The high cost of being cheap

The high cost of being cheap

I am frugal (cheap), but like many frugal (cheap) people I’m not always aware of the high cost of being frugal (cheap). For instance, it didn’t occur to me until too late that cobbling together a dust extraction system for my workshop using bathroom exhaust fans and dryer hose is ultimately a lot more expensive than just buying one a proper system off the shelf at my local home improvement store. Of course I had a lot of fun designing my ultimately useless dust extraction system, but I sometimes wish I had those fruitless hours back and could apply them to actually building furniture.

Jane Austen, however, was probably actually frugal and not just cheap. We know she essentially had no income of her own until she published her first novel in her mid thirties. So I’m sure she would have practiced economy in everything, from those little bits of ivory on which she wrote to the recipe she used to make her own ink for her pen. In fact, she probably had to make many things by herself for her use or the use of her family. I know she recopied musical scores and re-purposed her clothing, modifying old dresses to make them seem new with ribbons. In fact her novels mention quite a few practical considerations that make her and her characters seem quite industrious.

I’m still building my tiny desk (you can see a hole punch in the background for scale). The book will have text and an illustration of a cinchona plant. There will also be an admiralty chart with the island of Samokar unrolled on the desk, a pamphlet on electricity by Benjamin Franklin, a painting of Lord Byron in his Turkish get up, a color plate of Carleton House and a tiny miniature of Charlotte House’s brother. Oh, the little scissors open and close. My husband thinks I’m insane.

Frank Churchill lends a hand in Emma in repairing the rivet in Mrs. Bates’ spectacles and Lydia Bennet shows a practical side in Pride and Prejudice when she buys an ugly bonnet with the idea of taking it home and improving it with satin. I know many of us read that line with an idea of Lydia’s spendthrift ways, but I view her purchase as a frugal (cheap) person. The ugly bonnet was probably cheap because it was ugly and Lydia thought she could make it tolerable with the purchase of some pretty trim. And even the vain Sir Walter Elliot is persuaded to practice vulgar economy when he lets out Kellynch Hall to Admiral Croft, the baronet mistakenly thinking he could save money by staying in Bath, as if that arithmetic makes any sense at all.

I think these examples are indicative of the little economies Austen must have practiced or observed, and I like to think she would have understood my motivations to self publish. After all, she basically self published her first book and was involved in the design and typography of it. What she didn’t get to do, of course, was to design a book cover. I like to wonder what sort of book covers she might have designed had she the opportunity.

(A little aside here: In Austen’s day books were usually printed unbound and often with the folded pages (or signatures) still uncut. Upon purchase of a book, you’d have it bound in leather, replacing the paper boards that acted as a temporary cover. Then you’d slice open the pages with a knife, often resulting in a ragged edge. In Austen’s time, there were no dust jackets and no opportunity for a fancy book cover. Thus in the miniature book I’ve made you can see the ragged or deckled paper edges.)

Today her books are mostly printed by publishers who either want to take advantage of her public domain status (thrift editions), or as scholarly works with forewords by illustrious Janeites and copious footnotes. The dust jackets or book covers are usually pretty elegant, featuring Regency paintings or photographs of stately homes. Frankly, these covers are a little stuffy and highbrow.

If Austen were designing (or at least art directing) her own covers now, would she follow (perhaps on the advice of others) to follow some of the conventions of romantic fiction covers? Would she go the bared bosom route, the clasped hands or the running up the stairs clichés of modern romance fiction, or would she prefer the picturesque aspect of a stately home, the crash of waves against a breakwater or the rocks and mountains of Derbyshire? Would she just search Google thusly: “English seaside” and then use the search tools to specify usage rights as “labeled for reuse.” Or would she just ask Cassandra for another drawing and have done with it, keeping it in the family and keeping down costs. (I also imagine a modern-day Henry Austen being an amateur photographer with some pretensions of talent.)

Whatever direction Austen might take, I like to think she would approve of my decision to design the cover for my latest book without paying for images (like stock photos of clasped hands and bared bosoms). My plan, you see, is to create a still life of the items on the desk of one of my characters. The items will be taken from the story, but being of a somewhat esoteric nature, I couldn’t collect them all without considerable expense—at least not at 1:1 scale. (I think of the items on the desk being like the cabinet of curiosities Mr. Knightley collects to entertain Mr. Woodhouse while the others are collecting strawberries at Donwell Abbey.)

So instead I’m making models of all the items at dollhouse scale—about 1/12th scale. Of course I could have bought some of the items I needed, but dollhouse furniture is expensive and usually doesn’t quite have the level of detail I want for my book cover, and so I’m building everything using my modeling skills.

I’ve been a scale modeler for years, but I usually work at much smaller scales, from 1/48th (World War II airplanes), 1/72nd (modern jet fighters) to 1/350th scale (aircraft carriers and starships) to 1/1400th scale (really big starships). So working at 1/12th scale is huge to me and consequently a lot of fun. I’ve made a plain, deal desk using basswood and even a quill pen from paper-thin sheet styrene. Scissors are made from the metal handle that comes on Chinese takeout boxes. The blade of the knife handle is from a aluminum Chipotle takeout lid. My only expense in this is about $5 for the basswood I bought at my local hobby shop. (Yes, I also spent an additional $30 buying other modeling supplies, but that’s neither here nor there.)

This might seem mind-boggling tedious to many, but I think Austen would have appreciated the exercise. I understand her stitching and embroidery were quite good and I think she must have had some experience with the very tedious rolled paper craft or quilling for she mentions it in Sense and Sensibility.

Of course a present-day Austen might roll her eyes and wonder why I don’t pay for some stock photography and I might have to confess that ultimately, I’m going through this process because it’s so much darn fun. You might have to be a scale modeler to understand and appreciate my motivation and before you roll your eyes, I’ll bet many of you have spent hours at some hobby that most of the rest of the world considers quite mad. Whatever my excuse, this little exercise illustrates how much joy Jane Austen and writing Jane Austen-related fiction has brought into my life. Because I find the Georgian period so fascinating, I now read a lot of histories of the period and it’s even spread to reading American history. Thanks to Jane Austen, I even understand some of the jokes and references from Hamilton, the musical, or Sleepy Hollow or even Pirates of the Caribbean. I am just so grateful for the experience of reading and writing about Jane Austen and her times and the opportunity to write these posts for Austen Authors.

And now you’ll excuse me because I just thought of another use for those all bathroom exhaust fans I’ve bought over the years.


17 Responses to The high cost of being cheap

  1. I fight with my husband just to get him to turn off the lights when he leaves a room…part of my training growing up. I even will wash plastic zip-loc bags to reuse.

  2. Thank you Jennifer for a most fascinating piece. I really enjoyed it. Growing up very poor, I am perhaps the opposite of frugal. There were many lessons in your post. I can’t promise I would use any, but I was very impressed by your research.

  3. I love your miniature desk items. It took me a few minutes to realize the scale until I recognized the hole punch, too cool. Working in miniature takes an amazing amount of patience. No speed required there.

    I worked with a geometry class that was doing origami boxes out of paper. The square was folded until you ended up with a box. If you made one slightly smaller than the other, you would then have a top and a bottom. Several of the students wanted to see how small they could make their boxes. One of the students managed a box small enough to fit on the tip of my little finger, amazing.

    I know we were talking about being cheap, but I did make my own set of boxes and used them to sort paperclips, rubber bands, Post-Its, and such for my desk. Does that count?

    • Sure it counts. I think we all look at things and repurpose them. My mother made ladles out of bleach bottles—just cut off the bottom at an angle. We had lots and lots of ladles. We didn’t necessarily have a need for all those ladles, of course, but should our house ever be flooded, we would have been happy for them.

  4. Whoa, am I ever impressed! I love looking at miniatures, especially when it comes to the details. I find them mesmerizing, and have always considered them to be a launchpad for wonderful flights of fancy. I loved books like “The Littles” and “The Borrowers” as a young girl, and as a child I collected little things like spools, buttons, lids, etc. and fashioned (rather clumsily) stuff to put in the dollhouse my dad had built. Mad props to you!

    • Thanks, I love dollhouses. Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, which you can see at Windsor Castle, has one of the extra-canonical Sherlock Holmes stories, How Watson Learned the Trick, printed in a teeny-weeny book. I love that kind of stuff.

  5. My goodness what a talented lady! I’m really impressed with your desk and all it’s associated items.

    I think Jane Austen was indeed a talented needlewoman. At Chawton Cottage, there’s a patchwork quilt that she, Cassandra and their Mother made, for one of the naval brothers I think. Then, in a display case, draped over a tailor’s dummy, there’s a shawl with some very fine embroidery on it that is thought to be her work alone. As a stitcher myself I’d love to have been able to see it closer but I can understand why they keep it behind glass. Who knows what else she made that hasn’t survived?

    • Actually, Lee, I thought the knife was too big scale wise. So it’s going to a knife for cutting cheese. I made a silver folding penknife—rather like the one I imagine Mary Price would have owned in Mansfield Park—to replace it.

  6. I’m impressed with your miniatures. They look great. I have thought often of Jane Austen’s thriftiness. I like how you summarized all the little examples in her books.

  7. Completely fascinating. I love your miniatures and all for $5!!!!???ish. I know how time consuming it is as my Dad was a master of making new stuff out of old and when my daughter was little hw made her a Sindy house and market stall and made most of the furniture and all the fruit, vegetables, boxes, scales, bags etc. The only thing he bought was a packet of clay to make the fruit &veg which he hand painted. I still have it ready for my little grandsons ro play with (the eldest is 3 and loves to play shops). Thanks again for this great post and keep up the good work ?

    • Thanks, Glynis, although the $5 cost estimate is misleading. I have a lot invested in tools and supplies that I’ve accumulated over the years. I used an airbrush and acrylic paint and my Dremel tool and tiny files. But the actual cost of material is pretty low.

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