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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Jane Austen's Landscapes

This year is the bicentenary of Humphry Repton's death, and several events are planned: visit

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World magazine (Mar/April issue) is on the way Austen uses landscapes in her novels. 

Jane Austen grew up during the great age of the ‘improvers’ like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton. Austen loved William Cowper's poetry. In his poem The Task, Cowper deplores the rage for 'improvement' which swept away the past:

Capability Brown
Improvement too, the idol of the age,
Is fed with many a victim.  Lo! he comes—
The omnipotent magician, Brown, appears.
Down falls the venerable pile, the abode
Of our forefathers, a grave whiskered race,
But tasteless…
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 directed wand
Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,
Now murmuring soft, now roaring in cascades,
Even as he bids.  The enraptured owner smiles.
’Tis finished.

This tension between the old and new is explored by Jane Austen in her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon. The enthusiastic Mr Parker has built a new home at the seaside: ‘Trafalgar House, on the most elevated spot on the down’. It is a 'light, elegant building, standing in a small lawn with a very young plantation round it’ 

He pours scorn on his wife's fondness for their old home, in a ‘little contracted nook, without air or view’. 

Mrs Parker, more practical, reminds him 'It was always a very comfortable house'. Parker ripostes that ‘We have all the grandeur of the storm’ at Trafalgar House.  His wife still longs for their old garden, however: ‘a nice place for the children to run about in. So shady in summer!' 

Images from the author's collection:
Wooburn (Woburn) in Surrey, the seat of Philip Southcote. He designed it as a ‘ferme ornee’ (ornamental farm garden). The Universal Magazine c.1770. 
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore & Legend, Walter Scott, 1889

Monday, 8 January 2018

A Visit to William Cowper's House, Olney

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney.
Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you had a good Christmas.
Summer seems a long time away, so I thought it would be nice to look back at my visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum at Olney last year.
Cowper House rear view, showing the two buildings' junction.
Jane Austen loved William Cowper's poems - his work is often quoted in her letters and novels.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price mourns the potential loss of the trees at Sotherton, and quotes from Cowper's poem The Task: “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.’”

The museum is a real gateway into the past - as you explore the Georgian house and garden, you can really imagine what everyday life was like in Jane Austen's England. The museum is actually two buildings joined together; you enter through the original kitchen, then move on through Cowper's hall, parlour, bedroom and so on.

Cowper's summerhouse, Olney.
Cowper's personal life was rather sad; he suffered from poor mental health for many years, but he found great comfort in nature, and the changing seasons.

William was a very keen gardener. The gardens are very beautiful, and Cowper spent many hours in the summerhouse composing his work in peace and quiet.

He famously kept three tame hares called Puss, Tiney and Bess

Cowper was greatly affected by the poverty endured by the local lace-making families, and there's a lace-making gallery at the museum.

There's also a room devoted to John Newton, Cowper's friend and fellow hymn-writer.

The gardens.

The museum re-opens in February 2018; you can find out how to become a Friend of the museum here.

All photos copyright Sue Wilkes.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Christmas Theatricals at Steventon

Jane Austen loved the theatre!

She was about seven years old when family theatricals first began at Steventon Rectory, circa December 1782. Dr Thomas Francklin’s Matilda was seemingly the first play performed, probably in the dining-room. Jane’s big brother James penned some additional verses to accompany the performance.

George Austen taught fee-paying scholars at home, so the plays only took place during the summer and Christmas holidays, when his pupils were away. At some point some stage scenery was painted to accompany the Austens’ theatricals, which must have added to the fun.

In 1787, Jane’s cousin Phila Walter wrote in a letter that Eliza de Feuillide (another cousin of Jane and Cassandra’s) was planning to visit Steventon at Christmas and that the family 'mean to act a play, Which is the Man? and Bon Ton. My uncle's barn is fitting up quite like a theatre, and all the young folks are to take their part. The Countess is Lady Bob Lardoon [sic] in the former and Miss Tittup in the latter. They wish me much of the party and offer to carry me, but I do not think of it. I should like to be a spectator, but am sure I should not have courage to act a part, nor do I wish to attain it.' (Phila sounds amazingly like Fanny Price in this letter!)

Eliza wrote to Phila to ‘assure you we shall have a most brilliant party and a great deal of amusement, the house full of company, frequent balls. You cannot possibly resist so many temptations, especially when I tell you your old friend James is returned from France and is to be of the acting party’.

But Phila was not keen, so Eliza wrote to her again, begging her to come for a fortnight to Steventon, provided she could bring herself to act, 'for my Aunt Austen declares "she has not room for any idle young people'.

Jane’s recollections of these family theatricals clearly influenced the Bertrams’ performances in Mansfield Park – but surely none of the Austen brothers acted like that ‘ranting young man’ Yates, who was ‘almost hallooing’ as he rehearsed his part?

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all Janeites everywhere!

 ‘ Hints to managers, actors and authors / G.M. Woodward, del.1790, courtesy Library of Congress. 

Hugh Thomson illustrations for Mansfield Park. 

Friday, 1 December 2017

Sunday, 8 October 2017

A Visit To Parkgate

Parkgate today - it was once a thriving port.
Parkgate, in Cheshire, no longer has direct access to the sea for shipping because the River Dee estuary has silted up. But it was formerly a point of departure for passengers to Ireland (like John Wesley). The port was used by the Royal Yachts, which sailed on the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland’s official business.

Parkgate’s chief claim to fame was as a fashionable bathing-place. The neat, modern brick buildings of the town were arranged along one side of the banks of the Dee, which inspired the old Cheshire saying ‘all on one side, like Parkgate.’
The Old Watch House used by the customs officers.

Although it was double the distance by sea from Parkgate to Dublin than the alternative route via Holyhead, the port was a popular terminus because of its good coach links with Chester. Emma Hart (later to become famous as Nelson’s lover, Lady Hamilton) stayed here on holiday in 1784.
Passengers for Dublin caught a ‘new and elegant coach,’ the Mercury, which left the White Lion Inn, Chester for Parkgate every morning at eight, except for Mondays; it returned the same evening.

Dover Cottage, where Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton) stayed. 
The reputation of Parkgate and Neston as tourist hotspots was greatly enhanced by ‘the extensive and brilliant patronage shewn to the Parkgate packets, which, from the regularity of their sailing, the excellence of their accommodations, and every other advantage, seem to have a decided ascendancy over all others; and in consequence, Parkgate is become the resort of elegance and fashion’.
Plaque dedicated to Emma Hamilton.
All photos copyright Sue Wilkes. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Jane Austen and Gardens

Temple of Echo, Rousham Park.
I'm very pleased to say that this week I've got a guest article on Jane Austen and Gardens at Pride and Possibilities, the e-zine for the Jane Austen Literary Foundation - a very worthy cause, do support it if you can!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Dress-up Jane Austen: A Review

I am probably not the best person to review this book, as I am not very skilled at crafts, but I am over 8 years old (!) which is the target age group, and I do love all things Jane Austen, so here we go!

The first few pages of the book give some historical background and describe the fashions of the day. I am not a costume expert but the fashions appear to be broadly correct, and based on fashion prints and contemporary illustrations. There are two dolls to cut out, and fourteen costumes in total.

Obviously a book aimed at children cannot give a detailed social history overview, but I was a little surprised to read that ‘Young women had to find husbands to look after them as they couldn’t have jobs and earn money like today’.

Working-class and even middle- class women worked - as mantua-makers, lace- makers, ran businesses, etc.

And of course Jane Austen earned money as a novelist – she was very proud of her earnings. (Mary Shelley depended on her writing income, too). So it would have been nice to have had Austen’s earnings mentioned.

On the practical side, I found it tricky to get the dolls to stand up, especially when you try to hang the clothes on them (which is why Lizzie Bennet is not wearing her wedding dress in my photo, right). I also had to ‘turn up’ the dolls’ shoes as the costumes, when attached, seem slightly longer than the dolls.

When cutting out the costumes, you have to be very careful not to cut into the tabs (very young children would find this difficult I think) – slightly bigger and longer tabs would be easier to cut out and hang on the dolls.

On a positive note, ‘Mr Darcy’ has a very dark complexion (which adds a nice touch of diversity). The dolls’ costumes (above left) are very attractive and appropriate for a range of social situations: shopping, walking or riding, going to a ball, and of course a wedding outfit. There are some additional accessories to cut out, too.

‘Dress-up Jane Austen’, by Catherine Bruzzone and Hennie Howarth will be released on 1 September. It would make an attractive gift for a fashion-conscious young lady, and I think Janeites will enjoy it, too.

NB. The author was given a free copy of the book for review purposes.