This past Saturday I attended the monthly meeting of the Minnesota chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. My author-friend Michelle Griep attended with me.
Our guest speaker was Candice Hern, fellow JASNA member and fellow Regency author. Candice has written many novels, is very knowledgeable, and is a collector of Regency ephemera and antiques like magazines, fashion plates, coin purses, glassware, snuff boxes, jewelry, and much much more.
In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, her topic was mourning practices of the Regency era, focusing on mourning fashion and jewelry, two of her special interests.
One of the most revealing discoveries I came away with was the fact that no etiquette guides covering private mourning existed in the Regency era. (The newspapers did publish court announcements of public mourning guidelines when an important or royal person died, but I’m talking about personal, private mourning.) All of the “a widow must wear mourning for x months for a spouse, y months for a parent, etc.” we see posted on Austen and Regency websites are actually Victorian rules. According to Candice, no documentation of such rules existed until the 1830’s, when a newly wealthy merchant class arose, spurring the need for a guidebook to instruct these aspiring socialites on points of etiquette. Before that, such things were taught verbally through governesses or parents.
A good reminder for all of us that not all things taken as accepted fact (especially online) are actually fact!
Candice acknowledges that unwritten rules existed, which were less strict in the country than in the city, and less frequently observed by lower to middle classes than by the gentry and above. Jane Austen does give us a few hints of mourning practices in her novels. In Emma, before Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax can marry after a death in the family: “There must be three months, at least, of deep mourning; but when they are over, I imagine there will be nothing more to wait for.”
And in Persuasion, when Anne’s friend hints about a possible marriage to her cousin Mr. Elliott, Anne responds: “My dear Mrs. Smith, Mr. Elliot’s wife has not been dead much above half a year. He ought not to be supposed to be paying his addresses to any one.” (Though of course he was doing just that, the rat.)
Candice did confirm that women did not attend burials. They were thought too delicate to do so. Upper class women rarely attended funeral church services either, though middle class women sometimes did. In fact, when Jane Austen, now one of the world’s most celebrated writers, died in 1817, only four mourners (male family members) attended her funeral.
After debunking rigid mourning rules during the Regency era, Candice also enlightened us on two of her favorite topics: mourning fashions and mourning (or sentimental) jewelry. She has books on the subject and an impressive collection of fashion plates showing the three different stages of mourning: full, slight/ing, and half mourning. Here are a few mourning fashions:
She also showed us mourning rings, brooches, lockets, lace pins, and other tokens created and given after the death of a loved one. Some pieces bear universal symbols of grief like a weeping willow or pearls for tears. Some have personalized silhouettes (“shades”), miniature portraits, or just a painting of an eye (“Lover’s Eyes”) of the departed loved one.
Many also contained intricately woven strands of the deceased’s hair. Candice showed us a photo of a mourning brooch with Jane Austen’s hair under glass with her birth and death date on the reverse. I was surprised to see that her hair appears dark blond, when so many images show her as a brunette. (Apparently her hair faded.)
As always when Candice speaks, it was an interesting and worthwhile presentation and I was glad to be there, scribbling notes as fast as I could. For more information and photos, visit Candice’s excellent website here. In the meantime, do any of these Regency mourning customs surprise you?