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Tuesday, August 11

Do You Understand Muslins Sir? No! Henry Tilney Does

An interest in fashion during Jane Austen’s time was de rigueur, though not everyone was as passionate in keeping abreast of the latest styles as our famous author. Her fondness for finery is confirmed in her letters to her sister Cassandra as she chats about her shopping expeditions to linen-drapers, silk-mercer’s and milliners in London and Bath, and about her progress in creating her own clothing.

“I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black ribbon just as my China Crape is …Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion at Bath, & I dare say the fashions of the two places are alike enough in that point, to content me. – With this addition it will be a very useful gown, happy to go anywhere.” 5 March 1814

Sarsenet, or sarcenet was a fine silk cloth used in dressmaking and curtains. Not only did Jane Austen have an eye for fine fabric, the color combination of lilac and black would have been quite stunning. She also infuses her interest in fabrics and fashion into her novels. In Northanger Abbey, clothing and shopping is discussed frequently by the characters. They do talk of sarcenet, but muslin, which is a finely woven cotton fabric popular from the end of the 18th-century to the early 19th-century, plays an important part in the heroine Catherine Morland's romance when she meets our hero Henry Tilney for the first time in the Lower Rooms in Bath. Here, her chaperone Mrs. Allen is surprised that any man would be interested in fabric and vigorously discusses muslins with Henry.

“Do you understand muslins, sir?”

“Particularly well; I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it. I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin.”

Mrs. Allen was quite struck by his genius. “Men commonly take so little notice of those things,” said she; “I can never get Mr. Allen to know one of my gowns from another. You must be a great comfort to your sister, sir.” Northanger Abbey,
Chapter 3

As Catherine and the reader soon discover, Henry Tilney is no mere man. He is an extraordinary genius!

Cheers, Laurel Ann, Austenprose


Anonymous said...

One of my favourite scenes in NA — Tilney is so cheeky!

Lynn said...

I love this scene also...charming and a very gentlemen like way to intrigue a young lady and a great beginning for a lovely romance !

hmsgofita said...

Great scene and I had no idea about muslin! Thanks for sharing more about Jane Austen.