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“It is a very simple story. He went to town on business three days ago, and I got him to take charge of some papers which I was wanting to send to John. He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley’s. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley’s. The party was to be our brother and sister, Henry, John — and Miss Smith. My friend Robert could not resist… However, I must say that Robert Martin’s heart seemed for him, and to me, very overflowing; and that he did mention, without its being much to the purpose, that on quitting their box at Astley’s, my brother took charge of Mrs. John Knightley and little John, and he followed with Miss Smith and Henry; and that at one time they were in such a crowd, as to make Miss Smith rather uneasy.”
Emma, Chapter 54
“Harriet was most happy to give every particular of the evening at Astley’s, and the dinner the next day; she could dwell on it all with the utmost delight”
Emma, Chapter 55.
So all is well: Harrriet and her lover are reunited at Astleys.
But what exactly was Astley’s? And it may interest you to know that there was more than one in London…so which one is referred to here?
Let’s attempt to find out, shall we?
The most famous of Astley’s theatres was Astley’s Amphitheatre which is pictured above. This print is by Rowlandson and Pugin, and is from my copy of the Microcosm of London published by Rudolph Ackermann.
This theatre was built on the south side of the river Thames in London over Westminster Bridge, opposite the houses of parliament. It was the property of the theatrical entrepreneur, Phillip Astley . Hopefully you can clearly see the position of the theatre in this section from my copy of Smith’s New Map of London 1809:
Do remember – you can enlarge all these illustrations by clicking on them.
It was first opened in 1770 and was originally merely an open air circus ring, surrounded by seats for the audience (which were mercifully covered to protect them from the elements). It became famous for its equestrian performances. By 1780 it boasted a compete roof and became known as The Amphitheatre Riding House. In 1794 the amphitheatre burnt down-a common hazard for early 19th century theatres. It was rebuilt and when in 1796 Jane Austen visited it, it was performing elaborate spectacles, on a scale unknown in England before:
We are to be at Astley’s tonight,which I am glad of...
(see: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 23rd August 1796)
It was an unpatented theatre, which meant that it could only stay within the confines of the law regarding theatrical performances in the 18th/ early 19th centuries if it had a license for performance, and also performed anything but plays. The 1737 Licensing Act (which was in effect a piece of legislation sponsored by the Walpole government to control and censor the content of stage performances) confined the professional , paid, performance of legitimate, spoken word theatrical performances ( plays, in short) to the two patent theatres in London: Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal,Drury Lane .They were the only theatres that had licenses to perform plays on a permanent basis in London.
The establishment – more by accident than design- of Samuel Foote’s Little Theatre in the Hay ( as mentioned in Pride and Prejudice) did not provide open competition to the two existing drama houses. Foote’s theatre was licensed to stage plays but they could only be performed in the summer,when the two other main houses were closed. As Drury Lane and Covent Garden concentrated on performing during the autumn, winter and spring, the Little Theatre in the Hay did not really compromise their monopoly of serious theatrical performance.
As one of the un-patented theatres Astleys was not therefore supposed to perform plays- performances of the spoken word. But it –along with the growing number of other “illegitimate” theatres in London-often tried to circumvent the law by adding straight plays in among the permitted equestrian exhibits and burlettas. Astley’s Amphitheatre operated only on a summer license obtained from the Lord Chamberlain, as is clear from this description of the theatre taken from my copy of A New Picture of London 1803, one of the first tourist guides to London:
This Theatre is situated in the Westminster-road near the bridge, and is built on the very ground on which Mr. Astley, sen. formerly exhibited feats of horsemanship and other amusements in the open air; the success and profits of which enabled him afterwards to extend his plan and erect a building, which, from the rural cast of the internal decorations he called the ROYAL GROVE.
In this theatric structure, stage exhibitions were given, while, in a circular area, similar to that in the present theatre, horsemanship, and other feats of strength and agility, were continued. About seven or eight years ago, it was accidentally burnt down, after which the present theatre was erected under the appellation of the AMPITHEATRE of ARTS.
The interior of the building, though for a summer theatre somewhat heavy in its style, has been rendered truly elegant by its late additional decorations; and the stage and scenery are also greatly improved. The horsemanship, for which a circular ride is provided, is still continued, though it forms a much smaller portion of the evening’s entertainment than formerly.
This theatre always opens on Easter Monday; and its amusements continue till October or November. There are two tiers of boxes, a pit, and gallery.
To get a taste of the type of performances which were staged at Astleys, do look at this description of a visit to Astley’s by one of my favourite diarists of this period, Joseph Ballard, an American -a Bostonian-who visited England in 1815.
This extract from his diary gives a vivid impression of the type of entertainment Astley’s offered:
This evening went to Astleys Amphitheatre near Westminster Bridge.
The interior is very pretty lighted by a splendid chandelier, which descends through the ceiling and when coming down makes a beautiful appearance.
The performances were of the pantomime and equestrian kind, the subject being the Life and Death of the high-mettle racer. During this piece there was a correct representation of a horse race. The pit was railed through the centre and the horses started from the back of the stage at a long distance from the audience and passed through the pit.
A fox chase was also admirably done, from the starting of the fox till his death, the dogs and horses in full speed after the little animal.
This was so illustrative that the audience heartily joined in the tally–ho of the huntsmen etc.
In the course of the harlequinade a curious transformation set the house in a roar.
A barber as carrying a wig box whereupon was written “Judge Wisdom’s Wig” The clown desiring to see it, he set it own and opened it, when a large wig (such as the judges in this country wear upon the bench) appeared. Harlequin struck it with his word and out marched a venerable owl who majestically stalked across the stage and made his exit. Such success has this piece met with that tonight was the one hundredth night of its representation.
There were in fact two Astleys theatres. And the second Astleys also tried to circumvent the law regarding spoken performances.
Astley opened another theatre on Wych Street near Newcastle Street , just off the Strand, in London in 1806.
Besides the Amphitheatre, Messrs. Astleys have a very elegant Pavilion, for exhibiting amusements of a similar description, which they have lately erected, and fitted out in a most complete style, in Newcastle-street in the Strand, and named ASTLEY’S PAVILION. At this place the horses have displayed some feats of so wonderful a description, as could not easily be conceived unless they were seen. In this place eight horses have lately performed country dances, &c. in a manner that has astonished all the spectators. To this have been added divers horsemanships, the twelve wonderful voltigers, &c.
(See The Microcosm of London etc )
This was called the Olympic Pavilion, but it was as can be seen from the above quotation, known as Astley’s Pavilion, the Pavilion Theatre the Olympic Saloon, or simply, and confusingly, Astley’s.
Phillip Astley staged equestrian performances here, and through the influence of Queen Charlotte, managed to botain a license from the Lord Chamberlain also to perform musical perforamces, burlettas, including dance.
This buiding itself was very interesting as it as built from the reclaimed timbers of naval ships– prizes -that Astley had bought. The deck of a ship was used to make the stage and the floors. The new theare was built just like a traditional playhouse compete with stage orchestra side boxes galleries and a pit surrounding the ring:
One of Jane Austen’s favourite actors, Robert Elliston bought the license from Astley in 1812. He decided to make a concerted effort to break the monopoly on spoken drama held by the two patent theatres: initially he tried to rename Astley’s, The Little Drury Lane Theatre.
Of course, objections to this name were made from the legitimate parent holders, and he had to close. But he re-opened again simply as Astleys and introduced a programme of
“farce, melodramas, and pantomine-burlettas”
He also managed to again circumvent the prohibition on licensed theatres from performing the spoken word by continuing to add plays to the programme of events. Obviously, what made it daring of Elliston to do this was the closeness of his theatre in the Strand to the patent theatres, Covent Garden and especially, Drury Lane.(You can see how close he was from the map above of the area)
Paula Byrne in her book, Jane Austen and the Theatre argues that Jane Austen probably approved of Elliston’s stance against the two patent theatres. She may be right – we will never know for sure, but we do know that the Austen family were not afraid to patronise the illegitimate theatres and often went to others apart from Astley’s : Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, in particular patronized illegitimate theatres. He had a box at the Pantheon on Oxford Street, which from 1812 also staged a mixed bill of burlettas and ballet to try to circumvent the law on performing plays.
Paula Byrne is of the opinion that Jane Austen chose to reconcile Robert and Harriet at Astleys, because it was an illegitimate theatre, where performances were not of the most rarefied nature, and it was exactly the type of place where a yeoman farmer and a girl carrying the “stain of illegitimacy” could meet with and be seen in the company of the gentry (the Knightley family) without raising adverse comment. Perhaps.
But what is interesting to me is that cannot be exactly certain at which of the two theatre Harriet and Robert Martin reconciled their differences.
The Amphitheatre on the south bank of the Thames was, as we have noted , a summer theatre, but also ,as we have seen, it could stage performances into September, October and sometimes even in November. The Astleys of the Strand was not a summer theatre but began its season in September.
Though Jane Austen does not tell us exactly when Harriet’s fateful trip to the theatre took place, it appears to have been in late summer , possibly early September: it could not be late September as that was when Harriet was married to Robert Martin:
Before the end of September, Emma attended Harriet to church, and saw her hand bestowed on Robert Martin
Emma, Chapter 55.
Paula Byrne argues that it is the crowds that frighten Harriet which give the game away:
Given that the Austens patronized the Lambeth Amphitheatre Jane may well have intended the same theatre. On the other hand the genteel John Knightley’s visit Astley’s as a treat for their boys and Harriet on quitting their box is made uneasy by the size of the crowds. This suggest the superior Olympic Pavilion. The Lambeth Amphitheatre had its own separate entrance for the boxes and the pit with the gallery entrance fifty yards down the road, so it would be more likely that Harriet encountered large crowds at the Olympic.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end , given the similarities between the two theatre, but its good to know I think, that there were two different Astley’s. Given that there were two and that one fits the bill a little better than the other we can’t necessarily assume that the Westminster Bridge Astleys was The One. And fun to speculate which one was the location for Harriet and Robert’s romantic evening of low comedy, equestrianism and burletta. And yes, its just this type of conundrum that keeps me awake at night…..