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by Brenda S. Cox

“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon

This is the only time Jane Austen clearly introduces a black or mixed-race character in her fiction. And we don’t know what direction she was going to go with this young lady. (Though obviously the producers of Sanditon have made their own speculations, as have the authors of completions of the novel. My favorite completion, by the way, is here.)

My favorite completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is by Jane Austen and “Another Lady.”

Austen’s inclusion of a mixed-race character raises questions for us today:

  • How many black and mixed-race people were there in Austen’s England?
  • Is she likely to have known any of them?
  • What were their lives like?
  • How did Austen’s society view them and treat them?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic, and it’s hard to find solid answers. However, the series of posts that I’m starting today will look at the question from different angles. We’ll start today with some indications from fiction of Austen’s time. Then we’ll look at statistics from official records, using Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories.  We’ll also look at what art of the time can tell us, and consider the lives of some individual black and mixed-race people. Each of these lenses will give us a little clearer picture of black people’s lives in Austen’s England.

Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe is “half mulatto.” Nowadays “mulatto” is an offensive term, as it is based on the word “mule”; mixed-race people were believed to be sterile like mules. (Though there must have been plenty of evidence to the contrary!) But I don’t think Austen is using it pejoratively. She is simply describing Miss Lambe’s background. It sounds like Miss Lambe had a parent who was half-black and half-white, most likely her mother, and a white parent. Such pairings were quite common in the West Indies. A plantation owner might well leave his wealth to a mixed-race child.

Austen calls Miss Lambe “chilly and tender.” “Chilly” probably meant that the weather of England was too cold for her, compared to the West Indies where she grew up. “Tender” probably meant that she was delicate, easily becoming ill. Though as I imagine Miss Lambe, I like to think that “tender” also meant she was kind and gentle.

Austen sometimes describes people, such as Marianne Dashwood and Henry Tilney, as having a “brown” complexion. There’s been some speculation that she may mean to imply mixed racial backgrounds. That’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely to me. It sounds like Austen is just describing minor variations in skin tones. She usually pairs “brown” skin with dark eyes and dark hair. In one other reference, Miss Bingley says Elizabeth Bennet has become “brown and coarse.” Darcy says she is tanned from traveling in the summer.

The Woman of Colour is an anonymous novel published in 1808 about an heiress like Miss Lambe. The modern version edited by Lyndon J. Dominique includes much helpful background information and excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time.

Back to Miss Lambe. We can get some idea of what her life might have been like from a novel of the time. The Woman of Colour: A Tale  was published anonymously in London in 1808, nine years before Austen began writing Sanditon. Professor Lyndon J. Dominique has edited a modern version, full of helpful background information.

Modern scholars speculate that the writer was herself a “woman of colour,” the mixed-race daughter of a West Indies planter, but we don’t know for sure who wrote the book. “People of color” may be used today to describe people of various races. However, eighteenth-century British people used it to refer to certain groups of free people in the Americas. Some included free black people, but others used the term only for those of mixed race (p. 21 in The Woman of Colour).

The novel is a series of letters from Olivia Fairfield to her former governess in Jamaica. Olivia, the daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave, is on her way to England. Her loving father knows that because of her skin color she will never be treated as an equal by the planters of Jamaica. So he arranges that after his death she will travel to England. In England, laws and attitudes toward mixed-race people were less harsh, and tender-hearted Olivia wouldn’t have to see the suffering of the black people she identifies with. Her father, in his will, has arranged for her to marry her cousin, who will then inherit her fortune.

Already we find an interesting contrast. While black people were often treated horrifically in the West Indies, they found more acceptance in England itself.

Prejudices

The story shows some examples of prejudices that black and mixed-race people experienced in England at this time. Olivia and her black maid are called names, and yet they earn a place in society.

At her first English ball, Olivia is “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84). She says, “My colour, you know, renders me remarkable” (84). People stare at her “as if they had been invited purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece!” However, one gentleman, who calls her a “native,” adds, “In native elegance unrivalled! . . . More grace, more expression, more characteristic dignity, I never yet beheld in one female figure!” His friend calls her a “sable goddess.” Olivia enjoys the dancing, but complains that rather than rational people, she finds only “folly and dissimulation” (88).

Olivia’s maid Dido is a black woman. Though not enslaved, she seems the stereotype of the faithful black slave. She speaks in “half-broken language” (57), presumably a Jamaican dialect. She loves Olivia dearly and serves her faithfully. Olivia also loves Dido. In town, Dido says she is called names like “blacky” and “wowsky” and “squabby” and “guashy,” “and all because she has a skin not quite so white,–God Almighty help them all.” (“Wowski” was the name of an American Indian woman in a novel of 1787; “Quasheba” was the name of dark-skinned characters in novels of 1767 and 1798.) Dido says even a maid treats her like a slave. But she looks forward to their home in the countryside, where she will be the housekeeper and be in charge. Once in the country, she wins the affection of the “peasants” with her warm heart (105).

Olivia’s husband’s young nephew George thinks Olivia’s skin is “dirty” and Dido’s even dirtier. Olivia explains to him, “The same God that made you made me . . . the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of the world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black” (79).

They go on to discuss the evils of slavery. The child has heard the coachman saying that “black slaves are no better than horses over there,” and Olivia explains, “Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses . . . but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” Olivia says that human feelings and religious principles, as well as “kindred claims,” impel her to pray for the end of slavery, the emancipation of her brethren (80-81).

Once Olivia is married and living in the countryside, she meets “East Indian Nabobs,” a family who made their fortune in India, and finds them proud and selfish. However, she is completely accepted into the social circles of her area. The most prejudice she experiences is from her sister-in-law, who is a conniving, selfish woman.

The Woman of Colour: A Tale  shows some of the prejudices against black and mixed-race people in England. Nevertheless, it also implies that people of color were fully accepted in English society, particularly if they had wealth, like Austen’s Miss Lambe.

Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy made the earliest attempt to complete Sanditon.

Religious Themes

The novel has many Christian themes. At this time, Christians in England, led by William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” were pushing strongly to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Literature was one of their most important means of raising public awareness and calling for compassion for oppressed people. Evangelical Hannah More was writing tracts like “The Sorrows of Yamba: or, The Negro Woman’s Lament,” a story about an enslaved woman whose baby died in her arms on a slave ship. William Cowper, Jane Austen’s beloved poet, wrote poems condemning slavery. Cowper wrote, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? . . . 
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.” (This wasn’t strictly true, in legal terms, but was widely believed. It does point out the radical difference, though, between British colonies where slavery was part of the economy, and Britain itself.) While we don’t know who wrote The Woman of Colour, the book seems to fit with other such literature that put a human face on enslaved peoples and called for Christian compassion toward them.

Olivia’s mother was her father’s slave and his mistress. He taught her Christian faith, which she accepted eagerly. But she also learned from the church that her relationship with him was wrong, since they weren’t married. She confronted him, but he was too proud and too prejudiced to marry her. She died in childbirth. Olivia’s father raised her, gave her a good education, then sent her to England.

Her cousin Augustus, a good man, is at first repelled by Olivia’s dark complexion. However, he soon realizes that she has “a noble and dignified soul.”

Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration . . . a superior being, and . . . the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!—She is accomplished and elegant; but her accomplishments are not the superficial acquirements of the day,–they are the result of application and genius in unison” (102-3).

In fact, Augustus and Olivia, both epitomes of beauty, intelligence, and virtue, seem to be made for each other. They marry and live happily. But—I won’t spoil it—something happens to destroy their happiness. Interestingly, the person who destroys their marriage is motivated by greed, jealousy, and class prejudices, not racial prejudices.

Olivia ends up alone, but she bears it well and peacefully. Throughout the story, she turns to God in all her trials and fears. The story ends by spelling out the moral: In times of calamity, we should seek God. Faith in God can enable us to become resigned to any hard situation.

The original editor adds that if the book can “teach [even] one skeptical European to look with a compassionate eye towards the despised native of Africa—then, whether Olivia Fairfield’s be a real or an imaginary character, I shall not regret that I have edited the Letters of a Woman of Colour!” (189)

Another cover for Sanditon completed by “Another Lady”; other completions are also available by other authors.

Other Fiction of Austen’s Time

Lyndon J. Dominique, who edited the modern version of The Woman of Colour: A Tale, provides a timeline of “Women of Color in Drama and Long Prose Fiction” from 1605 to 1861. He lists 37 publications during Austen’s lifetime with black or mixed-race characters, including Sanditon. It seems likely that as an avid reader, Austen was probably familiar with some of these, or earlier ones.

Dominique includes excerpts from a few of these works, including:

Lucy Peacock’s “The Creole” (1786). A creole heiress (who may be white or mixed-race) loses her fortune to an unscrupulous husband. Only her “honest negroes” console her (196). Again there is a Christian message. The creole lady writes, “Surely . . . we have no right to tyrannize over, and treat as brutes, those who will doubtless one day be made partakers with us of an immortality. Have they not the same faculties, the same passions, and the same innate sense of good and evil? Should we, then, who are enlightened by the holy precepts of Christianity, refuse to stretch forth the friendly hand, to point these human affections to the most laudable purposes, the glory of God, and the real advantage of society?” (196) She frees her slaves.

Agnes Musgrave’s Solemn Injunctions (1798).  At a boarding school, a girl is jealous of a talented, amiable young lady from the West Indies. So she “insinuates” that the girl has black ancestry and should be rejected. The other West Indian girls bring the prejudices of the islands with them to school. “In the West Indies the distinction is kept up by the women with so scrupulous an exactness, as never to mix, on equal terms, with people so descended”: they would not mix with any “child of mixed blood whose ancestors within the fourth degree of descent were negroes” (215). Here again the prejudices of the West Indies are much stronger than the prejudices of England.

Other stories include mixed-race heiresses like Olivia who are beautiful, well-educated, and virtuous Christians. They also include people who condemn “vulgar” black people. It appears that some of these stories, like The Woman of Colour, were written at least partly to help counteract prejudices and support anti-slavery causes.

I suspect Jane Austen’s Miss Lambe would have been a more balanced character then those we find in other novels of the time. Austen did not write stereotypes. However, Austen was strongly opposed to slavery* and probably would have presented Miss Lambe positively.

The Woman of Colour also includes nonfiction excerpts of the time which confirm some of the attitudes and situations represented in the novel. For example, a copy of a Jamaican planter’s will, leaving his fortune to his “reputed daughters” born of his black mistress, shows that there were mixed-race West Indian heiresses.

Next month we’ll look at who the black people in England were at this time, how they got there, and what social classes they belonged to. Scholar Kathleen Chater searched through a huge number of primary sources to find that information, so I’ll share some of that with you, from her book Untold Histories.

 

If you are familiar with other fiction of Austen’s era that includes black characters, tell us about those characters! Or, if you’ve read The Woman of Colour, what did you learn from it or think about it?

 

Learning More

On Friday, April 9, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM EDT, Professor Dominique will be giving an online seminar on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” discussing the novel he edited. You can sign up at Jane Austen & Co. 

 

If you want to start exploring more on this topic on your own, in the tabs above, under History, scroll down until you find the section I’ve added on Black History, or see Resources. It will give you a wide variety of resources to start investigating.

*I don’t intend to look at slavery in the British colonies, or abolition, in this series, but you’ll also find sources addressing those areas among the resources listed. “Austen and Antigua—Slavery in Her Time”  is a good discussion of Jane Austen’s comments on slavery and her family’s connections with slave plantations.

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By Brenda S. Cox

“I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school” — Elizabeth Watson in The Watsons

No doubt you’ve heard how restrictive Austen’s world was for women. When a woman got married, all her wealth became the property of her husband (unless she had a good lawyer who arranged things differently). A lady without money or a husband might end up a governess (Jane Fairfax compares that to slavery) or a teacher at a girl’s school (Elizabeth Watson would “rather do anything than be a teacher at a school”). A man could divorce his wife by accusing her of adultery (even if there wasn’t what we would consider clear proof), but a woman was almost never able to divorce her husband.

Despite all that, there were outstanding women of the Georgian era who broke through those barriers. Some were widows, some were single, some were married.

Two fascinating books tell us about some of these boundary-breaking women. Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era (Pen & Sword 2018) brings us seventeen women from the eighteenth-century who made outstanding contributions in Arts & Literature; The Scientific World; Business & Commerce; and Reform and Education. Rendell explains the legal position of women in Austen’s world, and after each short biography gives a wider picture. For example, at the end of the chapter on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who promoted smallpox inoculation in England, we learn more about smallpox, “the most dreadful scourge of the human species” (according to Edward Jenner, who developed vaccinations). At the end of Trailblazing Women, Rendell continues the saga of women’s achievements in England, into the present.

Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, by Mike Rendell, tells the story of 17 boundary-breaking women.

In a complementary book, What Regency Women Did For Us (Pen & Sword 2017), Rachel Knowles shares the lives of twelve Regency women who made an impact on their communities and on our world today. Knowles does not give such wide coverage as Rendell, but tells the fascinating story of each woman in more depth. She is more focused on the Regency period, while Rendell adds earlier women from the 18th century.

What Regency Women Did For Us, by Rachel Knowles, tells the stories of a dozen Regency women who impacted our world today.

Rendell and Knowles chose some of the same women and some different ones. Both introduce actress Sarah Siddons, scientific book writer Jane Marcet, engineer/inventor Sarah Guppy, artificial stone manufacturer Eleanor Coade, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Rendell adds businesswomen, writers, an anti-slavery campaigner (Lady Middleton), and others, while Knowles adds mountaineer Mary Parminter, fossilist Mary Anning, astronomer Caroline Herschel, our own Jane Austen, and more.

Let’s look at a few of my favorites, out of all these fascinating women.

Jane Marcet: Author of Science Books for Women

Rendell identifies Jane Marcet as a “scientific book writer,” while Knowles calls her “Faraday’s teacher.” I love that Marcet wrote science books for girls and women in an age when many thought that reading and arithmetic, embroidery and music, were all that women needed to know. I can imagine Fanny Price reading Marcet’s books and developing her love for the natural world.

Like Jane Marcet, I love chemistry, and I love to write about complex issues, making them clear and understandable. So Marcet seems like a kindred spirit to me. Her husband was a doctor who enjoyed chemistry. They attended lectures together at the Royal Institution in London to hear Humphry Davy explain the latest chemical discoveries. Jane Marcet had been given a basic grounding in science at home and even learned some Latin, which Regency girls rarely studied.  However, she still needed her husband’s help in understanding the scientific vocabulary that Davy and other lecturers used.

A page from Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry, which taught science to young women and many young men, using discussions, pictures, and everyday examples.

Marcet wrote a book, Conversations on Chemistry, to help other women understand those lectures. In dialogues between a woman teacher and two female students, Marcet explains basic chemical concepts in clear language with everyday illustrations. Practical experiments, questions and answers, and Jane Marcet’s own illustrations make the book even easier to understand. She published it anonymously in 1805 (as Jane Austen published her books anonymously), but her name was later added to it. The book was very popular in both England and America.

Conversations on Chemistry became a standard school textbook for teaching science to girls, as well as for teaching at home. But Marcet’s book didn’t just benefit girls. Boys without access to much schooling also learned from it. Marcet’s book introduced Michael Faraday, who had little formal education, to chemistry. Faraday went on to make major discoveries in chemistry and electricity and also lectured to the public at the Royal Institution.

Jane Marcet went on to write popular books teaching economics, natural philosophy (science), and botany, as well as Conversations on the Evidences of Christianity. She helped revolutionize education, particularly for women, making these subjects accessible to all.

Hester Bateman: Silversmith and Business Owner

When I visited colonial Williamsburg during the 2019 JASNA AGM, I was surprised to learn that most eighteenth-century trades included women. In England, Hester Bateman was a well-known silversmith, with her own company. Like many Georgian women who made names for themselves, her career began when her husband died. He was a silver worker who taught his wife to assist him. She was illiterate herself, but he bequeathed his tools to her, rather than to their sons, and she immediately took over the business, calling it “Hester Bateman and Company.” She registered her own mark, “HB,” which still identifies her work today.

Hester Bateman developed beautiful, simple, classical designs for the dining rooms and tea tables of the upwardly-mobile middle classes. Her family business expanded into  a workshop across the backs of three houses. She and her company produced many thousands of silver objects. Her sons, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren eventually took over the prosperous business. But Hester herself ran the company until she died at age 82.

This mustard-pot is lined with blue glass so the mustard does not react with the silver. It was made in 1774 by Hester Bateman, a lady silversmith with her own mark. Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, gift of Thomas M. and Harriet S. Gibbons, used by permission.

In Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, Rendell tells us about other Georgian businesswomen who made lace, sold stocks, manufactured artificial stone (used for anything from tiny ornaments to giant statues), owned a print shop, wrote and sold cookbooks, and manufactured chocolates. He even includes a “bigamist, litigant and courtesan,” Teresia ‘Con’ Phillips, as a businesswoman, to show the limited avenues available for women. He wonders why there were not more Georgian businesswomen. However, I’m impressed that, despite the restrictions on women owning property and having their own money, there were so many Georgian businesswomen that we still know about today.

Madame Tussaud: Artist and Businesswoman

Rachel Knowles calls Marie Tussaud “Entrepreneur Extraordinaire.” Madame Tussaud was a talented artist and craftswoman as well as a smart and creative businesswoman.The wax museums she developed are still popular today.

Waxwork of Marie Tussaud, at Madame Tussaud’s in London

Marie’s mother was housekeeper to a Swiss doctor, Philippe Curtius, who adopted Marie as his daughter. Curtius made wax models to show the anatomy of the human body. His models were so successful that he left medicine and set up a waxworks in Paris. He taught Marie how to make wax models and how to run a business. During the French Revolution, Marie and Curtius made wax models of the royal family, of people who had been guillotined, and of prisoners and revolutionaries. Marie took impressions of people’s heads shortly after they were cut off—quite a gruesome job.

When Curtius died, he left his waxworks and other property to Marie. She married François Tussaud, but her marriage settlement ensured that she kept control of her own property—that was unusual in France, as in England. It was a good move, since her husband turned out to be irresponsible with money. In 1802 she moved her exhibition to England. Her husband stayed in France, and she eventually gave him her French property, but she kept the waxworks and her income from it.

After some difficult years and an unprofitable partnership with an English businessman, Madame Tussaud developed her exhibition into a popular traveling show. In 1833 she set up a permanent exhibit in London. Her sons took it over—she transferred it into their names to keep her husband from getting it.  The waxworks survived the centuries and Madame Tussaud’s is still one of the most popular attractions in London, with related wax museums around the world.

In What Regency Women Did for Us, Knowles includes other women with unusual stories, such as Harriet Mellon, the penniless Irish peasant who became a wealthy banker and left a fortune to a Victorian woman philanthropist. Mary Parminter, another unusual Regency woman, took the Grand Tour of Europe (usually a men’s activity) with her cousins while they were unmarried, and climbed mountains. Mary stayed single, keeping control of her extensive fortune and using it to build a lovely chapel and provide homes for independent single women.

If you have been thinking that teaching and writing were the only occupations open to Georgian and Regency women, these two books will open your eyes. Many women pushed outside the boundaries of societal expectations and left lasting legacies. In both Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era and Rachel Knowles’ What Regency Women Did For Us you will meet many such women and enjoy their exciting stories.

You can find Mike Rendell at Georgian Gentleman. Rendell has written books on other aspects of Georgian society, including Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.

You can find Rachel Knowles at Regency History. For an additional review of What Regency Women Did For Us, see “Women of Science, Women of Faith.” Rachel has also written a fun Regency novel, A Perfect Matchand is about to release a second book in the series, A Reason for Romance.

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“‘a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood . . .'” —Northanger Abbey

The only riot in Jane Austen’s novels takes place in Eleanor Tilney’s mind, her brother says. But is it only in her mind?

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is walking with Henry and Eleanor Tilney  on Beechen Cliff, which overlooks Bath. They admire the scenery, then the conversation moves to government and politics;

“from politics, it was an easy step to silence. The general pause which succeeded [Henry’s] short disquisition on the state of the nation was put an end to by Catherine, who, in rather a solemn tone of voice, uttered these words, “I have heard that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London.”

Not surprisingly, since they had just been talking about government and politics, Eleanor thinks that Catherine has heard rumors of something terrible about to happen in London.

“Miss Tilney, to whom this was chiefly addressed, was startled, and hastily replied, ‘Indeed! And of what nature?’”

[Catherine responds,] “’That I do not know, nor who is the author. I have only heard that it is to be more horrible than anything we have met with yet.’”

“’Good heaven! Where could you hear of such a thing?’”

“’A particular friend of mine had an account of it in a letter from London yesterday. It is to be uncommonly dreadful. I shall expect murder and everything of the kind.’”

“’You speak with astonishing composure! But I hope your friend’s accounts have been exaggerated; and if such a design is known beforehand, proper measures will undoubtedly be taken by government to prevent its coming to effect.’”

“’Government,’ said Henry, endeavouring not to smile, ‘neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters. There must be murder; and government cares not how much.’”

[Eleanor responds,] “’Miss Morland, do not mind what he says; but have the goodness to satisfy me as to this dreadful riot.’”

“”Riot! What riot?’”

[Henry explains,] “’My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out . . .’”.

Catherine is talking about a new Gothic novel!

Henry explains that Eleanor, though,

“’immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window.’”

Henry think Eleanor is foolish to imagine such a thing, but was she? Was Jane Austen perhaps describing a real riot?

800px-The_Gordon_Riots_by_John_Seymour_Lucas

Captain Frederick Tilney, knocked off his horse? “Gordon Riots,” Project Gutenberg eText 19609, by John Seymour Lucas, 1879. Public domain.

The Gordon Riots

Such riots had happened before. Henry might have been talking about the Gordon Riots of 1780.* These are considered the most destructive and violent riots in English history. Lord George Gordon initiated these anti-Catholic riots, though he intended only a peaceful demonstration. At that time, Catholics in England had very limited rights. An Act of Parliament, passed in 1778, gave Catholics a few rights, including the rights to buy and inherit property, and to join the military, if they took an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

On June 2, 1780, Gordon gathered a crowd of around sixty thousand people at St. George’s Fields, London. They marched to Parliament to present a petition. Parliament did not choose to overturn the law.

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Thousands gathered in St. George’s Fields. “The Gordon Riots,” Charles Green (1840-1898) / Public domain

Riots ensued, with people shouting “No popery!” and burning down Catholic chapels, priests’ houses, Catholic homes, shops, and schools, and a distillery owned by a Catholic. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield had supported the Catholic Relief Act (he later supported rights for black people in England as well); his house was looted. (Yes, Mansfield Park may have been named after this Lord Mansfield.) The homes of other politicians who supported the Act were also attacked. Lord Gordon tried to calm the situation; he took no responsibility for the riots.

Mobs, already angry about poverty and injustice, attacked the Bank of England on June 7. They burned prisons and prisoners went free. The rioting lasted for about a week. Over ten thousand soldiers were brought in to quell the riots. More than three hundred rioters were killed during the riots or executed afterwards. (By the way, at least two black men, included in the picture below, were involved in the rioting, and black writer Ignatius Sancho witnessed it and wrote about it. The story is told at Black Presence.) George Gordon was imprisoned in the Tower of London but was eventually acquitted of treason.

800px-An_exact_representation_of_the_Burning,_Plundering_and_Destruction_of_Newgate_by_the_rioters,_on_the_memorable_7th_of_June_1780_(BM_Z,1.4)

Newgate Prison was burned during the Gordon Riots. “An exact representation of the Burning, Plundering and Destruction of Newgate by the rioters, on the memorable 7th of June 1780,” by Henry Roberts, 1781. © The Trustees of the British Museum, released as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Gordon Riots seem an appropriate possibility for Henry’s description: thousands gathering in St. George’s Fields (though many more than what he described), the bank attacked, the army called in, many people killed. I haven’t found references to the Tower of London being threatened, however.

These riots also relate to Bath, where Henry and the ladies were having their conversation. During the Gordon riots, anti-Catholic rioting also broke out in Bath. Rioters burned down the Catholic chapel, the bishop’s house and the priest’s house. The city of Bath responded strongly, hanging the ringleader and taxing the whole city to pay for the building of a new Catholic chapel.

Other Riots

However, the Gordon Riots took place when Jane Austen was only four years old; long before she wrote Northanger Abbey. Could she have been referring to more recent riots? Collins Hemingway, in an article in Jane Austen’s Regency World (July/Aug 2018), suggests that it is more likely that Austen was describing one of the many riots going on in England closer to the time when Northanger Abbey was written or revised. (The novel was apparently written between 1797 and 1803, and revised somewhat in 1816-17.)

Some examples of riots closer to the writing of Northanger Abbey:

  • The Priestley Riots in Birmingham in 1791: Rioters attacked Dissenters (non-Anglicans) who were supporting the French Revolution, including Joseph Priestley. Priestley was a Unitarian minister as well as the chemist who discovered oxygen. Houses, chapels, and businesses were burned.
  • The Bristol Bridge Riot in 1793 in Bristol was a protest against taxes and tolls. Soldiers were called in and 11 people were killed and 45 injured. This was the second most violent riot in England in the eighteenth century.
  • A series of riots in 1795, in various towns in England, has been called “the Revolt of the Housewives.” Led mostly by women, these were protests against high food prices. Women would seize the goods of a merchant who they thought was overcharging customers. The women sold the goods at what they considered a fair price, and gave the money to the merchant.
  • A London riot in 1809, the Old Price Riot, protested price increases at the newly-rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre. The management eventually gave in. They restored earlier prices so the theatre would be accessible to everyone, rich and poor.
  • In late 1816, as Austen may have been revising Northanger Abbey, a mob of about 10,000 people in Spa Fields, London demanded election reforms and relief for the poor. The first meeting was peaceful, but the second meeting, of about 20,000 people, turned violent. They attempted to attack the Tower of London. However, troops quickly put down the riots. Perhaps this riot inspired Austen to mention “the tower threatened.”

Hemingway suggests that the most likely riot to have inspired Austen was a riot in Manchester in 1808. Six thousand weavers gathered in St. George’s Field, Manchester (rather than St. George’s Field, London) to demand a minimum wage. Dragoons were sent to restore order. According to Hemingway, when Henry Tilney says the dragoons were called “up from Northampton,” it may mean they were called up to the north, to Manchester. One man was killed, and others were injured. The rioting spread to neighboring towns. Weavers did receive a small pay increase in the end. Surprisingly, the dragoons later apologized to the weavers for their actions, and took up a collection for the family of the man who was killed.

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Illustration from Charles Dickens’ historical novel about the Gordon Riots, Barnaby Rudge, “Barnaby at the Gordon Riots,” 1871, public domain.

However, London is mentioned several times in the Northanger Abbey passage. It’s possible that Austen was taking details of other recent riots and transplanting them to London, for the story. To me, however, the Gordon Riots seem to most closely fit the details given. While there was not a time when the streets of London were literally “flowing with blood,” those were the riots in which the most people were killed.

Although Henry says Catherine’s “words could relate only to a circulating library,” riots similar to what he described had happened in recent history. Of course he also criticizes her vivid imagination when she thinks his father has committed a terrible crime. It turns out that his father is not a murderer, but does treat Catherine cruelly. Henry’s words are often ironic.

What do you think? Was Austen referring to a real riot (or several riots) here, or was the riot only in Eleanor’s mind?

 

*R. W. Chapman (1923 edition of Northanger Abbey), Roger E. Moore (Jane Austen and the Reformation, 105), and others consider this riot to refer to the Gordon Riots.

Brenda S. Cox blogs about Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen, and is currently working on a book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. You can also find her on Facebook.

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Fire!

Can there be a more frightening word in Georgian London?  The great fire in 1666 changed the landscape of that city forever. Once a densely packed city riddled with overcrowded, wood-timbered houses and dark, narrow lanes, the fire led the way to a change in building regulations that ushered in brick and stone edifices, wider streets, and public squares. Even with improvements, a fire still presented a horrifically dangerous situation.

Thomas Rowlandson captures the scene with such realism in “Inn Yard on Fire” that one can smell the smoke and fear, and hear the horses neighing, people screaming, furniture breaking, and wagon wheels squealing as guests and staff run around trying to save themselves, their possessions, and each other.

Fire at the Inn, by Thomas Rowlandson

Panic and pandemonium ensue. A man contemplates tossing a mirror from the second story, another pours his ineffectual chamber pot over the flames. A side table has been tossed through the window, while an anxious woman descends a ladder.

People are in various states of dress and undress. Some help others, some are  overcome with panic. A disabled man is carried from danger in a wheel barrow, while a groom tries to calm two terrified horses.

Elements in Rowlandson’s cartoon show a direct association with classical language and Tobias Smollet. The young man saving the girl in distress is reminiscent of Giambologna’s statue of the Rape of the Sabine Women, as well as Peregrine Pickle’s heroic actions towards Emilia.

Rowlandson

Rape of the Sabine Women

Peregrine Pickle saves Emilia. Image @A World History of Art

Once a fire had gained as much ground as depicted in this illustration, there was little chance of saving the building. Rowlandson shows some people carrying out their belongings, while others were barely able to get dressed. By now an alarm had probably been sounded in the community. Bucket brigades, in which people were arrayed in long lines to the nearest well and passed buckets in a continuous motion, could probably put out a minor fire, but not one of this magnitude. In the 1800s, almost 150 years after the great fire, there was still no centralized fire brigade.

In 1680, a property developer named Nicholas Barbon introduced the first fire insurance, which initially insured buildings but not furniture, fittings, or goods.  Insurance companies began to proliferate and formed private fire brigades to protect their customers’ property.

Is this praying elderly couple trapped on the balcony?

In Rowlandson’s cartoon the most the inn keeper can hope for is that the brigade arrives in time to save his structure – if he is insured.  This was easier said than done, for many of London’s streets were not named, since many people could not read, and insured properties were difficult to find.

A couple on the second floor frantically attempt to save their belongings.

In the early 1800s the fire mark was developed. These plaques, sometimes brightly painted, would signal which properties were protected by insurance firms. Each fire brigade had its own unique plaque.

Fire mark on a building

If a fire started, the Fire Brigade was called. They looked for the fire mark and, provided it was the right one, the fire would be dealt with. Often the buildings were left to burn until the right company attended! Many of these insurance companies were to merge, including those of London, which merged in 1833 to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, whose first Fire Chief was James Braidwood. Braidwood had come to London after holding the position of the Chief Officer of Edinburgh Fire brigade. Edinburgh’s authorities had formed the first properly organised brigade in 1824. – History of the UK Fire and Rescue Service

There were quite a few fire brigades operating in London in the early 19th century and competition was keen. The companies hired sailors and watermen as part-time employees. An advantage of serving in this position was that these men were protected from being pressed into service, a not inconsiderable benefit during the Napoleonic wars.

Fighting the fire at the Customs House in February 1814.Image@British Museum

Buildings that had no insurance protection were left to burn, although attempts were made to save the surrounding buildings. Firemarks were essential to identify insured buildings:

Arrival of the fire engine, Thomas Rowlandson

Designs included, for Sun Fire Office: a large sun with a face; the Royal Exchange Assurance: their building; and Phoenix: obviously Phoenix rising from the ashes. Later fire marks were made of tin, copper, or similar material. These are more often called fire plates. They were more an advertising medium as most do not have a policy number stamped upon them. – Fire Marks: The First Logos of Insurance Companies

Illustration from Ackermann’s ”Microcosm of London” (1808) drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin. Firefighters are tackling a fire which has broken out in houses at the Blackfriars Bridge. Teams of men operate hand pumped equipment. Image @Wikipedia

In 1833 companies in London merged to form The London Fire Engine Establishment, the first step to the various fire brigades being taken over by local government.

The Burning of Drury Lane Theatre from Westminster Bridge 1809. Artist unknown.  Image property of the Museum of London.

Equipment was still very basic but in 1721, Richard Newsham patented a ‘new water engine for the quenching and extinguishing of fires’. The pump provided a continuous jet of water with more force than before. This new fire engine became a standard until the early 19th century.

Newsham’s wood pumper, ca. 1731.

The men used the handles to pump the water from a lead-lined trough in the main body of the equipment. The apparatus was quite heavy and difficult to maneuver, but it represented a huge step forward in fire fighting technology. People continually ran back and forth to a water source to fill the trough with water. You could also attach a hose to aim the water to a specific location. During this time, however, hose-making was still in its infancy and many leaked. Water buckets and axes to hack out trapped people and create fire free perimeters were still regarded as standard fire fighting equipment.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 by William Mallord Turner. Such an event must have provided a spectacular yet horrifying scene for onlookers.

Steam powered appliances were first introduced in the 1850s, allowing a greater quantity of water to be guided onto a fire. With the invention of the internal combustion engine, these appliances were replaced in the early 1900s.

James Pollard (British, 1797-1867) London fire engines: The noble protectors of lives and property, 1823. Image @Olympia Art Antiques

This image by James Pollard, and engraved by R. Reeve, shows several insurance brigades hurrying to a fire.

The firemen, of the time, had little training and wore brightly coloured uniforms to distinguish themselves between the different brigades. During large fires they would become very tired through continual pumping of the appliances, and would offer bystanders ‘beer tokens’ in return for their help. – Insurance Firemen and their Equipment

Each company provided different liveries for their men, so that the fire fighters could easily be identified with a particular firm.All insurance firemen wore a large badge on their shoulder to show which insurance company they worked for.

Three uniforms of insurance firemen. All wear a badge

More on the topic:

Cockburn’s theatre on fire, another dramatic caricature by Rowlandson.

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Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli has frequently contributed his comments on this blog. Little did I know that he was an author! He has graciously sent in his thoughts about Bath, the city in which he has set his historical crime novel. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!

Beau Nash turned the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.

Richard Beau Nash

Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.

Bath in the 18th century at the time of Beau Nash

For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country.

Milsom Street and Bond Street with Portraits of Bath Swells.

By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter.

Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of the Comforts of Bath. The classes noticeably mingled as they awaited drinking the waters in the Pump Room. (Notice the patient in the wheel chair on the left and the sedan chair next to him, which was carried inside the room.) Nash’s statue is in the niche at the top right. You can still see it today.

Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population was increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying, “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Coal soot darkened the creamy colored stone of the buildings.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the poor drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in a letter to her sister, “We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

The Paragon, Bath.

By the time Persuasion was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the many fine shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid.

Advertisement for B. Lautier Goldsmith Shop in Bath, 1848

The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population.

Bath had grown considerably by the 1850’s, the date of this illustration.

My novel, Avon Street is set in Bath in 1850. But Bath isn’t just a setting. It is a character in its own right. In writing Avon Street, I have tried to take the reader beyond the Georgian facades, and reveal a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. Bath was a city, where things were often not as they seemed, where people as Austen said, could “be important at comparatively little cost.” In short it is the ideal setting for a story of confidence tricksters and crime, intrigue and betrayal. A city where enemies can seem all-powerful, and friends are sometimes found where least expected.

Image of Avon Street.

In Persuasion Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness – “Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.” (Click here to see an image of Westgate Buildings in 1900.) It seemed only fitting that the first chapter of my book be set in the same location, on the borders of the Avon Street area.

Pickwick Mews, Avon Street, in 1923. Image @The Victoria Art Gallery

More about Avon Street and Paul Emanuelli: Why Avon Street?

Avon Street: Purchase information

Paperback: 352 pages

Publisher: The History Press Ltd (1 Feb 2012)

Language English

ISBN-10: 0752465546

ISBN-13: 978-0752465548

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