Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 1 2018 02:00PM

Do Jane Austen’s characters keep bars of soap handy for washing? This is one of the many details of Regency life that Austen does not discuss. My electronic search found not a single mention of the word “soap” in any of the finished novels.


Presumably, contemporary readers knew what hygiene habits were typical for the gentry class that populates her novels. Modern readers must rely on historical research, such as the account in this helpful blog post, which suggests that, in Austen’s era, bar soap was an expensive item, more accessible to the upper classes than to the poor.


Or we can just throw history to the winds and patronize our preferred purveyor of “Jane Austen soap” – i.e., attractively colored, scented and packaged bars labeled with Austen-inspired names. Think Jane Austen candles, and you’ll get the idea.


Judging from Google and Etsy, this niche market has practically spawned a cottage industry. There’s lavender-scented Jane Austen Bath Soap – “Suds and Sensibility,” the label reads. Don’t like lavender? Perhaps you would prefer Earl Grey, green tea, or sweet honeysuckle.


Tired of buying your Jane Austen soap from establishments that promiscuously mingle Austen-themed products with those based on the works of other writers, from Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley to J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon? Then there’s Northanger Soapworks (“handmade soap for the Jane Austen addict”), whose offerings include a tobacco-and-black-tea-scented soap called Captain Wentworth’s Constancy and an orange-scented soap named after Mary Bennet and decorated with a lace pattern.


Some of these soaps look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re that desperate for Austen-themed hygiene, stick with the Jane Austen toothpaste.


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