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Donna Fletcher Crow

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Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more.
www.donnafletchercrow.com

Fay Sampson

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Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick.
http://www.faysampson.co.uk

Did Jane Austen Powder Her Hair? Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ August 17, 2014

 

I am so delighted to be part of the official blog tour to welcome Jane Austen's First Love, Syrie James' newest release, to my bookshelf and to the bookshelves of Austen lovers around the world. Syrie has written a fascinating article below on the question of whether or not Jane Austen indulged in the 18th century fashion of powdering her hair. But first, let me share my experience reading the book:

One of the functions of a good novel is to let the reader experience a time or place they could not otherwise visit. That is exactly what Syrie James accomplishes in her newest novel Jane Austen's First Love. Only fifteen years old and experiencing life with the aristocracy for the first time as she participates in the whirl of events celebrating brother Edward's engagement, Jane Austen meets the handsome, charming, intelligent Edward Taylor— and falls head over heels in love.

Not only is this a romance scenario to dream of, it also happens to be true. At least, as far as truth can be discerned from the cryptic remark Jane wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra many years after that glorious (if rainy) summer.

Through careful research and thorough knowledge of Jane Austen's novels, James brings the events and people to life and puts the reader on the scene with  excellent period detail. But most fun of all for the savvy Janite, is to find the seeds of so many characters and events from the novels Jane Austen went on to write woven deftly into the plot: The home theatrical as a means of parting lovers; Mrs. Bennet's inept announcement of an expected engagement; the matchmaking scheming of Emma Woodhouse; the thrill of being jumped down from a high wall; even Lady Catherine de Bourgh's illogical narcissism; and many more.

Jane Austen's First Love  will delight the reader whether a seasoned Jane Austen scholar or a casual reader looking for something different in a delightful period romance.

 And now, Syrie's article:

Did Jane Austen Powder Her Hair?

By Syrie James

How did Jane Austen wear her hair in 1791?  That was one of many questions that occupied my thoughts as I researched my novel, Jane Austen’s First Love.

In the famous watercolor portrait by her sister Cassandra in 1810, Jane Austen’s brown hair is tucked up beneath a white cap, with a few curls poking through. Austen began wearing a cap—emblematic of both matrons and spinsters—rather early in life, when she deduced that she was never going to marry. The practice of elegantly pinning up a women’s hair was popular in the Regency era, in imitation of the fashions of ancient Greece.

The Regency era, however, lasted only nine years, when the Prince of Wales ruled as Regent from 1811 to 1820 during the illness of his father. When Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, King George III was on the throne—and the whole time she was growing up, the fashions of the French court were all the rage. Women dressed and styled their hair in imitation of Queen Marie Antoinette. Men wore wigs, and for both men and women, hair powdering was a commonly accepted practice.

My novel Jane Austen’s First Love takes place in 1791, when Jane was a teenager, and the Georgian era was still in full swing. Portraits of Jane’s brothers James and Edward from that show they both powdered their hair.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her father, George Austen, wore a neatly curled white wig. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges Austen, in a portrait painted in 1791 around the time of her engagement to Jane’s brother Edward, also has stylishly powdered hair. But no portraits exist of Jane’s mother or sister, nor of Jane at that time. I couldn’t help but wonder: did Jane Austen powder her hair? And furthermore: why did people powder their hair in the first place?

I immersed myself in research. I learned that the act of hair powdering began with the wearing of wigs in the sixteenth century, donned to cover up the embarrassment of baldness caused by syphilis. It was the stamp of royalty that made wig-wearing a fashion. Queen Elizabeth wore a red wig after losing some of her hair to small-pox. In the early 1600s, King Louis XIII of France went prematurely bald and took to wig-wearing, and so did his successor. The practice soon spread to all the European countries and the United Kingdom, and became de rigueur for men and women of social rank. As time wore on, wigs were coated with oil-absorbing powder scented with orange or lavender to keep them looking clean and to cover up any unpleasant aromas. By the mid-to-late 18th century, white powdered wigs for men and combed-up, powdered hairdos for women were all the rage in the French court of Versailles, and widely imitated.

By the early 1790s, older gentlemen still wore naturally white or powdered wigs. The younger generation of men were setting a new fashion trend (as younger generations tend to do) by instead lightly powdering their own hair. Women at that time wore their hair down in long cascades of curls, favoring their natural hair by day, but powdering it for special occasions and often for portraits. Fabulous hats took the place of the elaborate hairstyles of former years, with simpler hats or mob caps at home, or colorful hair ribbons. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trend went out of fashion during the French Revolution, because powdered hairdos became symbolic of the decadence of the French nobility. The British put an end to the craze in 1795, when the government levied a tax on hair powder. After that, short, natural hair came into vogue, and has remained popular ever since.

But in 1791, hair powdering was still very much in fashion. Could we, I wondered, embrace a Jane Austen who powdered her hair? I ultimately decided that we could and must, because Jane (as evidenced in her correspondence) was very interested in fashion, and would have wanted to dress herself and her hair in the popular style of the day.

I had great fun addressing this issue in my novel. Since the object of Jane’s affection, Edward Taylor, was in real life something of a renegade, I decided that he would be very much opposed to hair powdering, while Jane had envied and coveted the stylish practice for years. Hair powdering, however, was an untidy business, as Jane discovers when her mother finally allows her to try it on the evening of a ball, in this scene from Jane Austen’s First Love: 

I resumed my seat at the dressing-table, my heart drumming with anticipation, as Sally covered my shoulders and upper body with a protective drape; she then applied pomatum to my hair, and liberally added the fragrant, bluish gray starch with a puff. Very quickly, powder filled the air and got up my nose and into my mouth, causing me to choke and sneeze. When she had finished and removed the drape, I was so enveloped by the flowery aroma, I felt slightly ill.

Cassandra, who had been watching from a chair by the hearth, said:

“There, you have achieved your goal. Are you content?”

“I am not sure.” Coughing and brushing off the excess powder from my gown, I added, “I did not realise it was such a messy business.”

“I tried to tell you.” She smiled. “You look very elegant, Jane.”

 

“Do I?” Turning and glancing in the mirror again, I viewed my reflection with a start. “I hope so. For in truth, I do not recognise myself.”        

 

Syrie James is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and the author of six critically acclaimed novels, including The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen and The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen. She lives with her family in Los Angeles, California. You can visit her website for more information.

Last year I had the delight of meeting Syrie at the Jane Austen Society AGM. Neither one of us powdered our hair.

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Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more. www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Reader Comments:

Syrie, welcome to Deeds of Darkness; Deeds of Light and thank you so much for including me in your blog tour! I know all my readers will find your article as fascinating as I did. I loved the discussion of hair powdering in the book and learned a great deal.
-Donna, August 17, 2014

What material did they use to powder their hair? I am so glad, that this is a fashion long out of style.
-Denise Duvall, December 12, 2014

Thank you for stopping by Denise. Apparently hair powder was made of starch (potato or rice flour), colouring pigments if applicable, and fragrant oils.One source criticized the use of flour this way--it should have been used to make bread for the poor. One of the main reasons for powdering hair was that it was a de-greaser in an age when they didn't wash often.
-Donna, December 13, 2014

The starch must have made it sticky, especially if they perspired. Cornmeal would have been a better choice.I don't know if rice or potato starch would have made decent bread. Now shortbread, they are perfect for! Merry Christmas!
-Denise Duvall, December 13, 2014

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