A Day in the Life of Jane Austen
I have always been fascinated by the details of Regency life, and how different or similar it was for a middle-class woman compared to our twenty-first century lives.
For an upper-class woman, of course, there was much more leisure time than there would have been for a lower-middle class woman, since there were, generally speaking less servants, depending upon the household income, and some females would have had to lend a hand with some of the chores, such as helping with setting up the table for meals or perhaps lighter cleaning or hanging out the wash, beating carpets etc. I have often wondered what a day in the life of Jane Austen would look like, so I have done some research, and here is what I have found:
For more well-to-do ladies, the day did not begin until about ten o clock. Servants were up around five or six, making breakfast, taking care of household cares and so on. In the Austen home, at Chawton cottage, they did not have many servants, and Jane was up at the crack of dawn, around 6am. She would likely have sponged herself off at a basin, unless it was bath day, since most women would still only bathe once per week. She would have put on her undergarments and morning dress, and probably covered these with an apron. Her sister might have sometimes helped her lace her stays and petticoat, as there were a lot of strings to tie. She would likely have put up her own hair also.
Jane was an accomplished pianist and she spent most mornings practicing the pianoforte before breakfast. This was also the time that small chores were done, and often a walk was taken before breakfast. Then around 8.30am or so she would go into the kitchen and help prepare breakfast for her family. Jane’s particular duty was making the tea. Their breakfast might have been a simple light fare of rolls, muffins or toast, perhaps eggs. She apparently used a long-handled fork to toast bread over the fire.
After breakfast, at around 10am, Jane usually worked on her novels, wrote letters, walked, paid or received social calls, pottered in the flowerbeds as she was a keen gardener, or carried out little errands in the town. This period before dinner time, which for the Austens was usually somewhere between 3 and 4pm, was always called ‘morning’. Thus we have the confusion that often arises when people read in novels of the time, about ‘morning calls’. Calls from others or paying calls to another, were always carried out before the dinner hour, and thus the term ‘morning calls’, can be understood to mean a call paid perhaps before 4pm in the afternoon.
Jane wrote at her little writing table and chair, which was in the drawing room, placed by a window for light. She would work until dinner time, which was for the Austens, around 3.30pm. The ‘dinner’ period was marked by a change of clothes, thus the ‘dressing for dinner’ habit we read of in novels of the time.
Dinner at home generally consisted of two courses, with roast meats, or fish if they could get it, a soup, and a few dishes of vegetables much as we would have today. They were also usually treated to a pudding or sweet course, and wine was usually drunk at dinner as matter of course. A more lavish dinner would have been three courses, two of meats and vegetables, and a sweet course which more often than not consisted not only of puddings like ‘wypt blancmange’ but nibbley finger foods like fruits and nuts and little cakes. The Austens were quite social and often had guests. Jane enjoyed wine and her letters mention that their family made wine and brewed their own beer and mead, which was quite common back then. She enjoyed her tipple, and sometimes talked of what wine she had taken in her letters.
After dinner, the family usually took tea together, and remained together for the evening. This time they would spend reading, and Jane would have read aloud parts of her work in progress for critique. This was the time the family might play cards, read riddles (called charades back then) and by 8 or 9pm they would have a light supper and perhaps by 10 or 11pm go to bed. Jane would have enjoyed playing the pianoforte for her family during the evenings also. Sometimes of course, they would prepare to go out, if there was a local dance to attend or a card party at a private house, and for these the girls would spend an hour helping each other do their hair and dress.
Bedtime was a ritual in which Jane, like another other regency lady, would have disrobed and put on her nightgown, perhaps put her hair in paper curls and tucked it into a sleeping cap, and brushed her teeth with a toothbrush made of horse hair, and a tooth powder of soda ash and salt. The maid would have brought her up a heated brick for her feet if the weather was chilly, and then she likely either poured over her writing desk to write a little more of her work in progress, or climbed into bed, ready to do it all over again at 6am the next day.