Channeling Jane Austen to Cancel Out Donald Trump
While watching the news recently about the slimy reality show that has become Donald Trump’s disgraceful campaign for the US presidency, I cast my mind back to the hundreds of people I saw last month in the city of Bath here in the UK – who were happily channeling a very different reality and era.
It’s in Bath that crowds gather every year for a ‘Grand Regency Costumed Promenade’ that winds through its streets. The colorful walk is under the auspices of the city’s Jane Austen Centre through its annual Jane Austen Festival.
For ten days this year they participated in its tightly scheduled, hour-by-hour daytime and nighttime events to celebrate the genius author and the special ethos that her literature generates.
Full Regency Clothing
What is unique about the Jane Austen Festival and especially its Promenade is that participants dress the part, in full Regency clothing that was the height of fashion from the late 1790s to 1825.
Having lived from 1775 to 1817, Jane Austen straddled this time period and the characters in her novels like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Emma dressed in this fashion:
Trump Is No Gentleman
I think it’s wise not to look at Jane Austen’s characters consistently through rose-colored glasses.
Indeed, I think the genius author herself would not want us to do so.
However, it did make a wonderful change to see the lifestyle and clothing from a time when no gentleman and no lady would have ever wanted to venture into the dregs in which Trump is now dragging his campaign and the American population at large.
Basic Etiquette in Jane Austen’s Time
Yes, basic etiquette from centuries ago can sound very genteel: Our modern lives are conducted so differently.
Still, in this present-day predicament where Trump and his way-too-often vulgar ways are ever too much in the public consciousness, it’s interesting to note some of the basic etiquette of previous times.
Here’s what the author Daniel Pool inserted in his primer of sorts called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist – the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, which included the following advice for gentlemen:
– Meeting a lady in the street whom you know only slightly, you wait for her acknowledging bow- then and only then may you tip your hat to her, which is done using the hand farthest away from her to raise the hat. You do not speak to her – or to any other lady – unless she speaks to you first.
– If you meet a lady who is a good friend and who signifies that she wishes to talk to you, you turn and walk with her if you wish to converse. It is not “done” to make a lady stand talking in the street.
– In going up a flight of stairs, you precede the lady (running, according to one authority); in going down, you follow.
– In a carriage, a gentleman takes the seat facing backward. If he is alone in a carriage with a lady, he does not sit next to her unless he is her husband, brother, father, or son. He alights from the carriage first so that he may hand her down. He takes care not to step on her dress.
– At a public exhibition or concert, if accompanied by a lady, he goes in first in order to find her a seat. If he enters such an exhibition alone and there are ladies or older gentlemen present, he removes his hat.
Celebrating Women’s Rights While Restoring Lost Subtlety, Respect, and Grace
Now Lord knows I would never, ever like to live by all of these rules and regulations, and I am sure as heck very glad that I live at a time where women’s rights and the struggle of women around the world towards equality with men in all aspects of life is in our consciousness.
This state of the world had not yet evolved for women during Jane Austen’s era. In fact, she wove many of her plot lines around this essential fact of life and all the limitations that women endured in her world.
However, I think that much too often we have lost subtlety, mutual respect, and grace in our relations between men and women during our 21st century these days.
Even the most basic etiquette in Jane’s sphere would never, ever have permitted even a scintilla of Trump’s vulgar and boorish speech and behavior.
Jane would be very saddened and profoundly shocked and horrified indeed by this modern phenomenon, I cannot think as the very bright, perceptive, and well-mannered person and woman that she would react in any other way.
Back To The Fun: The Festival’s Guinness World Record And Its 2016 Promenade
The modern world does pop up at least somewhat during the festival, including two years ago at the 2014 festival when Jane Austen fans broke the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costume when about 550 strolled through the streets.
My husband David and I could not estimate the exact number of participants in this 2016 event, but the numbers looked substantial this year too on September 10th when the promenade took place.
Nor did the grayness of cloud cover and a steady splatter of a drizzle dissuade the festival goers from their mission at hand, as you can see in this photo:
Aside from some modern-day umbrellas that were at the ready for the weather that day, the scene provides a lovely step back in time.
Stove Pipe and Bonnets
Note how the gentleman here, the jolly-looking fellow with the stove-pipe hat and white gloves who is walking cheerfully with two bonneted ladies past honey-colored Georgian architecture which dominates even modern-day Bath:
It’s That Sense And Sensibility
Importantly above all else, one gets the feeling that it’s the refined sensibility of Jane Austen’s time and that of her characters which attracts the festival participants.
A genteel atmosphere like the one here permeates the celebrations:
Speaking of being on guard of those rose-colored ‘spectacles’, you can see men dressed in their regimental red uniforms in the front of this same photo – complete with a drummer who is at the head of the promenade.
Although I have lived overseas in various countries including in the UK now for more than 20 years, still my American roots made me instantly recall the similarly garbed ’redcoats’ who fought in the American Revolution.
In fact, Jane Austen herself was born in 1775, the very year that the “American colonies” gained their independence after fighting such soldiers. So many had seen the horrors of war too in that conflict.
However, I assume that not many of the men dressed up in such uniforms were thinking of the sober reality of war as they marched two by two on the modern-day pavement there in Somerset in their vivid red uniforms. Rather, they looked like they were there for the fun of it all:
During our stay in this Southwest part of England, we went to the nearby town called Stroud. I learned from my trusty travel guide that the striking shade of these red military coats came from Stroud and its famous “Stroud Scarlet” (which is also known as Stroudwater red cloth).
Red, blue, and green cloth was and still is made in and around Stroud as it has been for hundreds of years. Weavers were drawn to the plentiful supply of water in the area, and they produced a very high quality cloth.
That cloth was made into clothing that could well have been worn at assembly rooms around the country. It is to just such assembly rooms that the promenade’s route wound its way via the center of town.
Flocking Together At The Assembly Rooms
Thinking of Jane Austen and her life and the lives of the characters who made up her novels, assembly rooms like Bath’s during the 18th and 19th centuries in the UK and Ireland were gathering places for members of the higher social classes open to members of both sexes.
In an era when most entertaining was done at home, there were not many public places of entertainment open to both men and women save for the theatres (of which there were few of those outside London).
Jane’s Novels In Bath: Persuasion
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1805. Two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, are partially set in Bath. She used her own experiences to bring the city to life in her books.
For example, Bath’s Assembly Rooms that are still being used today played a small but important part in Persuasion. Its heroine, Anne Elliot, wants to visit the Rooms in the hope of meeting Captain Wentworth. However, her father’s snobbish attitude prevents here from doing so:
The theatre or the rooms… were not fashionable enough for the Elliots, whose evening amusements were solely in the elegant stupidity of private parties, in which they were getting more and more engaged.
Jane’s Novels In Bath: Northanger Abbey
And in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the heroine Catherine Morland often visits both the Upper and Lower [Assembly] Rooms. She looks forward with great expectation to “the important evening” which was “to usher her into the Upper Rooms”.
Regency Costume Parameters
Back to the fun aspects the festival offers for participants: Here’s a primer the Jane Austen Centre put out in 2014 for members gathering to try and beat the Guinness World Record for the number of people gathered wearing Regency clothing (a feat they were successful in achieving, as I mentioned earlier):
Anyone taking part in the ‘Largest Gathering of People Dressed in Regency Costume’ world record attempt had to comply with seven rules, the first four of which detailed how all participants had to be fully dressed in Regency costume outfit as follows:
1. Males in knee-high boots, tail or long great coats, tall neckties, floppy shirts and tight breeches.
2. Males can also be dressed in military or navy uniform of the period.
3. Females in full-length dresses with a high waistline, low cut necks and bonnet.
4. All participants must carry and wear the necessary accessories to complete the costume, e.g. hat or bonnet, reticule, gloves, Spencer jacket, pelisse or shawl. Additionally such items as a parasol, fan, cane or walking stick are not essential but can form part of the outfit.
Last month participants were dressed likewise as you’ve seen, and here’s a group photo of six happy souls congregating in town after the promenade last month who were dressed to the nines in full Regency regalia:
Tea At Bath’s Elegant Pump Room
Now here’s a look at what this clothing looked like from behind as well. Many of the items have a lovely drape and elegance in the tailoring on the back of the body as well.
I took this photo at Bath’s famous Pump Room, at its present-day restaurant set right next to the city’s worldwide famous Roman Baths.
My husband David and I went for lunch there, and these people just happened to be sitting at the table next to us having their tea:
The Pump Room In Jane Austen’s Novels
Perhaps they were trying to channel Jane Austen’s spirit particularly in this room. This seems likely since she used the Pump Room as a setting in her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
As she described it, it was the place for fashionable people to meet, where “Every creature in Bath […] was to be seen in the room at different periods of the fashionable hours”, as she said in Northanger Abbey.
For example, Catherine Morland, Austen’s heroine of Northanger Abbey, meets her future husband Henry Tilney at the Pump Room.
In her novel Persuasion, Admiral Croft retires to Bath to ‘take the waters’ because of his gout.
As is only fitting, the Pump Room was used as a filming location in screen adaptations of both of the novels.
Inviting Jane To The 21st Century
If I could wave a magic wand and make it possible for Jane herself to have joined in the festivities this autumn, I would have asked her to join me at the Bath Visitor Information Centre that’s only a stone’s throw away from the city’s awe-inspiring Bath Abbey.
I would be a bit of a wizard and make it possible for her to join me when festival-goers and people dressed in 21st century were clustered there together.
The scene would look something like this:
In her eyes, she would see fantastical electric lights; what-in-heaven’s-name-are-those computer tills; wonderful piles of her books from large print runs stacked respectfully all about the shop; men and women in casual clothing that most of them had bought off the peg, including men in just their shirtsleeves and women actually wearing trousers — all of which I bet would fascinate and delight Miss Jane Austen.
I imagine her weaving a plot in her head for a new novel, her eagle eyes soaking in all that new and amazing detail of a world several centuries beyond her own.
Perhaps she would then sit down at her writing table (I can’t envision Jane using one of our computers, can you?), and masterfully piece it all together to write another grand tale – this time set in 2016, warts and all.
Whatever would she make of it all, that I do so wonder!