No, not Jane Austen’s Mrs. Hurst from Pride and Prejudice. The Mrs. Hurst who lent her name to the title of this delightful volume was a real woman, who lived during the Regency. Her home was in a small English village in Buckinghamshire called Newport Pagnell, and she loved to dance. She was captured in full swing one evening at her home in a charming watercolor by a young friend, Diana Sperling.
The full title of this book is Mrs Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812 – 1823. I stumbled across it a couple of weeks ago in my local library and was immediately enchanted. This volume contains full-size reproductions of a number of watercolor sketches made by a young woman called Diana Sperling during the years of the Regency and just beyond. Miss Sperling also wrote witty explanatory captions for most of these watercolors which gives a real flavor of the daily life of a family of the minor gentry during the Regency.
Elizabeth Longford, who was the author of the two-volume biography of Wellington, wrote the forward to the book, in which she noted the elegance of the young artist’s style. The introduction and the companion text for the plates was written by Gordon Mingay, Professor of Agrarian History at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. He was the author of a number of books on rural life in Georgian and Victorian England. He gives some background on Diana, her family, their estate and the times in which they lived, to establish the setting for the watercolors.
Diana Sperling was in her early twenties when she began drawing and painting the watercolors which are presented in Mrs Hurst Dancing. She lived with her family, her parents, two brothers and a sister at their family estate, Dynes Hall, in Buckinghamshire. Her father was in the fur trade and the family was fairly well-off. But they still had to do some of the work around the estate, and Diana chose to record some of those activities in her sketches.
Di, as she often called herself, captured many scenes of the everyday life of her family and friends in these watercolors. There is the day in 1816 when the family carriage was stuck on a muddy road and they all had to pitch in to unload the vehicle to free it from the mud. There are scenes of the young people playing shuttlecock, cricket or bowls. There is even a scene of them rolling the pitch in preparation for a game. There is a painting of the ladies wallpapering a room, another of one of Diana’s friends "murdering" a spider on the wall with one foot while balancing on her other foot, in her nightgown. And then, there is Isabella, Diana’s younger sister. She did not always have the best of luck riding, and Diana has drawn her on more than one occasion falling off either a donkey, of which the Sperlings kept several, or a horse. There is another scene in which Diana’s brothers are skating and pushing one of the ladies around the frozen pond while she was seated in a chair. But perhaps the most unexpected scene is that of Diana’s cousin, Henry Van Hagen, who using his latest toy to "electrify" his relations. He has set up his hand-cranked machine and his mother holds the cable which trails from it. She, in turn, is holding hands with other Sperling and Van Hagen relations, all awaiting the thrill of an electric shock.
Noted above are just a few of the seventy plates to be found in Mrs Hurst Dancing. Though not a professional artist, Miss Sperling certainly had a refreshing and spontaneous talent with her pencil and brush. She also had a sprightly sense of humor, which comes through in many of the captions she wrote for her watercolors. Gordon Mingay’s companion text will provide a number of fascinating facts about country life in Regency England. If you would like a view into the daily life and pursuits of a country family during the years of the Regency, treat yourself to Mrs Hurst Dancing. It really is a delight.
This book was published in 1981, and it is now out of print, but you should be able to find it in your local library, as I did. If they do not have a copy, they should be able to get a copy for you via Inter-Library Loan. However, if you wish to purchase the book, there are a number of used copies available online or your local used bookshop may be able to search out a copy for you. Either way, if you love the era of the Regency, if you want to see depictions of daily life in the country such as Jane Austen might have witnessed, you will find it well worth the effort to locate a copy of this enchanting book for yourself.
The full bibliographic citation for this delightful book is:
Sperling, Diana, and Mingay, Gordon, Mrs Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812 – 1823. London: Victor Gollancz, 1981.