We’re smack in the middle of summer now, and many of us are feeling the heat! But what did Jane Austen have to say about hot summer weather? Along with our other ongoing features, we’ll be sprinkling in a few posts on that topic this month.
When I searched my mind for hot weather scenes in Austen, I thought of Frank Churchill arriving late and out of humor at Donwell for the day of strawberry picking, complaining about the heat when it was really his precarious situation with Jane Fairfax that had him so upset. I thought of Fanny Price being fatigued because Mrs. Norris had required her to go twice to the parsonage and back in the heat of the day on her errands. But my favorite hot weather reference comes from one of Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra, dated Sept. 18, 1796:
What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.
That was all. Just that one succinct thought, and then she moved on to another topic. It’s a bit of simple wisdom – true as it was when she set it down on paper over two hundred years ago. On second thought, perhaps it was even truer then than now.
I spent a lot of time in the past year, as I wrote Leap of Hope, thinking about what a shock it would be for a modern-day person (like me or my heroine Hope) to be suddenly thrown into the realities of Regency life. There would be a lot of adjustments to make – the way people spoke and behaved, society’s expectations and limitations. But it seemed to me that the differences in the state of the art in personal hygiene would be one of the most difficult things to accept gracefully.
Add some hot weather, and I think we would all be pretty uncomfortable. Consider that baths were fewer and further between due to the logistical difficulties before the blessed advent of hot and cold running water. Consider the extra layers of clothing they were required to wear and tight corsets for the ladies. You might barely be able to breath, let alone cool off by changing into shorts and a tank top. Consider no air conditioning and no deodorant/antiperspirant products available – for you OR your companions. Hmm.
Yes, those circumstances would definitely keep one in “a continual state of inelegance.”
When I first discovered the quote above, it reminded me of a line from my first novel – The Darcys of Pemberley. Add the barnyard smell of hundreds of horses and other animals to thousands of overly fragrant people, pack them all close together, and turn up the heat. That was London in the dog days of summer. I suppose the sewage ran straight into the Thames too. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
The simmering heat only served to intensify the more unpleasant aspects of living in close quarters with so much humanity and horseflesh. If one dared open the windows in hopes of some relief from the stifling air indoors, one quickly closed them again against the noise and odors emanating from the streets. For those who had the option of somewhere else to go, the advent of such conditions began turning thoughts toward getting out of town …
For this reason, among others, I would have preferred retreating to the quiet and fresh air of the country, as the Darcys do in the book. More recently, I was tickled to come across a passage in another of Jane’s letters to Cassandra that echoed the very same idea:
April 25, 1811: …It has been hot here, as you may suppose, since it was so hot with you, but I have not suffered from it at all, nor felt it in a degree as to make me imagine it would be anything in the country. Everybody has talked of the heat, but I set it all down to London…
That’s my little meandering ramble about the inelegancies of a heat wave. So what’s with all the flowers? Well, I figured if I was going to talk about stifling heat, poor hygiene, and bad smells, I at least owed you something pleasant and sweet smelling to balance it out! These are a few summer blooms from my yard to remind us of the more positive aspects of the warm weather!
Do you think you could have survived the unpleasantness of a Regency heat wave? Are you loving this year’s summer heat so far, wherever you are, or are you ready to head for the hills or at least retreat to the countryside? I think it might be very pleasant to summer at Pemberley. What do you say?