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The Real Jane Austen:A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen:A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

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.

Jane Austen's Guide to Modern Life's Dilemmas by Rebecca Smith

Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas by Rebecca Smith

This is a delightful book, one of many  recently published “conduct books” based on moral lessons to be learnt from Jane Austen’s works and letters, but, in my opinion, it is one of the best.

It is written by Rebecca Smith who is Jane Austen’s  great-great-great-great-great-niece. She teaches creative writing at Southampton University and the writer’s gene seems to have been passed down to her, for her style is clear, witty and very readable.

The dilemmas Rebecca chooses to solve using her ancestors wise words are very modern indeed, and I think are, in the main, addressed to a youngish audience: how to “unfriend” someone on Facebook ( very tricky in my experience), the problems or pleasures of dating an older man, and how to introduce your man to your (ahem) crazy family are some of the individual dilemmas she seeks to advise upon. I rather enjoyed the answers to very modern situations experienced by the more mature of us: the  responses produced by “how to balance children and a career”, “how to make time for the gym” and “how to deal with an office dragon” are some of my favourites.

My only gripe with this book is its appearance. In the main the cream background supports a pale purple text, with quotations from Jane Austen’s works, letters and in one case, her will, set into purple inserts printed with deep purple print:

The text of Jane Austen's will

The text of Jane Austen’s will

They were hard to read without good daylight or a book light, and I wish the publisher’s designer had kept to the clear( and witty) style of the illustration on the cover; a Regency lady despairing while holding her iPad. But this is me being very picky. I think most of you would enjoy seeing Jane Austen’s wise words and attitudes translated to apply to our 21st century problems, and so I would urge you to buy a copy.

This is another monumental (and heavy!) book by Yale but its subject matter amply deserves such a sumptuous celebration.

Scan 3

James Wyatt had a fascinating career: his early triumphs were overshadowed  by a reputation for delay and a maddening inability to finish even the most pressing commissions.He had a geographically wide-ranging set of clients and appears to have been unable to refuse any of them.   Dissatisfied clients by the score was the result when Wyatt was unable, and it appears to me, sometimes unwilling to finish work on his commissions. But when Wyatt did turn up on site he appears to have been universally loved and well liked.  His extravagant personal life, allied with a tendency to drunkenness meant that his reputation became sullied. His papers were burnt or lost. Many of his commissions have now been demolished, and some of those that did survive have been vilified (his restoration work on some of our great cathedrals Westminster Abbey, Salisbury and Litchfield for example ) His death in 1813 in a carriage accident was, in a way, fortuitous, for it prevented him and his family having to suffer the disgrace of him being dismissed from the office of Surveyor -General and Comptroller of the Office of Works, where he had succeeded Sir William Chambers in the post. From the evidence of this book he seems to have been a man of sudden enthusiasms, unsuited to the steady, plodding work of a journeyman architect/committee member necessary for the sometimes no doubt mundane and regular work overseeing of the Office of Works. His neglect of his business and financial affairs eventually left his and his family’s finances in a precarious position.

Scan 4

John Martin Robinson’s book attempts to re-establish him as one of the most important architects of the  late Georgian era. His reputation was first secured by his early triumph of the design for the Pantheon in London’s Oxford Street –the Winter Ranelagh ( above).  Built in 1772 the building is examined in wonderful detail in this book- with floor plans enough to satisfy even me.And of course, in a different guise it had an association with Jane Austen for Henry Austen, her brother who loved living the high life, had a box there.  Sadly this building no longer exists, and the prints which illustrate it in this book make one sigh in distress at no longer being able to visit it. Mundane note: a branch of Marks and Spencer now occupies its site.

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Wyatt’s Gothick “ruined abbey” at Fonthill (above) designed for the eccentric William Beckford, the country houses he designed or embellished here in the UK or in Ireland, his wonderful buildings at Oxford, including the  Ratcliffe Observatory and the exquisite Library at Brasenose College are all covered extensively in the text and are superbly illustrated.

Wyatt’s ingenious turn of mind is shown in the small silver articles his designed for Matthew Boulton( whom he drove almost to distraction when working on his Birmingham home, Soho House). The Adam brothers, architects supreme of the last quarter of the 18th century, haughtily declined to design such small items, but Wyatt produced wonderful designs for Boulton, see the example below:

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New research by the author of this book has made one very interesting discovery: that the Hepplewhite designs for furniture, famous for two centuries and thought to be illustrative of George Hepplewhite’s designs, and which were posthumously published as The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788, 2 years after his death in 1786, were most probably not designed by any person called Hepplewhite but were Wyatt’s own work. As with any Yale production, this book is sumptuously produced, and I have enjoyed pouring over its pages over the Christmas holiday. The illustrations show an aspect of Late Georgian/Regency life -the works of James Wyatt-that have almost disappeared from view, and reading this wonderfully illustrated book restores Wyatt’s exquisite work to our notice.

To my shame I failed to review some very interesting books which were published last year, and so, before we begin our Pride and Prejudice adventure, do allow me to make amends.

The first book I wish to recommend to you this week is a biography of Uvedale Price by Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell, published by The Boydell Press, as part of  their garden and landscape history series. This is a series which is overseen by the doyen of British landscape history, Professor Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, whose books I admire very much, so we can be assured that the books in this series are going to be interesting and worthwhile

"Uvedale Price: Decoding the Picturesque" by Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell

“Uvedale Price (1747-1829): Decoding the Picturesque” by Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell.

Attentive readers of  Jane Austen’s works will note that she  appears to have been very interested in the debate that raged in polite society during the 1790s regarding the “picturesque” as a result of a pamphlet war between Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and Humphrey Repton.  Conversations on this topic were often included in her works, illuminating aspects of her characters’ attitudes not only to landscape and beauty but to life in general.  In Northanger Abbey , written between 1798-9,  Henry and Eleanor Tilney speak the painterly language of the picturesque and of the adherents of William Gilpin while accompanying the wonderingly practical Catherine Morland on a walk around Beechen Cliff near Bath. Edward Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood disagree as to the usefulness of a straight, well-grown tree as opposed to an old twisted tree looming on the landscape. And in Mansfield Park the relentless improvers are certainly not to be admired. Mr Rushworth ( who intends to employ Humphrey Repton like his friend, Mr Smith) is opposed in his schemes  for Sotherton by the almost silent horror of Fanny Price:

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’

Chapter 6

Edmund Bertram  is resolutely practical in the face of Henry Crawford’s relentless plans for the improvement of his rectory at Thornton Lacy:

“And I have two or three ideas also,” said Edmund, “and one of them is, that very little of your plan for Thornton Lacey will ever be put in practice. I must be satisfied with rather less ornament and beauty. I think the house and premises may be made comfortable, and given the air of a gentleman’s residence, without any very heavy expense, and that must suffice me; and, I hope, may suffice all who care about me.

Chapter 25

To understand the background to Jane Austen’s feelings and to those of her characters, it is not only necessary therefore to read the works of William Gilpin, and to understand why she was enamoured (ahem!)of him, but also to understand the debate that raged between Uvedale Price and Humphrey Repton in the 1790s. This book will amply reward any reading, especially if it is done with Mansfield Park in mind. It is the first biography of Uvedale Price to appear in print, and is fascinating.

Uvedale Price was born at Foxley, in the parish of Yazor, Herefordshire, where he was baptized on 14 April 1747. He was the eldest son of Robert Price, a gentleman artist, and his wife, Sarah. His work on his estate formed his ideas on landscape . He absolutely detested the work of Capability Brown, (and his imitators) whom he considered had inflicted a dire and unfortunate uniformity on the 250 plus estates he had “improved” by  utilising the same landscaping elements -smooth lawns around the house, sweeping away ancient gardens; installing serpentine lakes; decorating this new landscape with similar types of clumps of trees- wherever the estates were throughout the country.

Price was convinced that an estate could be considered beautiful in all its parts, not merely the pleasure grounds around the main house, but also that the working parts- the farms, the woodlands etc. – could not only be domesticated, populous and productive parts of the landscape, but could also be attractive and beautiful. A notion Jane Austen appears to allow her character, Emma to espouse. See this scene from  Chapter 42, when Emma surveys the beautiful but practical landscape of the Donwell estate in all its glory:

It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds. It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty. The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.

It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive
Chapter 42

This book is fascinating, explaining in great detail the nature of these esoteric arguments which were taken up by polite circles in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century. Reading it sets in context Jane Austen’s attitude to landscape and estates and furthermore explains her attitudes towards certain of  her characters and why, to her,  improvers and Humphrey Repton are never quite “the thing”.  And again proves that, despite being the relatively impoverished daughter of a clergyman, living an apparently quiet, domestic life, she routinely involved herself  and her characters in the famous debates of the day, allowing them and herself to take part and immortalise them. Reading this book is an illuminating experience for any admirer of Jane Austen.

As  you all know I found out about the existence of this book a few weeks ago and was really taken with the concept. The authors and their publishers contacted me after reading my article, and very kindly sent the copy which I (rather reluctantly!) included in my Third Anniversary Giveaway last week.

Cozy-Classic's Pride and Prejudice by Holman and Jack Wang

Cozy-Classic’s Pride and Prejudice by Holman and Jack Wang

For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the book-a beautifully photographed board book- is a shortened version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  It tells the story using key words and concepts from the novel, illustrated by photographs of felt figures acting out the episode. Obviously the book is intended for use by small children. As the adult reading the book with the child,  you are expected to explain the pictures and ” fill in the blanks”. And of course these explanations can get more elaborate as the child grows in understanding….till eventually they will want to pick up a copy of Jane Austen’s own text.

The authors, Holman and Jack Wang explained their vision for this series of books in their email to me:

This is the concept for the series: to revitalize the infant word primer genre by avoiding the tired concepts of counting, animals, shapes, etc., and introducing the idea of narrative or story. Each book tells a beloved tale through 12 child-friendly words and 12 needle-felted illustrations. Of course, you are right that 12 words can only sketch out the most basic narrative arc. But as children grow, the books will hopefully become a storytelling vehicle that allows parents to spin a bedtime yarn with ever-increasing elaboration and detail (just like you have with the quotes from P&P in your blog post!). We think the concept and the artwork will not only appeal to children, but to adults as well.

Here are some examples from the book.

FirstFriends:  showing Darcy and Bingley standing before the famous text of  Jane Austen’s opening chapter:
Sisters: where we are introduced to Jane and Elizabeth Bennet:
and finally,  Read:  poor Elizabeth reading That Letter from Darcy:
I have to say I’m very taken with this idea. I loved reading to my children when they were small, and I know we would have enjoyed reading  this book together. The illustrations are so enchanting, I find them irresistible. And they are a blessed relief from the growing trend for the use of computer generated graphics in children’s books, which I find so impersonal and well, cold. My daughter has suggested that  there may even be a market for the beautifully crafted figures, and I agree with her. I have now ordered copies as Christmas gifts for all the small people in my life. They cannot be exposed to good literature soon enough, and this is a charmingly simple and easy way to do it.
If you would like to see more the Cozy Classics website is available to view here.

You may recall how enthralled I was by this wonderful book some time ago.

Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain by John Bonehill and Stephen Daniels

Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain by John Bonehill and Stephen Daniels

Full of images of the England that Jane Austen saw and sometimes wrote about- with images of Hackwood Park and Boxhill amongst them-  it is a wonderfully informative book, detailing the life and works of Paul Sandby. Ruined Abbeys…

Roche Abbey, Yorkshire

Roche Abbey, Yorkshire

Views from famous castles…

The Lower Ward of Windsor Castle seen from the Base of the Round Tower

The Lower Ward of Windsor Castle seen from the Base of the Round Tower

and manor houses abound…

Tea at Englefield Green near Egham in Surrey, c.1800

Tea at Englefield Green near Egham in Surrey, c.1800

And the good news is that it is currently on sale at a substantially reduced price- £9.99 for the soft back and £15.99 for the hardback- via the Royal Academy online shop. Click here for all the details.

Reading Enfilade is one of my regular morning pleasures, along with a bowl of porridge, strong tea and freshly squeezed orange juice. For those of you who are unaware of this wonderful blog, I ought perhaps to explain that it is a marvellous compendium of news about 18th century art and architecture, updated nearly every day. It often acts as a nudge to my memory, to remember to book tickets to see an exhibition or to buy a book. Which is very appropriate for today is the blog’s third anniversary and its Editor, Craig Hanson has requested that we mark it by buying a book, an art book preferably, in order to help safeguard that part of the publishing industry. As he writes with dismaying clarity..

So as a gesture of positive action, I’m asking all of you to buy a book today (and fellow bloggers to spread the word). It’s easy to think that it won’t matter, but it does. Most people are astounded to learn just how small the circulation numbers are for art history books published by university presses. However humbling it may be for those of us who spend years of our lives producing a book, it’s not uncommon for only 400 or 500 copies to be sold. Surpass 1000 and you’re a superstar. There’s a tendency to assume that university presses receive generous funding from their host universities. It’s almost never the case. If they’re not in the business to turn huge profits, they must still be economically viable. Several years ago, I heard Susan Bielstein, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press, give a talk on the nuts and bolts of publishing. How did she begin? By asking members of her audience (almost entirely composed of art historians) to go buy a book. She was entirely serious. So am I.

Therefore…in a spirit of solidarity, I have to announce that today I bought a book.(Those of you who know me well will be shocked by this behaviour, I know…well, I actually bought the book under review on Monday…but I did buy another art book today, so I qualify on all counts. Ahem). The purchased book is a splendid and weighty volume, The London Square by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, published by Yale.

The London Square by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

It is a history, from the 17th century to the present day, of the development of London’s Square, those lungs of green which have been so beneficial to the aesthetic of London and to the pleasure and convenience of its inhabitants. When I lived in London I lived in an area of small jewel-like squares and crescents-Barnsbury- and I still recall with delight walking around that area, enjoying its peace, set as it was between the impossibly busy Caledonian Road and Upper Street.  Jane Austen knew London well, and, indeed, placed her characters in London with characteristic precision. For example, in Emma, Isabella Knightley lives in the “good air” of Brunswick Square, and  in Pride and Prejudice, the Hursts, wealthy people of fashion, lived in Grosvenor Street, which adjoins Grosvenor Square, at a point in time when it was London’s most fashionable and largest square.

A Map of the Grosvenor Estate in 1723, showing Mayfair, with the Grosvenor Estate shaded in pink.

The development of the squares is explained particularly well. Aristocrats owned the parcels of land- in the Grosvenor estates case a mind-blowingly large parcel of 100 acres- and then leased the land to speculative builders. The book is especially good at winkling out interesting nuggets of information. For example, St. James’s Square-a place of terror in my mind, all related to the employment Appeal Tribunals I used to attend and which were held in what was once Lady Astor’s very grand house-did not at first have a green and secluded garden at its heart, but a large circular basin, filled with water. All as a result of the influence of one of Jane Austen’s ancestors, James Byrdges, the Duke of Chandos, a resident of the square, who had

… an amateur interest in hydraulics, who was a shareholder in the water company. It was in any regard a very practical conceit as it (the basin-jfw) served as a reservoir from which water could be drawn in the event of fire

In addition to being superbly written, this book is, as you would expect from Yale, fabulously illustrated. This illustration, below, of Hanover Square in 1769, for example, is fascinating and repays close inspection.(If you click on it a larger version will appear)

Hanover Square by Elias Martin (1769)

Cows graze in the middle distance, boys tease goats and fashionable ladies walk through it all with their trophies -small dogs on leads ( some things never change). I’m not sure this is exactly the scene Mary Crawford was imagining when she envisaged marrying Edmund Bertram here, in Mansfield Park. Or was it? Food for thought.

The second half of the book deals with the development of squares from the late Regency onwards, and I found the chapters dealing with the struggle to maintain the squares in the 1960s -grand and not so grand –  when we seem to lose our way with regard to retaining the historical spaces of our cities, and London in particular, totally fascinating and riveting reading ( though I understand it is not a primary concern for those of you only interested in JAne Austen’s era).However, even Albert Square, of BBCs soap, Eastenders fame, gets an honourable mention, for Mr Longstaffe -Gowan is equally at home writing with authority of both grand projects and those that are rather more humble; for example, the Victorian squares in Hackney and Hoxton. But then he is the president of the London Parks and Gardens Trust. This is a wonderful book, and I think you would all enjoy it…and may even help establish a very worthy tradition of “Buy-a-Book Day”.

You may be interested to read Mr.Longstaffe-Gowan’s other book about an aspect of London life, The LondonTown Garden 1700-1840, shown below

The London Town Garden by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

First published in 2001, it has been a well-loved member of my library for over ten years, and I still enjoy reading its intelligent prose and devouring the sumptuous illustrations. Re-reading a book and enjoying it years after publication must be the highest practical praise a reader can bestow.

And finally, may I offer all at Enfilade my very sincere congratulations on your anniversary, and I hope for the continuance of my breakfast peace, more from you all to come for a very long time.

Back from my Diamond Jubilee jaunts, some to be shared with you later,  I thought you might appreciate a review of a book published only last week by Bloomsbury, written by Professor John Mullan of University College London.

The cover of John Mullan’s new book, “What Matters in Jane Austen”

This is a splendid book. I enjoyed it from cover to cover and  devoured it, in yes, a very greedy fashion. I think you might do so too.

Professor Mullan is an expert on 18th century fiction, and some of you may have been lucky enough to hear him talk about Jane Austen at JASNA conferences. He has clearly  written this book for us. By “us’ I mean  those who  read and re-read Jane Austen, “All Six Every Year”, that old mantra. For yes, it may sound like a truism, but it is the case that something new is to be found on every reading of her works. This book acknowledges that fact and relishes in it. So, if you are new to Jane Austen or have only  a passing knowledge of the plots of only one or two of her works, then this book is not for you. Well, not yet.  It is for the reader who  loves The Six (and the fragments –The Watsons and Sanditon) with a passion, and loves to re-read them, closely.

As Professor Mullan states in his introduction:

This book was written on the firm belief that Austen rewards minute attention, that hardly anything in her novels is casual or accidental. Discussing “Pride and Prejudice” in a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen adapted a couple of lines from Scott’s narrative poem, “Marmion”:”I do not write for such dull Elves/As have not a great del of ingenuity themselves”  That ingenuity is the subject of this book, and worth examining because Austen hoped ( or is it expected?) that her reader would share it.The self-indulgent purpose of the book has been to convey my own pleasure in reading Jane Austen. Its less selfish aim is simply to sharpen the pleasure of other readers of her novels.

The book is organised into twenty chapters, all based around questions inspired by the texts and the social history points in her books, which if ignored , leave the reader with a diminished experience of Austen’s technique. Professor Mullan helps the dedicated reader “de-code” Jane Austen’s subtle style, for example by concentrating on questions that most readers must have considered while reading her: for example, he examines the games Austen’s characters play, and what it reveals about them, why it is “risky” to go to the seaside in her novels, and what the characters call each other and , more importantly, why.

John Mullan

My favourite chapter was “How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?”, the last chapter in the book. I loved the manner in which Professor Mullan forensically examined Austen’s use of particular words and acknowledged her genius, which he is convinced she acknowledged to herself too. As he writes:

She did things with characterisation, with dialogue, with English sentences, that had never been done before. Is it possible that she had no particular idea of how singular her novels were? Or did she have some hunch that her fiction was unlike that of any of her contemporaries, and would duly outlive her rivals?

John Mullan shares our view that Jane Austen was extraordinary. Virtually self-educated, she was a genius. Unparallelled. Her brilliance has been, for some time, hidden behind a Victorian veil of respectability and a desire by her immediate descendants  ” not to frighten the horses”. But, importantly, he points out that her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she worked alone, without the criticism, support  and company of fellow authors:

…the widespread resistance to the image of a modest lady has been allowed to obscure an important truth: she as in some ways the most surprising genius of English Literature. She lived in an age distinguished by its literary intimacies and exchanges…Jane Austen knew not a single notable author, even distantly. Her most renowned female predecessor, Fanny Burney, had conversed with men and women of lettres and had been befriended by Samuel Johnson, no less. Her best-known female contemporary, Maria Edgeworth, may have lived in seclusion in Ireland, but when she did come to London she consorted with Jeremy Bentham and Walter Scott….Not Austen.

There are some nitpicking, teeny-tiny errors- for example,  Jane Austen did indeed visit Brighton in 1805 when en route to Worthing with her family and some of her works were known, but admittedly not universally liked, by Maria Edgeworth-but they are negligible and do not detract in any way from the great amount of enjoyment to be gained by reading every chapter. I admired the way Professor Mullan manages to explain her technical genius in a non-threatening non-academic way.(Can you tell that I’ve been reading too many dry, academic books recently?*sigh*).

I loved his approach to her works, for I too have always believed that a close examination of her texts replays the reader in many ways, and is essential for trying to understand her intent. I say “trying” for in many respects, she is still elusive. But I still suspect she may have liked not being able to be caught in the act of greatness. This book confirms that it is, as ever, fun to try…

To conclude, this is thoroughly a readable, enjoyable book, written by a noted academic( though not in an academic style!). Buy it. Do.

I received this book as a gift at Christmas. Its taken me some time to get round to reading it but on my recent holiday I rescued it from the teetering pile of Books to be Read that has been reproaching me silently for some time, and sat down. Within 48 hours I  had devoured it.

I freely confess that , for me, reading about the doings of the generations of Austens/ Knights etc who followed Jane Austen is not high on my list of priorities, but I may have been wrong in this belief for  Sophia Hillan’s account of the children of Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s lucky and rich brother, is a fascinating and very good read. I had not expected to be sucked into their world so quickly nor, more importantly, did I expect to care for them and their fates so much.

Sophia Hillan tells the sometimes complicated but fascinating tale of Edward Knight and his wife, Elizabeth’s children, who featured  so frequently in Jane Austen’s letters. She concentrates on the lives of Louisa (Lou-below) who was Jane’s goddaughter, Marianne (May) and Cassandra (Cass), but of course, during the course of the tale, we hear much about the lives of the other seven children and their aunts and uncles.

Louisa and Cassandra married the same man, Lord George Hill of Gweedore in Donegal.He married first Cassandra who died in 1842, of puerperal fever after the birth of her last child . In 1847, after she had cared for her sister’s children for five years, Lord George Hill married Louisa. This was marriage that caused much discussion and distress as such marriages were then unlawful in Victorian England. Indeed, the couple travelled to Denmark so that they could be married, as it would have been impossible for them to have been married in England, as marriages between brother and sisters-in-law were then considered illegal on the grounds of consanguinity.

The story of their time in Ireland where Lord George was seem as an improving but strict landowner is truly fascinating and absorbing. Sophia Hillan writes with great insight and sensitivity on the terrible time of the Irish Famines and the actions of landlords whose acts, which now seem cruel and incomprehensible. These acts  were often prompted by the desire for efficiency but  ultimately failed, tragically, to understand the customs, habits and nature of the Irish over whom the Anglo-Irish landlords possessed such power. The later part of the book deals with this subject magnificently and I found myself rapidly turning the pages,desperate to know the outcome of Lord George’s actions.

The sister I enjoyed reading about most was Marianne (May-shown above). Her story  could have been heartbreaking, but her strength of character and bravery made it one of triumph over adversity. She never married but devoted herself to looking after her father and then,after his death,  her brothers. She did indeed begin life as  an Emma Woodhouse figure, the daughter of a great house, Godmersham in Kent, administering the household and overseeing the care of the poor in the parish under her care after the marriage of her sister Fanny. She eventually moved from Godmersham to Chawton where she lived with her brother Charles Bridges Knight, who was rector of Chawton, and like her Aunt Jane, she seems to have enjoyed her quiet, settled life in that village. But she ended her life as a Miss Bates, impoverished and without a real home to call her own, settling in Ballyarr in Donegal, with her widowed sister, Lou, where she eventually died. I loved her character, with its refusal to be cowed by circumstances, her positive outlook and above all, her humour. She did indeed seem to inherit some of her Aunt Jane’s strongest character traits. I would love someone to reproduce in facsimile her Garden Book which she kept while she lived in Chawton.

I would urge all of you to buy this book, because the story of these sisters and their lives in England and most of all 19th century Ireland is  so vibrantly presented to us by Sophia Hillan. I’ve read it twice now- the second time to savour all teh twists and turns of  the fascinating tale. It is available as a Kindle edition if you are running out of books space, or prefer e-books. I am certain you will not be disappointed by this wonderfully written book.

The Zoffany exhibition has now opened at the Royal Academy and I shall be (D.V.) going to see it in the next few weeks, and will, of course,  be reporting back to you here. The catalogue/book accompanying the exhibition  arrived with a thump on my door mat a few weeks ago and I thought you might like to hear my thoughts on it. Mary Webster’s magnificent monograph  on Zoffany has to be the main reference point for those wishing to delve into the minutiae of his life and works, but it is rather an expensive volume. If you have less cash to spare you might want to consider  this book as a more than acceptable alternative.

The book is, as you would expect of a Yale publication, superbly illustrated throughout. But the essays that make up the first part of the book are, in my very humble opinion, outstanding. Martin Postle’s opening essay on Zoffany’s life and reputation is fascinating, beautifully written and appropriately illustrated, and draws this  interesting comparison with Hogarth:

Zoffany’s art is often appreciated for its technical accomplishment and keen eye for detail. As with Hogarth it  is also distinguished by its incisive social commentary and irrelevant brand of humour. It provides a sophisticated and often guileful commentary, which challenges the parameters of hierarchical structures, national boundaries and social mores. Zoffany, was like Hogarth, temperamentally unsuited to follow the conventional career of the compliant “society” painter. However, like Hogarth, Zoffany proved two be a consummate painter of society 

Robin Simons’ chapter on Zoffany and the theatre is fascinating, providing the reader with tremendous detail of the workings of the 18th century theatres in London and the provinces,, which, with its patent theatres and performances censored by the Lord Chamberlain, was so different from our theatrical experience today. One of Zoffany’s earliest patrons was the actor David Garrick and this association guaranteed him many, many theatrical commissions. These theatrical portraits now can seem rather stilted and staged, to excuse a pun, but by careful study of the them and the scenes they are meant to represent it is clear that Zoffany took this genre by the scruff of its neck and developed it, becoming one of its greatest exponents and chroniclers. His portrait of Thomas King as Touchstone in As You LIke It from 1780, below, is a tour de force.

Zoffany’s great conversation pictures, like this one below of the Sharpe family, have become so ubiquitous we now rarely notice the details. But if you look closely enough there seem to be indications of something other than mere representations of family life being recorded. Kate Redford’s chapter on Zoffany and British Portraiture is, as ever, a wonderfully considered piece of writing, and places Zoffany’s work in its proper context, explaining that his conversation pieces were exception pieces of work, often employing subtle narrative devices which,when decoded, illuminate the witty,sometimes bawdy nature of 18th century society in England.

The Sharp Family, painted between 1779-81 shows the comfortably-off family  during one their Water Scheems, when they performed on their boats and barges. This family, one of whose members was Granville Sharp the abolitionist,  were renowned among society for both the expertise of their musical performances and  their conviviality.

However, in this central section, Zoffany plays visual jokes, an “in-joke” if you like, something that the Sharps, in common with many 18th century families indulged in. For example, they often signed letters using the musical notation for  “sharp” instead of writing their names .This word play was taken up by Zoffany, and interpreted visually.  Below, we can see Granville Sharp holding  his double flageolet, a difficult instrument to master, behind his brother’s, James’ head, so that it resembled the form of a cuckold’s horn.

James’ nickname was Vulcan, the farrier to the gods and husband of Venus, who cuckolded him after she fell in love with Mars.

Sitting above  are the wives of two of the brothers. James wife, Catherine wearing  a lilac dress and a black shawl and William Sharpe’s wife. Neither were very fond of music, and can be seen comforting each other rather in the manner of golf widows: they had musically obsessed husbands and paid the price ! This is all very clever, and the in -joke  was hopefully enjoyed by the Sharp family but as Kate Redford keenly remarks, this is an artistic approach that also had its dangers:

The appeal of these narrative devices probably relied on raillery; equivalent to a light-hearted banter that showed the sitter’s modest ability to laugh at themselves and that fitted the relatively more informal and lively milieu of the conversation piece tradition .Zoffany’s patrons no doubt enjoyed the wit of his clever juxtapositions and narrative conceits, although, on occasion, he must surely have sheen sailing close to the wind….

Luckily for Zoffany he was a friend of the Sharpes and  most probably enjoyed their clever company and conversation. He was also a keen musician who also took part in similar water parties and knew many professional musicians. The joke, which was at James Sharpe’s expense in a possibly offensive way, was probably allowable because Zoffany was part of their circle- a fact indicated by the presence of his dog, Roma, sitting in the foreground of the picture, to represent the artist. He was not so lucky with other, very prestigious clients and compositions. More on this after my visit to the exhibit.

So, to conclude, if you are unable to visit the Royal Academy to see the exhibition for yourself, tout are fascinated by these portraits and what they reveal about the nature of late 18th century society  in Britain (and beyond), I do hope you will purchase this fascinating, beautiful and very readable book. Zoffany’s appeal for me lies more in the canvasses he completed in late 18th century India, with all its Austen associations, and I am so looking forward to seeing many canvass that  are normally only on show in India.  Society Observed indeed.

I wrote a review of this short but fascinating book a few months ago- ( go here to read it) and I thought you might like to know that it is now available to purchase in Kindle e-book form.

I’ve done this because, though I love books I’m running out of physical space to store them, and  I do find I’m using my Kindle and my iPad for research far more often these days. Having it available wherever me and my Kindle go is fabulous and so convenient.

If you would like to download it for the very reasonable price of £4.64 then go here to do so.

As you know I’ve long been fascinated by the history of the Foundling Museum, and am convinced it was partly due to its presence in Brunswick Square that Jane Austen effected the reconciliation of Robert Martin and the near foundling Harriet Smith there in Emma.

The Museum is a fascinating place, and its raison d’être  of accepting unwanted children is poignant. Recently they have published a small booklet on the subject of their famous Tokens, which form part of the Museum’s collection. They very kindly sent me a copy and it is that copy which is under review here today.

The tokens are small items that were left behind with children when they were accepted into the care of the hospital, and were used as identifiers, should the child’s parent wish to reclaim it. We have looked at the fabric tokens before, in my account of the Musuem’s Threads of Feeling exhibition, curated by John Styles. This booklet does mention them, but concentrates on the other, mostly  tiny objects, that were left with the children. As the director of the museum, Caro Howell, writes in the forward to the book:

In telling the story of the Foundling Hospital, which continues today as the children’s charity Coram, the Foundling Museum can draw upon a wonderful collection of art by Hogarth and his contemporaries; eighteenth century interiors, furniture and artefacts; archival material relating to the life and work of Handel; and the testimonies of both former pupils and looked-after children today. Yet for many  visitors it is the tokens that leave the biggest impression.

The tokens were usually sealed within the billet , that is,  the admission document written for each child. They were kept on deposit a the Hospital and were not opened again unless the child was claimed, and the token was used as a means of identifying the parent who had given the child up to the Hospital’s care. At the point when the child was accepted by the Hospital all its family links were severed, and it was given a new name, hence the need for its identifying object for future reconciliations.  In 1858 John Brownlow,  the then Secretary of the  Hospital, brought the existence of these tokens to the notice of the Committee of Governors. They decided to take some of the tokens from the billets and place them on display. Interestingly Brownlow had once been a foundling at the Hospital, and it has been suggested that it was Charles Dickens’regard for him, that made him adopt the name of Brownlow for Oliver Twist’s benefactor, and the man who finally proved Oliver’s identity. Brownlow the foundling  eventually rose above his humble beginnings to become the Hosptial’s Secretary, historian and archivist

Sadly, though this action brought the world’s attention to these tokens (and, of course, the stories of the children and their parents that the tokens represented) separating them from their billets meant that the original links with the children were broken and lost, and it has been a mammoth task for the authors of the booklet to try to  reunite the tokens with their original billets, in order to decipher the human story and significance of the token donated with the child. So far it has taken them eight years,and the research into the tokens is on-going.

The tokens can be classified into three main categories- written, halved and tangible tokens. Some are combined into more than one category- for example, playing cards, often used as a token were tangible objects, something that could be written on and also something that could be halved( the parent keeping one half, the other was deposited with the Hospital). The authors of the book have researched the links back to the children and have also worked hard to identify the identifiers, some of which are very small, damaged or so obscure as to be virtually unknown to the modern eye.

For example, this engraved piece of mother of pearl was one identifying object. It was inscribed with the words:

James son of James Concannon Gent , law or now of Jamaica 1757

The authors have discovered that James’ billet entry reveals he was two months old when he was admitted to the Hospital.

A note in educated hand writing states he was born on the 18th September 1757 , baptised and registered at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, London on 4th september and “put in the house on 23rd November” his unusual surname enabled the record of his baptism at St Sepulchre to be found which names his parents as James and Elizabeth Concanon.

He may have been left behind while his mother accompanied his father on military service in the West INdes, for the authors of the book have discovered that a Lieutenant James Concannon served in the Royal Artillery  at that time. James was renamed “Raymond Kent” and he survived and was placed by the Hospital as an apprentice with a Farmer and Slater at Thorpe Hesley in Yorkshire.

One of the more famous tokens which has some resonance for we Janeites- is the gambling fish, which Jane Austen  mentioned in Pride and Prejudice.

The child connected to this ivory gambling token was a five week old boy, who was  named John Cox by the Hospital. The authors of the book have had to become expert on these tiny objects- coins, jewels, fabrics, etc – in order to try and understand why they were left with children and what they might tell us about the parent and their circumstances. The research  really does make for absorbing reading.

This booklet  is a slim volume-32 pages long, but it is a fascinating story- part historical, part detective,-of the reuniting of these very moving tokens with the identity of the child  whose parents deported them- for whatever reason-into the care of the Foundling Hospital. I can throughly recommend it to you.

You can purchase the book  directly from the Museum Shop : go here to find all the details of this and other publications issued by the Museum, and for details of how to order by mail.

Last week I reviewed Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David Coke and Alan Borg. That book, while fascinating, gigantic in size and scope, and well worth its price, is rather expensive and I wanted to point you in the way of a more reasonably-priced soft cover book on the same topic,  The English Pleasure Garden by Sarah Jane  Downing, published by Shire.

This is not a very large book, only 64 page in all, but it manages to be a comprehensive overview on the subject of those lost pleasure gardens, which  were such a feature of 18th /early 19th century life. It does not concentrate on one garden, but gives the reader a clear view of the rather short history of these gardens from their Stuart beginnings to their sad Victorian end.

There are chapters on the London gardens, and you may be interested to know that Vauxhall and Ranelagh were not the only gardens to visit. There were 64 pleasure gardens in London and its environs during this period. Here is a picture of one of the more rural pleasure gardens, Sadlers Wells, in Islington, then a small village just outside the city of London.

In the 18th century it was a place to take the waters, hence the name “wells”  but today it is rather more well-known as the site of a theatre famous for staging dance in all  its forms.

The seedier side of 18th century life that these gardens attracted is also addressed; here is an image from the late 18th century illustrating an intoxicated woman returning  home very late (or, more probably, early in the morning!) from a masquerade. This type of image illustrated the growing concern for the immoral effect of  masquerades, an entertainment that Ranelagh  was famous for  promoting.

A fascinating section of the book is its chapters on provincial pleasure gardens.  Sydney Gardens in Bath is included, of course, and we all know that Jane Austen lived opposite them at Sydney Place when she first moved to Bath from Steventon in 1801.

But is it very interesting to read of other, less famous gardens in  Norwich, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne- so at least Lydia Wickham had one to attend to enjoy its weekly concerts!-and the lost pleasure garden of Duddeston in  Birmingham, seen below, in a very rare image:

In so small a book something has to give: and that is first, the size of the illustrations. However they are many  and varied and very useful. And the  details can be easily seen by the use of a magnifying glass. Second, citations. It would have been helpful to have more sources listed other than the occasional acknowledgement to a museum or library. But, that would had added to both the size and cost of the book. Some things we have to forgive.

Overall, it is a very useful starting point for understanding these lost but once magical places. I can throughly recommend this book to you.

I have been bewitched by the idea of an 18th century pleasure garden for years. Too many years to comfortably remember, if I’m painfully honest. I’ve visited the only remaining one in England –the Sydney Gardens in Bath– where Jane Austen used to love to walk when she lived opposite them at Sydney Place. I’ve collected books on them, and visited exhibitions, notably The Muse’s Bower held at Gainsborough House Museum in Sudbury, in Suffolk in 1974…

and the Vauxhall Garden section of the Rococo Exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1984.

I’ve even visited the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, in an attempt to sample something of the atmosphere of the original. Vauxhall on the Surrey bank of the Thames was the first and the most famous of them all. In fact, the term “Vauxhall” became the generic term for a pleasure garden, and its successful format was copied all over England, Europe and even in early 19th century America. A new book, Vauxhall Gardens: A History has recently been published by Yale. It is published to  accompany an exhibition on the garden, which will open  later in the year at the Foundling Hospital Museum in Brunswick Square. Entitled The Triumph of Pleasure, I simply cannot wait to visit it ( and report back here).

This book is exactly what I have desired to find, after all these years. A comprehensive guide to EVERY aspect of the gardens: its history, the owners, The Tyers, shown below in a portrait by Francis Hayman…

The performers, especially the music and the musicians…

The art on show in the dining booths – it was the first contemporary art exhibit in the world open to the general ( paying) public…

The fashions worn there…

The way the gardens worked, the visitors..even details of the latrines or necessary houses……

it is all covered in exquisite detail, enough even to satisfy me. The book is co- written by David Coke past curator of Gainsborough’s House Museum (where he organised the Vauxhall Garden exhibit of 1978, and he also curated the Vauxhall Garden section of the Rococo exhibit at the Vand A in 1984), and by Dr Alan Borg.

They manage to capture the atmosphere of this magical place- lit by thousands of tiny coloured-glass oil lamps,where you could wander among the leafy groves, see and hear the latest art and music, and mingle with all classes of people who cloud afford to pay the entrance fee. The only exception being servants in livery- they were not admitted to teh gardens for as David Coke remarked to me yesterday,

Servants in livery were only excluded from Vauxhall because Tyers did not want any of his visitors to be seen as obviously subservient to any other visitor.  Of course, it also meant that wealthy visitors could not use their own servants to serve them supper, and had to use the Vauxhall waiters, but I’m sure this was a minor consideration.

This is all very well, I hear you say, and all very interesting, but did Vauxhall have any association with Jane Austen? It did. She wrote about it in Lesley Castle when she was 16 years old in 1791.  She may not have visited it personally, and there is no mention of it in her letters, but she may have known of it by repute or by reading other novels such as Evelina (1778) or Cecilia (1782) both written by  Fanny Burney, one of Jane Austen’s favoured authors, and which both mention the pleasure garden. In Letter the Seventh from Miss C. Lutterell to Miss M. Lesley, Bristol 27th March, JAne Austen wrote:

In spite of all that People may say about Green fields and the Country I was always of the opinion that London and its Amusements must be very agreeable for a while, and should be very happy could my Mother’s income allow her to jockey us into its Public-places during Winter. I always longed particularly to go to Vaux-hall to see whether the cold Beef there is cut so thin as it is reported,  for I have a sly suspicion that few people understand the art of cutting a slice of cold Beef so well as I do: nay it would be had if I did not know something of the Matter, for it was a part of my education that I took by far the most pains with…

This is one of the things Vauxhall was infamous for- the thinness of the cold meat served in the dining booths. As we find in the book under discussion:

It is impossible to discuss the food without again mentioning the famous Vauxhall ham; this, like the beef, was always served in notoriously thin slices. Many stores circulated about it ,and it even made its appearance in contemporary comic poetry….eventually the thinness of the ham once picturesquely described as “sliced cobwebs” became proverbial; at homes all over London if any diner was feeling abstemious they would ask for their serving of meat to be carved “Vauxhaully”…

(Page 198)

It would seem that, unlike this country gentleman,  below,  Jane Austen,  living in rural Hampshire,  had heard all about it…

I can thoroughly recommend this well-written, witty, informative and scholarly book to you, if you are at all interested in the pleasure garden, its history or how it prospered then eventually closed in 1859. I cannot envisage having to buy another book on the subject, so comprehensive is this one. I will be reporting on the Foundling Hospital Museum exhibit in the summer. But if you want to explore a little on line then do go to Dr Borg and David Coke’s website, here, to experience a little of the Vauxhall Magic.

After a week where we discussed the merits of a portrait of Jane Austen, I thought it highly appropriate to review this fascinating book, which has been recently published by Yale. It would make the prefect present for anyone interested in the history of the perceptions of female beauty, that ever-changing ideal that is almost  impossible for any one woman to attain. Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor at the Courtaluld Institute,  has written a thought provoking and carefully researched book on this most elusive of subjects. Though it deals with a long time period- from 1540 to 1940-  the detailed chapter on beauty in the Enlightenment period is worth the cover price of the book alone.

Jane Austen lived though a period when ideals of beauty changed almost 180 degrees. When she was born, in 1775, powdered and pomaded hair, teased fantastically high, above a powered, rouged and patched face was the fashionable norm. The picture, above, taken from a fan made in the 1770s is a satire of a fashionable woman at her toilette.  Jane Austen would surely have seen women who aspired to this type of beauty. Indeed, a small, delicate rouge pot is kept in the collection of the Jane Austen’s House Museum which is thought to have been the property of her fascinating cousin and eventual sister-in-law, Eliza de Feuillide . You can see it below in one of my own photographs.( Note, this is not included in the book)

However, by the turn of the century , 1800, that had all changed.

The more natural elegance of Justine Recamier, above, though no less artful, was more favoured after the upheavals of the French Revioluton and the overthrow of the old order:

Compared with the Renaissance, the  eighteenth century was a period of personal comfort, of improved hygiene and of bodily intimacy, all of which turned the toilette into a high art, in which the theatre of dressing and undressing was an much an enjoyable entertainment as making up the face. The century regarded beauty as a whole, the body as well as the face…

Professor Ribeiro discusses in immense detail how (mostly) male writers sought to comment on women’s beauty and, by these means, also attempted to control their behaviour. Look at this passage about Jane Asuten’s favourite poet, William Copwer, with his somewhat familiar arguments agasint  the over use of cosmetics:

The poet William Cowper pursued the idea of deceit in make up by asking how far the eye was really deceived if the face was overly made up. In France, according to his argument, woman’s use of paint was not intended to mislead because the artifice was too obvious; Englishwomen, however, tried to mislead by more subtle make up, for they wanted “to be thought beautiful and much more beautiful than nature has made them” and so they were “guilty of a design  to deceive”

In the early 19th cnetury, neoclassicism and its emphasis on the natural look inspired by the Greek and Roman statuary , flourished, as personified by this portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia by Joseph Grassi ( 1804)

But it was a type of beauty that emphasised the young and the youthful. Professor Riberio notes that at this time:

Youthfulness was a crucial component of beauty-that is, a slim figure enhanced by light and simple dress and a youthful complexion that remained well beyond the juvenile age.

This print by Robert Deighton, Fashionable Lady in Dress and Undress dating from 1807 shows the sheer  amount of work and artifice that was necessary to present this appearance of youthful beauty as a woman aged…

As Professor Riberio wryly comments:

Even when the vogue for the  classical flourished at the  turn of the century, not every woman abandoned face paint or cosmetics; make up, like certain favoured styles of dress, is so much a part of sense of self that it is often retained beyond youth, when no longer fashionable. Many women, especially those of a certain age, must have felt more comfortable when dress assumed a natural waist level, when the arms were covered and when, by using cosmetics, they could ‘ baffle time in his invidious warfare against comeliness”

What I particularly loved was the detailed documentary on the cosmetics that women have used throughout the period covered by the book. All in the hope , sometimes a desperate and dangerous hope given the ingredients used, of appearing youthful and beautiful.

The foundation for a healthy and glowing face was unblemished skin, which was softened with a scented oil or a wax-based pomade…

The pomades which would give the appearance of a youthful skin were prepared and bought by women, rather in the way we buy age defying formulas today. Fascinating.

I can wholly  recommend this beautifully produced and sumptuously illustrated book to you. Professor Riberio has a great style which is entertaining, elegant and erudite. You will love this book, and reading  it will give you some insights into why Caroline Bingley was so dismissive of Elizabeth Bennet’s tan ,and why,  indeed, Darcy found her glowing complexion so compelling ;)

But in the meantime for Elegance & Ease & Luxury . . . I shall eat Ice & drink French wine, & be above Vulgar Economy.

So wrote Jane Austen from her rich brother’s home, Godmersham Park in Kent, in a letter to her sister Cassandra dated July 1st, 1808.

Ice creams, iced drinks and iced displays were only available to the wealthy and well to do in Jane Austen’s era. As Ivan Day writes in the book under review here today:

When ice cream first appeared in Britain in the seventeenth century, it was a luxury enjoyed solely by the inhabitants of royal palaces and noble households. For two hundred years it  remained an upper-class treat…

Ices could only be made on estates that possessed the luxury of an ice house- a place where,  in the cold winter months, ice from lakes was stored to use throughout the year to make cold drink, puddings ( ice creams and iced waters) and decorative iced table-pieces.

There, deep  under the earth, the ice- the Harvest of the Winter Months- as Elizabeth David termed it, was stored throughout the year until it had all gone, usually in late summer. Note the lake/pond ice itself was not eaten, as that would have been disgusting. It was used, usually with the addition of salt, to make other things freeze and chill.

From the mid 18th century ices also could be bought- at a price- from smart confectioners in the larger towns in England, such as the famed Gunther’s in Berkeley Square..

It is really no wonder then that Jane Austen relished the ease and elegance and luxury of her brother’s home, drinking French wine( not their usual home-bred effort ) and eating those rare ices. Something she would not normally have had access to in her little village in Hampshire.

Today’s book under review is a concise but very well written history of the ice cream in Britain. Ivan Day, the author, is, as you know, one of the foremost food historians in England. I have been lucky enough to attend some of his food courses and have been spellbound each time we have made ice cream in the Georgian manner, without the need for any modern refrigerators.

Here we have my photograph of some strawberry ice cream we were making in the 18th century way, in Gunther’s own pillar mould, set to freeze in a mixture of ice and salt, within a wooden pail.

This book, published by Shire, is fascinating. It covers, of course, periods both before and after the Georgian era, but has enough material to interest us, and for its price( £6.99) is amazingly good value. The chapters on ice houses and how the ice was gathered and stored are clear and concise. The chapter on Georgian ices is fascinating, the range of flavours on offer makes today’s ice cream manufactures offerings seem tame.

Above in an illustration from the book, is Frederick Nutt’s handwritten list of ice cream varieties dating from 1780. They include sweet ices; Burnt Ice Cream(  flavoured with caramel), Burnt Almond, and Damson, together with savoury flavours, for example, Parmesan Cheese.

Ivan gives copious amounts of information as to how these ices were made, served at tale and consumed. The history of the development of ice cream recipes is entertainingly written, tracing the developments from the first known English recipe, written by Lady Anne Fanshawe who lived from 1625-1680. Ivan has an immense collection of original recipe books from this era until the turn of the last century, and plunders them in this small book to provide vivid illustrations as to how these early ices were made. The book is well and appropriately illustrated and the examples of ices made by Ivan, from his truly astounding collection of ice cream moulds, are simply breathtaking:

A nice touch is the addition to the book of recipes taken from Frederick Nutt’s list, above, all adapted for use in modern ice cream makers. I can thoroughly recommend this detailed and well written overview of the history of creating and eating ice cream and I am sure that you will enjoy it.

This has recently become one of my very favourite books. I received it from the publishers  about six weeks ago and I have read it, and re-read it, since then. It now resides on my bedside table and I frequently take it up when insomnia strikes. It is simply one of the most well written and engaging books  on Mrs Delany I have ever read. But it is so much more than that…but before I get carried away in my enthusiasm, let’s first deal with the basics.

In this book, Molly Peacock,  the esteemed poet (shown above)has written a very detailed, readable and affectionate biography of that most accomplished woman, Mrs Delany. You will recall that last year I wrote about Mrs Delany, her accomplishments and her legacy to us of her copious and fabulously detailed correspondence, a boon for anyone studying domestic life of the 18th century, here

Mrs Delany is of course, now best remembered for her paper mosaiks of horticultural subjects. These amazingly accurate and detailed paper collages, now kept in the British Museum, were the work of her old age. She began making them when she was 72 and planned to complete 1000 of them. Sadly, her eyesight failed her and she put aside her work in 1783 having completed 985 of these astoundingly beautiful and accurate pieces of work.

The book is an exploration and appreciation of Mrs Delany’s life in Georgian England, Ireland and her admiration for the flowers in Dublin. We learn all about her two marriages, the first an arranged loveless thing; the second, to Dean Swift’s friend, Dr Patrick Delany, below, which was  a happier, fulfilling and companiable relationship. And then the years of her long widowhood and how  her artistic gifts enabled her to live a life  that was, despite the absence of her beloved Dr Delany, fulfilled and satisfying.

Molly Peacock has a immediacy in her writing so that in her company we swiftly and seamlessly time travel to the 18th century,taking in delicious details of coronations, the perils of 18th century travel,the world of the Bluestockings, and the last , productive years of the  life of Patrick Delany’s widow, sympathetically befriended by George III and his wife Queen Charlotte.

But the book is also part memoir,  a journey into Molly Peacock’s own life, both professional and personal. We learn of its parallels with Mrs Delany’s and how Molly’s fascination with these bewitching images has shaped the course of her life since she discovered them in the 1980s. More importantly, perhaps, she reveals to us  how researching these images  has affected her own attitude to life, her family, work and art. Without intending to sound too sentimental ( for this book most certainly is not prissy or sentimental at all) it is one of the most uplifting books I’ve read in years. Positive and creative. Attitudes that both Mrs Delany and Molly seem to share, and which ought to be examples to us all. To be frank I’m reminded of Miss Bates’s excellent attitude to life, as Jane Austen portrayed in Emma.If only she had had some artistic talent and a comfortabel pension….then she would not have been overlooked or patronised by anyone in Highbury society, and even our heroine might have paid her more due.

In less talented hands this  could have been a disjointed, difficult  book to read. But we travel effortlessly between detailed appreciations of the paper mosaiks, on to reminisces of Molly’s life, family and her journeyings(both mental and physical ); then to the minutiae of life in 18th century England and Ireland on to philosophical musings on the nature of modern life and contentment. It is an entirely satisfying and stimulating experience.

The book is also beautifully produced, reproducing 35 of Mrs Delany’s marvelous mosaiks in full colour. Link Beatrix Potter’s perfectly proportioned books, it sits perfectly in the hand and is very tactile: even the hard cover has been embossed poppy in its corner.(see above) I have adored living with this book it.

The publishers were kind enough to send me a copy, for it has already ben published in the U.S.A. but I had already ordered my own and it will be delivered when the book is published in the UK in July. As I am sure you will love this book I’m putting the publishers copy into the pile for the next Austen Only Annual Give Away in October. In the meantime,if you can’t wait for that, I urge you to buy it and savour every beautifully written word.

Lovers of Rowlandson’s works are spoilt for choice at the moment. Not only is there a wonderful exhibition of his works currently on show in the United States entitled, Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England, but also two books have recently been published; the catalogue to the exhibition which I reviewed here, and another, Regarding Thomas Rowlandson: His Life Art and Acquaintance by Matthew and James Payne.

It is sad that the catalogue writers did not have the chance to see the book before it was published, and not merely just some papers relating to it, for this now has to be regarded as the definitive book on Rowlandson’s life and works.

Gathering facts about Rowlandson is a difficult task, as the authors of this book acknowledge:

The biographer of Thomas Rowlandson encounters from the outset a frustrating deficiency of source material. Few letters to or by Rowlandons have survived. He wrote no journals. His character and activities are touched upon in the diaries and memoirs of a mere handful of his contemporaries. He surfaces only occasionally in the newspapers and pubic records of the period…..

Due to years of diligent research and painstaking tracing of his thousands of drawings, prints and engravings, the authors have  been able to provide this full and interesting study of Rowlandson’s life. By referencing and putting into context hundreds of his works they have been able to trace the journeyings of his life, and they have provided a vibrant portrait not merely of the artist but of the world he inhabited.

(Rowlandson by John Raphael Smith circa 1795)

Rowlandson’s sketches are some of his most interesting pictures and, to me, are far more valuable than any of his more polished  satirical works.Why? Because they give us a glimpse into the world that Jane Austen knew, and he depicted sights she saw nearly every day of her life. His rough sketches-the work of moments- have a vibrancy and immediacy and capture intimate and insignificant ( to others perhaps, but not to me) moments such this sketch of  The Delay or Accident in Popham Lane 1784

Or of this simple study of his old schoolmate and life long friend the famous comic/actor, Jack Bannister  having his hair dressed in his dressing room at Drury Lane theatre in London:

Whilst the more careful studies, such as this of a review of the Isle of Wight Volunteers drilling in Newport circa 1797, below, also give a flavour of a past world, and in this case  an indication of how the arrival of the militia in the town of Meryton would have looked to the Bennet sisters( not to mention their mother).

The book is profusely illustrated in colour and in black and white

and shows scenes with which Jane Austen would have been wholly familiar…indeed, of some to which her characters actually refer. This print, below,  is one of Rowlandson’s studies of A Register Office, probably executed in 1803, and is precisely the type of place Jane Fairfax refers to in Chapter 35 of Emma when in conversation with Mrs Elton:

“Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”

“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies. But I only mean to say that there are advertising offices, and that by applying to them I should have no doubt of very soon meeting with something that would do.”

By giving entertaining explanations of some of Rowlandson’s more obscure works, the authors allow us to understand the society he portrayed and satirised. This cartoon, below, entitled  The Road to Preferment Through Clarke’s Passage refers to the infamous Mrs Clarke, the mistress of the Duke of York. Their scandal which broke in 1809 was due to the Duke’s misuse of patronage and corruption under her influence. He had arranged the promotion of personnel in the army and the church on Mrs Clarke’s urging.

The book is for such a serious academic study,eminently readable and enjoyable. I really enjoyed meeting the characters who surrounded Rowlandson, both in his personal life and in his career, and I especially liked the vivid descriptions of the publishing world of the late 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in relation to Rudolph Ackermann. Here is how the book relates how the Microcosm of London was conceived and executed:

He(Ackermann-jfw ) invited William Pyne to write the letterpress. The colour plates were to be designed by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson. Augustus Pugin was a small, forty-six year old Frenchman who had fled from Revolutionary France and settled to a career as an architectural draughtsman in London. He suffered from an inflated sense of status. His pedigree might have been according to family tradition, touched a long time ago by nobility, but its lustre had rather dulled in more recent time, and although he had good humour and charm enough to satisfy society he could exhibit a brusque pomposity as he intuitively played the Gentleman…..The series remained only an unrealized fancy until in about 1804 Augustus Pugin met Rudolf Ackermann. Ackermann was inclined to take under his wing talented foreign refugees in England. He listened to the proposals of Mr and Mrs Pugin and was soon persuaded of the viability and profitability of their scheme. He would direct, commission and publish. ….Ackerman’s brain wave was to entrust to Thomas Rowlandson the figures of all those Londoners who would be seen filling Pugin’s architecture….To partner  the traditionally minded “Comte de Pugin” with the comic and unruly Rowlandson was a bold stroke”

(The House of Commons from The Microcosm of London, with architectural details by Pugin and figures by Rowlandson- my collection, not in the book)

This is a gem of a book: highly entertaining, readable and so informative of  Jane Austen’s times, for her life overlapped with his. I can throughly recommend it to you.

First, a warning: I so enjoyed this book that I devoured it and cannot really be truly objective about it.  It is a wonderful immersion into Brown’s world, with a fascinating list of well written characters, noble or otherwise.It is a page turner and a beautiful tribute to Lancelot Brown, the creator of many wonderful country house landscapes.

Jane Brown has long been one of my favourite writers on the history of gardening and gardeners. Her books on Gertrude Jekyll ( Gardens of a Golden Afternoon) and Vita Sackville West (Vita’s Other World and Sissinghurst)  have long been in My Favourite Books pile, and so I was delighted when she turned her inquisitive eye and elegant prose to “Capability” Brown. (An epithet never applied to him during his lifetime, it ought to be noted)

Lancelot Brown was responsible for creating some of the most sublime country house landscapes made in the eighteenth century. His work, which  achieved a timeless, effortless, natural effect, was distinguished from other lesser designers by allying beauty with practicality. He incorporated every need a great house possessed into  the surrounding coherent landscape, providing forestry areas, lakes, drives and ornamental walks that abutted working fields.Ever practical as well as aware of the art of landscape, he was also known as an agricultural improver. He worked at  most of the most famous and grand estates, and his work can still be enjoyed by visitors to these estates today. In fact so ubiquitous did his work become that many are under the impression that the effect was the result of nature, not his genius. Not so, as Griff Rhys Jones recently commented,  in a BBC programme about  Chatsworth. After viewing  the Brownian landscape that surrounds the house which is so exquisite, he irreligiously and wittily noted:

This is what God would have done had he had the money

And while God didn’t have the money, Brown’s many aristocratic patrons did. One of the first was Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire,(shown below in an engraving from my own collection). Brown’s work and the methods he employed there are very satisfyingly described by Jane Brown in great detail. Visitors to Blenheim, Chatsworth, Harewood, Burghley,Warwick Castle, Charlecote, Lacock Abbey and Wimpole Hall to name a few, can still see his work, in the landscape that surrounds these great houses. And there are many many more examples too numerous to list here (but most are mentioned in the book)

Jane Brown tells Lancelot’s story with ease and with a vivacity that makes it  as easy to read as the very best fiction. We not only follow his career, accompanying him on his ‘circuits’ around the grand estates of England and latterly in Wales, but we also are given insights  into his happy domestic life, meeting  his family and his circle, including his son-in-law the architect Henry Holland.  My favourite  character was his devoted Lincolnshire born wife, Bridget, known  as “Biddy”,  who ,while convivial enough with their friends, such as Pitt the Elder and the actor David Garrick, refused to be patronised by the grand dames who were the wives of Brown’s aristocratic patrons.

He began life in humble circumstances as  as the son of a Northumbrian yeoman farmer  but  due to connections and advantageous commissions expertly executed he became the man who set the fashion and style of English landscape gardening, rising to become The King’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court.

My only gripe with the book is that it while it is copiously illustrated in black and white line drawing and with colour prints within the text, they are few large-scale illustrations to show exactly what effect Brown achieved. For those of us lucky enough to be familiar with his greatest creations Petworth, Blenheim, Harewood, Stowe,etc- it is not much of a problem. But for those who may not be so familiar, I think it does him a disservice. While Turner’s impressionistic view of Blenheim – the sweep from the gate at Woodstock to the house is the magnificent view shown (see below)is included – a modern photograph might have conveyed  a little more of  Brown’s legacy, an effect that now seems so “natural” it is often taken as such.

Here is a photograph of mine of Chatsworth, taken last summer,  and the stunningly beautiful Brownian landscape can clearly be seen.(Please do click on this picture to enlarge it to see in detail how beautiful this landscape truly is)

Did Jane Austen approve of Brown and his works?Probably not. Her maternal family, the Leighs, had steadfastly refused to follow the fashion for landscape gardens at Stoneleigh, given their allegiance to the Stuarts and the old anti Hanoverian order. The 18th century  was a time when adopting fashions in grand gardens was very much a matter of personal and court politics, and their refusal to update Stoneleigh until the early 19th century reflects their stance.

The title  of the book, The Omnipotent Magician is taken from a passage in Cowper’s poem, The Task, wherein he directly criticises Brown and his profession:

He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn,

Woods vanish, hills subside and valleys rise,

And streams,as if created for his use,

Pursue the track of his directing wand,

Sinuous or straight,now rapid and now slow,

Now murmuring soft, now roaring in cascades,

Even he bids.

As we know that Jane Austen was an admirer of Cowper and one of her heroines, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, “her Fanny”, loved him too, and furthermore despised  “improvers”, it is probably safe to assume that she would not have been enamoured of this book or its intriguing subject. But I have been and recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

The first edition of the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, which was published in 1997, has for a long time lived in my essential pile of books. This pile contains  about 20 or so reference books I refer to constantly, and they sit in a slightly teetering pile on my desk in my study. They sometimes have to be replaced when they fall apart from overuse, as happened with my first copy of the Companion, which was held together with some pink  legal tape till I succumbed and bought another copy out of shame.

It was more than a starting point for further research, a collection of seriously but clearly written essays by leading Austen scholars,  which attempted  to put Austen’s works into context, critically and historically. It was a great success, coming as it did in 1997 on the crest of the wave of the Austen boom in popularity, caused in the main by the very successful adaptations of the early 1990s.

A new edition has been recently published, again edited by Copeland and McMaster, and, like the first edition, I can highly recommend it, and would encourage even those who have a copy of  the first edition to buy it, as there is so much new material within it to  think about and internalise.

Old essays which have been retained are The Chronology of Jane Austen’s Life by Deirdre Le Faye, The Professional Woman Writer by Jan Fergus,The Early Short Fiction by Margaret Anne Doody, The Letters by Carol Houlihan Flynn, Class by Juliet McMaster, Money by Edward Copeland(possibly my favourite chapter in the book), Jane Austen and Literary Tradition by Isobel Grundy and Austen Cults and Cultures by Claudia L. Johnson.

New essays which have been commissioned are Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility by Thomas Keymer, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park by Jocelyn Harris, Emma and Persuasion by Penny Gay, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Janet Todd, Making a Living by David Selwyn, Gender by E. J. Clery,  Sociability by Gillian Russell and a very intriguing essay Jane Austen on Screen by Katheryn Sutherland. The chapter on Further Reading originally written by Bruce Stovell has now been updated by Mary M Chan.

The Preface to the Companion has some interesting points, and it might be illuminating to consider them. One that did jump out at me and made me sit back in my chair with a little unease,  intimates that the audiences at which the book is aimed- academics and the Janeites, of which I suppose I am one- are often separated /divided despite a common love of the subject:

Those people who gather to talk about Jane Austen, for example, still divide loosely into two friendly groups seeking mutual conversation, but often sailing past one another-enegertic non-academics with avid feeling for Austen and limited tolerance for bookish harangues and academics also with great love for Austen but certainly bookish and with perhaps less enthusiasm of the Janeite kind..

Hmm..I do hate the way the word Janeite has become ever-so-slightly a disparaging term….

Students who first encounter her works and even old hands who read her novels annually all sense that Austen’s culture recedes at unsettling speed. Younger readers for example can find themselves puzzled by the insistent economics of Austen’s novels or by her subtle  class distinctions. They are startled to find that Austen’s works posses political resonance. The old Janeite enthusiasm “how do they make whip’t syllabub?” has altered almost universally to “why do they make whip’t syllabub”

Hmm…. I suppose here I show my amateur but lawerly colours and wonder if it isn’t better to ask both questions,and surely  the answer to the former informs the latter? How sad that there is considered to be  a great divide between the academic professional and serious amateur. I wonder what it says about us all….I have had little interaction with Austen academics, but I do have to say the divide between history academics and amateurs does not, in my opinion and personal experience, seem to be so marked or so jealously guarded. This does beg the question, what would Jane Austen make of it all ?

Enough of that.

Onto the new essays, my favourite being a very thoughtful chapter by Katheryn Sutherland on screen adaptations of Austen’s works. The proliferation of them in the mid 1990s is, of course, what prompted the rise in Austen’s recent popularity and was a prime reason the first companion was produced and, dare I say it, found a wide audience.

She makes the point that in the main, the adaptations do not reflect the subtlety of Jane Austen written world.When Jane Austen makes a point of mentioning a domestic object it is an alarm bell to the informed reader. Film cannot convey this. Also, modern adaptations tend to see the stories primarily as love stories, when obviously they are so much more than that. She also reviews the new packaging of Austen’s novels as modern chick lit and points out that while such books are more likely to be brought by younger Janeites, they will have first seen the adaptations, and do the adaptations  colour their views of the novels, instead of the other way around? They probably do. But what now can be done, that the collective genii are out of their respective film canisters?

Her criticism of the re-invention of Darcy by the 1995 BBC adaption is very interesting and is an opinion I have long shared. And I very much like her appreciation of the new attitdue-the dirty hem look- of the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice and of Persuasion from 1995. This adaptation, which is top among my favorites, gets special praise:

The sequence of mainly silent images suggestive of the turmoil of Anne Elliot’s inner life in the opening sequence of the 1995 Persuasion works so well because we are seduced into sympathy by Amanda Root’s reticent performance. There is no intrusive voice-over, no coy Hollywood style diary-writing or mirror-gazing to bring the viewer up to speed and when she looks camera-ward her gaze is inward.

The recent biographical TV film,  Miss Austen Regrets, also a favourite of mine, recieves a special mention:

Played with great assurance by Olivia Williams, this is a complicated controversially adult Austen:tart and barbed, amusing, desperately flirtatious, lonely, by turns intolerant, dependant and afraid, a complicated biographical portrait that works because film unlike words can trade effectively in since.

Of course to all this I would add the practical caveat that filmmakers, in my experience do not make films with the Austen academic  or Janeite in mind. They aim for a far wider audience, and this is all done, of course, to make a profit.

The second edition of the Companion is  a very useful book. It contains interesting articles, ones that provoke thought and some that inform opinion. Like the first, it tries it educate so that a better understanding of Austen is acquired. Because of the major additions to this second edition, this is now a book  Janeites( ought I use that term?) should strive to read or buy. Very good value. I wonder if I will have to purchase another due to overuse in a few years time…?

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