Occasionally , on reading Jane Austen’s novels or letters, a reference jumps out at you …and you are puzzled. You simply have no idea what she is referring to… It niggles and niggles away …You have sleepless nights wondering what she was meant…You follow the paper trail and read copious books and manuscripts trying to find out what it was…then, sometimes, just sometimes, it comes a-right. The Holy Grail is discovered and explained.

This happened to me with the Merlin Swing in the Sydney Gardens, and I still remember the joy I felt when I discovered exactly what it was, though not how it looked ( go here to read about it ). The same with the tea board in Mansfield Park, and when I finally found an illustration of one (in a portrait of a rather self-satisfied West Indian merchant M.P.)another enigma was lopped from The Niggling List with relish.

And this passage from one of Jane Austen letters to Cassandra Austen has set me (and many others) on another hunt:

I am not to wear my white satin cap to-night. after all; I am to wear a mamaluc cap instead, which Charles Fowle sent to Mary, and which she lends me. It is all the fashion now; worn at the opera, and by Lady Mildmays at Hackwood balls. I hate describing such things, and I dare say you will be able to guess what it is like.

( Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 8th January 1799)

Well, no actually Miss Jane, I cannot guess what it is like…and so the hunt begins.

First, shall we see what Hackwood Park looked like and why it was a hotbed of up-to-date fashion?

This is a print of Hackwood which appeared in Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions and Manufacture etc in September 1825. Below is a section from my copy of John Cary’s 1797 map of Hampshire which shows the estate’s position and dominance in the society centered around Basingstoke at the time Jane Austen was living near there at Steventon.  The estate appears on the map as the large green lozenge shape to the right of the section, and I have annotated the map so that you can see its position clearly.( You can also enlarge the map, and all the other illustrations in this post, simply by clicking on it)

This is the description from Ackermann’s Respository:

Hackwood is a contraction of Hacking Wood the original name of this place. It was the sporting retreat and occasional residence of the Pawlet family and their numerous relatives, when Basing-House was demolished in 1645 after a long and remarkable resistance. A lodge was then built for the residence of John the fifth Marquis of Winchester. Charles’s son, first Duke of Bolton, erected a splendid mansion in 1688; considerable alterations and improvements have been added since. The present carriage front on the north side is adorned in the centre with a noble Ionic portico, ascended by a flight of steps,and bearing in the tympanum of the pediment the arms and supporters of the family. An equestrian statue of George I mounted on a lofty pedestal and presented to that monarch to the family, stands at a small distance in front. It is this view of the mansions which we present to our readers. The south front was executed by the present nobleman from designs by Lewis Wyatt Esq. The rooms are spacious and magnificent and peculiarly adapted for comfort as well as display. In the saloon is a superb piece of carving by Gibbons. The family portraits are numerous…there are likewise two fine views of the Colosseum and ruins at Rome by Pannini.

The pleasure grounds are extensive and beautiful particularly on the south. Within these few years great improvements have been and are still in progress under the direction of the present Lady Bolton,whose taste in landscape gardening is generally admired, and is strikingly manifested in these grounds. The wood is wild and luxuriant in appearance. In its centre is a space of about four acres called the Amphitheatre, bounded by elms closely planted,  extending their branches over the sides and ends of the area, at the upper end of which are the ruins of a rotunda. The park is well stocked with deer.

At the time Jane Austen was writing about it, the house was owned by Lord and Lady Botlon.  Lady Bolton, Jane Mary Powlett , was the illegitimate daughter and eventual magnificently rich heiress of Charles Powlett, the 5th Duke of Bolton. Her husband  Thomas Orde-Powlett, took her name when she inherited the estate and others from the Duke. The Duke had failed to produce a son to inherit his title, and while the title could not be inherited by Jane due to her illegitimacy and sex, she could inherit the non entailed estates. She eventually inherited most of the Bolton estates on the death of her uncle,the 6th Duke who died without any legitimate male issue. Her husband was elevated to the peerage on 20th October 1797 by George III. He took the name of Baron Bolton of Bolton Castle in honour of his wife’s family. So I think we can assume that the latest fashions would have been worn at the virtual ducal home…

Which leads us to the conundrum in question…what exactly did Jane Austen’s mamalouc cap look like?

Constance Hill in her book,  Jane Austen, Her homes and Her Friends (1923) made the first  attempt at deciphering the riddle:

The word Mamalouc is given as Mamalone in Lord Brabourne’s “Letters of Jane Austen,” which is evidently a clerical error; the letters uc in the MS. having been mistaken for ne. The battle of the Nile, fought in the preceding August, had set the fashion in ladies’ dress for everything suggestive of Egypt and of the hero of Aboukir. In the fashion-plates of the day we find Mamalouc cloaks and Mamalouc robes of flowing red cloth. Ladies wear toupées, somewhat resembling a fez, which we recognise as the “Mamalouc cap.” Their hats are adorned with the “Nelson rose feather,” and their dainty feet encased in “green morocco slippers bound with yellow and laced with crocodile-coloured ribbon. (See page 76)

This was the explanation accepted by Dierdre le Faye in her edition of Jane Austen’s letters. However, in A Frivolous Distinction, a 1979 booklet about fashion in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, a slightly diffident description of the cap is given by its author, Penelope Byrde, who was the Curator of the Museum of Costume and Fashion Research Centre in Bath:

Caps worn in the evening could be quite elaborately trimmed like the one Jane Austen was altering in december 1798:

‘I still venture to retain the narrow silver round it, put twice round without any bow, and instead of the black military feather shall put in the coquelicot one as being smarter, and besides coquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter. After the ball I shall probably make it entirely black’.But a little later she adds, “I have changed my mind & changed the trimmings of my Cap this morning; they are now such as you suggested- I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions”

Another cap familiar to us from her letters was a Mamalouc cap she was lent on one occasion and which she said in January 1799 ‘is all the fashion now’. The vogue for Mamalouc ( or Makeluk) caps robes and cloaks had appeared after the battle of the Nile in 1798. A fashion plate of 1804 illustrating a Mameluck cap shows a white satin turban trimmed with a white ostrich feather….

(Page 7).

This doesn’t help us resolve the mystery does it? In fact it rather muddies the waters. As Marsha Huff, the past president of JASNA remarked in her review of the reissue of Penelope Byrde’s book, now in hardback and entitled Jane Austen Fashion:


I read “Jane Austen Fashion” hoping to learn more about the famous Mamalouc cap. I was, however, unable to reconcile Byrde’s description of a satin turban, trimmed with an ostrich feather, with that of Constance Hill (quoted by Deirdre Le Faye in the notes to her edition of Austen’s Letters), who wrote that a Mamalouc cap was a toupee, somewhat resembling a fez. Since Austen chose not to describe the cap she wore that January night in 1799, a fashion mystery remains.

I so sympathise with Ms. Huff’s frustration….But, perhaps the answer  now presents itself to us. I have tracked down a reproduction of the fashion plate to which Penelope Byrde refers. It was published in the Costume Society’s report of their 1970 Spring Conference, on The So-Called Age of Elegance.

In an article, The Costume of Jane Austen and her Characters, written by Anne Buck, who was creator and the Keeper of the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall, part of the  Manchester Art Galleries, and author of such influential books such as Dress in Eighteenth Century England, the mystery is finally resolved. In a note to the letter by Jane Austen  which inspired our quest she writes:

The original of this letter, first published by Lord Brabourne was not traced by the editor who in a note to the letter gives Miss C Hill’s suggestion of mamlouc, one of the contemporary spellings of mameluke.This is no doubt what Jane Austen wrote.

And then, praise be, she included this illustration of a mameluke turban which appeared in The Fashions of London and Paris, in February 1804:

As you can see, the cap is a combination of two types of “oriental” headgear:  the part of the hat immediately surrounding the face resembles a turban, and  the crown of the hat is reminiscent of the conical shape of the fez, as referred to by Constance Hill.

So, finally we have it. The Mamalouc cap as worn by Jane Austen and by ladies of fashion at the Opera and at Hackwood Park.  Another niggle is crossed off the list.