Hornbooks in Jane Austen’s Time

Today we’re revisiting a post by Clarice Neudorfer, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

In Pride and Prejudice Caroline Bingley defines her perspective of an accomplished woman by listing “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,” but fails to include reading. However, Mr. Darcy then augments the list … “She must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

In imagining the childhood of Caroline Bingley for our backstory, I envisioned her sitting in the schoolroom of her Yorkshire home, learning to read and reciting the letters and sounds. A common learning tool at the time was the “hornbook”, yet curiously, I have found no mention of it anywhere in any of the Austen novels. This simple primer was an important, convenient handheld tool for teaching the rudiments during this period and often found in homes and local parish schools.

The hornbook, a wooden paddle with parchment paper attached originated in England as early as 1450. Since paper was quite expensive and scarce, a way to preserve the parchment was needed. A transparent sheet was made by soaking an animal horn (usually oxen or sheep) in water for several weeks; the film was then heated and tacked in place. Thus, the hornbook’s parchment was safe from dirty fingers.

The hornbook displayed essential information such as the alphabet, consonant combination, The Lord’s Prayer and usually a form of a cross. This was referred to as Christ Cross Row or crisscross row. It represented a systematic way of teaching the ABC’s and phonics.

As printing became more feasible and widespread, of course the need for the hornbook diminished. They are a rare find now. The Opie Collection of Children’s Literature at The Weston Library of the Bodleian lists only five hornbooks in their collection, most of which, unfortunately, are of poor quality.

While Jane Austen didn’t tell us if she, or any of her characters, ever made use of a hornbook, we do know she “improved her mind by extensive reading!”

Jane Austen and Bathing Machines

Today we are revisiting a post by Meg Levin, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

When Jane Austen sends Lydia to Brighton she doesn’t tell us what the youngest Miss Bennet does aside from enjoying Wickham’s attentions. No doubt she and the young wife of Colonel Forster enjoy the shops and hope for glimpses of the Prince Regent. Sea resorts such as Brighton and Weymouth had become popular, much like Bath in the previous century. Young Georgiana Darcy visits the fashionable Ramsgate by the sea. The attractions of a popular resort included shops, a theater, assembly rooms for dancing and the sea. It was believed that exposure to sea air and salt water improved your health — as Mrs. Bennet says, “A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever.” So it is quite likely that the two young ladies in Brighton would have tried immersion in the sea by using the bathing machines.

The term “bathing machine” suggests a device with moving gears, tubes, perhaps including a steam engine. Actually, bathing cabins would a more accurate term — they were enclosed wagons with steps on both ends. The ones used by men were a good distance away from the women’s machines. A female customer, fully clothed on the beach, entered it at one end and changed into her modest bathing outfit inside. Horses or people would then pull the wagon into shallow water. Once in position the bathers inside would be assisted down the steps into the water by a “dipper,” a strong woman who held her and dunked her. The shock of the cool water would have been met with excited squeals from the young and frivolous Lydia. The illustration below shows two dippers carrying an older woman, while one bather undresses in the wagon and several others wade, float and enjoy themselves.

Jane Austen visited a number of seaside towns and must have used the bathing machines herself, as we see in the letter of September 14th, 1804, sent from Lyme Regis: “The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly [a dipper?] so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired. I shall be more careful another time, & shall not bathe tomorrow, as I had before planned.”

Public School in Jane Austen’s Time

Today we are revisiting a post by Paul Wray, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

In our backstory for Mr. Wickham, we imagine that he attended Repton, a school in Derbyshire. We do not speculate about Mr. Wickham’s experience – good or bad – but we learned something of Repton during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Wickham would have been a student there.

Life at Repton had its share of hardships. George Stephens Messiter collected Repton anecdotes for a 1907 book. In it he includes a 1728 letter from a sorrowful John Gisborne to his father: “I did lose my breckfast last monday morning and so did most of the boys Because we could not say our epistle Mr. Fletcher would not let us have any.” Wickham, although attending some seventy years after Gisborne, likely suffered from similar punishments.

Repton went through difficult times as enrollment declined during the eighteenth century. Dr. William Boultbee Sleath, who was headmaster from 1800 to 1830, instituted educational reforms and is credited by some accounts as increasing enrollments.

The good doctor had a reputation as a talker; an 1867 history of British public schools by William Lucas Collins (there’s a name to conjure with!) says that “Dr. Sleath’s conversation was always entertaining and instructive and he did not at any period of his life possess the virtue of taciturnity.”

Schoolboy pranks were frequent during Dr. Sleath’s tenure. “In summer time Prayers were held in the Big School after supper; the Doctor had a light on his desk under the old canopy. The boys used to take in cock-chafers (May bugs) and let them loose as soon as prayers had commenced; of course, they made straight for the light, and when there had been a large catch beforehand the poor Doctor was much harassed by the repeated buzzing of these noisy insects.” That’s an antic Wickham would have relished.

Likewise, Wickham would have been proud to be a part of a sneaky group of boys who caught ducks from dormitories overlooking the Old Trent. “On one occasion the resultant feast was interrupted by an unexpected visit from the Doctor [Sleath]; one of the party had the presence of mind to invite him to share the feast and to their great relief he accepted the invitation, nor did he enquire too closely whence had come the ducks!” How the boys cooked the ducks is not told.

And on yet another one occasion, we can imagine Wickham among those who “drove a donkey into the Big School room. There was great merriment, but the merriment was very quickly and effectually suppressed by Dr. Sleath’s looking up and quietly observing, ‘There is no need, boys, for bringing Coals to Newcastle’!”

Repton is now co-ed and its grounds have been used as the setting for two film versions of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.




Wedgwood, Staffordshire, and Austen

Today we are revisiting a post by Mary C. M. Phillips, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

Jane Austen didn’t tell us what brand of china the Bennets used, but the Austens ate off Wedgwood plates. She refers to her family’s own Wedgwood collection in a letter to Cassandra in which she writes to her sister about “the pleasure of receiving, unpacking & approving our Wedgwood ware.”

Staffordshire’s soil, in the Midlands of west central England, offered miners rich deposits of clay unlike any other region in England. It was Nature herself who provided this rich clay for potters such as Josiah Wedgwood.

Travelers were all too familiar with this divine providence of natural resource and would arrive from far and wide to dig into Burslem roads mining for this unique clay. In fact, the word “pot hole” comes from the many holes left upon the rough road to Burslem!

It was Josiah Wedgwood’s determination that led him to conduct over 400 recorded experiments on Burslem’s clay. It was his intense study of chemistry that led to new methods in molding, kiln firing, and glazing; and it was his good taste (along with Thomas Bentley) that satisfied commoner and queen (“Queen’s Ware”) alike.

In 1766 Josiah Wedgwood purchased the Etruria estate and named his factory after the ancient region. A befitting name as it was a geological name and he was a man of science. The Etruria Formation was responsible for the clay-rich soil that produced his wares.  He planned to use this natural resource to recapture the beauty of ancient Etruscan art.

Wedgwood was synonymous with Staffordshire. Austen exhibits pride over the natural clay that was the foundation to the Wedgwood business when Catherine Moreland pays tribute to Wedgwood in Northanger Abbey, mentioning General Tilney’s taste in tea and pottery, writing, “his taste, confessed it to be neat and simple, thought it right to encourage the manufacture of his country; and for his part, to his uncritical palate, the tea was as well flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden or Sèvres.”

Although known for his famous blue jasperware with its white classical figures upon a distinctive blue background, Wedgwood considered one of his most significant accomplishments to be that of his antislavery medallion (1787). The medallion shows a black slave in chains on bended knee on white jasperware with an inscription that reads, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” These medallions were mass-produced and the design became the symbol for the Society of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Josiah sent one such medallion to Benjamin Franklin, encouraging him in the movement.

Great artistry, strong determination, and social activism can be found in the greatest of artists. Josiah Wedgwood embodied each and we give thanks when contemporary artists embrace a similar philosophy where art can change society — and industry — for the better.


Jane Austen and Conduct Books

Today we are revisiting a post written by Gene Gill, contributing writer and editor, WHAT JANE AUSTEN DIDN’T TELL US!

Conduct books that defined what society believed were acceptable and desirable behaviors for young women were enormously popular in the 18th century. The majority of such manuals were written by men to help fathers and husbands in the instruction of their daughters and wives. In 1777, the Reverend James Fordyce published the runaway best seller conduct book, Sermons to Young Women, which instructs women to be dutiful, submissive and modest in dress and behavior. “Meekness, cultivated on Christian principles, is the proper consummation, and highest finishing, of female excellence.” There were many other conduct books and manuals by a variety of authors, but Fordyce was the gold standard for such books.

While Jane Austen probably gnashed her teeth at much of Fordyce’s advice she slyly mocked some of his ideas in Pride and Prejudice. In chapter 14 when Mr. Collins is invited to “read aloud to the ladies,” he chooses to read from Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women. Lydia, perhaps acting for her creator, interrupts him after only three ponderous pages.   Later in the novel (Chapter 47) when Mary Bennet comments on Lydia’s disgrace, she says:

“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson:  that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Harsh judgement, but Regency era readers would recognize that Mary is parroting Fordyce’s Sermons which read:

“Remember how tender a thing a woman’s reputation is, how hard to preserve and when lost how impossible to recover; how frail many, and how dangerous most of the gifts you have received; what misery and what shame have been often occasioned by abusing them!”

By the 19th century when Pride & Prejudice was published, conduct books had fallen into disregard—they seemed musty and old fashioned–which is why only the self-righteous Mr. Collins and the gullible Mary Bennet were still impressed with Fordyce’s advice.

In the 20th century books of etiquette and manners, the modern equivalent of conduct books, were popular. Many homes had copies of Emily Post’s book Etiquette. I remember consulting Emily Post for the proper way to respond to a formal invitation or to write a letter of condolence. Unlike Fordyce, Mrs. Post never instructed me to be meek or to accept personal responsibility for a man’s bad behavior.


Austen and the Militia

Today we’re revisiting a post by Paul Wray, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Weston (formerly Captain Weston) in Emma, and Jane Austen’s brother Henry all served as officers in the militia. The militia was a domestic military force and, unlike the regular army, could not be sent on duty outside the country. (The nearest equivalent in the United States is the National Guard.) Jane Austen didn’t tell us much about the militia’s role in the nation’s defense because her readers would have been quite familiar with the militia’s mission, how its officers and soldiers were recruited, and how it was housed.

Militia regiments took their names from their counties of origin and were generally led by the county’s major landowners. For example, the Duke of Devonshire returned to Devon in 1745 to raise a militia force to help fight the invasion from Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). Captain Weston, who lived in Surrey, probably was part of the Surrey militia, joining it probably sometime around 1778.

These militia regiments were embodied that is, on active duty, for much of the period that Napoleon was menacing the English coasts. While militia were formed to protect from a French invasion, they were also used to deal with domestic disturbances. In 1811-1812, for example, the militia were used to quell the Luddite riots because no other law enforcement group was available. England had no county or national police force, the citizens being suspicious of such continuing, organized authority. Local law enforcement was the province of local magistrates like Mr. Knightley in Emma.

To prevent the militia soldiers from sympathizing with the local populace, the embodied regiments were seldom posted in their home counties. If called on to put down a riot, they would feel less compunction in using force than they might were they asked to act against their neighbors in their own counties.

Thus, Captain Weston served in his county’s militia “then embodied”; he must have been posted in York where he met Miss Churchill of Enscombe. So, while soldiers didn’t have to act against their neighbors, they had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the families of the counties where they were quartered.

Thus, the ____shire militia of Pride and Prejudice were unlikely to be from Hertfordshire, the site of Meryton and Longbourn, and the disruption to the tranquility of the Bennet family “by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighbourhood.”

When the militia were active, the law required that they be “quartered and billeted in Inns, Livery Stables, Alehouses, Victualling Houses and all Houses of Persons selling Brandy, Strong Waters, Cyder, Wine or Metheglin [mead] by Retail” [quoted in Statutes of the UK and Ireland 1813]. These establishments were compensated at rates corresponding to the ranks of the militiamen they housed.

Officers, as might be expected, had better quarters than non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers. And, since officers were generally from landed families and had private resources, they were able to rent accommodations, such as private homes, separate from the “Inns” and other establishments. Colonel Forster, therefore, when he married, probably rented a house or part of a house for his wife and himself.

While not part of the landed gentry – the usual qualification for an officer – Wickham would have been welcomed into the ____shire because officers were hard to come by. Wickham was university-educated and had the appearance of a gentleman with charm to match. What more could a regiment ask?

Remembering Jane Austen

Tomorrow, July 18th,  is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. 

Over two hundred years have passed and still we are reading, analyzing, and loving her characters.  

What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us! is simply a creative tribute to the author. 

 This week, we remember and thank Jane Austen for bringing her characters to life and for introducing them into our own lives.

Syringa “iv’ry pure”




Jane Austen, Lady Catherine, and My Grandmother

Today we are revisiting a post by A. Marie Sprayberry, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

Jane Austen didn’t tell us whether she had anyone particular in mind when she created Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Indeed, she was “too proud of my [characters] to admit that they are only Mr. A. or Col. B.” But when I first read Pride and Prejudice at age 16, among my first reactions was “My gosh, Lady Catherine is a lot like Moma!”—and this was the main reason I wanted to write Lady Catherine’s backstory for What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

The name “Moma” had nothing to do with the Museum of Modern Art. My younger, cuter cousins decided on it as a contraction of “Mother’s Mama”—and once Moma decided she liked it herself, there was really no going back to “Grandma.”

Visits from Moma, especially in my early childhood, were dreaded occasions. Once the old-fashioned, bulky suitcases had been carried up to the room she was to occupy, “nothing escaped her observation that was passing . . . during these visits.” (And I mean nothing!) When our household afforded insufficient scope for her efforts, she would take her work afield via her favorite medium, the person-to-person long-distance call. In her own city, she was a holy terror on the local women’s club scene. I still have a yellowing newspaper clipping that describes her installation as president of one club, with the members “pledging allegiance to [her] administration.”

But as I grew older and stronger, and Moma grew older and frailer, I began developing some empathy for her. The eldest daughter of a man whose dreams of a pineapple plantation on Florida’s Indian River foundered when she was a teenager, she made an early, brief, disastrous marriage to my grandfather, and then an even more disastrous marriage to another man. Both she and I were fortunate in her third marriage, to an older man my father always described as “a gentleman and a scholar”: She was fortunate because “Grandpa Bill” had invested heavily in the stock of a certain soap company (the grandson of a founder was a childhood friend), and I was fortunate because Bill’s copy of P&P was the one I picked up at age 16.

And then there was the music. Despite Moma’s inability to sing or play a note herself, she always defended her presidency of the Music Club by insisting on her great appreciation of music. (I laughed aloud when I first read the line “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”) But after Moma’s death, I came across some correspondence indicating that she had indeed tried to learn from her father—a talented amateur musician, if not a successful pineapple grower—and that the lessons had ended as badly as I describe Lady Catherine’s ending in my backstory.


The Making of a Clergyman in Jane Austen’s Time

Today we are revisiting a post by Linda Dennery, editor and contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

Jane Austen was the daughter of one clergyman and the sister of another. She was a dutiful daughter and devout Christian, why then did she choose to make Mr. Collins a comic buffoon of a clergyman?

Even when a gentleman’s chosen profession was the church, he was not expected to hold deep spiritual convictions. In 18th and 19th century novels, we frequently encounter clerics who revel in avoiding clerical pursuits. We find characters like Henry Crawford assuming a vicar will immediately install a curate to avoid the daily demands of his parish. A desirable parish church was deemed a sinecure for the incumbent. Once installed in a living, the vicar was “in” for life!

Vicars were not expected to be very learned gentleman even though ordination did require a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. Examinations were notoriously lax. A testimonial from your particular college saying you were “fit” for ordination was easy enough to obtain and place before a bishop. (Money or connections helped.) Then arrangements had to be made (presumably with the bishop’s administrative assistance) to demonstrate competency in Latin, knowledge of Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine. This examination, too, was frequently little more than a formality.

You had to be 23 before you could start your clerical career as a deacon assisting an ordained priest. At 24, you could become fully ordained and qualified to administer all the Sacraments. You also became eligible to assume charge of a parish. A parish church entitled you to a residence as well as its “living”—income funded by parish tithes (taxes) and land belonging to the parish that you could rent out or farm yourself.

There were 11,500 benefices or livings in England. Livings were ultimately controlled by the church, but the ability to confer more than half was held by the upper classes. Livings were considered their property, to be bought, sold or inherited. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram sells the living of Mansfield to Dr. Grant. A living usually sold for five to seven times its annual value.

In Austen’s time a clergyman needed an annual income of £300-400 to live as well as the lesser gentry. A curate was paid out of the vicar’s pocket, typically earning about £50 a year, a sum equivalent to our minimum wage.

The easiest and surest way to a parish was to be related to someone with the right to appoint the living. There were many more clergymen in search of a parish than there were livings available. Over half never received preferment.

Mr. Collins was extremely lucky to have attracted the attention of his “noble patroness.” Lady Catherine de Bourgh was neither his relative nor particularly discriminating in her selection. Janeites have been gratefully laughing ever since.


Lydia Bennet’s Imagination

Today we are revisiting a post by Anvita Budhraja, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!

When thinking about Lydia’s story, it was important to me to establish that she existed in a world wholly separate from the one to which she actually belonged. Developing a vivid imagination for Lydia was key to understanding what she thought and how, despite the social and familial forces around her, she could live and do as she pleased. This led me to explore what children’s literature looked like in England during Austen’s time as stories she heard would have sparked Lydia’s imagination.

According to the British Library, in the mid-18th century, books written for children took a turn from profoundly didactic and pious to those that instructed and delighted their readers (much more to Lydia’s taste). John Newberry’s name crops up as the pioneer in publishing children’s literature and his most famous work, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) increasingly included imagined speech for objects and animals and this transformation would no doubt have affected Lydia. One can imagine her utter disregard for the moral of the story and her sheer delight in listening to tales about kind relatives and good luck for ordinary little children. The illustrations that often accompanied these books would only have fed her burgeoning imagination.

There is the issue of Mr Bennet, however. Although he is known to have a fairly large library, he is notorious for paying little attention to the education of his three younger daughters. One can imagine, in his library, a large variety of books for adults but books with talking animals might not have made the cut. Nevertheless, I was confident that if Lydia was exposed to even a few of these new-fangled children’s books – through her own family or through the Lucases – her lively mind would have developed a ripe imagination very quickly. It wouldn’t take long then for her to use this imagination to bring to life the more “adult” books Lizzy would have read to her or that she found in her father’s library (until she was banned from it, of course)!

Source: “The Origins of Children’s Literature” by M O Grenby (on the British Library website)