Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Eggs for Easter – in the time of Jane Austen

I recently came across a couple of curious egg cups, they bear the inscriptions, ‘[A] Trifle from Ramsgate’ and ‘A Present from Clifto[n]’. They date from the early nineteenth century and are tourist souvenirs.

Then, as now, Ramsgate was a seaside resort on the Kent coast, and so was an obvious place from which a souvenir might be sent. Clifton was a fashionable part of Bristol (I believe it still is) and was where Jane Austen moved with her mother and sister after her father’s death. It was also just above the Hotwells, a spa which had a certain popularity, Catherine Morland missed out on a trip there in Northanger Abbey, but it never seriously rivalled Bath and was in decline by the 1820’s.

Egg production, was unusual in British agriculture, it was essentially a female pursuit. In The Lady’s Country Companion, the indomitable Mrs Louden tells her correspondent;

My hints for teaching you how to enjoy a country life would be sadly deficient if I were to omit poultry, as the duties of attending on them are so completely feminine, that even in farm-houses they are entirely under the care of females; and, indeed, few artists or authors would think a picture of rural life complete, if they did not introduce into it the image of a fair young girl feeding poultry.

She then quotes a few paragraphs from a popular novel, before returning to her usual style.

I must now, however, return from the region of poetry to plain matter of fact.

And goes on to discuss the correct methods of heating a hen house, and ways of looking after chickens.

As poultry rearing was such a feminine occupation it is hardly surprising that Lady Lucas was concerned to know about her married daughter’s, ‘health and poultry’, whilst it was the theft of Mrs Weston’s turkeys that finally precipitated Emma and Mr Knightly’s marriage.

Stephens curing a sick chicken by hunting it round the yard – Harriet and Diana looking on.
An unusual method of curing a sick chicken, drawn by the talented Diana Sperling, and published many years ago as Mrs Hurst Dancing.

Eggs were semi seasonal, in that far fewer were laid in the winter than in the summer, recipes abound for preserving eggs, and for testing that they were fresh. Indeed it was around Easter time that hens began to lay well again, and the price of eggs dropped. Eggs for breakfast were commonplace.

After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back to the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving, perhaps, that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William’s plate might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford’s.

And they were cooked in similar fashion to today.

Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see–one of our small eggs will not hurt you.

Actually Mr Woodhouse is right to praise Serle, as to successfully soft boil an egg in days before egg timers took quite a bit of skill.

An if you want to enjoy chocolate in the manner of Jane Austen, you will have to wait until after dinner – and drink it.


Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Regency

The Pineapple of Perfection – An Historical Quest

Is, of course, a misquotation of that most magnificent word-mangler, Mrs. Malaprop who describes a fellow character in Sheridan’s The Rivals as being ‘the very pineapple of politeness!’


The Pineapple has a unique place in eighteenth century life culture, it was only a fruit but it came to symbolise luxury and hospitality, advanced technology and wild and savage lands, it is hardly surprising that some people held that it would cure the sick, and other that it would kill healthy people!

As European explorers visited more and more tropical lands during the sixteenth century they came across many strange animals and plants, gardeners were fascinated by the tales of the explorers and wanted to grow these newly discovered rarities. As men like John Tradescant explored Florida (guess what he discovered) in Europe architects were designing hothouses and stoves to try and keep these wonders alive, and this was where the Pineapple came in. Of all the tropical fruits discovered it was only the pineapple that could be kept alive using the primitive technology of the times, and not only could it be kept alive but it could fruit!

Charles II receiving a pineapple from John Rose, 1675 (picture from Wikipedia)

At first only Royalty could afford to grow pineapples, Charles II was painted receiving his first pineapple, but soon they became available to the very rich. At first they were known as Anana, a version of the native name, but were then called pineapples, because they looked a little like pineapples, and in due course the original pineapples were renamed pine cones.

Pineapples make a wonderful centrepiece and so they decorated the tables of the wealthy on grand occasions.

Morning Post – 23 June 1808

Indeed some enterprising fruiterers would rent out a pineapple for display, it could serve as a table decoration on several London dinner tables until it became too ripe, when it would be sold to be eaten.

As great houses began to grow pineapples themselves they wanted to celebrate their gardeners abilities, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey with very false modesty claimed that;

‘The pinery had yielded only one hundred in the last year.’

Pineapples began to appear on gate posts, a smug claim that the householder grew them, though in Scotland one landowner took this to extreme.

The Pineapple House at Dunmore (picture from Wikipedia)

As well as growing pineapples, some were imported, they rarely made it, as even a slight delay could lead to the fruit rotting. 

Stamford Mercury 24 August 1721

Though most of the pineapple imports were in the form of candied fruit or Pineapple Rum, which was very popular. If fruits could not be imported directly to Britain, it was different in the American colonies. Here the shorter sailing time from the West Indies meant that they could be readily available, indeed so popular were they that they became a symbol of hospitality, a pineapple on the table was a sign of welcome.

Also imported in great quantity to North America were candied pineapples, they had been diced then boiled in sugar to preserve them. Indeed candied fruits became virtually the sole sweetmeats served there, so much so that another case of language separation took place. In Britain the word ‘sweetmeats’ was shortened to ‘sweets’, whist in America ‘sweetmeats’ were forgotten all these sweet objects were called ‘candy’.

This unusual fruit naturally attracted the interests of doctors, who had violently opposing ideas. Those working in the West Indies, where the fruit grew, soon discovered that it was a very good at treating scurvy, so much so that pineapples were sent on board ships as soon as they arrived, for the benefit of any sick sailors. Perhaps this is the origin of Pineapple Rum, another alcoholic health drink.

Other doctors were less sure about the Pineapple,

The pineapple, the most pleasant of all fruit is the most dangerous. Its sharpness flays the mouth; and ‘tis easy to know what effect such a thing must have upon the stomach and bowels of persons weakened by age. I have known it bring on bloody fluxes, which have been fatal. (John Hill, The Old Man’s Guide to Health. 1750)

And tales were told of one young woman who died on her arrival in India of ‘injudiciously eating a pineapple.’

A fruit so valuable, it would obviously be a target for thieves, though I have only found a few cases of Pineapple theft.

Leeds Intelligencer 02 September 1777

Whilst the one case that came up at the Old Bailey will be another story.


This blog was inspired by Emma Theobald who asked me to write a note on the pineapple in the Georgian era for the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society.


Filed under Georgian, Regency, Separated by a common language

Christmas Musings – How wonderful the evergreen!

Rhapsodised Fanny Price, the one Jane Austen heroine who was seriously interested in gardening rather than just gardens. Though I am not going to talk about her here (though I might when I come to talk about Christmas presents) rather I want to consider Christmas decorations.

In the past, everyone agrees and in this I think that everyone is right, Christmas decorations consisted of evergreen vegetation. A helpful list was supplied by Robert Herrick in the seventeenth century, in a poem concerning the taking down of the decorations;

DOWN with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe ;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall

Possibly the use of evergreen vegetation was of pre-Christian origin but sadly there is no actual evidence for this. Classical writers say that mistletoe was venerated by the Druids, but make no mention of any particular season. However what is clear is that by the middle ages evergreen shrubs had become closely associated with Christmas. In the magical poem Gawain and the Green Knight, when the knight appeared at the Christmas celebrations at Camelot;

he held in one hand a holly branch, that is greatest in green when groves are bare.

The use of evergreen vegetation continued at Christmas after the Reformation, and the decorated hall was a favourite image for nineteenth century writers on the ‘old fashioned Christmas’. As the eighteenth century progressed decorations also disappeared, but gradually. Fashionable society seemed to have no interest in Christmas decorations, and by the end of the century only tokens might be found.

These fashionable ladies have just used holly in flower arrangements, a tiny token of the season.

In more rural areas decorations continued, in this welcoming Inn there is holly in the window, and a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Mistletoe, in the form of a Mistletoe or Kissing Bough, often features in images of this period. The term ‘Mistletoe Bough’ seems to have gone out of favour in the nineteenth century after it was used as the title of a popular, and rather gruesome, Victorian Song.

The popular tradition of kissing under the mistletoe continued, or evolved, in the eighteenth century and commentators seemed to associate it with servants and the lower classes. There were numerous illustrations of what were invariably called ‘Christmas gambols’, held in the servants hall. These ranged from the comparatively decorous,

To the decidedly indecorous ( though on must admit that Rowlandson was an early advocate of the ‘free the nipple’ campaign, if his other drawings are anything to go by).

As the revival of Christmas began in the nineteenth century evergreens were welcomed back into the houses of the fashionable, other decoration in wood and glass soon followed, frequently made in Germany, and by the end of the century most of the decorations we know had been invented.

And even the pagan mistletoe, of the disreputable Christmas Gambols, was brought up from the servant’s hall and rehabilitated.

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Filed under Christmas Musings, Regency, Victorian

Picking Darcy’s Pocket – Sealed and Delivered

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?

Now you have written your letter, and dried the ink with ‘pounce’ powdered chalk, crushed cuttlefish bone or something similar. Blotting paper did exist but was expensive and little used until late in the nineteenth century. Rather powder was shaken over the writing with a ‘pounce pot’, a little container that looked like a pepper pot. The excess was then shaken off, creating work for the housemaid who had to dust and sweep the room.
The letter was then folded before being addressed. Envelopes as we know them didn’t exist, references to envelopes in contemporary writing refer to a second sheet of paper wrapping round (enveloping – hence the word envelope) the first. However unless your letter ran to two pages you didn’t use a second sheet as letters were charged by the page.

Seals and Pounce Pot

The folded letter was then sealed to keep the contents secure. There were two ways of doing this, first using wax. A hard material, known as sealing wax, was melted, often in a little ladle, and a small amount poured onto the letter. Left to cool for a few moments the seal was then pressed into the wax to make the seal secure. Seals would be engraved with initials, coats of arms or other devices. In the nineteenth century there was a fashion for ‘motto seals’. It was considered impolite to use a motto seal on letters to anybody other than very close friends, a very wise restriction considering the trouble that Bathsheba Everdene caused in sending a valentine card to Farmer Boldwood, using a motto seal.

Wafer Seal, Wafers and Letter sealed with a wafer

The other way of sealing a letter was with a ‘wafer’. There were two types of adhesive wafers, the simplest and earliest were usually made at home. A sheet of very thin paper was coated with paste (the old fashioned flour & water paste works very well) and left to dry hard. The paper is turned over and pasted on the other side. When hard and stiff the paper is cut into half inch squares. To seal a letter the wafer is moistened with the tongue on either side and placed between the two papers to be sealed. A ‘wafer seal’, a seal with a cross hatched end, was pressed down and so sealed the letter. The second sort of wafer was only glued on one side and was placed over the two sheets and pressed down with a flat seal. This type of wafer continued in use to close envelopes as they developed, sometimes with mottos. They were collected in the nineteenth century.

Wafer Seal and album of Wafers

Now your letter could be posted. It was taken to a local post office and left there. It would then be dispatched to the recipient who had to pay for the letter. This was one of the issues that would be addressed through the genius of Rowland Hill a few years after our period.

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


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Picking Darcy's Pocket

Beer for the memory, or Ales well that ends well.

A curious article in the Daily Telegraph suggests that Beer, instead of being drunk in pints in a pub, should be drunk with food, like wine. Whilst the subject of the article, a ‘beer sommelier’ sounds rather pretentious, the idea was immediately attacked, with a good deal of humour, in the newspapers opinion column.

However, despite what the paper said, instead of being a very new concept, the idea of drinking high quality beer in small glasses with food is actually an old one. I own a small, late eighteenth century glass, it is slightly larger than contemporary wine glasses and is clearly a beer glass. The reason I know it is a beer glass is the engraving. On one side is a sprig of barley, on the other a bunch of hops, the principle ingredients of beer.

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Hops & Barley

I have, of course, tried drinking a good quality beer out of the glass, and it tastes very nice indeed, especially as one is almost forced by the size of the glass to sip the brew. This is one historical reconstruction I am happy to try (unlike the reconstruction I described in an earlier blog). These would, perhaps, have been used by a landowner who was proud of the beer produced on his estate, to try and give a Jane Austen link, I can easily imagine Mr Knightley being proud of the good beer produced on the Donwell estate, showing it off to his neighbour Mr Weston (who we know enjoyed ‘good wine’) or discussing its manufacture with Robert Martin, the young farmer interested in agricultural improvements.

Good quality beer has a long history;

Turkeys, Heresy, Hops and Beer

Came into England all in one year

Goes the old rhyme, remembering the introduction of hops as a flavouring for beer in the early sixteenth century. Then towards the end of the century a remarkable discovery was made. Alexander Nowell, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral was a keen fisherman. One day he decided to go fishing and packed a picnic, for drink he took a couple of bottles and filled them with beer. At the time beer was kept in barrels, whilst bottles were only used for bringing drink from the cellar to the table. To make sure the drink didn’t get spilt he pushed a cork firmly in the neck and tied it down. Walking the short distance along the banks of the Thames from St Paul’s into the countryside he paced the bottles under a hedge to keep them cool. He had very good sport that day and forgot about his beer.

A week or so later he returned to his fishing spot, and found the bottles. Curious to see what the beer tasted like after having been left of so long, he opened one bottle and tried it, it was amazing, it was light and sparkling. He had discovered bottled beer! As a good renaissance man he experimented and soon had discovered how to make this delightful, refreshing drink. A generation later a Herefordshire gentleman tried the same experiment with wine, the newly formed Royal Society published his discovery, it was translated into French, who then claimed sparkling wine was their discovery.

It was another clergyman who made a key invention in the enjoyment of good wine and beer, the corkscrew. Based on the screw used to clean out a musket, the corkscrew was perhaps the finest example of turning a sword into a ploughshare.


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Regency

Picking Darcy’s Pocket – A Matter of Protection

In a comment on an earlier post, my brother remarked on my long history of experimenting with archaeological and historical reconstructions.

Well as Gordon would admit, the experimentation hasn’t always been a total success. Dad accused him of trying to poison him when he tried to recreate the food stuff of the ancient Britons and offered it to Dad.               

Well, after that I have made it a principle to always try things out myself, rather than testing them on volunteers, however willing. I have ridden reconstructions of early bicycles, a Hobby Horse and a Penny Farthing, sailed in various historic craft, and cooked and eaten Roman, Medieval and Tudor food. But this latest reconstruction is one I have absolutely no intention of trying.

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Riding a Hobby Horse, the first bicycle

Carrying out research for Picking Darcy’s Pocket I have made use of a remarkable online resource, the records of the Old Bailey. Looking up cases of pickpocketing, to discover what was actually stolen in the early nineteenth century, I soon discovered that the group most likely to be accused of ‘Theft from the person’, were prostitutes. They were also most likely to be found not guilty, juries tended to believe that men tried to pay them with objects like watches, then accuse them of theft to get their property back. So the object I decided to reconstruct was an early condom.

Condoms have been around since the sixteenth century at least, they were initially intended as protection from sexually transmitted disease rather than as contraception. The earliest were made of fabric, soaked in vinegar before use, then animal gut was used and became the standard material until vulcanised rubber became available in the mid nineteenth century. Gut was far from perfect, it needed careful treatment if it was to remain usable. Famously James Boswell, the biographer of Dr Johnson, recorded soaking his ‘armour’, in a pond in St James’s Park before he could ‘enjoy’ a prostitute. I wonder if there are bylaws against soaking condoms in ponds in Royal Parks?

I had no access to animal gut, so decided to make one out of fabric, based on original specimens preserved in the Wellcome Collection. The condom is eight inches long, two inches across, and was held in place by a ribbon at the open end. Apparently they were made in different sizes, Casanova described trying on different condoms until he found an English Overcoat that fitted perfectly.

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Now I very much doubt that Mr Darcy would have had one of these in his pocket, but what about Jane Austen’s sexually immoral characters, John Willoughby, George Wickham, Henry Crawford, and William Elliott. The first two almost certainly would have had used them I, however, will not try.

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Willoughby & Marianne


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Picking Darcy's Pocket, Regency

Putting Lead in a Pencil – reconstructing the first propelling pencil

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. I will be using either genuine or facsimile artefacts, and was recently thinking about writing equipment. A gentleman might have a pen, ‘travelling’ pens were made where the nib was fitted into the handle and there were ‘travelling’ inkwells with specially tight lids, but these often leaked. Therefore more commonly gentlemen used pencils when travelling. Most pencils were similar to those we use today, a lead made from a strip of graphite, surrounded by a wooden sheath. Though there was one slight difference, as the graphite was quite valuable the end of the pencil had no lead in it, hence in Emma. ‘It was the end of an old pencil,—the part without any lead.’ But our gentleman might have had a propelling pencil. The mechanical pencil as we know it was invented in the 1820’s, but before that there was a curious wooden propelling pencil. The only surviving examples come from two shipwrecks, on opposite sides of the world. HMS Pandora which was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 and the East Indiaman Earl of Abergavenny which sank in Weymouth Bay in 1805. I have often handled the examples from the latter wreck, so decided to try and make a copy. The version was made of balsa wood, as it is easy for the unskilled worker to carve. I also made the pencil thicker than the original, simply because I didn’t have the tools to do the fine carving, that the Georgian carpenter would have had.

Featured image  Featured imageCarving the two sections

First the two halves of the pencil were cut out, and the ‘male’ and ‘female’ section were carved. The groove in the ‘female’ was the hardest part to carve as when fitted together it has a dovetail section. When the two parts slid together easily the pencil was whittled to give it a circular section.

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Fitting the two sections together

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The final cross section, showing the ‘dovetail section of the joint and the grove for the lead.

The pencils from the Earl of Abergavenny have square ends, they were part of a collection of artists equipment being taken out to India and the Far East for sale to western artists, and would have been trimmed to a point. Ordinary pencils found on the Abergavenny also awaited trimming (just like modern pencils) the one from the Pandora had been pointed. Featured image

The reconstructed pencils. Featured image

Using the reconstructed pencil.

The pencil works by holding a separate lead in a groove in the ‘male’ section. It is held in place by pressure between the two parts of the pencil. As it wears out it can be pulled down, until the lead has to be replaced. This must have been a very inefficient system as, when the modern type of propelling pencil was developed in the 1820s, this type of pencil vanished almost completely. As for the phrase ‘Putting Lead in your Pencil’, signifying increasing male sexual potency, that phrase must be connected with a propelling pencil (the only type of pencil you can put lead into), but is recorded no earlier than the 1940s (in Australia) though I suspect is very much earlier. It leads to my next Regency reconstruction, but that will be another story.


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Picking Darcy's Pocket, Regency

The Identity of a Sequel

When you finish a novel, do you ever wonder what happens next? Do you create scenarios in your mind? The journey might have ended in lovers meeting but then? I suppose we all do, it’s fun. But, unless you are the original author, I wish people wouldn’t write them down.

I am a great fan of Jane Austen, I love her works and am fascinated by the period when she lived and wrote. But she only wrote six novels (seven if you include Lady Susan), left two unfinished and a bundle of bits and bobs she wrote whilst training to be a writer. Unfortunately generations of writers have wanted to remedy this lack of material and have written hundreds of sequels and continuations of the novels. The majority of which I find dreadful. As you might guess I am one of those irritating people who spot anachronisms in films and books. They ruin my appreciation of the work, mainly because they tell me that the author just hasn’t done their research properly.

Another issue that arises with Jane Austen is that people are constantly trying to identify the ‘real’ Mr Darcy, or claim that Chatsworth is the inspiration for Pemberley.  Despite the fact that Jane Austen herself said that her characters were all invention, and that she had too much respect for them to suggest they were based on real people.

The names she chose are another matter, authors will collect names for characters, my brother looks on gravestones for example, and if you look in Hampshire papers of the early nineteenth century you will find many of the names that appear in Jane Austen’s novels. Here is one I found a little while ago.

Featured image The steps where Louisa Musgrove fell

The Cobb in Lyme Regis, a remarkable ancient harbour, has a key role in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls from steps on the Cobb, suffers severe concussion and changes her affections from one character to another. Alongside the steps, which it is almost certain Jane Austen meant in her description of the accident, is a plaque detailing repairs to the Cobb in 1793 by Captain D’Arcy! I suspect it has absolutely no connection whatsoever with the hero of Pride and Prejudice.

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The inscription celebrating the work of Captain D’Arcy

Now where is this taking us? Well, at the end of Persuasion readers will recall that the villain, William Elliot, who is also the cousin of the heroine and heir to her father’s baronetcy, is revealed to have been involved in some shady financial dealings which ruined the husband of Anne Elliot’s friend, Mrs. Smith.

Now if you were to write a sequel to Persuasion, you might set it ten years later, when Sir Walter Elliot has died, leaving his title (and not much else) to Sir William. The new baronet is still having financial problems, and hasn’t paid his taxes. Under those circumstances one might imagine his agent receiving a letter like this.

Tax Office

Jedburgh 15th Dec 1826


I cannot retain Sir William Elliot of Stobs’ Receipts for Taxes without giving them over to our Collector of Arrears in Hawick unless they are paid on or before the 26th inst. I hope you will save Sir William the additional expense which must be incurred if this is not done.

I am


Your most ob serv

Geo Scott

Apart from the fact that the letter is real!

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A little while ago I bought an early nineteenth century letter as material for a project I am working on provisionally entitled, “Picking Darcy’s Pocket”, of which more another time.

A complete coincidence, but, I think, a great one.


Filed under Jane Austen, Picking Darcy's Pocket, Regency