Recent discoveries

I’m still on deadline and I am so looking forward to getting this book finished! In December I’m going to play … many Jane Austen activities of course since her birthday is on December 16 (and yes, we’ll be celebrating here too!).

But I have been doing a few other things that I wanted to share with you. First, I’m reading My Lady Ludlow by Mrs. Gaskell, one of her shorter and neglected novels, part of which was used to flesh out the wonderful BBC Cranford. It’s set in the first few years of the nineteenth century and is a wonderful series of snapshots of country life (Mrs. Gaskell was born in 1810 so I like to imagine she’s gathering together everything she’s heard about the good old days). Some of it is surprising. First, here’s a description of a gown and a use of pocket holes (slits to accommodate the pockets, discrete items which hung inside from the petticoat) I’ve never heard before:

She had a fine Indian muslin shawl folded over her shoulders and across her chest and an apron of the same; a black silk mode gown made with short sleeves and ruffles, and with the tail thereof pulled through the pocket-hole, so as to shorten it to a useful length: beneath it she wore, as I could plainly see, a quilted lavender satin petticoat.

Or how about this? Have you ever heard of this particular fashion craze?

Nor would my lady sanction the fashion of the day, which, at the beginning of this century, made all the fine ladies take to making shoes. She said that such work was a consequence of the French Revolution, which had done much to annihilate all distinctions of rank and class, and hence it was that she saw young ladies of birth and breeding handling lasts, and awls, and dirty cobbling-wax, like shoe-makers’ daughters.

She’s very much old school, absolutely opposed to anything that will upset the social order–and this is a decade after the Reign of Terror, so she was probably fairly representative. Here’s a description of her hiring a servant, which gives a really fascinating insight into master/servant relationships:

… Then she would bid her say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. Then she inquired if she could write. If she could, and she had liked all that had gone before, her face sank–it was a great disappointment for it was an all but inviolable rule with her never to engage a servant who could write. But I have know her ladyship break through it, although in both cases in which she did so she put the girl’s principles to a further and unusual test in asking her to repeat the Ten Commandments. One pert young woman–and yet I was sorry for her too, only she afterwards married a rich draper in Shrewsbury–who had got through her trials pretty tolerably, considering she could write, spoilt al, by saying glibly, at the end of the last Commandment, “An’t please your ladyship, I can cast accounts.”

“Go away, wench,” said my lady in a hurry, “you’re only fit for trade; you will not suit me for a servant.”

I’ve been enjoying the documentary series Circus on PBS–enjoying in the sense that I’ve seen snippets of them–really fascinating stuff. When I’m less busy I hope to catch them all.

And I’ve also started a singing group in my town, which is a wonderful, exciting project. Our lineup so far is five altos and one bass-baritone which is a bit limiting, but we have plans to go hunt down men (particularly tenors). This too was inspired by a British TV series, The Choir, in which a choirmaster, Gareth Malone, went into unlikely environments full of people who claimed they “can’t sing” and got them singing, enjoying it, and performing.

What are you doing for fun these days? Have you seen either of these TV shows? What’s your favorite Mrs. Gaskell?

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