Now in it’s third year, Jane Austen Day is celebrated each summer at Soho House museum and this year’s celebration took place just over a week ago. Although Austen herself never visited Boulton’s home, the Georgian property provides the perfect setting to bring the world of her novels to life.
Austen was a novelist whose works earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Georgian society is the backdrop of all of Austen’s novels. Set during the reign of George III, they describe everyday lives, social hierarchies, gender roles, marriage, and the pastimes of well-off families. They provide an insight to the English society of this period.
Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. The support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. Her father was a clergyman and after his death, she, her mother and unmarried sister Casandra went to live in a cottage on her brother’s estate. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. It was in these later years Austen successfully published four novels which were generaly well-received: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. These works were published anonymously and brought her little personal fame. Austen’s most famous work remains Pride and Prejudice. In this novel her most beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet must navigate the complexities of life as a young woman of limited dowry. During Jane Austen Day Pattern 23 performed famous scenes from Austen’s books, including Mr. Collins ill conceived marriage proposal to Elizabeth.
When Jane Austen’s characters talk about buying a dress, it means in fact that they are going to buy the necessary fabric, which they will then give to a dressmaker who will make a dress to their specifications. Patterns for dresses in the latest London fashion were found in all the women’s fashion newspapers. In ‘Emma’ Harriet Smith buys muslin cloth with this intention. For Jane Austen Day I asked a friend to make a Regency gown for me to wear. During the day there were also period hair and make-up demonstrations carried out by Julie Stevens.
Austen’s plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. A woman would have belonged in the first instance to her father and later her husband. She would have been legally subordinate to him, without rights and would not even have even been able to choose where she lived.
All members of the Lunar Society, who regularly met at Soho House, were committed to the idea of education, but what that meant for daughters and wives tended to be different from what it meant for sons. The subjects both Jane Austen and Matthew Boulton’s only daughter, Anne studied formed the main elements of the typical middle-class young woman’s curriculum. While away at school, Anne studied English, French, drawing, history and geography. Later, she learnt music from a Mr Harris in Birmingham, botany from Boulton’s friend Dr William Withering, and embroidery from Mary Linwood, a celebrated embroiderer of so-called ‘needle paintings’. Austen has been described by biographers as an accomplished seamstress and was very fond of dancing. These education topics were highlighted during Austen Day, with embroidery and dancing demonstrations for visitors to take part in.
Jane Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers and had unlimited access both to her father’s library and that of her uncle. Like all gentry of the day, letter writing was a favoured and necessary past-time. In an uncharacteristic letter, the usually kind Anne Boulton is scathing about an expected visitor (in tone similar to Austen’s much-loved character Emma Woodhouse):
‘She is neither young, or handsome, has what some people call a pleasing cast with one eye, talks a great deal and would be glad to be thought young, notwithstanding wrinkles and grey hair begin to appear, but with all these perfections and imperfections she is I am told a sensible and entertaining woman.’
Unlike Austen, Anne was not dependent on the kindness and charity of her brother and relations after the death of her father in 1809. Boulton laid his plans well: ‘I propose to set apart, in my lifetime, as much money, land, stock or good securities as will be sufficient to support my daughter handsomely and comfortable’
Boulton left Anne a combined fortune of £34,000, enabling her to move from Soho in 1818 to a house of her own after her brother married. At Thornhill she kept a very comfortable but modest home. Upon her death in 1829 she left each of her servants one years wages, plus a further £20 each for the two longest-serving. Land she had purchased and the remainder of her fortune she left to ‘my dear brother to whom I now bid a long and last farewell.’
Jane Austen continues to be a huge influence on popular culture and this year’s celebration at Soho House was a great success. Staff, volunteers and visitors had fun immersing themselves in Austen’s stories, etiquette, interests and wit.
Visitor Services Assistant,
Quotes: The Hardware Man’s Daughter by Shena Mason, published by Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2005.