A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XIX." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 206] 

CHAPTER XIX

LONDON

"The flood of human life in motion."

MISS JANE AUSTEN'S acquaintance with London began at an early date, as she frequently passed a few days there when journeying between Hampshire and Kent.

We have mentioned her sleeping at an inn in Cork Street in 1796. Most of the coaches from the south and west of England set down their passengers, it seems, at the "White Horse Cellar" in Piccadilly, which stood near to the entrance of what is now the Burlington Arcade. Jane and her brothers, therefore, probably alighted here and they would find Cork Street, immediately behind the "White Horse Cellar," a convenient place for their lodging. The Bristol Hotel, whose name suggests its connection with the west, was probably their inn.

"Sense and Sensibility" was, as yet, unwritten in 1796, and we can imagine the future author taking note of the various localities in the neighbourhood [Page 207]  which she afterwards introduced into her story. Sackville Street is close by, in which she placed the shop of Mr. Gray, the jeweller at whose counter Elinor and Marianne were kept waiting whilst the coxcomb Robert Ferrars was giving elaborate directions for the design of a toothpick case. "At last the affair was decided. The ivory, the gold, and the pearls, all received their appointment, and the gentleman having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the toothpick case, drew on his gloves with leisurely care, and bestowing a glance on the Miss Dashwoods which seemed rather to demand, than express, admiration, walked off with a happy air of real conceit and affected indifference."

This same Mr. Gray's shop figures in another well-known novel of the period--namely, in the "Absentee" by Maria Edgeworth. And there we again meet with a coxcomb - Colonel Heathcock, who is playing personage muet whilst his bride-elect, the Lady Isabel, and her mother, Lady Dashfort, are "holding consultation deep with the jeweller."

Mr. Gray, we find, was a real personage, for his name appears in the London Directory for 1814, where he is entered as "Mr. Thomas Gray, jeweller, 41, Sackville Street, Piccadilly."

Near at hand is Conduit Street, where the [Page 208]  Middletons lodged, and, at no very great distance is Berkeley Street, leading out of Portman Square, where Mrs. Jennings' house stood in which Elinor and Marianne visited her. The Miss Steeles, we remember, stayed in a less elegant part of the town - namely in Bartlett's Buildings, Holborn. These Buildings are still to be seen, forming a quaint alley of dark brick houses with pedimented doorways and white window-frames. We have looked up at the windows and wondered behind which of them Edward Ferrars had his momentous interview with the avaricious Lucy, while her sister Nancy made "no bones" of listening at the keyhole to their conversation.

In 1811 Miss Jane Austen was in town, visiting her brother Henry and his wife in Sloane Street. Henry had married his widowed cousin, Madame de Feuillade, who, the reader may remember, was much at Steventon parsonage during Jane's girlhood. A few years later Miss Austen was visiting her brother in Hans Place, a turning out of Sloane Street. All that district then formed a rural suburb of London.

Miss Mitford, who has so often helped us to realise the surroundings of Jane Austen, comes to our aid again here. She is describing the view of London, as seen a few years earlier, from the top of St. Paul's: - "I saw," she says, "a compact city, spreading along the river it is true, from [Page 209]  Billingsgate to Westminster, but clearly defined to the north and to the south; the West End beginning at Hyde Park Corner, and bordered


BARTLETT'S BUILDINGS, HOLBORN

by Hyde Park on the one side and the Green Park on the other . . . . Belgravia was a series of pastures, and Paddington a village." And we are also told "that Hans Place" was then "nearly surrounded by fields." Miss Austen, indeed, in a [Page 210]  letter written from Sloane Street, speaks of "walking into London" to do her shopping.

Jane saw much pleasant society while visiting the Henry Austens. She writes from Sloane Street of an evening party which had taken place on a certain Tuesday in April: "Our party went off extremely well. The rooms were dressed up with flowers, &c., and looked very pretty. . . . At half-past seven arrived the musicians in two hackney coaches and by eight the lordly company began to appear. Among the earliest were George and Mary Cooke, and I spent the greatest part of the evening very pleasantly with them. The drawing-room being soon hotter than we liked, we placed ourselves in the connecting, passage, which was comparatively cool, and gave us all the advantage of the music at a pleasant distance, as well as that of the first view of every new comer. I was quite surrounded by acquaintance, especially gentlemen."

We are told that the music was "extremely good" and that it "included the glees of 'Rosabelle,' 'The Red Cross Knight,' and 'Poor Insect.'" The "harp-player was Wiepart," Jane writes, "whose name seems famous though new to me." There was one female singer, "a short Miss Davis, all in blue, bringing up for the public line, whose voice was said to be very fine indeed." [Page 211] 

We hear of an evening spent with some French emigrés - the D'Entraigues and Count Julien, friends of "Eliza" (Mrs. Henry Austen) and we learn that "Monsieur, the old Count" was "a very fine-looking man with quiet manners" and was evidently "a man of great information and taste." "He has some fine paintings," Jane remarks, "which delighted Henry; and among them a miniature of Philip V. of Spain, Louis XIV.'s grandson, which exactly suited my capacity. Count Julien's [musical] performance is very wonderful."[1]

Mrs. Henry Austen died in 1813, and the house in Sloane Street was soon afterwards given up. Henry was at that time a partner in Tilson's Bank, which stood in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, and he probably had rooms at the bank for there his sister Jane and their niece Fanny Knight visited him in the spring of 1814.

In the early summer of that year Jane was at Chawton again, and her sister Cassandra was in town. This was during an exciting time in London, for the Allies, having just established Louis XVIII. on his throne, were meeting together in London for a Thanksgiving service at St. Paul's, to be followed by a series of grand fêtes and entertainments. Jane writes to her sister on the 13th of June: "Take care of yourself, and do not be trampled to [Page 212]  death in running after the Emperor. The report in Alton yesterday was that they would certainly travel this road either to or from Portsmouth." Amongst the Allies the Emperor Alexander (of Russia) was especially popular, and we have heard from an eye-witness that such was the enthusiasm of the crowds when he entered London, that they pressed round him to kiss his horse!

By the month of August Henry Austen had taken a house in Hans Place, No. 23, whence we find Jane writing to her sister, "It is a delightful place - more than answers my expectation," and she goes on to speak in praise of the garden.

At the very next house, No. 22, was the school, already mentioned in these pages, which had been started by Monsieur and Madame St, Quintin as a successor to the Reading Abbey School. There, as we have seen, Miss Mitford received her education, and there she frequently returned for visits in after life. From her we learn that the school had a good garden behind it adjoining the grounds of a mansion called the Pavilion; and from Jane herself we learn that on the further side there was another garden, belonging to No. 24, a house in which Mr. Tilson, of Tilson's Bank, resided.

In the summer of which we are writing Miss Mitford spent a fortnight in Hans Place, and she writes to her mother describing a visit to Lady [Page 213]  Charlotte Dennis's grounds belonging to the Pavilion whose entrance gates were in Hans Place. "What do you think," she asks, "of a dozen different ruins, half a dozen pillars, ditto urns, ditto hermitages, ditto grottoes, ditto rocks,


HOUSES IN HANS PLACE

ditto fortresses, ditto bridges, ditto islands, ditto live bears, foxes and deer, with statues wooden, leaden, bronze, and marble past all count? What do you think of all this crammed into a space of about ten acres, and at the back of Hans Place? It is really incredible. Mr. Dubster's villa is nothing to it." There is an allusion, by [Page 214]  the way, to this same Mr. Dubster (a character in Fanny Burney's "Camilla") and to his summer house in one of Miss Austen's early letters.

We hear of frequent visits to the theatre in the "Letters" from London. Jane goes with her brother and her niece Fanny to see "Mr. Kean as 'Shylock' at Drury Lane," and writes afterwards to her sister, "I shall like to see Kean again excessively, and to see him with you too. It appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere; and in his scene with 'Tubal' there was exquisite acting." She tells us that she saw "the new Mr. Terry" as "Lord Ogleby" and that "Henry thinks he may do" and mentions Young in "Richard III." at Covent Garden. "We were all at the play last night," she writes, "to see Miss O'Neil in 'Isabella.' I do not think she is quite equal to my expectations. I fancy I want something more than can be. I took two pocket-handkerchiefs but had very little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature, however. . . . We went to the Lyceum and saw the 'Hypocrite' an old play taken from Moliere's 'Tartuffe,' and were well entertained. Dowton and Mathews were the good actors; . . . I have no chance of seeing Mrs. Siddons. . . . I should particularly have liked seeing her in 'Constance.'" Sometimes when the younger children from Godmersham happen to be in town "Aunt Jane" [Page 215]  takes them to see a play. "They revelled last night," she writes, "in 'Don Juan.' . . . We had scaramouch and a ghost, and were delighted,"

Apropos of London shopping, Jane speaks of having some "superfluous wealth" to spend. Was it, we wonder, from the proceeds of "Sense and Sensibility"? "I hope," she writes to her sister, "that I shall find some poplin at Layton and Shear's that will tempt me to buy it. If I do it shall be sent to Chawton, as half will be for you; for I depend upon your being so kind as to accept it . . . It will be a great pleasure to me. Don't say a word. I only wish you could choose it too. I shall send twenty yards."[1] Layton and Shear's shop, we find, was at 11, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.

One day Jane orders a cap for herself. "It will be white satin and lace," she writes, "and a little white flower perking out of the left ear, like Harriet Byron's feather." Fanny buys "Irish" at Newton's in Leicester Square, and stockings at Remmington's; "silk at 12s. a pair, and cotton at 4s. 3d.," which are thought to be "great bargains" - and the aunt and niece choose "net for Anna's gown at Grafton House," which is so thronged that they have to wait full half an hour before they can be attended to, "Edward sitting by all the time with wonderful patience."

In one of her "Letters" she speaks of going to [Page 216]  the Liverpool Museum and to the British Gallery. "I had some amusement at each," she writes, "though my preference for men and women always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight." Does not this remind us of Elizabeth Bennet's pleasure in studying character? In returning home from her expeditions Jane is sometimes alone in her brother's carriage. "I liked my solitary elegance very much," she says, "and was ready to laugh all the time at my being where I was. I could not but feel that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a barouche." Was she thinking of her own situation, we wonder, when she made Mrs. Elton talk of Selina's "being stuck up in the barouche-landau without a companion"?

In all the "busy idleness" of her London visits Miss Austen's mind turned constantly to the subject of her books. "Lady Robert is delighted with P. and P.," she writes, "and really was so, as I understand, before she knew who wrote it, for, of course she knows now .... And Mr. Hastings! I am quite delighted with what such a man writes about it. Let me be rational," she exclaims, "and return to my full stops." And she goes on to describe her brother Henry's plans concerning a visit to Chawton. "Mansfield Park," had only been published a few months when Jane wrote (Nov. 18th, 1814) "You will be glad to hear that [Page 217]  the first edition of M. P. is all sold." And she goes on to say that Henry advises her making arrangements with the publisher for a second edition.

We hear of a small evening party to be given in Hans Place whilst Fanny is staying there with her aunt. After describing the morning engagements, Jane writes: "Then came the dinner and Mr. Haden, who brought good manners and clever conversation. From seven to eight the harp; at eight Mrs. L. and Miss E. arrived, and for the rest of the evening the drawing-room was thus arranged: on the sofa the two ladies, Henry and myself, making the best of it; on the opposite side Fanny and Mr. Haden, in two chairs (I believe, at least, they had two chairs), talking together uninterruptedly. Fancy the scene! And what is to be fancied next? Why that Mr. H. dines here again to-morrow. . . Mr. H. is reading 'Mansfield Park' for the first time, and prefers it to P. and P."[1]

During a visit to her brother in 1815 Jane was engaged in correcting the proof sheets of "Emma." Writing on November 20th she remarks: "The printers continue to supply me very well, I am advanced in vol. iii. to my arra-root upon which peculiar style of spelling there is a modest query in the margin." This is, of [Page 218]  course, an allusion to Emma's sending the arrow-root to Jane Fairfax which Jane so promptly declined.

It was in connection with "Emma" that Miss Austen received the only distinguished mark of recognition that ever reached her. Mr. Austen Leigh tells us: "It happened thus. In the autumn of 1815 she nursed her brother Henry through a dangerous fever and slow convalescence at his house in Hans Place. He was attended by one of the Prince Regent's physicians." Although "her name had never appeared on a title-page all who cared to know might easily learn it, and the friendly physician was aware that his patient's nurse was the author of 'Pride and Prejudice.' Accordingly he informed her one day that the Prince was a great admirer of her novels: that he read them often, and kept a set in every one of his residences." On hearing that "Miss Austen was staying in London the Prince had desired Mr. Clarke, the librarian of Carlton House, to wait upon her. The next day Mr. Clarke made his appearance, saying that he had the Prince's instructions to show her the library and other apartments, and to pay her every possible attention." During her visit to Carlton House "Mr. Clarke declared himself commissioned to say that if Miss Austen had any other novel forthcoming she was at liberty to [Page 219]  dedicate it to the Prince, Accordingly such a dedication was immediately prefixed to 'Emma,' which was at that time in the press."

A pleasant correspondence ensued between Miss Austen and Mr. Clarke, given in the "Memoir." In answer to some warm expressions of admiration for her works, she writes: "I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merits. My greatest anxiety is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others . . . . I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred 'Pride and Prejudice' it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred 'Mansfield Park' inferior in good sense."

Mr. Clarke ventured to suggest a subject to be betreated of in her next work - that of the character of a clergyman of an enthusiastic turn of mind, "demurely sad, like Beatie's Minstrel." Jane modestly declines the proposal declaring that she could not do justice to his clergyman unless she possessed a wide acquaintance with classical literature, "and I think," she concludes, "I may boast myself to be with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress." But Mr. Clarke was by no means discouraged, and he proposed another subject, suggested to his mind by the approaching [Page 220]  marriage of the Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold - namely "An historical romance illustrative of the august House of Coburg." Again Jane declines, observing, playfully, "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never to relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."

Charlotte Brontë received similar suggestions and repudiated them with stern eloquence, very different from Jane Austen's "playful raillery." Miss Mitford too did not escape from such counsels, for she was urged to write a poem on the Battle of Copenhagen, which she promptly refused to do, declaring that she was "totally unfit for such an undertaking," and adding, "I do not think I would write upon it even if I could. Cobbett[1] would never forgive me for such an atrocious offence, and I could not offend him to please all the poets in the kingdom." The answers are very characteristic of the three writers.

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Footnotes



[Page 211]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 215]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 217]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 220]
1 Cobbett was an intimate friend of her father.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom