For my next (and possibly last) Austen in August contribution, I wanted to let readers know about a lovely book I chanced upon through this post at Charlotte’s Library: Mrs Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823 (Victor Gollancz, 1981). This reproduction of two volumes of sketchbooks by a young lady of Jane Austen’s era provides an unusual glimpse into the daily life of an English country house of modest size.
The artist, Diana Sperling (about whom little is known, and who apparently abandoned art upon her marriage in 1834), has a delightfully unconventional and unstuffy approach to her sketches of family and friends. Slippery grass, recalcitrant donkeys, electrifying machines, lovelorn brothers, pesky flies that need to be “murdered” by maids standing on windowsills — these are just some of the subjects that inspired her, with charming results.
Diana’s artistic gifts are of the naive variety; her figures are not anatomically convincing, and she tends to make their faces very small and hide them behind large hats. But the liveliness and sheer fun of her compositions makes up for this. An introduction by Gordon Mingay gives the historical context, with brief notes opposite each picture (reproduced at their original size, and, as in the sketchbooks, on the right side of each spread).
We often read in nineteenth-century novels about young ladies industriously drawing and sketching. Here is a rare opportunity to see what a talented member of this legion of amateur artists produced, and to experience some of the forgotten details of their lives. Mrs Hurst Dancing is out of print, but used copies can be fairly inexpensive; check your library, too. For anyone interested in the era, it’s really worth seeking out.