Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 16-17
WE BEG TO DIFFER, CAROLINE!
Patricia M. Shepherd
Littlehampton, West Sussex, U.K.
In the memoir of Jane Austen by her niece, Caroline, there is the following passage: –
“I believe my two Aunts were not accounted very good dressers, and were thought to have taken to the garb of middle-age unnecessarily soon …”
When Jane Austen died at the age of forty-one, Caroline was only a child of twelve. In writing the Memoir many years later, although her intention was to record only what she herself thought and saw, she must of necessity have turned to the older members of the family, and to family friends, for some of her information. In fact we know from her own words that she had reference to her own mother’s “well-kept pocket books.” Could it have been from this source that she gleaned such information? It comes as rather a surprise to hear such a view expressed about Jane Austen, for it seems totally at variance with the rest of the picture we have of her. With that alert mind which took such a lively interest in everything about her, combined with the inherent good taste she displayed in all other aspects of her life, it is hard to accept that these same qualities were not also reflected in her dress. Certainly, there seem to be references to the subject in her own correspondence which tend to contradict that comment. As a young woman, her letters to her sister Cassandra are liberally sprinkled with paragraphs devoted to the topic of dress. It is clear they were both intensely interested in the prevailing fashions, and enjoyed following them as far as a relatively slender purse would allow. Even as mature women, it is quite obvious they still maintained a high degree of interest in the fashions of the day. They were not merely spectators, but active participants in the fashionable scene. Well past her first youth Jane Austen, in London or Bath, with a full and varied social calendar ahead of her, and a little spare money in her purse, would soon be shopping for a cap or bonnet for herself in the latest style, and would find it difficult to resist buying some eye-catching material for Cassandra. To judge from her own words, this kind of expedition was very much enjoyed.
In 1811, on a visit to her brother Henry in Sloane Street, she writes to her sister: –
“I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant and spending all my money; and what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too! … I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin and bought ten yards of it, on the chance of your liking it …”
Again in London two years later, she returns from a similar trip to report to Cassandra: –
“Miss Hare had some pretty caps and is to make me one … It will be white satin and lace, with a little white flower perking out of the left ear, like Harriot Byron’s feather … my gown is to be trimmed everywhere with white ribbon plaited on somehow or other …”
It is difficult to think of such an ensemble as dowdy and middle-aged!
In her thirty-eighth year, she sees “a great many pretty caps in the window of Cranbourne Alley. I hope when you come, we shall both be tempted …”
She is also “determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black satin ribbon, for ribbon trimmings are all the fashion in Bath.”
Settled once again in the quiet of the Hampshire countryside, Cassandra and Jane would naturally have worn their older clothes, keeping to simple, practical styles for such a life. Even when members of the family, or friends were staying with them at Chawton, it is unlikely the sisters would have put on the smartest items in their wardrobe. That more elegant and fashionable attire so enthusiastically described in the Letters would have been kept for other occasions. A visit to Henry in London, perhaps, or to Edward and his family at Godmersham, where the more varied social engagements would require rather different clothes from those worn when living a retired country existence.
It seems doubtful if the original author of that comment on the sisters’ dress ever saw Cassandra at some social gathering, swathed in that “ten yards of pretty-coloured Muslin”! Neither could they ever have caught a glimpse of Jane, seated at some elegant supper party, sporting that perky, beflowered, and bewitching cap!
No! – With great respect Caroline, the remark you quote in your Memoir really does not seem to present a just picture; and had your Aunt Jane ever heard such an opinion expressed about herself and her much-loved sister, the ensuing retort might indeed have been worth recording!