Collecting Jane Austen: ‘The Accomplished Lady’ by Noël Riley

“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

   “All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

   “Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

   “Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

   “Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.

“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

   “Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

   “Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”

   “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

   “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

   “Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?”

   “I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”

[Pride & Prejudice, Vol. 1, Ch. 8]

*********************

And so, to truly understand what Mr. Darcy is driving at, to understand anything about Jane Austen’s world, you need to study this quite formidable lady, if indeed such a one existed! – and there is no better book on the subject than Noël Riley’s The Accomplished Lady: A History of Genteel Pursuits c.1660-1860 (Oblong, 2017).

“This is a study of the skills and pastimes of upper-class women and the works they produced during a 200-year period. These activities included watercolours, printmaking and embroidery, shell work, rolled and cut paper work, sand painting, wax flower modelling, painting on fabrics and china, leather work, japanning, silhouettes, photography and many other activities, some familiar and others little known.

The context for these activities sets the scene: the general position of women in society and the constraints on their lives, their virtues and values, marriage, domestic life and education. This background is amplified with chapters on other aspects of women’s experience, such as sport, reading, music, dancing and card-playing.” [from the book jacket].

Table of Contents:

Introduction

1.  A Woman’s Lot
2.  Educating a Lady
3.  Reading and Literary Pursuits [my favorite chapter]
4.  Cards, Indoor Games and Theatricals
5.  The Sporting Lady
6.  Dancing and Public Entertainment
7.  Music
8.  Embroidery
9.  Threads and Ribbons
10. Beadwork
11. Shellwork
12. Nature into Art
13. Paperwork
14. Drawing and Painting
15. Creativity with Paints and Prints
16. Japanning
17. Penwork
18. Silhouettes
19. Photography and the Victorian Lady
20. Sculpture, Carving, Turning and Metalwork
21. Toys and Trifles.

Includes extensive notes, an invaluable bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an index.

I have mentioned before that in collecting Jane Austen, you will often go off into necessary tangents to learn about her Life and Times – this can take you in any number of directions, but understanding the Domestic Arts of the Regency period is an absolute must – and there are MANY books on the subject, cookery alone could fill shelves. But here in this one book we find a lavishly illustrated, impeccably researched study of all the possible activities a lady of leisure [no cookery for My Lady] can get herself caught up in….whether she becomes accomplished or not is beyond our knowing, but certainly Mr. Darcy would find at least ONE lady in these pages who might meet his strict requirements, despite Elizabeth’s doubting rant.

The Georgian Society of East Yorkshire offers a nice review here with a sample page: http://www.gsey.org.uk/post/992/book-review-the-accomplished-lady-a-history-of-genteel-pursuits-c-16601860-by-nol-riley

It is always a worthwhile effort to check the index of every book you pick up to see if Jane Austen gets a mention. And here we are not disappointed – Austen shows up on many pages, and five of her six novels are cited in the bibliography – all but Persuasion for some odd reason – one would think Anne Elliot’s skills at the pianoforte would have merited a mention?

This image of page 165 quotes Austen about patchwork when she writes to Cassandra on 31 May 1811:“Have you remembered to collect peices for the Patchwork?”

So, let’s stop to think about the varied accomplishments of Austen’s many female characters…anyone want to comment and give a shout out to your own favorite and her accomplishments / or lack thereof? Is anyone up to Mr. Darcy’s standards?

©2021 Jane Austen in Vermont

One thought on “Collecting Jane Austen: ‘The Accomplished Lady’ by Noël Riley

  1. I always remember a scene in Charlotte Brontes novel Shirley where the mother of one particular family is treated abominably by her sons and her husband. They see her as week and insubstantial in other words a woman. She has moments when she goes into hysterical fits. That scene made me feel more than sad. It troubles me every time it comes to mind. And then you see this list above of what an accomplished woman should be. I know JA subtly undermines all this with her characters but the Mrs Norris’s of JA’s world whio we all hate is really a product of the crushing of women by that society. I don’t think I could bring myself to read the above. It would sicken me.

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