For many of us, the Regency period, with its flimsy dresses, vigorous dancing and horse riding, and social gatherings of vast numbers of people in spaces we could consider quite small today, is invested with a surreal sort of romance – a romance best left undisturbed by any knowledge of the reality of life for the real-life counterparts of the characters that make us love Jane Austen
Several later writers have played into this idea of grounding the Regency period in historical fact, including the tv series Lost in Austen, in which Amanda is shocked to discover that she is expected to clean her teeth using a twig and a block of chalk.
Even something so physical as illness is often romanticised when it befalls our favourite historical characters. However, in an earlier post on health and medicine in the Georgian period, I made the obvious connection between the prevalence of disease in Georgian Britain and the necessarily poor standards of personal hygiene across social classes.
Although the Georgian period saw many technological advances, a running water supply was not one of them. Bathing, therefore, involved the lugging of heavy cans of water, heated over a fire, to fill a hip-bath:an accessible indulgence for those who had servants – and a private water reservoir in their basement – but a time-consuming and costly one nevertheless. Thus, although the gentry would wash their face, hands and feet daily, full baths necessarily happened less frequently. (The craze for sea-bathing – and Colin Firth’s plunge into the lake – stemmed from a sense that it was a healthy activity, rather than from a desire for full-body ablution.)
One room in grand houses that might have a direct water supply was the laundry, where the weekly washing was done by hand. During this period, cotton fabrics, which were cheaper and sturdier than delicate linens or muslins, came to be increasingly used particularly for undergarments which needed the most frequent washing. Overclothes, however, were washed much less often, whether as a cause or a result of the Georgian habit of changing one’s garments several times a day for different occasions.
The frequency and skill with which clothes were changed and washed, therefore, necessarily said a great deal about the wearer’s financial and social status. This lends added meaning to the etiquette which insisted that the gowns of young ladies, particularly those worn to balls and other formal occasions, should be pastel-coloured. Vic, of the Jane Austen’s World blog, explains, ‘The tender white muslins that were used for dresses for rich young ladies, were not meant for the lower classes.
(Remember how appalled Mrs. Norris – Mansfield Park – was when she discovered that a maid owned a white dress? This was, in her mind, cause for dismissal, for the ownership of that dress demonstrated that the maid had uppity notions). White was a hard color to maintain in an age when laundering was a complex and laborious business. Eleanor Tilney only wore white, which said something about her exalted station and the amount of time her maids must have spent maintaining her wardrobe.’
This places the admirable and romantically ethereal figure of Miss Tilney in a new social perspective – and calls up questions regarding the lot of those less-well-off debutantes for whom white muslins were less accessible.
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