Culture and Customs: Miscellanies
The social customs and culture of Jane Austen's time were extremely regimented. Propriety was the driving force of every action and decision. During the time period a huge distinction was drawn between classes in what they were able to do socially speaking as well as culturally speaking. The basic customs shared by all were unique for their time period and extremely important to daily life. Such customs were food, balls, etiquette, and the art of letter writing or calling, marriage, and clothing.
Food was a political and social issue. Different classes ate different types of foods according to wealth and position. For the upper class food included beef, veal, mutton, fish, fowl, game, rich pies and pastries. People in this class system ate a lot. Their days began with a 10 am breakfast of toast and tea, coffee, or chocolate. On occasions this meal was replaced with a larger, slightly earlier breakfast. Hot lunch was served in the early afternoons, followed by a late afternoon tea. Then dinner would follow, usually the last meal of the day if the night ended early. If it were a late night, a supper would be served. At social dinners the meal could last between four and five hours. The lower classes ate meager meals of mostly oatmeal and potatoes. When meat was served it was usually boiled, and the meat choice was not as varied as it was for the upper classes. The price of food was extremely high during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At times, merchants were known to "water down" the food they sold. One story relates that tea merchants would dry used tea and mix it with a little fresh tea to be sold. Another relates an account of a pickle merchant using a clear chemical substance instead of vinegar, and putting it in a copper pot so that the copper would turn the liquid green.
The formal occasion of balls had strict regulations on what must be done and what must be made available to guests. The hostess was to send out her invitations three to six weeks ahead of time. Responses were required within the next 24 hours, so that the hostess would have ample time to plan. Each time a ball was given the hostess was required to set aside and designate special rooms for her guests' convince. These rooms included a cloakroom, a refreshment room, a card room, and a mandatory supper with a room for it to take place. A ball without one of these was simply not a success. At 8 :00 the ball began as the hostess and her daughters greeted the guests. When dancing commenced the first couple consisted of the hostess and the attending male guest who held the highest rank. Should the host have the highest rank in the room, he was welcome to dance with the hostess. It was required that a gentleman parades his dancing partner around the room one-half turn before he began dancing. Balls were the occasion and costume of the higher classes and country classes. The dictates of the balls made them virtually inaccessible to the lower classes of the time.
The women who hung on the very top rungs of the social ladder were the only ones who could be presented at court. The presentation was the "coming out" of the daughters and the societal recognition of the mothers who had not been privileged earlier. Persons who could be presented included the woman of clergy, military and naval officers, physicians, barristers, and bankers. On presentation, the lady was required to wear a gown that had a three-foot train and fell off the shoulders. Every woman had to bare her shoulders no matter her age or the weather. One had to have a doctor's note in order to cover up. When her time came, the lady left her things in the carriage, entered the palace, gave her card, was announced, presented to the queen where she kissed her hand, and back out of the room, never turning away from the queen. That's all there was to it.
An extremely important custom that took place all along the social ladder was that of calling. Calling was done regularly by anyone who wanted anyplace in society. Most calls were made on first coming into town. The person coming in went around leaving his cards with persons whom he wished to have his presence known. Usually he did not wait to see the lady of the house, as he would risk rejection. At that time there was a difference between being socially "at home" and being physically "at home." It was quite acceptable to say you were not at home if you did not wish to visit even if you were upstairs. On receiving your card, the lady of the house could display it or hide depending on her feelings toward the caller. She was then required to return the call with a card or visit of her own. On this occasion, the person she was calling on had to accept her since this was a returned call. The timing of calls was determined by the strength of acquaintance. If the persons did not know each other well the visit was made between 3 and 4. If the acquaintance was a little better, it happened between 4 and 5. If they were great friends, it happened between 5 and 6 wherein they were often invited to stay for dinner. Rule of thumb stated the calls last only 15 minutes.
Everyone in Jane Austen's day wrote letters. The recipient paid postage. Amount was determined by number of pages, distance, and weight. As a result, a courteous and socially acclimated person would "cross" her letters. To cross a letter, one would write on a page, turn it 90 degrees then write between the lines written earlier. Once the letter was completed, it was folded so that the blank side of the last sheet was facing outward. The letter would then be address and sealed with wax. This way, the letter itself served as its own envelope. Interestingly, letter writing was only acceptable between close friends of the same sex or family members. The only time it was allowed for a man and woman who were not related to each other to write to each other was if they were engaged. If a man were to write to a woman (or visa versa) everyone would immediately assume an engagement.
Marriage laws of the time were very specific. In order to get married one had to go through specific channels. There were three alternatives. The first was to have the Banns read. This required that the words be read to the couple by a minister on three consecutive Sundays during the Devine Service. The Banns could only be read in the parish of residence for both persons. Therefore, if two people from two parishes wanted to be married, the Banns had to be read in both parishes. This sort of marriage took a very long time. The second option was to get a license from a bishop or archbishop. Once this Common License was obtained, the couple had three months in which to be married and they had to marry in a church where at least one of the persons had been resident for at least four weeks. This license cost about 10 shillings. The third option was to get a Special License. This could only be obtained by the Archbishop of Canterbury or from the Doctor's Commons in London. Although this license cost a full four pounds, it allowed the couple to be married anytime the wished in any place.
The clothing styles of Jane Austen's time were known as Regency. It was during this time that the true waist disappeared and for a brief period comfort was key to style. Corsets loosened and became more flexible. The new undergarment, the stay, was made of a soft material that allowed for movement and basic support. The waist was very high, reaching right below the breasts and marked by a thin ribbon. Materials were light in weight and color. Popular materials included lawn, muslin, and tulle. Necklines were low and very square; sleeves were either puffed or fitted. Woman wore bonnets with large, round brims and lots of decoration. It was during this time period that woman's coats came into fashion, the result of keeping white dresses clean. Hairstyles were very simple, containing a braid or bun and curls that framed the face. Elegance came with the variety of parts the woman would use including those shaped like a T, V, Y, and U.
The customs and culture of Jane Austen's time bridging the gap between the 18th and 19th centuries were highly important. In order to truly understand the politics and proprieties of Jane Austen's novels, one must understand the world from which she came. The customs from food to calling to clothing are essential in the full experience of Austen's works.