Thursday, March 26, 2020

Poor Spinsters in Regency England | The Case of Miss Bates in Emma

Miranda Hart plays Miss Bates in the latest big screen version of Jane Austen's Emma.
Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, Emma 2020  
Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony. - Jane Austen's Letters 
I have recently went to see EMMA(2020). And while there is much to say about this cheeky, pastel-colored adaptation of the classic, my thoughts often turned to poor Miss Bates, played to perfection by Miranda Hart.

In Jane Austen's Emma, Miss Bates is the staple of Highbury society. She is neither clever nor pretty (and never was), she is talkative and cheaper, lives with her mother, and is generally well liked. She is also an old maid and very poor.

I have recently had an occasion to contemplate the relationship between single-hood and poverty. Not just in the distant past, but in our contemporary world. Sure, having a large family and children can be quite a drain on one's resources, too. But being a single woman of a certain age with a limited income (and dependents, such as aging parents) is just as difficult today as it was in 1815*.

A teacher or governess. School, 1810. British Museum 1917,1208.1237
School; James Godby, 1810; London via The British Musseum
In Jane Austen's England, single women of genteel birth had few options of earning an income. They could become paid companions or teachers and governesses (provided they had found themselves into a little education). There were some options of entering into a feminine profession such as a dressmaker, but that too required industry and  a good head for finances, as well as skill. However, all professions meant a loss of social standing. Consequently, the best a single woman without an independent income could do is to retain an appearance of gentility on a small income. Provided she was grateful and cheerful like Miss Bates, she could hope to be well-liked, but she had no certainty of being respected.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma (1996)
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, 1996
In the novel, Emma proclaims that she shall never marry. And when Harriet Smith with utter horror asks whether that means that she would be an old maid, Emma coolly replies:
I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. 
This distinction between the poor old maid and a rich one may strike the 21st century reader as ridiculous. But I invite you think about our contemporary discourses on single women. A single career woman can find acceptance, even adulation, for being a #GirlBoss. But if one is unfortunate enough to have neither a career (or even a job) nor a partner, one might be subjected to the same kind of contempt and pity as any poor spinster in Regency England.

Phyllida Law Sophie Thompson Emma
Phyllida Law (Mrs Bates) and Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates) Emma, 1996 
But let's look at "poor old maid" and try to understand what that entails. I'll be using Miss Bates as a case study.
First, who is an old maid? Well, it's definitely a woman - hence, the "maid". Unmarried men do not seem to evoke the same level of contempt and ridicule. But how old is an "old maid"? Jane Austen has very few spinsters in her novels. A few of her characters hover on the edge of spinsterhood, but are usually rescued from it by a timely proposal.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia exclaims that:
Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three-and-twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three-and-twenty!
But then again, Lydia is a very foolish character. And it's very unlikely that anyone but this flighty teen would consider the sweet and beautiful Jane at 22 to be a spinster. 

Ch 13.1 Inspiration for the colour of Mary's blue-Gray ball gown for the Netherfield ball. Charlotte Lucas in the 1995 version of pride and prejudice.
Charlotte Lucas (Lucy Sccott) P&P, 1995
Charlotte Lucas, one the other hand, is more generally considered to be on her way to spinsterhood. She is 27 and has no fortune.  But she extricates herself from the unfortunate fate by snagging Mr. Collins just in time.

Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion is nearing her 30th birthday, and she feels that she's approaching
 ...the years of danger, and would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood within the next twelvemonth or two.
We don't know whether Miss Elliot ever marries, but she has rank and (some) wealth on her side. At any rate, she will most likely be spared the indignity of real poverty in spinsterhood. Anne Elliot is 27 at the beginning of the novel, and she is treated by most people as a spinster.

Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) Persuasion, 2007 
From Austen's work we can glean that spinsterhood begins around late 20s and early 30th. However, spinsterhood is clearly not about age, or not entirely about age. While Elizabeth Elliot worries about her unmarried status, she is not treated as a spinster by those around her. Anne Elliot, on the other hand, is expected to always be convenient to others, whether it is caring for her hypochondriac sister Mary or playing the piano, while others dance. An old maid is thus defined not only by her age, but also by her social status. Wealth and rank play an important part in this, but as the comparative cases of Elizabeth and Anne Elliot show, spinsterhood is more about how others relate to you. An old maid is a woman who does not (or cannot) do as she pleases.

This makes poverty an important components of spinsterhood. I am talking about relative poverty. In Emma, Miss Bates is not from the laboring classes. Her father was the vicar of Highbury (the position now occupied by Mr. Elton). But her present situation is that of relative destitution, made worse by the fact that she has known comfort and some prosperity in her youth.

Image result for miss bates
Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig) Emma, 2010  
Austen is often very explicit about everyone's income in her novels, whether large or small. But we have to guess how much Miss Bates has. We know that on their income, Mrs. and Miss Bates can only afford one maid and have to rent lodgings above some shop or business premises in Highbury. Miss Bates's monologues are full of communications about provisions, daily routines, and food. Emma find this tiresome; but for Miss Bates these are not trivial matters - she is trying to economize wherever she can and is grateful to neighbors and friends for gifts and attention.

Emma, Illustration by C. E. Brock, 1898, 
Sense and Sensibility is a novel full of clear information about different income brackets. The Dashwood women, on a joint income of £500, can afford two maids and a man and a cottage (though rented to them on very easy terms by a cousin). When Mrs. Jennings contemplates the income of Lucy Steele and Edward Ferrars, after he had been disinherited by his mother, she clearly does not think that they would have more than £150 - £170 per year. Just like Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates they would not be able to afford more than one maid. In a wealthy household like Chatsworth in 1811, a housemaid would earn £11 per year. A "stout girl of all works" that Mrs. Jennings envisions for the young couple would probably come cheaper.

Miss Bates does not keep poultry or cows and does not have a garden. And she has no male relatives who could add to her comforts with any steady flow of cash. In the 1800's, labor was relatively cheap, while goods were expensive. Therefore we can assume that most of the income goes to food, lodgings and some for clothes. Therefore, Miss Bates's income would have been on the lower side of £150.

Constance Chapman and Doran Godwin in Emma (1972)
Miss Bates (Constance Chapman) and Emma (Doran Godwin) Emma, 1972
This income is so small that it cannot comfortably accommodate the addition of Jane Fairfax, who is on the verge of becoming a governess. Miss Bates is in raptures regarding the salary offered to Jane. Considering that when Mary Wollstonecraft went to work as a governess to Lord and Lady Kingsborough in 1786, she was offered a salary of £40**. It is unlikely that Mrs. Elton's friend Mrs. Smallridge would have offered much more to Jane to be a governess. But if Miss Bates's entire household income is around £120-150, even £20 per year for a single person would have appeared to her as immense riches. 

In the end, Jane is save from the terrible fate of being a governess and from the even more terrifying fate of being an old maid by her marriage to Frank Churchill. We can assume that with Jane becoming the new Mrs. Churchill, Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates would acquire some supplement to their income.   

(*) The biggest financial risk for women today? Embarking on a relationship, The Guardian, 2017.
(**) Brandon, Ruth. "Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess." Phoenix, 2009.

- Copeland, Edward.  “Money.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.
- Craig, Sheryl Bonar. "“The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma." Persuasions On-Line: the Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America 22, 2001.
-  Jacobs, Corrie L. "The ‘Great Talker’: Spinster Stereotypes in Emma".  Jane Austen Society of North America. 2015 Essay Contest Winning Entries, 2015. 
From Servants to Staff: How much? Chatsworth Official Website, News & media ,News, blogs & press releases, 2017

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Red Cloaks in Regency England

Outerwear contrast between Harriet and Emma.
Color coordination on point,  Harriet and Emma. Photo via Focus Features
One of the very fun costuming choices made by Alexandra Byrne for the new EMMA. (2020) is the matching red cloaks worn by the pupils from Mrs Goddard's school. Emma's new BFF, Harriet Smith wears just such a red cloak. 

The red cloaks and bonnets seem to strike some as a reference to the similar uniforms in Handmaid's Tale. Autumn de Wilde does not shy away from this comparison, but states that: 
"[Regency] schoolgirls would have worn that type of bonnet and those capes. It's an identifier of Harriet's class position." [Fashionista]
Hazards of walking, Diana Sperling, 
Woolen red cloaks were practical attire for working class women and for country wear. Such a cloak was cut on a bias and made of closely woven wool, the hem left raw. Due to their simple construction, they could be sold ready-made, and were, consequently, more affordable than more tailored spencers or pelisses.    

Thomas Rowlandson, 1811, A Midwife Going to a Labour
Match Woman, John Dempsey, 1824, Woolwich
These cloaks were sometimes called the "cardinal" becasue of the red color.

Cape, last third 18th century, American or European, The MET 
The look may be familiar to all of you Jane Austen film buffs out there. Lydia and Kitty wear them in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (costumes by Dinah Collin). The bright color expresses their loud and brash personalities. In contrast, Elizabeth's spencer is mustard, to make her stand out, but seem more grounded, while Jane is in angelic blue and poor Mary is barely visible in her brown cloak.     

While these were sensible garments, red cloaks did make their way into fashion plates of the period.

Walking dress from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1811)
"...Cassimere crimson mantle, confined close to the back, lined with purple silk, embroidered round the neck, cape, and sides with purple fancy border; a deep cape falling from the shoulders, sloping to a narrow point, with tassels. A crimson velvet bonnet, turban front and trimmed with purple to correspond...” 
- La Belle Assemblée, 1811 
This very fashionable lady wears a "mantle" instead of a "cloak". It seems that these cloaks remained a fashionable part of the walking dress and could be occasionally seen with evening dresses. 

Fashion plate, 1829, France via V&A Museum
Red accents appear in many of the fashion plates of the time, though mostly this comes in the form of a shawl rather than a cloak.

Harriet Smith's simple red cloak signifies her class position. She is not as wealthy as Emma and cannot afford fitted winter garments. At the same time, it shows her simplicity, as she takes her walks    

- Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, by Hilary Davidson 
  Yale University Press (November 12, 2019)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art

Friday, March 20, 2020

Jane Austen Fan's Reading List

With many people in social isolation, reading material becomes indispensable. But what to do if you have ran out of all of your Jane Austen, including letters and Juvenilia? 

Where to turn next? Here, I will suggest six (plus one) novels to read if you need a Jane Austen fix. 

1. Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
Belinda is a young lady who is introduced to the world of wealth and dissipation by the charming Lady Delacour. The lady in question uses her wit and vivacity to conceal her fears of a terminal illness. There are misunderstandings, petty jealousies and a falling out. Belinda is courted by several young men and there is much speculation over whom she would choose.

This is a charming story. While Belinda is a bit colorless, Lady Delacour is a delight. And this is one the few novels of its kind where one of the principal characters is a person of color. I demand they make it into a mini-series!         

2. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress by Frances Burney
Poor Cecilia has the double inconvenience of being an heiress and having too many guardians. She has to navigate London society and meet with every kind of vice and folly that late 18th century England had to offer. The novel is more of a character study, and you will delight in the absurdity of some of the people our Cecilia has to meet along the way.

Unlike the sedated novels of Austen, this one is a lot more over the top. The villains are a bit more dastardly and the heroine is a little more precious. But it's a fun ride.   
3. Camilla, or A Picture of Youth by Frances Burney
The Pybus family
This novel is about the Tyrold family and their various relatives and dependents. Camilla is the middle of three sisters. Her eldest sister Lavinia is sweet and gentle, and her youngest sister Eugenia is very intelligent, but due to a childhood illness and an accident is considered plain. They also have a mischievous brother, a rich uncle, a silly cousin, and a wealthy ward. Camilla is meant to be an heiress, but then she is disinherited. Love matches are made and broken, abductions and forced marriages occur, people lose their wealth and end up in debtors' prison. But in the end everyone gets what they deserve.

This novel can perhaps be best described as a book Jane Austen would have written if she had never outgrown her Juvenilia. It is exceedingly fun, but the plot is not very plausible.                   

4. The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents by Ann Radcliffe
Most people think of Mysteries of Udolpho when they think of Radcliffe. But I would argue that The Italian is much more manageable and entertaining. While Mysteries are a little tedious and somewhat predictable, this Gothic novel gave me a few genuine chills.

The noble Vincentio di Vivaldi loves the virtuous Ellena di Rosalba. But she is poor and obscure, and his mother, jealous of their family's position enlists the help of her confessor Schedoni to stop the marriage. The Inquisition gets involved and things get pretty dark. But not too dark. In the end the villains are punished and love triumphs.

5. Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World by Frances Burney 
Evelina is a girl of uncertain parentage (her father had never recognized her) who would have lived out her life in peaceful retirement if not for her grandmother. Mme Duval returns to England and claims her granddaughter. She intends to make her more worldly.

Evelina is pursued by the eligible Lord Orville and the unprincipled Sir Clement Willoughby (hey, I've seen that name somewhere before!). She makes many social blunders, is accused of being an impostor, but in the end is reunited with her father and finds happiness.

6. The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella by Charlotte Lennox 
If Northanger Abbey pokes gentle fun at Gothic novels and those who love them, The Female Quixote does the same for French romance novels. Arabella is wealthy, noble, and intelligent. But she thinks that everything she reads in romance novels to be true. (I feel you, Arabella!) She constantly makes social blunders (but is generally completely oblivious to them) and mistakes ordinary situations for beginnings of adventures.          

The novel is funny and entertaining, and never turns into an outright farce. You laugh at Arabella's silliness, but can't help but admire her absolute faith in her own vision of the world.   

+ 7. The Monk: A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewis
Post image
If you're feeling adventures and a little naughty, this is a novel for you. A Gothic romance that feels like an 18th century draft for a Game of Thrones book. The monk Ambrosio is wise and virtuous, but he is prideful, too. He is seduced and then falls into one sin after another. There are imprisoned nuns, specters, magic potions and incest.

It may come off as a little hokey to a modern reader, but the story has enough twists and turns to be very engaging.

Have you read any of these novels? Which one is your favorite?   

Monday, March 16, 2020

Movie Review: EMMA. 2020

I went to see Emma (2020) today with a few friends. I will not lie - I loved it! And, so, naturally, I had to share my thoughts about this movie. Spoilers ahead!

Directed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, this sparkling period drama stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley. Everyone and their mother have said this already, but I shall add my voice to the chorus - the movie is visually stunning! The soft pastels, the warm lighting, and the floral motifs bring to mind a rococo pastoral painting.

Image result for rococo art paintings
The Love Latter, François Boucher, 1750 
via Universal
But they also put me in mind of works by Regency caricaturists such as James Gillray. This is not an accident, both the costume designer and the director took inspiration from satirical cartoons and fashion plates of the period(1). The result is a lush, saturated color palette, but also a wry and cheeky approach to the source material.   

Matrimonial-Harmonics, James Gillray, 1805 via Wikimedia Commons

The dialogue is mostly taken straight from the book and most of Austen's plot remains intact. A few things are cut here and there in the interest of time; a few things are added to keep with the tone and visual medium of the film. I quarrel with none of these. For the most part, I have no complaints about the changes made.   

I have heard that some people had expressed concern regarding certain posteriors that appear in the film. It is true, many of Jane Austen's adaptations up until now have been rather buttoned-up. But we must remember that behinds are very period appropriate. In fact, they show that de Wilde is clearly familiar with the visual culture of the time:

Comfort, Charles Williams, 1796 
The only thing I can find fault with is the pacing. The transitions from one scene to another are a little clunky at times. But individual scenes are invariably perfect. Autumn de Wilde is able to tell the story visually so well that I sometimes felt that there was no need for dialogue at all.

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) via Universal 
Her talent in setting the scene and visual story telling is greatly assisted by a frankly astounding cast. Almost every single person seems like they were born to play this exact role. Anya Taylor-Joy, as the self-assured Emma is wonderful. Her face is incredibly expressive, which makes watching Emma's character as she unravels so much fun.

Johnny Flynn is by far my favorite Mr. Knightley. He brings a blend of manliness and softness that makes you fall in love with him over the course of the movie. I have heard some complain that Flynn is not old enough to play Knightley. He is 36 to Taylor-Joy's 23. In the book, Emma and Knightley are 21 and 37 respectively. In the new adaptation, Knightley may appear younger becasue he does not take the sanctimonious, dictatorial tone that other directors tended to ascribe to the character. He acts more in line with what a contemporary man of 36 would be like with a friend, rather than a father-figure of ye olden days. 

Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) via Universal  
Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse is a delight. His hypochondria is still there, but it is off-set by a sprightly and energetic manner, which makes it so much more hilarious.

Mr and Mrs Elton, via Universal 
Miranda Hart as Miss Bates is the breakout star of the movie. She makes Miss Bates as annoying as humanly possible, yet when she is hurt, her pain is palpable. The Eltons are perfectly cast. Mr Elton (Josh O'Connor) is just as smarmy and simpering as you'd expect. Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds) is overbearing and over-trimmed. She is a great contrast to Emma, almost as a reminder that this is what Emma could have been if she did not have such a good head and heart.

Callum Turner in Emma. (2020)
Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) via IMDB
The rest of the cast is equally wonderful. The only two I would mention here is Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax and Callum Turner as Frank Churchill. Anderson gets very little screen time as Jane, and since her character is rather reticent, little can be said about her. The only one who comes close to being miscast is Callum Turner as Frank Churchill. Turner does the character justice, but he just does not have much to work with. He also does not have the disarming charm of Ewan McGregor (who played Frank in 1996 Emma).       

Overall, I would say this is now my favorite adaptation of Emma (Clueless, naturally, notwithstanding). It feels modern and fresh, without any of it feeling forced. However, this may not be a version for everyone. If you come to this film looking for sentimentality, you will not find it. This is a broad comedy, a farce, where all the situations and characters are a little (or a lot) absurd. Fortunately, that is exactly how I like my Emma adaptions.   

This review is too long, so I defer gushing about the costumes to a latter date.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

How to Wear Vintage & Stay Warm in Winter

We finally have snow and the temperatures are dropping fast over here. For many vintage lovers who live in warm and moderate climates autumn and winter are a wonderful time to bring out their cute little knits, half boots and trench coats. For those of us who live up north, the period between November and May is usually the time when we give up on all stylish pursuits and commit to ugly puffed jackets and rubber boots.

Ann Sheridan, Christmas 1940’s (Source)
But we don't have to! Here are my tips on how to dress vintage and stay warm all winter. 

1. Stick to natural fibers 
Step away from that polyester sweater and reach for woolen pullovers. Icelandic wool is particularly warm, but so is cashmere as well as alpaca.If you're crafty you can make your own vintage sweater using some great free patterns out there. But if you're not, you can often find sweaters in second hand shops that have a very vintage look. Just be sure to check the wool content on the label.  

Boiled wool skating outfit 1940's(Source)
Snow Queen sweater, mittens, hat knitting pattern, 1940's (Source)
Cotton or linen underthings and silk blouses (silk is surprisingly warm despite being so light) are also a great way to keep yourself nice and snug.     

2. Layer up 
Again, this may seem obvious, but layering is almost an art form. Start with thinner layers first and then build it up. A combination of a camisole, a blouse and a sweater or vest over it can keep you pretty warm. Make sure to put on a pair of long johns or thin tights under your trousers for extra warmth.  

Barbara Stanwyck wearing a gray gabardine ski head, Edith Head, Photoplay 1942 (Source)
Many people avoid skirts in the winter thinking that they cannot provide enough warmth, but, once again, it's all about layering. Add a warm petticoat to your outfit and you may be able to get away with wearing a skirt even when it's -15°C and lower. Look for skirts that are made of wool.

Woolen skirts are a great way to stay warm in winter (Source)
I have my own trick with tights. I tend to wear a pair of very thin tights and then add another pair of woolly tights. Alternatively, you can wear a pair of warm leggins over your tights. Don't forget warm socks since feet can get quite cold. 

3. Cover your head
You know how your mom has always told you to cover your head when it's cold? Well, that's a pretty good tip. You would be surprised by just how much more comfortable you will be if you would only put on a cute hat or a lovely scarf. 

Knit Yourself a 1940's Turban (Source)
Vintage magazines are full of great hats, scarfs and turbans. In fact, if you are crafty, you can knit a cute turban. A scarf, if it's long enough, can cover both your head and neck, giving even more protection against the elements.

4. Expand your style inspiration
Whatever your favorite time period, look for new fashion icons who lived in colder climates. You would be surprised how many images from Denmark, Sweden and even Soviet Union you can find. These may be a little less glamorous, but they will give you some ideas on how to keep warm.
Estonian fashion Winter 1933. Taluperenainen 1932-33. Source
Finnish fashion, February 1942. Source
Fashions for the coming winter, Kotiliesi, October 1954. Source
Two girls by the sign "Swedish Tourist Association's hostel", Nordiska museet (Source)
The Fashion Album, Autumn/Winter1955-1956, wool dresses, Soviet Union (Source)
For more inspiration, you can check out my vintage winter Pinterest board. 
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