AN envelope with a bright red-wax seal is not something you would expect to receive from your 21st century postman.
But this was no ordinary package. Jenny Dempsey’s new book The Curious Lady’s Guide to Marriage 1811-1820 is a little snapshot into the intricacies of life for a lady of marriageable age in Ireland 200 years ago.
So, it was only fitting that the envelope got the same authentic treatment as the book it held.
Throughout my entire life, the notion of being able to travel back in time, to experience life as it was at a defined period of history, has always appealed to me.
I see the vestiges of a cobbled track peeping through a grassy walkway, or worm-eaten sash windows in a large, derelict house, or a row of workman’s cottages on the grounds of a castle, and my imagination is instantly piqued and looking to fill in the blanks about what life must have been like in the hey-days of these areas.
Author and graphic designer, Jenny Dempsey, is a fellow wannabe time traveller and has spent years immersed in the history and research of life in 18th and 19th century Ireland.
“I’ve always been interested in how people experience story and had done a lot of work with festivals in history. But when I hit 50, I thought I’d like to create something I’m proud of. I love books and women’s history,” she explains.
While doing her MA in Narratology (the study of narrative structure), Jenny was awarded a scholarship from the Nano Nagle Centre, who were looking for a design student to create a piece for the museum based on Nano Nagle herself.
“The centre is an oasis, so peaceful and spiritual. What I was interested in what how people lived in 18th century Ireland, what did Nano eat, wear, how did she do her hair, what motivated her.”
What emerged from this curiosity and in-depth research was Jenny’s first book, The Ladies Guide to Dinner Parties in 18th Century Cork, which has now become an online exhibition, sponsored by Cork County Council, entitled Come Dine with 18th Century Me.
The prologue reads: “You find yourself in 1780 Cork and you have to throw a dinner party. How will you dress? What food will you serve? Who are the best local suppliers of meat, fabric for your beautiful gown, stationery for your invitations, etc.”
It is a fascinating insight into life in Cork at that time, and a testament to Jenny’s fastidious research that she has managed to piece a very accurate account of life in the upper echelons of Cork, 230 years ago.
With The Curious Lady’s Guide to Marriage 1811-1820, the second book in her series of visual stories, Jenny has created an aesthetically beautiful and delightful book that guides the reader through the do’s and don’ts for young ladies in early 19th century Ireland.
Fans of Bridgerton, Netflix’s 2020 hit, will adore Dempsey’s creation. Not only does it look fantastic, the level of detail in her research is phenomenal.
Readers get advice on the vagaries of marriage and all its associated challenges, from the ebb and flow of the courtship dance, the formal proposal, the marriage ceremony, to navigating the choppy waters of gynaecological matters, babies and illness, and hiring a governess.
The style of writing is formal and more suited to that of 19th century Ireland, so from the first page, the reader gets the sensation of pulling back the curtain and stepping back in time.
Much of the advice imparted to the Curious Lady reader is directly quoted from periodicals or books written in that specific era.
“Isn’t the word ‘history’ very revealing? His-story books are filled with records of war and exchange of power, which traditionally have been dominated by men. I wanted to know what the women were doing all day,” Jenny explains.
“The answer seems to be exactly what we are still doing today: finding self-fulfilment, falling in love, feeding family and following fashion,” she adds. “Discovering how and why the routines and paraphernalia around these activities have altered is fascinating.”
The book is full of the most gorgeous unexpected hidden treasures, waiting to be discovered between the pages, like a little piece of dress silk, or an intimate letter from a father to a potential suitor written in the most beautiful copperplate handwriting.
“During my MA studies, I learned how to translate my research into an engaging story. People like to find out information for themselves, and tell the story in their own mind. So, rather than tell them the complete story, I wanted them to experience the guide as if they were journeying back in time.”
The letters are beautifully hand-folded, as they would have been in 1811, and tucked into the pages of the book as if stashed away for safe- keeping.
“I wanted the reader to unearth these little secrets as they went along,” says Jenny.
The result is this thrilling quasi-interactive experience.
“These are actual letters that were written at that time”, insists Jenny.
“I had to track down permissions for all reproductions. For example, the letter from the Duke of Leinster was courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
“The details of that era exist but are rarely contained in one place so I had to examine books, letters, diaries, and old newspaper adverts along with many other sources,” she continues.
This is, of course, an insight into the lives of the more affluent ladies of Ireland in 19th century Ireland because, according to Dempsey, “only the well-healed had documented how they live at that time.”
“We aren’t that different to our predecessors,” she attests. “In my research, I did uncover lots of reports of babies being abandoned or drowned in the river in 18th and 19th century Ireland.
“I’m 54 now, never married, and have a most beautiful 16-year-old daughter, who has been the making of me.
“I so value my autonomy and feel so grateful to be able to make my own way in life. We have choices, they did not.
“The options for a young lady of eligible age back then were either religion or marriage, where you were subsumed into the life of your husband.”
Alternatively, you could have chosen to use your body as currency like Peg Plunkett, the most notorious Madame of 18th century Ireland, whose bedfellows included some of the most influential noblemen of that time.
The Curious Lady’s Guide To Marriage 1811-1820 also tackles this delicate matter with some ‘real-time’ advice for those young women considering a life as a Courtesan, and covers all matters relevant to the transaction, from attracting a prospective gentleman lover, tempering of one’s expectations of the arrangement, to advice on negotiations of the best deal possible.
Originally from Greystones, Co Dublin, but now living in Bantry, West Cork, Jenny admits that through the course of her research, she began to feel more passionate about being Irish and her connection to these women.
“We owe our lifestyles to the women who came before us and, in turn, we pave the way for those who follow us.”
The Curious Lady’s Guide to Marriage 1811-1820 by Jenny Dempsey is €28 and available for purchase from the Pretty Interesting History website, the Nano Nagle Centre, and selected outlets.