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Friday, 10 March 2017

The life and career of Horatio Nelson

Admiral Lord Nelson after the painting by John Hoppner  in Miller's edition of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1896)
Admiral Lord Nelson after the painting by John Hoppner
in Miller's edition of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1896)
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Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) is probably the most well-known of all the heroes of late Georgian England. He can’t match Mr Darcy in popularity, but Nelson did have the benefit of being a real person!

Nelson’s early naval career 1771-1792

Born in 1758, the sixth of eleven children living in Norfolk, his father was a rector and his mother died when he was age nine. Three years later he decided to join the navy having read of his uncle taking command of a sixty-four gun warship.

He joined his uncle’s ship, the Raisonnable, at Chatham in 1771, as a midshipman. Keen to give the boy more experience, his uncle arranged for him to serve on other ships, taking him to North America and to India. In 1777 the 18-year-old Nelson applied for, and was given, promotion to Lieutenant.

For the next few years, Nelson spent much of his time in and around the Caribbean. Promoted again to Post-Captain, he was given his first command, HMS Badger, in late 1778. He took part in several military engagements, both at sea and on land. 

Nelson's marriage 1787
On 11 March 1787, on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he married 29-year-old Frances Nisbet, a widow with a young son. The bride was given away by Prince William (later William IV), at that time a junior officer in the navy and a friend of Nelson. 

Lady Nelson © National Maritime Museum
Lady Nelson © National Maritime Museum
In a letter to Captain William Locker dated 21 March 1787, 10 days after his marriage to Frances Nisbet, Nelson wrote:
I am married to an amiable woman, that far makes amends for everything: indeed till I married her I never knew happiness. And I am morally certain she will continue to make me a happy man for the rest of my days.1
Later that year the couple returned to England and as the nation was enjoying a period of peace, Nelson’s services were no longer required by the navy. He was put on half-pay and spent the next few years badgering to be given a new command.

Mediterranean service 1793-1797

Peace did not last long. Revolutionary France was threatening war and in January 1793 Nelson was given command of the sixty-four gun HMS Agamemnon. Within weeks, the French declared war and Nelson began a long period of service in the Mediterranean.

In late 1793 he arrived in Naples, where he met Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples. He also met Hamilton’s attractive young wife, Emma. 

Sir William Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and   the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Sir William Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
He was soon engaged in military action against the French, including an assault on the island of Corsica. It was during this, in 1794, that his right eye was permanently damaged by flying debris.

In 1796 Nelson was promoted to Commodore, as he continued to conduct operations against the French and their allies. A year later he was made a Knight of the Bath for his contribution to the victory during the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797. This action won him recognition for his unorthodox tactics, and he became a hero in the eyes of the public. A week later he was promoted again, to Rear Admiral.

Colonel John Drinkwater Bethune was an eye witness at the battle of St Vincent and discussed it with Nelson afterwards. This is part of his published account of the action:
The Commodore’s [Nelson] impatience would not permit him to remain an inactive spectator of the event. He knew the attempt was hazardous; and his presence, he thought, might contribute to its success. He therefore accompanied the party in this attack, passing from the fore chains of his own ship into the enemy’s quarter gallery, and thence through the cabin to the quarter-deck, where he arrived in time to receive the sword of the dying commander, who was mortally wounded by the boarders … But this labor was no sooner achieved, than he found himself involved in another and more arduous one … the undaunted Commodore headed himself the assailants in this new attack, and success crowned the enterprise. Such, indeed, was the panic occasioned by his preceding conduct, that the British no sooner appeared on the quarter-deck of their new opponent, than the Commandant advanced, and asking for the British commanding officer, dropped on one knee, and presented to him his sword; making, at the same time, an excuse for the Spanish Admiral’s not appearing, as he was dangerously wounded.2
Later that year, on 22-25 July 1797, Nelson led a failed attempt to capture Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. During the attack his right arm was injured and subsequently amputated. He returned to England to recuperate.

Victory, fame and Emma Hamilton 1798-1799

Within a few months, Nelson’s reputation as a national hero was cemented by the dramatic defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nile, 1-3 August 1798. 

The French had just delivered Napoleon and his army to Egypt and they felt secure, having more guns than the British. Having spent months searching for the French, and despite discovering them late in the afternoon, Nelson ordered an immediate attack. The result was a naval battle at night, which included the spectacular explosion of the French flagship Orient. 

The Battle of the Nile from Horatio Nelson and   the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Battle of the Nile from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Nelson’s victory stranded Napoleon in Egypt and won him huge recognition in Britain, where the public celebrated enthusiastically once the news arrived. Nelson was made Baron Nelson of the Nile.
His victory was also celebrated in the Kingdom of Naples, where he received a particularly enthusiastic reception from Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador. Nelson and Emma became lovers.
Emma Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and   the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Emma Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Kingdom of Naples declared war on France, and his army got as far as capturing Rome before being driven back. By late 1798 the French were threatening Naples itself, and Nelson oversaw the evacuation of the Neapolitan royal family, along with William and Emma Hamilton.

The following year saw the French driven from Naples, which Nelson had blockaded. He then oversaw the imprisonment and execution of many supporters of the French. For his support of the Neapolitan monarchy, Nelson was given the Dukedom of Bronte.

Return to England and another victory 1800-1801

Lord Nelson KB after a painting by AW Devis  from Horatio Nelson and the Naval   Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Lord Nelson KB after a painting by AW Devis from Horatio 
Nelson and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
With both Nelson and Sir William Hamilton being recalled to England, they chose to travel home together, along with Emma, now pregnant by Nelson. The four-month journey was overland, via Florence, Prague and Hamburg. They arrived in Great Yarmouth on 6 November 1800.

Nelson received a hero’s welcome, but there was more than a whiff of scandal around his relationship with Lady Hamilton. Meetings with his wife, Frances, were frosty and soon Nelson made it clear his commitment was to his lover.

Nelson wrote to Emma:
You need not fear all the women in this world; for all others, except yourself, are pests to me. I know but one; for, who can be like my Emma? I am confident, you will do nothing which can hurt my feelings; and I will die by torture, sooner than do any thing which could offend you.3
On 29 January 1801, Emma gave birth to Horatia, Nelson’s daughter. In the same month, he was promoted to Vice Admiral, and went on to lead an attack on Denmark. Victory at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801 saw him made Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic fleet.

In October 1801 Nelson and the Hamiltons toured central England and parts of Wales, where they were met by enthusiastic crowds and numerous accolades.

Nelson’s final years and the Battle of Trafalgar 1802-1805

  Merton Place in Surrey  in The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry by W Angus (c1801)
Merton Place in Surrey
in The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry by W Angus (c1801)
Anxious to settle down with Emma, effectively as a married couple, Nelson bought Merton Place in 1802. But as war was again brewing, he was soon called to serve with the fleet. For much of 1803 and 1804 he took part in the naval blockade of Toulon.
Never was any commander more beloved. He governed men by their reason and their affections; they knew that he was incapable of caprice or tyranny and they obeyed him with alacrity and joy, because he possessed their confidence as well as their love. “Our Nel,” they used to say, “is as brave as a lion and as gentle as a lamb. Severe discipline he detested, though he had been bred in a severe school. He never inflicted corporal punishment if it were possible to avoid it; and when compelled to enforce it, he, who was familiar with wounds and death, suffered like a woman. In his whole life, Nelson was never known to act unkindly towards an officer. If he was asked to prosecute one for ill behaviour, he used to answer, “That there was no occasion for him to ruin a poor devil who was sufficiently his own enemy to ruin himself.”4
Early 1805 brought the news of a major French fleet setting sail into the Atlantic. Nelson was anxious to engage them in a major battle and spent months searching for them. He returned to London in the summer, frustrated at not discovering them, but in September, news arrived of the French and Spanish fleets having combined, and being anchored at Cadiz.

On 14 September 1805 Nelson left Portsmouth for the last time, aboard his flagship, HMS Victory. On 21 October Nelson raised his famous signal “England expects that every man will his duty” and engaged the enemy fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, using novel tactics he had devised.

Nelson's signal at Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson   and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Nelson's signal at Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson
 and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
In the early afternoon, as he stood on the deck of the Victory, Nelson was struck by a musket ball. He was taken below deck and remained conscious for some time, giving instructions for the fleet and asking for his possessions to be given to Lady Hamilton. He died around three hours after being hit.

Death of Nelson from the painting by Ernest Slingeneyer from Horatio   Nelson  and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Death of Nelson from the painting by Ernest Slingeneyer from Horatio 
Nelson  and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The British fleet won a decisive victory at Trafalgar. 

The Battle of Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson and the   Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Battle of Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson and the 
Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was given a hero’s funeral and lies entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. A number of monuments were erected to remember him, including the landmark Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London.

Monument erected in St Paul's Cathedral to   the memory of Nelson from the European   Magazine and London Review (1818)
Monument erected in St Paul's Cathedral to
the memory of Nelson from the European
 Magazine and London Review (1818)
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Detail from frieze on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Detail from frieze on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Notes

(1) From Nelson, Horatio, Dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson vol 1, 1777-1794 (1814, London)
(2) From Bethune, Colonel Drinkwater, A narrative of the battle of St Vincent with anecdotes of Nelson (1840, London)
(3) In a letter to Emma Hamilton from Nelson, July 1 1801, in Nelson, Horatio, The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton vol 1 (1814)
(4) From Southey, Robert, The life of Horatio Lord Nelson vol 2 (1814)

Sources used include:
Bethune, Colonel Drinkwater, A narrative of the battle of St Vincent with anecdotes of Nelson (1840, London)
Hibbert, Christopher, Nelson, A Personal History (1994)
Miller, Edwin L, Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896)
Nelson, Horatio, Dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson vol 1, 1777-1794 (1814, London)
Nelson, Horatio, The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton vol 1 (1814)
Southey, Robert, The life of Horatio Lord Nelson vol 1 (1813) vol 2 (1814)

All photographs © RegencyHistory.net

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Covent Garden Theatre in Regency London

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was one of only two theatres licensed to perform plays in Georgian London. The other was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and there was intense competition between the two. In addition, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, had a limited patent that allowed it to perform plays during the summer.

The first theatre (1732-1808)

The first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, opened in 1732. It was built by the actor John Rich, the manager of The Duke’s Company – one of the only two theatre companies then licensed to perform plays. Rich had commissioned John Gay to write the highly successful The Beggar’s Opera and made sufficient money from the performances in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to invest in a new theatre building. Rich moved his company and their licence to the newly completed Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, which opened on 7 December 1732 with a production of William Congreve’s The Way of the World.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was appointed musical director and many of his operas and oratorios were first performed at Covent Garden.

Theatre improvements in 1792

In 1792, the stage-manager and part-owner Thomas Harris employed the architect Henry Holland to give the theatre a makeover. According to The Microcosm of London, Harris spent £25,000 on internal and external refurbishments.

The Microcosm of London described the new improved theatre:
The principal entrance is in Bow-street, under an antique Doric portico, through a large and spacious saloon, handsomely fitted up and warmed by stoves, leading to the lower circle of boxes, and a double staircase that leads to the upper circles.
The amphitheatre is entirely new, and contains three circles of boxes and a spacious gallery: the form is that of a truncated ellipse, or an egg flattened at one end; the effect of which upon the stage, and upon the sound (not always to be determined by rules) is certainly good. The front of the stage advances something more than the old one into the pit, and is in a straight line.
The boxes are separated from each other by partitions, which are low in front, rise behind, and are placed in a new and commodious direction. They are lined and ceiled with wainscot, but are not papered, for the advantage of sound: their fronts project in a manner very accommodating to those who sit in the first rows.1
Inside Covent Garden Theatre in 1804 from Old and New London (1873)
Inside Covent Garden Theatre in 1804 from Old and New London (1873)
Feltham’s The Picture of London (1807) also described the theatre:
The internal form of this building is that of a horse-shoe. It contains four tiers of boxes, that hold about twelve hundred persons; the fronts of which are painted white, bordered with gold and green, and the partitions are coloured in green, and relieved with a fanciful variety of bordering, which has a delicate and pleasing effect.
The pit holds six hundred and thirty-two persons, is forty feet in breadth, and thirty-eight in depth, and contains twenty benches, which are so conveniently raised, as to give the audience a full view of every part of the stage.
The principal lobby, or lounging-room, to this theatre, is of an octagon form, and is thirty-eight feet each way. In this place women attend with tea, coffee, and fruit.
The Covent Garden stage is ninety-two feet in length, and thirty-four feet in breadth, between the stage doors, and is decorated with expensive and splendid scenery. Mr. Richards, secretary to the Royal Academy, and Mr. Phillips, are the principal scene painters of the theatre, who stand high in public opinion from the excellent labours of their pencil.2
The King’s box

Special provisions were made for the royal family, including a separate entrance:
There is a room elegantly fitted up for the reception of their Majesties, which is twenty-two feet square, and situated near the King's entrance in Hart-street. The stage-box, when occupied by their Majesties, is most superbly decorated with rich silk, and velvet hangings, which are fancifully adorned with gold fringe and tassels.2
The private entrance for the royal family was through a large building in Hart-street ‘erected for the scene-painters, scene-rooms, green-room, dressing-room, &c.’2 The stage-door and box-office were also in Hart Street.

The first price riots

The theatre reopened on 17 September 1792 to scenes of heckling and disruption. The managers had raised the prices to the same level as Drury Lane Theatre to help cover the cost of the improvements and had failed to install a one-shilling gallery. As a result, the opening performances were interrupted by the audience’s noisy complaints. When the management promised to erect a one-shilling gallery as soon as possible, however, the opposition to the new prices dissolved.

Visiting the theatre

According to Feltham’s The Picture of London (1807) the numbers of people that could be accommodated in the theatre and the prices for each type of seat were:


The doors opened at 5.30pm and the performance started at 6.30pm. People could be admitted for half price at the end of the third act of the play which, according to the The Picture of London (1809), was ‘generally a little after eight o’clock.’3 The Picture of London (1813) went into a little more detail, specifying that half-price began at the end of the third act of a five-act play but at the end of the second of a three-act play.

Feltham’s The Picture of London (1818) stated that
… the modern dinner hours of 7, 8, and 9 o'clock, have doubtless interfered with the frequent attendance of a large portion of the population, at entertainments which take place between the hours of 6 and 11; yet two theatres, through a season of 200 playing nights, each capable of containing 3000 persons, are moderately filled, and often crowded. To accommodate the public, the theatres have altered their times of beginning to seven o'clock.4
The box book

The Picture of London (1813) stated that ‘places for the boxes may be taken in the morning at the Box-Office, on paying 1s. for a party; or a private box may be takes for a family, on paying for six places.’5

The box book was kept by Mr Brandon. There appear to have been two Mr Brandons – James and John
… who are remarkable for their attention to the public, and ever ready to render each applicant for a box as comfortable as the arrangement of their box-book will allow. They particularly distinguished themselves by their impartiality and justice to the public, when the boxes of Covent-Garden were in great request during the zenith of Master Betty’s theatrical glory.6
Behind-the-scenes tours

According to The Picture of London (1807), behind-the-scenes tours were available for a small payment ‘on proper application at the stage door, and to persons who never saw the machinery of a theatre, they afford a most interesting spectacle.’

It added that: ‘Constables always attend at the doors, to take improper persons into custody.’7

The first theatre burns down

On 20 September 1808, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was completely destroyed by fire. It was estimated that the loss of property was around £150,000 of which only £50,000 was covered by insurance. To raise sufficient funds to rebuild the theatre, the management issued subscription shares of £500 each.

George, Prince of Wales, laid the foundation stone of the new theatre on 31 December 1808, and within ten months, the theatre was finished. Whilst the theatre was being rebuilt, the Covent Garden Theatre Company performed at the Opera House and then at the Haymarket Theatre.

The second Theatre Royal (1809-1856)

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
The new theatre was designed by the architect Robert Smirke and modelled on the Temple of Minerva in the Athenian Acropolis. The Picture of London (1818) stated that Smirke had ‘reared a theatre more elegant and more majestic than any this nation has hitherto possessed.’8

The main fa├žade was on Bow Street:
The Doric portico in Bow Street, with its four fluted columns, and statues of Tragedy and Comedy, were by Flaxman, and the two long panels in the upper part, with representations in basso-relievo of ancient and modern drama, were by Flaxman and Rossi.9
The theatre entrance
The principal entrance to the boxes is under the portico in Bow-street. On the left side of the vestibule is the grand staircase, which, with its landing, forms the central third part of an hall, divided longitudinally by two rows of insulated columns, coloured after porphyry. This leads to the anti-room, with porphyry pilasters, and a statue of Shakspeare on a pedestal. The doors on the right open into the box-lobby, which is decorated in a similar manner. There is another entrance from Covent-Garden, by a staircase with a double flight.
The royal entrance is by the open court from Hart-street, which will admit the royal carriages to the door of the private staircase that leads to the apartments provided for their Majesties.10
The interior of the new theatre

The saloon leading to the private boxes, Covent Garden Theatre,  from Ackermann's Repository (1810)
The saloon leading to the private boxes, Covent Garden Theatre,
from Ackermann's Repository (1810)
The Microcosm of London described the inside of the new theatre:
The interior of the Theatre is rather larger than that of the late structure; and differs from those hitherto constructed, by approaching nearer to a circle. There are three circles of boxes, with a row of side-boxes above them, on a level with the two-shilling gallery. These upper side-boxes are without roof or canopy. Immediately behind them rise the slips, their fronts forming a perpendicular line with the back of the upper side-boxes. The one-shilling gallery in the center ranges with the fronts of the slips, the whole assuming the circular form, and upholding a range of arches, which support the circular ceiling : the latter is painted to imitate a cupola, in square compartments, in a light relief. The pannels are of a grey colour, with wreaths of honeysuckles, &c. in gold. The box fronts are perpendicular, and their ornaments are painted on canvas, and fixed on the fronts. Each circle is supported by slender reeded pillars, in burnished gold. The covering of the seats is of a light blue.
The Theatre is lighted by patent lamps and elegant chandeliers.10
The Picture of London (1818) wrote:
The stage is large, and well calculated by its depth for the exhibition of processions and extensive scenery. Two very elegant and lofty pilasters support a semi-elliptical arch, over which is the royal arms. Two figures are painted on each side of the arch in relief; they are females, holding wreaths of laurel, trumpets, &c. A crimson fall of drapery, in rich folds, is painted within the arch, and covers the supporters of the curtain. The ceiling is painted to resemble a cupola, divided into square compartments, and surmounted with the figure of an ancient lyre. The shape of the house before the curtain is that of a rounded horse-shoe, wide at the heel. This shape is continued from the bottom to the top of the house, with an unbroken uniformity, and by that means every sound, as it enters, is regularly diffused, and the slightest whisper is rendered audible. Still the width of the proscenium is sufficiently ample to present all the scenery to the view of those in the sides of the pit, or the side boxes.11
New Covent Garden Theatre from The Microcosm of London Vol 3 (1810)
New Covent Garden Theatre from The Microcosm of London Vol 3 (1810)
The OP War

The new Covent Garden Theatre opened on 18 September 1809. In a desperate attempt to recoup some of the costs of rebuilding, the theatre management decided to increase the prices of the boxes from 6s to 7s and the pit from 3s 6d to 4s. This was a big mistake. The opening performance of Macbeth, with Mrs Siddons playing her iconic role of Lady Macbeth, was disrupted by the audience loudly protesting about the price increases. People also complained about the increased number of private boxes. This disruption lasted for around six weeks and became known as the ‘Old Price’ riots or OP War. The OP War finally ended when the management agreed to reduce the price of the pit back to the old price of 3s 6d and reduce the number of private boxes to the same as before.

Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth  after painting by GH Harlow from    Shakespeare on stage by W Winter (1911)
Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth
after painting by GH Harlow from  
Shakespeare on stage by W Winter (1911)
Theatre improvements in 1813

The theatre was redecorated and embellished in 1813.
The Rose, the Thistle, and the Shamrock, in burnished gold, adorn the different circles of the boxes; and the arch over the proscenium was formed into an elegant cove, enriched with the same national ornaments. The hearing of the house has been thus made perfect; and it is now generally esteemed the most tasteful and most comfortable theatre in Europe. The introduction of gas, from a magnificent chandelier in the centre of the ceiling, forms a new era in lighting theatres.11
The performers

The main performers were contracted to the theatre for a period of three to five years, but the lesser performers were employed on a season to season basis. All the actors were paid weekly and subject to fines if they missed rehearsals or performances unless they were genuinely ill.

The top performers had an additional perk:
NB All performers whose salaries are above six pounds per week, are entitled to four ivory tickets for the free admission of their friends to the theatre, viz. a double and single order for the boxes, and two double orders for the first gallery. All performers whose salaries do not amount to six pounds per week, are totally excluded from any similar privilege.12
Later history

Covent Garden Theatre in 1850 from Old and New London (1873)
Covent Garden Theatre in 1850 from Old and New London (1873)
The Theatres Act was passed in 1843 breaking the monopoly of the patent theatres – Covent Garden and Drury Lane – and enabling other theatres to put on plays. The Covent Garden Theatre was remodelled as the Royal Italian Opera House and reopened on 6 April 1847. However, it lasted for less than ten years in this form as the theatre was again burnt down on 5 March 1856.

Burning of Covent Garden Theatre in 1856 from Old and New London (1873)
Burning of Covent Garden Theatre in 1856 from Old and New London (1873)
The new theatre opened on 15 May 1858 and this building remains at the centre of today’s Royal Opera House.

Notes
1. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
2. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
3. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1809 (1809)
4. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
5. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813)
6. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
7. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
8. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
9. From Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3
10. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
11. From Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
12. From Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1809 (1809)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1809)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly - a review

Front cover of Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

Consider carefully before you read this book!

If you are happy reading Jane Austen’s novels as the Regency era love stories that I have always believed them to be, then don’t read this book. It might help you to understand some of the influences that affected Jane’s writings which might lead to a greater enjoyment of her work, but it is also possible that you might not like everything you discover. If you take all Kelly’s ideas seriously, this book could completely undermine the way that you look at some of Jane’s plots and characters.

Why did I read this book?

I love Jane Austen’s novels and I know something of Jane’s life and period. I certainly ought to, as one chapter in my new book (What Regency Women Did For Us) is given over to my favourite author! However, I am not a literary critic and have never sought to pull Jane Austen’s novels to pieces in search for greater meaning. I accepted this review copy on the basis that it promised new insights into the novels through greater knowledge of the period in which Jane Austen wrote. As a Regency historian, I decided to hear what Kelly had to say.

Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen  by JE Austen Leigh (2nd edn 1871)
Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen
by JE Austen Leigh (2nd edn 1871)
The format

The book opens with a chapter entitled ‘The Authoress’. An interesting decision to use the word ‘authoress’ rather than ‘author’. After all, Pride and Prejudice was originally described as being ‘by the author of Sense and Sensibility1 not the authoress.

This is followed by a chapter devoted to each of Jane’s novels and a final one looking at her death. Each of these chapters begins with a fictional section based on one of Jane’s letters which helped set the theme for the chapter. Although I found the book readable in style, I did not like all the content!

Kelly argues that Jane’s novels are much more than love stories – they are revolutionary and tackle subjects which would have been seen as highly controversial at the time they were written. Different chapters look at subjects such as the failure of men to provide for their female relatives, the corruption of both the clergy and the nobility, the slave trade, and poverty and the corn laws.

Though I am ready to accept that Jane was highly influenced by the times in which she wrote, I remain unconvinced that she wrote just to be radical, dressed up in a story. To challenge and instruct as well as entertain maybe, but I personally still believe she was first and foremost a storyteller.

More than a mock Gothic novel?

Although I have read The Mysteries of Udolpho (you can read my guide to it here), I can’t say I know it very well, therefore I appreciated Kelly pointing out that the links between Mrs Radcliffe’s Gothic novel and Northanger Abbey were even stronger than I had realised. Jane’s original readers would have seen all the parallels that the modern reader misses, and these would have been even stronger if the book had been published straight after it had been written, rather than years later, after Jane’s death.

However, Kelly lost me completely when she started suggesting that all the bedroom scenes in Northanger Abbey had sexual connotations. I prefer to leave Northanger Abbey as a clever play on the Gothic novel.

Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho (1806 edition)
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)
The irresponsibility of men?

In the chapter on Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that Jane was indirectly criticising the men in her family for failing to provide adequately for the women who were dependent on them – Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother. I already knew how hard Jane had found it when her father suddenly decided to give up the living at Steventon and uproot his family from the only home they had ever known and settle them in Bath, but I had never really considered the alternative. Kelly writes that Jane’s father need not have given up the majority of his income to his eldest son – who, by the way, already had the means to support himself – but could have hired a curate to help him and retained most of the income to support his wife and daughters. Another question that I had never asked was why, after the death of Jane’s father, it took Jane's rich brother Edward Knight four years to offer his mother and sisters a permanent home.

However, I found little sympathy with Kelly when she began trying to read sexual meanings into Edward Ferrars’ behaviour and implied he was no better than Willoughby. It certainly does not help me enjoy the novel better. Edward might not be a Darcy, but he is a man who has been downtrodden by his mother, and if Eleanor loves him, who are we to question her choice? Despite what Kelly suggests, I retain my right to believe that Edward and Eleanor could live happily ever after.

Hidden depths to Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book and I dare anyone to spoil it for me! Fortunately, Kelly does not try to undermine the characters of Darcy and Elizabeth, but rather draws attention to the underlying prejudices of the novel which are far more revolutionary than a modern audience appreciates.

In Jane’s time, there were deep-rooted prejudices in favour of the nobility and the clergy. Pride and Prejudice undermines both, in the persons of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins. Could Lady Catherine really be a sensible person to appoint Mr Collins to the living at her disposal and then actually welcome his irksome company? When the contrast is drawn between the noble Lady Catherine’s behaviour and Elizabeth Bennet’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, who are in trade, the reader’s conclusion is inevitable: good breeding has nothing to do with titles.

More in a name

Mansfield Park has always seemed a more serious book to me than Jane’s other novels, but I had not made the connection between the names used in the book and the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. The very name of the book – Mansfield Park – links the book to Lord Mansfield whose judgement ‘removed the practical basis’2 on which slavery rested, and the hated Mrs Norris shares her name with a notorious slave trader.

Misquoting the text

When Kelly is discussing Willoughby’s visit to the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility when he believes Marianne to be dying, Kelly states that Willoughby ‘turns up at what he thinks is Marianne’s death-bed intoxicated (“yes, I am very drunk”)’3, quoting Willoughby’s own words. However, she totally disregards his next words – ‘A pint of porter with my cold beef at Marlborough was enough to over-set me’4 – indicating that Willoughbly was being sarcastic and most definitely in his right mind and not drunk.

Kelly also talks of Edward Ferrars’ education and writes “Why send him to Exeter?”5 But surely it was not Exeter where Edward was educated but at Longstaple near Plymouth at the house of Lucy Steele’s uncle, Mr Pratt.

A very large handful

My final gripe is about earls. When discussing titles in the chapter on Pride and Prejudice, Kelly refers to Lady Catherine de Bourgh as the daughter of an earl and claims “there are no more than a handful of them in England.”6 An earl is indeed the third highest title in the British peerage after duke and marquess as Kelly states, but whilst there were less than 20 English dukedoms and a similar number of marquessates at the start of the Regency, there were decidedly more than a handful of earls. According to Debrett’s, there were about 90 English earldoms alone at the start of the Regency – a very large handful!7

A mixed bag

There are many more comments I could make on this book which, in my opinion, is a mixed bag of fascinating insights and unhelpful suggestions that I could have done without. You may discover, as I did, some real gems that take you closer to Jane’s world, but if you love Jane’s novels as the love stories they are, then you might not want to take the risk!

Notes
(1) From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
(2) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p176
(3) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p96
(4) From Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
(5) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p99
(6) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p135
(7) From Debrett’s The Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1820)