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:


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:

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

Book Review ~ Jane Austen’s Sewing Box

book cover jane austens sewing boxJane Austen’s Sewing Box: Craft Projects & Stories from Jane Austen’s Novels. 

by Jennifer Forest.  Murdoch Books Australia, 2009 

ISBN:  9781741963748, paperback, 224 pages.





 This is a lovely, sumptuous book.  When it first arrived, I did a quick skim – it is filled with photographs, decorated papers, fashion plates, quotes from Austen, and a good number of handiwork projects – hmmm, I thought, maybe one of those books that just looks nice but is of little substance – a coffee table [albeit a small one] book you look at once and then relegate it to collect dust in the “parlor” –  But on further study I found within these 224 pages a wealth of information – a brief but amazingly thorough introductory commentary on Regency historic and social life, the world of “women’s work” in Austen’s time, and the references to Austen’s many mentions of these real-life activities in her novels and letters.

 Ms. Forest has a background in history and cultural heritage, and combining this knowledge, her love of Austen and a “passion for fabric arts and crafts,” she has given us a treasure of a book.  With a starting point of finding Austen’s references to handi- and fancy work, Forest puts these quotes in their historical context, explains the meaning and use of the piece, and then provides instructions for each project – each of varying skill level, each a different task – there is knitting, sewing, embroidery, netting, paperwork, glasswork, and canvas-work, a total of eighteen different projects – from a letter case, linen cravat, fur tippet, to a pin cushion, reticule, bonnet and muslin cap – all mentioned by Jane Austen, and here lovingly replicated, with photographs of Regency era decorative arts and Ackermann’s fashion plates interspersed throughout. 

Best to show an example, so I will choose the huswife [page 100ff]  [ “the huswife was a small fabric case with pockets to hold all those tools for sewing and needlework – scissors, tape measure, thread, pins, and pin cushion”( page 104)]: 

This is a sewing task for beginners, with two pages of photographs of the finished piece, a short history of the huswife and its uses, a quote [all the quotes are written in script] from Emma where Austen uses the term [there is also a second quote from Sense & Sensibility spoken by Anne Steele] – here Miss Bates has misplaced a letter from Jane Fairfax that she later reads to Emma:

 “Thank you. You are so kind!” replied the happily deceived aunt, while eagerly hunting for the letter. “Oh here it is.  I was sure it could not be far off, but I had put my huswife on it, you see, and without being aware, and so it was hid.”  [page 104, quoting Emma]

 This is followed by a full page of blue decorated paper with a part of the quote, a full page fashion plate from Ackermann’s, and a full page of an art reproduction depicting a woman at her fancy work, then a full page photograph of a detail from a piece of Regency furniture [all photographs are from the Johnston Collection *], and then three pages of project instructions with black and white drawings, and a final photograph of a furniture detail.  This format and sequence is followed for each of the eighteen projects, ending with a list of suppliers, references and an index.

johnston collection desk

from The Johnston Collection


All these Austen quotes, taken out of context, are quite a wonderful discovery! – they can so easily be passed over in the reading – what indeed IS a huswife? or a tippet? [“Jane, dear Jane, where are you? here is your tippet.  Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet.”]  Or a transparency? [“and its greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill done for the drawing room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies…”] or a reticule? [“…a letter which she [Mrs. Elton] had apparently been reading aloud to Miss Fairfax, and return it into the purple and gold reticule by her side.”]  or “netting” for that matter [“They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses” says Charles Bingley]; and then of course Lady Bertram’s carpet-work and “yards of fringe!” 

This book opened up a whole new awareness of Austen’s writing in the NOW – her knowing what her readers would glean from these almost off-hand references [as in Mrs. Elton’s purple and gold reticule, “expensive colours that Austen possibly chose to sketch her character’s pretensions to grandeur, associated as they were with royalty and luxury.” [page 182] – and as always one is awed by Austen’s use of such fine details to delineate character.

fashion plate yellow dress


 The book is by no means comprehensive on the subject – but there are so many tidbits of Regency social life and customs, coupled with Austen’s words – I found in the reading an “oasis of calm”, a slowing down, a return to a time of sewing for the poor, or making your brother’s shirts (done in private), and your embroidery and fancy work and painting put on public display to show yourself as “an accomplished woman” [a la Mr. Darcy] – and the exquisite paper and decoration, the furniture details, and the fashion illustrations all combine to create this time-warp, invoking the Regency era and “its enthusiastic appreciation of design in all forms – dress, architecture, interiors, furniture, wallpaper and fabric” [page 17] – the whole sphere is beautifully presented in these pages and makes this a wonderful addition to your Jane Austen collection and a great starting point for your creative endeavors! 

5 full inkwells [out of 5]

* The Johnston Collection is “a Fine and Decorative Arts Museum, Gallery and Reference Library in East Melbourne, Australia.  It is no ordinary museum with roped off exhibits, but presents an astonishing and diverse collection arranged in the English Country House Style.”  Visit their website for the history, gallery exhibits, and a sampling of the treasures in the collection.

Posted by Deb