To conclude the series of posts about the life of Jane Austen in Bath I thought I would lighten the mood by ending with some details of the music, the type of fireworks and illuminations Jane Austen would have seen and heard at the galas she attended at the Sydney Gardens.
In her letter to Cassandra dated 19th June 1799 , written while Jane Austen was staying in Bath with her brother Edward and his family in Queen’s Square, she recorded her impressions of one such event:
Last night we were in Sidney Gardens(sic) again as there was a repetition of the Gala which went off so ill on the 4th– We did not go till nine and then were in very good time for the Fire-Works which were really beautiful and surpassing my expectations- the illuminations too were very pretty.
The Sydney Gardens usually held three Gala Evenings each season: one on the 4th June to celebrate King George III’s Birthday; one on the 12th August to celebrate the Prince of Wales birthday and another in July- a moveable feast – to coincide with the Summer Horse Race Meeting at Bath.
The fireworks to celebrate the Kings Birthday on the 4th June-which went off so ill-were postponed due to bad weather. They were rescheduled for the 18th June and that is the evening Jane Austen attended.
Here is an advertisement from the Bath Chronicle giving details of the re- scheduled date:
( If you care to you can click on the illustration above to enlarge it, so that you can read the detail)
The gardens opened for the Gala at 5p.m. The food and drink available included :
cold ham, chicken, lamb, and tongue, wine, spirits, bottled porter, cider, perry all as reasonable as possible the prices of which will be affixed on the bills of fare and placed in every conspicuous part of the Garden.
The reason the prices were so conspicuously affixed throughout the gardens was that this system prevented the waiters overcharging, a problem that was prevalent in the London pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh.
You could eat in the Banqueting Room in the Sydney Gardens Tavern or in the canvas booths outside.
If you look carefully at the engraving above, (do enlarge it !) you can see people sitting in the booths to the right of the picture. Those eating in the outdoor booths did have the option of staying in them the whole evening, and I would imagine on a chilly English summer’s evening this would have been a very tempting proposition!
The concert began at 7p.m. Note that Jane Austen managed to avoid it by arriving at 9p.m The galas generally went on till 10 p.m. which meant that Jane Austen was only there for one hour, probably only to see the illuminations and the fireworks!
She appears to have disliked the music played there, for she made this caustic comment in her letter to Cassandra of the 2nd June 1799, when writing of the planned visit to the original gala:
There is to be a grand gala on Tuesday evening in Sydney Gardens-A concert with Illuminations and Fireworks; to the latter Elizabeth and I look forward with pleasure, and even the concert will have more than its usual charm with me, as the Gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.
I would have thought that Bath with its rich orchestral and musical tradition-The Linley family begin just one example of the musicians attracted to living and working in Bath- had fine music and orchestras.
One of the musicians mentioned in the advertisement was Alexander Herscel,the violoncello playing brother of William Herscel composer and amateur astronomer, who was appointed court astronomer to George III in 1782 a year after he had discovered the planet Uranus.
He was the first person to accurately and correctly describe the Milky Way and found two new satellite of Saturn in 1789. Caroline Herscel in her Memoirs described her brother’s playing on the violoncello as “divine”… dare we suggest she may have been biased?
Another performer at the gala was a Miss Richardson, a singer: she had performed at Vauxhall Gardens in London but this diary entry by John Waldie of Edinburgh from 1805 seems to hint she may have been,well,… not the best singer in the world:
While the Minstrels were playing their weary staccato harmony all on one key I addressed myself to Mr Elliot, the singer, and we soon entered into conversation, which was to me highly entertaining and useful…We also discussed the merits of all the singers and composers. He agreed with me I thinking Braham, Harrison, Bartleman, Viganoni Mrs Billington, Mara, Banti ,Mrs Mountain and Storace the phalanx of vocal talent in the country.
He also much admires Grassini and Mrs. Tennant who I have not heard. Miss Daniel Miss Parke and Mrs Ashe are only second rate, and also Miss Sharpe and Miss Richardson
(See: The Journal of John Waldie Theatre Commentaries, 1799-1830: no. 13 [Journal 10] May 14, 1804-March 12, 1805)
Poor Miss Richardson…. I’m quite fascinated by Jane Austen’s comment and deliberate avoidance of the concert. I wonder what it was about the music that so irritated her apart from the possibility of them not being the best rate performances ? Did she not like professional singers ? She made a similar comment about a performance of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes in her letter to Cassandra of 5th March 1814:
I daresay “Artaxerxes” will be very tiresome.
and later…after the performance
I was very tired of “Artaxerxes,” highly amused with the farce, and, in an inferior way, with the pantomime that followed. Mr. J. Plumptre joined in the latter part of the evening, walked home with us, ate some soup, and is very earnest for our going to Covent Garden again to-night to see Miss Stephens in the “Farmer’s Wife.” He is to try for a box. I do not particularly wish him to succeed. I have had enough for the present.
We shall in all probability never know what upset her so much…..?
Next post: Fireworks.