Professor Amanda Vickery’s splendid BBC Radio 4 series, Voices from the Old Bailey is back, and is on excellent form.
The first programme in the new, second series of four programmes was first broadcast last Wednesday at 9 a.m., but can be accessed here to “listen again” via the BBC Website. This week’s episode concentrates on riots during the 18th century, and the section on the Gordon Riots, an uprising of terrible anti- Catholic violence put down with equal harshness by the army, and which occurred in London and the surrounding district in 1780, is absolutely riveting.
But does this have anything to do with Jane Austen, I hear you cry ? Most definitely, yes. In Northanger Abbey it is surely the folk memories of the Gordon Riots that cause Eleanor Tilney to be very easily alarmed upon misunderstanding an innocent remark made by Catherine Morland in Chapter 14:
Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence. The general pause which succeeded his short disquisition on the state of the nation was put an end to by Catherine, who, in rather a solemn tone of voice, uttered these words, “I have heard that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London.”
Miss Tilney, to whom this was chiefly addressed, was startled, and hastily replied, “Indeed! And of what nature?”
“That I do not know, nor who is the author. I have only heard that it is to be more horrible than anything we have met with yet.”
“Good heaven! Where could you hear of such a thing?”
“A particular friend of mine had an account of it in a letter from London yesterday. It is to be uncommonly dreadful. I shall expect murder and everything of the kind.”
Of course, Catherine is talking of nothing more serious than of the publication of one of her horrid books, but Eleanor Tilney, the better informed of the two and with an emotional interest in any potential public unrest that might have to be put down by her elder brother, who is serving in the Twelfth Light Dragoons, leaps to some serious conclusions. Henry Tilney has to set matters aright in a very Mr Bennet-ish fashion( and not in a manner of which I approve, to be brutally honest with you, despise me if you dare):
“My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy–six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern — do you understand? And you, Miss Morland — my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London — and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window. Forgive her stupidity. The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general.”
This weeks programme features one of my favourite historians, Professor Peter King, whose books, Crime, Justice, and Discretion in England 1740-1820 and Crime and Law in England, 1750-1840 are two of my most favourite books on the subject. Go read them now if you possibly can. Completing the discussion panel are Dr. Katrina Navickas and Professor Tim Hitchcock, co-founder of the fabulous on-line archive, Old Bailey Online.
Amanda is currently filming for her BBC TV Special on Sense and Sensibility, which will air sometime in December. She recently sent me this picture of her being filmed examining The Watsons manuscript at Sotheby’s,which of course was recently sold for nearly £1 million. I thought you would like to see it, so here it is: