Dress in the Age of Jane Austen (review)

March 21, 2020 at 7:56 pm (books, entertainment, fashion, history, jane austen) (, , , )

Hilary Davidson‘s exploration of Jane Austen’s silk pelisse fascinated (when first read in 2015) because of the thoroughness of its details. Her book, Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, grew out of this initial research.

Upon receipt, even quickly flipping through the book, I could see this wasn’t the typical “soft soap” about Regency dress. It has text (plenty of it), political cartoons and portraits, and, most importantly, photographs of actual garments. I also liked the inherent progression indicated by the outline of chapters – Self, Home, Village, Country, City, etc. A VERY GOOD out-of-the-box reaction.

Davidson_Dress

First Impressions – a (long) preamble…

I quickly emailed a friend, and included a link to the google preview. We both had similar thoughts: ANY illustration on the cover but “Mrs. Q”!

  • “Mrs. Q” has been put forward as the work Austen referred to when commenting: “I was very well pleased (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy. …

Never judge a book by its cover, BUT the hackneyed illustration did put me off when Dress in the Age of Jane Austen turned up in a search for upcoming releases, months before receiving the book in the mail. There are so many books about “costume” and “Jane Austen.”

  • for instance: read an old review of Penelope Byrde‘s book (reprint edition)

My friend, looking at the text online, was the first to point out “the font is so pale, more suitable to captions than main text. Or is that my eyes??”

I had to reply, that it wasn’t her eyes playing tricks, or a bad scan into google books. When I first got the book, the evening was dark and the lights were on in the house, but I needed different light to read. Instead, I looked at the pretty pictures. The paper (very nice paper) is slightly shiny, which combined with the font’s SIZE and WEIGHT does not make this volume easy to read. My friend’s later response was, “The author hasn’t been well served by the book designer.”

Another blogger’s review (Austenprose) brought up the same difficulty: “My one disappointment will be minor to some and troublesome to others. The small text is difficult to read, amplified by the choice of swirly font in gray color. I struggled to read smoothly, even with glasses.”

Illustration captions are even smaller and greyer than the main text.

In early December I read some of the book. I wasn’t making much headway with the opening chapter (“Introduction”), but did get more out of the chapter (“Home”) on underwear.

***

A little ‘Sense’ please

Along with the font, my other complaint is the bare-bones information in the endnotes. Citations list author name and publication date, which means to really look up the source, the reader has to flip from the Notes to the Bibliography. Several times I had to flip from “Secondary” to “Primary” (or vice-versa), for the Bibliography is divided into two sections (no footer or header indicates the specific section).

For instance: pp. 102/103 had in the notes “Burney, 1905” [note 20; ‘Village’] and three notes later “Edgeworth, 1971”. The Burney is an early edition of Fanny Burney’s Diary and Letters; therefore, it is found in the Bibliography under ‘Primary’ Sources. The Edgeworth, also a ‘Primary’ source, is Christine Colvin’s edition of Maria Edgeworth, Letters from England, 1813-1844. I looked under secondary sources both times, because of the dates.

An intrusion on the reading experience.

Other than ease of accessibility (a 1905 book being online), I would have thought the authoritative Oxford University Press / McGill-Queens University Press series of Burney journals and letters preferable. I finally hunted down volume V of the 1905 edition (edited by Charlotte Barrett); the quote is on page 200 (not page 199, as cited), and, finally, the pertinent information: in a letter to Mrs Lock, dated 1793. BUT: in looking up this citation I now am bothered because the story is inaccurately retold…

This is Davidson (p. 102):

davidson p102 quote

Davidson’s 1905 source; Burney’s letter to Mrs. Lock (sic: Locke):

davidson p200 barrett quote

Miss Kitty and Mrs. Hamilton clearly are two different people!  They are ID’ed in Oxford’s Additional Journals and Letters (vol. 1), p. 60, as Mrs. Sarah Hamilton and her niece Miss Kitty Cooke, managers of Chessington Hall, Surrey, a boarding house. ‘Miss’ Kitty and ‘Mrs.’ Hamilton (both, unmarried ladies) were, in 1793, approximately 63- and 88-years-old. I had pictured the Captain following young Miss Kitty from room to room, when in actuality he followed the maid “too quick” and caught sight of the not-forewarned Mrs. Hamilton.

If such important, albeit slight, details got away from Davidson, I wonder about other statements, conclusions, and examples. Page 102 was picked at random, today, in an effort to finish this review today (21 March 2020). I wish I hadn’t unearthed this….

  • The same 1793 letter (snippet only) in Joyce Hemlow’s 1972 Clarendon Press edition, which I piece together and note that it is given the date 30 May 1793.

***

In need of some ‘Persuasion’

Davidson gives a LOT of information, but I don’t always find material well-presented. Sometimes a position is taken, but isn’t followed by explanation, enlargement, or argument/counter-argument. She moves on to another quote, another topic. I can’t call it going off on “tangents.” More, “Why include this here?”

For instance, Davidson talks about needing the services of a maid to make one’s dress “tight,” and includes a quote about the “looseness of … morning dress” when, at breakfast.

Davidson, p. 78:

davidson p79

I can see someone being “loose” in the Scarlett O’Hara corset sense, but I’m still unsure about being “tight.” I wanted more than just quote(s). After the novel heroine speaks of PINS — “I was again forced to comply, and stick pins into my cloaths.” — I hoped for answers. WHAT did Regency women DO with all those pins? My diarist Emma Smith (later Emma Austen Leigh) purchased many pincushions… I have images of women being as prickly as porcupines, done up with so many straight pins.

  • Regency Redingote” composed a lengthy discourse on pins – and, although it doesn’t clarify Davidson‘s commentary about being “tight” in one’s clothing, it does say what all those pins were used for during the Regency!

A stockingless, unbuttoned William Wordsworth creates its own, clear picture of a man’s “undress”; Miss Weeton, on the other hand, I determined to look up. I own the two-volume set (Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess), as well as the newer single-volume, Miss Weeton: Governess and Traveller, by Alan Roby.

Miss Weeton had spent the NIGHT aboard ship. She had loosened garments because she slept in them. The quote continues, “I wrapped my coat round me, and threw my shawl over it; my hair uncombed, uncurled, my face wan, and eyes sunken. I presented no very beautiful picture.” Looking like something the cat dragged in, poor Miss Weeton needed to pass muster when asking for a room at an inn. Miss Weeton’s distress is missed; the poignancy of the original, lost. This reader became no more enlightened about Davidson’s point. The long communication was best presented by words in her first paragraph.

  • Re-reading these exacts, and comparing them, I’m confused: Did visitors wear “walking or visiting dresses” as mentioned on page 102, or were they in a state of “undress” when “paying morning visits,” as on page 78?

Another instance: In the chapter “Country,” which discusses outerwear and clothing adapted from the “field” or the “hunt,” there is, on the left-hand page, a full-page-wide (color) illustration of Alexander Carse’s “The Arrival of the Country Relations” (c1812). The text on the right-hand page (p. 145), referring to this, claims that the painting “contrasts two family groups, of urban and rural origins, through subtle clothing cues [endnote].” Davidson then quotes from a novel (Caroline Lismore).

I wanted to know more about the “subtle clothing cues”!

I looked up the citation – an author name and date; I looked up the Bibliography: a journal article…. I have no access to it.

Is the caption below the illustration meant to substitute for or enlarge upon the main text? “An elegant urban Edinburgh family welcomes relatives from the country. The differences in their styles of dress are subtle, but distinctly realized, the rural visitors favouring simpler, more covered clothing.

The directive of “look at this painting; see these clues” felt unfulfilled and under-developed.

  • Without seeing the SOURCE article, I can only theorize, from reading travel diaries, that “Covered” helped people stay warm, “Simpler” enabled them to shed road dust more easily; both may have benefited them at dubious coaching yards or in warding off highwaymen.

Davidson, sure and informative when discussing clothing styles, fabrics, construction, has a tendency to jump from quote to statement in a manner that did not always sweep this reader along. Often I found myself back-tracking, re-reading for something I might have missed.

Under the heading GETTING AND ALTERING CLOTHES (p. 116), the first paragraph brings up the following points:

  • clothes had a high valuation
  • clothes were “a considerable, infrequent investment” for the “middling and upper ranks”
  • clothes were planned and discussed (i.e., mentioned in letters)
  • garments were generally “bespoke”, but some were off-the-rack
  • towns and villages had tailors
  • for men who had “no woman to sew their linens,” ready-made or professionally-made articles “filled the gap”
  • a tailor from Preston, bankrupted in 1821, had an inventory of “645 garments and accessories, 219 were men’s shirts”
  • Women rarely undertook sewing “men’s outer clothing” because the skills required were not obtained by “sewing linens”
  • Mary Wordsworth, working on her husband’s “‘woolen waistcoat'” may have been “knitting or working on a flannel-type garment”
  • The Wordsworth women “spent a day” picking apart “his old coats for the tailor” (to serve as patterns for new garments).

There are so many topics within this single paragraph, many of which would have served the author well, if sorted out for more in-depth explanation – be it the cost of clothes (either through tailor/client records; or through criminal prosecution valuations); the use of tailors, seamstresses and others versus homemade; bespoke clothing versus the reuse of clothing (re-constructed by owner, as well as second-hand purchases) versus the good fit of a client’s well-worn piece (ie, used as patterns). Much outlined here does appear at greater length in various chapters. So why jumble, sentence upon sentence, everything in one paragraph? A red pencil, judicious rearrangement, and (self-)editing would have resolved many such annoyances.

A lack of argumentative development is especially true when a blanket historical statement is presented. If underlying, supportive facts are missing, such statements appear as generalizations, less ‘authoritative’ in tone, than the same statements supported and expanded upon.

Convoluted word order (clauses within clauses) would have benefited from being more carefully crafted: (p. 33) “Not only the bodies of Grant Tourists, but also print media – increasingly popular – disseminated ideas about classical form across Britain.” I know what the author wants to say, and means, but Davidson’s phrasing, in addition to the grey, swirly font, increased this reader’s frustration.

Long “lists,” like this on page 145, made my eyes skip lines:

“Farmers, ploughmen, carters, milkmaids, blacksmiths, beggars, ragmen, tinkers, pedlars, fishermen, thatchers, drovers, field hands, harvesters, millers, stone-cutters and -crushers, miners, coopers, masons, carpenters, chair-menders, joiners, fencers, cottagers, washerwomen and all the multitude of tradespeople…”

I usually give “less personal opinion” in a book review; there will be readers who find the authorial voice satisfactory, but I struggled, wishing for writing as engaging as the topic. Biographers sometimes pour between the covers every morsel of research unearthed, and I do wonder if the fractured flow I quibble over is a result of such “cramming.” Does it really matter what a street vendor cries out to attract customers?

If some of the verbiage had been cut, the font size could have been increased, and content and design would have united in a superior book. As it stands, it’s a bit of a Missed Opportunity. Wanting to be “all” to all comers and about all classes, from tinker to servant, from farm to manor, from city-dweller to court-regular, males and females, young and old, I do think Dress in the Age of Jane Austen an ambitious attempt. Who am I to criticize? It has so much going for it, that the pluses should outweigh the minuses.

If historical costume at all interests you, you might wish to put this book on your radar. Yale presents a 16-second “introduction”, but the best is the Google preview. Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion is a sumptuous book, on a fascinating topic, filled with valuable information. It covers a broad geography and moves from intimate undergarments to all-weather outerwear. The Annie Burr Lewis Fund probably helped fund publication fees associated with the multitudinous illustrations, as well as the full-color printing. A suggested retail of US$40, Amazon currently sells it for $27 and change, which is a hardcover bargain.

A good book to ‘dip into’, I tried reading it cover-to-cover, which only increased the stress of articulating my negative thoughts about it. Very useful appendices (Austen family tree and list of characters for each novel plus two fragments, for those without other resources or prior knowledge); a stylistic Timeline of women’s gowns; a glossary. The index is almost too detailed – many entries have only one page number; for instance, I don’t foresee a need to look up hairstyle, blond. Austen’s characters should have been indexed on the page that outlines them.

Blonde, by the way, leads the reader to “Mrs. Q,” which cycles us back to the beginning of this far too long review.

three-and-a-half slightly leaking inkwells

 

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