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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
Kerry Taylor’s fashion auction today has two dresses that might interest you ( breaking away from our Pride and Prejudice theme for a moment)
The first is Lot 192:
A cotton printed cotton day dress, circa 1820,
roller-printed with teal-blue flower heads and wine coloured scrolling grasses,
Empire line with puff sleeves, flounces to neck and cuffs, piped bands to hem.
The estimate for this lot is between £500-900.
altered in the 19th century for fancy dress, of pale green/ivory changeable silk taffeta woven with scattered posies of blossom,
closed-front bodice, with furbelows of undulating, twisted ribbons of matching fabric with added padding to the bodice, with floss silk tufts, thick baleen bones to the front closure, ruffled close-fitting engageants, ivory floss silk covered buttons bust approx 71cm( 28ins);
together with a pale blue quilted silk petticoat and a whitework sprigged muslin apron.
The estimate for this dress is between £500 and £800. It will be interesting to see what figures these raise. Do go here to read the rest of the catalogue: there are some wonderful clothes and accessories for sale, especially a wonderful collection of antique lace.
…..it was delicious:)
I thought you might like to see the beautiful cake that was made for the Jane Austen House Musuem’s celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice…Mr Woodhouse would have been appalled;)
Meryton, or should that be…Hertford? Does he hold the key to the identification of Jane Austen’s inspiration for Meryton, the bustling town near to Longbourn,Netherfield and Luacs Lodge.? I think perhaps he does….let me explain.
Last time we looked at the possibility of Hertford, Ware, Hemel Hempstead, Watford or even Harpenden being Jane Austen’s inspiration for Meryton. Bearing in mind that Sir William Lucas was Mayor of Meryton,I think the stronger candidate truly is Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire.
We have already seen that Jane Austen may have been influenced when composing First Impressions by reports from her brother, Henry or her father’s cousin, the Reverend Thomas Bahthurst of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, of the Derbyshire Militia’s billeting at Hertford and Ware during the winter of 1794-5. John Breihan and Clive Caplan in their article in Volume 14 of JASNA’s Persuasions had this to say in favour of Meryton being based on the real town of Hertford:
The Derbyshire’s Headquarters was in the county town, Hertford and all nine companies of men were scattered in billets around the neighbouring towns and villages…Applying this to the novel, Meryton the regimental headquarter was likely to have been Hertford. The town of _____ where Kitty and Lydia amused themselves by watching a sentinel was likely to have been Ware. The high street of Ware was lined with coaching inns and one of these was the George dating from 1570.
These identifications fit other facts. Longborn, one mile from Meryton was said to be 24 miles form London as are both Hertford and Ware. In their elopement Lydia and Wickham were presumed to have fled up the Great North Road which runs parallel to the Old North Road ten miles to the West through Barnet and Hatfield. It was there that Colonel Forster enquired about them in the inns….Hatfield on the Great North Road is just eight miles west of Hartford/Meryton verifying Jane Bennet.
Here is a section from Cary’s map of Hertfordshire showing the relative positions of 1, Hatfield; 2, Hertford; 3, The Old North Road and 4, Ware.
Lets consider this shall we? We know from the text of Pride and Prejudice, it was at the George Inn in the town of _____ that Kitty and Lydia “entertained” Jane and Lizzy to lunch on their way home from the Gardiners in Gracechurch Street:
Oh! Mary,” said she, “I wish you had gone with us, for we had such fun! As we went along, Kitty and me drew up all the blinds, and pretended there was nobody in the coach; and I should have gone so all the way, if Kitty had not been sick; and when we got to the George, I do think we behaved very handsomely, for we treated the other three with the nicest cold luncheon in the world, and if you would have gone we would have treated you too. And then, when we came away, it was such fun! I thought we never should have got into the coach. I was ready to die of laughter. And then we were so merry all the way home! we talked and laughed so loud, that anybody might have heard us ten miles off”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39
Is this a mere coincidence? Probably not. Ware was very famous for its coaching inns, of which the George was only one. It was found in the building which is now 27-29 High Street and it was built in 1570 . Ware had a vast number of coaching inns because Ware was situated directly on the Old North Road, a road which followed the route of the Roman Ermine Street, which ran parallel to the Great North Road. You can see its route, on the right,(London via Edmonton and Waltham Cross to Ware) in this in this map, below, of the Old and Great North Roads from the book, The Great North Road:A Guide for the Curious Traveller, by Frank Goddard:
Many coaches passed through the town therefore, travelling to and from London and the number of inns was commensurate with the economic activity this traffic afforded the town.Travelling from the City of London, where Gracechurch Street was and is to be found, it would have been logical for the Bennet sisters to have followed the route, not of the Great North Road but the route of the Old North Road, which began in Bishopsgate (in the City). As you can see from the above map, this route went through Ware, which therefore reinforces the theory that Ware may have been the inspiration for the town of ____.
In addition they noted this interesting snippet:
There are several country houses in the vicinity of Hertford/Meryton which might represent Longbourn, Lucas Lodge and Netherfield but exact identification seems unlikely.There is though an actual Netherfield estate five miles west of Hertford that might have suggested the name…
Fascinating. But crucially, to my mind they also state that:
Hertford /Meryton as the county town was a suitably prominent borough for its mayor,William Lucas, to be granted the honour of Knighthood for a timely loyal address to the Throne…
This is, I think, the most decisive clue to Hertford being the rightful claimant to being the inspiration for Meryton. It was the shire’s country town and it was therefore of some importance. Important enough to have possessed a mayor, which Ware -a smaller town without a chater-did not. Here is a description of Hertford, which include its civic structure, from my copy of Crosby’s Complete Pocket Gazetteer of England and Wales (1807):
The Anglo Saxon kings often kept their court here, and, upon the first division of the kingdom into counties Hertford was made the county town…The town is governed by a mayor, a high steward, a recorder and 9 aldermen, 10 capital burgesses and 10 assistants.The number of voters here is 570 and the returning officer is the mayor…Hertford is a respectable and improving town; it has a court of sessions and at town hall all which have been rebuilt some years ago and are handsome brick edifices..the town also has a grammar school..Hertford formerly had five churches but only two are now standing…Market Day is Saturday and Fairs are held on the second Saturday before Easter Sunday, Old MayDay, Old Midsummer Day and November 8th: all for horses, cows, sheep, dogs etc.
We see a Mayor in England and Wales these days as having a primarily ceremonial role, and not having any important administrative duties.( Do note I’m not talking about elected Mayors such as the Mayor of London: these mayors have very wide-ranging powers!) We generally regard the role of mayor as an honour which would be conferred on its recipient for some local distinction, long service on the Council, or for past services. The mayors we know now ( and now they can be either male or female!) usually devote much of their time to civic, ceremonial, and representational functions. In the early 19th century the situation was very different: the mayor then( and it was solely a role for men, note) was a very important person in the locality and I fear that we may be blinded to this by both Sir William’s buffoonish nature and our lack of knowledge.
Let us therefore consider the role of mayor then, why it was important and why it distinguished towns that had one from those that did not.
Traditionally boroughs and cities in England and Wales have had the right to elect a mayor, not villages or hamlets. In cases where a town or a city was a civil parish, the mayor was elected from their number by the parish council.
However, as in much English history /law, it is difficult to be exactly precise. No two boroughs, towns or cities have the same history, or indeed charter, and it was not until Parliament first defined the term “Municipal Corporation” in the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 that any clear definition of attributes necessary to become a “Borough” were laid down. And though the head of the corporation or council, was often called “The Mayor”, this was not always the case. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their classic history of local government, English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act, note the following titles for the heads of corporations in England and Wales, in addition to mayors. At Kidderminster they had a High Bailiff; a Portreeve at Beccles and Yeovil; a Warden at Godlaming and Sutton Coldfield .
In his fascinating book The English and Welsh Boroughs, W.B. Faraday states that the first “Mayor Town” in England was Thetford in Norfolk, which established its Mayoralty in 1199 (although the City of London Mayoralty dates from 1192). This was followed by Winchester, Wallingford, Gloucester and Exeter, and, later in the thirteenth century, a number of other Boroughs were granted the same privilege by Royal Charter. During the same period other towns gave various titles, as mentioned above, to what was virtually the same office.
So…in Jane Austen’s time would a Mayor have been an important person? The answer is very positively, yes.He had many more powers than the mere ceremonial. Let’s list them. First and very importantly, from the Middle Ages, upon his election, the Mayor began to become appointed, as a matter of course, to the local bench of magistrates , and, indeed due to his position as “First Citizen” of a particular town, if you like, he was always given, additionally, the position as the Chief Magistrate. As a “Custodian of the Peace” – the name for early Magistrates- he would therefore normally preside as Chief Magistrate in the Borough’s civil and criminal courts, deciding the outcome of both criminal and civil cases. This practise of appointing mayors as Chief Magistrate for their area continued uninterrupted until 1949 in England and Wales, when it was stopped by the introduction of the Justices of the Peace Act (1949).
In addition to being the Chief Magistrate and presiding at Quarter Sessions as well as Petty session, the mayor’s powers included being Chairman of the Council or other governing body of the town (e.g. the Aldermen, Capital Burgesses, Masters, Approved Men, Portmen or Brethren); President of the Civil and Manorial Courts of the Borough, sometimes sitting with the Recorder or the Town Clerk, and sometimes alone; Borough Coroner; Clerk of the Borough Market(s);Keeper of the Borough Goal;Being responsible for the appointment of most Borough Officers including, in some towns, the Town Clerk and the Chamberlain; responsible for the appointment of Freemen of the Borough ( often for a fee!) and Admiral of the Port( a title retained even today in some sea coast towns such as Southampton, Poole and Kingston-upon-Hull)
it is interesting to note that the Council in most Boroughs recruited themselves by co-option( not by election!) and that a Mayor, once chosen, was customarily re-appointed for several years: the extent of the powers and influence wielded by the Mayor therefore may be readily appreciated, and accordingly we have to now realise that Sir William Lucas actually was an important man in Meryton.
And that I think is the crucial deciding factor. If Hertford was important enough a place to warrant a Mayor, it beats all other claimants to be the inspiration for Meryton.
No, you’ve not spotted another of my infamous typos…the arguments are quite persuasive that the town of Ware in Hertfordshire is Jane Austen’s inspiration for Meryton in Pride and Prejudice. In my last article I was a little economical with the truth, and deliberately failed to mention other pressing reasons why Jane Austen may have chosen to base her novel in Hertfordshire, because I wanted to write this separate post. Let’s take a look at them now, shall we?
Jane Austen gives us tantalising and teasing references to Meryton and Longbourn’s situation in the text of Pride and Prejudice. The most definite information we have is that Longbourn, Meryton and the nearby town of ____(Blank) are in Hertfordshire. But in fact it is not until Chapter 3 of the novel that we are given this vital information:
An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs. Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping, when an answer arrived which deferred it all. Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be..
We eventually learn that Longbourn is about one mile from Meryton, and that the journey from London, (Gracechurch Street) to Longbourn is exactly 24 miles( Chapter 27). In Chapter 46 we learn, via Jane’s letter to Elizabeth, which discloses the fact of Lydia’s elopement, that Longbourn must be within a ten-mile radius of The Great North Road, as it was assumed that Wickham and Lydia were travelling from Brighton via London to Scotland on to the final but dubious destination of Gretna and a clandestine marriage:
They were off Saturday night about twelve, as is conjectured, but were not missed till yesterday morning at eight. The express was sent off directly. My dear Lizzy, they must have passed within ten miles of us.
Dr. R. W. Chapman in his Oxford University Press edition of Pride and Prejudice has this characteristically blunt assessment of the situation:
Note._ There is no reason to suppose that Longbourn, Meryton and the town of ____ are other than fictitious. Longbourn was 24 miles from London and within 10 miles of the North Road through Barnet and Hatfield. Assuming this was West or East, Meryton and ___ would correspond , roughly, to Hemel Hempstead and Watford or to Ware and Hertford.
Here is a section from John Cary’s map of Hertfordshire dating from 1787, and I have annotated it with all the places that have relevance to our quest to find “Meryton” (Note, you can enlarge it by clicking on it):
6. The great North Road-Barnet and Hatfield
The first indication that Jane Austen may have based her fictional town on a real one, and indeed, had some personal knowledge of Hertfordshire, was given to us in an article written by William Jarvis and published in the Jane Austen Society’s Report of 1978. In his article he revealed that the Reverend Thomas Bathurst who was curate at Steventon from 1754 until George Austen, Jane’s father took up his duties there in 1764, was in fact George Austen’s cousin and after his time at Steventon, in
1765 he was inducted into the valuable living of Welwyn in Hertfordshire
He remained there till his death in 1797.
In their 1992 article, Jane Austen and the Militia published in JASNA’s Persuasions (no 14), John Breihan and Clive Caplan established that the Derbyshire Militia were quartered in Hertford and Ware in 1797-5. Welwyn is six miles west of Hertford as you can see on the map, above. Deirdre le Faye in an article in the 1996 Jane Austen Society Report argued that it was possible that Jane Austen became aware of the existence of the Derbyshire’s billeting in Hertfordshire (and made aware of news of possibly scandalous behaviour) through correspondence George Austen may have had at this point from his cousin, Thomas. First Impressions, the early version of Pride and Prejudice was written by Jane Austen between October 1796 and August 1797, and it is possible that Jane Austen was inspired by some gossipy letters between her father and his cousin…..but, further in an article entitled Meryton Revealed: The Derbyshire Militia at Hertford and Ware, Clive Caplan argued that Jane may have had another, more direct source of news about the goings-on of the Derbyshire militia in Hertfordshire:
During the winter of 1794-5 while the Derbyshire were in Hertfordshire, Jane Austen’s closest brother, Henry was studying at Oxford University. Simultaneously he was serving as an officer in the Oxfordshire regiment of militia and showing an interest in financial affairs by becoming acting regimental paymaster. This may have been the time when he established relationships with two officers, both then serving in the Derbyshire regiment, who were to feature prominently in his future financial dealings. One man was Captain Winfield Halton who in 1806…was involved in the award of the army agency of the Derby shires to Henry’s firm, Austen and Co. The other was Captain George Goodwin who later left the militia and returned to private life. In 1809 opening the Buxton and High Peak Bank he adopted Austen and Co as his London corresponding bank.
I think it might be entirely possible that Jane Austen received information about the Derbyshire militia and its time in Hertfordshire though both sources. One should imagine that the contents of the correspondence from Henry Austen differed significantly in tone from the letters written by Reverend Bathurst. However , on reading the article the presence of the Derbyshire militia in Hertfordshire – always referred to as the __(blank) militia in the text- makes absolute sense when considering the career path of George Wickham.Hailing from Derbyshire – Pemberley itself- he would no doubt choose to be commissioned into that regiment above others. And Darcy, as a prominent landowner in the county would no doubt have had close connections with the regiment.
In the 2005 edition of JASNA’s Persuasions the argument was taken in a different direction by Kenneth Smith in his article, The Probable Location of Longbourn in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He speculates that Harpenden was the location for Meryton. I think this unlikely given the distance Harpenden is from London, but, nevertheless, he makes some interesting points in his article, most importantly about places near to Harpenden that may have inspired Jane Austen, especially the village of Kimpton which she may have altered in her text to Kympton, the living that never was for “poor” George Wickham. He also argued that Redbourn, a village but a mile from Harpenden , may have inspired the name “Longbourn”. I’m not so convinced of that point, but I have no doubt that when writing Pride and Prejudice ( or First Impressions) Jane Austen studied a map of Hertfordshire very closely and, therefore she may have been inspired by the name of Kimpton. We shall never know for sure.
However, you may be interested to learn that while researching this article I discovered that a Bennet (and a Lucas!) family actually lived a mile from Kenneth Smith’s Meryton. Do take a look at this section from my Cary’s Itinerary of 1802:
As you can see, I trust, a Bennet and a Lucas family clearly lived in the area. Cary’s itinerary not only detailed routes between towns but gave the reader notes on points of interest. It recorded the fine houses and country seats that the traveler might see as he rode along in his carriage, book in hand. According to this entry, a Mrs Bennet was then the owner of this particular estate:
“Within 1 Mile of Harpenden on l(left) is Rothamstead House, Mrs Bennet
Rothamstead House, or rather, Manor, still exists, see below, and is now a research and conference centre.
Here is an extract from the history of the house on the website:
The present appearance of the house is due to John Wittewronge, who, in the 17th century, gave it its Dutch style. John graduated from Trinity College, Oxford in 1634 and by the time he was 18 had taken up his duties as Lord of the Manor. He was knighted by Charles I, made commander of the Aylesbury garrison by Cromwell and made a baronet by Charles II. Hr served as M.P. for Hertfordshire on several occasions, married three times and had six children. He wrote his family history and kept a diary and weather book, all of which give fascinating details of the times.
During the 18th century little was done to the Manor House, which was inhabited by John’s descendants until 1763. In that year Thomas Wittewronge died and the Manor passed to his cousin John Bennet, who eventually died childless. The house was left to John Bennet Lawes, the elder, son of John Bennett’s sister Mary, who had married Thomas Lawes, a London lawyer. John Bennet Lawes the elder lived at Rothamsted for part of the time he owned it, but did little to it – his friendship with the Prince Regent left little money for that!
In 1814 his son, John Bennet Lawes the younger, the founder of Rothamsted and a descendant of Jacob Wittewronge, was born here. He was educated at Eton and Oxford but never took his degree. As well as experiments on fertilisers and plant nutrition, and the factories he set up at Deptford and Barking Creek for fertiliser manufacture, he played a prominent part in local affairs and showed a great concern for the wellbeing of the people of Harpenden. In 1863 he added the Great Drawing Room to the Manor to celebrate the majority of his son Charles. He was created a baronet in recognition of his services to agriculture in 1882.
Now to Lucas. According to my copy of Daniel Lysons’ Magna Britannica (1806) the Grey family had lived at Wrest for centuries but
On the death of Marchioness Grey in 1797, without male issue, that title became extinct; but the barony of Lucas…descended to her eldest daughter Annabel…now baroness Lucas who is the present owner of the manors of Flitton and Wrest.
( Note, the current main building of Wrest Park is a product of the 1830s.)
Jane Austen could clearly have had access to a road book such as Cary’s and when studying it to work out the movements of her characters may, indeed, have discovered a Bennet family living in Hertfordshire, and was inspired. Or not, as the case may be. Again we will probably never know.
Today we shall look at Hertfordshire, the county where the Bennet family lived and where a lot of the action in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice takes place, especially after Charles Bingley decides to take a lease of an estate, Netherfield, there. Jane Austen didn’t ever, or so it would seem, visit Hertfordshire. Deirdre Le Faye has discovered that Jane Austen had some distant cousins living in the county. There is no evidence, as far as I can see, that she visited them, however. When she travelled on her one recorded journey to the northern midlands county of Staffordshire, in 1806, she travelled there from Gloucestershire via Warwickshire. All her other recorded journeys avoid the county. Does this matter? Well, writing about a county with which she was unfamiliar goes against the grain of her professional advice to her literary minded niece, Anna Austen, as expressed in her letter of the 10th August 1814:
We finished it last night after our return from drinking tea at the Great House. The last chapter does not please us quite so well; we do not thoroughly like the play, perhaps from having had too much of plays in that way lately , and we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.
So the choice of this county this might then seem surprising. However, Jane Austen clearly had access to a map or Itinerary like John Cary’s, which was used for planning journeys around England and Wales by the main and cross roads, and given its position with regard to London and the North,she may have decided to set her novel there, as given her characters’ movements and status, it was a logical choice.
Here is a section from John Cary’s 1812 map of England showing the position of Hertfordshire and the important counties in this novel:
The Main points numbered on the map and indicated by the red arrows, are as follows:
3. London, in Middlesex
Let’s look at some contemporary descriptions of the county. First, this geographical description taken from my copy of John Atkin’s book, England Described (1818).
The county of Hertford has to the north Cambridge and Bedfordshire; to the west the latter county and Buckinghamshire, with the last of which it is singularly intermixed; to the south Middlesex; and to the east, Essex. Its boundaries are nowhere marked by nature, except where the rivers Lea and Stort separate it from Essex. Its shape is rendered extremely irregular by projections and indentations especially on the western side. Its greatest length from north to south may be reckoned at twenty-five miles; its extreme breadth at forty miles. Its area in square miles is 602. It is divided internally into eight hundreds.
So now we can place this county with some certainly…what was it like? Today, the southern part of the county is commuter land, very developed with housing and with busy motorways- the M25, A1(M) and M1- running through it. In Jane Austen’s time things were slightly different, but its proximity to the capital did have an affect on its character, even then.
Here are some descriptions of it taken from Volume VII of The Beauties of England and Wales by Edward Wedlake Brayley (1808):
The general aspect of this country is extremely pleasant; and though its eminences are not sufficiently elevated, nor its vales sufficiently depressed and broken to afford decisive character of picturesque or romantic beauty, yet its surface is enough diversified to constitute a very considerable display of fine scenery. The southern part is its most hilly; and a range of high ground stretches out from the neighbourhood of Kings Langley toward Berkhampstead and Tring, which in many parts commands a great extent of country.
Most of the country is inclosed; and the inclosures being principally live hedges, intermixed with flourishing timber, have a verdant and pleasant effect. Independent of the wood thus distributed in hedgerows, large quantity of very fine timber are grown in the parks and grounds belonging to the numerous seats of the nobility and gentry that are spread over almost every part of Hertfordshire, and give animation to almost every view.
The country was primarily an agricultural one, and in addition to the usual crops, it had this interesting one: cherries
In the south west corner of the county…are many orchards; apples and cherries are their principal produce. The apples are most profitable ; but the cherries are very beneficial to the poor in the quantity of employment which they can afford in gathering the crop. In ten years after planting, cherry trees begin to bear; each tree should have nine square perches of land. A full grown tree will produce fifty dozen pounds in a favourable year; and from ten to twenty years, six dozen; prices vary from ten pence to three shillings per dozen. The Caroon and small black are the favourite sorts;the Kentish will not thrive here…The orchards whether of cherries or apples should be under grass and fed with sheep and for ten years after planting great care should be taken to keep the trees from the sheep as their rubbing impairs them. The size of the orchards seldom exceed four or five acres and their greatest vale does not exceed £4 per acre.
So, would Bingley have found he had many houses and estates from which to choose when he decided to settle in Hertfordshire? It would seem he would…
The landed property of Hertfordshire is greatly divided: the vicinity of the capital (London-jfw) the goodness of the air and roads and the beauty of the county have much contributed to this circumstance, by making this country a favourite residence, and by attracting great numbers of wealthy persons to purchase lands for building villas; this has multiplied estates in a manner unknown in the distant counties. Freehold estates here have of late sold at twenty-five and twenty-eight years purchase and under particular circumstances some very large tracks have obtained from thirty to thirty-two years purchase. The largest estate in the county is about the annual value of £7000. Several others averaged at from £3000 to £4000 annually; more at £2000 and below that sum they may be met with every amount…
So, yet again it would appear that Jane Austen knew exactly what she was doing when she allowed Bingley to settle in this county, despite her probably not having any first hand experience of it herself. The evidence is that he was not the only rich man looking for a home not far from the capital and there were many available to him in this particular county. The opening sequence of this novel, having a rich batchelor testing the water by taking a lease of an estate in this county, would not I submit, have seemed such an out of the ordinary thing for Bingley to have done. Living here gave him easy access to London and yet it still afforded him access to the north along the Great North Road, which went through the county( more on this later) and connected him with his old friends and possibly, family. It is clear from the accounts of his movements in the novel that the Bingleys still had many social connections in the north, and of course it is from the north that they originally hailed:
They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 4
So, placing him near London, but in Hertfordshire a county just north of the capital. makes perfect sense, rather than allowing him to settle in the more southern counties,such as Surrey or Kent which would have made frequent visits to the north longer and less easy to accomplish.And this was probably the deciding factor for Jane Austen.
Next, where exactly was Meryton?
Peter Harrington, the fabulous Chelsea-based book dealer, who has been my downfall many a day, currently has for sale some of C. E. Brock’s original watercolours for the 1907 edition of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.(They also have many other wonderful Austen related items:click here to see)
The 13 original signed illustration for the “Pride and Prejudice” were published in 1907 as part of the “Series of English Idylls” books by J. M. Dent & Co. The illustrations Brock created were a full and original revision of his previous illustrations for the edition of “Pride and Prejudice” published by Macmillan in 1895.
Charles Edmund Brock, above, was elected as a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour in the year following the publication of these illustrations. Seen by some as too impossibly pretty, and presenting, perhaps, a chocolate-box image of Jane Austen’s world, I have a sneaking liking for these illustrations. I will be writing about Brock’s work in detail later in the year. But I thought you might like to see the illustrations currently on sale, and I am very grateful to all at Peter Harringtons, in particular Emilie Fournet, for all their help in developing this article.
The illustrations on sale include, below, Will you do me the honour of reading that letter:
And these rest of the illustrations are included in this gallery: do click on any of the images to enlarge it.