In BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear a spencer, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing
What to wear if it’s cold? A spencer?
Replica spencers (BBC’s Persuasion)
As the Pride & Prejudice picture shows, the high-waisted Regency gown needed a particular kind of outerwear.
A normally-waisted coat would have ruined the shape of the lady’s silhouette. So fashion called for something special. The answer was the spencer.
From about 1804, the spencer was a short-waisted jacket with long sleeves. It could be prim and proper, buttoned up to the neck, as modelled by Mary Bennet (above). Or it could be rather more risqué, accentuating the bosom, as Jane Bennet’s does.
Most female servants had a pretty tough life over the centuries. They worked long hours at backbreaking menial tasks, they weren’t paid very much and they had little or no time off.
What’s more, they were often at the mercy of predatory men — employers or other servants. And if they fell pregnant as a result? It was their own fault, their own wickedness — of course! — and they would often end up in the gutter. Continue reading →
In the Georgian and Regency periods, higher social standing was demonstrated by having more and more male servants, like footmen. If they wore livery, so much the better. If they had little to do, employers did not care Ostentation was all.
In 1777, Lord North (often called “the Prime Minister who lost America”) proposed to tax male servants at a guinea a man to help pay for the American wars. He reckoned that some 100,000 menservants were kept for purposes of “luxury and ostentation”. (The tax was increased in 1785 and not completely repealed until 1889. You can read more about it in an extensive article on The Regency Redingote.)
The cost of keeping bewigged footmen increased again in 1795 when the tax on powdered hair began to be enforced, at a guinea a head. Opponents of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, stopped using powder themselves. They began to apply the term “guinea-pigs” to those gentlemen who still powdered their hair, and so paid the guinea in tax. Continue reading →
Downton Abbey — and Upstairs, Downstairs before that — can be a bit of a curse for writers. Why? Because both show us servants, below stairs, who are human and empathetic. Because they show us relationships between upstairs and downstairs that seem respectful on both sides, even cosy. And because they aren’t always true to history.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s turn to Mrs Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) for advice:
A servant is not to be seated … in his master’s or mistress’s presence; nor to offer any opinion, unless asked for it; nor even to say “good night,” or “good morning,” except in reply to that salutation. Continue reading →
Our guest blogger today is multi-published historical author Elizabeth Hawksley. She does more than write novels. Her plays have been performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, the Oxford Playhouse and the Edinburgh Festival. She is currently the UK Children’s Book Review editor for the Historical Novel Society Review and also teaches creative writing via courses, workshop and lectures.
It is not surprising that she is in demand on the platform. Many writers will remember a certain Sunday afternoon at the RNA Conference. Elizabeth recited the whole of Elinor Glyn with a perfectly straight face while her audience rolled around, aching with laughter and pleading to be given a chance to catch their breath. A real tour de force.
Today, Elizabeth is writing about emotion in the shrubbery and how it figures in the much-loved novels of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen : Emotion in the Shrubbery
In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery: a grassy area with shrubs, a few trees, a bench to sit on, and a winding gravel path. In essence, it was the antithesis of the formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature. Continue reading →