14/05/2009

BEING A WOMAN AT JANE AUSTEN'S TIME

As promised, here I am, sharing with you part of my current reading of Deirdre Le Faye's JANE AUSTEN.THE WORLD OF HER NOVELS .It's time to compare what being a woman at that time was like to what we discussed in my previous post, MEN AT JANE AUSTEN'S TIME.

FEMININE OCCUPATIONS

The daughters of the landed gentry families would probably have had only the minimum of formal instruction before leaving home - in many cases while still in their teens, like Catherine Morland or Marianne Dashwood - to marry country gentlemen in their own rank of society. Until well into the 19th century education was not considered necessary for girls.
(If you're interested in the woman question in the Victorian Age CLICK HERE and HERE)
In fact, it was felt to be rather a hindrance to their settlement in life, as they wouldbe regarded with suspicion if thought clever or bookish. Jane Austen was well aware of this attitude, and wrote teasingly in Northanger Abbey: "Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can".
Most girls were educated at home, either by their parents or by governess with the assistance of visiting tutors, but the sum total was the same: needlework, both for necessity and for pleasure; simple arithmetic; fine hand writing, which was considered a very elegant accomplishment; enough music to be able to sing and play the piano or harpsichord for family entertainment; a little drawing; some French fables to recite; reading the Bible, Shakespeare, other poetry and sone respectable novels such as Sir Charles Grandison; and some very scrappy ideas of history and geography.
In Persuasion, Jane lists female occupations as the "common subjects of housekeeping, neighbours, dress, dancing and music".

FEMALE FASHIONS
Women's fashion changed radically during this period of George III's reign. In the second half of the 18th century dresses still had bunchy skirts, though no longer supported by hoops, and were made in softer fabrics rather than the stiff bracaded or embroidered silks.


In 1770s a fashion arose for building the hair up into a huge pile above the head, by means od a large triangular thing called a cushion to which the hair was frizzed up with three or four enormous curls on each side; the higher the pyramid of hair, feathers and other ornaments was carried the more fashionable it was thought. These heads were not opened for a week or more with horribly unhygienic results.

As men's clothes, female wear became simpler as the time passed, with soft cotton fabrics, especially white muslin and lawn, being made into less voluminous garments. The hair too changed and was no longer built up into a pyramid, but allowed to fall in loose curls and only powdered for formal occasions. This is the style that enables Willoughby to cut off a long lock of Marianne's hair, as it lies tumbled down her back. By the end of the century the fashion of the very short waist arrived from France, with a light sash or ribbon tied immediately under breasts, and remained popular for the next twenty years; dresses were now at their skimpiest, nearly always white, and made of the thinnest of fabrics, and hair styled to be short and curly.


COSMETICS

As well as hairstyles, cosmetics are all part of female fashion, and here again the appearance of women's faces changed quite radically during Jane's lifetime. In the earlier part of the 18th century the fashion was for powdered hair, and a dead- white face with dark eyebrows, rouged cheeks and red lips. This style was achieved by using the proverbial "powder and paint". The powder itself could be more white lead, or kaolin clay or talc, all ground very fine. The eyebrows were trimmed and blackened or else disguised by gluing on false brows made of strips of mouse-skin. Black "patches"were also stuck on the face, either to provide a visual contrast against the white mask or more practically to cover up pimples; they were cut out of black velvet, taffeta or silk and were usually circular, but sometimes more elaborate shapes such as stars and crescents, or even birds and trees, were created. Patches continued to be used well into the 18th century.

By the 1780s the crude contrasts of "powder and paint" were going out of fashion, and cheeks were now simply dusted with talc and only lightly rouged, perhaps with a red leather imported from Brazil; the colour of the lips was strengthened with carmine or with lipsticks made from ground and coloured plaster of Paris. Even though powder and paint were no longer used, a pale complexion was still admired, hence Miss Bingley's sneer that Miss Eliza Bennet was grown so brown and coarse - to which Darcy chivalrously replies that he perceived no alteration than her being rather tanned, - no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.

There is no evidence that either Jane or Cassandra Austen ever used such cosmetics and with her pink cheeks Jane would certainly never have needed rouge.


PASTIMES, SOCIAL ACTIVITIES AND CULTURAL PURSUITS


One of the girls' favourite social activity was dancing, for this was the chief way in which young people could become acquainted with each other in a respectable and carefully chaperoned environment. Modern readers are sometimes puzzled as to why dance scenes have so prominent a place in Jane Austen's novels; but in her lifetime the dance floor was the best, and indeed almost the only place, where marriage partners could be identified and courtship could flourish.
With or without dancing, music was an important part of entertainment in the evening and girls were usually taught to play the harpsicord, piano, harp or guitar.

Theatre-going was primarily an urban entertainment for the winter months.For more private entertainment there were always books which were expensive - Emma in 1816 cost a guinea which was the weekly salary upon which a poor curate might have to keep himself and his family. Novels, especially the romantic tales of mystery and horror that were so popular then - The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Romance of the Forest, The Midnight Bell- were considered to be conducive to frivolity and immorality, especially among female readers - but the Austens were great novel-readers.

Letter-writing was an essential part of social life , both to maintain family connections and to act as mini-newspapers. Apart from letters, women but also men kept "pocket-books", very small printed diaries with room for just a few words on the page.

Drawing and painting were usually female pastimes as well as the various kinds of needlework popular at the period, fine sewing and embroidery.

6 comments:

Elvira said...

I'm so glad I wasn't born in those times!

So well written, Maria Grazia! Thanks again!!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Elvira
Yes, apart from having the chance of meeting a Mr Darcy or a Captain Wentworth, I can't see many advantages in being a woman at that time.
Thanks for your kind visit, sweet Spanish lady!
Have a nice weekend.

London Belle said...

I always wanted to be born in these times! Well so long as I was rich and wasn't a maid ; )!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@London Belle
In that case it wouldn't have been that bad living in that time. But anyway I prefer just dreaming about living at that time and go on living nowadays ... with all its troubles. Being a woman has never been easy!
Thanks for your contribution!

Kate Diamond said...

Your post reminds me of the reasons I had such issues with the Meg Ryan movie, "Kate & Leopold." I rented it thinking, Hugh Jackman traveling through time... what's not to love?

I guess I just couldn't wrap my head around the idea that Regency life would be so much better because it was so much slower. Yes, we need to take a hard look at our modern priorities and spend a little more time relaxing. But I refuse to give up indoor plumbing and modern medicine!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Kate Diamond
I haven't seen the movie you've mentioned but I Think I've seen a trailer somewhere. Anyhow, I'm convinced each age has got its pros and cons and we must accept the fact that being a woman nowadays gives us more freedom but a very hard life coping with our working and family tasks.
Thanks for your contribution.