Tuesday, 29 November 2016

She is to be Jenny

The owners of the Rice portrait have recently posted on their website a new article titled The Jenny on the Parasol

The article shows three photographs of the handle of the parasol in the Rice Portrait. They are three of some 1500 photographs of the portrait taken by Jean Penicaut, Director of Lumiere Technology in 2012.

Lumiere Technology specialise in digital photography of fine art, and are best known for their work on Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

The photographs are reproduced on the Rice Portrait website without any alterations but with suggestions on how to adjust the photographs in Photoshop to sharpen the image.

I have adjusted the same photographs by adding a filter called 'Transfer' in Apple's i-photo programme and varied the exposure setting.

Can you see the writing on the handle?

We know that Jane Austen as a child was known as Jenny from her father's letter, written to Susannah Walter (wife of George Austen's half brother) announcing the birth of Jane Austen: 
Steventon December 17, 1775

DEAR SISTER,--You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners, but so it was, for Cassy certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago; however, last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy, and a future companion. She is to be Jenny and seems to me as if she would be as like Harry as Cassy is to Neddy. Your sister, thank God, is pure well after it.

In the eighteenth century gentlefolk frequently gave their children pet names when they were young – thus Edward Austen was Neddy, Henry was Harry, Cassandra was Cassy and Jane was known as Jenny when they were growing up.

George Austen evidently espoused the Enlightenment theories of John Locke on childrearing, allowing his children to play noisily, to dance and stage plays and encouraged them to read widely and according to their own inclination.

Enlightment ideas also sparked a growing trend for informality in children’s clothes, in Britain and in Europe. For boys the new outfit was the ‘skeleton suit’, an outfit of loose trousers and short jacket over a cotton or linen shirt that allowed the wearer freedom of movement, anticipating the sans-culotte worn by men in post-revolutionary France. Girls wore a simple white muslin frock or chemise although the details varied by the use of different style sleeves and trimmings of ribbon and lace.

In 1787 Le Magasin des modes nouvelles, françaises et anglaises ran an article on children’s dress which was accompanied by an illustration of a girl in a simple white muslin frock. Later the white muslin dress became fashionable for women too, first in France and then in England. A woman in England in 1800 was wearing clothing very similar to those her daughter may have worn ten or twenty years before.

If the Rice Portrait is of Jane Austen and painted in 1788 or 1789 then Jane would at that time have been 12 or 13 years old. At this age she would still be wearing a girl's style of dress not an adult style and there are many examples of children's dresses similar to the dress in the Rice portrait which date to before 1800. You can see some of them HERE

There is also a possibility that the dress in the Rice Portrait is French. Jane Austen's Aunt Philadelphia Hancock and cousin Eliza had moved to Paris in 1779 and at least initially they enjoyed the life of pre-revolutionary Paris. From here Eliza wrote back to her cousin Philadelphia Walter in England of Paris, of parties and attending Versailles. The fashions of Paris clearly interest the twenty- year-old Eliza:

There is perhaps no place in the world where dress is so well understood and carried to so great a perfection as in Paris, and no wonder it should be so since people make it the chief business and study of their lives. 

Eliza, now married to Jean Francois Capot, the self-styled Compte de Feuillide, and heavily pregnant, wrote in May 1786 to Philadelphia Walter that she would be returning to England with her mother via Paris and hoped to visit Steventon immediately on their return. Philadelphia, Eliza and her young son Hastings spent both Christmas 1786 and 1787 with the Austens at Stevenage. They returned to France in August 1788 but are back in England by July 1789. They may well have brought dresses for Jane and her sister Cassandra back with them on one of these visits. See HERE for a fascinating article on Eliza de Feuillide née Hancock. 

Jane Austen's aunt
Philadelphia Hancock née Austen

The dress of the girl in the portrait is a beautiful spotted muslin. 

The dress in the Rice Portrait

It is striking how often Jane Austen mentions spotted muslin in her novels.

In Northanger Abbey there are two mentions of spotted muslin. Mrs Allen reports to Catherine that she had met Mr and Mrs Tilney. She tells Catherine Morland that "Miss Tilney was in a very pretty spotted muslin, and I fancy, by what I can learn that she always dresses very handsomely."

Just a few pages on, our heroine is lying awake 'debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin.' And when Catherine meets Henry Tilney for the first time he surprises her by his in-depth knowledge of muslin. 

In Sense and Sensibility Miss Steele says to Elinor: "La! If you have not got your spotted muslin on! – I wonder you was not afraid of its being torn."

There is another reference, in Mansfield Park which is worth quoting at length:

"Now I must look at you, Fanny," said Edmund, with the kind smile of an affectionate brother, "and tell you how I like you; and as well as I can judge by this light, you look very nicely indeed. What have you got on?"
"The new dress that my uncle was so good as to give me on my cousin's marriage. I hope it is not too fine; but I thought I ought to wear it as soon as I could and I might not have such another opportunity all the winter. I hope you do not think me too fine."
"A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white. No, I see no finery about you; nothing but what is perfectly proper. Your gown seems very pretty. I like these glossy spots. Has not Miss Crawford a gown something the same?"

A white muslin dress with glossy spots seems to have made quite an impression on Jane Austen. Was the dress a special gift - from her Aunt Philadelphia recently returned from Paris or from someone else in the family?

Ellie Bennett
29 November 2016