Frugality and the Cost of Being “Cheap”

This is a lovely guest post from my friend Jennifer Petkus about Jane Austen, frugality, and being a bit eccentric. Enjoy!

I am frugal (cheap), but like many frugal (cheap) people I’m not always aware of the high cost of being frugal (cheap). For instance, it didn’t occur to me until too late that cobbling together a dust extraction system for my workshop using bathroom exhaust fans and dryer hose is ultimately a lot more expensive than just buying one a proper system off the shelf at my local home improvement store. Of course, I had a lot of fun designing my ultimately useless dust extraction system, but I sometimes wish I had those fruitless hours back and could apply them actually to building furniture.

Jane Austen, however, was probably actually frugal and was not just cheap. We know she essentially had no income of her own until she published her first novel in her mid thirties. So I’m sure she would have practiced economy in everything, from those little bits of ivory on which she wrote to the recipe she used to make her own ink for her pen. In fact, she probably had to make many things by herself for her use or the use of her family. I know she recopied musical scores and re-purposed her clothing, modifying old dresses to make them seem new with ribbons. In fact her novels mention quite a few practical considerations that make her and her characters seem quite industrious.

I’m still building my tiny desk (you can see a hole punch in the background for scale). The book will have text and an illustration of a cinchona plant. There will also be an admiralty chart with the island of Samokar unrolled on the desk, a pamphlet on electricity by Benjamin Franklin, a painting of Lord Byron in his Turkish get up, a color plate of Carleton House and a tiny miniature of Charlotte House’s brother. Oh, the little scissors open and close. My husband thinks I’m insane.

Frank Churchill lends a hand in Emma in repairing the rivet in Mrs. Bates’ spectacles and Lydia Bennet shows a practical side in Pride and Prejudice when she buys an ugly bonnet with the idea of taking it home and improving it with satin. I know many of us read that line with an idea of Lydia’s spendthrift ways, but I view her purchase as a frugal (cheap) person. The ugly bonnet was probably cheap because it was ugly and Lydia thought she could make it tolerable with the purchase of some pretty trim. And even the vain Sir Walter Elliot is persuaded to practice vulgar economy when he lets out Kellynch Hall to Admiral Croft, the baronet mistakenly thinking he could save money by staying in Bath, as if that arithmetic makes any sense at all.

I think these examples are indicative of the little economies Austen must have practiced or observed, and I like to think she would have understood my motivations to self publish. After all, she basically self published her first book and was involved in the design and typography of it. What she didn’t get to do, of course, was to design a book cover. I like to wonder what sort of book covers she might have designed had she the opportunity.

(A little aside here: In Austen’s day books were usually printed unbound and often with the folded pages (or signatures) still uncut. Upon purchase of a book, you’d have it bound in leather, replacing the paper boards that acted as a temporary cover. Then you’d slice open the pages with a knife, often resulting in a ragged edge. In Austen’s time, there were no dust jackets and no opportunity for a fancy book cover. Thus in the miniature book I’ve made you can see the ragged or deckled paper edges.)

Today her books are mostly printed by publishers who either want to take advantage of her public domain status (thrift editions), or as scholarly works with forewords by illustrious Janeites and copious footnotes. The dust jackets or book covers are usually pretty elegant, featuring Regency paintings or photographs of stately homes. Frankly, these covers are a little stuffy and highbrow.

If Austen were designing (or at least art directing) her own covers now, would she follow (perhaps on the advice of others) to follow some of the conventions of romantic fiction covers? Would she go the bared bosom route, the clasped hands or the running up the stairs clichés of modern romance fiction, or would she prefer the picturesque aspect of a stately home, the crash of waves against a breakwater or the rocks and mountains of Derbyshire? Would she just search Google thusly: “English seaside site:” and then use the search tools to specify usage rights as “labeled for reuse.” Or would she just ask Cassandra for another drawing and have done with it, keeping it in the family and keeping down costs. (I also imagine a modern-day Henry Austen being an amateur photographer with some pretensions of talent.)

Whatever direction Austen might take, I like to think she would approve of my decision to design the cover for my latest book without paying for images (like stock photos of clasped hands and bared bosoms). My plan, you see, is to create a still life of the items on the desk of one of my characters. The items will be taken from the story, but being of a somewhat esoteric nature, I couldn’t collect them all without considerable expense—at least not at 1:1 scale. (I think of the items on the desk being like the cabinet of curiosities Mr. Knightley collects to entertain Mr. Woodhouse while the others are collecting strawberries at Donwell Abbey.)

So instead I’m making models of all the items at dollhouse scale—about 1/12th scale. Of course I could have bought some of the items I needed, but dollhouse furniture is expensive and usually doesn’t quite have the level of detail I want for my book cover, and so I’m building everything using my modeling skills.

I’ve been a scale modeler for years, but I usually work at much smaller scales, from 1/48th (World War II airplanes), 1/72nd (modern jet fighters) to 1/350th scale (aircraft carriers and starships) to 1/1400th scale (really big starships). So working at 1/12th scale is huge to me and consequently a lot of fun. I’ve made a plain, deal desk using basswood and even a quill pen from paper-thin sheet styrene. Scissors are made from the metal handle that comes on Chinese takeout boxes. The blade of the knife handle is from a aluminum Chipotle takeout lid. My only expense in this is about $5 for the basswood I bought at my local hobby shop. (Yes, I also spent an additional $30 buying other modeling supplies, but that’s neither here nor there.)

400px_Why-Are-We-Still-Reading-Jane-Austen062716.jpg This might seem mind-boggling tedious to many, but I think Austen would have appreciated the exercise. I understand her stitching and embroidery were quite good and I think she must have had some experience with the very tedious rolled paper craft or quilling for she mentions it in Sense and Sensibility.

Of course a present-day Austen might roll her eyes and wonder why I don’t pay for some stock photography and I might have to confess that ultimately, I’m going through this process because it’s so much darn fun. You might have to be a scale modeler to understand and appreciate my motivation and before you roll your eyes, I’ll bet many of you have spent hours at some hobby that most of the rest of the world considers quite mad. Whatever my excuse, this little exercise illustrates how much joy Jane Austen and writing Jane Austen-related fiction has brought into my life. Because I find the Georgian period so fascinating, I now read a lot of histories of the period and it’s even spread to reading American history. Thanks to Jane Austen, I even understand some of the jokes and references from Hamilton, the Musical, or Sleepy Hollow or even Pirates of the Caribbean. I am just so grateful for the experience of reading and writing about Jane Austen and her times and the opportunity to write these posts for Austen Authors.

And now you’ll excuse me because I just thought of another use for those all bathroom exhaust fans I’ve bought over the years.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Austen Authors, British currency, Guest Post, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Living in the UK, reading habits, Regency era, Regency romance and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Frugality and the Cost of Being “Cheap”

  1. What a charming post, Jennifer! And I love your miniature desk and objects. I bought late 19th-century copies of Emma and Northanger Abbey last year at Chawton and there are no heaving bosoms on the cover, simply Art & Craft patterns and a gold-embossed title – very elegant.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed Jennifer’s post.
      I totally agree with you about the heaving bosoms. I also an not so fond of the bare chested guy with a six pack and a tan. Did no one ever think, if nothing else, the gentleman would not have a tan – hard to tan while wearing a shirt, waistcoat, jacket, cravat, etc. Only one of my titles looks that way, but I am holding off doing anything with it because I am planning a rewrite of the novel, changing everything at once.

      • Of course they don’t think because they’re all about profits rather than reality. I always think those type of covers is a complete turn-off for many reasons, not least the anachronistic ones!

  2. JanisB says:

    Wowie, I found myself smiling while I read this post! Most charming indeed! I am always impressed by people who can create on a tiny scale. I’ve tried making tiny origami models with tweezers but keep ripping them. My limit seems to be a 2″ square, which is still doable with just fingers. Yes, it is very clear that Jane’s non-wealthy characters were mostly of a frugal nature, so it stands to reason that Jane herself would have been equally frugal. Many thanks for this fun read!

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