Friday, 31 July 2009

Explore the inside of the collection at Chawton House Library

There is now a recommended reading page on Amazon that gives a taste of the first and early editions held in the collections at Chawton House Library:

Explore the collections using the online catalogue as well;

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Reading Group Books

Use this link to buy the books for the 2009 - 2010 session of the Chawton House Library Reading Group:

The list can be found on the blog at:

I hope that many of you that can't make it here will read along and post your comments on the books as they are reviewed.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Chawton House Library Books - a new series of reprints

Chawton House Library houses a unique collection of early women’s writing from the period 1600–1830. Housed in the Elizabethan manor that once belonged to Edward Knight, it is a library with a direct connection to his celebrated sister, the novelist JaneAusten (1775–1817) who moved to Chawton with her mother and sister in 1809. The library contains early (and frequently rare) editions of novels, plays, memoirs, poetry and travel writing by women, as well as works on education, history, science and botany. One fascinating section of the collection offers literature pertaining to women’s lives in the long eighteenth century: cookery books, guides on how to manage domestic servants and setting down exactly what is required of a lady’s maid, how to dress and educate one’s children, instructions on how to behave and what to read to improve oneself. It is this area of the collection that this series will celebrate. Jane Austen’s interest in the domestic in her letters to her sister Cassandra has enchanted generations of her readers. Writing from Chawton, Austen rejoices in a great crop of Orleans plumbs, whilst lamenting the wretched appearance of Cassandra’s mignionette, and relating that Miss Benn has a new maid from near by Alton; she tells her sister that they will have ducks next week, and enquires after ‘peices for the Patchwork’; she says of their cook that she is ‘tolerable’ and that ‘her pastry is the only deficiency’; she approves Fanny and Cassandra’s bonnets, and tells of her pleasure in ‘receiving, unpacking & approving our Wedgwood ware’. Austen’s letters to Cassandra are a rich source for piecing together female domesticity in the early nineteenth century. One can, however, have too much of a good thing: Austen famously writes, after a visit from her brother Edward to Chawton in September 1816, ‘Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Mutton Joint and Rhubarb’. Austen’s major preoccupation at Chawton was, after all, not the running of a household, but rather the publication, revision and composition of her six novels, all of which were sent out from Chawton to be published between 1811 and1818. In these classic works of English literature, the way in which the domestic informs the narrative intrigues a twenty-first century reader. Would Betty’s sister, an excellent housemaid who works very well with her needle, have done well as a lady’s maid for the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility? Can we ever have such an intricate understanding of the variety and merits of strawberries as the party at Donwell Abbey in Emma? It is to the literature of Austen’s own period that we must turn for answers to these, and many other, vexing questions. For those who wish to understand Mr Woodhouse’s discourses in praise of gruel in Emma, Mrs Bennet’s anxiety when there is not a bit of fish to be got and Lizzie Bennet’s preference for a plain dish over a ragout in Pride and Prejudice, these reprints of rare texts from the Chawton House Library collection will have much to offer. What precisely were the ‘usual stock of accomplishments’ taught to Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove at school in Exeter in Persuasion, and why does Lydia gape at Mr Collins’s reading of Fordyce’s Sermons in Pride andPrejudice? Some answers will be found in Chawton House Library reprints of conduct literature. And for a true understanding of what it might mean for Fanny Price to be scorned by her better-dressed cousins for having only two sashes in Mansfield Park, for Henry Tilney to understand muslins particularly well in Northanger Abbey, and indeed just how Lucy Steele might have gone about trimming up a new bonnet, with pink ribbons and a feather, in Sense and Sensibility, instruction will come from reprints of works on eighteenth-century dress and fashion. All profits from this series of reprints will go directly towards the Chawton House Library acquisitions fund, helping us to improve and expand the library collection for generations of future readers.

Gillian Dow
Chawton House Library

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Images and music

People who know me, know I'm a Persephone Book fan and I've been enjoying the Persephone Post's collection of images It made me wonder if all of you out there have recommendations for a soundtrack? I can think of several: Jacqueline Du pre playing Elgar, Dusty Springfield and Joy Division's 'Love will tear us apart', just to get started ...

Monday, 6 July 2009

Fashion and dress in the collection

Fashion as we know it - a series of rapidly mutating trends in the style of the dress - began in the eighteenth century. The way a person dresses, the clothing they select, sends out a set of social signals that communicate class and status. It is also the most personal form of self-expression and the choice of what both covers and decorates the body leads us to form conclusions, conscious or unconscious, about each other.

Jane Austen’s letters reveal her interest in being fashionable: ‘My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everyone else in the room’ (Steventon to Godmersham, 1798). Her niece, Fanny Knight, owned copies of La Belle Assemblee, like those on display here, and periodicals such as these, or Ackerman’s Repository and the Lady’s Magazine contained engravings of the latest styles. Newspapers also offered information on current fashions. This commodification of dress for the leisured classes gave employment to writers and illustrators, just as today fashion magazines thrive on the twice-yearly output of the fashion industry.

News of fashion spread by word of mouth and by letter remained important, especially for those without access to periodicals. Austen demonstrates this in an 1814 letter to Martha Lloyd: ‘I am amused by the present style of female dress; the coloured petticoats with braces over the white Spencers and enormous Bonnets upon the full stretch, are quite entertaining. It seems to me a more marked change than one had lately seen.’

Dress in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, as displayed here, was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status and considerable expense was necessary to maintain a fashionable lifestyle. Fashion demanded followers from all classes and again Austen was a participant, if not victim, in the need to consume the latest trends. She wrote from London in 1811: ‘I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money …’ and she lists two different muslins and Wedgwood as items on her shopping list. Remaining fashionable required more than lengths of fabric: there were also ribbons and other trimmings, sewing and embroidery threads, buttons and, maybe, a dressmaker. Then there were shawls, cloaks and hats, bonnets and caps, veils, headdresses, shoes and gloves, not forgetting, fans, bags, reticules, jewelry, and underneath it all underwear and stockings.

In Austen’s Persuasion Sir Walter Elliot is ridiculed for his vanity and obsession with fashion. He examines himself in the mirror, feels that Lady Russell could do with the help of some makeup and recommends Gowland’s Lotion for improving complexions. A real product of the period, Gowland’s Lotion was advertised in 1814 as a solution to face and skin problems just as facial skincare is sold today. For those that could afford more than a sliver of soap toilet waters were a fashionable part of personal hygiene and in 1822 George IV’s perfume bill was £263. It is still possible to buy some of the fragrances made around this time, which were eau de colognes and single flower waters, especially lavender, rose and orange flower.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, Austen’s contemporary, an interest in fashion as a form of 'slavery': 'The air of fashion which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antique; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character.' Wollstonecraft dressed with apparent carelessness which signalled her seriousness as a philosopher, just as in the twentieth century Katherine Hepburn wore old clothes, safety-pinned, to show she had not been seduced by Hollywood's glamour.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Compleat Housewife

Chawton House Library has published a new edition of The Compleat Housewife by Elizabeth Smith. It is a transcription of the 15th edition first published in 1753 with the frontispiece and original title page in facsimile; also, some of the fold-out table settings in the original book have been reproduced as the end-papers. The Compleat Housewife was first published in 1727 and it was the first cookbook available in the US when it was published there in 1742. It famously contains the first known recipe for ketchup, which was then a condiment using anchovies and was inspired by oriental condiments such as soy and oyster sauce.

Copies of the book are available from Chawton House Library and, shortly, online from the website for £18.00. It is a beautifully bound hardback book that will transport readers to life in the eighteenth century. It is also the first in a series of reprints from the Library's collection that will focus on the domestic aspects of life in the eighteenth century and the profits will go directly to the Chawton House Library acquisitions fund.