Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Regency Brighton - a historical Wednesday post

Welcome to one of our new-look Wednesday posts on a historical topic. One of the things I love most about writing - and reading - historical romance is finding out something new about the past. It surprises me in two ways: one, how different things were a few hundred years ago and two, how similar they were. As it's a hot and sunny day here in England (for a change - this has been an awful summer so far) I thought I'd blog about the seaside, and what better place to blog about than Brighton? The town was immortalised by Jane Austen, who brilliantly portrayed two completely different attitudes to the town in Pride and Prejudice, by showing us Lydia and Elizabeth's feelings on the subject:

Lydia's attitude is typical: "They are going to be encamped near Brighton: and I do so want Papa to take us all there for the summer! It would be such a delicious scheme, and I dare say would hardly cost anything at all. Mamma would like to go too of all things! Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!"

"Yes," thought Elizabeth, "that would be a delightful scheme indeed, and completely do for us at once. Good Heavens! Brighton, and a whole campful of soldiers, to us, who have been overset already by one poor regiment of militia, and the monthly balls of Meryton."

Lydia goes to Brighton after all, but Jane Austen never shows us the town. So what was it like? As with any town at the time, assembly rooms were very important. There were two rival assembly rooms at the two principle inns, the Castle, and the Old Ship and Lydia no doubt visited both of them. The Master of Ceremonies at the time was probably Cpt William Wade, who had a great influence on the social life of the town. I say "probably" because he died in 1808, and we're not certain when Pride and Prejudice was set (Jane Austen never includes the date). However, I'm sure the Master of Ceremonies, whoever he was, introduced Lydia to plenty of eligible partners!

Brighton is famous for the Pavilion, but what was it like in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? In 1786, when the Prince of Wales first leased it, it was a small house on the Steine just to the north of the Castle Inn. Over the years he transformed it, first by rebuilding it in the classical style, and later by rebuilding it again in the Indo-Chinese style.

The image at the left shows it in 1804, and the image at the right shows how it was gradually transformed. I think Elizabeth would prefer the classical style, but I'm quite sure Lydia would prefer the more opulent building!

Lydia would almost certainly have visited the circulating library. The first library was erected in 1760, on the east side of the Steine. Books could be bought, borrowed or read, and there was also a billiard room. Later a rotunda was added where a small band could play. In 1767, another library opened on the south side of the Steine. Small shops were established round the libraries selling, amongst other things, tea, which was known to have been smuggled. Did Lydia drink some of this contraband tea? Probably! 

She would also have enjoyed promenading along the grassed area of the Steine, where she could flirt to her heart's content with any officer who happened to be passing. She would have had to watch her feet, however, as the Steine was also used by fishermen for spreading their nets and many promenaders complained about falling over them.

Other places of gaiety included the South Downs, which were perfect for horse riding and trips in horse-drawn carriages. One of the most popular destinations was Devil's Dyke, some 5 miles north-west of Brighton. It was the site of an Iron Age fort and Roman road and had impressive views from the summit. Although I suspect Lydia would have been more interested in the red coats of the officers who escorted her! The grassed area known as The Level was where formal festivities, such as celebrating the Prince's birthday, were held, including sports and ox roasting.

There were pleasure gardens, similar to the Vauxhall gardens, although on a smaller scale, known as  Brighthelmston Promenade Grove at their opening in 1793. Brighthelmston was the original name for Brighton. It's impossible to know exactly when the change of name occurred, since it probably gradually mutated, and had probably been pronounced Brighton, even when it was written as Brighthelmston. However, by the time Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, it had morphed into Brighton. 

When the weather was hot, what better than a spot of sea bathing? I can just imagine Lydia's squeals of delight as she ventured into the water. She would have rented a bathing hut and changed into her bathing dress inside. The hut would have been on wheels and it would have been pulled into the water by a horse, ridden by an urchin. She would then have been helped down the steps by a woman known as a dipper. Men and women bathed on different sections of the beach, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lydia had ignored the restrictions!

I set one of my own Regency romances in Brighton. You can see how the cover artist used the contemporary Nash illustration (above) as a basis for the book cover. It shows Cassandra attending an evening at the Pavilion. I thoroughly enjoyed the research. If anyone else is researching this period, then I can recommend The Creevey Papers. These diaries of Thomas Creevey (1768 - 1838) are full of information about the society, culture and politics of the day. It was in the Creevey Papers that I discovered what it was actually like to spend an evening in the Pavilion. In fact, one of the incidents in the book is based on an incident recounted by Lady Creevey.

Another interesting resource in A History of Brighton and Hove by Ken Fines, and for a video tour, see the Brighton Pavilion website , which also has an online shop.

I hope this has whetted your appetite to discover more about Regency Brighton.

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