Dear, sweet Charles Bingley defending the connections of his new-found love from attack by his snobbish sisters in Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice…..unfortunately he has no means of refuting Darcy’s worldly wise but snobbish comment which ends this particular argument:
“But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world,”
To this speech Bingley made no answer; but his sisters gave it their hearty assent, and indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations.
So..what was wrong with Cheapeside in the Bingley sisters eyes? Modern readers are sometimes led astray by the sound of the name, assuming that it must have been a slummy, run down, cheap area. This is completely wrong. Cheapside was a very fashionable shopping area in the City of London during Jane Austen’s era, and its name actually derived from the Saxon word for market:
We now enter the rich and busy street, called Cheapside ,which received this name originally from the splendour and multitude of its shops, “Chepe ” signifying a market. This street was, in the year 1246 , an open field denominated from an inn at its east end, The Crown Field, at which period and for 200 years after it none of the street of London, excepting Thames Street and the space from Ludgate-hill to Charing Cross were paved. The view of Cheapside previous to its destruction by the great fire, represents it as spacious and beautiful.
(From: A Topographical and Statistical Description of Middlesex (circa 1810) by George Alexander Cooke)
Here is a section from my copy of Smith’s New Map of London(1809) showing in detail the area of the City where Cheapside was:
And here is the same section, annotated with the relative positions of (1) Cheapside and, (2) Gracechurch Street ,where the Gardiners, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s aunt and uncle, actually lived and ran their business:
Do remember you can enlarge all these illustrations by clicking on them ;-)
This is a map of London circa 1805 from A Picture of London by John Feltham,
and here it is again, annotated with the relative positions of (1) Grosvenor Street- the home of the Hursts and well within the Circle of Fashion where the most influential and rich people lived in London- and (2) Cheapside and (3) Gracechurch Street, the commercial heart of the city of London.
No wonder Elizabeth Bennet muses that
Mr. Darcy may, perhaps, have heard of such a place as Gracechurch Street, but he would hardly think a month’s ablution enough to cleanse him from its impurities, were he once to enter it…
As you can see from this print of Cheapside published in Ackermann’s Repository of 1812, at the time Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice, Cheapside was a very elegant thoroughfare, with many fabulous shops, the now fashionable shopping areas of west London-Bond Street, Oxford Street etc, had not yet overtaken the shopping areas in the City of London-Cheapside Gracechurch Street and Ludgate Hill-as the places to shop and be seen. (Note the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral looming behind the smart shops). Ackermann’s description conveys some of the sumptuousness of these warehouses or shops:
The annexed engraving represents the western extremity of Cheapside …The first house on the left, which is supposed to stand on the site of the residence of Richard Tonstal, Lord Chamberlain to HenryVI, is Millard’s East India warehouse for every species of silk linen and cotton goods, the taste and elegance of which our monthly patterns bear ample testimony.the front has recently been fitted up in a very handsome style. The intermediate houses between Millard’s and the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard as exhibited in our view are occupied by Messrs Shapland, hosier; Brown, gold and silversmith; Giesler,furrier; Stark and Son,patent retiring stove and grate manufactures; Bunn,silk mercer; Hawkins, trunk maker;Seabrook of the same profession and two or three others. In the back ground at the one corner of Paternoster-row appears Butler’s newly erected patent medicine warehouse adorned with a neat balcony and stone balustrade at the top; and at the other corner Dunnetts long-established Tunbridgeware and toy shop,the recollection of which we do not doubt calls forth agreeable associations in the minds of many of our metropolitan readers…
Here is another contemporary description of the retail trade of London which shows the distinction between the great shopping area of the City of London and the emerging fashionable shopping area to the west of New Bond Street etc, from Felthams’ A Picture of London (1818 edition)
The extent and value of the retail trade of London have been already intimated. There are two sets of streets, running nearly parallel, almost from the eastern extremity of the town to the western, forming (with the exception of a very few houses) a line of shops. One lying to the south, nearer the river, extends from Mile End to Parliament Street, including Whitechapel, Leadenhall Street, Cornhill, Poultry, Cheapside, St. Paul’s Church Yard, Ludgate Street, Fleet Street, the Strand, and Charing Cross. The other to the north, reaches from Shoreditch Church almost to the end of Oxford Street, including Shoreditch, Bishopsgate Street, Threadneedle Street, Cheapside (which Street is common to both these lines) Newgate Street, Show Hill, Holborn, Broad Street St. Pauls’s, and Oxford Street. The southern line, which is the most splendid, is more than three miles in length ; the other is about four miles.
Besides this prodigious extent of ground, there are several large streets also occupied by retail trade, that run parallel to parts of the two grand lines, or diverge a little from them, or intersect them amongst the most remarkable of which are Fenchurch Street and Gracechurch Street, in the city of London ; and Cockspur Street, Pall Mall, St. James’s Street, the Hay Market, Piccadilly, King Street Covent Garden, and New Bond Street, at the west end of the town.
The Opulence of multitudes of merchants, traders, and shopkeepers, in this metropolis, and the easy circumstances of the larger part, are proofs of its prodigious commerce. To say that there are a few merchants and bankers whose revenues equal those of many princes, is no more than may be said of some towns on the continent. But our opulent traders are not confined to one class, or to a few fortunate individuals. Shopkeepers accumulate noble fortunes; which, in some instances indeed, form a singular contrast with the pettiness of the articles from which they are derived, a pastry-cook having been known to leave more than 100,000 to his heirs. And as to the number of the wealthy, they seem, from external appearances, to be the greater part ; and are, in truth, more abundant than auy imagination would picture, unaided by a knowledge of the country. To speak generally, it is by industry, and the employment of large capitals, that the London merchants and wholesale traders raise their immense revenues. The retail trade is, as may be expected, more lucrative. A shopkeeper, with a moderate capital, is, generally speaking, able to maintain a family in plenty, and even with a great share of the luxuries of Ibe, and at the same time provide a fund sufficient to enable his children to move with the same advantage in a similar sphere.
And that passage gives us some idea of Mr Gardiner’s riches: no wonder he could have all the trappings of a gentleman, even though he actually earned his money from trade.
So there you are: the only problem with Cheapside ( and Gracechurch Street) was its association with Trade. Something of which the Bingley sisters were of course hyper aware -their own wealth being most firmly established from trade and not from income derived from landed property. Snobbish, foolish girls. Luckily ,Mr Darcy manages to overcome his aversion to the Gardiners and at the end of the novel can acknowledge their superior qualities
Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education. The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well-bred and agreeable. Mrs. Gardiner, who was several years younger than Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips, was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her Longbourn niece
I’m so glad he managed to reconstruct himself….