Search This Blog

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.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Mourning Customs

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World magazine (the bicentenary issue) is on mourning customs in late Georgian times.

Because mortality rates were much higher than today, people were used to seeing processions of funeral vehicles every day.

When a young girl died, one pretty custom in some counties like Derbyshire and Hampshire was the carrying of a ‘maiden’s garland’ or ‘virgin’s crown’ (‘crants’) by girls dressed in white, as part of the funeral procession.

There are still lots of events ongoing to commemorate the bicentenary of Jane Austen's death, and there's a round-up here on the Jane Austen 200 website. 

A maiden’s garland at Holy Trinity church, Ashford-in-the-Water. © Sue Wilkes.

Princess Charlotte’s funeral procession. Memoirs of her late Royal Highness Charlotte Augusta, Henry Fisher, c.1818.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Jane Austen's Last Illness

The Austens' donkey carriage at Jane Austen's House Museum.
Early in 1816 Jane Austen began suffering from a mysterious, recurrent illness. It may have been Addison’s disease or possibly Hodgkin's lymphoma (despite recent suggestions that she may have been poisoned by arsenic). Typically, Jane made light of her situation when writing to her family. On 23 March 1817, she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight: ‘I must not depend on being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life’.

Jane was an indefatigable walker, and it must have been immensely frustrating for her when she became so weak that she had to use a donkey carriage to get out and about at Chawton.  However, Jane disliked driving the carriage, and later a saddle was bought so that she could ride the donkey instead. She told Fanny: ‘I have taken one ride on the Donkey and like it very much...and found the exercise and everything very pleasant’.
The house in College St where Jane and Cassandra stayed.

Despite her intermittent illness, Jane revised her novel Persuasion, and early in 1817 she also began work on a new novel, Sanditon. In March 1817 Jane told Fanny Knight that she had ‘something ready for publication’: Persuasion.

But perhaps she knew that she was running out of time, because at the end of the month Jane made her will. She left her estate to her sister Cassandra, subject to a legacy of £50 to her brother Henry, and £50 to her friend Madame Bigeon.

By May Austen had become so unwell that her family persuaded her to move from Chawton to Winchester, so she could have the benefit of the best medical care available. (I wonder if Jane took a great deal of persuading, especially if she guessed she might never return home again). Jane and Cassandra took lodgings in College Street, near Winchester Cathedral.

However, Jane wrote cheerfully (27 May 1817) to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh: ‘I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morning to 10 at night; upon the sopha ‘tis true, but I eat my meals with Aunt Cass in a rational way, and can employ myself, and walk from one room to the other’.

Mr Lyford, the local surgeon, had a very good reputation, and Jane joked bravely to James Edward: ‘Mr Lyford says he will cure me, and if he fails, I shall draw up a memorial and lay it before the Dean and Chapter, and have no doubt of redress from that pious, learned, and disinterested body’. Sadly, although Mr Lyford effected a temporary improvement in her condition, he soon admitted that Jane’s case was desperate. But even now, Jane could not put down her pen, and she wrote a comic poem on Winchester. 
Winchester Cathedral. 

Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817. On the morning of 24 July, she was laid to rest at Winchester Cathedral, the ‘building she admired so much’. Her brothers Edward, Henry and Frank, and nephew James Edward, accompanied Jane to her last resting place.

Cassandra ‘watched the little mournful procession the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight...I had lost her for ever’.

Although Jane was gone, she is not forgotten. You can visit her memorials in the Cathedral; but surely her novels are her greatest monument.

Photos © Sue Wilkes.