At Home with the Georgians
‘There’s nothing like staying at home for real comfort’, wrote Jane Austen in Emma. As the new lockdown see us spending more time inside, we asked Jane Austen aficiando Christine Hughes to tell us how the Georgians amused themselves at home.
In Regency England it was customary for families to have a limited circle of neighbours and acquaintances that they would socialise with regularly. This would involve a variety of indoor social pursuits to occupy their numerous leisure hours throughout the year.
In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley enthuses how ladies, "all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses." These decorative activities, which we recognise as crafts, were essential for a lady's accomplishment. However, they also offered diversion and the chance for personal expression. This is particularly true of the art of making silhouettes.
A Georgian family creates silhouettes: 1800
The traditional black silhouette, made by artists such as John Miers (1756-1821), is an iconic Regency image. One technique was to cast a person's shadow on paper using candlelight. This was then traced, cut out and shaded in with charcoal. King George III hosted elaborate “shade” parties, and creating silhouettes became a popular party activity as his subjects quickly adopted this relatively easy and inexpensive process.
A Georgian gaming table in a sketch by Thomas Rowlandson
Various types of games formed a popular way to spend time together. Cribbage, Speculation and Commerce feature in Austen's novels but she was not a fan of cards, once losing three shillings at Commerce. She and her family were far more enthusiastic about playing parlour games that involved invention and amusement.
Rules were provided in guides such as Miss Revel's Winter Evening Pastimes, 1825. For the 'Twelfth Night' game, it states, "Each individual is expected, for the rest of the night, to conform in speech and manners to the character which Fortune has assigned him. If persons address each other by any but their newly-assumed title, it may be made the subject of a forfeit."
A Regency party playing a parlour game based on 'Twelfth Night'
The literary Austen family also enjoyed amateur theatricals, started by James Austen in 1782, in the dining parlour at Steventon. Years later, Jane featured this activity in Mansfield Park, her lifelong social observations having shaped her adept characterisation.
It is not hard to imagine Georgian families having lively discussions about the organisation and rules of these pastimes, as we still do today. Ultimately, their lasting value lay in the endless opportunities for creativity, diversion and fun, in the time spent with their closest friends and family.