Researching Mary Bennet
[ Issue 44 ]

Mary Bennet is one of Emily Bronto’s favourite Bikwil features

Bikwil has a thing about Mary Bennet

Researching Mary Bennet

Jennifer Paynter (author of our novella in parts Mary Bennet) writes of the inherent dangers of “making up a story set in the past”.
 

And more particularly, I’d have to find out about the privileged world of the English country gentry — their houses and servants and horses and carriages, what they wore, what they ate and drank, how they (mis)spent their time, etc.

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Researching Mary Bennet — Jennifer Paynter

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When I started writing Mary Bennet I realized I’d have to research quite a few subjects. For a start, I’d have to carefully re-read and annotate Pride and Prejudice. And for the character of Mary herself, I’d need to do a fair bit of bible-study — Mary quotes liberally from the New Testament and the Psalms. I’d also have to read up on, and listen to, 18th and early 19th century music, songs and country dances. Plus I’d have to do some background reading on Britain during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and the so-called Regency period when the then Prince of Wales took over during the madness of his father, George III. And more particularly, I’d have to find out about the privileged world of the English country gentry — their houses and servants and horses and carriages, what they wore, what they ate and drank, how they (mis)spent their time, etc.

A lot of the material I could never use, at least not directly, but if you’re making up a story set in the past — as well as stealing a set of characters from another author — it’s as well to try and get your research right. Even so, I’ve made mistakes. Most of these I’ve been able to correct before they were immortalized in Bikwil, but a couple have managed to escape the net.

The first appeared in Part 1 of Mary Bennet, serialised in Bikwil in May 2002. I’d assumed that the tradition of dressing baby boys in blue and girls in pink was a very old one. I’d read in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (a wonderful memoir of 1870s English rural life, the first volume of which was published in 1939) that the farm labourers’ wives were lent christening robes by the local clergyman’s daughter in which to dress their babies. The clergyman’s daughter also made a new frock as a gift for every baby’s “shortening”, and according to Thompson, these little frocks were “made of flowered print, blue for the boys and pink for the girls”.

But other books on children’s costume maintain that this way of distinguishing the sex of a child only began in the 1920s or thereabouts. The Workwoman’s Guide, 1838 (quoted in Cunnington & Buck’s Children’s Costume in England 1300-1900) describes how the baby’s gender was usually denoted by the placement of a rosette of satin ribbon on its hood or cap. The rosette was worn on the left side if a boy, and in front, if a girl. I’ve decided to play safe therefore and exchange baby Elizabeth Bennet’s blue blanket for a pillow and dress her in a cap with a left-sided rosette. (Mrs Bennet had of course anticipated a boy.)

The second mistake appears in Part 2 of Mary Bennet (published in No. 32 of Bikwil in July 2002) and concerns Lydia. It occurred because I had not read P&P sufficiently carefully. Perhaps an enthusiastic Janeite will find it out before I get a chance to correct it in a future issue.

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