Tag Archives: Mansfield Park

Magic in Jane Austen

This is the third of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.


Magic would seem to have no place in the world depicted by Jane Austen it is, after all, a very realistic depiction of the early nineteenth century. In fact that is one of the reason I enjoy the novels so much, they provide a wonderful window on the period. However, despite the apparently rationality of the age, magic did have a place in Britain at this time.

Medicine was remarkably ineffective, the way in which the body worked was only just beginning to be understood and many medical procedures were probably more dangerous than the condition they were attempting to treat. For this reason, even educated people, frequently resorted to magical charms to treat various ailments.

The Reverend James Woodforde, a former fellow of Oxford and rector of a Norfolk parish was, despite being highly intelligent and very well educated, a great believer in charms to cure medical conditions. He is also one of the greatest diarists of the period and records various charms he tried and the effect they had. In 1790 he suffered from a swelling on the eyelid.

‘Mar.11, Friday The Stiony on my right Eye-lid still swelled and inflamed very much. As it is commonly said that the Eye-lid being rubbed by the tail of a black Cat would do it much good if not entirely cure it, and having a black Cat, a little before dinner I made a trial of it, and very soon after dinner I found my Eye-lid much abated of the swelling and almost free from Pain.’


‘Mar. 15, Tuesday.. , My right Eye again, that is, its Eye-lid much inflamed again and rather painful. I put on a plaistor to it this morning, but in the Aft. took it of again, as I perceived no good from it.

Mar. 16,Wednesday …. My Eye-lid is I think rather better than it was, I bathed it with warm milk and Water last Night. My Eye-lid about Noon rather worse owing perhaps to the warm Milk and Water, therefore just before Dinner I washed it well with cold Water and in the Evening appeared much better for it.’

Fortunately he finally managed to do something sensible, there is no further mention of the eyelid so presumably simply washing it and keeping it clean worked.

In Mansfield Park the Bertrams and the Crawfords, accompanied by Fanny Price and Mrs Norris visit Sotherton, the home of Mr Rushworth. During this visit Mrs Norris;

‘Had been met by the gardener, with whom she had made a most satisfactory acquaintance, for she had set him right as to his grandson’s illness, convinced him that it was an ague, and promised him a charm for it.’


So there it is, the most unpleasant character in Jane Austen’s works is the one to offer magical help. An Ague was an intermittent fever, possibly a form of malaria. As the disease could naturally disappear it is one where charms would appear to work, so what might the charm have consisted of? It might have sounded vaguely medical, in The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion there are several recipes for the cure of ague which would have had no practical benefit and so to modern eyes look like charms. This is typical,


Or perhaps it was a magical one such as this, recorded in Devon in the nineteenth century;

‘To cure ague, when a sufferer feels that an attack is imminent, he should go to the nearest crossroads at midnight, on five nights, and there bury a new-laid egg.’

Though let’s hope it wasn’t the cure that Parson Woodforde tried on his servant;

‘May 22 1779 My Boy Jack had another touch of the Ague about noon. I gave him a dram of gin at the beginning of the fit and pushed him headlong into one of my Ponds and ordered him to bed immediately and he was better after it.’


A nineteenth century ghost, no relation to what I am saying, but I like the picture.

Mrs Norris is, of course, the only character from Jane Austen’s works referenced in the Harry Potter novels, depicted as a wicked cat. J K Rowling says she chose the name as she always disliked Mrs Norris (who doesn’t), though I suspect she also knew that Mrs Norris practiced magic.



Filed under Ghost story, Jane Austen, Regency

Reconstructing the Regency – The Red Books of Humphry Repton

As part of a series of classes I will be giving on Regency life, using objects rather just pictures, I am reconstructing various objects that are either very rare or only survive in pictures. Amongst the rare, and fragile, items are the Red Books of Humphry Repton

Recently there have been a series of exhibitions commemorating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great landscape gardener, Capability Brown. So naturally I want to talk about his successor, who was mentioned in Mansfield Park.

“Your best friend upon such an occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.”

“That is what I was thinking of.” said Mr. Rushworth. “As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”

If Mr Rushworth had employed Humphry Repton, instead of having to spend his money divorcing his newly married wife, who had run off with Henry Crawford, there would have been a Red Book produced for Sotherton.

The Red Books, so called from the colour of the leather in which they were bound, were Repton’s innovative method of attracting clients. As well as plans and descriptions of what he proposed doing to the estate, there were before and after paintings of what the view looked like now, and what it would look like when Repton’s works were carried out. Much of this had been done before, but what made Humphry Repton’s pictures remarkable was that before and after were to be found on the same illustration. You first saw the landscape as is at present, then you raised a paper flap and the view turned into what it would be.

 Lord Sidmouths in Richmond Park - merged

It must be said, however, that Humphry Repton had a major character flaw, he was a dreadful snob, always sucking up to his wealthy or titled clients, he was referred to as oleaginous (oily), and was more than happy to approve of his clients more morally doubtful schemes, such as this for enclosing a common and turning it into the park associated with a fashionable villa.

 A Common improved in Yorkshire - merged

Which reminds me of the famous verse;

            The law is hard on man or woman

            Who steals the goose from off the common

            But lets the greater villain loose

            Who steals the common from the goose

 View from my own cottage before

To create a facsimile of a Red Book illustration I first downloaded high resolution scans from the websites listed below. I decided to take the pictures showing how he improved his own house. I printed both the before and after views at exactly the same size, on heavy cartridge paper.


Then I cut out the tab and frame of from the ‘before’ view, this was then pasted over the ‘after view.


By lifting the flap you can see how he improved his garden, planting rose bushes, enclosing the village green and getting rid of the geese and inconvenient disabled poor people.

A great gardener but not a very nice man.

 View from my own cottage after

Repton’s books can be found on the University of Wisconsin website:

Sketches and hints on landscape gardening, 1794.

Observations on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1803.

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1816.



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Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Reconstructing the Regency, Regency

Historical Reconstruction – A Nice Cup of Tea

In previous blogs I have looked at food and drink from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trying to get some idea of what the food of the past tasted like. Some have been delicious, some have been delicious and not very good for you, whilst others have been downright poisonous.

Today I will consider something delicious and safe, tea. You might think that it is unnecessary to try and reconstruct the taste of Georgian tea, surely it is the same as today – well read on and see what you think.

One thing ‘everyone knows’ about tea in the eighteenth century, was that it was very expensive. This was true, both because of how much it cost in China (then the source of all tea), transport costs in bringing it halfway round the world, and finally the massive tax put on it by the British government when it arrived. Heavy taxation had several results, it upset some colonials (particularly in Boston), and it naturally encouraged smuggling. Hence the description of Smuggler Bill in the Victorian poem, The Smuggler’s Leap, one of my fathers favourites.

Smuggler Bill is six feet high,
He has curling locks, and a roving eye,
He has a tongue and he has a smile
Trained the female heart to beguile,
And there is not a farmer’s wife in the Isle,
From St. Nicholas quite
To the Foreland Light,
But that eye, and that tongue, and that smile will wheedle her
To have done with the Grocer and make him her Tea-dealer;

But there could be a problem in purchasing unlicensed tea, adulteration. Tea was often bulked up with dried Ash or Blackthorn leaves, if you look at the tea leaves after making a full leaf tea you will see how similar the tea leaf is to that of the Ash or Blackthorn. Well at least it wasn’t poisonous! The only way to guarantee that you were getting a proper tea was to use a reputable tea dealer, one that you could trust. Jane Austen did this, though she complained about the cost,

‘I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining till later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply ‘ letter to Cassandra 6/3/1814

This expensive tea was kept in a Tea Caddy, a lockable box that was brought out when tea was made. These boxes contain one or two compartments, and sometimes a glass bowl. The compartments would contain a black tea, generally known as Bohea (pronounced to rhyme with tea) and a green tea, these were or several varieties, Hyson being the most widespread and general term.

Three Tea Caddies and an eighteenth century tea bowl

The glass bowl is often referred to as a mixing bowl, it being explained that the tea would be blended before being made, other people suggest it was a sugar bowl. I suspect the latter, there are numerous descriptions in Georgian and Regency novels, letters and diaries of people making tea, and I can find no reference to tea being mixed before serving.

So now let’s try to reconstruct the sort of tea that would have been drunk by Jane Austen. The green tea is fairly easy to obtain, several varieties of nineteenth century tea are still available, my favourite is Gunpowder.

Black tea is more difficult, at the time all tea came from China. Bohea seems to have been regarded by the Chinese as a very poor quality tea, however it travelled well which is why the Europeans bought it in large quantities. There seems to be a general opinion that Bohea was a type of Oolong tea, and when tea from Assam was first marketed in Britain it was said to have the scent ‘of a good Bohea.” So I went to our local tea merchant, who was very interested in my experiment and, after a pleasant half hour amongst some wonderfully scented teas, settled on a Black Pearl Oolong as having a scent, when dry, not too dissimilar from an everyday Assam tea.

A Family taking Tea (1745) – note the servant bringing in the hot water

So now let’s make the tea, this was not done in the kitchen, but the ingredients were brought to the room where the tea was to be drunk, and the tea made there. Which leads to the first point, the water, though tea kettles were made, to heat water at the table, for the most part hot water was carried from the kitchen. This would have meant that it was not boiling when the tea was made, this was probably quite a good thing as tea connoisseurs tell us that hot but not boiling water is best for some varieties of tea, indeed the merchant suggests that the oolong I was using was best made with water at 80 C.
Teapots haven’t changed in essentials since they were first brought from China, so it is easy to make up the brew, then it has to be served.

Initially tea cups were small, without handles, as they still are in the Far East, hence the term ‘a dish of tea’. Soon handles were added to create the cup we see today. Also added was sugar, almost as soon as records begun of serving tea in Britain sugar was included. I will talk about sugar in another blog, but for now add a lump of sugar (the closest we can easily get to the loaf sugar of our ancestors) and stir it in. Teaspoons, almost certainly a British invention, rapidly became an essential part of the tea service, indeed became part of kitchen equipment (by the end of the eighteenth century the teaspoon had become the standard measuring device it is today).

A Family of Three at Tea (Richard Collins) – note the different ways of holding the tea bowl

Milk seems to have come later, but by the middle of the century it was being advised as an addition to make the drink healthy. It was not as universally added to tea as sugar, possibly because of the difficulty, in towns at least, of getting fresh milk. In Portsmouth Fanny price was understandably disgusted by;

‘the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue.’

So for an eighteenth century cup of tea, take a good green or black Chinese tea, make it as strong as you like and serve it with milk and sugar – and enjoy.


Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Regency