Jane Austen wrote some of the greatest novels in English literature. This is a given. You might even say it is a truth universally acknowledged. We respect her intellect, that a daughter of a country clergyman with little formal education (but opportunity for extensive reading) could manage to do so. But I’ve always thought it lessens her accomplishments to consider what she did without thinking about how she did it: writing with a quill pen on small pieces of paper at a little table at Chawton cottage, always fearing the squeak of the door, which would prompt her to hide away her writing under a piece of blotting paper.
I’d long been toying with the idea of attempting to spend a day writing in the same physical manner as Austen, just to see what it was like, and as I had a free Saturday during the long weekend here in the US, I put my idea into action. I decided I was going to go as full Regency as I possibly could: dress, petticoat, stays, shift; historically accurate toilette (but not toilet…there are limits to my dedication); no technology (except my FitBit, and my camera, to capture the day); no electric lights; and reasonable nearness to accuracy in food and drink, without turning this into a historic food experiment.
I woke at about 7:20 in the morning, wondering how it was that people woke up at a given hour before alarm clocks, but at least respectably close to Austen’s early hours. I’d gone with my easiest Regency wear to dress in, so that mostly went well, up until I tried to do the stockings. I’d picked a pair of modern stockings designed to wear with garters, and attempted to tie them up with ribbons, as was the way back then. Within approximately 2 seconds, they were starting to fall down. I tried again. They fell down again. Perhaps I should try again with more accurate stockings, but this left me with a new respect for Elizabeth Bennet: when you think about her walking three miles to Netherfield, the idea that her stockings were held up with ribbons tied around her legs doesn’t necessarily register. It would have driven me nuts. In my case, I gave up on the stockings and used elastic knee highs. I did my hair simply, opting for a cap, as Austen did in later years.
Austen would have spent her morning before breakfast practicing the pianoforte, walking in to the village to run an errand, or corresponding with friends. As I’m not musical and I was NOT about to go walking anywhere dressed as I was, I opted to give the quill pen a try and write a letter to a friend who wouldn’t think me crazy for writing one in that manner. Very rapidly, I came to see that the quill was not as easy as I had thought it would be. After I first picked up ink on the pen, it would blob everywhere on the page. Then, rapidly, I would run out of ink and need to pick up more. Blob, no ink, blob, no ink, blob, no ink. This would become a common theme on the day. It was also SQUEAKY as all get out. Eventually, though, I did produce a (short) legible letter, folded it up, and sealed it with wax. I have no idea if the USPS is going to deliver such a thing, but I’m going to give it a shot.
Jane Austen was responsible for breakfast and the tea and wine stores, so I took responsibility for those as well. Toast and butter was a must, and I also opted to include the popular Regency option of cake. Then, since I wanted some sort of protein to tide me over if I was going to dine at Regency hours as well, I went with more Mr. Woodhouse-approved soft-boiled eggs. I was rather proud of myself for making one proper soft-boiled egg on the stove (the other was, alas, a bit overcooked), since I find this hard enough to do with an egg cooker!
I stayed historically accurate with tea, too. When you think of British tea, I’m guessing the first thing that comes to mind is a cup of milky black tea. Black tea didn’t become popular until later, however, but fortunately in looking through my tea stores I found about the most accurate thing I could possibly use: a bag of loose China green tea, from Twinings. Given Austen shopped there, I couldn’t have done better, which was good, because I was going to try to hold to accurate beverages, which meant no water (I was, however, going to assume I had access to a milch cow, so milk was okay in a pinch). I made an entire eight-cup pot, and drank the whole thing, because it was after nine and I was feeling a bit of a headache, and thought it was because I was dehydrated. Then I removed the cap, and realized it had been that, giving me a headache. It had modern elastic in it, and it was pressing on my head.
The Austens did have a maid and a cook, but lacking either of these, I had to do the washing up and then prep the nearest equivalent I had to a cook: a roast that could go in the crockpot. In the course of washing up, I had to save the tea leaves from the teapot – tea was so expensive, leaves would have been used multiple times, and I believe the Austens would have gone through at least two uses before they would have been passed on for the servants to get still more uses out of. (I tried them the next day, after they had dried; it made for a very weak cup of tea.)
After that, finally, it was time to buckle down to working on A Season Lost, which is the third book in my Constant Love series. As you’ll see in the photos, I had a much larger workspace than that tiny little table. I had decided to go with my breakfast counter simply because it is largely black, and if there was some sort of ink disaster, it would not be so noticeable. There were ink disasters, but they generally stayed on the paper!
I had thought the pen would be dripping ink everywhere, but the ink always held, right until I tried to start writing. At which point the majority of the ink would bleed onto the paper. I’d decided to take the latest chapter, which was partially written, and write it through, making some changes and amendments but generally giving myself more time to get used to the pen. It seemed like I was getting better instead of worse, though! Eventually I switched from the quill pens I’d bought online to a souvenir pen I’d bought years ago at Colonial Williamsburg, just to give it a try. It turns out the souvenir pen was much better, for at least it remained somewhat consistent in the amount of ink that went onto the paper, although I still had a fair number of blobs.
One of the things I was struggling with most was being a lefty and trying to do this. I use a very specific type of pen with quick-drying ink, which is the only thing that keeps me from smudging when I write with modern pens. The ink for my quills, though, was decidedly not quick-drying. I was forever sticking the palm of my hand or the side of my hand onto the paper, and getting ink all over it. I used 8.5×11 paper, cut in half, to write on, but I kept a full-sized sheet on the counter to catch my hand smudges. And it caught quite a lot of them.
As I wrote, I very quickly came to appreciate something: there’s a degree of physical stamina required to do this, beyond that of writing with a modern ballpoint or gel pen. My hand started to cramp pretty quickly. It got worse as I started to hit a groove with my writing and attempted to go faster. I ceased caring about penmanship so much, and it was simply about getting things down on the page. I realized at one point that the place should have started to smell like pot roast, and it wasn’t – turns out, perhaps appropriately, I’d forgotten to plug in the crockpot. I’d been trying to decide whether I wanted to dine earlier, as the Austens did, or attempt more fashionable town hours. Since I figured out the crockpot wasn’t plugged in at around 2 p.m., this settled it: I was going to keep town hours!
After I’d dealt with the stockings issue, I found I wasn’t as bothered by the clothes as I would have thought. It wasn’t a huge deal to be wearing a long dress and prepping breakfast, or later, dinner and then supper, in it. Sometimes I used an apron, sometimes I didn’t. I had thought going in that I would be bothered by “going commando” the whole day (yep, I was that accurate in the clothes), but I wasn’t. Wearing a long dress with the two layers of shift and petticoat made me feel pretty comfortable. I’m not saying I’m going to dress like that again, but I’m glad I did it for a day, if just to get a sense of what it felt like for my characters. (Although: I’d thought drawers didn’t come in until much later, but the V&A’s Undressed exhibit had a pair of maternity drawers thought to have belonged to the Duchess of Kent, aka Queen Victoria’s mum, so they came in sooner than I thought.)
I also was less bothered than I’d expected by the lack of electric lighting, even though my place is decidedly not designed for such a thing. You don’t think about this, but houses today are designed with hallways and often rooms that get no natural light, as is the case for my bathroom. I had to keep lit candles in there even during the day. Aside from this, though, I didn’t have any issues. I found even a few candles were sufficient to read by, although I presume long-term this might have contributed to eye strain, and I was able to keep writing even as the sun was beginning to set.
By dinnertime around 7 p.m., my hand hurt so badly I was glad it was time to stop and eat. I’d gotten quite hungry at about 5 p.m., but it had passed, although once I started eating my hunger returned a bit. I wanted historically accurate wine, if possible, and had discovered in my preparation that I had a bottle of Berry Brothers & Rudd Extraordinary Claret that I’d picked up in London some years ago still in my wine rack. I was saving it for a special occasion, and this felt like a special occasion! As BB&R was around during the Regency, this was again about as authentic was I was going to get, and it ended up being particularly apropos, because I was writing about a presentation at court in my chapter, and the BB&R shop is right across the street from St. James’s Palace.
I’d made another pot (a four-cupper, this time) of tea in the afternoon, and so at this point what I’d had to drink was green tea, claret, and half a glass of milk. Going into dinner I did feel over-caffeinated; the claret helped combat that, but then I of course had to have tea in my “drawing-room” following dinner. After that, I just felt really weird in having consumed such a mixture of wine and caffeine. I read a little, by candlelight, and thought about how annoying it must have been for Austen, in the times she must have had to set aside her writing and go to various social obligations. My mind was still on the characters and what was happening at that point in the story, and eventually once I’d had a few cups of tea, I decided to go back to writing. I don’t think she usually had that option.
I wrote through to the end of the chapter I’d been working on, which means I got two chapters written in the course of the day. Generally, I found it frustrating – I’m a fast typist, and so I’m used to being able to type about as fast as my ideas flow. On this day, though, I was reduced to the speed of a VERY frustrating pen. One of the things I jotted down in my notes was that if I had a time machine, the first thing I’d do is go back in time and give Jane Austen a supply of my Pentel EnerGels and refills. I feel like that’s not interfering with the course of history too much, but I think it would have given us a complete Sanditon, and likely more.
By the end of the night, I had developed what I took to calling “crab hand,” which basically means that my fingers were “stuck” as they had been on the pen. It physically hurt to straighten them, particularly the middle finger. In the course of the whole day, I’d written a letter, two chapters, and some notes. It was very helpful to be focused, to not have all of the distractions of the internet, although there is, alas, a footnote to that. I’d left my phone on, but with notifications restricted, so that it wouldn’t be making noise all day, but calls would come through if there was an emergency. However, Certain Concerned Parties sent emails and text messages without calling, and so I found the next day that my phone was blowing up because the Certain Concerned Parties were worried that I hadn’t responded with my usual promptitude. Unplugging is good, but I’d recommend giving friends and family a fair warning!
Those two chapters I wrote were 4,902 words long, which is not a bad output for me, although I usually would have written more if I’d devoted an entire day to writing, and been so focused. Perhaps most sadly, when I went to type them up, I got that done in an hour and a half. I ended the day glad I’d finished the second chapter, and feeling the confused muddle of tea and claret (I definitely drank a few glasses of milk before bed). I also finished it even more amazed at what Jane Austen managed to accomplish – even the simple physicality of the work she produced in her last years of life was impressive. It is still more so when you consider that what she wrote is far, far better than anything I produced in the course of my day.
If you’d like to see more on my day of attempting to write like Jane Austen, I’ve got videos and a comparison of a page written with different pens over at my personal blog.