Catalogs and Confessions

Catalogs and Confessions

There is a certain class of people who, upon learning of my Jane Austen obsession, feel the need to explain why the modern world is superior to that of the Regency. “But the 19th century was a terrible place to live! Women didn’t have any rights, most people lived in squalor, and you were lucky to survive your infancy!” Of course I realize that Jane Austen’s world was not just one of manor homes, top boots, and ladies maids (I do spend three months in Portsmouth with the Price family every time I read Mansfield Park). I have a massive appreciation for modern plumbing, medicine (especially the medicine!), electricity, and something resembling gender equality, but that does not mean that there are not ways in which the Regency period was superior to our current era. I am working on a novel entitled Being Mrs. Bennet (currently posting at A Happy Assembly), in which a modern woman, following a car crash, finds herself inhabiting the body of probably the worst mother Austen ever foisted upon heroine. Alison Bateman finds much of the early 19th century disconcerting, but she also discovers aspects to treasure. One can adapt to almost anything.

I planned this post to be a list of reasons why the Regency remains superior to the modern world. I intend this list to be egalitarian, so it does not include privileges and luxuries that belonged to the upper classes alone, and I confess: it was rather difficult to make. It started out as a top ten, then narrowed to a top eight. I’ll come back to it in a moment.

As I try to compare and contrast the modern world with that of two centuries ago, my husband is making lists of his own. Spreadsheets, to be precise. The man adores a spreadsheet. I often mock his dependence on data, but on this occasion I support its compilation. He has received a job offer that would move us to Zurich this summer. As I watch him tally the numbers, it looks like he’s probably accepting it. We should have a final decision soon, once his current company provides their counteroffer. It is hard to think about anything else. Hard to blog, hard to write, hard to do anything but look up flat prices.

I finally turned to Facebook for help last Wednesday, pleading for someone to kick me out of the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had in a year. The number one response? “If you are thinking about Switzerland, write about Switzerland.” But what does Switzerland have to do with my top seven reasons the Regency was superior to the 21st century? Nothing. And even more irrelevant? The other elephant in the room.

Madness MrDarcy adams iconThe new job offer isn’t the only bit of news to rock my world recently. It is the bit I have shared on Facebook, with my child’s school, and my friends and family. Privately, in the confines of my own house and mind, I’ve been confronting another bombshell. Those who have read my last novel, The Madness of Mr. Darcy, might suspect that my own mind is perhaps not the most balanced. The emotions expressed in the story are poignant because they are real. I have been treated for a variety of mental health issues through the course of my life, like my parents and grandparents before me, depression and hyperactivity having always been the main culprits. Yet last week I received a new diagnosis, one I’m not so anxious to talk about, despite having always been pretty open about my mental health struggles. Inspired by Jeanna Ellsworth’s post earlier this week, Triumph over our Fears, I am going to confess to the world what I have been sitting on all week, too scared to share: I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

O.K. This is kind of weird, I know. First let me just explain that I have never been in a war or involved in or witness to a violent incident. I just had crazy (loving, but crazy) parents (who I am assuming will never read this), who happened to be at their craziest in my early youth: those years when your brain develops. My frontal lobe was apparently kept under too much stress, producing an over-abundance of cortisol. None of this was of the greatest moment in my adult life until I had a child – a daughter – forcing me to confront repressed memories, fears, and anger. Bad habits from my adolescence reemerged. For the first time in over a decade, my behavior was not within my control. I did more yoga. I found a new therapist. Then 2014 was a long series of deaths, including three of my grandparents in the last six months, and I ended the year being pulled, weeping, out of the cheese display at Costco. My daughter was sitting in the shopping cart, now three and a half, screaming “Mommy!” all the while. It was a scene out of my childhood, one enacted on numerous occasions with my mother. It is not what I want for my daughter. I spoke to my therapist, and we made an appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and she’s the one who told my befuddled self, “I think you have PTSD.”

Good news: as long as I can manage to not act like a maniac, this is not something I can pass on to my children. Yippee! Bad news: I have spent the past two decades telling myself I am responsible for my actions, that I can fight my chemical imbalances with sheer determination, and that no one is to blame if I lose control but myself. Now here comes along a diagnosis that points a finger squarely at my mom and dad. That is not comfortable for me. It doesn’t sit right. I want to forgive them, not blame them. I’m still just beginning to work this all out in my head and adjusting to the new meds. With treatment, my symptoms should go away. That is the best news of all.

The point of this enormous and emotional tangent is that I have been distracted lately: distracted enough that my addled brain, for once, is pretty firmly ensconced in the modern world. This has not made my self-appointed task of outlining the merits of the Regency any easier. Nevertheless, I shall now attempt to lighten this rather heavy post with my long awaited list of the top five reasons why I think the Jane Austen’s world was superior to ours. Thank you for reading/listening.

1. Caps

A married woman used to wake up in the morning and plop a frilly cap on her head. Hairdressing done. I call the cap the Regency equivalent to the ponytail in Being Mrs. Bennet, and it is true, but how many of us actually get to wear that ponytail to work? Thanks to makeover shows, a ponytail is derided as boring and lazy, where as a cap could be fashionable and even becoming. Somewhere in the course of women’s liberation, we messed this one up.

2. Custom Shoes

You couldn’t share shoes with your friends and relations back in the day. Each shoe was made for and molded to a particular foot. Today you can buy handmade Italian leather shoes for somewhere in the range of $1000 a pop, but this buttery and luscious feel of slipping your foot into such a concoction used to be much more accessible. Of course men’s boots, those of both the laboring classes and the gentry, would be made of sturdier stuff that needed to be broken in, but once that first round of blisters healed you had a shoe that hugged the contours of your feet perfectly.

Interior view of Covent Garden Theatre, Bow Street, Westminster, London, 1808. Artist: J Bluck

3. Cheap Live Entertainment

One need not be a mogul to attend the theater in the Regency Era. Even the most lavish venues had seats cheap enough to accommodate the working classes. Now even our sporting events are beyond the reach of many, television having rendered live entertainment a luxury item. Sigh.

MourningDashwoodHalfMourning

4. Standardized Mourning Rituals

Having been to more than my fair share of funerals lately and experienced mourning rituals ranging over a wide swath of cultural and religious beliefs, I really think it would be nice to have not an imposed period of mourning (that would be far too stifling), but the broadly recognized need for a person to step outside their normal activities and take the time to grieve. I also like the idea of wearing all black, or having some other, external signifier of grief, so that others know to approach you with care, preferably without looking like an overgrown Goth kid. I also like that they had gradations of mourning. Black ribbons in my hair would have been perfectly appropriate for my cousin’s death last year, while my grandfather’s loss made me crave bombazine and a heavily veiled bonnet. Can’t wear that to the supermarket!

Etiquette

5. Etiquette

While some of the imposed social rituals of the 19th century, like calling cards, are archaic in our modern world of cell phones, they represent a code of behavior designed to help humans interact with each other in a peaceful and orderly manner. We’ve lost a lot of that. I could really go on and on with this topic, which would end up being preachy, at best, so I’ll just beg each reader to hold the door for someone, wait for others to exit before you enter, and say excuse me when you step in someone’s path. The world could be such a happier place.

There you have it! What is your favorite thing about the Regency Era? Anything you would gladly trade for today? Or has Jeanna inspired any one else to confess their closely held secrets to the world?

30 Responses to Catalogs and Confessions

  1. Kudos to you for being brave enough to share your story. I’m so sorry you’ve been going through a rough patch. This is such an interesting post! I think I’d have to agree with the caps, since I HATE having to do my hair. (Thank goodness I work from home!)

  2. Thank you for your heart felt blog. I can certainly appreciate the influence childhood has on one’s personality and their subsequent course in life. You are to be commended for your strivings to overcome your afflictions and turn toward a more positive view of life.

  3. I deeply appreciate your courage, Alexa, and am sorry about your losses. Thank you very, very much for letting us know of your struggles. May you find peace.

    What first attracted me to Jane Austen and the Regency period was the presence of good manners. It was considered bad form to presume an acquaintance, to interrupt when someone else was speaking, and to try to obtain personal information about someone that you did not know well. I, too, wish there was more attention given to the grief that loved ones feel when a family member dies. With television reporting a constant barrage of devastating loss, it has become easy to not even be affected when someone that we don’t personally know dies. Such a sad commentary on humanity.

  4. I enjoyed your blog. A bit of incite into each others lives can hopefully touch just one other person enough inspire that person to think and not just react to someone else. If that could happen one at a time it would eventually be a much better world. Thanks for sharing your story and a part of your life.

  5. Of course country dances are definitely on the top of my list – those are crazy fun! And I love the idea of rules for behavior. Etiquette. Manners. A common culture. Whatever you want to call it. As modern Americans, we tend to not have a common way of doing things so no one knows what is going on. With tea time, grieving, or anything else.

    I think there is something in the air lately, because I know several people who have had a period of very heavy loss recently. I personally have lost 6 people in the last 3 months, 5 of them over the holidays. 3 friends, 2 coworkers of my husband’s, and my own beloved grandmother. It is such a difficult time and I am sorry to hear about your losses. Go ahead and wear black all the time and cover every mirror. Tell anyone who asks that you’re sitting shiva.

    I wish you the best of luck in working out the job situation. I spent some time in Switzerland last summer and it was lovely. It is a VERY inspiring place to be.

  6. HI! I really enjoyed reading your post this morning. I know how hard it is to talk about personal illnesses and I appreciate the courage it took for you to open up and tell you have PTSD. I have family members who struggle with PTSD some from war some from personal. My condolences for your recent losses. As someone who has worn a ponytail for nearly everyday I agree we have muddled it. I also agree on etiquette I have met some of the rudest people!

  7. This post was phenomenal in so many ways. First, your courage in opening up about your diagnosis leaves me in awe. I am myself such a private person – except with close friends, and then it’s TMI – that your hesitation in putting it out there is understandable. Thankfully, there are treatments that I hope prove successful for you.

    I loved, loved, loved your list of reasons the Regency is awesome. I agree with every single one. To your list, I would add: balls and ball gowns, (even the lower classes danced) taking time for a cup of tea and a light snack in the afternoon and writing and receiving actual letters.

    • Yes! Proper correspondence should totally have made my list! I am blessed with a mother-in-law who write beautiful letters, but there are not many like her left. I am thankful for treatment. One way in which I certainly have no envy of the 19th century are mental health services and awareness. We’ve come a long way! Thanks for your kind words, Diana.

  8. Wow, Alexa! I am blown away by your honesty, strength and determination. Seeking help and realizing that it’s not all your fault or all in your control is a type of strength too. This post was very timely as I was just discussing with some friends matters of my own childhood and the effects it had on me and my siblings. Obviously I’m not going to self-diagnose off this post but I think we may have quite a bit in common there.

    I too find things to envy about Austen’s era. As a busy mom the cap is especially appealing. Hey! No one would even notice when I go 3 days without washing my hair because the water heater at our new house is crazy and I’m either freezing or burning in there and want to skip the hair washing and/or when it’s just a crazy day home with the kids and by the time they’re in bed I can barely move more than my fingers for typing. I saw your comment about the need for etiquette coming to a head while you were pregnant. I can certainly agree with that.

    Stay Calm and Keep Being You! Cry, dance and write if you want to. 🙂

    • HI Rose. If you ever want to talk about it, you know where to find me. I am a huge hat person. I would totally have rushed into my caps in the Regency Era. Of course, hot water heaters and hair washing weren’t high on the radar back then, either.

      If only I could figure out how to laugh, cry, dance, and write all at the same time!

  9. Thanks for sharing your courage with us, Alexa, it’s inspiring.

    And I very much like your list, especially etiquette. And it’s not so much that I want people bowing and curtseying and I don’t think it means everyone has to be super nice to each other. Austen’s characters could insult one another with brio, but couched in such considered language that it was a joy to read.

    As to Zurich, I wonder if there are some things that can’t be quantified by a spreadsheet. And I see that you can get a Chipotle burrito in Zurich, so …

    • There are definitely things that cannot be quantified on a spreadsheet! Though I admit that comparing two job offers is probably a pretty reasonable place to attempt it. Thanks for the support, Jennifer.

  10. Oh Alexa, you are so brave to share this and kind to put yourself out there to help others. I understand your situation for both my parents had so many problems in childhood that they were unable to function as a normal family. It affected me, my sister and my brother in very negative ways. Only being introduced to Christ in my early years, kept me sane as my family crumbled around me the older I got. PTSD is a great explanation of what occurs when children are brought up in such an atmosphere. I shall be praying and rooting for you as you conquer this! Also, I wish to say that I agree with your points on the Regency era with the lack of courtesy being one of my biggest dislikes of modern times. When men, children and teens will not offer an elderly woman, or an obviously pregnant one, their seat then things have gone too far in my opinion.

  11. Dear Alexa, Your post is phenomenal. I have to say I have been blown away by the quality of blogs this week, the honesty and inspiration from our authors. Truly incredible.

    I can’t for a second fathom how difficult your struggles are. What I can say with certainty is that your courage to face your past and present squarely head-on is a clear sign of a strong, healthy mind. There may be “issues” affecting you, and chemical imbalances/a disease beyond your complete control, yet your ability to see through that handicap (so to speak) reveals the truth. Just as an addict must first admit they have a problem in order to find a way to control it. Only a brave person with an iron will and honest soul can do that.

    I have known far too many people who rationalize their bad behavior, who refuse to admit they are the problem even as they hurt others and leave a trail of damage in their wake. They typically don’t have an actual, diagnosable disease or mental illness to blame, their actions without excuse.

    You, conversely, could deny or wallow in your poor situation, you could use your very real health problems as a license — “Its not my fault I did ______.” Yet you do not give in. You fight! You share yourself with others, not asking for pity or as a “woe is me” excuse, but to enlighten and help others. As Jeanna said in her post, quoting Nelson Mandela, a brave man (or woman) admits and then conquers their fears. I have no doubt you will conquer yours!

    Thank you for being a part of our blog, especially during this stressful time of your life. We are honored to have you with us, and blessed. Hopefully our support will ease your heart and mind. Feel the love!!

    Hugs, BIG hugs, Sharon

    • Thank you, Sharon! I do feel the love, and also the hugs! I am a brutally honest person, which is not always the kindest way to be, but it makes me confront myself and my demons rather unflinchingly. I know a ton of people like those you describe. They see everything that is wrong around them and do not look inside for the answers. I feel bad for those people because it is such a lonely, angry way to live. Jane Austen gives a lot of examples of the type: Mary Musgrove, Mrs. Bennet, the Eltons. I always admire Mr. Bennet so much more than his wife because he at least acknowledges his faults, even if he doesn’t have the gumption to fix try and amend them. This is a major theme in Being Mrs. Bennet. I didn’t realize how apropos it was to my own life! Isn’t writing bizarre?

  12. Oh dear heavens. Sending peaceful thoughts, wishes for inner strength and virtual hugs over the ether. I posted on FB just the other day “Be kind to everyone, you don’t know their story”. This goes with both #5 on your list and your own trials and battles. It took me a long time to realize some of my issues weren’t of my own creation. I can’t even imagine your inner war. Thankful for better living through medication. It takes real courage to put all that out there for the world to see, never doubt your own strength.

    Courtesy is no more common than sense is these days and I am one of those individuals who wears hats/caps at every opportunity so I have to agree with your list. I wish I could go to live theater more often. I’m not a fan of movies, but I love stage plays. On the list of things that make today better than the Regency, #1 would be Plumbing vs. Chamber Pots. No thank you very much! LOL

    • Thank you for your kind words, Stephanie. I, too, am a hat/cap wearer. Winter is a great time for me, as I can get away with pulling a cap over my dry and crinkly hair every morning. I also enjoy the feeling of having my head covered. It is just kind of cozy. And I’m with you on the chamber pots. Running water, generally, is something we should not take for granted.

  13. Gripping…riveting….compelling…your words were so honest and truthful it evoked deep stirrings within my own heart. It tied well also into your thoughts on
    Regency England, where yes times could be brutal but humans took great care in appreciating one another. Moving from California to Kentucky
    required quite a change for us and we love it. Here people meet properly and leave properly…the social etiquette a Californian looses in the fast pace hustle and bustle. They also are a lot more thoughtful and willing to take the time to show you they care. Well all I can say is if you think you have writers block I would sure like to see you in full on mode because you rocked the house. It takes extreme courage to face our fears,it takes even more to deal with them rather than settle and it takes a lot more to share so honestly . I esteem you highly for that.

    • Thank you, Steve. I think you have a point about the rapid pace of our lives taking a toll on our manners. Urbanization, too, isolates us and keeps our interactions to a minimum. When I first moved to Indiana from Baltimore I found it highly disconcerting when strangers would smile at me, say hello, and comment on the weather. In a volatile city, you try not to even make eye contact with those you pass on the street. It is a survival skill. Too, when your neighbors change every few years, there is less impetus to invest in their lives. Sad but true.

  14. It grieves me you have known such losses, Alexa, but despite your disclaimer otherwise, I would say you have a good head on your shoulders. You are facing your demons. A need for manners and the occasional “Yes, Ma’am” or “No, Ma’am” was part of my impetus of moving to the South some years back. I can deal with the “good old boy” network better than I can the lack of common courtesy.

    • You are right about the south, Regina, though I sometimes wonder if the thoughts are as courteous as the words and the smile. Regarding the stability of my head, my therapist constantly tells me it is amazing how sane I am. I guess everything is comparative. Thanks for the encouraging words!

  15. Hi Alexa, Thank you so much for sharing your inner thoughts. I pray that your husband’s job offer will work out for the best and that if you do move to Switzerland, it will inspire your muse to great things. As for Regency…I’ll go for etiquette. I love it when folks take the time to show that they care even in the smallest of ways. Also wouldn’t mind going to Broadway show in Chicago with my DH and spending less. Between tickets and parking we are talking a lot of private music lessons on my end to cover a once a year outing. Thanks again for your post. Jen Red

    • Hi Jen. We have the same problem going to see shows in NYC. I love theater, and I’m happy to go to every community production available, but my husband gets impatient for anything that is not Broadway quality. Broadway shows cost an arm and a leg. I’ll keep you updated on the move potential. We’re hoping to receive a counteroffer today, which means it is bound to be another distracted weekend. Be well!

  16. To begin, Alexa, I love the things about the regency era that you like. I would want modern sanitation and medicine, but, the cap would hide the static that pulls my hair out in winter and I absolutely love the ‘reasonable’ etiquette of the era. I think the standardized mourning of the time would be wonderful for the reasons you stated. I must say, your confession about the difficulties you face, brought a lot of things I have suppressed to the fore of my mind. Perhaps one day I may share it.

    • HI Debbie. It is one of the reason I decided to share. It is so hard to talk about these things, yet so important to do so for the healing process. One of my first reactions upon receiving the diagnosis was disbelief. As I said, I have not been in a war zone or anything. One of my next thoughts regarded how many other people have this and have no idea because we don’t consider dysfunctional families traumatizing but normal, even interesting. It’s the stuff of memoirs and sitcoms, but so many of us carry this kind of deep emotional baggage. If you ever want to talk, I’m happy to do so.

  17. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and fears, Alexa! Your lovely post moved me deeply one moment and got me giggling the next (at the spreadsheets, to be precise – my husband has a thing for them too 😉 ). Hope the changes in your life will all be for the best and good luck + lots of strength in conquering what you have to conquer! All the best xx

    • Thanks Joana! I am totally up for this fight and really rather relieved to know there are proven treatments. I will still always contend with the depression, but it won’t be as hard as it has been.

      Oh, the spreadsheets. THEY make me crazy. 99% of the time, we come to the same conclusions, mine from the gut and his from Excel. I figure we balance each other out. Have a great weekend!

  18. Sorry for all your losses and personal demons Alexa. The 5 positive are perfect and I can agree and lament for a day( just one day) that people would be courteous. Just holding the door open instead of having slam in your face would be lovely. I can honestly say that my boys are very good but that’s it!????. Thanks for the lovely post.

    • Thank you! The courtesy thing really came to a head when I was pregnant. I was amazed by how many other women with children would slam a door in my face. The supermarket was the worst, especially when I got so big a cart couldn’t get passed me in an aisle. I also had store managers trailing me around with looks of terror on their faces, like I was going to burst at any moment. What a strange experience.

Your thoughts are precious!