother Henry spilled the secret to some acquaintances in 1813, concerning the author of the newly published Pride and Prejudice.

In 1814 Mansfield Park was published, and it was sometime in this year that Jane’s nephew, Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh), son of James Austen, discovered that his Aunt Jane was a famous author. He was only sixteen at the time and, on finding out the truth, wrote the following poem to his Aunt.

No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed through the whole of the nation.
I assure you, however, I’m terribly glad;
Oh dear, just to think (and the thought drives me mad)
That dear Mrs Jennings’ good-natured strain
Was really the produce of your witty brain,
That you made the Middletons, Dashwoods and all,
And that you (not young Ferrars) found out that a ball
May be given in cottages never so small.
And though Mr Collins so grateful for all
Will Lady de Bourgh his dear patroness call, 
‘Tis to your ingenuity really he owed
His living, his wife, and his humble abode.
Now if you will take your poor nephew’s advice, 
Your works to Sir William pray send in a trice;
If he’ll undertake to some grandees to show it,
By whose means at last the Prince Regent might know it,
For I’m sure if he did, in reward for your tale,
He’d make you a countess at least without fail,
And indeed, if the princess should lose her dear life,
You might have a good chance of becoming his wife.

By Edward Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s nephew.

By 1815 many people had discovered the name of the famous authoress, even the Prince Regent. Instead of making her a countess, as Edward Austen had suggested he should, the Prince invited her to ask his permission to dedicate her next novel, Emma, to him. She did so, more because she did not wish to cause offence to such an august person than because she was delighted by the idea.

Her last two novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, were published posthumously in 1818. Her brother, Henry, wrote a biographical notice in the preface, announcing Jane Austen to be the author of these works and sharing with her readers some of the history of her life and her last moments on earth. He also mentioned her particular aversion of publicity.

Most gratifying to her was the applause which from time to time reached her ears from those who were competent to discriminate. Still, in spite of such applause, so much did she shrink from notoriety, that no accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen. In the bosom of her own family she talked of them freely, thankful for praise, open to remark, and submissive to criticism. But in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress.

In short, she wrote for the pleasure of entertaining her family and friends, rather than the public acclamation that comes with publication. So what would you do if you discovered your own Aunt Jane to be a famous authoress?

Related Posts

Christmas with Jane Austen

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – buy on Amazon

The Letters of Jane Austen, the Brabourne edition – read online

Biographical Notice of the Author, by Henry Austen – read online

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I happened upon a letter written by Jane Austen in 1817 to her niece Cassandra, daughter of her brother Charles. This particular Cassandra Austen was born in 1808, so would have only been about nine when receiving this letter. The “little Cassy” mentioned in the letter was probably Cassandra Austen, born to Jane Austen’s brother Francis, in 1814.

I thought it appropriate for the New Year, and – since I am away on holidays – a quick and easy post for your entertainment. It is written in a simple code, with the letters of each word backwards.


I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey. Ruoy xis snisuoc emac ereh yadretsey, dna dah hcae a eceip fo ekac. Siht si elttil Yssac’s yadhtrib, dna ehs si eerht sraey dlo. Knarf sah nugeb gninrael Nital. Ew deef eht Nibor yreve gninrom. Yllas netfo seriuqne retfa uoy. Yllas Mahneb sah tog a wen neerg nwog. Teirrah Thgink semoc yreve yad ot daer ot Tnua Ardnassac. Doog eyb, ym raed Yssac.

Tnua Ardnassac sdnes reh tseb evol, dna os ew od lla.

fireworksRouy etanoitceffa Tnua, ENAJ NETSUA.

Notwahc: Naj. 8.

Happy New Year to you all!

Relevant Posts

Christmas with Jane Austen

Sources and Relevant Links

The Letters of Jane Austen – read online



I wish you a happy new year. Your six cousins came here yesterday, and had each a piece of cake. This is little Cassy’s birthday, and she is three years old. Frank has begun learning Latin. We feed the Ribon every morning. Sally often enquires after you. Sally Benham has got a new green gown. Harriet Knight comes every day to read to Aunt Cassandra. Good bye, my dear Cassy.

Aunt Cassandra sends her best love, and so we do all.

Your affectionate Aunt, JANE AUSTEN.

Chawton: Jan. 8.

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