Better Late than Never – Part II: Fashion in Jane Austen’s World

Please see Kelly’s post below this for Part I – we have both been swamped these past two weeks and FINALLY getting to our respective posts on Hope Greenberg’s fabulous talk on fashion at our June 7th  JASNA-Vermont gathering …  with the beautiful backdrop of the Chapel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a capacity crowd …

First I append a guest post from our own Janeite Marcia: 

Fashionable Sunday in Montpelier

 Hope Greenberg’s presentation on Sunday June 7, 2009 provided much, much more than I imagined.  Who knew fashion was so complex? 

 For me, the most fascinating part was learning about how Austen used references to clothing and fashion to develop her characters.  While reading Sense and Sensibility, it was clear that Lucy Steele’s manners were lacking, her behavior even tacky.  Hope used the scene where Lucy inquires of Marianne regarding her clothing, and even her clothing allowance, to illustrate how Lucy is revealed as crass and ill-mannered. 

As Hope Greenberg described, in addition to Lucy’s inquires of Marianne, from Wickham’s (Pride and Prejudice) only needing regimentals, to Mrs. Allen (Northanger Abbey) talking of little but clothing, we are treated to exquisite development of many of the Austen characters by these brief, but powerful, references to wardrobe, clothing, and fashion.  We all accept that Lucy is uncultured, Wickham is without depth of character, and Mrs. Allen is a mere silly airhead.  These are the perfect, subtle, understated Jane Austen descriptions which leave the reader with no doubt of the author’s meaning, while wondering where the impression came from.  

While there are few enough references in the Austen novels regarding fashion and clothing, each of those mentioned by Hope Greenberg is amazingly revealing and powerful.  Thanks to Hope, those of us who attended on Sunday will be more aware of such references and techniques as we reread Austen and will certainly be able to better appreciate the genius of Jane Austen. 

It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Thank you to JASNA-Vermont!

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fashion plate walking dress

Thank you Marcia for your thoughts!   We were most fortunate to have Hope spend a few hours with us – as a Humanities Computing Specialist at the University of Vermont, Hope has combined her love of history and 19th-century material and literary culture with her love of historic clothing and English Country Dance – she offered us a visual feast [with a new Macintosh program that presented all the fashion illustrations in the mode of flipping the pages of a book!] taking us through the process of dressing a lady of fashion from her linen shifts, corsets, petticoats, dresses, pelisses /spencers, to her shawls, hats and muffs, reticules, and other accessories; and dressing the man of fashion with his shirts, breaches / trousers, weskits, cravats, jackets and the glorious greatcoat – all this shown in the various fabrics and textiles of the time, with Hope’s actual dresses, fashion illustrations, and photographs from the trove of 18th and 19th century clothing in the UVM Fleming Museum.  Hope ended her talk with a quick run through the various changes in fashion over the short period from the late 1780s to the 1820s – the French influence; the military influence; the return to the classical Egyptian and Grecian styles; the waist going up; the waist going down; the petticoat as an undergarment to the petticoat as part of the main dress; Beau Brummel’s affect on male fashion; the central role of the fashion magazines – all this in a short 2-hour whirlwind of muslin, linen and silk!  [alas!  we did go over a bit!]

And as Marcia mentions above – I too learned much from Hope’s references to Austen’s use of clothing details [or lack thereof] to delineate character – Willoughby’s shooting jacket; Nancy Steele’s obsession with her appearance; the lack of description of Bingley and Darcy, yet the emphasis on Wickham’s “regimentals”; Mrs. Bennet’s ridiculous concerns with wedding clothes and carriages; Lydia’s silliness about her bonnet; Mrs. Elton in Emma [no more need be said!]; Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey – and only Henry Tilney [dear Henry!] being “forgiven” for his extensive clothing musings!

So we heartily thank Hope for sharing her expertise with us – we are all alot wiser about Regency fashion and more attuned to Austen’s brilliant commentary.

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Ditto Kelly’s thanks for a gracious afternoon in Montreal, a la Donwell Abbey and strawberry picking; hearing a fascinating preview of Jan Fergus’s upcoming AGM talk on “Tensions between Brothers and Sisters in Austen’s Novels”; and sharing a delicious tea with other JASNA-Montreal members [my daughter joined me for this trek to Montreal – and she loved all the Austen chatter – it is my daughter after all who got me re-reading Austen when she was studying Emma in college nearly 20 years ago – she called me up to say she seemed to be the only one in the class who thought Emma was FUNNY – I knew then and there we had raised her right!]  Anyway, I digress – a huge thank you to Elaine Bander for a wonderful afternoon!

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And a little counterpoint to my blogging partner and cohort in JASNA-Vermont – who ever said that Knightley was a “namby-pamby”??  – I always viewed him as a very strong character – so we need to have a lively discussion about this!  And of course lots to discuss about Mr. Collins – I agree that the 1995 makes him out to be SUCH a dolt [and the Lost in Austen character is just too CREEPY!] – the Elizabeth Garvie P&P rendition is much truer to the book [the music alone captures his essence] – but think we need to go back to the novel to see what Austen really says about him – and she makes no bones about making him out to be quite ridiculous.  Kelly, we should have a session JUST on Mr. Collins – I think we could get a rousing discussion going! [there is also a book just on him by the way, titled “Mr. Collins Considered” – a great place to start, as well as the Irene Collins [no relation!] book on Austen and the clergy…]

mr collins brock illus

[illustration from Pemberley.com]

Posted by Deb

Better Late than Never

Long over due are many comments on VARIOUS Austen (or Austen-related) topics. I have been so lazy in completing my online thoughts on the Austen Symposium in Lennoxville, Quebec (March!), and when at lunch with Janeite MKay, and she asked about the play, I had the thought: Well, better late than NEVER! So thoughts on that, and the last talk will come — I promise!

A little closer in time are two JASNA meetings. Our own JASNA-Vermont chapter hosted HOPE GREENBERG in Montpelier on June 7th; and Montreal/Quebec City’s chapter hosted a ‘Donwell Abbey’ strawberry picking at Elaine Bander’s Montreal home.

Before I forget – since Donwell Abbey reminds me – David from Montpelier, who attended our meeting on the 7th (he is a JASNA member! Yeah, David!!), spoke about reading P.D. James. This brought up James’ JAS (Jane Austen Society; in Britain) lecture a decade-plus ago. I just happened to have a copy of that the year’s “Report” (as JAS’s journal is called). So in digging it out for David, I re-read it myself. She brings up some points (since she treats Emma as a detective novel) about ‘clues’ in the novel that is unique and thought-provoking. But for me the more startling ideas were thoughts fired by her comments on Mr Knightley! James painted a picture of an exceptionally strong man, one who not the namby-pamby many name him to be. Makes me want to pull the novel out again — and soon!

HopeGreenberg_orange-regencyHope’s illustrated lecture on Fashion was one of the most comprehensive I have ever had the priviledge to listen to. The amazing amount of pictures – drawn from paintings, clothing (who knew Burlington’s Fleming Museum had so much in their ‘attics’!!), period drawings, etc. – as well as the lovely gowns Hope had on display (including the one she wore!), all brought to our capacity audience, visually and virtually, the fashion in Austen’s era. Thank you, Hope.

One JASNA-Vermont couple, Jim and Carol, had this to say about the presentation: Sunday was delightful …We enjoyed the presentation, especially once the sound was turned up a bit [Hope was microphoned]. I thought the visuals were very effective and useful for someone who is not at all versed in the subtleties of Regency fashion. Indeed, I have been most impressed with the intellectual content and professionalism of all three presentation we have attended. We look forward to our next meeting!”

Thanks, Jim! Great to hear such words of encouragement.

David wrote succinctly: “Thank you for hosting such a nice event…It was the largest attendance I have yet seen at a lecture, although it was only my third.”

We do have a growing and attentive audience in the Montpelier region! ‘Thanks,’ to everyone who attended Sunday.

And David shared his opinion that to bring Austen elsewhere in the state would greatly increase our presence; he writes about having some thing in St. Johnsbury — someday.

For the Montreal JASNA meeting, I went in order to meet their guest speaker, Jan Fergus. Jan’s book on 18th century publishing in Britain utilized the 1730-40 ledger (held at the Bodleian) belonging to Robert Gosling — Mary Gosling’s great-grandfather (my diarist; see SmithandGosling.wordpress.com, my research blog). Jan decried the sloppiness of Norton’s recent Austen publications; she ‘would proof them for free’, she exclaimed, as she showed the handwritten notes in the rear cover of her copy. Her lecture was a preview of her AGM lecture – on Brothers and Sisters in Austen’s novels, of course (Jan centered Sunday’s talk on Jane and Elizabeth Bennet).

The food was plentiful – and the strawberries sweet and delicious! Elaine has a lovely home, and I’m sure everyone was grateful for the invitation to visit her perfumed garden (peonies!). The weather held off just enough to make the day quite pleasant.

Two of the Montreal members are off to England, Elaine Bander herself; and Peter Sabor gives a paper at the Chawton Conference. Someday I hope it’s me that is able to hop a plane and have people anticipate some talk I’m about to give…

Which reminds me again, and I will close with this thought, of my lunch with MKay. We got to discussing – what else! – P&P films (1980, 1995 and 2005), as well as Lost in Austen. And that brought around a discussion of Darcy and Mr Collins. Between this lunch and Jan Fergus’s talk, I am convinced more than ever that 1995 (and, by extension, the Lost in Austen series) got poor Mr Collins ‘wrong’; that Charlotte was never a martyr to her marriage (a match made in heaven? perhaps not; but NOT a match made in hell either…); and that there is more to the Darcy-Collins pairing than people are willing to admit (MY paper proposal for Chawton; not accepted, of course.)

Time’s a tickin’ and Sunday morning’s winding down; so I will get off my soap box and get back to my book – a fascinating look at Virigina Woolf’s servants: Mrs Woolf and the Servants, by Alison Light. A ‘souvenir’ from my Montreal trip…

Still haven’t heard if my registration for the AGM puts me in among the 550 members going to Philadelphia… I see the numbers, as of 6/19, now stand at 503.

And JASNA’s website announces the inclusion of Persuasions vol. 3 – published in 1981. We must applaud JASNA’s dedication (and those who put these journals online for all) in making these invaluable resources available, and for free!