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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.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Jane Austen Exhibition at The Weston Library, Oxford

This sounds like a real 'must-see' for Jane Austen fans! The Weston Library, Oxford, will host an exhibition on Austen's life and works from 23 June-29 October.

Some of the highlights include: the unfinished manuscript of Sanditon (Jane's last work), a copy of Volume The First (Jane's juvenilia), her writing desk, some letters, and her brother Frank Austen's logbook when he was Post-Captain of HMS Canopus.

The new Weston Library is just a short walk from St John's College, where Jane's father George Austen, and her brothers James and Henry, studied. The College Library holds six letters written by, or concerning, Jane Austen.
St John's College - Charles I.
St John's College, Oxford, from the gardens. 

Images copyright Sue Wilkes:
First editions of Austen's novels in a 2010 exhibition at the Bodleian.
St John's College: a rear view, and a statue of Charles I.

Monday, 8 May 2017

An Apology and A Grumble

Whenever anyone takes the time to comment on my blogs, I'm extremely grateful. So it's extremely annoying that whenever I try to make a reply, it disappears into the ether. I have tried fiddling with the Blogger settings but no joy. (Weirdly, my comments do appear to work intermittently on my Sue Wilkes history blog). I suspect it's something to do with the pop-up blocker but who knows? So I do apologise if I appear to be ignoring you - there's some kind of technical fault and I've no idea how to fix it.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Stand and Deliver!

Although England’s most infamous highwaymen, like Dick Turpin, ended their careers on the ‘fatal tree’ at Tyburn long before Jane Austen was born, their lurid exploits were still legendary.  Highwaymen were no longer numerous but were still a force to be reckoned with. Mail-coachmen were armed with blunderbusses, and gentlemen travellers carried pistols with them when crossing areas infested by these mounted robbers.

In 1793 a highwayman was on the prowl not far from Jane Austen’s Steventon home. That same year Mrs Bramston, a friend of the Austens, was very upset after being robbed and threatened by a footpad at gunpoint at Overton, not far from Steventon. Footpads were renowned for their viciousness because they sometimes killed their victims so they could not testify against them later.  A few years later the Revd. Charles Powlett, who was well known to the Austens, fell victim to a Surrey highwayman and lost a valuable watch and money.

Dr Syntax attacked by footpads. 

It was customary to hang up executed malefactors’ bodies in chains. These gruesome remnants of humanity were a familiar sight for travellers, and Jane Austen could hardly have avoided seeing them on her journeys.

For example, one frosty winter’s night in January 1796, teenage post-boy John Stanton was carrying the Warrington mail when he was stopped by two men on horseback near Helsby in Cheshire. The men tied him to a tree and said he was being watched: if he tried to escape they would slice off his arm.
Highwayman Higgins' house at Knutsford. Copyright Sue Wilkes.

Stanton eventually escaped, and highwaymen Thomas Brown (twenty-six) and James Price (nineteen) were caught.  A few weeks later they were ‘launched into eternity in the presence of an immense multitude’ at Chester (Chester Chronicle, 6 May 1796). Their corpses were hung in chains on Trafford Green, and their bones rattled in the wind for over twenty years.

But the age of the highwayman was waning. The last recorded attack by a robber on horseback in England was near Taunton (Somerset) in 1831.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review of Gone to the Continent: The British in Calais 1760–1860

‘Dessein’s’ hotel in Calais was immortalized by Laurence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey, first published in 1768. The hotel was run by Pierre Dessin and his family.  
In Gone to the Continent, Martin Brayne gives us a series of snapshots of British travellers’ experiences at this romantic destination.

Fans of Georgian and early Victorian social history will find much to enjoy in this engaging exploration of the L’Hotel d’Angleterre’s visitors. Calais was the start and end point for thousands of Brits journeying on the Continent, whether for business or pleasure.

Visitors included young barristers like Harry Peckham; the poet William Wordsworth, with his sister Dorothy and wife Mary; and novelist Fanny Burney (Mme D’Arblay).  Using original sources and contemporary letters and diaries, Brayne relates the perils of the Channel crossing; seasickness; the battles with petty officialdom; food and drink; and theatrical performances in the hotel. Famous debtors like Beau Brummel, Emma Hamilton and Charles James Apperley (Nimrod) also stayed in the hotel after fleeing their creditors in England.

I enjoyed the book immensely. I was particularly interested by the story of the Nottinghamshire lace-makers who settled in France and set up factories there, in an attempt to escape the post-Waterloo economic slump at home. (Nottingham was home to Luddite attacks on machinery during this period). Later, during the 1848 revolution in France, many of these English families returned home. However, there are still lace-makers in Calais today, some descended from these English migrants.

The book has several charming contemporary illustrations (some plates are in colour), and contains detailed references, a bibliography, and appendices.

As Brayne says, ‘The Calais of Sterne and Mrs Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson, Thackeray and Dickens has long since disappeared but thanks to what is written by and of them, they can still be seen dining at Dessein’s, sauntering about the Place d’Armes or strolling on the sands.
Old Calais lives on’.

Monday, 6 March 2017

No Dreaming Spires for Jane!

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine discusses the limited education available for girls and women in late Georgian times. Jane and her sister Cassandra could not go to university like their father George, and brothers James and Henry, who went to St John’s College, Oxford.
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. 

Girls’ education was designed to prepare them for the marriage ‘market’ and their future lives as wives and mothers. Authors like Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay argued passionately that girls should have as good an education as boys - but no higher education colleges were open to women until over three decades after Jane Austen's death.
Cartoon: ‘Farmer Giles & his wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their neighbours, on her return from school. Gillray, 1809. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZC2-3803.

Update 7 March: For some reason none of my replies to comments are showing online - so many thanks to Tony for all the informative comments!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey, 1833.
One of the odd things about Austen's novels, letters and diaries is that she seemingly never mentions Bath Abbey, even though she must have walked past it many times, and perhaps even attended divine service there.
Visitors today don't see the Abbey as Jane would have known it; the building was re-modelled by George Manners in the 1830s, and restored in the 1860s and 1870s by that serial 'improver' of ancient churches, George Gilbert Scott.
The Abbey, also known as the church of St Peter and St Paul, may have been founded as early as 675; there's a
timeline here on the Abbey website. 
The Abbey in the 1890s. 

During Jane Austen's day, services were held daily at 11am; the tower had a peal of ten bells. In 1785 (when Jane was ten years old), several Sunday Schools were set up in Bath; one was attached to the Abbey Church. Within a few years, over 500 children attended the schools (they had to be recommended by a subscriber to be able to attend).

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Jane Austen Festival, Louisville

This festival sounds like great fun! The largest Jane Austen event in North America will take place 14-16 July at Louisville, KY, to celebrate the novelist's enduring legacy. It's sponsored by the Jane Austen Society of North America, Greater Louisville Region.
Dr Cheryl will give a talk on 'The Eulogy Jane Austen Should Have Had', and there will be tours of a Georgian home.
Visitors can enjoy delights including a Regency fashion show, a Grand Ball, afternoon tea, an Emporium, duelling gentlemen, bare-knuckle sparring, bobbin lace-making, archery and a Punch & Judy show.
On the Friday, Lord Nelson and Napoleon will attend, along with an encampment of His Majesty's Royal Navy.
Full dress for February 1805.
For more information, contact Bonny Wise, festival chair at
You should attend in Regency dress - I look forward to seeing the photos for this amazing event!
If you can't make it to the festival, there's an updated list of Jane Austen bicentenary events in the UK here on the Jane Austen 200 website.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Ladies of Llangollen

The foaming River Dee at Llangollen. 
Many thanks to Austen Authors for hosting my guest post on the Ladies of Llangollen's Romantic friendship this week! You can read my blog post here, and there are lots more interesting goodies to explore here on Austen Authors!
There's some more photos of the Ladies' home, Plas Newydd, here on the Llangollen website.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Upcoming Highlights!

January fashions for 1805, Lady's Monthly Museum.
I hope you all had a lovely peaceful Christmas and New Year with family and friends. It's back to normal now after the break - I have got a lot of work to get through in the next few weeks, so my blog may be quiet for a little while. But watch out for my feature on Jane Austen coming soon in the Discover Your Ancestors bookazine, and we have got all the Jane Austen 200 celebrations this year to look forward to, in honour of the bicentenary of her death. Upcoming and ongoing events are listed here.