Since I began the series of posts about Hugh Thomson’s illustrations for Sense and Sensibility, (accessible here and here) they have generated a number of emails and comments, both here and on Twitter, about the correctness or not of the costumes worn by the characters. What period do they reflect? Are they accurate ? And how do they relate to the text? I thought it might be helpful and interesting to discuss them and to compare them with costumes of the period.
The style of the clothes, particularly the clothes worn by the female characters in the illustrations, suggest to me that Thomson set the novel very firmly in the period of the mid 1780s to the mid 1790s. To my eye none of the clothes worn by the female characters reveal any details of the fashions of the late 1790s, and certainly no one wears any dress that could be described as having the raised waist of the revolutionary Empire style. These waistlines are defiantly placed by Thomson along the line of a natural waist and are not raised to just below the bust line in any way.
So…why did Thomson use this period and not the costumes of the later period to reflect the time when Jane Austen was writing, adapting, revising the book in the mid to late 1790s and finally publishing her novel in 1811? It might be helpful, at this point, to look at the history of the evolution of this novel.
According to Cassandra Austen’s memorandum Sense and Sensibility was composed by Jane Austen in 1797. James Edward Austen Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt , first published in 1869, contains this passage about the novel and the work upon which it was based:
It was, however, at Steventon that the real foundations of her fame were laid. There some of her most successful writing was composed at such an early age as to make it surprising that so young a woman could have acquired the insight into character, and the nice observation of manners which they display. ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which some consider the most brilliant of her novels, was the first finished, if not the first begun. She began it in October 1796, before she was twenty-one years old, and completed it in about ten months, in August 1797. The title then intended for it was ‘First Impressions.’ ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was begun, in its present form, immediately after the completion of the former, in November 1797 but something similar in story and character had been written earlier under the title of ‘Elinor and Marianne;’ and if, as is probable, a good deal of this earlier production was retained, it must form the earliest specimen of her writing that has been given to the world.
It is thought that Jane Austen began Elinor and Marianne sometime in 1795:
If so she may have used it ( her writing desk-jfw) during 1795 when she embarked on her first full length project- ‘Elinor and Marianne’ the prototype ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Family tradition recalled that this too was written in letters and read aloud in this from….
(see Jane Austen: A Family Record by Dierdre le Faye, page 89)
Apart from the “flashback” scenes recounted by Colonel Brandon, and possibly this passage in Chapter One of the novel which relates to events ten years prior to the beginning of the action in the novel, below, I cannot find any justification in the text for setting the novel as further back in time than 1795:
The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew, Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it.
However, I think that it may have been possible that Thomson was aware in 1895 when he was working on the illustrations, of the novel’s history, and that the novel had evolved from the first serious adult work that Jane Austen wrote in 1795. This may explain why he chose to depict a period of fashion prior to the mid to late 1790s. It is my opinion that he chose an earlier time period, which had a distinctly different dress style to that of 1811 when Sense and Sensibility was first published, to pay tribute to the history of this publication.( Of course, I may be completely wrong in my speculations…..)
We ought now to consider if the costumes as depicted were accurate for the time frame (1785-1795)that Thomson chose.
Let’s look at some examples from the period and compare them with the Thomson illustrations. I think you will see that there are many similarities between them but some important differences.
These are real examples of clothing from 1785, the costumes are part of the Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection.
This is Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Mrs Siddons dating from 1783-5…
And here is thomson’s Lady Middleton wearing a very similar style, including the hat….One of the first comments I noticed made about the costumes on Twitter was that , the hats are bigger than you will recall. Not necessarily so, bearing in mind the period Thomson was using.
And this is another work by Gainsborough, again dating from 1785, showing Mr and Mrs William Hallett in their Morning Walk……
Mrs Hallett’s gown is similar in style to the gown worn by Fanny Dashwood in this illustration.
And again the flounces found on some of Thomson’s dresses reflect those to be found in this Angelica Kauffman depiction of Lady Elizabeth Forster, companion of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in 1786
Looking at the hairstyles we can see that Thomson tried to emulate the fashion of the pre- Revolutionary era, especially if we compare Marianne’s hairstyles with Gainsborough’s 1785 portrait of Miss Catherine Tatton, below.
But……despite being mainly true to the period he decided to adopt, there is something slightly amiss, isn’t there? To my eye the silhouettes drawn by Thomson reflect those of the women of his own era, the late Victorian. The Sense and Sensibility ladies are corsetted within an inch of their lives, and their waists seem far smaller than the more realistic waistlines of the clothes of the period, as is shown in this robe a l’anglaise circa 1790, again from the Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection:
And I do think that there is something indefinably late 19th century about the faces and the hats of the characters Thomson depicts.
Joan Hassell, the marvelous illustrator of Jane Austen for the Folio Society volumes which were published in the 1970s, had quite a lot to say about illustrator’s desperate attempts to be historically accurate, in an address she gave to the Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting in 1973. Her comments which are pertinent to this discussion, and if you will allow I will quote her here:
It is a fact that the artist cannot detach himself from the period in which he lives. However hard he persuades himself that everything is historically accurate, there is always a give-away somewhere even though it takes a later generation to see it. It is most often to be seen in the ladies hair styles and a general favour in the type of figure; and this is also true of theatre productions where Edwardian ladies in carefully designed historic costume have discarded neither hair padding nor corsets. Nowadays we may pride ourselves as having more specialised knowledge ,but I have a suspicion that future ages will be able to spot the date of our work by the 70s-ish slant to which we ourselves are blind
(Folio,the Quarterly Magazine of the Folio Society, Summer 1975 pp 3-4)
And this I think is what has happened here. The hair styles are nearly correct, but not quite. The wasitlines are smaller than corsets of the 1780s-1795 would allow….the same with the crowns of the hats…and the flounces.
Thomson quite rightly tried to convey to the reader the fact that the novel was of a long gestation period, and dated the clothes from the period immediately proceeding its composition and publication to reflect this. Though he was generally accurate in depicting the clothes of the period 1785-1795, in my view he could not escape the influences of his own period, that of the late Victorian, and it is the tiny differences in the stylistic details that do not ring true to us today.