Monday, May 27, 2013


The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne is a treasure of a book. Austen's life spins out through the writer's focus on a few well-chosen objects. One of the first objects is "The East Indian Shaw,l" with its bit of the shawl history.and the use of the correct term for paisley, boteh.

 Byrne mentions Austen's Aunt Phila,who was sent a shawl by her husband living in Calcutta in 1772. She also references a story that the young Jane created in 1792. Catherine, or the Bower was modeled after Phila who traveled to India in search of a rich husband. The book provides a color plate of what could be the young Austen sisters wearing shawls loosely around their shoulders with as much flirty charm as today's woman wears a multi-looped scarf around her neck. And there is second color plate of what might have been Jane Austen's fine red-yellow-and-tan striped shawl with tiny boteh within some of the stripes.

Henry James's Washington Square also has its wonderful reference to boteh when Catherine brings a statusy shawl back to Aunt Lavinia after an extensive European tour. In the most recent Broadway production, The Heiress based on the James novel, costume designer Albert Wolsky has his looks pitch-perfect. And actress Judith Ivey plays Lavinia and her shawl beautifully. Lavinia self-importantly drapes it on her shoulders, takes it off and folds it as if it were a Cloth of Gold. One can see that the shawl was not only an object of desire in this era but part of the mannerisms of the day. JP