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Friday, June 1, 2018

Inside Jane Austen's School

Were you aware that Jane Austen went to school in Reading? It was a brief stint, of course - 18 months to be exact - as girls' education was not a matter of priority in Georgian England. Jane Austen's brothers received an extensive classical education, whereas Jane's sister Cassandra, and Jane who insisted on following her big sister to school, were simply taught to read and taught 'accomplishments' in order to make the girls more eligible for marriage. 

I have visited the Abbey Gateway previously and written more about Jane's schooling there. However, on my previous visits, I was disappointed to find that the Gateway was closed for renovation and I was only able to peruse the site from outside. This spring, the Abbey ruins and the Abbey Gateway have been opened for occasional tours, and I was privileged enough to visit the Gateway today as they held a half-term workshop for children, which my children were excited to participate in. 

I was always curious to see the interiors of the beautiful Gothic building where Jane Austen lived and studied when she was just 10 years old. You go in and go straight up a staircase, which was there in Jane Austen's days, heavily restored later however. As you go up, you come to a large, light room, framed by large Gothic arch windows. Following the restoration, with fresh paint on the walls and brand-new spot-lights on the ceiling, the room appears very light and 'clean', unlike how it must have felt back in the day - I imagine it being a whole lot darker and gloomier than it is now. However, the large windows must have brought in a fair amount of light so that the girls could have engaged in reading and writing in the school room. 

The main room is very large and was previously apparently split into two separate rooms before the central wall was pulled down. I imagine they must have had separate rooms for older and younger girls, or perhaps a room for sleeping and another one for studying? I was curious to know where the girls must have lodged, as apart from the main room, there was only a porter's room downstairs. Perhaps they lived or studied in the building next door, which no longer exists.

I absolutely loved the arched Gothic windows and their wide windowsills. I can only imagine Jane and Cassandra sitting on the windowsills - just the right width for a girl to sit on comfortably - and indulge in a novel. The school was, after all, not a place for serious education and the girls were given plenty or freedom after their morning classes. They were free to spend all their afternoons playing in the abbey ruins, which must have provided an exciting backdrop for Jane's vivid imagination and an inspiration for her later novels, Northanger Abbey and perhaps Mr Knightley's Donwell Abbey as well. 

Glimpses of the original stone wall. 

My children enjoyed baking medieval gingerbread and decorating plates using designs inspired by the Reading Abbey walls. I am now intrigued to go back on a tour of the Abbey ruins themselves and get a better idea of the place that must have given the young Jane so much inspiration for her novels. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Finding Jane Austen in Basingstoke

Although last year was amazing when it comes to all things Jane Austen, with plenty of Austenesque events taking place in different parts of southern England to celebrate Jane Austen 200, I didn't get round to much blogging as my time has been taken up by family commitments. I did, however, attend as many Jane Austen-related exhibitions as I could, the most recent ones being the Bodleian Library (Oxford), British Library (London) and Willis Museum (Basingstoke). 

I also visited Jane Austen's House on her birthday in December as there is always a wonderful ambience on that special day and there are usually a couple of new things on display. The highlight of the day for me was when my four-year-old daughter sang "Away In A Manger" accompanied by the old pianoforte in the drawing room!

In the autumn I returned to nearby Basingstoke to explore the old town and the various places familiar to Jane Austen. Of course I had to view the newly erected statue of Jane Austen in front of the Willis Museum in the Market Square. 

I thought the statue was perhaps somewhat smaller than her actual height would have been, Jane Austen being considered a tall woman at her time (taller than myself although I'm just 5"4!). That said, I was overwhelmed and proud finally to have a statue and a tribute to my favourite author in a place that was so familiar to her.

Basingstoke was the closest larger town to Steventon where Jane grew up. It is a place where she went shopping and attended her very first balls. The high street, Winchester Street (above), still retains some of its period feel, with a number of old buildings dotted here and there. At the time, the shopkeepers included 6 bakers, 4 butchers, 4 drapers, 2 wig makers, 2 grocers, 2 hatters and 1 ironmonger. In her letters, Jane mentions buying some fabric and ink here, and her father bought Jane's writing slope and bed in Basingstoke, too.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the site where Lloyds Bank (above) is now was where the Town Hall was situated in Jane Austen's days, and she attended balls here. Winter balls were held regularly on full moon dates, attended by the local gentry.

Another assembly room, mentioned in the same post, was in the Angel Inn, opposite the museum, which now houses Barclays Bank (above). We do not know for sure if the Austens attended balls here, but it is quite likely as it was very popular venue.

If you turn left and walk down the road, you come to The Red Lion (above), where coaches used to stop on their way to and from London. Perhaps Jane also stopped here on the way from visiting her brother, Edward, at Godmersham Park in Kent. 

On the other side of the Market Square, turning right, used to be another coaching inn, The Crown, where the Austens' carriage might also have stopped (above). Jane's father attended a Gentlemen's Club in this building. The space at the back is the old inn yard.

A narrow street from the inn yard leads into Cross Street.

This is where the Austens' doctor, John Lyford, lived. We do not know exactly which house he lived in, but it could have been one of these.

Going back to Winchester Street and past the Red Lion, you come towards War Memorial Park, which houses Goldings (above), a lovely mansion from the 1780s. Goldings was the home of the Russells, a prominent 18th century Basingstoke family who were friends of the Austens. The Appletree family moved into Goldings in the early 19th century and interestingly, their daughter, Eliza, was the lady who married Harris Bigg-Wither after he was turned down by Jane Austen after just an overnight's engagement. What a fascinating connection! Goldings now houses a register office.

Russell Park (now known as War Memorial Park) was laid out between 1788 and 1797 as private grounds to Goldings, on 6 acres of land. The park was then designed in English landscape style, and is a beautiful green space with some lovely, winding walks, belts of tall, old trees and a hexagonal brick temple. 

I had a lovely stroll around the park, which was basking in beautiful autumn sunshine. What a wonderful place to end my little excursion around Jane Austen's Basingstoke.

Points of Interest - Jane Austen - Basingstoke Leaflet, published by the Basingstoke Heritage Society.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jane Austen and Her "Alton Apothy"

As we visited Regency Day in Alton last week, we made it a point to visit the Allen Gallery to view their small exhibition titled "Jane and Her Alton Apothecary". The highlight of the exhibition was a newly discovered portrait of William Curtis who was one of the last people to meet Jane Austen. Curtis treated her during the earlier stages of her illness before her condition deteriorated and she moved to Winchester in search of better treatment. 

According to the local historian, Jane Hurst, in 1800 Mr Curtis was described as ‘a man of thirty, of medium height, rather broad, with dark brown hair, small side whiskers, greyish eyes, a good, firm chin and a kindly expression.' Having been brought up in a Quaker family he dressed quietly and took life seriously.

Jane Austen called William Curtis her "Alton Apothy" in her letters, "apothy" being an abbreviation for apothecary. In Jane Austen's days, trained apothecaries were an important member of the community, not only dispensing medication but they also treated patients if there was no qualified doctor in the area. They were precursors to today's chemists and spent up to 7 years in training. However, they learned their trade through apprenticeship and were classed as tradesmen and were therefore below doctors on the social scale.

The Curtis family were notable in the area and they were apothecaries in five generations. William Curtis' father (also William) was a famous botanist, and his son (William Curtis) founded the Curtis Museum in Alton High Street and named it after his father. Curtis Museum is on the opposite side of the road from William Curtis' house. 

William Curtis' house is on the right. 

An apothecary in Jane Austen's days was not paid for treating patients but solely for the medication they sold. During their apprenticeship, they learnt to mix potions and make medicines, and they sold medicines, herbs, spices and even perfumes in their shops. 
There is a replica of an apothecary's shop at the Winchester Discovery Centre's exhibition "Jane's Winchester: Malady and Medicine" (below). 

On 6th April, 1817, Jane writes optimistically to her brother Charles, 
"I was so ill on Friday ... but either her [Cassandra’s] return .... or my having seen Mr Curtis or my disorders choosing to go away, have made me much better.

Unfortunately, Jane's improvement did not last long, and Mr Curtis was not able to do much to help Jane. On 22nd May, 1817, Jane writes in her last letter from Chawton to her dear friend, Anne Sharp, 

"in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you, I have since been very ill cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness & languor. This discharge was on me for above a week, & as our Alton Apothy did not pretend to be able to cope with it, better advice was called in. Our nearest very good is in Winchester...I am going to Winchester, instead, for some weeks to see what Mr Lyford can do farther towards re-establishing me in tolerable health. "

Mr Lyford was not able to do much to help Jane Austen, either, as her illness - mystery as it still is - was incurable at the time. Jane passed away in her dear sister, Cassandra's arms, on 18th July. She was buried in her beloved Winchester Cathedral. 


Jones, V. (ed.) (2004) Jane Austen - Selected Letters. Oxford University Press.  

Jane Austen's Regency Week 

You can read more about the role of the apothecary in Jane Austen's era on Jane Austen's World

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Celebrating Jane Austen's Bicentenary at Winchester

Winchester was the final abode of Jane Austen, the place where she was nursed by her dear sister, Cassandra, where she breathed her last and was finally buried at the grand location of Winchester Cathedral. What better place than Winchester to celebrate her bicentenary - 200 years since she passed away. 

Last year I wrote about the preview of "Jane Austen 200" in Basingstoke, and this has been a very exciting year indeed as there have been several exhibitions and events in different parts of southern England to commemorate Jane Austen. Last month I visited Winchester Discovery Centre for the "Mysterious Miss Austen" exhibition. Winchester library in itself is a beautiful, period building to explore, and a lovely venue for the exhibition. We were welcomed to the exhibition with a replica Georgian dress at the bottom of the staircase. 

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed at the actual exhibition as it housed several invaluable objects, for instance, Jane Austen's brown silk pelisse coat. I have taken a photo of its replica exhibited at the Allen Gallery in Alton, pictured below. There was also a lovely bead purse, said to have been made by Jane Austen, which amazed me as it was absolutely tiny. 

The highlight of the exhibition, however, were the six known portraits of Jane Austen, which were for the first time housed under one roof. I have previously analysed her portraits in this article. Only two of them have been authenticated, namely the pencil sketches made by her sister, Cassandra, one showing her face (the famous one) and another showing her from behind, sitting outdoors (my icon). This explains why the portraits were absent from the 19th Century Gallery at the National Gallery, which disappointed me as I visited there earlier in May! In addition to the Victorian remake, engraved of Jane Austen's portrait, there was also a childhood portrait referred to as the "Rice Portrait", the disputed portrait owned by Paula Byrne, the mysterical silhouette, 'L'aimable Jane", from the National Portrait Gallery, and the sketch from James Stanier Clarke's scrapbook. I was especially fascinated to see Stanier Clarke's sketch, which was surprisingly tiny as well. I always thought it must be an authentic sketch of Jane Austen, showing her off in her best fashions, confident and self-assured, displaying those familiar features at a more mature age although the tiny face does not reveal much. 

Downstairs in the same building there is another interesting exhibition called "Jane's Winchester: Malady and Medicine", which tells you more about life in Winchester at the time of Jane Austen. 

Household items.  

An ad, coins, seals, and other everyday objects from the era.  

A gentleman's magazine. 

The exhibition has a special focus on illness and how it was treated at the time, displaying apothecaries' instruments and an apothecary's shop (below). 

The highlight for me was a rare survival of a sedan chair (below), similar to ones in which Jane Austen would travel around town as an invalid.  

After visiting the exhibition, we headed to Winchester Cathedral to see their small Jane Austen exhibition.

Of course, there is the permanent display, which has been there since 2010, telling the story of Jane Austen in Winchester, but there were also some interesting fresh items, such as early editions of her books, letters and particularly the handwritten note for the text written by Henry Austen for Jane Austen's grave. 

An edition of Emma, printed by John Murray, from 1816. 

The church register recording Jane Austen's death. 

The grave 

And the manuscript for the text on the memorial stone by Henry Austen 

There was also a silhouette, said to be a self-portrait of Jane Austen, but its story is yet unknown. It has been criticised for looking to Victorian to be authentic, but the origin of the portrait remains a mystery. 

No trip to Winchester is complete without a pilgrimage to Jane Austen's final abode at 8, College Street. 

The place was, as usual, flocking with tourists, but there was something entirely new: in the garden opposite her house, there was a beautiful memorial plaque covered by creepers with a lovely quote from Jane Austen: 
"Know your own happiness and call it hope". The plaque has been erected in celebration of her bicentenary. 

The garden offered a lovely place for a moment of rest and reflection. What a wonderful way to end this trip. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Glimpses of a Sunny and Jolly Regency Day in Alton

Today I travelled to Alton with a friend of mine and our children to participate in the Regency Day celebrations. The event takes place as part of the annual Regency Week, and this is the first time that I have attended this part of the event. 

It was a lovely, sunny day, and the high street bustled with activity but was thankfully devoid of huge crowds. Stalls of Regency style clothes and accessories, samples of local history books and antiques lined up Alton High Street. Morris dancers and brass bands added to the period feel of the event, and it was wonderful to see so many people in costume. 

How I wished I'd had a parasol like that!

The highlight for us has to have been our horse carriage ride around Alton, pulled by two beautiful shire horses and driven by coachmen in tailcoats and top hats. 

Lydia and Kitty would have approved of this man in his regimentals!

An outfit like Mr Wentworth would have worn, complete with genuine gilded buttons. An outfit like this would now cost around £3500. 

There were three different naval uniforms on display. The one on the right was a replica of the one that Nelson wore on board HMS Victory. 

We also tried on some antique hats. The velvety black top hat in the photo was from the 1890's, how interesting to hold it and try it on!

I thoroughly enjoyed the friendly, jolly atmosphere of the event and applaud the helpful re-enactors who were so willing to have their photos taken and to share stories about their outfits.

We also visited the small Jane Austen exhibition, "Jane and her Alton Apothecary" at the Allen Gallery but I shall describe that in another post.

You can read more about Alton in my previous post here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

“The Real Mr Darcy” or Perhaps Not?

Having just visited the “Jane Austen Among Family and Friends” mini exhibition at the British Library, I thought I would share my thoughts about the exhibition, but decided against it, as something else quite captivating has cropped up! Don’t take me wrong, I did enjoy the exhibition, which forms part of the several Jane Austen 200 festivities that take place around Britain this year to mark the bicentenary of her death. It was interesting to see some of Jane Austen’s teenage writings, as well as many of her original letters where she lists people’s opinions on her works and describes important personal events, such as her father’s death. The touching writing desk and glasses were exhibited at Willis Museum in Basingstoke last year. However, for understandable reasons, photography is not allowed at the British Library and I didn’t come back with much to share.

However, I thought I should mention my thoughts regarding the current hot topic of “The Real Mr Darcy”! It amuses me how scholars have taken up a criticism of the current representation of Mr Darcy in popular culture and have gone to lengths to prove that the popular image of Mr Darcy is utterly wrong! The topic has been on all the leading UK newsmedia with sensational headlines, such as “the 'Real’ Mr Darcy was nothing like Colin Firth” (the BBC) and “Real Mr Darcy was more ballet dancer than beefcake” (The Times), and so on and so forth. The whole discussion has left austenites almost betrayed, begging to keep the “hot Mr Darcy” of their imagination.

Watch the making of the portrait: 

The whole discussion is based on revelations made by professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery who spent a month researching the male beauty norms of Georgian England, and actually commissioned “the first historically accurate portrait” of Mr Darcy, created by the artist Nick Hardcastle. The portrait shows a pale-skinned man with narrow shoulders and strong, defined legs, with long, powdered hair, a narrow jaw and a long, pointy nose. The portrait would appear to be a contrast to the muscular, angular-jawed Colin Firth who in the adaptation has short, dark hair and slightly tanned skin.

Now I do feel that there is truth in that the noblemen of the period would probably have spent a great deal of time indoors and been quite pale in general, which clearly was the beauty norm of the day. It is also quite likely that muscular torsos were associated with the working classes and, as the main sports popular at the time were horse-riding and fencing, gentlemen must have been more slender and had muscular legs rather than well-built upper bodies. Many of the icons of the time period did have long, narrow jaws and long, pointy noses, as did the Austen brothers in their portraits.

However, I am not at all convinced that the hairstyle sported by Mr Darcy would necessarily have been long and powdered or that he would have worn a wig. Jane Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice, then called "First Impressions", in 1796-1797, which she revised for publication in 1811-1812. As I have written previously, the fashion revolution that significantly reduced the use of wigs and powder took place in 1795, the same year as hair powder tax was introduced. After that, powder was mainly used by liveried servants, lawyers and perhaps the older generations, who in many ways preferred the old styles of fashion. Most young people must have switched to the more modern, relaxed, shorter hairstyles that required no powder. And I believe that Mr Darcy must have been at the forefront of fashion, mixing with the fashionable crowds of London.

I am also skeptical of the claim that the character of Mr Darcy was inspired by the First Earl of Morley. I don’t think that Jane Austen would have admired him, as he was known to be mired in a sex scandal and that is a topic that Jane Austen dealt with strictly in Mansfield Park. She was a moral writer, with a strong sense of responsibility, critical of "loose morals", and Morley simply wasn't her type. 

The novel is clearly a product of the Georgian rather than of the Regency period, but we will never know for sure exactly how Mr Darcy would have looked in the author’s imagination. Does it really matter?

What is so great about Colin Firth is not whether his looks are a historically accurate match for Mr Darcy, but that he really brought the character to life, appealing to the modern audience. Thanks to the adaptation, Pride and Prejudice is now much better known all around the world, and I’m thankful for it.