We’ve all read the books (or at least seen some of the movies). We’ve all fantasized about being magically transported to the world of Jane Austen and indulging ourselves in a whirlwind of assembly room balls, elegant gowns, and our very own Mr. Darcy. But would we really have what it takes to make that journey?
Chances are, our idea of life in Austen’s world comes mostly from Hollywood and the BBC, and not from the novels themselves. Jane Austen didn’t write lots of period detail; in fact, her stories were quite spare in that regard. She wrote for her contemporaries, and thus there was no need to describe a world they already knew.
Not to mention the details that no lady would dream of putting to paper, and no movie would think of including. Like a tutorial on the finer points of Regency-era hygiene (see below), a description of what typically passed for a bathroom in those days (that would be a chamber pot), or what kind of knickers one wore under those long, empire-waisted gowns (that would be none!).
(By the way, that pretty porcelain thing in the photo below is not a teacup.)
Of course, none of that matters when we are in the realm of fantasy. But imagine you have the opportunity to buy a ticket on a time machine to Austenworld. You’d want to prepare yourself for the many adjustments to your life that this exotic land would entail–and not only in terms of physical conveniences, but in terms of your social world and your basic liberties. Especially if you’re a single woman.
Not that you wouldn’t want to go anyway. It’s just that you might want to make it a round trip instead of a one way. Or maybe you’re made of stronger stuff than that.
In any case, you might just find yourself looking with new eyes at a number of things—good or bad– that most of us take for granted in our own world. For example:
1. Your Daily Ablutions
” What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.”
–Jane Austen, Letter (1796-09-18)
Imagine how inelegant you might feel without the ability to take a nice cool shower on a hot summer’s day. Such conveniences were yet to be invented, and a bath involved sweating servants heaving buckets of water upstairs, something that definitely would not be practical on a daily basis. But perhaps we inhabitants of the 21st century are just too darn neurotic about washing our bodies.
And deodorant? Fuggedaboutit. But don’t fret; there’s always cologne liberally applied to a handkerchief. Or on oneself.
Choose A or B:
a. Ewwww! There’s no way I’m going without my daily shower and my favorite roll-on.
b. There’s very little I wouldn’t forgo in order to get up close and personal with Mr. Darcy/Knightley, et al. I’ll take a daily basin and ewer over our contemporary obsession with cleanliness any day.
2. Your Beauty Regimen
Imagine a Sephora-less world. A world without concealer, mascara, and lip gloss. A world in which the following piece of beauty advice is delivered without any irony whatsoever:
“Wear a piece of lead beaten exceeding thin, for a forehead-piece, under a forehead cloth; it keeps the forehead smooth and plump.”—The Compleat Housewife, 15th edition, 1753
Hard not to raise an eyebrow when reading that (unless you’re using Botox).
Let’s say you manage to obtain some rouge (or make it yourself). Using it would generally be frowned upon unless you’re well-to-do, middle-aged/married or a widow. Or getting over an illness. Even then, you’d better have a light hand, as the natural look was the fashion by the time Austen was a young woman.
The bottom line: If you’re a single woman, you’ll probably be pinching your cheeks and biting your lips to get a little color into them. Unless you manage to sneak a swipe from your mother’s rouge pot (which she denies using, and which may just be the sole item in her cosmetic arsenal). Better hope your application of her forbidden goods escapes detection, lest you be labeled a loose woman or worse.
Choose A or B:
a. I’m not about to wear a lead headband. Or go to the assembly ball without at least a dab of lip gloss and a touch of concealer.
b. Who needs an arsenal of paints and powders, let alone all that time it takes to put it on? A turn in the shrubbery with Mr. Darcy is all I need for a glowing complexion. Besides, everyone else would be sans make-up as well, so what’s the big deal?
3. Regency Dream Date
Imagine your dating pool is limited to those of your own rigidly defined social class. The only way you can meet a potential mate is via introduction by a mutual acquaintance. Or the master of ceremonies at an assembly ball. If you do manage to meet someone you like, and who likes you, too (and if you’re a woman you are strictly prohibited from making the first move), the only acceptable “date” is him visiting you at your parents’ house (you’re not allowed to live alone as an unmarried woman), or maybe a country walk (where friends or family will almost certainly tag along), sitting next to him at a large dinner party (yay!), or a dance at a ball (which is probably your only chance to have a somewhat private conversation, and certainly your only chance to touch).
Oh, and you’re not allowed to write each other either. Unless you’re engaged. So even if all the wonders of modern communication were at your disposal, you’d be prohibited from sending a single text.
Then again, there’s something terribly romantic about all those sidelong glances, maneuvering to be near each other, and making every word count.
Choose A or B:
How would I ever really get to know a potential mate if we can only get together in a group? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for a lasting relationship.
I like the idea of having my peeps in the periphery when I’m interviewing the MOMD. They can always set me straight if I’m not seeing him for who he really is.
4. Sealing the Deal
All that restriction of movement in #3 above is all about one thing: Keeping ladies chaste until they say “I do.” A woman wasn’t even supposed to kiss her man before marriage. Meanwhile, we in the modern world navigate a labyrinthine set of conflicting “rules” served up by friends, family, and self-appointed relationship experts as to how not to give away too much too soon to the wrong person.
Choose A or B:
I cannot imagine marrying someone without first making sure our chemistry has all the right elements.
I am so tired of figuring out if I should wait till the third date or the fifth or not at all that I’d welcome a world where sex means a sacred, lifelong commitment.
5. Happily Ever After
Let’s say you’ve found your very own Mr. Darcy/Mr. Knightley/Captain Wentworth/[fill in the blank with the Austen hero of your choice]. What happens after “I do”? Is it all just blissful days and nights, or are there other forces at work?
For example, did you know that your property becomes your husband’s, or that you wouldn’t be allowed to earn your own money? If you marry well, however, marriage settlements would entitle you to a generous allowance. In any case, marriage is considered to be your career, and the most desirable one there is for a gentlewoman. The only other options being maiden aunt, governess, or paid companion, and the latter two are simply the last resort of impoverished ladies. Gives one a little more sympathy for Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Or, on second thought, maybe not.
Not that you’re lying around all day eating bon bons as the mistress of a great estate. Running the household and managing all those servants is a big responsibility. Plus there are many ways in which your good works can improve the lives of those living on your husband’s land.
And how about starting a family? In Austen’s day, there was not much in the way of contraception, and married women were often continually pregnant. Three of Austen’s sisters-in-law died from childbirth, two of them after delivering their eleventh child. These were the days before even the routine medical practice of washing one’s hands existed, let alone all the other wonders of modern medicine we take for granted.
The good news is that if you married well in Austen’s day, you’d have a full contingent of servants and nursemaids to make life a whole lot easier. Ten kids? No problem! We have staff! Not to mention an Austenesque hero as the father of your brood.
I’m as romantic as anyone, and I love children. But some things are non-negotiable. Like female self-determination, my choice of career, and an epidural.
With my 21st century knowledge, I’d do a little family planning of my own. Plus I’d find a midwife who washes her hands and a mate who supports me in pursuing my passions, whatever they are.
I could go on, but you’ve got a journey to pack for!
First take a moment to review your answers:
If you chose mostly A:
“I’ll take a round-trip, please. I love me some Mr. Darcy/Mr. Knightley/Capt. Wentworth, but I’m already in a long term relationship with electricity, indoor plumbing, and personal freedom.
If you chose mostly B:
“That’ll be a one-way ticket to Pemberley, please. No baggage. Buh-bye!”
If you’re split down the middle:
“That’ll be a one-way ticket, long as I can sneak in a few little essentials, like my SonicCare toothbrush…you mean there’s no way to charge it?…And tampons….what do you mean I won’t be able to buy any more?…Okay …when do you think they’ll have wireless there? Hmmm… maybe I should switch to a round-trip? Or can I book when I get there?”
It is indeed a dilemma.
This post originally appeared as a guest post on The Book Rat.