Tag Archives: Jane Austen

The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

In honor of Jane Austen’s birth on December 16, 1775, I’m revisiting one of my favorite travel memories. In 2014, I visited the home where Jane lived in her last years. And I experienced Six (or fewer) Degrees of Separation from Jane.

Jane Austen lived the last few years of her too-short life in tranquil Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother, her cherished sister Cassandra, and a family friend. The women were pretty much penniless after the death of Jane’s father.  Like most single women of their time, they had to depend on the kindness of relatives for a roof over their heads.

Edward Knight

It was their good fortune that Jane’s brother Edward Knight was able to come to the rescue. Why was his name Edward Knight, not Edward Austen?  He had been formally adopted by a cousin of Jane’s father, Thomas Knight.  Thomas and his wife Catherine were wealthy and childless.  They made Edward their heir.  He inherited several estates, among them a grand house at Chawton.  The house came with a sizable but cozy cottage, which Edward made available to his mother and sisters for their lifetimes.

At last, in her thirties, Jane had a stable home.  She had begun writing as a teenager but had more or less given it up during the years that she had no settled home.  In Chawton, she established a routine of writing every morning at a little round table in front of the dining room window.  Her sister Cassandra took over morning household chores, giving Jane the freedom to write. In the afternoons, they took long walks in the countryside–just like Jane’s heroines. They also spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives, including the wealthy connections Edward Knight was able to give them.

On this humble little table, Jane wrote the classics we know and love: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Some of them she had begun earlier and had put away. Family lore had it that a squeaky door was purposely never oiled, so that Jane always had warning of visitors.  She would hastily hide her manuscript until the visitors had left.

Jane’s books dealt with the serious problems of women dependent on men for economic security.  As she knew all too well from her own life, an unmarried woman without a fortune of her own had very few options for survival. Jane spun her stories with humor, but also with hard-earned experience in understanding human conflicts.

I was deep in a discussion about Austen family history with a man stationed in the house, when I noticed that his name tag said, “Mr. Knight.”  Could it be?  Yes!  My Mr. Knight was a living, breathing, direct descendant of Jane’s brother! I think he looks just like his ancestor.

In Copenhagen this month, I loved seeing some outfits from Jane’s era in the Design Museum.

The Empire dresses first popularized by Josephine, the wife of Napoleon, were popular in Scandinavia as well as in Jane’s England.

I loved the puff detail on this one, which was made in Denmark’s colony in the Indies. (Taking care of fragile garments like this was the job of slaves–an unpleasant fact that countries like Denmark and England and America are still struggling to come to terms with). In one of her books, “Mansfield Park,” Jane touched on the subject.

Still, I can dream of a ladylike life in a peaceful English village. How about a little cotton jacket for a stroll in the garden?

I just found my DVD of my all-time favorite movie based on Jane’s work, “Persuasion.” It’s about maturity, regrets, making one’s own risky choices, and second chances. It stars Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw, and a long list of other fine British actors. I’ll be watching it today, and feeling grateful that in her short life Jane was able to write as much as she did.

Jane Austen and Me: Six Degrees of Separation

JaneHouseJane Austen lived the last few years of her too-short life in tranquil Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother, her cherished sister Cassandra, and and a family friend. The women were in a precarious financial state after the death of Jane’s father.  Like most single women of their time, they had to depend on the kindness of relatives for a roof over their heads.

Edward Knight

Edward Knight

It was their good fortune that Jane’s brother Edward Knight was able to come to the rescue. Why was his name Edward Knight, not Edward Austen?  He had been formally adopted by a childless cousin of Jane’s father, Thomas Knight.  Thomas and his wife Catherine were wealthy and childless.  They made Edward their heir.  He inherited several estates, among them a grand house at Chawton.  The house came with a sizable but cozy cottage, which Edward made available to his mother and sisters for their lifetimes.

At last, in her thirties, Jane had a stable home.  She had begun writing as a teenager but had more or less given it up during the years that she had no settled home.  In Chawton, she established a routine of writing every morning at a little round table in front of the dining room window.  Her sister Cassandra took over morning household chores, giving Jane the freedom to write. In the afternoons, they took long walks in the countryside–just like Jane’s heroines. They also spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives, including the wealthy connections Edward Knight was able to give them.

Jane's TableOn this humble little table, Jane wrote the classics we know and love: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Some of them she had begun earlier and had put away. Family lore had it that a squeaky door was purposely never oiled, so that Jane always had warning of visitors.  She would hastily hide her manuscript until the visitors had left.

Jane’s books dealt gently and humorously with the serious problems of women dependent on men for economic security.  As she knew all too well from her own life, an unmarried woman without a fortune of her own had very few options for survival.

I was deep in a discussion about Austen family history with a man stationed in the house, when I noticed that his name tag said, “Mr. Knight.”  Could it be?  Yes!  My Mr. Knight was a living, breathing, direct descendant of Jane’s brother! I think he looks just like his ancestor.

MeKnightIn England, it always seems to me that history comes to life!

Winter as a Child, Again

It is just over a year since I started my blog.  I decided to revisit my very first post, written when I was getting ready to travel to Vienna for the Christmas markets, the concerts and the museums–and of course the apple strudel.  Now I’m lucky enough to be leaving again for Vienna, one of my very favorite places.  Here’s to discovering new places and revisiting old ones!  A year ago, I wrote:

Travel is not just about being there.  Travel is about memory and anticipation.  As I pack my one small suitcase for Vienna in November, I am full of memories of past trips and high hopes for this one.

Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia
Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia

Last year, the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a special exhibit:  “Winter Tales.”  Paintings, sculpture and artifacts from all over the world were gathered in a glorious celebration of winter.  My very favorite piece was this portrait of a child with a fur-and-velvet muff and a scruffy little dog impatient for her to play:  “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Winter is so often personified as Death, or as a creaky old man.  Here, though, winter is a child full of hope and wonder.  She gazes out at us from the barren winter grounds of her British home, her face as fresh as the day she was painted in 1776 at the age of two or three.

This is not a glamorous society portrait.  It is only about 57 x 45 inches (just the right size to place over my fireplace, if I could afford such a thing!)  I can imagine the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, age 51 at the time, encountering Lady Caroline in the bare winter grounds of her home.  Anyone would be captivated by her rosy-cheeked face and direct gaze.  I can see Sir Joshua dashing off a sketch and finishing the portrait back in his studio.  It would have made a nice break from painting his more demanding adult subjects, who proudly posed with the emblems of their wealth and power:  swords, globes, weighty books, jewels and fine silks.

The British Peerage tells us that Lady Caroline was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. She married the 6th Marquess of Queensberry (slightly lower in rank than a Duke, but who’s keeping score?) She had 6 surviving children and lived to the age of 80.  So she was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen, although Jane died at age 41.  I’d like to think Lady Caroline read Jane’s books.

Lady Caroline was a privileged child.  As she grew up, no doubt she learned that many children were cold and dirty and hungry.  Her rank would come with some responsibilities to take care of the less fortunate.  She lived through the American Revolution, the Terror in France, and the Napoleonic Wars.  And we all know that even for the most privileged, life holds heartbreak and disappointment.  But on this wintry day, all that is in the future.  In this perfect moment, Lady Carolin stands on her sturdy little legs, happy to be walking about in the wide world.

Vienna is an enchanting city in any season, but my favorite time there is winter.  The Christmas season begins in late November, an ideal time for crowd-free travel.  I do not have a fur muff or a scruffy little dog, but I am setting off for Vienna with all the anticipation of a child at Christmas.

Jane Austen, Wallet-Sized

It was big news this week when the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen’s face will appear on 10-pound notes beginning in 2017.

Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below

Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below

Notice the quotation below Jane’s portrait?  It reads, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”  Now critics are complaining that these words were spoken not by one of Jane’s heroines, but by a materialistic snob in Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley.  When she speaks the line in the book, it’s only to try to gain the attention of Mr. Darcy, which to her consternation Elizabeth Bennet is monopolizing in the drawing room.

I look forward to a  lively debate about what quotation would be more suitable.  I don’t mind this one, though.  After all, Jane Austen was a wise enough writer to allow characters other than her heroes and heroines to speak the truth once in awhile.  I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, described as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”  Yet she speaks sincerely and truthfully about the difficulties of marrying off five daughters with no fortunes of their own. “If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield…and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

This brings me to one of my favorite lines in Jane Austen, and indeed in all of literature: the opening line of Pride and Prejudice.  It reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  That one line encompasses not only the whole plot of the great novel, but the workings of an entire social and economic system.

In a recent interview, another of my favorite authors, Hilary Mantel, commented, “I love Jane Austen because she’s so shrewdly practical; you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.”

I’m sure Jane would be amused and delighted to find herself on the face of a ten-pound note, whatever the quotation under her portrait.

The article about the new currency is at

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/jane-austen-bank-note-earns-huzzahs-and-nitpicking/?_r=0

The interview with Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall  and Bring Up the Bodies, is at

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/books/review/hilary-mantel-by-the-book.html

Join me next time for more explorations into the art, history, and literature of Europe and the British Isles.

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Jane Austen in Tel Aviv

I just saw a fine Israeli movie, Fill the Void, that could have been written by Jane Austen–if she’d spent some time in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. The director, Rama Burshtein, is an insider in this community–and she specifically said she had Jane Austen in mind when working on this movie.

"Fill the Void" poster, from Ebert review cited below

“Fill the Void” poster, from Ebert review cited below

The men wear prayer shawls, various Old-World-looking hats, and ringleted forelocks.  The women wear modest but attractive outfits, with a lot of fussy detail. The women clearly take great care with their appearance. Turbans cover their hair once they are married.  Only the single women are bareheaded. The sexes are informally separated during gatherings at homes or in the synagogue–the women sit in the next room, but everyone can see and speak with everyone else if they try.

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

As in an Austen novel, the purpose of a woman’s life is to marry.  Here, the point is not so much to marry a rich man–it seems that in this group, an adequate income is assumed.  (The rabbi distributes money on request during a holiday celebration. Is this communal money, or is it the private money of the rabbi? I couldn’t tell, but the rabbi’s wife clearly knows all about whatever finances are involved). The point here is to marry within the group, and to marry someone compatible. Compatibility is very hard to gauge, though, when there is no dating as we know it.

There is a very constrained code of behavior, as in an Austen novel. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice, when oafish Mr. Collins walks right up to Mr. Darcy and begins babbling about a mutual acquaintance, WITHOUT A FORMAL INTRODUCTION.  In the Israeli movie, single men and women are strictly shielded.  In the opening scene, a mother and daughter stalk a prospective bridegroom in a grocery store, just to get a glimpse of him from a distance. As in an Austen novel, the women never question their place in this social system.  They just accept it as their reality.  However, just as in Austen novel, the women have their ways of influencing the men who are nominally in charge.

It goes without saying that to everyone in this community, this way of life, though constrained, is precious. In the sorrowful history of the last century, countless communities like this one disappeared forever.

The plot is simple:  an 18-year-old girl is giddy with the prospect of marriage to the young man glimpsed in the grocery store.  But her family hesitates because a tragedy intervenes, and the young man’s family withdraws the offer.  The tragedy is that the girl’s pregnant sister dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving a tiny son and a grieving widower who, everyone agrees, must marry again.  There is an offer from a woman in another Hasidic community in Belgium.  The girl’s mother can’t bear to part with her first and only grandchild.  So she puts pressure on the widower, some years older, to marry her 18-year-old daughter.  She puts even stronger pressure on her daughter, even though her husband, the rabbi, does not think the match appropriate.

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The way the dilemma works out is fascinating and touching.  A senior rabbi, meeting with the couple, asks, “How does the girl feel about the match?”  The girl replies, “It is not about feelings.  It is the right thing to do.”  He smiles gently and says, “It is ONLY about feelings.”  I can see the appeal of this way of doing things.  The elders are wise and loving.  They have seen a lot of life, and they truly have the best interests of the young people at heart–mixed, of course, with their own very human needs.

The rituals depicted are ancient, mysterious (at least to me) and moving.  We see a mourning group sitting shiva, a Purim holiday celebration, Sabbath meals, formal community gatherings, a circumcision, a betrothal, and a wedding.

One big difference between this world and Jane Austen’s world is that here, there seems to be no dissembling or hiding of one’s true feelings.  The emotions of the community members are palpable, whether in joy or in sorrow.  In this insular community, I suppose no secrets can be kept for long.  And anyway honesty is clearly a core value. At times of high emotion, the people have a habit of rocking back and forth in their seats–so they really wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But as in an Austen novel, a person’s fate turns on a look, a gesture, a few quiet words spoken, a note quickly written and read just in time by the right person.  As in an Austen novel, a woman’s fate depends on her luck in marriage. I have not been to Tel Aviv, and if I go I will probably not see the inside of a Hasidic community.  Many cultures have contributed to the Europe we know today. I very much enjoyed this intimate and detailed look into a culture that somehow feels both alien and familiar.

The film has won numerous awards.  The ending is ambiguous; one hopes these characters have made choices that will make them happy.

The late Roger Ebert had a very sensitive review of the movie.  It is at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fill-the-void-2013. The Variety review, which mentions the Jane Austen connection, is at http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/fill-the-void-1117948164/.

If I Could Choose a Tiara…

My choice would be the Devonshire Tiara. It’s ensconced in a display case among many other treasures at Chatsworth, one of my very favorite English stately homes.

And my favorite wearer of this tiara?  That would be Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Her home, Chatsworth, has been the seat of the rich and influential Cavendish family since 1549, when Bess of Hardwick decided to settle in the area.

Bess of Hardwick was a remarkable woman who deserves a few posts of her own, along with posts about glorious Hardwick House nearby. Both houses are in Derbyshire, in the magnificent walking country that Elizabeth Bennet famously visited in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Many people think Chatsworth was a model for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberly.  Jane Austen herself was staying in the nearby town of Bakewell while she was writing the novel. But I’m told that Chatsworth was actually mentioned, separately from Pemberly, in the novel. (Some scholars read Jane Austen very carefully!)

Chatsworth, like Highclere, is still in the family of the heirs to the property.  But keeping it so has been a saga of its own.  Credit in recent years goes to my favorite duchess, Deborah Devonshire.  She was the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters.  She married Andrew, a younger son of the Cavendish family, in 1941.

When the heir, Andrew’s older brother William, was killed in action in World War II, Andrew suddenly became the heir and Deborah was in line to become the Duchess.  In 1950, the 10th Duke died and Andrew became the 11th Duke. Deborah became the Duchess.

In her memoir, Wait for Me, Deborah describes how the Cavendish family had carefully (and legally) planned to circumvent the “death tax” laws by signing over the property to the heir a number of years before the death of the sitting Duke.  But the 10th Duke died very unexpectedly just a few months short of the effective date.  So the tax blow was crushing.  Deborah rolled up her sleeves and turned Chatsworth into a thriving, money-making enterprise that still honors history and shares its glories with the public.

When the American businessman Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to England, his daughter Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy met and married William Cavendish, then heir to the dukedom.  He was killed in combat, and she died in a plane crash shortly after the war.  She is buried at Edensor, the village at Chatsworth.  President John F. Kennedy became a great friend of Deborah’s.  (I’m assuming he called her Debo, as she was always known to her friends.  I imagine she called him Jack). She and her husband were invited to his Inauguration in Washington.  She gleefully attended, but kept committing the faux pas of calling it his “coronation.”  Irrepressible–that’s how I like my duchesses!

Today, Deborah is the Dowager Duchess–which means her husband has died, a new Duke is in place, and the new Duke’s wife is the actual Duchess.  (This is the same situation as on the show Downton Abbey, where Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith, is the Dowager Countess of Grantham). Deborah is 93 now, the last of the famous (some say notorious) Mitford sisters.  She lives in the village of Edensor, which is part of the Chatsworth estate. She still oversees the commercial enterprise she created.  She loves Elvis Presley. And she keeps prize chickens, some of which roam the beautiful grounds at Chatsworth.

Chatsworth Chickens

Chatsworth Chickens

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles, with a special emphasis on colorful personalities!