A new exhibition at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton is about to explore the Regency seaside and Jane Austen’s view of the town of dandies and flophouses
It is fair to say that Jane Austen, probably in common with many sober minded people of the Regency period, regarded Brighton and its entertainments as fair game. Certainly In Pride and Prejudice it provided a perfectly frivolous location for the flight of the young and flirtatious Lydia Bennet.
“At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here”, wrote the author before painting a wonderfully acerbic picture of a town that, in the imagination of the young Lydia at least, was “crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet”.
But as a new exhibition at the Prince Regent’s former Brighton residence reveals, the seaside town was a highly convenient backdrop for the Regency period’s most famous author.
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“She may have sent her most disreputable characters to Brighton but that just means she was inspired,” says Alexandra Loske the Curator of the summer exhibition at The Royal Pavilion, Jane Austen by the Sea.
“She certainly knew a lot about it,” she adds, “and why wouldn’t she? It was the biggest and most fashionable seaside resort of the time. She may have disapproved, but my hunch is that she saw it as a source of great inspiration; she thought, ‘yes I can do something with Brighton’.”
Loske’s exhibition explores this seaside context of Austen’s plots, painting a vibrant picture of the leading resort of the early 1800s when it was a fashionable ‘watering place’ and home of the Prince Regent (later George IV).
As well as Pride and Prejudice Brighton makes an appearance in Mansfield Park as the place the Rushworths spend their honeymoon and the great unfinished novel Sanditon bears a remarkable likeness to the Regency resort.
“We can’t prove she was ever here,” she concedes, “but given she used Brighton to such great effect in her works, it suggests that she at least came through the city.”
Loske has secured the loan of some revealing letters from the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton that reveal the authors’ fascination with the English seaside of the time. “However, the problem with Austen’s letters,” she explains, “was that when she was with Cassandra her sister, which was a lot of the time, they didn’t write letters – so we have huge gaps.”
“Most things have been said on Austen, so the least I can do is challenge that notion of her hating Brighton.”
The letters have however provided us with one of the main misconceptions about Austen and her view of Brighton.
“For many years Austen has been quoted as having written to her sister in 1799: ‘I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Brighton as much as you can do…’,” says Loske, “but her sentence actually referred to Bookham, a village in Surrey, rather than Brighton.”
The misquote appeared in the early ‘Brabourne’ edition of Austen’s letters of 1884 and it has been copied and often gleefully repeated down the centuries. “Most things have been said on Austen,” adds Loska, “so the least I can do is challenge that notion of her hating Brighton.”
Jane Austen’s attitude to Brighton will doubtless continue to be debated, but her view of the Prince Regent is less contested.
“She may well have been ambivalent to Brighton, but with the Prince Regent, she certainly didn’t like him,” says Loske. In common with many Georgians, Austen’s position had a lot to do with the Regent’s treatment of his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick who became a cause célèbre and a symbol of the need for reform in England during the profligate George’s attempts to divorce her.
In a letter a letter to Martha Lloyd on 16 February 1813, Austen wrote: “Poor woman, I support her as long as I can, because she is a woman, and because I hate her husband”.
Ignorance, as they say, is bliss and for his part the Prince Regent was a great fan of Austen. He is said to have kept a set of her novels in each of his palaces. He even instructed his librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to welcome her to his library at Carlton House in London where she was given a tour. Rather awkwardly, in return Stanier Clarke encouraged her to dedicate her new novel, Emma, to the Prince Regent.
“She did so reluctantly,” says Loske “by simply having the words ‘To his Royal Highness the Prince Regent’ at the beginning of the novel”.
After entreaties for more from Stanier Clarke, Austen obliged with a thoroughly over the top, full-page dedication for the next edition.
“Quite soon after George IV’s death it was dropped from all further editions,” adds Loske.
The exhibition includes the letter from her to the librarian on this matter – and the Prince Regent’s own copy of Emma in three volumes, complete with the dedication, bound in red leather with the Carlton House book plates inside.
There is also a writing slope similar to the one she would have used, “to show the smallness of her life” says Loske. And for those who want to get closer to woman herself there is a lock of her hair. “We wanted to get something very personal of her into the building – locks of hair were very important in Georgian culture, there is a fetishistic element to it.”
“Three or four” original Regency outfits that fit into her timeframe will also be shown alongside fashion plates that echo Austen’s wry view of the vagaries of Regency fashion together with fashionable magazines of the period that Austen and her sister Cassandra would have read. “We’re also considering a wedding dress,” says Loske, “because every Jane Austen novel ends with a wedding.”
The museum’s renowned collection of Georgian caricatures and cartoons – ranging from the gently mocking to the wildly sarcastic – also make a welcome appearance, together with a three-volume manuscript copy of the unfinished Sussex seaside town novel, Sanditon transcribed in the hand of her sister.
Jane Austen may not have hated or even visited Brighton, but this exhibition sited within the still beating heart of Georgian opulence that is the Royal Pavilion will surely bring legions of her fans flocking back to the Regency city.
Jane Austen by the Sea runs at the Royal Pavilion from June 17 until January 8 2018. Free with Royal Pavilion admission.
Brighton & Hove, East Sussex
As Prince of Wales, George IV first visited Brighton in 1783, aged 21, partly on the recommendation of his doctors who thought that the sea water might ease the swellings in the glands of his neck. He also found the relaxed atmosphere of the town a welcome relief from the…