To make amends for my shocking revelation last week that Sense and Sensibility is my least favourite Austen novel ( I did say “low be it spoken”!)I thought I ought to post a little more about it, and so I shall, during this coming week.
As it is a beautiful Spring Sunday I thought you might like to learn a little more about Kensington Gardens, where Elinor Dashwood met with the gossiping and indiscreet Nancy Steele, on an equally beautiful Spring Sunday, though in the novel the month was March and not May:
The third day succeeding their knowledge of the particulars, was so fine, so beautiful a Sunday as to draw many to Kensington Gardens, though it was only the second week in March. Mrs. Jennings and Elinor were of the number; but Marianne, who knew that the Willoughbys were again in town, and had a constant dread of meeting them, chose rather to stay at home, than venture into so public a place.
Here is a section from my copy of John Cary’s map of The Environs of London, showing the position of the then separate village of Kensington relative to London in 1812, one year after the publication of Sense and Sensibility:
Here is the same map annotated with the position of (1) the fashionable West End of London where most of the rich characters live in Sense and Sensibility (the Dashwoods,the Middletons, Mrs Jennings, Willoughby etc); (2) shows the position of Kensington Gardens and Palace; and (3) shows the position of the city of London wherein Bartlett’s Buildings is situated …
And that is where, of course, Lucy Steele lives while in London along side her cousins: all a long way both socially and geographically from the world the Ferrars, Jennings, Dashwood and Middleton families inhabit. No wonder she was an ambitious little madam…
Back to the gardens.
Kensington was a separate village as we have seen. Daniel Lysons in his magnificent work The Environs of London , had this to say about the village:
The village of Kensington lies on the great western road, at the distance of about a mile and a half from Hyde-park Corner. The parish, which is in the hundred of Ossulston, is bounded by Chelsea, St. Margaret Westminster, St. George Hanover-square, Paddington, Wilsdon, Acton, and Fulham. The hamlets of Brompton, Earl’s Court, the Gravel-pits, and a part of Little Chelsea are in this parish. The palace at Kensington, and about 20 houses on the north side of the road, are in the parish of St. Margaret Westminster. On the south side, the parish of Kensington extends till after you pass the Gore.
The parish of Kensington contains about 1910 acres of land; about half of which is pasture and meadow; about 360 acres are arable land for corn only; about 230 in market gardens; about 260 cultivated, sometimes for corn and sometimes for garden crops; and 100 acres of nursery ground. At Brompton-park was a very celebrated nursery, first established about the latter end of the last century by George London and Henry Wise, Esquires, gardeners to King William and to Queen Anne. Bowack, who wrote an account of Kensington in 1700, speaks of the stock as almost incredible; and says it was affirmed, that if the plants were valued at but Id. a-piece, they would amount to 40,000l. This ground belongs at present to Messrs. Gray and Wear.
The gardens that Jane Austen mentioned in Sense and Sensibility surround Kensington Palace.
The palace, originally called Nottingham House, was then home of the Earl of Nottingham, but it was purchased and enlarged and much enriched by the later Stuart monarchs. First William and Mary and then Queen Anne. The Hanoverians liked it , developed both the palace and the gardens greatly and all the Hanoverian monarchs lived there until George III ascended to the throne in 1760. As John Feltham wrote in The Picture of London (1808)
This palace was made a royal residence by William III. The garden or park was originally but twenty-six acres; King William greatly improved them; Queen Anne added thirty acres; and Queen Caroline, consort of George IL extended their boundaries by 200 acres of park lands taken from Hyde Park. Their present circumference is about two miles and a half.
The palace is a large and splendid edifice of brick, and has a set of very handsome state apartments, and some beautiful staircases and ceilings, painted by Verrio and are also many highly curious pictures by Holbein, Albert Durer, and other early masters. William and Mary, Queen Anne, George I and George II made this palace their place of frequent residence. The Dukes of Kent and Sussex, and the Princess of Wales, have apartments here.
Near the palace, within the pleasure grounds, is a very noble green house, and adjoining are excellent kitchen and fruit gardens.
The whole may be seen any day except Sundays, by applying to the housekeeper, for a trifling douceur.
George III did not like the place: it has been speculated that because his parents were estranged from his grandparents, George II and Queen Caroline, who lived at Kensington, this may have influenced him and prejudiced him against the palace. So, instead of living at Kensington, he purchased Buckingham House-The Queens House– for his new wife Queen Charlotte, preferring to live there and conduct matters of state at St James’s Palace, a little further down the Mall.
The gardens that surround the palace were open to the public. Here is a plan of them as they were circa 1733, which was executed by Charles Bridgeman.
In the annotated plan below, you can see the position of the Palace (1), the Serpentine (2), and the Round Pond (3)which still are features in the gardens today. You can also see the outlines of the allees radiating like stars (4) These features survived the improvements made by Capability Brown in the mid 18th century,when he swept away the more intricate formal plantings that you can see on this plan.
Here is a close up of Cary’s plan of the gardens in 1812: you can just discern the Serpentine and the ride known as Rotton Row in Hyde Park which ran parallel to Park Lane. Hyde Park adjoined Kensington Gardens.
Being seen promenading in the gardens was the fashionable thing to do in Jane Austen’s era. In the 1818 edition of The Picture of London we are given a very precise and detailed description of the gardens and the promenade:
One of the most delightful scenes belonging to this great metropolis, and that which most displays its opulence and splendour is formed by the company in Hyde Park and Kensington gardens in fine weather, chiefly on Sundays, from March till July.
The spacious gravel roads, within the park, are, on a fine Sunday, covered with horsemen and carriages, from two till five o’clock’jn the afternoon. A broad foot-path, that runs from Hyde Park corner to Kensington Gardens, is frequently so crowded during the same hours, with well-dressed people passing to, or retiring from the gardens, that it is difficult to proceed.
Before the stranger enters Kensington Gardens, we recommend him to pause on some spot in Hyde Park, from which his eye can command the entire picture of carriages, horsemen, and foot passengers in the park, all eager to push forward in various directions, and on the more composed scene of the company sauntering in the gardens. Such a spot will present itself more than once as he walks through the park but, perhaps, the best situation for this purpose, is the broad walk at the foot of the bason, as it may be called, of the river, where it falls into a narrower channel.
It has been computed, that 50,000 people have been seen taking the air at one time in Hyde Park and the Gardens. Nor is this a modern practice, for this spot has been equally resorted to for the same purpose during two hundred years past.
Do note that Jane Austen was once again scrupulous in her use of the gardens in the novel. The description above tells us that fashionable society would promenade in the gardens especially on Sundays from March to July, just as she has her character do.
The Serpentine was known to freeze in the harsh winters of the early 19th century:
In severe winters, when the Serpentine River is frozen over, the ice is almost covered with people. In the winter of 1813-14, there were counted more than 6000 people at one time on the ice, chiefly skaters.
From the number of accidents which happen annually on this river when frozen over, the king gave the Humane Society a spot of ground on its banks, on which they have erected a most convenient receiving-house for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.
Though Hyde park was open all year round, Kensington Gardens had restricted access, and the details of these regulations make for interesting reading:
All the doors of Kensington Gardens are open only from spring till autumn; and from eight in the morning till eight at night. There are four gates belonging to these gardens: two that open into Hyde Park, open all the year; one opening into the Uxbridge Road; and another opening into a road belonging to the king, and leading from the palace into Kensington. The last of these gates, called the Avenue Gate, is open till nine at night, all the year. No servant in livery, nor women with pattens, nor persons carrying bundles, are admitted into the gardens. Dogs are also excluded.
How severe: no riff-raff indeed.
But they let Jane Austen in…what a relief. Her she is writing to her sister ,Cassandra Austen, in her letter dated 25th April, 1811,when her mind was focused on Sense and Sensibility (how appropriate) and a Sunday walk in Kensington Gardens:
No, indeed, I am never too busy to think of “S and S” I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child; and I am much obliged to you for your inquiries. I have had two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to Willoughby’s first appearance…..
Your lilacs are in leaf, ours are in bloom. The horse-chestnuts are quite out, and the elms almost. I had a pleasant walk in Kensington Gardens on Sunday with Henry, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Tilson; everything was fresh and beautiful.
Everything fresh and beautiful, indeed. I hope you too have enjoyed your jaunt around Kensington Gardens this fine Spring Sunday.