Ladies of the middle or upper class during Jane Austen’s time were not expected to do much in the way of domestic labor. With the exception of governesses and "lady writers" such as Austen herself, they did not engage in professional work either. So how did a lady of the Regency Era keep herself occupied? What did she do for entertainment?
Most ladies embroidered or practiced other fancywork. They might adorn their clothing in this way, or make decorative pillowcases and other household items. Ladies also crafted other fashion accessories and domestic ornaments, such as Elinor Dashwood’s painted screens and Lucy Steele’s filigree baskets in Sense and Sensibility.
As artistic accomplishments were valued in a lady, many young women devoted a good portion of their time to drawing and painting. Common subjects were landscapes and portraits. Drawing could be a form of group entertainment, as the artist’s friends and family might watch her at work if they were not serving as her models.
Many kinds of musical instrument, such as the guitar, dulcimer, and flute, could be found in Regency homes, but the pianoforte and harp were considered the most suitable for young ladies. The harp was more expensive than the piano, making it less common but more impressive.
Like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, many Regency ladies favored Gothic novels. They also read history, conduct books, assorted magazines and journals, or the Romantic poets of the era. Reading was not just a solitary pursuit. Families often took turns reading aloud in the evening. A very wealthy lady might have her personal maid read to her.
Families or guests at small parties played a variety of games together. Card games fell into two general categories, those requiring a certain number of players and those that were played in the round. The former tended to be more sedate and were preferred by serious card players, while the latter were generally more lighthearted and chatty. Gentlemen often played billiards or board games. Charades was good fun for everyone, especially at parties.
A party during the Regency was usually a dinner party. There was always plenty of food, as a groaning table was a sign of affluence and a good way to impress the neighbors. A wealthy family might provide ten courses at dinner. Ladies and gentlemen separated to different parlors after dinner to chat, play games, and drink tea or coffee. Then the party would regroup to make their farewells and return home or go out for the evening.
"Going out" often meant attending dance or ball. A ball was essentially a larger and more formal version of a dance, announced several weeks in advance. A dance might consist of a handful of couples called together at the last minute, although as Lady Middleton expresses in Sense and Sensibility this was more acceptable in the country than in town. Both dances and balls were usually private affairs, although there were sometimes public balls. These were presided over by a master of ceremonies, who helped introduce partnerless guests to one another. This is how Catherine Morland first meets Henry Tilney in Bath.
The dance style of the era was the country dance, similar to the American square dance. The traditional last dance was the Sir Roger de Coverly, known as the Virginia Reel in America. For many of these dances, only one couple at a time was actually moving. The "top couple" began the dance, with the other couples following one by one in turn. Knowing this, Camilla Stanley’s anger at Catharine’s being chosen to lead the dance in "Catharine, or the Bower" becomes a bit more understandable. Not only was Catharine being favored over her social betters, she got to be the center of attention while Camilla had to stand around waiting for her turn to dance! This was why it was so important to have a pleasant partner; it could be very dull waiting your turn to dance unless you had someone interesting to talk to.
In town, people might spend their evenings at the theater. Only a select few theaters staged spoken dramas, as a special license was required. Plays performed at these establishments ranged from Greek, Shakespearean, and Jacobean tragedies to farces and adaptations of popular Gothic novels. The lower classes might attend cheap song-and-dance shows at off-license theaters, but few people of any social status would wish to be seen in a music hall – and being seen was often more important to theatergoers than the show itself. If the middle and upper classes wanted song and dance, they took in a ballet or an Italian opera.
Everyone who was anyone went to London for "The Season". The Season was, in short, when hunting was off and Parliament was on. Many families came into London around Christmas to be there for the opening of Parliament. When Austen’s heroines go into London, it is usually for this early part of the Season. However, since hunting was the primary form of entertainment and exercise for Regency gentlemen, sportsmen were loath to leave the country while the hunting was still good. The fox season ran from early November to late December, and the various game seasons (grouse, partridge, and pheasant) lasted from August to January.
The London Season was not really in full swing until after Parliament’s break for the Easter holidays. Austen’s heroines were usually safely away from the press and smell of the city by then, but others enjoyed countless parties and balls. There were also the Derby and Ascot races in May and June, the Henley Regatta in July, as well as various cricket matches. The Season officially ended on August 12, the day the grouse-hunting season began.
On a fine day, Regency ladies and gentlemen might go out for a drive in the country. Anyone of any social standing at all had a carriage of some sort. The simplest kinds, such as the gig, had two wheels, sat two people, and were drawn by one horse. More wheels and more horses were both more expensive and more fashionable. Closed coaches were classier than open vehicles, but the latter were preferable for daytime pleasure trips. Coaches were more useful for long trips or going out with a large party in the evening.
As Catherine Morland discovered, it was not proper for unmarried couples to go for carriage rides together too often. Young couples were rarely left unchaperoned. However, they had more opportunity for privacy than would their counterparts in the later Victorian Era. The frequency of balls, dances, and parties gave young people many opportunities to meet one another. Couples might take walks together or go for an occasional carriage ride. A gentleman could even call upon a young lady at her home.
The inverse was not true, unless the lady’s visit was on a business matter. This is why, as eager as she is to see him, Marianne Dashwood must wait for Willoughby to call on her in London. For her to seek him out would have been completely improper, even for someone like Marianne who placed much greater weight on emotional sensibility than social propriety. In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet will not call on Mr. Bingley alone, although she is keen to make his acquaintance. She instead pesters her husband to do it for her. Mr. Bennet teases her about being over-scrupulous and suggests that she call on Mr. Bingley without him, but they both know that she will not.
The form of entertainment most prominently featured Austen's novels is the country visit. People with large country estates might play host to friends and relatives for weeks or even months at a time. During the course of such a visit, the host family and guests might engage in most of the recreational activities already described. The length of these visits also provided ample opportunity for romance to bloom, giving young yet another pleasing way to pass the time.
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---. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Washington Square Press. 1962.
---. Sense and Sensibility. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1922.
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