In May 1812, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is walking down a London street. As has been his practice of late, he had been turning over the words of Elizabeth Bennet in his mind. ‘Had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner’. Distracted, he doesn’t notice a shabby young man in a long coat brush past him. Israel Fagin, at the beginning of his long and disreputable career (which was to lead to literary fame and the condemned cell at Newgate), had taken something from his pocket – but what?
At the end of the eighteenth century, publishing really took off. Books were published in their thousands to satisfy the new readership. We tend to think of books of this period in terms of the large volumes we see in country house libraries. However novels and poetry were usually published in small volumes, about the size of the modern paperback, but there was another class of books that are almost forgotten, pocket size books. These are really small, about 3inches by 5 inches and could easily be slipped into the pocket of your frock or tail coat ( or tucked into your reticule). I have several in my library, and have picked out a couple that Mr Darcy could well have had in his chaise as he headed north to Pemberley, in that memorable summer of 1812.
The first is Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. This was an incredibly popular book of advice on behaviour, and would certainly have been studied by Mr Darcy in his youth. Lord Chesterfield had decided views on things like;
Laughter – There is nothing so ill-bred as audible laughter. (Mr Darcy might have agreed)
Good Company – Consists of people of considerable birth, rank, and character. (Mr Elliot would have agreed, Anne Elliot would have not)
Dancing – A silly, trifling thing (Sir William Lucas, and all Austen heroines, would have disagreed)
Pride – Nothing vilifies and degrades [a man] more than pride (clearly Mr Darcy had missed this bit)
There is useful advice on spelling,
A woman of a tolerable education will despise and laugh at an ill-spelt letter.
Nothing looks more ordinary, vulgar, and illiberal, than dirty hands, and ugly, ragged, and uneven nails.
This last was clearly something that was noticed in polite society. The delightful Lady Nugent disliked Lord Balcarres because of his hands.
July 31st 1801
I wish Lord B would wash his hands, and use a nail brush, for the black edges of his nails really make me sick. He has, besides, an extraordinary propensity to dip his fingers into every dish.
This led her to deliberately commit a social error and place a lowly ranked officer in a more senior position at the Governors dinner table.
August 24th 1801
I behaved very ill, having placed an Aide-de-camp between me and his Lordship; for really his hands, we so dirty, I could not have eaten anything any thing he had been near.
My second book is the Poems of Ossian, by James Macpherson. This was an immensely popular work in the late eighteenth century. Translations of Scottish Gaelic poems, the manuscripts had been discovered by James Macpherson and translated before publication as, he claimed, his publisher only wanted to print the work in English.
The poems were an immense success, here was a Scottish equivalent to the tales of Finn McCool in Ireland, the poems of Bards of Wales or the Arthurian romances of England. Then doubts arouse, Dr Johnson thought they were a monstrous imposition, a complete fake. When Macpherson was asked to produce his manuscripts, he left Scotland for ten years!
Now it is thought that he collected oral tales and then fitted the fragments together in a coherent whole. If he had just published his collection of oral traditions he would be honoured today, as it is he is considered one of the greatest literary hoaxers of all time.
I am currently working on a project called Picking Darcy’s Pocket, where I will be using objects that might have been found in the pocket of a Regency gentleman, to discuss various aspects of the period. In due course I will be doing this as a lecture/ performance, but for now I am just collecting the objects real or facsimile