Saturday, 25 October 2014 became Saturday 25 October 1800 when the Rhode Island Historical Society presented What Cheer Day. The beautiful John Brown House transformed from a regular museum to a hive of activity as reenactors portrayed members of the Brown family and their servants. As soon as Kitty, the housekeeper, opened the door, the visitor was transported back in time to 1800.
At that time, the house was quite full with John Brown’s family in residence. Mr. Brown was away at Congress in Philadelphia and his son was not at home but the rest of the family was there.
Mrs. Brown was trying to visit with her sister and work on their sewing in the parlor and visit with their guests but all the noise and activity of her young adult children made that quite difficult. She ranted about all the visitors that day, including a tradesman who dared come to the front door! I expressed my shock at that transgression of propriety, for every Downton Abbey/Jane Austen/Queen Victoria wannabe knows the lower orders visit the tradesman’s entrance in back! I suggested perhaps because this is America, he thinks he’s republican. Mrs. Brown stated that “We are federalists in America.” She questioned her daughter Sally’s suitor, Mr. Charles Hereshoff about the French Republic. He is originally from Prussia and Prussia was lately at war with France.
I chatted with Mr. Hereshoff. He has been courting Sally, the middle daughter of John Brown, for several years. Mr. Brown does not approve. Mr. Hereshoff is Prussian and he has no business prospects. Mr. Hereshoff remarked he hopes some business opportunity presents itself soon, but the Napoleonic wars were ruining trade. I asked if he was a gamester but he said no but Sally’s brother-in-law Mr. Mason is. None of the family approves of Mr. Mason. He’s a gamester and a rake. He was awake all night carousing and kept the whole household awake. He left the house a mess and is only just waking up at almost 2 of the clock in the afternoon! Mrs. Brown lamented that her daughters love the bad boys. She said it was all right to love them but not marry them! While Mrs. Brown went out to see what all the noise coming from across the hall was about (her daughters brought in a fortune teller and were quite giggly), her sister explained that they were raised as Quakers and Mrs. Brown doesn’t always approve of her children’s activities.
Upstairs I visited with the mantua maker. She had some lovely fashion plates from Paris. The French fashions this year are quite daring, with deep decolletage and filmy skirts that cling to the legs. The dresses feature trains, demi-trains and all manner of ornamentation. The ladies sometimes are shown wearing scarves or turbans on their heads. Mrs. Brown’s sister looking longingly at the fashion plates, hoping for a new dress. She thinks her sister would approve of something in a more sober color like dark red or green and something without such deep decollete. She liked the same pattern as her niece, Alice, and Alice was very proprietary about “her” dress. Mrs. Brown’s sister also coveted a new bonnet but since she had just purchased a new bonnet so she thought perhaps she had to wait awhile for new clothes. She’s a spinster and though she enjoys some manner of freedom, she is sometimes subject to her brother-in-law’s rules.
Next I called on the Masons. Alice is John Brown’s youngest daughter who married Mr. John Brown Mason, the rake. Some visitors remarked they heard that Alice was able to arrange her romantic matters to her own satisfaction by becoming with child. Alice was quite adamant that she was married when her baby was born – by one day – and that’s all that matters. She demanded to know if we had heard the whole story and when she was told we hadn’t, she wanted to know who told us. She thought the maid had gossiped about her and was determined to get rid of Eliza. Her first plan was to borrow some of Mr. Mason’s winnings and her second plan was to frame Eliza with a novel. I questioned whether it was one of those horrid gothic novels all the young ladies love (read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for a parody of the popular fiction of the day). She was shocked and asked if I was implying she had actually READ the novel. She assured me it was the finest French literature. I doubt her mother would approve of gothic novels. It didn’t appear to be a Minerva Press novel at any rate. Perhaps she was hiding one novel in another.
Alice realizes her husband probably married her more for the money and less for herself, but she doesn’t mind because it gets her out from under her father’s thumb and gives her more independence and freedom. That’s an interesting way of looking at marriage. She must have felt having her own home was freedom enough. At the moment they are living with the Browns along with their baby Abby. Baby Abby is out taking an airing with her nurse, as is good for her health. Alice can not be expected to take care of her own child! She spent an hour a day with her baby and will spend an hour later on and that’s plenty.
Back downstairs, I saw the fortune teller. I don’t believe in fortune telling but I was prepared to play along. She didn’t tell my fortune but she told my character through reading my face. She said I’m independent, something of a free spirit, unconventional. She was spot on but I don’t know how she knew that!
I stopped by the woodshed on my way out and sampled some of the 18th century foods someone had made. There were ginger cakes, a crispy gingersnap very different from the soft, cakelike ginger cakes sold at Colonial Williamsburg. My preference is for the soft, cake-like kind but the harder ones were good too. There was also Diet Bread, which I think comes from Amelia Simmons. It was more like a coffee cake sliced very thin than bread. It had a hint of sweet cinnamon and was quite tasty. Also available were Jordan Almonds.
One pound sugar, 9 eggs, beat for an hour, add to 14 ounces flour, spoonful rose water, one do. cinnamon or coriander, bake quick.
Back outside, I looked at the games but there was no one to play with. My friend Susanna found a hoop nearly her size and enjoyed rolling it down the hill.
It was such an enjoyable experience, like visiting a Jane Austen novel for a day! (I’d rather visit Jane Austen’s world this way and not actually live in the 19th century). I had fun last year and this year was even better. There were more visitors and more activity so I didn’t get to chat as much as I would have liked but it was still a lot of fun.