Monday, May 3, 2010

Austerity and Austen

I have just finished reading this book:

Written by an Austen scholar, Deirdre Le Faye, it covers food, society, housing, manners, clothes, money, travel, politics and paints a compelling picture of the way the landed gentry lived their lives in the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

(entrance hall, Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire)

I have never been particularly passionate about Jane Austen.  I know people say she is modern and fresh and funny, but I still find it hard to really bury myself in her books.  But strangely, this book, a  book about the world of her books, is very absorbing.   

As we are all domestic warriors, upcycling, reusing and conserving like crazy today, this passage resonated:

'Jane Austen used simple cosmetics of Martha's making: hard pomatum, from beef and mutton suet, beeswax and scent essence; coral toothpowder, from prepared powdered coral and cuttlefish bone mixed with powdered cassia bark and coloured pink; cold cream from spemaceti*, white wax, oil of sweet almonds and rosewater; rose pomatum from roses, lard and white wax..... it was quite usual to make one's own writing ink and shoe-blacking at home; to clean silks and gauzes with a mixture of honey, soft soap and whisky or gin; to whiten silk stockings by hanging them up in the fumes of burning sulphur; to mix one's own varnish for small tables; and to whitewash rooms, tinting with indigo for a blue wash and with Dutch pink ... for a buff wash'.

(*Spermaceti is a white waxy substance from the oil of sperm whale).

But back to decor.   Georgian interiors were characterised by their simple spare lines, except for rooms for show such as drawings rooms.  This is the period where people had just begun to use curtains rather than folding wooden casement windows. 

I think these Georgian kitchens actually have a lot in common with the spare simplicity we seek in many of our own kitchens:

This is how and when Jane Austen and her contemporaries ate:

"Once breakfast was finished at about 11 o'clock, the 'morning' by contemporary standards, lasted right through until about four o'clock in the afternoon or later, when a large and lengthy dinner was served.  There was no fixed luncheon in the middle of the day but it was courteous to offer refreshment to morning callers.... any combination of cold meat, sandwiches, cake and seasonal fruit might be served on a tray....  The style of dining was a la francaise - that is, all the food was laid out on the table at the same time, to be ready as the diners walked in: the dishes would vary in number from 5 to 25.'

And think about how we work and write, in brightly lit rooms with large desks, huge computer screens and  cushioned chairs.  

My desk at home with cord chewing new kitten, Pepper, reading the Age on line. 

And this is where Jane Austen occasionally wrote:

(Images: (3)-(5) from Georgian Style - Contemporary Living by Henrietta Spencer Churchill (6) Jasper Conran's kitchen in Walpole House (8) Jane Austen Museum)


brismod said...

What an interesting book! And why didn't I think of whitening my stockings with the fumes of burning sulphur?? As much as I like Jane Austen and her books, I certainly don't wish to be any of her characters living in those times!

Julie@beingRUBY said...

Hi Jane..
Fascinating book and fascinating post.. I like your comparisons to how we live now... I imagine their eco ways may have been for monetary reasons.. ..

Kitty is a cutey and I see you are ensuring her education starts at a young age!!! Have a lovely week.. xx Julie

Unknown said...

Thanks for the book review. I like Jane Austin's novels and love history so I'll have to look out for this book at our library! Kitty is sooo cute!!!

Mise said...

This looks like a very interesting book, Jane. In my womanly way, I've always been as interested in the fine domestic detail of history as in its grand sweep, and how people painted and made do would be right up my street, especially in the context of Jane Austen, whose acute observation of human foibles I've always enjoyed. That last sentence there was too long; excuse me.

Debra said...

I feel the same about Jane Austen-but I do keep trying. Perhaps this one will be added to my growing list of must-haves. Now about these interiors... just lovely. Now excuse me while I stir my batch of ink!

Amanda (Small Acorns) said...

I'd have to agree with Anita - much as I also love Jane Austen, I think I might take much of life's little necessities for granted these days. I don't grind up many cuttlefish bones to keep my teeth white. This book sounds right up my alley - will have to go & find it.

Monika said...

I am not really a fan to be honest, but these quotes seem to be very interesting and valid. I love your choices for Jane Austen inspired interiors.

Josephine Tale Peddler said...

Hello Jane, what a lovely post and the book sounds really interesting. I've never been a Jane Austen girl as I tend to favour the Brontes more. I keep meaning to go back to her books. I might enjoy them more than when they were forced upon us at school.xx

Katrina said...

I must admit I have never read one of her books - I think I would need to concentrate too hard arrgh! Thanks so much for visiting my new blog too :)

Jules said...

Jane Austen had style!

Jacqueline @ HOME said...

Dear Jane,
The book looks really interesting and I must find myself a copy. I love the kitchen that you have shown but, not the size of kitchen that most of us in England have, unfortunately. What on earth would Jane Austen make of this computer age, I wonder ? About the same as little Pepper, I guess.!! XXXX XXXX

Maria | Vintage Simple said...

I can see how a book about her world as it was would be a good read... especially to put her own work in context.

I love the shots and quotes you chose to share, dear. Thank you. And Pepper? That is one smart kitty.


Tina said...

Oh thanks for introducing me to this book Jane! I think I have found what I will be reading during my semester break:) Love your little Pepper, so sweet! ~ Tina x

red ticking said...

fabulous post... and i LOVED your comment.. made me laugh... too bad we cant always have a tummy and strut like that... he he

Anonymous said...

My cat never played with any of the toys I bought her, she preferred playing with an olive or passing the time chewing electrical cords.
Fearing electrocution, I finally came upon a bottled hot habenero sauce which I rubbed on the wires.
Good luck.
X David

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