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Men Wore Corsets and 7 Other Unknown Things About the World of Jane Austen

Exploring the life and times of the beloved English novelist

Portrait of Jane Austen, from the memoir by J. E. Austen-Leigh. Image from Wikimedia Commons

With Jane Austen confirmed as the next face of England’s ten-pound note and yet another Austen-themed film on the way, the global phenomenon surrounding the novelist shows no signs of abating. Recently, a group of D.C.-area fans indulged their Austenmania at the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Life at Pemberley: Ever After with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.” Sandra Lerner, founder of the Chawton House Library and author of Second Impressions (a sequel to Pride and Prejudice), served as mistress of ceremonies and covered matters mundane and monumental in the life and times of Jane Austen. Below, dear readers, are some of the insights she had to offer:

  1. Jane Austen didn’t have a clue about money. She wrote during the Regency era (1775-1817), when England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, mass rural-to-urban migration, and transition from a barter to a cash economy. People from all walks of life struggled to adjust to the new paradigm. The wealthy, who had no concept of cash, took to gambling and often accrued astronomical debts. Jane Austen lived in the country, where the subject of money was still strictly taboo, and the fuzzy figures in her novels reflect her financial ignorance. According to Lerner, Mr. Darcy’s income of £10,000 a year was grossly unrealistic for a time when even a politician like Charles Fox held more than £100,000 in debt. Lerner estimates that Darcy would have needed an income of at least ten times as much to manage both his London house and his Pemberley estate.
  2. Men wore corsets. Gentlemen as well as ladies shaped their waists in the Regency era. Ladies’ corsets were relatively forgiving, providing lift rather than Victorian-era constriction.
  3. Pants were the latest in men’s fashion and would have been considered outré in Jane Austen’s social circle. Breeches and stockings were still the norm in the country.
  4. Regency dance was a blend of high and low culture. In the wake of the French Revolution, English elites abandoned stately and elegant dance styles in favor of traditional country dance; even the well-to-do knew these lively jigs from their summer holidays in the country. Regency dance adapted these folk styles to courtly tastes, replacing the claps, hops and stomps with dainty steps and baroque music while retaining the rustic flavor of the original.
  5. Ladies led, gentlemen followed. Regency-era dances were designed to showcase eligible young ladies. The lady always moved first, and the gentleman’s duty was to guide her through the dance and protect her from any errant Mr. Collinses on the dance floor. Couples danced very close to each other and with tiny, intricate steps to allow for conversation and flirtation.
  6. Downstairs was just as hierarchical as upstairs. A servant’s rank determined his or her contact with the masters of the house. Highest in the chain of command was the master’s steward, akin to a personal assistant, who managed all staff and household affairs. Under him, the butler and the housekeeper supervised male and female staff, respectively. The lower one’s rank, the more physically demanding the work; scullery maids, lowest of the female servants, were expected to clean and scour the kitchen for 18 hours a day. Rank was always more important than tenure, meaning that a footman of ten years ranked no higher than a butler of five. These conventions did not change until after World War I.
  7. Jane Austen was preceded by a long line of female authors. Some two thousand novels came before hers, mostly written by poor single women and deemed unsavory by contemporary standards. The majority of these works have been lost to posterity because, in the straitlaced Victorian era, England’s royal repositories declined to preserve them. The Chawton House Library strives to uncover this forgotten legacy by sponsoring research and acquisition of women’s writing from the period 1600-1830.
  8. Jane Austen’s novels are not “chick lit.” Benjamin Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 17 times. Sir Walter Scott called Austen’s “talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life. . . the most wonderful I ever met with.” Winston Churchill maintained that her words kept him going through the Second World War. With citations like these, it should be a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was and still is important.

 

Austen enthusiasts modeled Regency-era fashion at the July 27 Smithsonian Associates event. Photo by Vicky Gan

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About Vicky Gan

Vicky Gan, a former editorial intern at Smithsonian Magazine, currently works for the Washingtonian.

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