19th century mourning jet choker
However, once they are settled in Devonshire, they visit Mrs Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton, at Barton Park and enjoy a lively social life. Marianne meets the handsome and eligible Willoughby, and falls in love. The fact of them being now in half-mourning isn’t mentioned. And the following January, Elinor and Marianne accompany Mrs Jennings to London to enjoy what society has to offer without worrying about the propriety of it whilst they are in mourning. Possibly, the custom of lengthy mourning for relations was not yet so strictly observed in Society as it was to be later on; Sense and Sensibility was an early novel, first written in 1797-8.
Mourning brooch with the deceased's plaited hair under the glass
The mourning is much more overt in Persuasion. When Anne Elliot first sees her cousin Mr William Elliot in Lyme, both he and his manservant are in mourning for Mr Eliot’s wife who died six months earlier. Jane Austen uses Mr Elliot’s mourning to help Anne learn about his true character from her friend Mrs Smith who once knew him well. Even if he didn’t care for his wife, surely he should be affected by her sudden death only six months before. He certainly ought not to be making up to the mercenary Mrs Clay who, Anne suspects, has plans to become the second Lady Elliot. Is Mr Elliot exercising his wiles to forestall that happening?
So what were the correct periods of mourning during the 19th century? Views became more extreme as the century wore on. At its height, a widow was expected to be in deep mourning for a year, wearing clothes made in matt black paramatta (a sort of silk/wool bombazine) and crepe. Twenty-one months later, she might leave off the crepe and three months after that she went into half-mourning for six months: grey, lavender, mauve, violet or grey and white stripes. As The Queen magazine put it: she was the victim of ‘a mild form of suttee’.
Cameo in jet frame
For grandparents, the mourning was six months, as it was for brothers and sisters. Uncles and aunts warranted two months’ mourning, great-uncles or aunts, six weeks, and first cousins a month. One had to lighten the mourning by degrees.
Gold, ebony and pearl mourning ring
An amusing satirical sketch from Hoods Magazine is illuminating:
Lady: ‘I suppose you have a great variety of half mourning?’
Shopman: ‘Oh! Infinite – the largest stock in town. Full, and half, and quarter, and half-quarter, shaded off, if I may say so, like and India-ink drawing, from a grief prononcé to the slightest nuance of regret.’
The hero, Lord Rotherham, is coming to dinner, but, at this stage, they are not on good terms. Serena looks magnificent but ‘the comment she evoked from the Marquis was scarcely flattering, “Good God, Serena!” he said, as he briefly shook her hand. “Setting up as a magpie?”
Broken jet necklace
Georgette Heyer knew very well what she was about in Bath Tangle when she made her heroine, the 25-year-old Serena, a beautiful and queenly red-head, and her very young stepmother, Fanny, as a diaphanous and appealing blonde. She wrote to her agent: ‘They have to be like that so that each can look terrific in mourning.’
In other words, mourning can be a very useful plot device. For example, in The Toll Gate, the heroine Nell’s dying grandfather has high-handedly acquired a marriage licence, determined that Nell marries the hero Captain John Staple then and there; he wants to see the knot tied, before he dies. Nell thinks it’s outrageous.
John has to persuade her. He says, ‘Now, consider, my love! If we are to wait until your grandfather is dead, how awkward in every respect must be our situation! You will then scruple to marry me until you are out of your blacks, and what the deuce are we to do for a whole year? Where will you go? How will you support yourself? With so many scruples you would never permit me to do that!’
Nell gives in.
Gold, black enamel and seed pearl mourning ring. The reverse shows plaited hair from the deceased
Then there is Eugenia Wraxham, the tiresomely priggish fiancée of Charles Rivenhall in The Grand Sophy. Heyer needs Eugenia to be betrothed to Charles but not yet married. Mourning for an aunt is the answer and Eugenia ‘will not be out of black gloves for six months.’ (Interestingly, this is a longer period than is strictly necessary.)
When Charles, to his fury, discovers that Sophy has arranged a ball to launch herself into Society, and Eugenia has not been invited, his outspoken teenage sister says: ‘Can you have forgotten the bereavement in Miss Wraxham’s family? I’m sure that if she has told us once she has told us a dozen times that propriety forbids her to attend any but the most quiet parties.’
Assorted jet beads
If Eugenia were not in mourning, then she and Charles would have married months ago. But Heyer has other plans for Charles…
So, if you need to up the ante for your hero or heroine, you might want to consider how useful an inconvenient period of mourning could be.