Friday, May 19, 2017

Darcy in Wonderland Cover Reveal, Today at Austen Authors

Join the conversation at Austen Authors.

My next book, Darcy in Wonderland, will be published this summer - assuming I can focus long enough to get the final draft to my editor! The book is part Pride and Prejudice sequel, set twenty some years after the Darcy's marriage, and part pure mashup with Alice in Wonderland. I'm super excited because this project has given me an opportunity for which I have long yearned: to work with my incredibly talented little sister, Katy Wiedemann, who has created beautiful illustrations for the book. It is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that I am able to reveal the cover, featuring one of her drawings, here today. She based her image of Darcy on David Rintoul, who played the role in the 1981 BBC mini-series. Isn't she incredible?
One of the great challenges I've encountered in writing this story is trying to combining the styles of two very different writers. This proved a particular problem when it comes to the thorny issue of contractions.
Over the years, I've been told by more than one person that Jane Austen never used contractions. This is not exactly true, though her use of contractions is very limited. Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, uses contractions nonstop. I compromised between the two by limiting the characters from Austen's world to her contractions, letting Carroll's characters pretty much run wild (it would have been impossible to fight this, as that is just what Carroll's characters do), and I split the difference on Alice. As a result of this process, I produced a rather handy list of contractions Austen did use in her six major novels and those she did not (several do appear more frequently in her earlier works). Let's start with those she definitely never uses:
aren't, couldn't, could've, didn't, doesn't, hadn't, hasn't, haven't, he'd, he'll, he's, how'd, isn't, it'd, it'll, it's, let's, mightn't, might've, mustn't, must've, needn't, oughtn't, she'd, she'll, she's, shouldn't, should've, that'd, that'll, there's, they'll, they're, wasn't, we'll, we're, weren't, we've, what's, where's, who'd, who'll, who's, wouldn't, would've, you'd, you'll, you've
Now let's discuss what is far more interesting: those contractions Austen does utilize and why.
There are only three she uses fairly regularly: don't, 'tis, and won't (note that 'tis never occurs in Persuasion, while making a regular appearance in all five of the other novels).
There are a three more that appear a handful of times in the novels: can't, I'll, and shan't/sha'nt (note that the latter is only ever used by Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Bennet, and Miss Bates).
Then there are those that appear very infrequently. Word geek that I am, I find this highly compelling. Usually, these contractions reflect a character's lack of education or refinement. Let's take a look at them in context.

An't

This archaic contraction occurs a bit more frequently than the others on this list, but really only in Sense and Sensibility, in which it is used five times.
Anne Steele (she uses it twice - also see notes below on "I'm"):
"Lord! my dear, you are very modest. I an't the least astonished at it in the world, for I have often thought of late, there was nothing more likely to happen."
Mrs. Jennings:
"Mind me, now, if they an't married by Mid-summer."
and
"The Colonel is a ninny, my dear; because he has two thousand a-year himself, he thinks that nobody else can marry on less. Take my word for it, that, if I am alive, I shall be paying a visit at Delaford Parsonage before Michaelmas; and I am sure I sha'nt go if Lucy an't there."
And, curiously, Fanny Dashwood:
Perhaps Fanny thought for a moment that her mother had been quite rude enough,--for, colouring a little, she immediately said,
"They are very pretty, ma'am--an't they?" But then again, the dread of having been too civil, too encouraging herself, probably came over her, for she presently added,
"Do you not think they are something in Miss Morton's style of painting, Ma'am?--She does paint most delightfully!--How beautifully her last landscape is done!"
Fanny is a far more socially elevated character than the other two, and I think Austen very deliberately puts this contraction into her speech in order to display Fanny's internal coarseness, despite her fashionable trappings.
The only other time "an't" occurs is in Emma, where it is used by Mrs. Elton when speaking to Jane Fairfax. She is a character rather like Fanny, when you stop to consider their personalities. Both are petty and self-absorbed. It is also possible that both ladies saying 'an't' is some kind of affectation, perhaps a modish slang. If so, I think it is clear Austen does not approve of such verbal laziness.
"Now I say, my dear, in our case, for lady, read----mum! a word to the wise.--I am in a fine flow of spirits, an't I? But I want to set your heart at ease as to Mrs. S.--My representation, you see, has quite appeased her."

I'd

Toni Collette as Harriet Smith, 1996.
Used four times, and in a rather broad set of circumstances. Anne Steele, who uses more contractions than any other character in Austen, says it once:
"Good gracious! (giggling as she spoke) I'd lay my life I know what my cousins will say, when they hear of it. They will tell me I should write to the Doctor, to get Edward the curacy of his new living. I know they will; but I am sure I would not do such a thing for all the world.--'La!' I shall say directly, 'I wonder how you could think of such a thing? I write to the Doctor, indeed!'"
It occurs twice in Mansfield Park, and always by the Portsmouth Prices. First by William:
"I should like to see you dance, and I'd dance with you if you would, for nobody would know who I was here, and I should like to be your partner once more."
And then later in the story by his father, who uses courser language than any other character in Austen:
"But, by G--! if she belonged to me, I'd give her the rope's end as long as I could stand over her. A little flogging for man and woman too would be the best way of preventing such things."
It is also used once in Emma, by Harriet Smith:
"Will you read the letter?" cried Harriet. "Pray do. I'd rather you would."

I'm

Austen only uses it three times, and just in her first two novels. Anne Steele says it in Sense and Sensibility: twice in the same sentence! Anne's frequent use of contractions is definitely a reflection of her lack of education and low status, and this paragraph is loaded with them:
"Nay, my dear, I'm sure I don't pretend to say that there an't. I'm sure there's a vast many smart beaux in Exeter; but you know, how could I tell what smart beaux there might be about Norland; and I was only afraid the Miss Dashwoods might find it dull at Barton, if they had not so many as they used to have. But perhaps you young ladies may not care about the beaux, and had as lief be without them as with them. For my part, I think they are vastly agreeable, provided they dress smart and behave civil. But I can't bear to see them dirty and nasty. Now there's Mr. Rose at Exeter, a prodigious smart young man, quite a beau, clerk to Mr. Simpson, you know, and yet if you do but meet him of a morning, he is not fit to be seen.--I suppose your brother was quite a beau, Miss Dashwood, before he married, as he was so rich?"
Lydia Bennet is the other character to utilize "I'm":
"Oh!" said Lydia stoutly, "I am not afraid; for though I am the youngest, I'm the tallest."

   

I've

Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, 1995.
Only used once by Mrs. Jennings, another great peddler of contractions:
"Oh, Lord! I am sure your mother can spare you very well, and I do beg you will favour me with your company, for I've quite set my heart upon it. Don't fancy that you will be any inconvenience to me, for I shan't put myself at all out of my way for you. 

How d'ye

Bit of a weird one, and akin to our modern "how'd." I definitely think she is representing colloquial speech with this contraction. It is always used in greeting. John Thorpe says it in Northanger Abbey:
"Make haste! make haste!" as he threw open the door-- "put on your hat this moment -- there is no time to be lost -- we are going to Bristol. --How d'ye do, Mrs. Allen?"
It is how John Knightley greets his brother in Emma (love this quote, by the way):
This had just taken place and with great cordiality, when John Knightley made his appearance, and "How d'ye do, George?" and "John, how are you?" succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other.
Miss Bates also uses it:
"How d' ye do?--how d'ye do?--Very well, I thank you. So obliged to you for the carriage last night. We were just in time; my mother just ready for us. Pray come in; do come in. You will find some friends here."
And Admiral Croft says it in Persuasion, when he is walking with Anne:
"But here comes a friend, Captain Brigden; I shall only say, `How d'ye do?' as we pass, however. I shall not stop. 'How d'ye do?' Brigden stares to see anybody with me but my wife."

 

That's

Romola Garai & Johnny Lee Miller as Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, 2009.

This one is very interesting. It only occurs twice in Austen. Both times are in Emma, and both occur in the same chapter (12). I have to wonder if this wasn't an editing oversight on Austen's part, because instead of the "that's" being dropped by side characters of questionable educational background, here it is used by our hero and heroine. The other theory I have is that both characters are flustered when they use the contraction. Perhaps it reflects their state of minds? First it is used by Emma:
"That's true," she cried—"very true. Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited.
And then later by Mr. Knightley, when he is trying to redirect the dinner conversation away from the subject of Mr. Perry's medical opinions:
"True, true," cried Mr. Knightley, with most ready interposition— "very true. That's a consideration indeed.—But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty."

They'd

Only appears once in Austen, in Sense and Sensibility. Servants don't usually have much of a voice in Austen, but the Dashwood's Thomas has quite a speech at the end of the novel, in which he drops the "they'd":
"I happened to look up as I went by the chaise, and so I see directly it was the youngest Miss Steele; so I took off my hat, and she knew me and called to me, and inquired after you, ma'am, and the young ladies, especially Miss Marianne, and bid me I should give her compliments and Mr. Ferrars's, their best compliments and service, and how sorry they was they had not time to come on and see you, but they was in a great hurry to go forwards, for they was going further down for a little while, but howsever, when they come back, they'd make sure to come and see you."

We'd

Daisy Haggard as Miss Steele, 2008.

We wrap up where we began, with Anne Steele:
"Dr. Davies was coming to town, and so we thought we'd join him in a post-chaise; and he behaved very genteelly, and paid ten or twelve shillings more than we did."
So what have we learned from all this? While some contractions are broadly used by all manner of characters in Austen, her use of them is highly selective, usually chosen to highlight lack of education or some other character fault. I hope this exercise is useful to my fellow writers, and that it provides a heightened awareness in readers of Austen's careful choice of language.
Thanks for joining me on this exploration into some of the less obvious aspects of Austen's writing style.
More information on Darcy in Wonderland coming soon!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Old BBC Austen Adaptations, Today at Austen Authors

It's my turn again! This month I'm reviewing the old Austen adaptations I love so well. Please join me! http://austenauthors.net/old-bbc-austen-adaptations/


I have long championed the old BBC Austen adaptations, produced in the 70s and 80s. I was so fortunate as to receive the pictured box set several years ago as a Christmas gift, and since I have watched these films time and time again. Now, if you require beautiful cinematography and have no tolerance for this style of old, made for TV literary adaptation, which admittedly tend to be long, move slowly, and are hampered by unfortunate production quality, then no amount of praise from me will help you find enjoyment in these movies. You will lose your patience. But for me, it is precisely such attributes that make these versions feel a little more true to Austen. There is a quietness to the old adaptations, incompatible with the glossy and dramatic versions made over the last quarter of a century, that better conveys the atmosphere of her books. Not that I don't adore the newer movies - they're (mostly) phenomenal - but these are excellent too, and should not be forgotten. In some cases, I have yet to see a version I prefer. So here is a brief intro to and scene from each film. When I've written them, I've included links to reviews. Unfortunately, the quality issues sometime appear worse than usual in the clips, due to the quality of the recordings, but they still provide a taste of each film.

Sense and Sensibility, 1981

I believe Sense and Sensibility translates to film particularly well, and all the versions I have ever seen of it are quite good. I'm not sure why this version was included in the box set instead of the 1971 version (it features Joanna David as a wonderful Elinor, familiar to Janeites from her portrayal of Mrs. Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice, 1995, and a fabulous performance by British TV icon Patricia Routledge as Mrs. Jennings). Both versions leave out Margaret Dashwood entirely out of the script, which I find problematic.
The 1981 adaptation stars Irene Richards as Elinor Dashwood (also Charlotte Collins in the 1980 Pride and Prejudice), Marianne is played by Tracey ChildsBosco Hogan is Edward Ferrars, and Robert Swann is Colonel Brandon, but none of these actors are in the clip below. Instead, I have chosen a scene dominated by Amanda Boxer, who portrays Fanny Dashwood. She is my favorite actress in this role. Throughout the film she is odiously smug and collected, and to see her lose it on Anne Steele (Pippa Sparkes) is hysterical. Often film makers forget that Austen is, first and foremost, a comic writer, and I really appreciate it when they pay homage to her love of absurdity and amusement in human folly. Also featured are Julia Chambers (who is fabulous) as Lucy Steele, and Peter Gale as John Dashwood.


Pride and Prejudice, 1980

I think it is fair to claim that this is the most beloved film in the collection. Many Janeites continue to prefer this version of Pride and Prejudice to the more acclaimed, recent versions. I think that's because Elizabeth Garvie is so good as Elizabeth Bennet, and David Rintoul, while a bit stiff, just looks perfect as Darcy. Also, because the story has been less, um, sensationalized (no wet shirts here), it comes off as the coziest of the Pride and Prejudice adaptations available.
The scene below is the party at Lucas Lodge and features Irene Richards as Charlotte (since we missed her in action as Elinor). We also get quick glimpses of Tessa Peake-Jones as Mary Bennet (my favorite Mary!) and Priscilla Morgan as Mrs. Bennet


Mansfield Park, 1983

This is by far and away my preferred Mansfield Park, and for that reason alone is enough to make it my favorite film in the boxset. There are only three versions of Mansfield Park, and both the more recent films make the fundamental mistake of trying to fix the novel. This is the only one that honestly attempts to capture the true story, and Sylvestra Le Touzal (who also played Mrs. Allen in the excellent 2007 version of Northanger Abbey) is the only actress to have portrayed the real Fanny Price on screen. She is supported by Nicholas Farrell as Edmund Bertram. Both are in the featured clip, along with Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas (he was also Mr. Woodhouse in Andrew Davies' 1996 Emma), and my favorite performers in this production: Anna Massey as Aunt Norris and Angela Pleasence as Lady Bertram. This clip has fun with both, in which Fanny has been invited to her first dinner party at the Grant's.


Emma, 1972

I really love this one, despite the fact that I think all three of the more recent versions of Emma are better. For whatever reason, I've consistently watched it more often than the other films in the boxset. Part of it, I think, is that like Sense and SensibilityEmma works very well on film. Highlights of this version include Mollie Sugden (best known as Mrs. Slocombe on Are You Being Served?) as Mrs. Goddard, and my favorite Mr. Woodhouse, Donald Eccles, who is fabulously nervous. The below clip shows Emma (Doran Godwin) and Harriet Smith (Debbie Bowen) paying their first, introductory call on the new Mrs. Elton (Fiona Walker). This moment is only mentioned in the book, and the dialogue actually comes from Mrs. Elton's return call on Hartfield. The end of the scene isn't in Austen at all, but it is quite amusing, nonetheless. Mr. Elton is played by Timothy Peters. Mr. Knightley, unfortunately not featured here, is excellently captured by John Carson.


Persuasion, 1971

This is my favorite Persuasion adaptation. It isn't perfect, but unlike both more recent versions, it does not rely on Austen's cancelled chapters of the story for plot. This really bothers me! It pains me there isn't a better, yet still accurate, film adaptation of my favorite Austen novel. So when I want to watch Persuasion, this is my go to, for it causes the least frustration.
Anne Elliot is played by Ann Firbanks, and Bryan Marshall is Captain Wentworth (though it appears to be Robert Swann - Col. Brandon from Sense & Sensibility - on the DVD cover. Such quirks I suppose to be part of the experience). The moment is when Wentworth writes and Anne receives THE LETTER. I chose it because it is almost verbatim from the book, giving viewers the opportunity to relish the complexity of the scene as Austen wrote it, and because Anne (thank goodness!) does not take to the streets of Bath and run about like a madwoman. I find that immensely gratifying. Also featured are Georgine Anderson as Mrs. Croft, Noel Dyson as Mrs. Musgrove, and Michael Culver as Captain Harville.


Northanger Abbey, 1987

Easily the strangest Austen adaptation ever made, the 1986 version of Northanger Abbey doesn't really fit with the other films in this boxset. It is by far the shortest (only 78 minutes), and it wildly diverges from the novel, playing up it's gothic aspects. A source of both outrage and fascination for fans, it is something you should really see at least once, if for no other reason than to join the debate. Also, Northanger Abbey has only ever been made into a movie twice. For those long horrified by this version, the 2007 film is so magnificent that they might like to forget this one ever existed. I think that's a mistake. Especially now that we have a much more accurate adaptation to cling to, I can appreciate this film for just being so darn bizarre.
The below scene is an example of this outlandishness. Instead of the Pump Room, it takes place inside the King's Bath (read my review for more history/explanation on the craziness here portrayed). You only see Mr. Tilney (Peter Firth) for a moment at the very beginning. In the baths are Catherine Morland (played by Katharine Schlesinger), Mrs. Allen (Googie Withers), Miss Tilney (Ingrid Lacey), and a most skin crawling duo: Cassie Stuart and Jonathan Coy as Isabella and John Thorpe. If you thought they were bad in the book, they are absolutely revolting here. The 80s-gone-18th century coiffures are marvelously awful. Actually, the whole film might be worth watching for the crazy head gear alone, which is on incongruous display below.


Have you seen and enjoyed (or hated) these films? I'd love to read your thoughts. Do share them.

Friday, April 7, 2017

First Impressions Birthday Giveaway WINNER!

And the winner of the three paperback and ridiculously adorable Easter ornaments is ...

The Anglophile

Congratulations! An email is coming your way to confirm mailing details.

Thanks to everyone who entered! Now that I know how popular my Swiss goodies are, I'll be sure to include others in future giveaways.

And just a heads up: most of my books, including the Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice trilogy, are now available on Kindle Unlimited. Enjoy!

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton

My deeper relationship with Austen began when I was in college. We were reading Persuasion in a Romantic Literature class (the first and only time I encountered Austen on a syllabus), and I began to imagine Anne Elliot walking beside me across campus or sitting in a lecture hall, and what she might have to say about our modern world. This was long before I knew anything of fan fiction, other than that it existed. These memories came back to me with sharp clarity when I read this scene:

They continued in silence for some distance, though both of them cast a meaningful stare at No 4 Sydney Place as they passed, but as they reached the Beckford Road and began the ascent, Rose turned to Jane again. 

"Does the noise bother you? The road? This is a main route to Warminster and beyond and has such heavy traffic." 

Jane smiled. "Much is altered." She looked around and gestured with her arm. "Naught but open fields bordered the Gardens." Her expression sobered. "My disinclination for our removal to Bath was much compensated for by our pleasing situation in Sydney Place. One does not feel - did not - feel so confined be the city on its outer edges." 

"Then shall we walk along the canal?" Rose pointed to the gap through which the towpath could be seen, winding its way towards Bathampton. It was a route she had often trod in the summer months when still living at home. 

"As you wish." 

They fell into step again, continuing to walk side by side at first for the width of the path permitted it. 

"I did not answer your question." Jane glanced at her, and Rose frowned. "Noise emanating from these modern conveyances does not trouble me, for it is merely different. The constant rumble of wheels over cobbles, the clatter of hooves is not so much lower in volume than your modern conveyances. 'Tis why I prefer the country; the disturbance of silence has a more natural source: birdsong, flowing water over stones, the bray of a lamb... these things I miss more than any other." 

Rose glances around. It was peaceful by modern-day standards on the towpath, with a few ducks swimming in the canal and very few people about, but just then a light aircraft came overhead, it's engine chugging away, and she glanced at Jane as they walked. 
"And what do you make of our 'modern conveyances'? You must have seen the trains passing through Sydney Gardens, too, if you've been here a while, and noticed the planes flying overhead?" 

Jane looked up as the small plane sailed out of view. "If I may fly through time, why should man not have discovered how to fly though the air?"

A few months later, I myself was wandering over the streets and paths so meticulously detailed in The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton (visit them at TabbyCow.com), at the 2016 Jane Austen Festival in Bath. I sighed just now as I wrote those words. They are a vivid reminder of how much blogging I have neglected. I never got passed the National Portrait Gallery (got a bit bogged down there, I know, but it was so awesome!), and failed to share anything of my fabulous stay in Bath here. Nor did I ever write this book review. I am a big believer in better late than never. Good thing, too.

Anyway, when I was in Bath last fall, this book was like a mental guidebook: its scenes reenacting themselves before my mind's eye. It was my first time in Bath, and when I got lost a few times, this ability was quite useful! If you have long yearned to make the pilgrimage to the Festival, as I did, than this book is honestly the next best thing. It takes place during the festival. The main character, Rose, walks in the promenade. How eerie was it for me, following in her footsteps, and knowing that one of the authors, Cass Grafton, was somewhere in the crowd! I have had the pleasure of getting to know Ms. Grafton over the past two years, as she lives not far from me in Switzerland. Her presence was just another layer adding to my glee in being where I was, when I was. The only thing missing was the fair weather Rose and her friend Morgan enjoyed during their promenade (fortunately, like Captain Wentworth, I had "equipped myself for Bath" and purchased an umbrella).

The story is one of time travel, friendship, and not taking anything for granted. Thematically, it reminds me in many ways of my own Being Mrs. Bennet, the second draft of which I was completing when reading this novel, though on the surface they are wildly different stories. Rose Wallace has always lived in Bath or its environs. Her future is there, even if a few demons from her past still haunt the ancient city. Her encounter with a time traveling Jane Austen, in whose adventure she becomes totally enmeshed, teaches her many of the same lessons hard-learned by an Austen heroine (or two).

The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen is such a great title for this particularly charming novel. It has such a mix of things going on: an homage not just to Jane Austen, but also to the fantasy genre. Other reviews I have read of this book compare it to a wild variety of other stories, and that's because there are so many influences informing the action. It's apparently clear that, just like Jane Austen, Ms. Bright and Ms. Grafton share a passionate love for books of all sorts. This novel is not fan fiction, but I think it is no less a book for fans. The enthusiasm of fan culture permeates it. To me it felt like the authoresses had taken Hermione Granger's time turner and transmuted it into an amber cross (there is an awesome moment in the book when Rose gives Jane a copy of The Philosopher's Stone to read). Such fun! I do hope there will be a sequel. The end leaves an opening for one. I feel like the adventure has only just begun, and I definitely want to be on board when it continues. Highly recommended!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

First Impressions Birthday Giveaway


Yay! Today is my first baby's birthday! Seven years ago, I published my first book, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice. I wrote it very quickly, with no idea I would ever publish. It was really, in conception, more of a reaction to the world of JAFF than a new story. I had only recently found and immersed myself in the world of Austenesque literature, and it was only when I started running out of new books to read (a thing that could still happen back then), that I was driven to write something myself. I had no idea it would turn into a trilogy, let alone a major life's passion. Jane Austen was always important to me, but since I published that first book, her influence has penetrated my entire world. Now I think, breathe, and live Austen. I used to only read her.


To thank all who have purchased, loved, and supported both First Impressions and my other scribblings, I want to offer one winner the complete set of books in the Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice series (either paperback or Kindle, winner's choice), along with these absolutely adorable, wooden Easter ornaments, which I fell in love with at my local supermarket here in Switzerland (I bought two sets: one for me, and one to share). Simply leave your email address in the comments by April 7th. Double entry if you share the giveaway on social media, but you must let me know you did so in your comment. This giveaway is open worldwide. Thank you all, for so much.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Waist), today at Austen Authors

I'm up this month at Austen Authors today (3/24/17) - boy, I sure need to provide this blog with some original material, and not just keep crossposting, as I have so far all year. It's on the to do list, but first comes processing the beta comments on Darcy in Wonderland, which have been coming in all week. I hope to have the book out this summer. More info in the post below. Enjoy!


Dancing dress featuring Grecian elements, 1809.
My newest book, Darcy in Wonderland (look for it this summer), is both a Pride and Prejudice sequel and mashup with Alice in Wonderland. The action takes place at some unspecified point during the early Victorian Era. Honestly, the timing is very sketchy, as Darcy and Elizabeth are supposed to be married for over twenty years, putting the year in the early 1830's, but Carroll didn't publish his masterpiece of children's literature until 1865. In my head I split the difference, dating the book somewhere around the late 1840s, but this ambiguity is causing my illustrator no little strife (Katy Wiedemann is an amazing artist! See her work in scientific illustration here: http://www.wiedemannillustrations.com/index.html). We have spent a great deal of time discussing the transition between Regency and Victorian fashions, and it has caused me to reflect upon why the fashions of the Regency Era are so drastically different from those that proceeded and followed. An answer can be found in the name of the silhouette that dominated the period: the Empire waist.
Left: Full dress (Spring, 1799) in the Grecian style. Right: Day dress (1802) leaving very little to the imagination.
The Empire waist gown, the most defining element of women's fashion during the Regency Era, has far more political implications than most Austen fans and period reenactors realize. In truth, it was revolutionary: a sartorial celebration of the times. "Empire" refers to the one built by Napoleon, and is the name given in France to this period of history. High-waisted, loose gowns inspired by the peasantry began to be worn in elite French fashion circles prior to the Revolution, largely in response to the philosophies put forth by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, an advocate for society's return to more a natural state (often using peasants as an example), and whose ideas permeate Romantic thought. Yet this uncorseted look that shocked so many was not de rigueur until after the Revolution, when it became a reflection of the values of the new French state: simple fabrics and lines were far more egalitarian than complex court dress, their unrestrictive shapes were literally liberating, and the overall look was evocative of ancient Athens, where Democracy was born. Structured gowns became as passé as the wigs that went with them.
1807 gowns display the continued popularity of Grecian and Roman styling. Left: Full dress and walking dress. Right: Full dress
The earliest examples of this look from the late 18th century still featured trains, but as the 19th century began the gowns became straighter, emphasizing a woman's true shape. Thin fabrics left little to the imagination. The English took their initial cues on this new look from the French, but as contact between the two countries diminished over decades of war, the Empire look began to take on a distinctly English flare. Tight fitted spencers and redingotes, while marvels of tailoring, acted to bring the liberated look a bit more in control, as well as providing some much-needed warmth. Many ladies also found that to achieve the desired silhouette, they still required a great deal of confining undergarments. Tudor and military embellishments further increased the structure of the gowns. Notions of simplicity in women's clothing were soon abandoned, and ornamentation became just as ostentatious as ever. The death of Napoleon in 1821 coincides nicely with the beginning of the waistline's gradual journey back to, well, the waist (it took less time in France). It wasn't until the early 1830's that women's fashion began to take on truly Victorian dimensions in England, returning to the tight corsets and voluminous skirts of the previous century.
Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature helmet like-headdresses reminiscent of Athena's, the Greek goddess of war.
One need not be an historian to know the Victorian Era was a period of rigid social conservatism. It is easy to read the fall of the waistline as a rejection of revolution, but feminist historians are quick to point out that Rousseau's philosophies and the fashions they inspired were far from liberating. Boys and girls of the era dressed in miniature versions of the gowns grown ladies wore. Boys were "breached" and allowed to grow into men, but girls were kept in a perpetual state of infancy. In Emile, Rousseau's treatise on education, he describes a vision of womanhood rather chilling to the modern reader. The vast bulk of the book describes the education of Emile, his fictitious pupil, and only contemplates the education of girls in Book Five: Marriage. Here he describes the ideal mate for Emile, one Sophie, and the education she ought to receive to keep her as natural a woman as possible:
Morning and evening dress (1818) showing military influences.
As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require. Men and women are made for each other but they differ in their measure of dependence on each other. We could get on better without women than women could get on without us. To play their part in life they must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem. By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men's judgments both for themselves and for their children. It is not enough that they should be estimable: they must be esteemed. It is not enough that they should be wise: their wisdom must be recognized. Their honor does not rest on their conduct but on their reputation. Hence the kind of education they get should by the very opposite of men's in this respect. Public opinion is the tomb of a man's virtue but the throne of a woman's. 
Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor and military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).
His words, though rather infuriating, perfectly describe the reality in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Recall what Mary Bennet has to say on the subject:
"Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."
Elizabeth might find such a statement annoying under the circumstances, but Mary is undoubtedly correct about life in the Regency. If Wickham did not marry Lydia, the entire Bennet family would have been tarnished by her actions, throwing their very survival into doubt. All this from a lack of active patriarchal protection. Women were entirely at the mercy of public opinion, yet at the same time fashion exposed their bodies in ways unheard of in Europe for centuries past. They were taught to court and relish masculine attention, just like Lydia Bennet, but then were punished for indulging in it. What a double edged sword!
The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822). Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).
Even if Rousseau was not an advocate for any real form of female liberation, his notions undoubtedly influenced philosophers who were, like Mary Wollstonecraft. The ideals of freedom and liberty that marked the period would gradually spread their wings and encompass more and more of the globe, a process that is ongoing. One truth that can be universally acknowledged is that after a few decades of Victorian austerity, corsets again fell out of fashion, hemlines raised, and a new era of women's fashion was born. With it came suffrage, women in the work place, and birth control. Pretty revolutionary, wouldn't you say?
Boy and girls fashions, 1834. The younger boys, like the three on the far left, are still wearing skirts resembling those of the girl the same age (second figure from the right). The older boy standing behind her has been breached.
This post owes a great debt to Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing, an excellent overview of the subject from Shire Library that I highly recommend.
The images featured are from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/.

Join the conversation at Austen Authors: http://austenauthors.net/the-rise-and-fall-of-an-empire-waist/.