How to throw your own Jane Austen holiday party

Have you ever wanted to throw your own Jane Austen themed holiday party? Here are some ideas to get you started!

Decorations

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“Christmas Weather” by George Allen, 1898. 

Holiday decorations looked very different in Jane Austen’s time. Christmas, although an important holiday, was not as big a deal as it is today. Most adults in England at that time observed Christmas by going to church and often giving to charity. If you are looking to be historically accurate with your own decorations, put some greenery (holly branches or laurels) on your window ledges and call it a day. Christmas trees may have been popular in Germany at this time, but they would not have been seen in England until later in the 19th century.

Parties during the Regency would have also called for candles. In the days before electricity, any lighting at an evening party would depend upon them. As the candles ran out, the party, too, would end. Naturally, if you wanted your party to last a long time, you’d get larger candles. Today, you can use electric candles as a precaution against fire hazards.

Activities

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“Hunt the Slipper” by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1787

While Christmas may have been a solemn, pious event for many adults, children still celebrated with games and festivities. In Claire Tomalin’s “Jane Austen: A Life,” she lists many of the games and songs that would have been popular at Christmas at Godmersham, the home of Jane’s wealthy brother Edward.

In one game, Hunt the Slipper, players form a circle on the floor on their bottoms with their knees up. A slipper would be passed around the circle under players’ knees in any direction while the hunter goes around the outside of the circle and attempts to guess who has the slipper. For your party, you can substitute a bean bag or a prize for the winner if you do not have a slipper.

Cards, battledore and shuttlecock, bullet pudding and other parlor games can bring an element of authenticity to your party. For a comprehensive list of such games, check out the Jane Austen Center website

Food

Every good party needs food. According to Roy and Lesley Adkins, in their book “Jane Austen’s England,” a Christmas feast would feature plum pudding and mince meat pies. Despite its name, mince meat pies do not actually contain meat — but instead feature dried fruit and spices. You can find several recipes for each on the Internet. If you are looking to fill out your menu with a few more items, roast beef would have been a popular choice for the gentry and for the truly adventurous cook, Yorkshire pudding is very British indeed!

Music

If you are lucky enough to play an instrument or enjoy singing before a crowd, you may consider making your own music for your party. Be sure to make copies of the lyrics if you intend for your guests to join in any caroling. If, however, you would rather just have music in the background at your party, consider playing the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and other famous composers who would have been popular during Jane’s lifetime.

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“Long ways dance caricature” Thomas Rowlandson, circa 1790

Dance

What Regency gathering would be complete without dancing? There is so much to write about dancing that it deserves its own blog entry, but for your holiday party here is a simple dance game you can play with your guests!

First, select a caller who will be in charge of the music. While the music plays, you may walk in a circle, free dance or even attempt an actual Regency-era dance depending on what you think your guests can handle.

The caller will then stop the music at random times and shout out the name of a Jane Austen novel and then all the dancers must scramble to create poses for whichever novel has been called.

“Sense and Sensibility”

Oh no! Marianne fell down! One person in a set of three will sit on the floor with their legs out while the other two will hold their hands as if to help them up. (Pose requires three people)

“Pride and Prejudice”

Mr. Darcy does not find Elizabeth handsome enough at their first meeting. One person in a pair will sit in a chair while the other will stand turning their back to the person in the chair. (Pose requires two people)

“Mansfield Park”

Fanny is stuck in the middle of a scandalous performance. Two people will make kissy faces at each other while one more looks shocked at them. (Pose requires three people).

“Emma”

Emma is painting a portrait of her friend Harriet. One person will pose for the painting while the other pretends to paint them. (Pose requires two people)

“Northanger Abbey”

You have just discovered a secret laundry list. Look scared. (Pose requires only one person)

“Persuasion”

Captain Wentworth is writing a secret letter while Anne and Harville talk. One person will sit down to write a letter while the other two pretend to have a conversation. (Pose requires three people.)

If you have an especially large crowd to play such a game, you can challenge your guests to find different partners each time.

If you do end up using any of these ideas, please send us pictures of your Jane Austen themed party and we will see you all in June!

For your viewing pleasure: Movies and shows set in the Georgian and Regency eras

'The Duchess,' 'The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister,' and the 'Poldark' series are examples of movies and shows set in the Georgian and Regency eras.
From left: Keira Knightley in “The Duchess,” and Anna Madeley and Maxine Peake in “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister,” and Aidan Turner in the “Poldark” series.

Film adaptations of Jane Austen’s works may be our favorite movies set in the Regency era, but there is a vast array of others set in or around that same period that merit attention as well.

For this list, we look at a few TV shows and movies set in the Georgian era, from 1770 onward (since Austen was born in 1775) and primarily set in England.

‘The Duchess’ (1770s)

Released in 2009, this biopic stars Keira Knightley as the titular Duchess of Devonshire and follows her rocky marriage to her husband, played by Ralph Fiennes. Available for streaming on Netflix.

Natalie Dormer plays "The Scandalous Lady W."
Natalie Dormer plays the titular “Scandalous Lady W.”

‘The Scandalous Lady W’ (1770s-1780s)

Another unhappy marriage leading to scandal: This 2015 mini-series stars Natalie Dormer as Lady Seymour Worsley, who leaves her awful husband for his friend. Based on the true story of Lady Worsley and Hallie Rubenhold’s nonfiction book, “Lady Worsley’s Whim.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 'Belle.'
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Elizabeth Belle in “Belle.”

‘Belle’ (1780s)

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was a real person: the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy. His uncle, Lord Mansfield, raises Dido alongside another great-niece. The 2013 film partly follows the landmark case Lord Mansfield rules on, which is seen to contribute to the abolition movement. Available for rent on multiple streaming platforms.

‘Poldark’ (1783-1801)

There have been multiple adaptations of these historical novels by Winston Graham, the most recent of which started airing in 2015 and recently ended with its fifth season. Ross Poldark, upon returning to Cornwall from fighting in the American Revolutionary War, finds a very different place — his sweetheart having married his cousin. Drama ensues. Available on Amazon Prime (1996, 2015-) or Acorn TV (1977-).

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Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren in “The Madness of King George.”

‘The Madness of King George’ (1788)

In this 1994 movie, Nigel Hawthorne plays King George III, whose mental health declined dramatically in his latter years. Those closest to him have to try to prevent his political enemies, including his own son (played by Rupert Everett), from usurping his power. Helen Mirren also stars. Available for streaming on VUDU or rent on other streaming platforms.

‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (1792)

Another entry with multiple adaptations, including one released in 1982 with “Austenland” alumna Jane Seymour: The novels feature an English nobleman, Sir Percy Blackeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, helping French aristocrats escape the guillotine in France. The 1934 version is available for streaming on Amazon Prime; the 1982 version on Acorn TV.

‘A Royal Scandal’ (1795)

This short 1997 movie almost feels like a docu-drama, complete with voice-over narration. Richard E. Grant (who also happened to play the titular hero in a 1999 “Scarlet Pimpernel” mini-series) plays the Prince Regent, who has just married Caroline of Brunswick. The movie follows their disastrous marriage, a common theme apparently. Of Caroline, Austen said: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.” Sisterhood! Available on Amazon Prime.

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Olivia Cooke and Tom Bateman play Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley in the latest adaptation of “Vanity Fair.”

‘Vanity Fair’ (1800s)

William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel has been adapted at least a dozen times on the small and silver screens. The story’s heroine (or anti-heroine?) is Becky Sharp (played on the big screen by Reese Witherspoon in the Mira Nair-directed 2004 movie), an unapologetic social climber and heartbreaker. The 2018 version is available for streaming on Amazon Prime; the 2004 version on various other streaming platforms.

‘Mary Shelley’ (1815)

One of the more recent entries, this 2017 film depicts Mary Wollstonecraft’s elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley and the writing of her magnus opus, “Frankenstein.” The film stars Elle Fanning as Mary. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime; for streaming on various other platforms.

‘Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister’ (1815 -)

Based on the diaries that Anne Lister wrote partly in code, this BBC movie, released about 10 years before HBO’s 2019 series “Gentleman Jack,” covers a larger period of her life and starts in 1815 (as seen in her writing a diary entry and the Regency clothes). What is perhaps especially notable about her diaries is the account of her relationships with women. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime.

Abby Cornish and Ben Wishaw play Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats in "Bright Star."
Abby Cornish and Ben Wishaw play Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats in “Bright Star.”

‘Bright Star’ (1818)

Another movie about writers: “Bright Star,” written and directed by Jane Campion and released in 2009, is about the tragic love story between poet John Keats (played by Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

Peterloo (1818)

Director Mike Leigh’s two-and-a-half hour epic released last year depicts the Peterloo massacre — Peterloo is a portmanteau of St. Peter’s Field and Waterloo — when the cavalry descended on tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding parliamentary reform. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The cavalry charges on the demonstrators in “Peterloo.”