Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 16 - In London

During the years when she lived at Chawton, Jane stayed pretty frequently in London, generally with her brother Henry. She was with him in 1811, when he was in Sloane Street, going daily to the bank in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, in which he was a partner.

Mr. Austen-Leigh says of Henry Austen, "He was a very entertaining companion, but had perhaps less steadiness of purpose, certainly less success in life, than his brothers."

Jane was evidently very fond of Henry, and fully appreciated his ready sympathy and interest in her affairs. In speaking of her young nephew George Knight, she says: "George's enquiries were endless, and his eagerness in everything reminds me often of his uncle Henry."

Henry was at this time married to his cousin Eliza, widow of the Count de Feuillade, who has already been mentioned, and Eliza was evidently vivacious and fond of society, so her sister-in-law had by no means a dull time when staying with her. But how different were Jane's visits to London, unknown, and certainly without any idea of the fame that was to attend her later, to those of her forerunners and contemporaries who had been "discovered," and who on the very slightest grounds were fĂȘted and adored. The company of Mrs. Austen's friends, a little shopping, an occasional visit to the play, these were the details which filled up the daily routine of Jane's visit. She made the acquaintance of many of her sister-in-law's French friends, and enjoyed a large musical party given by her, where, "including everybody we were sixty-six," and where "the music was extremely good harp, pianoforte, and singing," and the "house was not clear till twelve."

It is not difficult to reconstruct the London that she knew. Rocque's splendid map of the middle of the eighteenth century gives us a basis to go upon, though houses had been rapidly built since it was made. Even at Rocque's date, London reached to Hyde Park Corner, and the district we call Mayfair was one of the smartest parts of the town. St. George's Hospital stood at the corner as at present, and a line of houses bordered the road running past it, but beyond this, over Belgravia, were open fields called the Five Fields crossed by the rambling Westbourne stream, and traversed by paths.

Sloane Street itself had been planned in 1780, and was called after the famous Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection formed the nucleus of the British Museum. It was therefore comparatively new in Jane's time. To the south, near the river, there were a good many houses at Chelsea, that is to say south of King's Road, and Chelsea Hospital of course stood as at present. Next to it, where is now the strip of garden open to the public, and lined by Bridge Road, stood the waste site and ruins of the famous Ranelagh Rotunda, which had been in its time the scene of so much gaiety; only a few years previous to Jane's visit to Sloane Street it had been demolished and the fittings sold.

Vauxhall, however, the great rival of Ranelagh, was still popular, and continued, with gradually waning patronage, until after the middle of the nineteenth century. It does not appear that Jane ever went there, however.

As for Knightsbridge, if we imagine all the great modern buildings such as Sloane Court and the Barracks done away with, and picture a long unpaved road stretching away into fields and open country westward, with a few small houses of the brick box type on both sides, we get some idea of the district. Sloane Street was then in fact quite the end of London; not long before it had been dangerous to travel to the outlying village of Chelsea without protection at night, and it was not until another fourteen years had passed that the Five Fields were laid out for building.

In the London of that date, many things we now take as commonplace necessaries were altogether wanting, and if we could be carried back in time it would be the negative side that would strike us most; for instance, there was very little pavement, and what there was was composed of great rounded stones like the worst sort of cobble paving in a provincial town. Most of the roads were made of gravel and dirt; Jane mentions a fresh load of gravel having been thrown down near Hyde Park Corner, which made the work so stiff that "the horses refused the collar and jibbed." Grosley tells us many little details which are just what we want to know, of the kind which in all ages are taken for granted by those who live amid them, so that they need a stranger to record them.

He gives us first an account of his arrival in London by coach over Westminster Bridge.

"I arrived in London towards the close of the day. Though the sun was still above the horizon, the lamps were already lighted upon Westminster Bridge, and upon the roads and streets that lead to it. These streets are broad, regular, and lined with high houses forming the most beautiful quarter of London. The river covered with boats of different sizes, the bridge and the streets [were] filled with coaches, their broad footpaths crowded with people."
The group of buildings on the west of the bridge belonged of course to the old Palace, where, in the chapel of St. Stephen, sat the House of Commons. The Abbey would be much as it is now, also St. Margaret's Church. The splendid Holbein gate standing across Whitehall had been removed about fifteen years before Grosley's visit. He tells us that: "Means, however, have been found to pave with free-stone the great street called Parliament Street. The fine street called Pall Mall is already paved in part with this stone; and they have also begun to new pave the Strand. The two first of these streets were dry in May, all the rest of the town being still covered with heaps of dirt."

The dirt is what strikes him most everywhere: "In the most beautiful part of the Strand and near St. Clement's Church, I have seen the middle of the street constantly foul with a dirty puddle to a height of three or four inches; a puddle where splashings cover those that walk on foot, fill coaches when their windows happen not to be up, and bedaub ail the lower parts of such houses as are exposed to it. The English are not afraid of this dirt, being defended from it by their wigs of a brownish curling hair, their black stockings, and their blue surtouts, which are made in the form of a nightgown ."

On each side of the road ran a kind of deep and dirty ditch called the kennel, into which refuse and rubbish was thrown, and from which evil and unwholesome odours came. When vehicles in passing splashed into this, a shower of filth would bespatter the passers-by behind the posts. therefore it was of no small consequence to keep to the wall, and the giving up of this was by no means a mere matter of form, and frequently produced quarrels between hot-tempered men. Toward the end of the century, however, swords were not usually worn, except by physicians, therefore these quarrels were not always productive of so much harm as they might have been.

The streets were full of enormous coaches, sometimes gilt, hung on high springs, drawn by four, and even six horses; footmen, to the number of four or six, ran beside them, and the wheels splashed heavily in the dirt described, sending up the mud in black spurts. It was early in the nineteenth century that a new kind of paving was tried, blocks of cast-iron covered with gravel, but this was not a success. Resides the large coaches there were hackney coaches, which would seem to us almost equally clumsy and unwieldy. Omnibuses were not seen in the metropolis until 1823, but there was something of the kind running from outlying places to London, for Samuel Rogers tells a story as follows:--

"Visiting Lady--one day, I made inquiries about her sister. 'She is now staying with me,' answered Lady--, 'but she is unwell in consequence of a fright which she got on her way from Richmond to London.' On enquiry it turned out that while Miss -- was coming to town, the footman observing an omnibus approach, and thinking she might like to see it, suddenly called in at the carriage window, 'Ma'am, the omnibus!' She, being unacquainted with the term, and not sure but an omnibus might be a wild beast escaped from the Zoological Gardens, was thrown into a dreadful state of agitation by the announcement, and this caused her indisposition."
Hackney coaches were in severe competition with sedan chairs, for to call a chair was as frequent a custom as to send for a hackney coach. The chairmen were notorious for their incivility, just as the watermen had previously been, and as their successors, the cabmen, became later, though now the reproach is removed from them.

The rudeness of chairmen is exemplified in Tom Jones, for when Tom found himself after the masqued ball unable to produce a shilling for a chair, he "walked boldly on after the chair in which his lady rode, pursued by a grand huzza from all the chairmen present, who wisely take the best care they can to discountenance all walking afoot by their betters. Luckily, however, the gentry who attend at the Opera House were too busy to quit their stations, and as the lateness of the hour prevented him from meeting many of their brethren in the street, he proceeded without molestation in a dress, which at another season would have certainly raised a mob at his heels."

These chairs were kept privately by great people, and often were very richly decorated with brocade and plush; it was not an unusual thing for the footmen or chairmen of the owner to be decoyed into a tavern while the chair was stolen for the sake of its valuable furniture. The chairs opened with a lid at the top to enable the occupant to stand up on entrance, and then were shut down; in the caricatures of the day, these lids are represented as open to admit of the lady's enormous feather being left on her head.

It was of course quite impossible for a body to go about alone in the streets of London at this date, and even dangerous sometimes for men. The porters, carriers, chairmen, drunken sailors, etc., ready to make a row, are frequently mentioned by Grosley, and scuffles were of constant occurrence. George Selwyn in 1782 was so "mobbed, daubed, and beset by a crew of wretched little chimney-sweeps" that he had to give them money to go away.

These pests were under no sort of control, as there were no regular police in the streets.

"London has neither troops, patrol, or any sort of regular watch; and it is guarded during the night only by old men chosen from the dregs of the people; who have no other arms but a lanthorn and a pole; who patrole the streets, crying the hour every time the clock strikes; who proclaim good and bad weather in the morning; who come to awake those who have any journey to perform; and whom it is customary with young rakes to beat and use ill, when they come reeling from the taverns where they have spent the night." (Grosley.)
It is bewildering to find that this sort of thing continued until George the Fourth's reign, when Sir Robert Feel's Metropolitan Police Act was passed. And in that lawless rowdy age, one wonders how the town ever got on without police; probably there were numerous deaths from violence. It carries us back almost to the Middle Ages to realise that so late as 1783 the last execution took place at Tyburn; Samuel Rogers recollected as a boy seeing a whole cartful of young girls in dresses of various colours on their way to execution for having been concerned in the burning of a house in the Gordon Riots. Though some of these details belong to an age prior to that when Jane stayed in London, yet they lingered on until the nineteenth century with little change.

In 1811 gas was just beginning to be used in lighting the streets! The town was in a strange transitional state. Pall Mall was first lighted with a row of gaslamps in 1807, and on the King's birthday, June 4, the wall between Pall Mall and St. James's Park was brilliantly illuminated in the same way, but gas generally was not placed in the thoroughfares until 1812 or 1813, and meantime oil-lamps requiring much care and attention were the only resource.

It was a noisy, rattling, busy, dirty London then, as much distinguished for its fogs as it is at present.

M. Grosley was much struck with the fogs: "We may add to the inconvenience of the dirt the fog-smoke which, being mixed with a constant fog, covers London and wraps it up entirely. . . . On the 26th of April, St. James's Park was incessantly covered with fogs, smoke, and rain, that scarce left a possibility of distinguishing objects at the distance of four steps."

He speaks at another place of--

"This smoke being loaded with terrestrial particles and rolling in a thick, heavy atmosphere, forms a cloud, which envelopes London like a mantle, a cloud which the sun pervades but rarely, a cloud which, recoiling back upon itself, suffers the sun to break out only now and then, which casual appearance procures the Londoners a few of what they call glorious days."

Charing Cross, 1785

Charing Cross, 1785

In regard to the main streets and squares in the West End, the greatest difference noticeable between the London of 1811 and of the present time would be the network of dirty and mean buildings over-spreading the part where is now Trafalgar Square. In the middle of these stood the King's Mews, which had been rebuilt in 1732, and was not done away with until 1829. At the corner where Northumberland Avenue joins Charing Cross, was the splendid mansion of the Duke of Northumberland, which remained until 1874.

Another great difference lay in the fact of there being no Regent Street, for this street was not begun until two years after Jane's 1811 visit. Bond Street was there and Piccadilly, and across the entrance to the Park, where is now the Duke of York's column, was Carlton Mouse, the home of the obstreperous Prince of Wales. In M. Grosley's time, Leicester House,in Leicester Fields, was still standing, but in 1811 it had been pulled down. Grosley lodged near here, and his details as to rent, etc., are interesting.

He says that the house of his landlord was small, only three storeys high, standing on an irregular patch of ground, and rented at thirty-eight guineas a year, with an additional guinea for the water supply, which was distributed three times weekly. In this house two or three little rooms on the first storey, very slightly furnished, were let to him at a guinea a week.

The touch about the water supply points to another deficiency; all the present admirable system of private taps and other distributing agencies, also the network of drains, sewers, etc., had yet to be evolved, for sanitation was in a very elementary condition. Many of the shops were still distinguished by signs, for though the custom of numbering, in place of signs, had been introduced, it had made way but slowly, thus we find Jane referring to "The tallow chandler is Penlington, at the Crown and Beehive, Charles Street, Covent Garden."

It would be particularly pleasant to know where she did her own shopping in which she was femininely interested, but it is difficult to infer. But beyond the fact that "Layton and Shears" was evidently the draper whom she patronised, and that "Layton and Shears is Bedford House," and that "Fanny bought her Irish at Newton's in Leicester Square," we do not get much detail. But we glean a few particulars from this visit, and one of a later date. Grafton House was evidently a famous place for shopping, for she and Fanny frequently paid visits there before breakfast, which was, however, generally much later than we have it, perhaps about ten; Jane says, "We must have been three quarters of an hour at Grafton House, Edward sitting by all the time with wonderful patience. There Fanny bought the net for Anna's gown, and a beautiful square veil for herself. The edging there is very cheap. I was tempted by some, and I bought some very nice plaiting lace at three and fourpence." Again she says, "We set off immediately after breakfast, and must have reached Grafton House by half past eleven; but when we entered the shop the whole counter was thronged and we waited full half an hour before we could be attended to."

"Fanny was much pleased with the stockings she bought of Remmington, silk at twelve shillings, cotton at four shillings and threepence; she thinks them great bargains, but I have not seen them yet, as my hair was dressing when the man and the stockings came."

It was quite the fashion at that time to patronise Wedgwood, whose beautiful china was much in vogue. The original founder of the firm had died in 17951 and had been succeeded by his son.

"We then went to Wedgwood's where my brother and Fanny chose a dinner set. I believe the pattern is a small lozenge in purple, between lines of narrow gold, and it is to have the crest."
This identical dinner set is still in the possession of the family.

Mrs. Lybbe Powys also mentions Wedgwood. "In the morning we went to London a-shopping, and at Wedgwood's as usual were highly entertained, as I think no shop affords so great a variety."

In the spring of 1813 Jane was again in London, and visited many picture galleries. The fact of having Fanny with her was enough to enhance greatly her pleasure in these sights.

Mrs. Henry Austen had died in the early part of this year, leaving no children. Henry, of course, eventually married again, as did all the brothers with the exception of Edward Knight, but it was not for seven years; his second wife was Eleanor, daughter of Henry Jackson. The house in Sloane Street was given up after his wife's death, and he went to Henrietta Street to be near the bank. It was here Jane came to him.

A collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds' paintings was being exhibited in Pall Mall, though the great painter himself was dead. With her head full of Pride and Prejudice, which had recently been published, Jane looks in vain to discover any portrait that will do for Elizabeth Bennet, and failing to find one, she writes playfully, "I can only imagine that Darcy prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye. I can imagine he would have that sort of feeling--that mixture of love, pride, and delicacy." She, however, is more successful in finding one of Jane Bingley, Elizabeth's sister, "Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself--size, shaped face, features and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her."

Kensington Gardens were at that time the resort of many of the fashionable; Jane mentions frequently walking there, though we doubt if she were attracted by the scenes of struggle and confusion that sometimes took place.

From The Times of March 28, 1794, we learn, "the access to Kensington Gardens is so inconvenient to the visitors, it is to be hoped the politeness of those who have the direction of it will induce them to give orders for another door to be made for the convenience of the public; one door for admission, and another for departure would prove a great convenience to the visitors. For want of this regulation the ladies frequently have their clothes torn to pieces, and are much hurt by the crowd passing different ways."

"Two ladies were lucky enough to escape through the gate of Kensington Gardens, on Sunday last, with only a broken arm each. When a few lives have been lost perchance then a door or two may be made for the convenience of the families of the survivors."

This shows that there was a wall or high paling running completely round the Gardens.

We find mentioned also the seats or boxes scattered up and down the grass-plots, and moving on a pivot to catch the sun, a convenience it would be well to restore.

When one realises the crowds that habitually frequented the place it seems as if there must be some mistake in the record that a man was accidentally shot in 1798 when the keepers "were hunting foxes in Kensington Gardens!"

The Serpentine was made out of the Westbourne in 1730, and the gardens reclaimed, having been up to then a mere wilderness. During the reign of George II., the Gardens were only open to the public on Saturdays, but when the Court ceased to reside at Kensington Palace, they were open during the spring and summer. The Broad Walk seems to have been the most fashionable promenade, and doubtless there was frequently to be seen here some such crowd as that described by Tickell, when

"Each walk with robes of various dyes bespread
Seems from afar a moving tulip bed,
where rich brocades and glossy damasks glow,
And chintz, the rival of the showery bow."

The Little Theatre, Haymarket

The Little Theatre, Haymarket

During most of her visits to London, Jane went several times to the theatre, chieAy to Covent Garden and Drury Lane, which were then considered far the best, though there were many others existing, among which were the Adelphi, which had been opened in 1806; Astley's Amphitheatre for the exhibition of trained horses, which was very popular; the Haymarket, or Little Theatre, taken down in 1820; the Lyceum, which was then the opera house, having been enlarged in 1809; the Olympic, which belonged to Astley, and where there was the same style of show as at his other theatre; the Pantheon, Oxford Street, chiefly for masquerades and concerts, reopened as an opera house in 1812 and sold up in Igrq; the Queen's, near Tottenham Court Road, not much known or frequented; a description which also applies to the old Royalty in Well Street and others. Among places of amusement must also be enumerated the Italian Opera House, which stood where His Majesty's Theatre is at present. It was opened in 1705, burnt down in 1789, and rebuilt the following year.

Of the two principal theatres, Covent Garden had been opened by Rich in 1737, it was afterwards greatly enlarged and improved, and in 1803 John Kemble became proprietor. Only five years later it was burnt to the ground. The new theatre, built on the same site, was reopened in 1809, when the prices were raised: they had been, boxes 4s.; pit 2s. 6d.; first gallery 1s. 6d.; upper gallery 1s. There were then no stalls, and persons of "quality" had to go to boxes. The prices demanded by Kemble were: boxes 7s.; pit 3s.; gallery 2s.; while the upper gallery remained the same. A fearful riot broke out on the first night of the new prices, and the mob would hear no explanations, listen to no reason. The members who banded themselves together adopted the name of O.P., for Old Prices, and would not allow the play to proceed, making an indescribable din with whistles, cat-calls, and shrieks. After weeks of dispute, a compromise was arrived at, the higher price being retained in the case of the boxes.

At an earlier date some of the audience had actually been seated on the stage among the performers; and there were still in Jane's time boxes on the stage, but outside the curtain. We can see this in the illustration of the Little Theatre, Haymarket, where the pit comes right up to the footlights, there being no stalls, and the patrons of the pit are seated on backless benches not divided into compartments.

We gather from contemporary literature that it was a common thing to go to rehearsals of the performances at the opera, and that there was a coffee-room attached, which formed at least as great an attraction to the idle rich, who loved to chatter sweet nothings, as the piece itself.

Kemble was the brother of Mrs. Siddons, and did as much as any man for the improvement of the stage; when he first began his career, he was struck by the ludicrous conventionality of the dresses, which were as much a matter of form as the custom of representing statues of living men "in Roman habit." He and the great Garrick killed this foolish custom.

The conventionalism in matters of dress upon the stage is noticed by the ubiquitous M. Grosley thus--

"On the stage the principal actresses drag long trains after them, and are followed by a little boy in quality of a train-bearer, who is as inseparable from them as the shadow from the body. This page keeps his eye constantly upon the train of the princess, sets it to rights when it is ever so little ruffled or disordered, and is seen to run after it with all his might, when a violent emotion makes the princess hurry from one side of the stage to another."
Drury Lane Theatre has an older record than Covent Garden. It dates from 1663, and in 1682 was the only theatre in London, being considered sufficient for the joint representations of the two old established companies of players, The King's and The Duke's. It was many times rebuilt, being more than once destroyed by fire; in fact nothing is more striking in the annals of theatres than the astonishing number of times nearly every theatre has been burnt clown. The third house was burnt in February 1809, and its successor opened in 1812, With a prologue by Lord Byron. During Jane Austen's first recorded visit to London, therefore, it would be in course of rebuilding, though on subsequent visits it would be very fashionable, being new.

Just as in novels during the lifetime of Jane Austen, there was an enormous change from the grandiloquent and conventional, to the natural and simple, and the same in poetry, so it was on the stage. The absurd conventionalism, the unsuitable dresses, no matter what, so long as they were grand, were exchanged for easy declamation and natural attitude.

Garrick, as we have said, was one of the first actors to begin this movement, and it is no wonder that he won the applause of London, and that crowds came to hear him, so that in 1744, when he was to act Hamlet, servants were sent at three o'clock in the afternoon to keep places for their employers, for there were then no such things as reserved seats. Fine actors and actresses abounded in the eighteenth century; Mrs. Siddons, who was born in 1755, did not give her farewell performance in Lady Macbeth until 1812, and lived long after. Both Mrs. Oldfield and Peg Woffington, however, had passed away before Jane's time.

It was an age when people were wild about acting, and private theatres were a common hobby, many a young spark ruined himself in this extravagance, and The Times of 1798 mentions that there were no fewer than six private theatres in London and Westminster.

The plays commented upon in Jane's letters seem to us very dull,"Fanny and the two little girls are gone to take places for to-night at Covent Garden; Clandestine Marriage and Midas. The latter will be a fine show for L[izzie] and M[arianne]. They revelled last night in Don Juan whom we left in hell at half past eleven. We had Scaramouch and a ghost, and were delighted. I speak of them; my delight was very tranquil, and the rest of us were sober minded. Don Juan was the last of three musical things. Five Five Hours at Brighton, in three acts, and the Beehive rather less flat and trumpery."

"We had good places in the box next the stage box. . . . I was particularly disappointed at seeing nothing of Mr. Crabbe. I felt sure of him when I saw the boxes were fitted up with crimson velvet. The new Mr. Terry was Lord Ogleby, and Henry thinks he may do, but there was no acting more than moderate."

In the following year, 1814, her comments are, "We went to the play again last night. The Farmer's Wife is a musical thing in three acts, and, as Edward was steady in not staying for anything more, we were home before ten. Fanny and Mr. J. P. are delighted with Miss S-- all that I am sensible of . . . is a pleasing person and no skill in acting. We had Mathews, Listen, and Enery; of course some amusement." "prepare for a play the very first evening, I rather think Covent Garden, to see Young in Richard."

Miss S--was probably Miss Stephens, a singer who made her debut in 1812 in concerts, and appeared on the stage at Covent Garden in 1813; she afterwards became Countess of Essex. She was considered "unsurpassed for her rendering of ballads." Jane mentions her again--

"We are to see the Devil to Pay to-night. I expect to be very much amused. Excepting Miss Stephens, I daresay Artaxerxes will be very tiresome."
The Mathews she mentions was Charles Mathews senior.

Listen was at first master of St. Martin's Grammar School, Leicester Square, but became a popular actor, and at the time of her writing was appearing at Covent Garden. But by far the best actor she records having seen is Kean." We were quite satisfied with Kean, I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short and excepting him and Miss Smith, and she did not quite answer my expectation,the parts were ill-filled and the play heavy. We were too much tired for the whole of Illusion (Nourjahad), which has three acts; there is a great deal of finery and dancing in it, but I think little merit. Elliston was Nourjahad, but I think it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him, I might not have known him but for his voice," and later, "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."

In another place she says that so great was the rage for seeing Kean that only a third or fourth row could be got, and that "he is more admired than ever."

This is very different from Miss Mitford's account of her first impressions of the great actor: "Well, I went to see Mr. Kean and was thoroughly disgusted. This monarch of the stage is a little insignificant man, slightly deformed, strongly ungraceful, seldom pleasing the eye, still seldomer satisfying the ear--with a voice between grunting and croaking, a perpetual hoarseness which suffocates his words, and a vulgarity of manner which his admirers are pleased to call nature . . . his acting will always be, if not actually insupportable, yet unequal, disappointing and destructive of all illusion."

But, as in her account of Darcy and Elizabeth, we have seen that Miss Mitford preferred the stereotyped and conventional to the natural, of which Jane Austen was so ardent an admirer, therefore we cannot feel much surprise at the difference between the two opinions.

Jane evidently enjoyed good acting, but was critical and not a great lover of the drama unless it was very well done; this we might expect, for naturalness was her admiration, and naturalness she would only find in first-rate performers such as Kean.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.