Today is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great writer, Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North. This is something I wrote a few years ago concerning the mutual admiration the two greatest novelists of the day had for each other’s work. The Wizard of the North.
Category Archives: Jane Austen
I was recently listening to a podcast, on the remarkable story of Princess Caraboo, which had an epilogue to the story which I hadn’t heard before. When Mary Baker retired from impersonating a Princess from Javasu, she settled down as a supplier of leeches to Bristol Infirmary (a ‘respectable and genteel’ occupation, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.)
Now it is leech gathering (and not the impersonation of princesses) that is the lost occupation. Medicinal leeches were used as a method of bloodletting, taking blood from person to cure a disease, indeed they were probably a safer alternative to having an incision made with a dirty lancet, as medicinal leeches aren’t known as a major source of infection.
Leeches are native to Britain and although rare now were once widespread, a pond near where I once lived on the New Forest is called Leechey Pond, and were collected from the wild for doctors to use. A woman would walk, bare legged, in shallow water where leeches lived. As they attached themselves to her skin she would remove them and put them in a container. Women were considered better at this as their softer and hairless skin was thought to attract the leeches.
But woman’s involvement with leeches didn’t end there; Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) describes a doctors visit to her aunt.
Sunday 19 September 1819
Mr Sunderland [the doctor] called to see my aunt and staid near ½ hour. She is to have 2 leeches set on each foot to ease the noise & swimming in the head.
Monday 20 September
My aunt had the leech-woman from Northowram this afternoon. 2 leeches on each foot. Her charge, 6d. each leech as is common, & my aunt gave her a shilling over, for which the woman seemed exceedingly obliged. They seem to have done, my aunt says. She fancies she felt her [head] relieved immediately after the bleeding.
But what to do if you didn’t have a leech-woman in your area, why you would send to the local apothecary, who would supply you with leeches. They would come in small glass jars, always with a broad lip for a cover to be tied over it, as they were notorious for escaping.
You might get a leech or two if the doctor prescribed them, or you might keep some in the house, as we keep a few medicines today. For example Jane Austen wrote to her sister on Thursday June 23 1814;
We had handsome presents from the Gt House yesterday, a ham & the 4 leeches.
But when you had your leeches, who was to apply them – the women of course. It was considered the duties of any well brought up young woman to care for the sick. If there was sickness in the house, the women cared for the invalids, if you lived on your own, and were believed to be unwell, then you could almost guarantee that some young female relative would be dispatched to oversee your care – whatever you, or the young woman, wanted.
Guides to young women’s behaviour detailed how they should handle leeches, the ‘Young Lady’s Friend’ first dismisses any squeamishness;
If you have been with persons who were foolish enough to feel any disgust at leeches, do not be infected by their folly; but reason yourself into a more rational state of mind. Look at them as a curious piece of mechanism; remember that, although their office is an unpleasant one to our imagination, it is their proper calling, and that when they come to us from the apothecary they are perfectly clean, though slippery to the touch. Their ornamental stripes should recommend them even to the eye, and their valuable services to our feelings.
Then explain how to use them;
To make them take hold in the very spot required, you have only to take a piece of blotting-paper, and cut small holes in it where you wish them to bite; lay this over the place, and put the leeches on the paper. Not liking the surface of the paper, they readily take hold of the skin, where it appears through the holes, and much trouble is thus saved. When they are filled, they will let go their hold, and you have only to put them on a deep plate, and sprinkle a little salt on their heads, and they will clear themselves of blood; then wash them in water with the chill off, and put them away in clean cold water.
I don’t know what you think, but I am glad that this woman’s activity has disappeared.
We have just started to enjoy our Advent Calendar, a splendid fabric one made by Helen, with little pockets in which sweets can be inserted.
I realised as I was filling it that it is some time since I have written a blog about curious links and connections, so here is one now.
Take another look at the calendar and answer these questions;
How is this picture linked to Peter Pan?
And can you work out the very tangential link to Jane Austen.
Now have a chocolate and think about it.
Right, now for the answer.
You will see from the picture that the sweets we chose to use were Quality Street. If you go back a few years the packaging always included a picture of a Napoleonic soldier and a late Georgian Lady (1830’s ish) who were informally known as Major Quality and Miss Sweetness.
In 1936, when the sweet maker Harold Mackintosh decided to produce a selection of individually wrapped toffees (the range soon expanded to include other types of sweet as well) he looked around for a name for his new collection. He found it in the title of a popular comedy, Quality Street. This had been written by J. M. Barrie, hence the Peter Pan connection.
The story has a suitably comedic plot, set during and after the Napoleonic war, which involves the heroine, delightfully named Phoebe Throssel, pretending to have a flirty niece, played by herself, leading to misunderstandings and rapid costume changes.
As well as being popular on stage, there was a beautiful illustrated edition published.
The illustrations by Hugh Thompson, helped give rise to the images on the packaging of the sweets. While Hugh Thompson is generally considered one of the greatest illustrators of Jane Austen.
So there you are!
Jane Austen planned her stories very carefully. She seems to have worked out the action of her tales with a calendar or diary beside her. This has meant that later scholars could work out exactly when they were written but, apart from Persuasion, the actual year the tale is set doesn’t seem to have mattered to Jane Austen. Rather she wanted to avoid the mistakes of other novelists, who can suggest June lasts eight weeks, or summer has eight or nine months.
Another aspect of her work is the absence of description, we hardly know what any character or place looked like, so when she does describe a scene it is noteworthy. This comes from Emma, in the novel we are told that it is in June, a party is going to Donwell Abbey to pick strawberries, when they stopped to look at Abbey Mill Farm.
The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.
….. There had been a time also when Emma would have been sorry to see Harriet in a spot so favourable for the Abbey Mill Farm; but now she feared it not. It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending.
And this is one of Jane Austen’s most famous mistakes. Can you spot it? well here’s a clue. These pictures were taken in our village orchard yesterday, 7th May.
The apple trees are in full bloom, indeed some are already beginning to go over. As Edward, Jane’s brother, who was a very practical gentleman farmer said.
“Jane, where did you get those apple trees that blossom in June?”
Fast forward two hundred years, to the latest film version of Emma, a very entertaining version, with absolutely brilliant costumes. When it comes to the proposal scene, in the film given as mid-summer, in the book it can be dated to 9th July. Emma is seen standing by a Horse Chestnut tree in full bloom,
and guess what is also flowering in our village at this very moment.
Did the film maker deliberately reference Jane’s blunder, or did she just think that the candles of a Horse Chestnut make a beautiful backdrop to a pretty young woman, as indeed they do.
Jane Austen smiled at her sister’s letter, she enjoyed hearing from Cassandra, but sometimes her letters just contained a litany of complaints. Some, such as missing seeing the King and Queen were reasonable enough, but a lack of Ice! In September! After a hot summer! Really.
She picked up her pen, tucked her tongue firmly into her cheek, and wrote;
“Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no Ice in the Town. Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind, only suitable for the inhabitants of Gloucester!”
A Georgian Ice House
Jane Austen’s letter was written on Friday 14 September 1804.
At the time Ice was collected during the winter and stored in Ice Houses, specially insulated buildings, for use during the summer. Slightly later it was even imported from the Arctic in specially built ships. To have no ice available in late summer was hardly unusual.
No one knows what she had against the inhabitants of Gloucester.
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, May 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story without ice. It can be a world without ice or a summer camp that runs out of cubes for lemonade. What does the lack mean to the story? Go where the prompt leads!
As usual I have been led on an unlikely byway into the past Hope you enjoy it.
He knew how it would be, it wasn’t that people were unkind but for someone profoundly deaf there was little he could enjoy in a party like this.
The guests were introduced, he smiled, was about to sit down and read, when the last woman smiled back and flicked her fingers.
“Good afternoon?” She signed, “what is the book?”
For the first time in years he sat and enjoyed a conversation. She certainly knew her books, and suggested many things he could read. As she rose to leave he asked.
“Have you ever written anything?”
“Perhaps.” Signed Jane Austen.
This tale is absolutely true, the meeting took place in Southampton on December 27th 1808. I have blogged about it before in ‘Jane’s Other Language.’
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sign. It can be a posted sign, a universal sign, a wonder. Go where the prompt leads. I have bent the meaning slightly.
In a previous blog I described the amazing house at A La Ronde, that ‘temple to female ingenuity’, and the wonderful craft work of the Parminter ladies. At the time I wrote that, ‘there is plenty of further inspiration to be found at A La Ronde, perhaps I will try something else in the future.’
Looking through the National Trust catalogue of the objects preserved at A La Ronde I found these two bough pots. A bough pot is a type of flower vase that displays flowers individually, not in a bunch. They were usually made of china, and were very decorative, but these are not china, they are tin!
Tin (or rather tinned iron) was, and indeed is, a material used for making a range of objects, in this case semi-circular boxes with holes punched in the top to take the stems of the flowers. The tin would protect the iron from rusting so the container could be filled with water to keep the flowers fresh. The bough pots have been decorated with coloured paper, doubtless by one of the Misses Parminter.
These naturally inspired me to try and create something similar. So I found an old biscuit tin and drilled holes in the top.
This was then painted and decorated with coloured paper. A high quality wrapping paper with a design reminiscent of Georgian wallpaper was used. Then the tin was half filled with water and used to display daffodils for St David’s Day.
The Parminter ladies would certainly have approved.
What’s a patten?
Well, here is a wet London day described by Dickens, and no one described a wet day better;
The sky was dark and gloomy, the air was damp and raw, the streets were wet and sloppy. The smoke hung sluggishly above the chimney-tops as if it lacked the courage to rise, and the rain came slowly and doggedly down, as if it had not even the spirit to pour. In the street, umbrellas were the only things to be seen, and the clicking of pattens and splashing of rain-drops were the only sounds to be heard. (Pickwick Papers)
Pattens were wooden soles on metal rings that raised the foot above the wet ground, they were usually worn by women, and the noise they made was a feature of urban life in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity. When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)
It was the noise they made that was probably the reason they were banned from churches.
Trent Church, Dorset
As the nineteenth century progressed the patten, which had been worn by women of all classes, gradually moved down the social scale. Though it remained in use in country districts until the end of the nineteenth century.
A fashionable woman in pattens in 1783
A woman had to learn to walk in pattens, wearing them was similar to a child wearing stilts, indeed child sized pattens were made so a girl could learn to wear pattens almost as soon as she learnt to walk. In 1872 Miss Berry Dallas and her sister Helen came to live with their uncle and aunt in rural Dorset. She not only kept a diary, but it was copiously illustrated and, on the first page, she shows how they learnt to walk in pattens.
A teenaged Miss Berry helped to stand by an elderly gentleman
Miss Helen smugly managing to stay upright.
Pattens were not just used to walk outside in wet weather, but were essential when wet jobs were to be done around the house, especially on washing days.
A cartoon of 1816, Vansittart was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who had just put a tax on soap!
There were other uses for pattens, Charles Dickens describes, at the end of Barnaby Rudge when the unpleasant Miss Miggs gets her dream job of a female turnkey (jailer) for the County Bridewell (jail).
Among other useful inventions which she practised upon offenders and bequeathed to posterity, was the art of inflicting an exquisitely vicious poke or dig with the wards of a key in the small of the back, near the spine. She likewise originated a mode of treading by accident (in pattens) on such as had small feet; also very remarkable for its ingenuity, and previously quite unknown.
Whilst in 1723 it was reported in the London Journal, that:
Some Days ago a Female Duel was fought at Greenwich, in which one of the Combatants kill’d her Antagonist with her Patten. The Coroner’s Inquest having sate upon the Body of the Deceased, brought in their Verdict Manslaughter.
I understandably wanted to get hold of one of these useful devices, but as something that was never really valued, I doubted that I ever would. How I managed to I will describe in my next blog.
Today’s ‘Google Doodle’ celebrates British Sign Language and its development. This gives me the opportunity to re-blog something I wrote a little while ago in the series, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.
Like most educated women of her time Jane Austen knew some French and Italian. But she knew another language, a far more unusual one. What was it?
She tells us in her own words, in 1808 she was living in Southampton and on December 27 she wrote to her sister, who was staying with their brother in Kent. In her long letter she mentions a visit they had made.
‘We spent Friday evening with our friends at the boarding-house, and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitzhugh; the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read “Corinna”.’
So there it is, Jane Austen could sign, she knew what was probably an early version of British Sign Language which had been developed in the late eighteenth century, and was already being taught to deaf people of all classes through several schools. The question then arises, how did she come to know sign language?
One possibility is that she learnt, as do many hearing people do today, to communicate with a relative. In her case her brother George, little is known about him. He was born in 1766, ten years before Jane, and like her and her other siblings, was placed with a wet-nurse in the village of Steventon immediately after birth. However he never returned to live with his family and the majority of references to him are concerned with his care. He was clearly mentally or physically disabled and the fact that Jane Austen could sign suggests that he was either deaf or couldn’t speak.
What is perhaps less surprising than Jane Austen holding a conversation in sign language, is that she takes the opportunity to suggest something to read!
Finally, if anyone doubts that sign language is a real language, British Sign Language was officially recognised as a minority language in 2003.
Written in response to Charli Mills May 18, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a wise story. It can be about wisdom, expressing wisdom or advice for turning 50! It can be a wise-cracking story, too. Go where wisdom leads you. So I am writing about a real wizard, though this is not one of my imagined historical events, as most of the words are not my own.
The Wizard of the North
“Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.”
“But Jane, nobody knows who wrote it. How can you be so sure?”
“Because it is just like him, but it’s not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and shouldn’t be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.”
Cassandra smiled as her sister picked up the book again.
“I do not like him.” Jane continued, “And do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must.” Silently she thought, “I wonder if he will like Emma?”
Sir Walter Scott, who was known as The Wizard of the North, was a very well-known and successful poet, so he published his first novel Waverley anonymously and for years no one knew for certain who had written it. Jane Austen, however identified the author almost immediately. All her words in the above passage are taken directly from her letters. Emma was published shortly after Waverley, Sir Walter Scott was delighted with the novel and gave it what we would call a rave review in The Quarterly, the top literary magazine of the day.