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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A tribute to Jane Austen who died on 18 July 1817

Jane Austen

What better way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death than to give a talk about her, dressed in Regency costume? My audience was the Friends of Sturminster Newton Library. The venue was the Stur of the Moment tearooms in Sturminster Newton, Dorset. The programme consisted of excerpts from three of Jane Austen’s novels, together with my talk and book signing, and a Regency tea. 

Rachel outside the Stur of the Moment tearooms  in Sturminster Newton, Dorset
Rachel outside the Stur of the Moment tearooms
in Sturminster Newton, Dorset
Sense and Sensibility: Willoughby plays the hero

We started with the chapter from Sense and Sensibility where Marianne Dashwood first meets Willoughby. Hearing her words read aloud, Jane’s humour comes through afresh:
Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.
She thanked him again and again; and, with a sweetness of address which always attended her, invited him to be seated. But this he declined, as he was dirty and wet.1
Pride and Prejudice: Mr Darcy’s first proposal

This was followed by the scene from Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth Bennet (read by Andrew and me), illustrating Mr Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice. Elizabeth’s words later tortured her rejected suitor:
'You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.'2
Some thoughts on Jane Austen

There is so much that I could have said of my favourite author, that I had to limit myself to a few stories inspired by the chapter on Jane Austen in my book, What Regency Women Did For Us.

Front cover of What Regency Women Did For Us by Rachel Knowles

I talked of the love interests in Jane’s life and how she often used the phrase ‘gentlemanlike’ to describe a man of whom she approved, like Tom Lefroy, whom maybe she would have married, if either of them had been rich enough to marry without thought of money. 

This naturally led onto the doomed love affair of her sister Cassandra, whose fiancĂ©, the Reverend Thomas Fowle disastrously travelled to the West Indies and died of yellow fever before they could be married. 

Finally, I shared one of my favourite anecdotes about Jane and one of her early fans, the Prince Regent. Whilst in London, Jane was invited to visit the library of Carlton House. The Regent’s librarian hinted that the Prince would be highly gratified if she were to dedicate her next work to him. A royal ‘hint’ was little less than a command and Jane felt obliged to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, despite the fact that her letters make it quite clear that she hated the future king!

Carlton House from Pall Mall from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Carlton House from Pall Mall from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Emma: The garrulous Miss Bates

The third reading was from Emma, admirably illustrating Miss Bates’s loquaciousness:
'... And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are not so good as they were, she can see amazingly well still, thank God! with the help of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother’s are really very good indeed. Jane often says, when she is here, ‘I am sure, grandmama, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do—and so much fine work as you have done too!—I only wish my eyes may last me as well.'
All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath; and Emma said something very civil about the excellence of Miss Fairfax’s handwriting.
'You are extremely kind,' replied Miss Bates, highly gratified; 'you who are such a judge, and write so beautifully yourself. I am sure there is nobody’s praise that could give us so much pleasure as Miss Woodhouse’s. My mother does not hear; she is a little deaf you know. Ma’am,' addressing her, 'do you hear what Miss Woodhouse is so obliging to say about Jane’s handwriting?'
And Emma had the advantage of hearing her own silly compliment repeated twice over before the good old lady could comprehend it.3
A Regency tea

The afternoon finished with a Regency styled tea including rout drop cakes, buttered apple tarts and lemon cheesecakes.

Cakes at the Regency tea at the Stur of the Moment tearooms

Notes
(1) From Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)
(2) From Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813, London).
(3) From Austen, Jane, Emma (1815, London).

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