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Monday, 28 July 2014

Coming Soon!

My forthcoming book A Visitor's Guide to Jane Austen's England is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK (release date 30 October) and Amazon US.
Update 14 August: you can now also pre-order the book direct from Pen and Sword Books.

Darcy spurns Elizabeth at the ball, Pride and Prejudice.

Immerse yourself in the vanished world inhabited by Austen’s contemporaries. Packed with anecdotes, the book is an intimate exploration of how the middle and upper classes lived from 1775, the year of Austen’s birth, to the coronation of George IV in 1820.  My book conjures up all aspects of daily life within the period, drawing on contemporary diaries, illustrations, letters, novels, travel literature and archives. 

·       Were all unmarried affluent men really 'in want of a wife'?
·       Where would a young lady seek adventures?
·       Would ‘taking the waters’ at Bath and other spas kill or cure you?
·       Was Lizzy Bennet bitten by bed-bugs while travelling?
·       What would you wear to a country ball, or a dance at Almack’s?
·       Would Mr Darcy have worn a corset?
·       What hidden horrors lurked in elegant Regency houses?
Put on your dancing gloves and embrace a lost era of corsets and courtship!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A Visit to Whitchurch

Whitchurch Town Hall
Jane Austen's birthplace of Steventon was a small village, so she often went shopping for necessities in nearby towns and villages like Alton, Basingstoke and Whitchurch. In a letter to Cassandra (November 1800) she wrote: 'Martha [Lloyd] has promised to return with me [after Jane's visit to her], and our plan is to have a nice black frost for walking to Whitchurch and there throw ourselves into a postchaise, one upon the other, our heads hanging out at one door, and our feet at the opposite'. 
If you explore Whitchurch today, you can still see
White Hart, Whitchurch
some of the buildings which would have been familiar to Jane, such as the Town Hall, built in the late 18th century, and the White Hart Hotel, which reputedly dates back to the mid-15th century.  

The fashion magazines of Austen's day like La Belle Assemblee and the Lady's Monthly Museum often mention silk gowns and cloaks.  

Whitchurch Silk Mill
Whitchurch Silk Mill was built after Jane Austen moved away from Steventon in early 1801. It was probably constructed about 1813, although it's possible that there was an earlier mill building on the same site. There was also a silk mill at nearby Overton, another place mentioned in Austen's letters.

Whitchurch Silk Mill is still a working factory, and it has produced silk for film adaptations of Austen's novels including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility

Brightly coloured silks wound on swifts at Whitchurch Silk Mill.
Photos © Sue Wilkes.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Astley's Amazing Amphitheatre

In August 1796, while staying in Cork St, London, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that she was looking forward to an evening out:  ‘We are to be at Astley’s tonight, which I am glad of’.
John Philip Astley, father of the modern circus, was Staffordshire-born. While serving in the army, Astley learnt feats of horsemanship, and in 1770 he founded a ‘Riding School’ near Westminster Bridge, where he gave open-air shows during the summer evenings: a rope defined the ‘ring’ for performances. In the mornings he gave riding lessons to ladies and gentlemen. 
These early shows were fairly humble. Astley’s wife beat a drum to provide music; a fife-player was soon added. The wonderful ‘Spanish Horse’ could allegedly undo his own saddle and wash his hooves in a pail of water.  Another equine star, ‘Billy’, could take a boiling kettle off a blazing fire and arrange teacups and saucers ready for tea.  
Astley installed (circa 1780) a stage and scenery at his riding school, and a dome-shaped roof painted with leaves and trees: he renamed it ‘The Royal Grove’. Now he could give shows illuminated by candlelight, accompanied by music from an orchestra. A typical evening's fare on a November evening in 1780 at the 'Amphitheatre Riding-House' began with Ombres Chinoises (shadow puppet-plays), equestrian displays, human pyramids, etc. Clowns 'helped' with the show. Horses were not the only animal stars;  'dancing dogs' and ‘the surprising Learned Pig' put in guest appearances. 

By the date of Jane Austen's visit, pantomimes had been added to the repertoire, and Astley's horses performed dances like the minuet or the hornpipe. A box for the evening's entertainment cost four shillings (approximately £33 today); a seat in the pit was two shillings. 
In Austen’s novel Emma (1816), Mr and Mrs John Knightley, their little boys Henry and John, Robert Martin and Emma’s friend Harriet Smith spent an evening at Astley’s, where they were all ‘extremely amused’ by the show. After ‘quitting their box...they were in such a crowd, as to make Miss Smith rather uneasy’. Robert took such gallant care of Harriet that she gratefully accepted his marriage proposal the following day. 
You can find out more about Astley's Amphitheatre and his amazing life story in the latest issue of Jane Austen's Regency World; and there's lots more info on the entertainment on offer during her lifetime in A Visitor's Guide To Jane Austen's England

2 views of Astley’s Riding School in 1770. ‘From J. T. Smith’s Historical and Literary Curiosities’. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1878).
Entrance to Astley’s theatre, 1820. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1878).
Interior of Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1843. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1878).