Thursday, 18 May 2017

Mistress: A Pride and Prejudice Variation

It's a pleasure to welcome Sophie Turner, to discuss the matter of Jane Austen's widows; don't forget to comment for your chance to win a copy of Sophie's book!

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Thank you so much for hosting me here, Catherine! I’m really excited to do my first guest post on your blog and share what it was like to write Elizabeth as a widow in my new book Mistress: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, with Parts Not Suitable for Those Who Have Not Reached Their Majority.

Mistress is a story that essentially ate my brain over the course of November, 2015, to the point where I almost unofficially did National Novel Writing Month (the story at that time fell short of true novel length, but in the time since, the gaps left during that flurry of initial writing have been filled in).

I had been considering writing a Pride and Prejudice variation with more adult content for some time, but I wanted it to be something different than what we often see in this genre and in romance generally – the experienced man and the virgin young lady. In order to do that without giving her some sort of ruinous present or past, that meant Elizabeth needed to be a widow.

But making her a widow created its own set of complexities that I needed to work through. Austen’s work includes an array of widows: Would Elizabeth be left near genteel destitution, like Mrs. Bates? Would she revel in her position, money, and power, a la Lady Catherine de Bourgh? She certainly didn’t seem the type to become a scheming Lady Susan, but perhaps circumstances would have required her to do so. Circumstances could even have required her to follow Mrs. Clay’s arc, and become a mistress.

None of these was quite the path I took Elizabeth down. Yes, Mistress does encompass both meanings of the word, but not in a Mrs. Clay or Lady Susan sort of manner.

The thing about widows during that time was that they could run a full gamut, from those who had married for financial security and entirely lost it after the death of their husbands, to those who possessed complete security and freedom. This was a time when any fortune and property a woman possessed went to her husband upon their marriage, and when women themselves were considered to be the property of their husbands. This makes marriage sound rather unappetizing, but married women at least had greater freedom to travel and to be in the company of men than unmarried women.

Truly the most free, in Georgian society, was the widow who had been left in good financial circumstances. She had control of her own money, she could be alone in the company of a gentleman, she could correspond with a gentleman without being engaged to him, and she could even embark upon an affair with minimal consequences, provided she was discreet. When Mr. Darcy takes a widowed Elizabeth out driving in his phaeton for several days in a row, there is no scandal, merely gossip to feed the rumor mill. This would have been very different for a Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

And it was this sort of widow I wanted Elizabeth to be – one with power, fortune, and control over her own choices. She is a rarity in that she is a young and beautiful widow with these things: death due to childbirth made widowers of her age far more common than widows. With the Longbourn estate now in her hands, she does not need to – indeed, she adamantly does not intend to – remarry. She’s had a very miserable time of it in her first marriage, having been required to submit to the will of someone who does not respect or appreciate her.

All of this means that even the deepest love may not be enough to compel her to marry, and I found this gave her courtship with Darcy a different power dynamic. She has a secure future, and control of her own life, which brings a great degree of risk to any prospect of remarrying. Yes, Darcy still has Pemberley to offer, but this is a different offer to a woman worth 40,000 pounds (the value of Longbourn), rather than 1,000 pounds. Once marriage vows were said in that era, they were generally for life: only the rich could afford divorce, and even then, it was quite scandalous and could only be brought forward by the husband.

That, in itself, makes widowhood very different during this era than it is today. In the Georgian era, while there were, of course, beloved spouses who died, the death of a spouse was the easiest (and for most the only) way to escape a bad marriage. Such is the case for Elizabeth, whose knees give out upon learning of her husband’s death; this is mistaken by the neighbourhood as a collapse in grief, not relief. Elizabeth may not hold Lady Susan’s callous attitude towards the death of a spouse, but she still feels the benefit of it.

Darcy certainly has his work cut out for him. In order to win Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, he has to win so many facets of her: her heart, mind, soul – and yes, body. The latter, as the adult-ness of this story indicates, proves to be the most challenging. And yet, because Elizabeth is a widow, this is far less scandalous than it would have been if she was unmarried. Instead of the experienced man and the virgin young lady, we have a well-read-but-minimally-experienced man and an experienced-but-it-was-a-bad-experience lady.

Will Darcy succeed, and convince her to embark upon a second marriage? The answer to that is at the core of Mistress.

Readers interested in learning more about the widows and widowers depicted in all of Austen’s works should give a read to this excellent analysis.

And readers interested in winning your choice of either the ebook or paperback of Mistress should comment below! Two winners will be randomly selected from the comments.
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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Jane Austen Project

It's a delight to welcome Kathleen Flynn, author of The Jane Austen Project, for a delve into the lives of Regency servants!

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When I got the idea to write about some time travelers who go in search of Jane Austen, one concern was how her world would strike someone not native to it. What was the texture of everyday existence, and how could I depict it? 
One crucial difference is how so many tasks of daily life – heating and lighting our homes, keeping our bodies and our clothes clean, getting food on the table – have become infinitely less laborious in our world. We have electricity and running water; they had servants, at least people wealthy enough to afford them did. And even those pretty far down the economic ladder, like the Bates household in Emma, would have had at least a maid of all work. That would seem strange to many of us today -- having people around all the time who know such intimate details of your personal habits. True, lots of relatively well-off families have a nanny, or someone who comes by to clean the house, but this must have been considerably more intense. They’d be emptying your chamber pot, overhearing your conversations at dinner.  
How would my time travelers handle this? Arrived in 1815, they are posing as wealthy newcomers to London, an orphaned brother and sister in their 30s who have sold their family’s coffee plantation in Jamaica. When I visited house museums of the period, I tried to envision their house, and wondered about their imaginary servants. How many would they need; how would the household tasks be divided? And since they don’t know anyone and cannot get recommendations through word of mouth, how will they find them? What were servants paid, and how often? Did they all generally live in the house with their masters, even in town? 

I spent pleasant hours in the reading room of the New York Public Library with volumes like Housekeeping in the 18th Century and The British Abigail, but felt I was still nibbling around the edges of facts I needed. Then a blog post by a writer of historical fiction sent me on the trail of an out-of-print book not in NYPL’s collection, which I was able to find used through Amazon. 

When The Complete Servant arrived in the mail, I couldn’t believe my luck. A 1989 reprint of a work first published in 1825, it was written by two retired servants who’d started as footboy and maid-of-all-work, rising through the service ranks all the way to the top: house-steward and housekeeper. In its own time it was a guide both to servants and their employers, some of whom would have been new to wealth, unsure how to manage a household as large as the one they found themselves in charge of. For someone in the early 21st century trying to imagine domestic life of 200 years earlier, it was solid gold. 

After a modern introduction by a professor of economic and social history, there’s the original introduction by the co-authors with some heartfelt advice to both employer: “The mistress of a family will always recollect that, in all cases, the welfare and good character of her household depends on her own active superintendence” and employee: “The virtue of silence is highly commendable, and will contribute greatly to your ease and prosperity.”  

Then we get a series of chapters on each kind of servant, starting with the housekeeper and ending with the under gardener, dealing with, among others, the kitchen maid, the lady’s maid, the young lady’s maid, the servant of all work, the butler, the under butler, the valet, the footman and the hall porter – 33 such chapters, outlining the duties of each and the typical salary range. Of course, only the grandest houses would require 33 kinds of servants, so the book also suggests how some jobs may combine, like “Groom and Valet, or Footman.” 

Interspersed with descriptions of the servants’ duties is practical advice relevant to the job in question. The part devoted to the “Chamber Nurse” (which was not a full-time servant, but someone called in at times of illness) has sections on how to get rid of warts, how to “extinguish fires which may have caught the clothes” (a serious danger in a world of open flames and long cotton skirts) and “A method of restoring life to the apparently drowned.” The cook’s chapter has a list of “principal herbs, or vegetables used in English salads” (a sophisticated lineup including sorrel, watercress and chervil) and recipes for various sauces. It has advice about managing the fire: “Judicious cooks will perform their culinary operations with much less coal than those who erroneously believe that the greater the fire, the greater the dispatch.”

At this, and at many other points, I was struck by what a large array of practical skills have been effectively lost to time, though we like to imagine ourselves as much more advanced than the people of 1815.  Who could even start a fire with a flint and steel today, let alone cook an entire meal with the unpredictable heat of an open hearth? Impossible not to be amazed by all these forgotten people, our ancestors in possession of their now-forgotten skills, who kept the drawing rooms warm, the horses fed and shod, the wool carded, the butter churned and the stagecoaches running.

And this is not the end to the glories of The Complete Servant. Tables at the beginning offer guidance as to how many and what kind of servants one might be expected to have, according to a family’s income and size. My time travelers had to be wealthy enough to interest the gregarious London banker Henry Austen as potential customers as well as friends, yet not so rich that he would consider them too grand to introduce to his sister Jane, when she came to visit him in the fall of 1815. In the £1000 to £1500 annual income range, maybe, thus requiring something like:  “Four Females and three Men; viz -- A Cook, Two Housemaids, a Nursey-Maid or Other Female Servant; a Coachman, Footman, and a Man to assist in the Stable and Garden.”

Jane Austen’s novels are notable for being faithful to small details of everyday life and yet not getting bogged down in them. Her contemporary readers would have immediately grasped the significance of, say, Henry Crawford owning a barouche in Mansfield Park vs. Henry Tilney having a curricle in Northanger Abbey. (I would think of it as something like a Land Rover vs. a Mini-Cooper convertible.) They would have understood why Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park was so pleased with the housekeeper at Sotherton because she did not serve wine at the second table and turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns. (The second table was where the lower-ranking servants ate. To me, the most fascinating implication of this was that Sotherton’s more important servants apparently did expect wine with their meals. White gowns indicate that the housemaids were imitating the fashions of those above them in social rank, a tendency The Complete Servant also sternly warns against.) But even though most modern readers would miss such nuances, their enjoyment of Jane Austen’s wit and psychological insight is not decreased.
Anyone writing a story set in the distant past faces knows the challenge of capturing the flavor of its strangeness without over-describing. In my excitement after discovering The Complete Servant, I put in a great detail of fascinating (to me at least) details about household management that some early readers gently pointed out were excessive, and slowing down the action. I went back and took most of them out. Yet I had a sense I’d not before, of feeling more firmly anchored in the world of 1815, of having a sense of the world beyond the page. I can only hope readers will too.

The Jane Austen Project, due out on May 2, 2017, is available as an e-book, a paperback, and an audiobook. Here are some buy links:
On Twitter at @AustenProject, on the web at kathleenaflynn.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kathleenaflynnauthor. Email newsletter signup at https://tinyletter.com/kathleenaflynn.

About the author
Kathleen A. Flynn grew up in tiny Falls Village, Conn., the daughter of an electrician and a kindergarten teacher. Currently a copy editor at The New York Times and resident of Brooklyn, Flynn has taught English in Hong Kong, washed dishes on Nantucket, and is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The Jane Austen Project is her first novel.



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Essentials of Georgian Landscape Gardening

It's a delight to welcome an old friend back to the salon today; please do enjoy this look at the essentials of Georgian Landscape Gardening by Claire Cock-Starkey.

I'll be posting a full review of Claire's marvellous new book, The Golden Age of the Garden, later this month but, with half the book still to go, I'm delighted to report that it's another wonderful, essential read!

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The Essentials of Georgian Landscape Gardening

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a golden era of garden design in England – the Renaissance formal gardens with their elaborate geometric hedges, clipped lawns and ordered planting made way for the more naturalistic style of the landscape garden. Designers such as William Kent, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton, inspired by nature, transformed the English landscape.
During the Georgian period the English garden became a subject for intellectual debate, with writers and thinkers discussing the national landscape. Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) was one of the most influential tomes on English gardening, helping to frame the ideas of the landscape garden:
‘Gardening, is the perfection to which it has been lately brought in England, is entitled to a place of considerable rank among the liberal arts. It is as superior to landskip [landscape] painting, as a reality to a representation: it is an exertion of fancy, a subject for taste; and being released now from the restraints of regularity, and enlarged beyond purposes of domestic convenience, the most beautiful, the most simple, the most noble scenes of nature are all within its province: for it is no longer confined to spots from which it borrows its name, but regulates also the disposition and embellishments of a park, a farm, or a riding; and the business of a gardener is to select and to apply whatever is great, elegant, or characteristic in any of them; to discover and to shew all the advantages of the place upon which he is employed; to supply its defects, to correct its faults, and to improve its beauties. For all these operations, the objects of nature are still his only materials.’
Uvedale Price 

Essayist Uvedale Price (1747–1829) and artist, cleric and writer William Gilpin (1724–1804) were both preoccupied with the idea of the picturesque, a recently coined term which at that time applied to a view which might invite the landscape painter to capture it. Uvedale Price considered many aspects of nature in his An Essay on the Picturesque (1796):
 ‘Among trees, it is not the smooth young beech, or the fresh and tender ash, but the rugged old oak, or knotty wych elm, that are picturesque; nor is it necessary they should be of great bulk; it is sufficient if they are rough, mossy, with a character of age, and with sudden variations in their forms. The limbs of huge trees, shattered by lightning or tempestuous winds, are in the highest degree picturesque; but whatever is caused by those dreaded powers of destruction, must always have a tincture of the sublime.’ 
With this background of intellectual discussion on the nature of beauty many contemporary gardeners took these ideas and began to apply them to gardening, ushering in a style more sympathetic to nature, and yet carefully planned to lend variety and interest. One of the innovations which characterises Georgian era gardens was the use of the ha, ha!:
‘The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe first thought was Bridgman’s) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of foss├Ęs – an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha’s! to express their surprize at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk . . . I call a sunk fence the leading step, for these reasons. No sooner was this simple enchantment made, than levelling, mowing and rolling, followed. The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonized with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without.’
 – The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening by Horace Walpole (1780)
By opening up the views to the fields beyond it allowed the garden to become part of a wider landscape. This idea informed the design of the garden itself with serpentine paths allowing the visitor to wander through the garden, greeted with a new vista at every turn.
Painshill
The Georgian landscape garden although inspired by nature it was very much planned by man. A fashion for building ruined follies, secluded hermitages and decaying bridges persisted, providing moments of drama in the garden or places of contemplation. Bodies of water were also popular, from a modest fountain to the dramatic cascades and jet d’eaus seen at gardens such as Chatsworth.
Trees were planted in groves, belts and clumps (something Uvedale Price took great dislike for, remarking somewhat churlishly ‘But the great distinguishing feature of modern improvement, is the clump; whose name if the first letter was taken away, would most accurately describe its form and effect.’). The effect of planting trees in this way was to delineate the garden and draw the eye, great thought went into the planting of these groves and clumps, ensuring variety of form and colour.
Landscape gardening reflects the Georgian’s changing relationship with the national landscape – no longer did people want unnatural and artful formal gardens, instead they wanted large open parks, ridings and ornamented farms which allowed visitors to meander at their leisure. Landscape gardens provided an idealised version of English pastoral scenes, a style which has proved enduring as attested by the famed gardens at Chatsworth, Blenheim, Painshill and Stowe which still reflect their Georgian designs.

The Golden Age of the Garden by Claire Cock-Starkey published by Elliott & Thompson is released on 4 May 2017. 

Picture credits: Portrait (c. 1799), oil on canvas, of Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet (1747–1829), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, (1769–1830)

Engraving of Painshill by William Woolett, 1760s