Five things about mourning during the Regency era

Halloween, Day of the Dead, and other pagan traditions that celebrate the harvest also remind us of those who have passed on. Many of our customs and traditions have changed since the early 19th century, but some are not so different. Here are five things to know about mourning during the Regency:

1. Wearing black

Black was a difficult color to maintain through washings and would have appeared as a striking contrast when so many fashionistas (men and women both) preferred to wear bright colors or white. Yet we know through fashion plates from that era, as well as Jane’s own words, that people of Regency England wore black during a period of mourning.

    “I am to be in bombazeen and crape, according to what we are told is universal here, and which agrees with Martha’s previous observation. My mourning, however, will not impoverish me….”

Jane to Cassandra,

Oct. 15, 1808

In this quote, she mentions “crape,” a matte fabric that helped mourners avoid anything shiny or flashy during a time of great sorrow and loss. In a similar letter in that same year, she mentions how her mother intends to have some clothes dyed black.

2. Full Mourning and Half Mourning

Mourning Fashion plate by Rudolph Ackerman 1817 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Mourning Fashion plate by Rudolph Ackermann 1817 (Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

In the Victorian Era, which followed the Regency, society held certain expectations for how long one was to maintain their state of mourning, depending on who had died and the deceased’s relationship to the mourner. While it appears similar rules were likely followed during the Regency Era, it is less clear exactly how long one was to be in mourning or half-mourning. Full mourning was the time directly following the death of a loved one. During full mourning, their clothing would be all black. After a while, probably six months to a year later, they would enter a time of half-mourning, when they would still wear dark clothes or outfits that would incorporate black elements — but some color could return. When a member of the royal family died, such as Princess Charlotte in 1817, the whole nation would observe a period of mourning.

3. Other Black items

In addition to wearing black clothing, a mourner (widows and widowers, in particular) would have been expected to express their mourning in other facets of their life. The bereaved would have put away their dainty floral tea set in favor of a solid black set.

Just because one was mourning the loss of a loved one does not mean that they must sacrifice their style. Accessories like shawls and hats would also have been black (and later purple during their period of half-mourning).

4. Mourning Jewelry

Shiny, colorful jewelry would have been put away, to be replaced by those with black gemstones. Another form of jewelry would also have been popular, as it would have allowed the mourner to keep a part of their loved ones with them: hair jewelry. Austen mentions hair jewelry in “Sense and Sensibility.”

“Mariannne saw a ring on Edward’s finger that had a lock of hair in it. She asked if it was Fanny’s hair. Edward blushed and, after a long pause, said that it was.”

Jane Austen,

“Sense and Sensibility”

Edward wore his token for a living loved one, but they were also popular for mourning the dead.

Special mourning jewelry would also feature special symbolism. An otherwise simple ring would become a treasured memento with the addition of a rose for love or an elm for friendship, for example. Some designs would feature an inscription of a loved one’s name or perhaps the date of their death. Some pendants may even feature a miniature portrait of the deceased.

5. Memento Mori

A memento mori is different from mourning jewelry; the focus is to remind the living that they, too, will one day die. Many memento mori keepsakes would look very similar to mourning jewelry, especially since  they appear to commemorate the same subject matter. What is the difference? Mourning jewelry could feature a name or date or the words “in memory of” because it was commemorating a specific person. The purpose of memento mori jewelry was to remind the wearer that everyone dies and would feature skulls or coffins or something similarly macabre. Memento mori evolved from the Flemish still-life paintings of the 1600s that would feature something dead or dying, such as a wilting flower or rotting fruit. Memento mori would have been less popular during the Regency Era in favor of mourning jewelry, however such items would have had some, er, die-hard fans.

To learn more about how people of the Regency Era mourned their loved ones, check out these links:

To see more on what was worn, check out:

To learn more about special mourning jewelry (and even see some items for sale) check out:

To learn more about memento mori:

PROGRAM UPDATE: We’ve posted a tentative schedule of the 2020 JASP.  We’ve also added supplementary material to our What to Read list and our What to Watch list.

There’s something about Jane Austen: More biographies to read

A stack of other Jane Austen biographies
From top: “Jane Austen at Home” by Lucy Worsley, “The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things” by Paula Byrne, and “Jane Austen, the Secret Radical” by Helena Kelly.

While next year’s Jane Austen Summer Program will focus on Claire Tomalin’s biography of our favorite author, there are several others you can check out. Here is a small selection to get you going.

‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’ by Helena Kelly

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

This is less a history of Jane Austen’s life and more of a feminist reading of Austen’s works. Each chapter focuses on one of Austen’s novels, and Kelly helps put into historical context each one of them. We think we know them like the back of our hands, but how much are we missing that Austen’s contemporary audience would have picked up immediately? While some of Kelly’s arguments seem a bit tenuous or even downright far-fetched, “The Secret Radical” helps modern audiences fill that knowledge gap. John Sutherland, who co-wrote “So You Think You Know Jane Austen?” with Deirdre LeFaye, wrote in the New York Times: “‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’ sets out to raise hackles … But, taking a deep breath, I concede that it is, stripped of its flights of fancy, an important revisionary work for 2017.”

‘The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things’ by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne
Byrne’s exquisite biography of Austen eschews a linear format in favor of themes and objects: sisterhood, vellum notebooks in which Austen copied her juvenilia, a laptop desk, topaz crosses, and more. NPR described this book as “a dynamic new biography in which Austen lives and breathes,” and it’s hard not to fall in love with the author through this “vivacious, surprising” book.

‘Jane Austen at Home’ by Lucy Worsley

book-athomeHistorian and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, who also happens to be chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, guides us as we travel to the places Austen called home and visited: Steventon, Bath, Godmersham Park, Chawton Cottage and more. This helps us understand the upheaval the Austens, particularly Jane, Cassandra and their mother, must have experienced throughout their lives. Alexandra Mullen writes in the Hudson Review: “Worsley … exuberantly connects the work to the life against the background of the age” and “uses her sprightly energy to pull together a lot of fascinating detailed scholarship.”

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Write like Jane

The Jane Austen typeface (top) and a copy of one of her letters to her sister.
The opening lines of “Northanger Abbey” typed using the Jane Austen font designed by Pia Frauss (top) and one of Jane’s letters to Cassandra.

So you want to write like Jane? While we can’t help you with the sharpening of your wit, we can recommend a typeface that’ll at least get you writing like your favorite author, at least on the surface.

The Jane Austen typeface, designed by Pia Frauss, is available for free (for personal use) at or on Frauss’ website.