Of Lace and Finery: Coded Language in Austen’s Novels

Of Lace and Finery: Coded Language in Austen’s Novels

Jane Austen continues to astonish me. We turn again toward her use of clothing to inform her characters, this time focusing on the handful of references to lace and/or finery in her novels. Lace appears to be, in Austen-speak, a euphemism for empty-headed, trivial, vain, self-centered, and even vulgar. Perhaps this is due to the nature of lace; characterized by empty spaces and fragility in spite of the inherent beauty. In the context of the time period, machine-made lace was cheaper to produce than the time-consuming needlework or bobbin lace, rendering it an affordable luxury compared to the price of costly hand-made lace. Machine lace was the “cheap knock-off” of the Regency era. Connoisseurs of lace could detect the difference. Those who crafted it by hand even subtly changed the appearance so the machine lace didn’t replicate their work exactly. The sudden availability of affordable lace might also have influenced Austen’s use of this textile as a symbolic element in her characterizations.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet’s enthusiasm for Mr. Bingley is nearly matched by her enthusiasm for lace.

“Oh! my dear,” continued Mrs. Bennet, “I am quite delighted with him. He is so excessively handsome! and his sisters are charming women. I never in my life saw any thing more elegant than their dresses. I dare say the lace upon Mrs. Hurst’s gown — ”

Here she was interrupted again. Mr. Bennet protested against any description of finery.

Mr. Bennet’s complaint against such speech is contrasted by what we learn of Mr. Hurst in the next chapter: that he was a man of more fashion than fortune.

Another Austen character who is known for her displays of finery, is Mrs. Elton, in Emma. Austen devoted no less than three passages from three points of view illuminating how ridiculous Mrs. Elton made herself by her mode of dress. The first to express disdain is Emma herself:

“Insufferable woman!” was her immediate exclamation. “Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! I could not have believed it. Knightley! never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady.

Our next observer is just that. While the narrator details the scene, the thoughts are attributed to Emma’s brother-in-law, John Knightley.

 The day came, the party were punctually assembled, and Mr. John Knightley seemed early to devote himself to the business of being agreeable. Instead of drawing his brother off to a window while they waited for dinner, he was talking to Miss Fairfax. Mrs. Elton, as elegant as lace and pearls could make her, he looked at in silence — wanting only to observe enough for Isabella’s information…

In our last example, we view Mrs. Elton through the lens of Miss Bates, who, like Mrs. Bennet, personifies a bit of the ridiculous herself. Unlike Emma and John Knightley who were unimpressed with Mrs. Elton’s show of finery, Miss Bates’s impoverished status lends a naivete to her exclamations of awe over Mrs. Elton’s lace.

Stop, stop, let us stand a little back, Mrs. Elton is going; dear Mrs. Elton, how elegant she looks! Beautiful lace! Now we all follow in her train. Quite the queen of the evening!

In perfect Austen style, she flips the viewpoint in the final paragraph of the novel, and it is through a lack of sufficient lace that Mrs. Elton perceives herself as better than Emma in an act of lace-lorn snobbery.

The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina would stare when she heard of it.”

One more, and I will say, “point made” for this post. This is from Northanger Abbey. The thought forms in the mind of Mrs. Allen, so before we look at her thought, let’s find out how Austen has described her:

Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man like Mr. Allen. In one respect she was admirably fitted to introduce a young lady into public, being as fond of going everywhere and seeing everything herself as any young lady could be. Dress was her passion. She had a most harmless delight in being fine; and our heroine’s entree into life could not take place till after three or four days had been spent in learning what was mostly worn, and her chaperone was provided with a dress of the newest fashion.

And this is the lady, who, when she runs into a former acquaintance can only triumph at the superiority of her lace.

Mrs. Allen had no similar information to give, no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend, and was forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.

Had you made this connection in your reading or viewing of Austen adaptations? Can you think of any equivalencies in our day? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

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Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
July 26, 2021 9:29 PM

Diana, Thank you for this interesting post. I had not made the connection.

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
July 26, 2021 11:33 AM

I have never noticed this either, but I may use it in the future for some of my more foolish female characters!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
July 26, 2021 8:12 AM

I never made that connection either. I guess even in that time fashion mattered!

Regina Jeffers
Admin
July 26, 2021 7:48 AM

Quite interesting, Diana.

DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
July 26, 2021 5:21 AM

Thanks for sharing, I had never made this connection.

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