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You will recall I wrote previously about the watercolour and its history here
This afternoon, at auction at Sotheby’s in London, the watercolour was sold for £135,000, which when VAT and buyer’s premiums are added comes to a total sale price of £164,500.
No news as yet on the identity of the purchaser. Sotheby’s are reported to have stated that it was bought by an anonymous private collector.
According to the BBC News website, The Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, did not bid because it could not raise the funds so soon after buying a ring that belonged to the author for £149,000 in September. If/when I hear anything I will of course let you know.
You may recall that last year I raved about Jack and Holman Wang’s board book for children based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. They promised to introduce more Austen titles and they have been true to their word. Their new title, the second in their Austen series, is Emma, my favourite Austen novel. I have fallen in love with the so very expressive felt characters in this book and their simple way of re-telling Austen’s classic tale in only ten words. Screenwriters please take note.
Here is the synopsis of the tale from the Cozy Classics website:
Convinced of her own talent for matchmaking, Emma Woodhouse tries to make a match for her young protégé, Harriet Smith. Harriet’s past is sketchy, but Emma believes she deserves to marry a gentleman and sets her sights on Mr. Elton, the village vicar. Harriet receives an offer of marriage from Robert Martin, a prosperous farmer, but Emma persuades Harriet to turn him down and pursue Mr. Elton instead.
Mr. Knightley,(above) the wealthy owner of Donwell Abbey and a trusted family friend, believes Robert and Harriet would have made a fine match and is furious at Emma for her meddling. He’s proven right when Mr. Elton professes his love for—Emma! Later, Harriet is saved from a swarm of gypsy beggars by Frank Churchill, a new face in the village of Highbury. Emma now sets her sights on setting up Harriet and Frank.
One day at a picnic on Box Hill, Emma makes fun of Miss Bates, a poor spinster, for being long-winded.
Mr. Knightley is angry at Emma for being so unkind. Emma not only feels sorry but also realizes she has always loved Mr. Knightley—and Mr. Knightley feels the same! Once it’s discovered that Frank is engaged to someone else, Harriet is free to pursue the feelings she’s always had for Robert, and everyone is happy!
The illustrations are so cleverly and intricately created from a tableau of felt characters, it is entirely possible ( for I have done it! )to recreate, by reading the book to a child, a simple version of Austen’s clever novels, and to then discuss, in detail, what is happening to the characters. The illustration of Miss Bates being mocked by Emma and Frank Churchill is heartrending. It illuminates the word “laugh”, and will give a child a very different perspective form that he /she usually experiences.( or so open hopes).These books present a perfect introduction to understanding books and the process of reading, in my very humble opinion. The illustrations are very cleverly executed, with much character in the faces and expression in their attitudes. I loved this book, and yes, it is going to be given to the small people in my life this Christmas ( and to some not-so-small people too!)
Slightly off the Austen track, there is now available a Cozy Classic version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
This is quite as successful, in my opinion, as the Austen titles tackled thus far,for it really does manage to condense the main elements of that epic tale in ten words. Which is some achievement. They are perfect stocking fillers for fans of literature and of children’s illustrated books. Here is a short time lapse video of the Making of the Miniature Mr. Rochester:
I’d not object to him being found in my Christmas Stocking either;)
The Houghton Revisited Exhibition ended on the 24th November. Those, like me, who were privileged and very lucky to have seen the exhibit will remember it, I am certain, for many a year.
Houghton Hall in North Norfolk is a beautiful survivor, a treasure-house of the 18th century. Built for Sir Robert Walpole in the 1702s, it is a magnificent Palladian mansion, designed by Colen Campbell with sumptuous interiors by William Kent. The Hall is set in a beautiful sporting estate, perfect for political entertaining on a grand scale. Sir Robert’s collection of paintings was, quite simply, magnificent, with items in it by Murillo,Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyke and Velázquez. And the interior of the Hall was designed to house it.
So the decorating schemes are really only truly complete when the original artworks are in situ. Sadly, at the end of the 18th century, the collection was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia, and eventually it formed the basis of the Hermitage Museum Collection. This summer, in an example of the grandest “installation” that I can think of, the painting were returned to Houghton, to the care of its current owner, The Marquess Of Cholmondeley, to be re-hung as they were during Sir Robert’s lifetime. Some rooms in the Hall were even redecorated to bring them back to their original Palladian splendour.
So, I can hear you cry, why tell us of this now, when the exhibit is ended and what does it have to do with Jane Austen? Though the exhibition has ended, the website is still available to visit, here and the exhibition catalogue is also available to purchase( a paperback version will soon be available). But, quite wonderfully, there is an iTunes App available for iPhone and iPad. This allows you to virtually visit the exhibit, and, in a way, Houghton Hall too.
It is a wonderful, free resource and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I had, at one point, despaired of getting to see the exhibit and thought this would be as close as I could get to the exhibit, despite living within 30 minutes of the Hall. It is a very good approximation of a visit, and I was very happy to “visit it” this way before I could get to the Hall. I think it is a magnificent and totally generous gift to anyone interested in architecture and art. Well done to all concerned.
And the link to Jane Austen? This type of wonderful art collection might, I think, have been the type that could have been emulated by the fabulously rich and well-established Darcy family at Pemberley. When Elizabeth wanders around the House, to a certain extent cluelessly looking at the works of art on the walls of the rooms and gallery, these, if she was lucky, might have been the type of art she might have seen:
The picture-gallery, and two or three of the principal bedrooms, were all that remained to be shewn. In the former were many good paintings; but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art; and from such as had been already visible below, she had willingly turned to look at some drawings of Miss Darcy’s in crayons, whose subjects were usually more interesting, and also more intelligible.
Chapter 43 , Pride and Prejudice.
To conclude, here is a short, beautifully shot You Tube video which introduces the concept behind the exhibition, and describes some of the truly stupendous works within it.
You may recall that a few years ago I posted an article here about the White Hart Inn in Bath. This was a place Jane Austen knew, she mentioned it in her letters, and she even included it as a location in one of her novels: it was where the Musgrove party stayed while in Bath in Persuasion. Here we have Charles and Mary Musgrove arriving in Bath, visiting Sir Walter and Elizabeth who are nastily relieved once they realise they are not expecting to stay at Camden Place with them:
Surprise was the strongest emotion raised by their appearance; but Anne was really glad to see them; and the others were not so sorry but that they could put on a decent air of welcome; and as soon as it became clear that these, their nearest relations, were not arrived with any views of accommodation in that house, Sir Walter and Elizabeth were able to rise in cordiality, and do the honours of it very well. They were come to Bath for a few days with Mrs. Musgrove, and were at the White Hart. So much was pretty soon understood; but till Sir Walter and Elizabeth were walking Mary into the other drawing-room, and regaling themselves with her admiration, Anne could not draw upon Charles’s brain for a regular history of their coming, or an explanation of some smiling hints of particular business, which had been ostentatiously dropped by Mary, as well as of some apparent confusion as to whom their party consisted of.
Persuasion Chapter 22
As you can see, it was a busy, bustling place and it had an envious reputation for luxury, comfort and customer service. Sadly it no longer exists, for it was demolished in 1867.
The White Hart was distinguished by a large figure of a white hart standing proudly over the entrance to the hotel. You can clearly see it in this picture of the inn above .One of my correspondents has very kindly informed me that the original statue is now in situ on another inn of the same name. The White Hart Inn, Widcombe Hill, just on the outskirts of Bath,
During the summer, someone stole the hart’s antlers. As you can see, he is pictured sadly antler-less, and the Inn asked for whoever stole them to return them to them via their Twitter account.
Nicola M very kindly sent me this image of the hart recently and it would appear that the antlers have now been returned or replaced.
In any event it is good to know that a relict of the White Hart Inn that Jane Austen knew still exists, evening if it is in a slightly different place. I must remember to visit it next time I’m in Bath.
The British Library is currently holding what appears to be a fascinating exhibition on certain aspects of life in England under the reigns of the four Georges, that is from 1714 with accession of George I, to the death of George IV in 1830. Georgians Revealed is, no doubt, going to be the first of many exhibitions to be held in the forthcoming months to celebrate the 300th anniversary of George I ascending to the throne. The main premise of this exhibition is that much of our life today is directly influenced by the cultural developments that first occurred in the Georgian era and that direct comparisons between the two societies can made. According to the BL’s press release the exhibition provides
a fascinating insight into life in 18th and 19th century Britain and displaying never before seen artefacts that shed light on today’s popular culture.
The exhibition offers the chance to see the first ever British fashion magazines, enormous interior design portfolios by the likes of the Adam brothers, Britain’s first celebrity scandal in the press and the 1783 novel behind Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, which made the young novelist a household name.
Through over 200 historic objects, from rare and beautiful books from King George III’s personal library, to everyday objects and ephemera that are unique to the British Library’s collections, the exhibition reveals just how many of our current hobbies, occupations and interests were established and popularised by the Georgians, from leisure pursuits including fashion, shopping, gardening and sports, to more salacious pastimes including gambling, theatre, dance and celebrity gossip.
In the final room of the exhibition I understand that the floor covering is a massive reproduction of John Horwood’s celebrated map of London. Sounds fabulous. I doubt, however, that I will be able to see this exhibit, but …the exhibition catalogue is available and I have been devouring my copy this week. It has been lovely to be able to get the magnifying glass out to look at the detail of the images within it: playbills, caricatures, topographical engravings, fashion plates, plans of houses, interiors by Soane…it is an enthralling collection of items.
The catalogue, like the books and ephemera that make up the exhibition, is divided, into five different sections: Homes and Gardens, Shopping and Fashion, Culture and Ideas and finally Leisure and Pleasure. The images and books shown are fascinating, and many are known to us already
but many more are not so familiar, and are intriguing.
The main essay in the catalogue is the Introduction written by Amanda Goodrich. In it she very clearly delineates, in some detail, the various developments in the Georgian era which have resonance for us today; these include the rise of print culture, the consumer society, an obsession with celebrities, philanthropy and charities, and public entertainments. A certain section of society -wealthy and well-to-do Georgian men- had, at this time in history, personal and political freedoms that were denied to many in Europe and the rest of the world. However, Goodrich does makes it quite clear that while for some the Georgian era was a magnificent time in which to be alive, for others it was dire:
Of course this was not a period of unadulterated progress, as so-called “Whig history” would have it. The contemporary belief in an inexorable journey towards the pinnacle of civilisation within the foreseeable future was , as time has shown, misplaced. Progress was uneven and as in all societies, there was a mix of innovation and continued adherence to hidebound tradition. Certainly there were still obstacles in the way of the sort of freedoms and the sense of modernity we take for granted today. In particular life for a large sector of society was “poor, nasty, brutish and short’ to misapply Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”(1651), and democracy and equality of any sort were a long way off.
From what I have read about the exhibit I am not sure that the grittier side of Georgian life- the industrial revolution and the unrest caused by it, the life of the poor, poverty, food riots, rioting in general, the situation of women in society, etc., etc.,- is covered within it. And it is certainly true that the catalogue’s contents are more associated with the polite section of society than with any other. This may be a problem with the nature of the exhibition material itself, for I should imagine that the books, ephemera and images that survive from that time (and are preserved in the BL’s collection) probably do tend to be reflective of the middling to upper orders of society. As a result the exhibition has been criticised for presenting a too pretty, old-fashioned view of the Georgian era: Professor Amanda Vickery is quietly disturbed by it as you can plain hear (14 minutes 50 seconds into the programme ) in this edition of the Front Row Programme on BBC Radio 4. But the introduction certainly redresses that balance and provides a solid counterpoint to all the Georgian gorgeousness. Amanda Goodrich makes it quite clear, for example, that women had a raw time:
The role of some in society represents another example of hidebound attitudes. While free to enjoy the benefits of the consumer society, women had few rights. The ‘rights of man’ meant just that: calls for universal suffrage meant universal male suffrage, and this domination was applied not just in politics but to life in general.This is not to say that women had no agency: many engaged with politics and commerce, owned businesses and wrote published texts. But such activities were circumscribed by law and invention and most, including Jane Austen, did not write under their own name…
Here is a rather arch video about the exhibit presented by Moira Goff, one of the joint curators:
The exhibition can even boast a pop-up Georgian inspired garden designed by Todd Longstaffe Gowan who wrote the wonderfully informative books,The London Town Garden and The London Square. You might also care to look at this fascinating blog entry written by the BL’s conservation department about the work they undertook on some of the exhibits
The exhibit will run until the 11th March 2014, but the catalogue is available to purchase now, and I would throughly recommend it for the Introductory essay alone which is a splendid commentary on the period. But you may also find yourself, as I did, enjoyably lost in the detail of the exhibits…
As you well know, I love the work of the 18th century artist, Paul Sandby.
Picturing Britain was the fabulous and comprehensive exhibition of his pictures which was held in 2010 at Nottingham and the Royal Academy in London. The accompanying exhibition catalogue is a wonderful prize, giving us a very evocative glimpse of the England Jane Austen knew.
So it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that another exhibition of his works will be held next year at The Drawings Gallery, Windsor Castle from the 7th February until the 5th May 2014, which will comprise items taken from the Royal Collection.
The information on the Royal Collection website tells us:
Paul Sandby was ‘the father of English watercolour’. With his brother Thomas, he produced dozens of watercolours that together comprise a fascinating visual record of Windsor Castle during the reign of George III. Many of the works incorporate scenes of everyday life at the Castle, from soldiers on duty and deliveries being made, to the visiting public enjoying the Castle grounds. Nineteen of the Sandby brothers’ finest views of Windsor are displayed alongside a selection of rare 18th-century guidebooks, offering an intriguing comparison with the experience of visiting the Castle today.
The Prince of Wales, later George IV, was a collector of Sandby’s works. They include this view of Windsor, above, before it was aggrandized by Jeffrey Wyatville in the 1820s. I am very excited by the idea of this exhibition and hope very much to be well enough to be to be able to travel to Windsor to see it. Fingers crossed. Go here to see all the current details of the exhibition, so that you can book a date in your diary.
Mavis Batey is, I am sure, a name that will be familiar to many of you, especially those who love, as I do, her 1996 book, Jane Austen and the English Landscape. Her death, at the age of 92 was sadly announced last week.
This book truly was revelatory and, for me, it opened up another aspect of Jane Austen’s world to discover in detail : the landscape, and, in particular, that very 18th century aristocratic pursuit of changing it. Or improving it, as the practice was known. Mavis Batey’s beautifully written and illustrated book gives detailed explanations of how Jane Austen studied the appearance of natural and man-made landscape, and, importantly, how to critically view both. Austen’s knowledge of the subject is shown to have been a vital part of her compositions, especially in Mansfield Park. The book demonstrated exactly how Jane Austen’s critical attitude to landscape played an important part in her personal reading habits, and how her attitude toward “improvements” and “improvers” differed from that of the richer sections of her family. One of my favourite books about Jane Austen, it lives on my bedroom library shelves.
Mavis Batey’s knowledge of this subject was such that she acted as an advisor on gardens and landscape to the BBC for their popular 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.
The study of the historical landscape was an important part of Mavis Batey’s life and living with her husband in Capability Brown’s park at Nuneham Courtney, after the war, was the spur. She played a vital part in the park’s restoration. She was a prominent and very valued member of the Garden History Society for many years. She became Honorary Secretary of the Society in 1971, a post she held until 1985 when she was elected President. She was President for 15 years, and, during her time with the Society, led its campaign on the plight of urban parks. She worked with the Historic Buildings Council to instigate the formal recording of historic gardens which, eventually, led to the publication of English Heritage’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England in 1983. Her achievements in this field were recognised by The Royal Horticultural Society which awarded her the prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal in 1985, and in 1987 she was appointed MBE for services to the preservation and conservation of historic gardens.
Mavis Batey also shared her love for the subject through by her many publications. Other than her Jane Austen book, my favourites include The Regency Garden published by Shire and especially, The English Garden Tour, which she co-authored with David Lambert.
These achievements would seem enough for one lifetime. But in 1998 it emerged that Mavis Batey had, during the Second World War, been part of the vital war work at Bletchley Park, as a codebraker. She had been recruited to serve in the Government Code and Cypher School at the outbreak of the war in 1939 and in 1940 began to work at Bletchley. At Bletchley teams studied and devised methods to enable the Allied forces to decipher the military codes and ciphers that secured German, Japanese, and other Axis nation’s communications. Her work there included working on Dilwyn Knox’s team deciphering messages sent by the Italian Naval Enigma machine. In 1941 she managed to decode a message which read “ Today’s the day minus three” and after much hard work she decoded an exceptionally long message which detailed the Italian plan to intercept a British naval convoy en route from Egypt to Greece. The British success under the command of Admiral Collingwood in the resulting Battle of Matapan ensured that the Italians never sailed close to the Royal Navy again until their surrender in 1943.
It was at Bletchley that she met and married her husband, Keith, also a mathematician and fellow codebreaker.
They married in 1942 after having worked together deciphering codes. Keith Batey died in 2010, and together they had a son and two daughters.
Their work at Bletchley remained a secret until 1974 when wartime information was declassified. In the intervening years we have become, almost daily, astonished at the stories that have emerged of the work undertaken here, especially regarding the Enigma machines, and of the advances in computing that resulting from it. In 1999 Mavis Batey appeared in the Channel 4 television series, Station X , describing her work there. In 2010 she eventually wrote a book on her code master, Dilwyn Knox, Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas:
Here is a link to a fascinating video of Mavis Batey talking about her book, which I’m sure you will enjoy. Her intelligence and humour, not to mention her modesty, are apparent.
Her love of landscape became united with her work at Bletchley when she created a garden trail there to commemorate the Anglo-American special relationship in intelligence sharing during World War II, which started at Bletchley Park during the war and which still continues today. This was opened in August 2004 by Minister David T. Johnson of the American Embassy. The American Garden Trail starts at the giant sequoia tree which can be seen directly in front of the mansion, and which was planted in the Victorian era. The tree is better known, perhaps, as the Californian Redwood and is, of course, one of the state emblems of California. During the war the tree played an important part at Bletchley: an aerial was placed at the top of the tree so that it could transmit radio signals for Station X. The Trail then continues through the grounds of Bletchley featuring many other horticultural emblems of the American states, including a cactus which is one of the state emblems for Arizona and a lilac tree representing New Hampshire.
Mavis Batey died on the 12th November, aged 92. What an amazing life: well lived, in a gracious, modest and intelligent way, and most importantly, with humour, as evidenced by her reaction, below, to being recruited to join the code breakers:
So I thought, great. This is going to be an interesting job, Mata Hari, seducing Prussian officers. But I don’t think either my legs or my German were good enough because they sent me to the Government Code & Cipher School.
I can only imagine that Jane Austen would have approved of her, her writings, wartime work and attitude.
Some of you know that I am a very poor video game player. However, I do like to try them and though I am totally frightened by the likes of Grand Theft Auto (Trevor is a menace to society) I did become quite proficient playing The Tweenies on Playstation ( making me then the envy of my very small children). I have eventually mastered Mario Kart on Wi( though it has to be admitted I did so while under the dubious influence of prescribed beta blockers…) But at Animal Crossing I am supreme.
I have begged a computer programmer friend of mine to create a Jane Austen game for some time, but to no avail. However my quest for a virtual Austen world may be about to become reality. Well, virtual reality at least. Ever Jane is a proposed video game that is being touted for funding on Kickstarter.
The game is a role playing game and gossip is the main weapon in your armoury. Your gaming status will be based on your rating regarding certain Austenian attributes : Duty, Happiness, Kindness, Status, and Reputation. How you interact with other characters determines your progress in the game as in the novels. You can choose certain character traits over others but this will determine how other characters react to you.
Players will attend mini games of balls( see below) and dinner parties to build their character and will partake in activities such as sewing, hunting, fishing, piano playing, word games and that most aristocratic of all Georgian pursuits…landscaping. All very Austen, I’m sure you will agree.
Here is the video pitch by Judy Tyler of 3 Turn Productions and it contains (at the beginning) examples of the video game footage.
Go here if you’d like to donate funding to the project:they have until 2nd December to reach their target. My only fear is that this could becomes the procrastination tool par excellence….
As we suspected the watercolour image of Jane Austen which was commissioned by James Edward Austen Leigh and was then engraved for use in his Memoir of his aunt will go on sale in London at Sotheby’s on 10th December, in their English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale
Lot 283, described as the Property of a Lady has this description:
watercolour over pencil heightened with gouache on card, depicting the author with brown curly hair and hazel eyes seated and facing towards the right, in a white frilled bonnet with light blue ribbon and a white dress with a dark blue ribbon under the bust, a small section at the bottom of the portrait apparently unfinished, oval, 143 x 100mm (overall sheet size 170 x 125mm), 1869, series of pin-holes at the top and bottom of the card, pencil markings probably by the engraver, mounted, framed, and glazed, frame size 327 x 247mm, the frame being a reused lid from a casket or box, French or German, probably eighteenth century, walnut inlaid with boulle-style marquetry of flowers and scrollwork in brass, silver, ivory, and mother of pearl, loss to surface of portrait probably due to insect damage, mostly affecting the dress, slight discolouration at edges seemingly where previously mounted in a rectangular frame
The estimate is £150,000 to 200,000. Hmm…..
This image, though approved by those who knew Jane Austen, was not of course taken during her lifetime and is seen as controversial by some. It was based on Cassandra Austen’s sketch of Jane Austen which now is owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Will this join it on display there? We will have to wait and see.
I’ve put the date of the sale in my diary. And you can too for it will be available to watch online from 2.30 GMT onwards.
Watch this space for further developments.
The other main item of interest that held sway during the Summer-I-was-absent-due-to-injury was the rather contentious issue of the sale of Jane Austen’s turquoise ring and its purchaser, Kelly Clarkson.
You will recall that this ring first surfaced in the public sphere last June when it was announced by Sotheby’s, the auction house, that it was going to be sold at their auction on 10th July. Apart from a small mention of the ring in an article by the late Elizabeth Jenkins in the Jane Austen Society Report for 1960, few people knew of its existence. A note written by Eleanor, which was included with the ring in the sale, delineated some of its history. The ring was Jane Austen’s and, on her death, it became the property of her sister, Cassandra. Three years after Jane died, in 1820, Henry Austen, her brother, married for the second time. Eleanor Jackson was his choice. She was well known to the Austen family, and was a niece of Mr. Papillon, the Rector of Chawton (who was, you will remember, the subject of a joke between Mrs Knight( the adoptive mother of Edward Austen) and Jane Austen. Once she learned of the engagement between Henry and Eleanor, Cassandra gave the ring to Eleanor. Deirdre Le Faye in the Jane Austen Society’s Report of 1989 wrote about Eleanor and Henry’s marriage:
The last of the nine sisters-in-law was Eleanor Jackson, Henry’s second wife. Jane had always expected that Henry would marry again, and before his bankruptcy in 1816 there had been several ladies in his circle of wealthy London friends to whom he seemed equally attracted and on whom he sought Jane’s sisterly opinions. However, his sudden reduction to near-poverty meant that any thoughts of re-marriage had to be indefinitely postponed, and it was only his succession to the Steventon living in 1819, following James’ (Austen’s jfw) death, which enabled him to support a wife once more. Not much is known about Eleanor, save that she was the niece of the Reverend John Papillon, Rector of Chawton at the time the Austens were living there; her home was in Chelsea, so Henry could have met her in either place. It is not certain whether Jane ever knew her, but it seems probable she is the ”Eleanor” mentioned in Letter no. 75 in January 1813. In 1819 she was referred to in family correspondence as having ‘a very good pair of Eyes” but no other description or picture of her is known. Persumably she was intelligent- one cannot imagine Henry choosing a dull, stupid woman-and they were married in 1820. Despite her ill-health, (by the 1830s she had developed a semi-crippling ailment, probably something rheumatic,) Henry was devoted to Eleanor: ”one dearer to me than life and for whose comfort I am solicitous beyond my own existence “. Cassandra was happy to think that he had found such an excellent wife to support him in his last role in life and an impoverished country clergyman. It is thanks to Eleanor that the miniature of Mrs Hancock, now on display at the Cottage survives; after Henry’s death in 1850 one of Frank’s granddaughters came to live with Eleanor and was in turn bequeathed the little picture( see below- jaw). It descended in that branch of the family until Mr Edward Carptenter was able to acquire it on behalf of the Jane Austen Society.
Eleanor was well aware of the ring’s history and significance: this is clear from the text of her note, below written:
The sale took place, and the ring was sold for £126,000, which, when the buyer’s premium and VAT was added to it, made a total purchase price of £152,450. This far exceeded the original auction estimate which was between £20,000-30,000. The purchaser’s identity was kept secret, until eventually it was announced that the American country singer, Kelly Clarkson, had bid for the ring via a telephone link and had won it. She also brought the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion offered at the sale. It then became known that Ms. Clarkson was a Janeite, and had even visited Derbyshire and Chatsworth on a mini Pride and Prejudice sightseeing spree while she was on a concert tour in the UK during the previous year.
Then things began to get complicated. Ms Clarkson was refused an export license to take the ring home to the US. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, a part of the Arts Council, placed a temporary ban on its export, in order for an appeal to be raised to purchase the ring and keep it in the UK. This Committee has a duty to advise the Government on the principles which should govern the control of export of objects of cultural interest to the UK under the terms of the Export Control Act 2002 and on the operation of the export control system generally. It also has a duty to advise the Secretary of State on all cases where refusal of an export licence for an object of cultural interest is suggested on grounds of national importance, and can also advise in cases where a special Exchequer grant is needed towards the purchase of an object that would otherwise be exported. It investigated and considered the case for keeping the ring in the UK. In order for an item to qualify it has to meet one of the three Waverley Criterior : they are
a) is the item so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
b) Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
c) Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?
The Expert’s Statement submitted to the Reviewing Committee proposed that
…the ring meets the third Waverley criterion because there are reasonable documentary grounds to believe that it was owned by Jane Austen. Thanks to her stature as a novelist, and the affection as well as respect in which she is held, this elegant and appropriately simple ring has caught the public imagination as a rare and intimate object associated with one of the greatest English writers. The ring has been almost entirely unknown for many years. It is likely that it will be illustrated in future biographies.
A temporary ban on export was eventually granted. At the hearing the case was made for keeping the ring, and here is an extract from the submission:
The Expert Adviser stated that Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton exhibits only two pieces of jewellery as having been owned by Jane Austen: a turquoise bead bracelet which previously belonged to Mary A. Austen-Leigh and a topaz cross, which Charles Austen sent to Jane in 1801. The topaz cross is believed to be the model for the amber cross given by William to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Jane Austen’s modest lifestyle and her early death mean that objects associated with her of any kind are rare; even her letters were in part destroyed by her family.
Jane Austen showed an appreciation of the significance of jewellery in personal relationships both in her life and in her novels. Furthermore, rings reflected the characters of wearers in her novels and jewels were often much more than symbols of vanity and excess. In Mansfield Park the giving of a jewel and its implications are explored in detail. It was precisely because Jane Austen understood so minutely the social and emotional nuances, including pain and pleasure, which could be associated with a piece of jewellery, and because jewellery has such potency as an intimate possession, that this elegant and appropriately simple ring aroused such interest when its auction was announced last year. Furthermore, the ring under consideration was little known to the present generation of Austen scholars and entirely unknown to the great majority of her readers.
The Committee eventually decided that
… the design of the ring appeared broadly comparable with other rings of the 1760s. There was particular interest in the significance of the use of a turquoise stone in a gold setting. Turquoise was believed to have protective qualities since at least the middle ages and had long been a symbol of love. It was observed that while not one of the more obviously expensive gem stones, such as a ruby or an emerald, the cabochon turquoise was a large example (later on, in the 19th century, it was more usual to find small beads of turquoise set in silver or pinchbeck as well as gold). It was understood that the simple and elegant ring would have been appropriate and befitting of Jane Austen’s status as a member of the Hampshire gentry.
The Committee noted the extreme scarcity of objects associated with Jane Austen. The two pieces of jewellery on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum together with the novelist’s writing slope held by the British Library were the most notable. It was agreed that this elegant and evocative object would be of interest to a wide range of people and that it contained the potential for further research.
The Committee then voted on whether the ring met the Waverley criteria. All eleven members voted that it met the first Waverley criterion. No members voted that it met the second Waverley criterion. One member voted that it met the third Waverley criterion. The ring was therefore found to meet the first Waverley criterion. The Committee then recommended that the sum of £152,450 was a fair matching price and agreed to recommend to the Secretary of State that the decision on the export licence should be deferred for an initial period of two months for that price to be met by public appeal but if, within that period, the Arts Council England received notification of a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the ring, the Committee recommended that there should be a further deferral period of three months. The Jane Austen House Museum launched an appeal to keep the ring in the UK, in line with the terms of the temporary export ban.
And in the first few days of the appeal it soon became apparent that the Museum would succeed; an anonymous donation of £100,000 was made, and the rest of the money soon followed within a month. The ring was therefore saved for the nation and will go on show at the Musuem sometime next year.
Kelly Clarkson was very gracious about it all and issued a statement saying:
The ring is a beautiful national treasure and I am happy to know that so many Jane Austen fans will get to see it.
It seems she was so enamoured of it however, that she commissioned a replica, or something approaching it: the eagle-eyed amongst us spotted her wearing it when she sang at President Obama’s inauguration in January.
Isabella of the excellent The Two Nerdy History Girls blog wrote this interesting post comparing the tone of the reporting of the story on both sides of the Atlantic. It is sad but true that the reporting on both sides of the pond left much to be desired, in my humble opinion. So, to conclude… Kelly Clarkson has been recompensed, the ring has been saved and will now go on display at Chawton Cottage. All very neat…but….I feel some real unease about all this. Whilst I appreciate that there are few objects associated with Jane Austen on public display, this item only recently came to our attention. It is not, as far as I am aware, mentioned in any of Jane’s letters, nor did she make mention of any similar ring in her writings. Unlike her topaze cross which is on display at Chawton, together with a similar one given to Cassandra Austen.
These are, without doubt, very important items. A symbol of Jane’s very fervent faith and of fraternal love, it was clearly highly prized by her. As you probably know these crosses were purchased by Jane’s younger brother, Charles, as gifts for his elder sisters, Jane and Cassandra. He purchased them while he was serving in the Royal Navy and was involved in the capture of a French ship. He received a share of the prize money associated with this capture and used the money to buy the crosses for his sisters. As Jane Austen wrote in her letter to Cassandra of the 27th May, 1801:
Charles… has received £30 for his share of the privateer, and expects £10 more- but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaze crosses for us- he must be well scolded…
Jane Austen seems to have been so understandably touched by this magnificent gesture that some years later she recreated the event in her novel, Mansfield Park. Her heroine, Fanny Price, receives an amber cross from her sailor brother, William:
The ball was now a settled thing, and before the evening a proclaimed thing to all whom it concerned. Invitations were sent with despatch, and many a young lady went to bed that night with her head full of happy cares as well as Fanny. To her the cares were sometimes almost beyond the happiness; for young and inexperienced, with small means of choice and no confidence in her own taste, the “how she should be dressed” was a point of painful solicitude; and the almost solitary ornament in her possession, a very pretty amber cross which William had brought her from Sicily, was the greatest distress of all, for she had nothing but a bit of ribbon to fasten it to; and though she had worn it in that manner once, would it be allowable at such a time in the midst of all the rich ornaments which she supposed all the other young ladies would appear in? And yet not to wear it! William had wanted to buy her a gold chain too, but the purchase had been beyond his means, and therefore not to wear the cross might be mortifying him. These were anxious considerations; enough to sober her spirits even under the prospect of a ball given principally for her gratification.
Mansfield Park, Chapter 26.
There is also a small blue and white beadwork bracelet on show at the Museum, which once belong to Jane Austen.
This is a sweet thing…but we know relatively little about it and its association with Jane Austen, beyond the fact that she owned it. And while I like to see it there, for me it does not have the same resonance as the cross. It is merely something she owned and wore. And that’s my problem with the ring. It was owned by Jane Austen, probably worn by her…and that really is the full sum of it. She didn’t write about it in either books or surviving letters. As far as we know the identity of the person who to gave it to her is unknown. She may even have bought it herself with some of the profits from her novels …but we can’t prove that. And probably never will be able to. The ring’s history of descent through the Austen family is, frankly, as interesting as it gets for me. It does not offer any new insight into Jane Austen’s personality or works. We know she was fashionable person who strove to keep up with trends on a very limited income and appears to have liked jewellery, though she had precious little of it ( admittedly 50% more than we thought 18 months ago).the jewellery she had was not particularly valuable, save for the cross, which without its Austen premium might be valued around the £800-1200 mark (in my humble estimation). So was it wise to spend all that appeal money on saving this ring for a grateful nation? I’m not so sure it was. And might it have been better for Kelly Clarkson to been able to keep it? I tend towards that view. Despise me if you dare.
Kerry Taylor Auctions have a bumper bundle of interesting lots for their next scheduled auction, which will be held on the 3rd December 2013. The first lot that is of note is a set of 18th century wig bellows, Lot 41.
They bear, as you can plainly see, the cypher of King George III, and date from circa 1775.
They are made of mahogany with leather sides and have an ivory tip. They are painted in gold with a crown and the cypher “GR III, 16cm” and measure 6 1/4in long. They would have been used by the king’s valet, as Kerry Taylor tells us:
to administer tinted, scented powder to the wig before it was placed on the Royal head. Wig bellows are rare and Royal ones especially so.
Quite so. The estimate is between £1000-1500. Fascinating.
The next lot to be of interest to us is Lot 46,
a fine broderie anglaise summer gown, circa 1815-20. It has an empire-line bodice,
a skirt hem and sleeve sides trimmed and inset with cutwork lace, cotton tassels and tufts.
The lot also includes a whitework sprigged cotton empire line skirt.
The estimate for this lot is between £800-1200
And finally some garters, dating from the 1820s.
Made of printed and painted satin, they are embellished with scenes which include that of boys and girls at play with dogs, and a girl feeding chickens.
The estimate for this lot, Lot 40 , is between £500-900. I confess…I’d love them ;)
Its been a long time, baby, to quote the Blessed Fat Boy Slim, but here we are, once again gracing the book-strewn halls of Austenonly. Sufficiently recovered to be able to access my computer once more, I thought it was about time we made our re-acquaintance. I hope you have been well and happy in my absence. Many, many Jane Austen-related news items have come and gone while I’ve been recuperating, so, if you don’t mind, over the next few posts, I’m going to take a look at some of them.
The first news item of great note and import was that an image of Jane Austen was to be featured on a new Bank of England banknote.
The date for issue of the note is not too far in the future, 2017, fittingly the year of the 200th anniversary of her death.
Here is a video featuring Chris Salmon, the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England explaining why she was chosen:
I was very surprised by the absolute torrent of misogyny that this announcement generated. Campaigners who had lobbied for a female image to be included on a Bank of England banknote on Twitter were met with a series of unbelievably violent, personally abusive attacks. What would Jane have said? Something cutting no doubt.
The prison reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry was, amazingly, the only woman to be featured thus far, on our banknotes, apart from The Queen, who, of course, always appears on our currency. It is time for more women to be celebrated in this way, IMHO. I am therefore highly delighted that Jane Austen, one of our greatest authors ( I refuse to qualify her in any way as merely a “woman” writer, and all that implies ) is to be commemorated in this way.
The design elements of the banknote, in general, make sense, and include an adaptation of an illustration from a 1976 edition of Pride and Prejudice, shown below from my copy, of Elizabeth Bennet re-reading her sister, Jane’s letters.
The original illustration was by Isabel Bishop, the American illustrator.
However, certain aspects of the design do nag at me a little. And very notably at others who have been most vociferous in their opposition. The first and most noisy debate surrounds the image of Jane Austen on the banknote. Of course, the use of any of the images purporting to be Jane is problematical because we really do not have a good, clear and authenticated portrait of her which was taken in her lifetime. The watercolour image owned by the National Portrait Gallery and painted by Cassandra Austen, which is the only authenticated image we have, was obviously thought to be inappropriate, and, indeed, it might be that it was difficult to render it as an engraved image. This is a pity as I rather prefer this image, with all it faults, to any other. The Bank has decided, instead, to use the Lizar’s engraving of James Andrew’s watercolour portrait of Jane, which was commissioned by Edward Austen-Leigh to be included in the famous memoir he wrote of his aunt and which was published in 1870.
This Victorian image of Jane exercises some people greatly. I don’t mind it, but then I don’t read into it the message that it makes Jane Austen look like a passive, sanitized doll figure. But others take a very different view of it. Look at this account of a debate on last Thursday morning’s Today programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Click this link to to read about it all. Dr Paula Byrne clearly detests this portrait and hated the fact it was chosen to adorn the banknote. Elizabeth Proudman of the Jane Austen Society took a contrary view. Their conversation, which became quite heated, certainly enlivened my breakfast on Thursday morning.
My big gripe however, is with the decision to include an engraving of Jane Austen’s rich brother, Edward Knight’s home in Kent, Godmersham Park. This element is obviously based on the Halsead engraving of 1797 ( my copy is shown below):
and I truly do appreciate that having an engraving of a property which has links to Jane Austen to copy must be a boon for the designers of the banknote. But, for me, it sends all the wrong signals to the general pubic. Jane Austen did not live in such splendour. She was allowed only ever to visit Godmersham. All her life she lived under the protection and on the charity of others: first, her parents and then, after her father’s death in 1805, her brothers. Apart from the income she received from her books in the last years of her life, she had no personal income at all. She lived in much, much less exalted places than her brother’s grand home. Using the Godmersham image seems to reinforce, quite wrongly, the impression some seem to have that she lived in the midst of a very privileged sphere and wrote only about the rich, forgetting that she could and did write about poverty, and, indeed from 1805 onwards lived a precarious life financially. Her depiction of the poor in Emma and moreover the ghastly details of the squalid home and lifestyle of the Price family in Portsmouth in Mansfield Park are details that only someone who had experience of this type of life could have described. Using this rather grand image blurs her real achievement of writing these incomparable novels in the face of some adversity, and reinforces the Quality Street, saccharine view some have of Dear Aunt Jane and her works, in my humble opinion. I would far rather have seen am image of Chawton Cottage. This was a humble dwelling, and moreover one which Jane didn’t ever own, but despite all this, was the safe haven which became the cradle for her creativity.
I am also disappointed in the choice of quotation. The Bank of England has chosen a quote from Pride and Prejudice but one which is uttered by Miss Bingley (of all people!) when she is trying so very desperately to attract Darcy’s attention:
Which sounds great, until you read it in context: here is the expanded quote from Chapter 11:
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book…
I would much rather have preferred the Bank to have used this quote, from a letter Jane Austen wrote to her niece, Fanny Knight, on the 13th March 1817.
Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor…
Which is something I think, may still hold true today, but in any event, using it would have brought into focus Jane Austen’s own situation ( and one that she wrote about so eloquently when depicting poor Miss Bates in Emma.) It may have been too controversial a choice, but would, in my view, have been a better reflection of Jane Austen’s own very clear-eyed assessment of the financial worth of her characters and the role money ( or the lack of it) played in her life.
However, I am still rather pleased she will be honoured and look forward to the day my ATM delivers it to me.
To turn to a slightly different topic, the images we have of Jane Austen may again come under some scrutiny for the water-colour made by James Andrews, which was based on Cassandra Austen’s sketch and approved by those who knew her ( with, it must be admitted, a few reservations) is to be sold at auction at Sothebys in the near future.
Go here to The Guardian site to read all about it. I will, of course, keep an eye on developments. I wonder who will purchase it? The National Portrait Gallery seems the obvious choice, but I daresay the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton would treasure it. But may they have exhausted potential donors goodwill after the recent purchase of Jane Austen’s turquoise ring …? What a fascinating situation, and certainly one to watch. Which brings me rather conveniently to the subject of my next post: that ring and Kelly Clarkson ;)
but the reason why is quite clear…..
I have broken my ankle and have, for the past few weeks, been in a lot of discomfort and have been unable to access my study. Sadly, it is not healing as quickly as I or my consultant would like, but at least the pain is receding. It still needs to be elevated (imagine to yourselves my surprise when I realised that that meant that my foot had to be level with or higher than my nose!) so accessing my study is still not on the agenda.
My wheel chair and zimmer frame skills are still rather rudimentary, but they are improving slowly, and I’m looking forward to the day when my consultant finally (finally!!!) announces I can bear weight on my leg again, and I get back to posting properly here ( and at the Jane Austen House Museum blog!). In the meantime, we have the BBC2 Netherfield Ball programme , “Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball “to look forward to. It will be broadcast on the 10th May and I will be writing about it. There is an informative article about it in today’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, and when this is available on line I will alert you.
So..while my postings won’t yet be as regular as before my accident, I thought I ought to let you know that I am back, if in a slightly reduced capacity!
We have seen in our previous post that an efficient, attentive Master of Ceremonies was essential to the smooth running of the large assemblies. Someone had to maintain control of the company, constituted as it often was in spa towns and resorts, of a constantly changing group of people. In today’s post let’s look at the role of the Master of Ceremonies in some more detail.
In most spas and sea bathing places that had any pretensions to greatness and fashion, the position of Master of Ceremonies was an official one. In Bath, from the time of Beau Nash in the early 18th century there was only one Master of Ceremonies even though from 1771 there were two sets of rooms, the new Upper set and the older Lower set. However, the role was eventually split between two M.Cs in 1777 after the resignation of the sole Master of Ceremonies,Captain Wade, due to his involvement in a scandal ( see below for more details).
The decision as to who would be appointed as the Master of Ceremonies was usually taken in the form of an election, and the evidence from Bath is that they could be hotly and fiercely fought. As the Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1812) tells us:
On the resignation or abdication of this gentleman ( Wade- jfw) in 1777, no less than seven candidates started; who, however, were at last reduced to two, Mr. Brereton and Mr. Dawson; and, as neither party would yield, it was agreed on to appoint two kings with equal rights; but that the one should preside at the Lower, and the other at the Upper or New Rooms. Mr. Brereton was nominated to the former, and Mr. Dawson to the latter.
Those entitled to vote were the subscribers to a particular set of rooms, or the controlling committee. Though the role of Master of Ceremonies was therefore official, and a beautiful badge of honour was supplied to the Bath M.C.s to distinguish them ( go here to see a portrait of William Dawson, the Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms from 1777-1786: wearing his bade. His badge of office is still in the collection of the City of Bath) it might interest you to note that the Bath M.Cs were not paid an official salary. Instead, they were entitled to share the receipts from four benefit balls held every year. From 1771 two benefit balls were held in the Lower and two in the Upper Rooms every year and the Master of Ceremonies kept all the receipts. It was in his best interests therefore to makes sure these assemblies were popular with The COmpany in the town and were well attended. It is quite simple equasion: more happy people at a ball, more income for the M.C.
The eventual appointment of two Master of Ceremonies in Bath meant two badges of office and again we have this description from The Guide to all the Watering places etc (1812):
Mr. Tyson’s medallion is of gold, enamelled and enriched with brilliants, on one side displaying a figure of Minerva, over which is the motto Decus et Tutamen, and under, Dulce est desipere in loco; on the reverse Arbiter Elegantiardm. Oct. 1777, decorated with leaves of laurel and palm.
Mr. King’s medallion is also of fine gold, enamelled blue, and enriched with brilliants, having on one side a raised figure of Venus, with a golden apple in one hand and a rudder in the other: the motto Venus dccens. The reverse is a wreath of laurel, with the words, Arbiter elegantiardm, Communi consensu.
So, what did being a Master of Ceremonies entail? What were his duties? The amateur Master of Ceremonies had to act in exactly the same manner as a professional one, keeping the peace in the public rooms and assemblies, enforcing the Assembly rules and making sure everything ran smoothly. He was simultaneously diplomat, judge, arbiter of fashion and policeman… Here is a contemporary take on their role by Jospeh Moser:
… introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls pouting; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions. He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands: but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life.
( See The Sports of Ancient London. The Sporting Magazine 1807. )
The Bath Masters of Ceremonies could also supplement their incomes by becoming Masters of Ceremonies at different spas or resorts. This was due to the length of the Bath season, which ran from October to May. The seasons at the other spas and sea bathing places usually ran from June to September, though it could vary in detail from rooms to rooms in these provincial resorts. This system can be illustrated by looking at the career of James King, the Master of Ceremonies whom Jane Austen mentions by name in Northanger Abbey, and who effected the introduction between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. He was the Master of Ceremonies at the Lower rooms from 1785. In 1805 he became the Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms. But he was also the Master of Ceremonies at another spa with which Jane Austen was familiar. He served, during their summer season, at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire from 1803 until his death in 1816.
The Bath Masters of Ceremonies were often suave and handsome figures and it was not unknown for them to be involved in affairs of the heart. Perhaps the most famous of these is Captain Wade, due to his being immortalised in this magnificent portrait by Thomas Gainsborough which hangs in the Great Octagon Card Room of the Upper Rooms:
He was the Master of Ceremonies at Bath when the new, magnificent Upper Rooms were built. As a result he became the of Master of Ceremonies of both the Lower and the Upper Rooms, and took up his post at the new rooms in September 1771 when they opened. However, he had to resign his post as Master of Ceremonies in Bath in 1777 after he was involved in
an affair of gallantry
as Pierce Egan in Walk’s Though Bath (1819) coyly describes it. What had happened was that in July 1777 Wade was named in the divorce proceedings of Elizabeth Eustatia Campbell and her husband, John Hooke Campbell. He was forced to resign his post as Master of Ceremonies at Bath due to the scandal. However, Wade’s attachment to Elizabeth Campbell continued and following the death in 1787 of his first wife, Katherine with whom he had five children, he and Elizabeth were married on 30 June 1787 at St Marylebone, London. Wade had held the post of M.C at Bath and at Brighton since 1767 and on being made to leave Bath, he became full-time Master of Ceremonies at Brighton where he reigned over the principal assemblies at the Castle and the Old Ship Inns. He also issued a set of rules intended to regulate the behaviour of the company in the town and in 1787 . for example, he prohibited the playing of games on the Steine, which was an open space in the town set just in front of the Prince of Wales’ home the Pavilion, and a scene of fashionable promenading. By 1806 he was in dispute with the Old Ship and as a result, form then on, presided only at assemblies at the Castle Inn. Wade’s last season was 1807, and he died at his home in New Street on 16 March 1809.
If the room’s committee permitted it , some provincial M.Cs could also split their duties between two sets of rooms. Charles Le Bas, shown below,
was the Master of Ceremonies of both sets of assembly rooms in the nearby towns of Margate and Ramsgate in Kent. Ramsgate was of course, the scene of Georgiana Darcy’s near disaster, the sea-bathing resort from which Wickham attempted to elope with her, an attempt that was happily, not successful.
Poor Mr le Bas. He succeeded Richard Tyson as Master of Ceremonies of the Lower Rooms in Bath in 1805. But, the Lower Rooms were becoming very unpopular, and most of the Company preferred to spend their time at the new, more fashionable, Upper Rooms in the more fashionable part of Bath. The poor attendance at the Lower Rooms made it financially impossible to support a separate Master of Ceremonies. The monies raised from the benefit balls could not support two such officials. And so, after struggling on for three years, he had to resign.
In small towns like Meryton, no official would have been paid to act as Master of Ceremonies, and in many smaller towns where everyone knew each other, it would not have appeared necessary to appoint one. But, if the rooms did need consider they needed one then often a local gentleman would be asked to preside. For example, in the small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, the nearest town to his estate at Chatsworth, William the fourth Duke of Devonshire presided at their assemblies as Master of Ceremonies. Mrs Lybbe Powys, a friend of Jane Austen’s aunt and uncle the Leigh Perrots, described in her diary just how active he was in the role when she visited the town in the mid 18th century:
On the Wednesday, having dined early, we set off in different carriages, and seven gentlemen on horseback for the course, about three, came back to tea about eight. Sir Harry Hemloak, his two sisters, and more company returned with us, and about ten we went to the Assembly Room, where The Duke of Devonshire always presided as master of the ceremonies, and after the ball gave an elegant cold supper, where, by his known politeness and affability, it would be unnecessary for me to say how amiable he made himself to the company.
Interestingly, if a committee of patronesses organised the assemblies then one of their number would be asked to preside over the running of the assemblies. Girl power, indeed.
Our friend Thomas Wilson, dancing master of the King’s Theatre in London, in the chapter, Etiquette of the Ballroom in his book The Complete System of Country Dancing (1813) and a Master of Ceremonies himself, gave explicit and minutely detailed instructions as to how an amateur master of ceremonies should conduct himself, and order the night. For example,
When the ball commences the company should not leaves their places or rest till after the second dance. Should the sets be short they may dance three dances before they rest. During the remainder of the evening it is the business of the Master of Ceremonies to direct the company as to the proper time for resting….
He also realised the Master of Ceremonies should be easily recognisable and thus :
The Master of Ceremonies should wear a sash or some other conspicuous ensignia, to distinguish him from the rest of the company
He also has this to say to prospective Masters of Ceremonies as a warning:
Persons should be very careful in taking upon themselves the office of Master of Ceremonies unless properly and fully qualifies for that office,as they take upon themselves very great responsibility
So, would Meryton have had a Master of Ceremonies at their assemblies ?Jane Austen does not mention one, but…does it not occur to you that Sir William Lucas, that civil man about that particular town, might have been the prefect candidate? He was courteous to a fault and had little to do now he had prematurely retired, “unshackled by business” as Jane Austen terms it:
Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, quitting them both, he had removed with his family to an house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James’s had made him courteous.
and he does take an interest in how people dance:
At that moment Sir William Lucas appeared close to them, meaning to pass through the set to the other side of the room; but on perceiving Mr. Darcy he stopt with a bow of superior courtesy to compliment him on his dancing and his partner.
”I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear sir. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you, and that I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially when a certain desirable event, my dear Miss Eliza (glancing at her sister and Bingley) shall take place. What congratulations will then flow in! I appeal to Mr. Darcy — but let me not interrupt you, sir. You will not thank me for detaining you from the bewitching converse of that young lady, whose bright eyes are also upbraiding me.”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 18
I will admit that against this argument is the fact that Bingley suggested that Jane Bennet might introduce Darcy to Elizabeth at the Assembly, not the Master of Ceremonies:
“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.
”Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you…
Pride and Prejudice Chapter 3
But, nevertheless, I like to think that Sir William might have take this role upon himself, as I think with all his experience at court (!!) and with his ample leisure time and determined to be civil to all the world he was the prefect candidate. My opinion only…Despise me if you dare…;)
I am absolutely delighted with them :
The pack is very well presented, as you can clearly see, and contains some very good biographical information
and a short essay on Pride and Prejudice written by P. D. James:
The postcards are also very lovely, as you can clearly see:
I have another set- of both the post cards and the presentation pack with the complete set of stamps- and you may be pleased to note that I will be adding them to the steadily growing pile of gifts for this year’s anniversary giveaway in December ;) If you would like to order your own set, ( or, indeed, sets!) you can do so by clicking on this link to the Royal Mail website, here.
I think we imagine that each set of assembly rooms operated on similar lines, but that really was not the case: each set of rooms would have its own standards of behaviour and level of social acceptability. And, accordingly, the social mix of The Company- those admitted to the social events at the assembly rooms- varied considerably.
Beau Nash, who was the Master of Ceremonies at Bath in the early 18th century, had a very catholic and comprehensive attitude to the company there. He forbade all private parties but invited everyone to the Assembly House for dinners, teas, breakfast concerts and balls provided that two conditions could be met. These were that the Company would be made up of:
people of every degree, condition and occupation of life, if well dressed and well behaved.
He was also wise enough to realise that such a potent mix of people had to be regulated in some way and so he created his influential Rules by General Consent. His rules were displayed ( and still are!) in the Pump Room, below, where, of course, every family wishing to take part in the activities of the town announced their arrival in Bath by adding their names to the “subscription book” kept there for that purpose.
Their names were also subsequently listed in the local newspapers. The subscription book was kept by an employee of the Bath Corporation( the first known was a Mrs Porter)and paying the subscription fee of 2 guineas procured three tickets to the twice weekly balls. Note that in addition, Nash took it upon himself to visit every family who attended the city to make certain everyone understood what was expected of them and to see if they would be acceptable members of The Company. His rules were somewhat capricious, but they certainly make strong points about the standard of behaviour and dress required:
That a visit of ceremony at first coming, and another at going away, are all that are expected or desired by ladies of quality and fashion–except impertinents.
That ladies coming to the ball appoint a time for their footmen coming to wait on them home, to prevent disturbance and inconvenience to themselves and others.
That gentlemen of fashion never appearing in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps show breeding and respect.
That no person take it ill that anyone goes to another’s play or breakfast and not theirs; except captious by nature.
That no gentleman give his ticket for the balls to any but gentlewomen. N.B.–Unless he has none of his acquaintance.
That gentlemen crowding before the ladies at the ball show ill manners; and that none do so for the future except such as respect nobody but themselves.
That no gentleman or lady takes it ill that another dances before them except such as have no pretence to dance at all.
That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at a ball, as being past or not come to perfection.
That the younger ladies take notice how many eyes observe them.
That all whisperers of lies or scandal be taken for their authors.
That all repeaters of such lies and scandal be shunned by the company; except such as have been guilty of the same crime.
Other important Assembly Rooms were run by professional master of ceremonies, like Nash, but most small, provincial assembly rooms, like the Meryton set, would have been organised by amateurs: a local chap might act as Master of Ceremonies( more on this later) or a committee of local patrons or patronesses might have organised the balls and enforced the rules. In my copy of The Complete System of English Country Dancing by Thomas Wilson, in his chapter entitled The Etiquette of the Ballroom, he gives very detailed instructions to prospective masters of ceremonies as to how an assembly should be run so as to avoid any unnecessary problems with dress or behavior. Thomas Wilson was the dancing master at the Kings Theatre in London at the turn of the 18th century, but in addition to this post he frequently organised public balls and his rules do seem to have been written from hard won experience. For example:
Gentlemen are not permitted to enter a Ball room in boots,spurs, gaiters, trowseres(sic) or with canes or sticks: nor are loose pantaloons considered proper for a Full Dress Ball.
He also sagely advises;
To preserve the greater order and to prevent disputes , it is advisable that the proprietors or the conductors of Public Balls and Assemblies should have the foregoing etiquette, particularly so much of it as relates to the company ,written and hung up in some conspicuous part of the room during such evenings as the Balls or Assemblies maybe held.
But, of course human nature being what it is, Assemblies did not always work out in the democratic way that Nash envisaged. For example in York, Whig families patronised Thursday night assemblies and Tory families attended Monday night assemblies.The Company in that town was clearly divided on political lines. The “company” in Derby took social segregation to extremes. This assembly room was under the control of a committee of Lady Patronesses ( who were Dorothy Every; Elizabeth Eyre; Bridget Baily and Hester Mundy)and it had quite strict rules regarding attendance.
No attorneys clerk shall be admitted
No shopkeeper or any of his family shall be admitted except Mr Franceys.
No lady shall be allowed to dance in a white apron
All young ladies in Mantuas shall pay 2/6d
No Miss in a coat shall dance without the Leave of the Lady of the Assembly
Whosoever shall transgress these rule shall be turned out of the assembly.
But they had not reckoned on Mr Franceys, mentioned in the second of three rules. He was a very rich Derby apothecary who entertained very lavishly at his home on the market place in the town. Even though he was exempted from the Lady Patronesses’ snobbery, he disliked their scheme for attendance so much that he established a second set of rooms which was for the use of all those who were not admitted to the first : that is, people in trade and the unfortunate attorney’s clerks! The same sort of situation existed in Lincoln, which is, as any one who has been there knows, dominated by the vertiginous Steep Hill at the top of the town which was the administrative and social centre, for the castle, law courts and cathedral were all to be found at plateau at the top of the hill. The members of the county set met at the Assemblies held at the top of the hill: the people of the city (traders) met at a second assembly room built at the bottom of the hill. And never the twain did meet.
The rooms at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (the Atheneum, see the Ballroom above ) were also strictly segregated reading class as this passage taken from Volume XIV of The Beauties of England and Wales by Frederic Shoberl makes abundantly clear:
At the south side of the open place known as Angel Hill stand the Assembly Rooms, a newly erected building of simple exterior. Teh ballroom is well proportioned…The three balls held annually during the great fair in October, are in general attended by great numbers of persons of the first rank and fashion as are also the four or five winter balls; but trades-people, however respectable and opulent, are rigourously excluded. It has been universally remarked that there is not perhaps a town in the kingdom where the pride of birth,even though conjoined with poverty’s so tenaciously and so ridiculously maintained as at Bury.
The tone suggests that the author was quite disgusted by this exlusivelity. But what sort of company was there at Meryton? In chapter 4 of Pride and Prejudice we are given Bingley( who is rich from his father’s efforts in trade, but not landed) and Darcy’s thoughts on the assembly:
The manner in which they spoke of the Meryton assembly was sufficiently characteristic. Bingley had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life; everybody had been most kind and attentive to him; there had been no formality, no stiffness; he had soon felt acquainted with all the room; and as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful. Darcy, on the contrary, had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the smallest interest, and from none received either attention or pleasure. Miss Bennet he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much.
In chapter 5 we learn that in addition to the Bennets,the Lucases and Miss King, Mrs Long and a Mr Robinson were also at the assembly. Mrs Long , Mrs Bennet’s friend cannot afford to keep a carriage. Perhaps she was the widow of a tradesperson, and Mr Robinson associated with trade too? In any event it appears, to me at least, that the Meryton assembly seems to have been an inclusive rather than an exclusive group. And perhaps this was what helped form Darcy’s poor opinion of the evening? Perhaps he would have had a better time had he travelled to Suffolk, or nearer to home at Derby….
The Upper Rooms in Bath were probably the most magnificent set of rooms in England and Wales. Situated in the fashionable, upper part of the town, they were and are, quite magnificent to behold. But what went on at a winter assembly there, and how did it differ from assemblies held in provincial towns such as Meryton. Let’s find out.
The Bath Winter Assemblies, part of the Bath Winter season which ran from October each year, began at six o ‘ clock in the evening when the guests began to arrive and the musicians were scheduled to begin to play the minuets that made up the first dances of the evening. Some guests arrived by carriage but most of the company arrived either on foot ( if they were men) or by sedan chair ( or, as it was often referred to simply as a “chair”) if they were women or infirm. Because of Bath’s hilly terrain the chair was the preferred mode of transport, and in this floor plan of the Upper Rooms, below, you can clearly see the area set aside for the chairs and the chairmen to set down their passengers- a colonnade, where they would wait for the evening to end. It was rather similar to a taxi rank today, which similarly can be found near place of entertainment in towns.
Most of the attendees would have paid for their entrance ticket by way of a subscription, especially if they were staying in Bath for some time. You can see the terms upon which subscriptions ticked were issued during the season of 1811-12 below:
On arrival the guests would deposit their cloaks or coats at the Cloakroom, which you can see was situated to the right of the entrance vestibule ( where the gift/bookshop shop is now to be found ). Those not interested in dancing, or merely watching and listening to the music would make their way directly to The Card Room, as Mr Allen did in Northanger Abbey, where they could gamble the night away:
Mrs. Allen was so long in dressing that they did not enter the ballroom till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr. Allen, he repaired directly to the card–room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves.
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 2
But those intending to dance would turn left into the magnificent ballroom. This very large, double-height room had four large fireplaces, five magnificent crystal chandeliers lit with many candles, all hanging from the high ceiling, which together with candles set into mirrored griandoles which were hung on the walls, illuminated the room. At a time when light was a luxury this must have been a magnificent sight, though probably to our modern eyes it would probably not seem very brilliant at all.
The walls were set around with benches, sometimes there were up to four tiers of them as you can see from the illustration, below:
These benches were also mentioned by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey: poor Catherine Morland mistakenly thinks she will be easily be able to get a seat in the ballroom of the Upper Rooms but, due to their late arrival, caused by Mrs Allen preoccupation with dressing for the evening, that was not to be:
…she had imagined that when once fairly within the door, they should easily find seats and be able to watch the dances with perfect convenience. But this was far from being the case, and though by unwearied diligence they gained even the top of the room, their situation was just the same; they saw nothing of the dancers but the high feathers of some of the ladies. Still they moved on — something better was yet in view; and by a continued exertion of strength and ingenuity they found themselves at last in the passage behind the highest bench. Here there was something less of crowd than below; and hence Miss Morland had a comprehensive view of all the company beneath her, and of all the dangers of her late passage through them.
From six to eight o’clock minuets danced by single couples were performed before the scrutiny of the company. In this great room between 500-600 could watch the scene but on special occasions this number could rise to over 800. Note there were no fire regulations or health and safety concerns limiting attendance numbers in those days, and the crush could have been very uncomfortable, as Catherine Morland discovered:
With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégée, Mrs. Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly. But to her utter amazement she found that to proceed along the room was by no means the way to disengage themselves from the crowd; it seemed rather to increase as they went on…Still they moved on — something better was yet in view; and by a continued exertion of strength and ingenuity they found themselves at last in the passage behind the highest bench. Here there was something less of crowd than below; and hence Miss Morland had a comprehensive view of all the company beneath her, and of all the dangers of her late passage through them. It was a splendid sight, and she began, for the first time that evening, to feel herself at a ball
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 2
At eight o’clock the country dances began and were performed by the musicians in the Musicians Gallery, which you can see on the floor plan, above . This section of the evening lasted for an hour, till nine o’clock when the company retired to the Tea Room for refreshments of tea, coffee and small items of food. The food and drink was served to the company by waiters, who served the refreshments to the company from long trestle tables set behind the columns under the musicians gallery in the room. Poor Catherine Morland’s experience of tea in this room was rather uncomfortable, socially, despite the grand surroundings :
Everybody was shortly in motion for tea, and they must squeeze out like the rest. Catherine began to feel something of disappointment — she was tired of being continually pressed against by people, the generality of whose faces possessed nothing to interest, and with all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted that she could not relieve the irksomeness of imprisonment by the exchange of a syllable with any of her fellow captives; and when at last arrived in the tea–room, she felt yet more the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim, no gentleman to assist them. They saw nothing of Mr. Allen; and after looking about them in vain for a more eligible situation, were obliged to sit down at the end of a table, at which a large party were already placed, without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to, except each other.
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 2.
The company then returned to the Card Room or to the Ballroom when the dancing of country dances resumed until eleven o’clock when everything stopped. In Bath the assemblies stopped at this early hour in mid dance if necessary. The company then collected their coats from the cloakroom, and then waited at the entrance for their chair or carriage to arrive to take them home. Less formal “fancy “or “cotillion” balls were also held at the Rooms: these balls were distinguished from Dress balls by the fact that minuets were not danced at these types of balls.
In the provincial towns other than Bath the assemblies differed in that minuets were seldom, if ever, performed. Interestingly the summer was the most important time for assemblies in the provincial towns. They were larger and more prestigious, and often coincided with important local events such as fairs, the assizes or races week in the towns. The assizes was the time in the year when the Circuit judges appeared in town to hear locally important civil and criminal trials and they were a time of much entertaining and ceremony. The same held with any local horse racing meeting( without the pomp of the judges’ processions etc). Here is an advert from the Stamford Mercury of 1766 advertising two assembly balls (and a concert) during its race week:
By far the grandest of these weeks was the horse racing week in York ( now known as the Ebor meet) when the town was occupied by local aristocrats and gentry arrived from the surrounding countryside , small towns and villages and from Town, taking up residence in their smart town houses, like Fairfax House, to attend the round of racing, concerts and assemblies in the assembly room. For that week the number of the musicians in the York assembly rooms were increased from five to ten, and tickets were sold so that those who wanted to could observe the dancing etc from the gallery above the ballroom.
In the winter provincial assemblies were held monthly, coinciding with the time of the full moon so that the company could travel when there might be some natural illumination in the sky to make their journey to and form the assembly less perilous. And these assemblies often began much later than six o clock as was the norm in Bath.As a result hey continued into the small hours of the morning.
Like the Bath assemblies tea,coffee and light refreshments were provided at the provincial assemblies. A supper served with wine and other alcoholic drinks was recovered for very special occasions such as assemblies held to celebrate the King’s Birthday or for assembles held during a general election.
The Meryton Assembly is seen as a perfect place for Jane Austen to introduce the rich, new-comers in the area to her cast of Merytonians, and to us. This was exactly what happened in real life. New visitors to towns or spas could meet people at assemblies, and the Master of Ceremoines( of whom more later) could be asked to make introductions. Something Mrs Allen, Catherine Morland’s useless chaperone in Northanger Abbey failed to manage at the visit to the Upper Rooms: the situation changed for the better in the Lower Rooms:
They made their appearance in the Lower Rooms; and here fortune was more favourable to our heroine. The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck.
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 3
Eliza de Feuillide, Jane Austen’s dazzling cousin, wrote of the sad state of affirms in Lowestoft in Suffolk when she was living there in 1797 with her husband Henry Austen, Jane Austen’s brother. Henry was stationed in Lowestoft, with the Oxfordshire Militia. The threat of invasion from France and the rest of Europe was real and intense at this time, and the Militia ‘s object was to defend the vulnerable low-lying East coast of England from attack. There were no assembly rooms in the town, so the opportunities for meeting new friends was limited:
This place (Lowestoft-jfw) still contains a good many families but as there are no Rooms there is no opportunity of getting acquainted with them( there is a PLay House but I have not yet been there) however I am not in total solitude for there are three families here with whom I am acquainted and what with walking, occasionally driving over to Yarmouth with which I am delighted, and plenty of Books to say nothing of dipping in the Sea ,(which) I detest, I contrive to fill up my time tolerably & for Hastings( her son’s-jfw) sake and that of my own bathing from which I mean to reap great benefit I shall remain here till ye 12th of next month, when I shall once more repair to the great City…
(See: Jane Austen’s Outlandish Cousin, by Deirdre Le Faye, page 149)
Next in this series, the Master Of Ceremonies.Who was he and what he did ….
The Real Jane Austen, aye there’s the rub. Who was the real Jane Austen? I often think there are as many “Jane Austens” out there as there are fans of her works. We all seem to interpret her in our own fashion and, some would argue, in our own image. We think we know her by reading her novels, her letters( an extraordinary resource of information and opinion),the memories of her family, viewing her portrait on display at the National Portrait Gallery or when it adorns numerous souvenirs, visiting her house, seeing her possessions on show .But…do we? Many phrases in her novels and letters are so opaque and capable of various interpretations, do we ever really get to know her true opinions? The sketches of her by her sister, Cassandra are clearly merely that: sketches and only one of these show us her face. This is the crucial problem for biographers of Jane Austen. Despite seemingly abundant primary and secondary sources, she still remains elusive. As Paula Bryne readily acknowledges:
Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of Shakespeare -the one author whom, according to her admiring early reviewers, she stands second, and another figure whose image, like Austen’s, is a matter of fierce controversy. Austen left no intimate diaries, or revelatory notebooks.The vast majority of her letters are lost. Correspondence is infuriatingly lacking in so many key periods-residence in Bath, the two years leading up to her first appearance in print, the moment of her move from Egerton to Murray. Besides, the novels and the letters can never be fully pinned down. She keeps her face turned away from us
And though biographies of Jane Austen seem plentiful, it might astonish you to realise that the last full-length biography of Jane Austen was that written by Claire Tomalin, and it was published 15 years ago. The information that has emerged about Jane Austen in the intervening years has been extensively covered in the press, the reports of both JASNA and the JAS and the blogs. This book then may not hold many startlingly new pieces of information (For example, the point about Jane Austen’s use of Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist writings especially with regard to the character of Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park was a point I made in correspondence with Paula Byrne over six years ago), therefore while there may be not much new to discover there is much to dissect, and what we have here is a new interpretation of the facts, presented in a different style to the norm, and that, I think, must be its appeal.
How then is this book different? Paula Byrne quite disarmingly tells us ab initio, that she acknowledges that lives of Jane Austen are plentiful, and she refuses to write another ”womb to tomb” epistle. So instead of a chronological tale of Jane’s life she has chosen, instead, to write a series of essays.These essays ( or chapters) are inspired by Georgian objects, some directly associated with the author ;The Topaz Crosses, her writing slope, the vellum notebooks containing her juvenilia etc. And with some that are not : A watercolour of Lyme, a Georgian bathing machine, a barouche. Adopting this technique enables Paula Byrne to concentrate on differing aspects of Jane’s life in an almost novel way, and the essays are interesting, particularly if you like Paula Byrne’s style, which I do. I fully enjoyed her previous books -on Jane Austen and the theatre, “Perdita” the life of the actress/poet Mary Robinson and “Mad World” the story of Evelyn Waugh and the Lygon family of Madresfield. This book is very readable, Paula Byrne has a lively and accessible style.
Most Janeites will want to read this book as a matter of course, to add to the existing numbers of biographies of our favourite author to be found on our groaning library shelves, and I think they will enjoy it, even if they don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s conclusions for the fact before her. And while I enjoyed reading the book in the main, I do think some of the arguments made in it were taken slightly too far. For example, I am not convinced by the arguments for her contention that in Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park we have a portrait of an homosexual, who may not, as a consequence, father an heir to the Mansfield estate, leaving the path clear for Fanny and Edmund to inherit.
The portrait of Miss Jane Austin which Paula Byrne owns and which was the subject of a BBC documentary broadcast last year has a small part to play in this new book in the chapter devoted to her life as a professional writer,and her publisher, John Murray (The Royalty Cheque). Sadly, no new evidence about the portrait has emerged. No more light can be thrown on its troubled provenance and the true identity of its sitter remains elusive.
One of my biggest problems with this book relates to its design. We are given very good, indeed quite beautiful, full-colour photographs of each of the items which inspired each of the chapters( and on reflection, it might have been better to show us the whole of the balcony in the chapel at Stoneleigh, not just a single crimson cushion, given its importance to the composition of the Sotherton episode in Mansfield Park) But, in addition, we are also given simple black and white line drawings of the items, each occupying a whole page. For me they added nothing to the look or to our interpretation of these items, and I feel it would have been better to have bound the relevant, individual colour plate alongside the corresponding chapter. For me these simplistic line drawings slightly diminished the impact of Paula Byrne’s prose, suggesting almost a children’s story-book approach. I felt they broke the rhythm of reading the book. But then that may just be my reaction, brought about by my intense interest in book illustration.
For readers new to Austen I feel that reading this book might not be so helpful, a “womb to tomb” account of Jane Austen’s life might suit their purposes better. They might therefore prefer to begin with a chronological account of Jane Austen’s life to ground themselves in the facts and the sequence of her life before they avail themselves of this new book and its interesting interpretations.
Finally and very properly, I ought to tell you, in accordance with my Review Policy, that the publishers very kindly sent me a review copy of this book, and I did not ,as is my usual practise, buy it myself.
“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 3
Oh, dear…the unreconstructed Darcy at his worst. He didn’t make many friends that evening at the Meryton Assembly did he?
But, do you ever wonder about the nature of pubic assemblies and how they began? Assembly Rooms epitomise , for me at least, certain aspects of Georgian life which have disappeared for ever: public assemblies of the company, where local people -often of differing social classes- could socialise, dance ( in the Ballroom), gamble ( in the Card Room) and take fashionable refreshments ( in the Tea Room). If the intricacies of this type of entertainment has ever intrigued you while reading Jane Austen, then this next short series of posts is for you. Let’s look at how they began, developed, the sort of rooms they begat, their rules and the personnel involved, and the ones Jane Austen knew.(Well, that should keep us busy for the next few days….)
The fashion for public assemblies- balls where people from the genteel or trade classes in an area could meet together to socialise in an elegant environment -began in the early 18th century. The first assemblies were where genteel people met for conversation, taking tea and playing cards. Dancing was added to the agenda soon after, and during the 1720s this type of assembly became very, very popular. These first public assemblies were held in any large room or building which could accommodate a great gathering of people who wanted to dance country dances. The very nature of these dances called for a long room, that is longer than it was wide. An example of an existing building being adapted for use for assemblies, is the Guildhall in Boston, Lincolnshire. In early 18th century Boston assemblies were held not in a specially built set of assembly rooms but in “The Big Room” in the Guildhall, a building which was originally built in the 14th century. The room was newly fitted out with sash windows, it had a first floor gallery for the musicians and it had benches fitted around the walls to accommodate those not dancing. This was to become the pattern for ballrooms in sets of assembly rooms all over the country. Here, below, is an illustration by Rowlandson from my copy of The Poetical Sketches of Scarborough,(1813) and it contains many elements with which we are familiar from reading Jane Austen’s descriptions of balls. Let’s look at the print in some detail. You can see that the ballroom is separated from the tea room and the card room by arches; the musicians are above the company in a gallery, just visible to the right of the picture:
You can also see that those not dancing are promenading about, and some are sitting on benches arranged around the walls, to the rear of the picture , under the curtained windows. There are chaperones, older men and couples. Note the presence of a clergyman -dressed in black, centre front- dancing, just like Mr Collins would do at the Netherfield Ball. And also note the presence of children, to the right of the picture, exactly as Jane Austen describes in this scene from her unfinished fragment, The Watsons. The assembly scene in this fragment is full of exquisite details, and confirms that the presence of young children was a usual thing. In this scene, quoted below, the young boy, Charles, is disappointed when Miss Osbourne quite unfeelingly fails to dance with him preferring instead to dance with Colonel Beresford, despite having previously promised Charles a dance:
If the poor little boy’s face had in its happiness been interesting to Emma, it was infinitely more so under this sudden reverse; he stood the picture of disappointment, with crimsoned cheeks, quivering lips, and eyes bent on the floor. His mother, stifling her own mortification, tried to soothe his with the prospect of Miss Osborne’s second promise; but though he contrived to utter, with an effort of boyish bravery, “Oh, I do not mind it!” it was very evident, by the unceasing agitation of his features, that he minded it as much as ever.
Emma did not think or reflect; she felt and acted. “I shall be very happy to dance with you, sir, if you like it,” said she, holding out her hand with the most unaffected good-humour. The boy, in one moment restored to all his first delight, looked joyfully at his mother; and stepping forwards with an honest and simple “Thank you, ma’am,” was instantly ready to attend his new acquaintance. The thankfulness of Mrs. Blake was more diffuse; with a look most expressive of unexpected pleasure and lively gratitude, she turned to her neighbour with repeated and fervent acknowledgments of so great and condescending a kindness to her boy. Emma, with perfect truth, could assure her that she could not be giving greater pleasure than she felt herself; and Charles being provided with his gloves and charged to keep them on, they joined the set which was now rapidly forming, with nearly equal complacency…
It is very apparent that Jane Austen knew, from her descriptions of balls and assemblies in her novels, that people not only found happiness, but sometimes humiliations in these places.
Back to assemblies…It soon became clear that these assemblies were an ideal place for a marriage market to thrive. Daniel Defoe in his Tour of Great Britain (1727) was appalled by this aspect of assembly balls. In his withering comments made on the Winchester and the Dorset assemblies, you can clearly see that he was not at all impressed. With regard to the assemblies in Winchester, where the gentry and wealthy clergy mixed, he dourly and ironically noted that:
As there is such good company, so they are gotten into that new-fashioned way of conversing by Assemblies. I shall do no more than mention them here: they are pleasant and agreeable to the young people,and sometime fatal to them, of which in its place Winchester has its share of the mirth: may it escape the ill consequences…
In Dorset he noted that the ladies:
…do not want the Help of Assemblies to assist in match-making; or half pay officer to run away with their daughters…
Mrs Bennet ought, perhaps,to have taken note.
These assemblies became, quite understandably, very popular, despite Defoe’s misgivings, and soon they developed from being held in rooms in existing buildings or inns(as in the Crown in Emma) to being put on in purpose-built sets of Assembly Rooms, and these began to spring up in towns all over the country. The earliest purpose-built rooms to survive are those in Stamford in Lincolnshire, which I wrote about, here .
You can see , in the picture of the ballroom, above, the raised dais for the musicians,( a development of the late 18th century), the benches set around the walls, the fireplaces to keep people warm and the magnificent chandeliers to provide an expensive and beautiful illumination to the room. Compare it to the Scarborough picture above, and you will find many common elements. This set was first built in 1726.
Lord Burlington designed the Assembly Rooms in York, and they were built between 1728-30, but sadly they were a triumph of form over function.
The ballroom was a beautiful but rather impractical design: a recreation of an “Egyptian Hall”, which you can see here, below, hosting a modern “Georgian Ball”:
The room, though stunningly beautiful, originally had no gallery for the musicians and no heating. Chaperones and spectators had to view the dancing through the colums which lined the area for dancing, and when benches were eventually introduced to make their watch more comfortable, they made the space rather cramped. The area for dancing also disappointed: at 28 feet wide it was rather too narrow for the two parallel sets of dancers which was the norm for large assemblies.
The purpose-built assembly rooms nearly always followed a similar pattern: here is the floor-plan of the Upper Rooms at Bath, as designed by John Wood, and you can clearly see the large ballroom with its musicians gallery, the separate card room (which also had a musicians gallery),where Mr Allen in Northanger Abbey took refuge from the dancing and talk of muslins, and the tea room where refreshments could be taken. Note also the colonnade for the sedan chairs used so profusely in the Bath terrain, and the separate entrance for carriages.
Similar smaller sets of rooms were found in many provincial towns and many had impressive features, for their object was to promote not only the impression that the rooms were a place of enjoyment but, importantly, were also an elegant place for “the company” to gather together. Hertford, which we have seen was most probably the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Meryton, had the impressive Shire Hall, below:
This large building, designed by the architect, Robert Adam’s brother, James, was multi-purpose. It not only houses a ballroom where dances took place, but the courts where criminal and civil cases were (and are) heard. Very handy for Sir William Lucas,as we shall see later in this series;)
Next, how these rooms were used.
You may care to know that Simon Langton, shown below talking to Lucy Scott the actress who played Charlotte Lucas, and who was
the director of the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Pejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, is going to give a talk about that experience at Chawton House on the 18th April at 7p.m.
Here are all the details from the Chawton House press release:
To Celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice acclaimed film and TV director Simon Laongton will discuss directing the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and prejudice starring COlin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA, as well as other costume dramas which he has been involved with throughout his prolific career. Simon Langton was nominated for both a BAFTA award in the UK and an Emmy award in the USA for his 1982 dramatisation of the John le Carré novel, Simley’s People. He later won a BAFTA award for the 1989 series, Mother Love, starring Diana Rigg. Other productions include The Scarlet Pimpernel; Upstairs Downstairs; Jeeves and Wooster; the Duchess of Duke Street and Anna Karenina with Christopher Reeve. He continues to direct British drama, most recently with a number of episodes of Rosemary and Thyme, Foyles War and Midsomer Murders. An intimate supper with Simon Langton at Chawton House Library will follow the lecture; tickets are
available for the lecture or lecture with supper.
If you want to book tickets for the lecture, or lecture and supper then please do contact Chawton House at Chawton House Library,
Chawton, Alton, Hampshire, GU34 1SJ; Tel: 01420 541010