June 22, 2015

I spent this past week-end at the Jane Austen Summer Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where I ate a great many scones; learned some things I didn’t know (at what times of day Regency folk ate); developed some sympathy for the odious Mrs. Elton (she too was an orphan, and her family may well have gotten their money in the slave trade); won a bonnet at the silent auction which I wore during my speech (but lacking a hat pin, I had to stop talking several times to deal with bonnet issues); and discovered that if you are wearing white gloves and make-up,  you can’t touch your face.  Not ever. (My gloves are currently soaking in Oxyclean. Bleach to follow.)

The UNC graduate students were marvelously good sports.  They wore costumes, moved chairs, put on a play, handed out strawberries, appeared delighted to converse grad student editand dance with people older than their mothers, and generally seemed to be having a whole lot more fun than I ever had in graduate school.


On Friday I wore my sprigged day dress.  Two womewhite dress inside editn, both very knowledgeable costumers (costumists?), wore period clothing the entire time, adding a great deal of spirit and information to the week-end.  Hope Greenberg brought seven Regency gowns with her,  and Ruth Verbunt, saying that  Austen herself would have probably owned only four to six gowns at any one time, wore each of her dresses twice, showing how a simple dawhite dress outside 1 edity dress could be re-accessorized into a ball gown.


Ruth gave us a lecture on how to dress for a ball.  Basically the make-up turns you into a corpse with a 105 degree fever (pale pale skin and two huge swatches of red rouge).  She told those of us who did not come equipped with stays (the Regency version of a corset) to shorten the straps on a balconette bra as tightly as possible. The women in the crowd cringed.  “Comfort, ladies,” she told us, “is not the goal.”

red gown editSo when dressing, I obediently shortened my bra straps.  I do not have a balconette bra (and actually wasn’t entirely sure what one was).  This was not good.   Shortening the straps on my non-balconette bra resulted in bits of the bra showing at the corners of my gown’s square neckline.  By the time I realized this, it was way too late to start over (my hairdo involved three combs, four feathers, a bandeau, a borrowed brooch, two different pieces of fake hair, and countless bobby pins) so I needed to lengthen the bra straps without  taking my dress off.  Further complicating this was that the cuffs on my sleeves were quite tight.  (They had been only  a bit tight until I installed sleeveheads that raised and puffed the sleeves, thus drawing the cuffs up higher on my arm, making it so that  I needed to check my fingers several times during the evening to be sure that they weren’t turning blue . . . but fortunately they remained make-up-tinged white all evening). Anyway it turns out that with such limited arm mobility you can’t lengthen bra straps and take a selfie at the same time so you will just have to imagine this pretty moment.

The ball, as had been the Regency card party the evening before, was held on the campus grounds in a building constructed in 1820. (The photo is from last year’s event.)  Many people were in costume, and we began the ball with a grand promenade, following a bagpiper as we escorted our partners across the grassy lawns and brick sidewalks back into the assembly room.  We then skipped with crossed hands during the Comical Fellow dance, swept up the ballroom in Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot, and managed not to hurt one another during Jackie Tarr.Gerrard Hall


There were no History Police to criticize the authenticity of our garb. One woman had on a gown that would have been thirty or forty years out of date, but I figured that she was an impoverished clergyman’s daughter, the youngest of nine sisters, who had to borrow her grandmother’s dress if she were going to attend the ball.  Some of the men wore period coats with Dockers and Topsiders, but who cared?  Virginia Claire Tharrington, who is as delicious as her name, was totally Lydia-Bennett, wearing a white muslin gown with red dots,  two big red bows on her shoulders, a red sash, and an explosion of black and red feathers in her hair.  I think I spotted a zipper down the back, but that would have only made things even easier for Mr. Wickham, wouldn’t it?

Virginia Claire outdid herself and the rest of us the following day.  She came as Cher Horowitz from Clueless in a teeth-jarring yellow plaid mini-skirted business suit.



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June 15, 2015

My dissertation advisor at Johns Hopkins sneered at the “Janeites,” women (and of course, they were women) who read Austedress 2n’s novels for the love stories rather than the biting social commentary, who believed in the Victorians’ version of “dear Aunt Jane,” and who – worse – couldn’t finish Mansfield Park.

Oh, the horror.

I have learned something recently – the Janeites are having fun.  I am late coming to this community as I have spent my time in the romance-writing world which is fun, supportive, educational, occasionally bawdy, and always tax-deductible.

My introduction to the fun of being a Janeite started with clothes.  I was invited to speak at the Jane Austen Summer Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and there will  be a re-enactment of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball (which occurred the night before the Waterloo battle).  I needed a costume.  At first I thought that I could wear my hoopskirt and go as the Greer-Garson version of Pride and Prejudice (a movie that was a full-skirted hymn to anachronism), but I was afraid that I would have to spend all my time explaining that I was witty and ironic, not a perfect idiot.

And I love to sew. I was going to make myself a ball gown.  But a very high waistline and little tiny puffhem 2y sleeves? Not so good on me.  So I instructed my computer program (Pattern Master Boutique from wildginger.com)  to draft a more flattering profile.  I ordered silk from the Internet and spent four episodes of Homeland ironing little pleats into the frill that would adorn my hemline.

Although I write novels set in the present, many of my friends write historical romances, and they bemoan the inaccuracy of their covers.  Often the heroine has her back to the viewer, and her dress is open to reveal her naked shoulders and back.  So not only  is the lady not wearing a chemise or stays, but there is no apparent closure device on the back of the dress – at least if the author is lucky, there is no apparent closure device. Sometimes you can see the actual zipper tab (zippers are generally a 20th century thing).

I was mid-way through the construction when I joined a Facebook group of people who construct garments from the Jane Austen-Napoleonic era.  I posted the information about my gown, noting that in the interests of appearing semi-authentic, I was going to hid the zipper in the side seam.

A zipper? Oh, the horror.

I had actually thought about other closures, but my lady’s maid does not travel with me (there are a great many things she doesn’t do, starting with “exist”), and once I explained to the Facebook group that being more historically accurate wasn’t going to make me have more fun, they were all quite nice, patting me on the hand, saying that they had all been beginners once too.  When I did meet one of them in person, I said jokingly, “well, it’s not like you sew your dresses by hand, is it?”

Long pause.  “Oh, yes, dear, we do.”

If you know sewing, you can see that I not only used my sewing machine, I also used my serger.  The dress is silk, but the liningseam 2 is rayon.  I ordered the fabric off the Internet and used my computer to draft the pattern. I relied on my Rowenta steam-generator iron and my OttLit full-spectrum lighting lamp.  I may be a failure in the historical department, but I had great fun, so much so that I made a second dress to wear during the day, and for it I went really crazy and used fusible tape to apply the trim.

But neither dress has a zipper.  I can put them on over my head.








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June 8, 2015Temporary Tattoos

From the people who brought us the Jane Austen Bandages come what Austen readers have been clamoring for —  temporary tattoos.  I found mine at the elegant little museum shop adjacent to the historic Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, VA,  but an Internet search for this image indicated that they are also available at Walmart.  Who knew?

“Imprudent” seems like an excellent choice for a young lady in need of a tramp stamp,  and as for the  Mr. Darcy “10,000 Pounds a Year” tattoo, wouldn’t speed dating be even speedier if people tattooed on their bicep the amount of their student loan debt? “$100K and no M.D?” . . . . ah, never mind.

This  raises a question – why does everyone know that Mr. Darcy has an income of 10,000 pounds a year and that Emma has assets of 30, 000 pounds? I don’t know how much my neighbors make. In Mansfield Park Mrs. Rushworth asks Mrs. Norris what Henry Crawford’s income is, and Mrs. Norris tells her.  I grew up being told that you didn’t talk about money or religion (and you couldn’t talk about sex enough even to say that you couldn’t talk about it). Jane Austen doesn’t talk about religion, and she would be totally on board with the whole not talking about sex thing, but her characters sure do talk about money.

Of course just because people do something in a novel doesn’t mean that that’s what they did in real life.  We need an historian or at least someone who reads all the letters that the 19th century folk wrote to one another.  Did people know as much about each other’s money as Austen characters know?  And how did they find out? Especially without the Internet.

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June 1, 2015

“There will be very little merit in making a good wife to such a man as Mr. Weston,” says Emma’s former governess about her easy-going, affable new husband.  While Austen does acknowledge the role of temperament and character in making a marriage successful (and by “Austen” of course I mean the novels), what she truly seems to value  is intelligence. The very few good marriages that the novels depict,  the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice and the navy officers and their wives in Persuasion,  for example, seem to involve people of equal cognitive ability.

Marrying your intellectual inferior makes you smaller.  Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice  has to pretend not to hear the inane ramblings of her husband Mr. Collins.  Such marriages can also make a person prickly, impatient, and even occasionally cruel as are Mr. Bennet and Emma’s brother-in-law John Knightley.   Mr. Bennet himself outlines an even  worse (at least in the 19th century) fate.  He says to Elizabeth. “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband … You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.”   Those are harsh words from one’s daddy; he is concerned that she would do a Maria-Rushworth  (Mansfield Park)  and run off with some fellow who is not her husband.

But let’s think about this. What I think Austen neglects is the notion that there are many different kinds of intelligence.  I know several happy couples in which one partner is bookishly intellectual while the other has energy, civic-mindedness, entrepreneurial zeal, or excellent parenting skills.  On paper, one partner has more traditional intelligence than the other . . . but they are real people, and as hard as it is to admit this, Austen’s characters do live on paper.

The Westons in Emma  are a bit of exception.  Mr. Weston has a sterling character and a most amiable disposition, but Mrs. Weston clearly has a more keen intellect.  Nonetheless we rejoice at their marriage.   Of course the disparity is not as great between the Westons as it is between the other mismatched couples, and the Westons do truly love each other.

I am concerned about the fate of Charlotte Lucas.  I’m not worried that she will bolt into a life of sex and shame, but look at some of the other women in Austen’s novels who are married to men less intelligent than they – Emma’s mother and Anne Eliot’s mother.  What happened to them?  They died. I don’t think Mrs. Bennet needs to worry about Charlotte Lucas coming back to Longbourn to take command of the house. She’s likely to be dead.  Apparently marrying a stupid man is injurious to one’s health.

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May 25, 2015

Death Comes to Pemberley ­ —  didn’t read it.  Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies –one page.  Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s  Emma – ain’t gonna read them even though I adore Johanna Trollope.

In fan fiction, a writer tells a story using the characters from someone else’s work.  Most fan fiction is published for free on the Internet, and it is easy (at least for me) to be kind of snarky about it all although Wikipedia says that fan fiction is “both related to the subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside it,” which does make it sound pretty high-falutin’.

But P.D. James, Joanna Trollope, McCall Smith, and the writers on www.austenauthors.net  all have plenty of writing chops and creative muscle of their own.  When they do write an Austen-based novel, they can ask people to pay for the book, and people do.

So why won’t I read them?  People in psycho- (as opposed to physical) therapy occasionally succumb to what’s called the “myth of the monogamous therapist” – the notion that you are the therapist’s only client.  I myself succumb to the “teacher’s pet” notion;  I want to be the best client, the most likeable, the most interesting client the therapist has ever seen.

That’s how I feel about  Austen’s novels, that no one can possibly be as attached to these novels as I am.  It’s actually even more than that; the novels themselves are delighted when I am rereading them.  “Oh, yea,” they exclaim to one another,  “Kathy Seidel is back. She’s our favorite reader.  We love it when she reads us. “

I like the movies.  Emma Thompson fixed a lot of the problems of Sense and Sensibility, and Clueless  is awesome.  But these books – they suggest that other people may love Austen’s books even more than I do; they feel comfortable owning the characters for themselves . . . and as far as I know, the original six novels, those faithless little creatures, have not objected.

But I don’t need to know about it.




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