Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Regency House Party

Old Alresford Place

 Click to enlarge the photographs
There were about 14 of us staying for the weekend, and others coming the following day for the talks and/or dancing lessons, and more just for the ball.

I arrived on Friday afternoon at Old Alresford Place, a former rectory with some stunning grounds. I was told that dressing in costume was optional that day as it was so hot, but I felt that I should get the awkwardness out of the way and just had enough time to dress for afternoon tea. 

As suspected, my costume was rather out of place as everyone else wore authentic dresses, of the design and material of that age. Some even wore stays, corsets and petticoats from that period. I was far from the only new person however, and two other couples had never been to such an event before, one couple even came all the way from America!

First day outfit
I was Miss Winchester for the weekend, which was very odd indeed, more so being called Miss than referring to everyone else by title but even then, I haven’t routinely called people Mr, Mrs and Miss since I left school. Even at university, the professors preferred to be called by their Christian names.

Still, everyone was friendly and the later arrivals that evening mostly didn’t change, so I didn’t feel quite so out of place and after dinner, there was a brief talk on Austen, followed by a showing of the 2005 movie. I didn’t watch it as I don’t believe it’s a very good version so instead, Mrs and Miss Stephens taught me to play the regency card game, Pope Joan. I believe I understood it by the time I retired for bed but I’m glad we were playing for counters and not real money!

Regency playing cards are also very unwieldy. They’re not laminated, so don’t slid over one another easily, and while they do have the four suits that we are familiar with, no card displays it’s number, you have to count the number of hearts/clubs etc, to determine its value and when you have a hand fanned out, that isn’t so very easy. 

Croquet in the grounds
That night I sadly got very little sleep due to the heat and foolishly, since I had got up early that morning (for me) I didn’t take a lorazepam to help me sleep, so the following morning I was rather zombie like. After breakfast there was time for a game of lawn croquet, at which I was terribly bad. And that is not false modesty; had it not been for one kind gentleman hitting my ball through the first hoop, I would never have progressed at all. None of us showed any great talent for it however, so we had to leave the game unfinished.

The talk of regency fashion was very interesting, and the chance to look at some genuine articles from that time was fascinating. I have never seen such fine (as in tiny) stitchwork before! Their needles and thread were both much finer than we are used to these days and obviously, they didn’t use sewing machines (which were another 50 years away, if memory serves) so everything was hand sewn and embroidered. 

After that I grabbed a quick nap before the afternoon dancing lesson.

The Regency Ball
I must confess, I had thought regency dancing to be much like sequence or old time dancing, where everyone performes the same steps and you can quickly pick it up by watching the couple in front of you.

Regency dancing was far more like learning a ballroom or Latin routine, although of course in that case, it was me and partner with dance instructor, receiving one on one tuition while we learned the choreography. Although these routines were shorter and simpler than the ones I used to learn, trying to learn them in a class setting was far more difficult, although a few more experienced dancers did their best to guide us newbies. I think I grasped the basics and thankfully, the dances that night would be “called”, which anyone who has been to a barn dance will know, means that someone calls the steps as you dance. Of course the language of regency dances (the names of the steps) was still new to me but I was optimistic that I would still have fun.

The dancers, inside the ballroom
After that I dressed for the ball and in photographs at least, I think I looked pretty authentic, even if polyester jersey isn’t a regency material!

I believe there were 60 people at the ball and as ever, there were more women present than men, but not so few men as to be untoward. This I have found to be the case at every dance that I have ever been to and judging from some comments in Jane Austen’s books, was still the case even back then! Thankfully (unlike Mr Darcy) most gentlemen were happy to partner different women throughout the night, and many ladies were happy to dance as men so I believe in total, I probably danced half the dances that night. I perhaps wasn’t very good, especially at the more complicated ones or the few we hadn’t practiced that afternoon, but I did have fun.

The outside dance area
And what a pleasure it was to dance in flat shoes! My ballroom and Latin shoes had 3 inch heels!
The musicians were very good and I didn’t detect a note out of place and while it might not be music I would usually choose to dance to, I did get into the swing of things.

The dance floor really wasn’t large enough for everyone so some dancers danced on the patio, just outside the ballroom, where a lovely breeze made the experience even more pleasant.

One of the nuances that I did pick up on, was how slow many of the dances were, even the complicated ones. I think that being pretty much the only occasion when you could ‘fraternise’ with the opposite sex, the additional time was intentional, allowing the dancers time to ‘appreciate’ one another. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet however, I don’t believe a dance lends itself to conversation, at least not proper conversation, but perhaps some light flirting between the right couple.

Outside dancers
There was a break between 9 and 10 for a buffet dinner, then dancing resumed until 11.30. Many ball-goers congregated after that but I was so tired, I didn’t last very long.

The following day we headed to Chawton, where Jane Austen lived for the last few years of her life. The village remains largely unchanged and the house Jane lived in has been restored (as far as possible) to how it was at the time she lived there. 

It was fascinating to look through a regency house, although it was far more basic that the ones I usually write about. 

As some of you may know, Jane's sister, Cassandra, burned most of her letters after her death for unknown, although not malicious reasons. Elizabeth and Jane's relationship in P&P is thought to be based on the closeness she and Cassandra shared, and the likely reason for destroying the letters is thought to to protect Jane's privacy, or possibly save her reputation from public censure. As a result, much if her life has been left to speculation and conjecture. There were however, many interesting details still to be had, such as Jane's earnings during her lifetime, and the contents her will.

Jane Austen's house, now a museum
Since I had a plane to catch, I didn’t go on the afternoon visit to Winchester (where Jane Austen died). As it turned out, my flight was delayed by more than an hour so I could easily have gone but alas, I didn’t discover that fact until I had been at the airport for an hour. 

By the time I finally arrived home, at about 9.30 that night, I was thoroughly knackered and just had time to eat and chat with my sister for a few mins, before retiring to bed so that I could get up to take my mother to the airport this morning. 

I finally caught up on my sleep this morning when I got home. Insomnia and a touch of PTSD mean that I tend to be something of a vampire in my time keeping and indeed, I do some of my best writing overnight, between 11pm and sometimes as late as 4 or even 5am. I usually try to rise by 10am, so that I am still tired the following night, and never get too out of step with the rest of the world but after my nap today, I got up at 12.30, so now my body clock is now even more out of whack than it usually is! 

Overall, the sedate pace of the weekend was not to my taste. It was fine for one weekend, of course but the idea of spending all my days focused so much on so little, was a reminder that I am indeed a modern girl at heart. 

The lack of modern distractions meant that people engaged in far more social intercourse. As a shy introvert (not to mention, sleep deprived) I found this rather difficult and taxing, however I certainly do now understand why regency women (and indeed men) were such gossips, for without the usual distractions (talk of television and news events etc) we spent much of the weekend watching and discussing other people. I hasten to add that none of this was malicious gossip in any way, but it was most unusual to find myself being asked about or hearing about people I hardly knew, or in many cases, hadn't even met.

I certainly have more insight into the time period, although I'm not sure that I would do another regency weekend, and I certainly don't believe that I would travel such a distance for it again, but it was interesting and a Ball, the most fun part of the weekend, I would definitely consider doing again, especially if there was one closer to home.

Below are some misc pictures from the weekend that wouldn't fit above!

Mr Arnott (center) who organised the weekend, welcoming everyone to the ball
The musicians in the corner and the dance caller, to the left of them
One of the beautiful chandeliers in the ballroom
The skylight over Alresford Place's main staircase. Sadly, not as much details as I might have liked came out
Details of Jane's Estate
Jane's will
A quill and inkwell
My attempt at writing with a blunt quill. Thank God for laptops, or I'm certain my writing career would not have been!

It also proved to be a decidedly messy business!

Me in Jane's kitchen, in one of the bonnets put out for use by visitors

A regency cap, do you like my country bumpkin look?

Jane Austen's cat. Well not her actual cat, but I found her in Jane's garden and she was very friendly.
The Ball cake
Sunday's cake


  1. Absolutely wonderful Cat. I loved your blog. I was wondering how your trip was going. Beautiful pictures. What a unique experience.

    1. Thanks Kelly. It was really enjoyable and I think, will help add some depth to my writing.

  2. Woah! Everybody looks so good here. It is a vintage style party. I had such a party on my 25th birthday last year. We booked a convention center though and my sister decorated it beautifully. She even moved the furniture from house just to get the feel.