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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 indeed...my 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. 




References: 

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.



Saturday, December 17, 2016

Regency Christmas at Mompesson House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Last year I celebrated this day at Jane Austen's House in Chawton, and what a memorable, beautiful day that was, singing carols and enjoying some mulled wine and mince pies at Chawton, perusing the Emma exhibition and trying on bonnets with my two-year-old dress-up enthusiast. 

This year, I didn't make it to Chawton Cottage but I did visit Mompesson House in Salisbury for their Regency Christmas display at the weekend. 


Mompesson House is a Georgian house situated in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury. You may have seen the house in the beautiful 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility where the house was used as a location for Mrs Jennings' Chelsea home. Both the exterior and the entrance hall were used in the film.




In the film, Mrs Jennings walks the staircase with authority, greeting her parrot on the way. Elinor climbs the staircase with Lucy Steele, discussing Marianne's rumoured wedding. 



The drawing room upstairs was also used in the film, but the upstairs rooms were closed for visitors. However, I enjoyed the display downstairs and remember seeing a similar exhibition at Fairfax House in York years ago.

The downstairs rooms of Mompesson House were decorated with greenery, ribbons, fruit and candles in the fashion of the late 18th and early 19th century. Fireplaces, shelves and windows were adorned with evergreens, such as holly and mistletoe, the most common Christmas decorations during the Georgian period. 






Fruit, such as pears and clove oranges made beautiful, aromatic decorations. 






There was also festive period food on display, with Christmas breakfast set in the Library.







A lavish spread of Dessert is set in the Drawing Room. 






                                                              Christmas pudding 





Fruit, cake and nuts


Bullet pudding, which actually involves a game. 



Parties and gatherings were hosted during the festive period, and card games were popular entertainment. 







At the end of Christmas, on the 12th Night, a beautifully decorated cake was served as the main highlight of the celebration. 



Christmas trees were not yet popular, becoming more widespread in the Victorian period. However, Princess Charlotte did have a tree similar to this one.



I was delighted to discover that the tree was decorated with familiar quotes from Jane Austen's books! Now there's an idea for us Austenites! 



The upstairs was closed for the time being, which only calls for another visit! The Christmas display continues for another two days until December 18th. 

Hope you have all had a lovely Jane Austen day.