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Saturday, 31 October 2009

Hot Gossip

One of the biggest scandals of Regency England was the Prince Regent’s treatment of his wife Caroline of Brunswick . The royal marriage was a disaster – the Prince and Caroline were totally ill-suited. After producing an heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte, the royal couple separated. Princess Caroline liked to enjoy herself, hugely embarrassing the Prince by her party lifestyle and male admirers. When George III died in 1820, the new king was determined to rid himself of his troublesome wife. Her name was even omitted from the liturgy, a snub which greatly upset Earl Grosvenor of Eaton Hall. The Queen’s Trial of 1820, in which George IV tried to prove his wife’s adultery, was a sensation. For weeks, it was the main story in the Chester newspapers. But Regency Cheshire had plenty of its own scandals for the gossip-mongers to talk about. ..

Image: George IV, 1822. Engraving by William Darton. Author’s collection.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Covenanter Ancestors

Just a quick update: my feature ‘The Killing Times’ in the November issue of Discover My Past Scotland is available now. It tells the story of those terrible days in Scotland in the 17th century when ordinary Scots were persecuted and executed for their beliefs. The feature also has tips and hints for anyone tracing their Covenanter ancestors.

Regency Cheshire

The long wait is over! Regency Cheshire will be available from tomorrow (30 October)!
Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving you some tasters of what's in the book, which would make a smashing Christmas or birthday present for anyone interested in Cheshire history. Amongst other things I’ll be looking at workers’ lives, fashions, the transport network, and the gossip and scandals during late Georgian times in Cheshire.

Image: The Temple in Eaton Hall gardens. Engraving for Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, October 1823. Author’s collection. This image was used for the cover of Regency Cheshire.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Bustling about

I had a big treat last week – a trip to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield. Readers of this blog will know I am a huge Dr Johnson fan and it was lovely to see the rare editions of Johnson’s works, and personal memorabilia such as his tea-set (Johnson was famously fond of drinking tea.) There was also a dressing up box upstairs, so I tried dressing up as an eighteenth century lady. I ditched the huge bustle provided after two seconds, as I immediately began to overheat, and just couldn’t keep the hat on! I think I will stick to jeans and T-shirt for comfort. Ladies must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when Empire line frocks came into fashion.

Images: Statue of Dr Johnson in Lichfield Market, and the author in 18th century costume. Image © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Review of Emma episode 4

The final part of Emma was screened last night, and I still have very mixed feelings about this adaptation. Once again there were too many opportunities missed to use Austen's original dialogue. Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) threatened to steal a show - she came across as a much more likeable character than Emma, which wasn't Austen's intention. Jonny Lee Miller's Mr Knightley did a lot to reconcile me to it, although I still feel an older actor would have been better suited to Austen's original conception. Tamsin Greig's Miss Bates still had too little to say but this must be the fault of the scriptwriter, and without the Bates monologues Emma's treatment of her does not make sense.
Some key parts of the story were either junked altogether or touched on so lightly that they only made sense if you already knew the book.
I felt Romola Garai worked hard on making Emma a more sympathetic character in this last episode. You could see her growing as a person. But still - and again my feeling this is more owing to the script rather than Ms Garai - she really does come across as a person, as Austen said, who 'no-one but herself would much like'. The male members of the Wilkes household in particular found her deeply irritating and unsympathetic. There was a cheer when Mr Knightley took Emma to a clifftop in the closing scenes - would Emma be pushed over the edge to her doom as soon as the camera cut away?

I have been watching the 1995 version of 'Pride and Prejudice' again recently and this classic adaptation still wears well. I fear I won't be able to say the same for this pale imitation of one of my favourite Austen novels, despite the sterling efforts of the cast.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Speed Kings!

Congratulations to Jenson Button on becoming F1 world champion! A well deserved achievement. Of course in Regency days, racing carriages called ‘highflyers’ (phaetons)) were the 'Formula One cars’ of their time. Young bucks regularly raced each other down the public highways to show off their skill with the reins or ‘ribbons’ and emulate their heroes, the mail coach drivers. Timetables on the mail runs were strict; passengers barely had time to eat when the coach stopped to change horses. Lives were endangered by the drivers trying to race each other; a man was killed when the Chester mail deliberately turned his coach in front of the Holyhead mail in April 1819. The Chester mail was involved in another fatal crash in 1822. You can find out more about the golden age of coaching in Regency Cheshire.

Image: ‘Stop, Coachman! I have lost my hat and wig!’ Engraving for The Chace, The Turf and the Road, John Murray, 1843.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A golden moment

It’s less than two weeks to go now to the launch of Regency Cheshire, and the review copies have gone out; always an anxious time for any author. It was a lovely autumn day here, mild and sunny.
Two hundred years ago, Cheshire’s loyal citizens were getting ready to celebrate George III’s jubilee year on 25 October 1809. The king , who endured great sufferings not only from his illness but from his doctors’ attempts to cure him, was greatly loved by the ordinary people. By contrast, his son the Prince of Wales was hugely unpopular because of his spendthrift ways: gambling, womanising and boozing. He was mercilessly satirised and lampooned in scandal sheets. Meanwhile, the populace were determined to show their support for their ailing monarch. In Cheshire towns such as Chester, Knutsford and Macclesfield, bells rang, bonfires crackled and grand civic dinners were held. The following year, a tower designed by Thomas Harrison was erected on Moel Famau , although sadly it was never finished.

Image: The Prince of Wales. Charles Knight’s History of England, c.1868

Monday, 12 October 2009

Cheshire cotton

In Regency Cheshire, I explore the amazing growth of the Cheshire textile industry during late Georgian times. Although Cheshire was a predominantly rural county, cotton spinning and weaving became increasingly important in towns such as Stockport, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Dukinfield.
You can still visit Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, a cotton spinning mill built by the Bollin in 1783 by the Greg family. A large proportion of the workforce at Quarry Bank Mill was child labour – parish apprentices, some from as far away as London. Another famous mill-owner was Samuel Oldknow (1756-1828). His cotton spinning mill, built at Higher Hillgate, Stockport the following year, housed the first steam engine in Cheshire (c.1791) used in the cotton industry. The spun yarn was ‘put out’ to local weavers – Oldknow’s monthly wage bill was said to be £1000 for weaving alone. The Boulton & Watt engine at Higher Hillgate was such a novelty, the London mail-coaches slowed down as they passed the mill so they could tell their passengers about the great wonders inside.

Image: Stockport cotton mill, c.1860. Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts, (London, 1860.)

Friday, 9 October 2009

The slums of Angel Meadow

I was very interested by a local news story on the BBC this morning, as I researched the subject for Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.There was a report on the ongoing excavations of workers’ housing in the infamous Angel Meadow area of Manchester. Friedrich Engels explored its mean streets; he gave a vivid description of the horrors of the slum housing there in his Condition of the Working Classes in England. Ace reporter Angus Reach also visited Angel Meadow while reporting for the Morning Chronicle. In the filthy, overcrowded cellar dwellings, he found one man snoozing contentedly next to a large calf. One old man slept in a living grave; a hole had been scooped out of the bottom of the earthen cellar wall. It gave him just enough room to sleep; his face was barely two inches below the soil. His landlady said it was preferable to him sleeping on the streets.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Regency fun

The nights are already drawing in, and the new season of TV programmes such as BBC1’s Emma has begun. The inhabitants of Regency Cheshire liked to while away the long winter evenings with visits to the theatre, balls and assemblies. The Royal Hotel at Chester (now the Grosvenor) and the George at Knutsford were favourite venues for assemblies; there was also a spanking new assembly room at Congleton, built c.1823. Some very famous actors visited Cheshire over the years, including Master Betty, the ‘Young Roscius.’ Dorothy Jordan, mistress of the Duke of Clarence, appeared at the Theatre Royal in Chester in 1813, the year Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice was published.

Image: Dorothy Jordan, Lady’s Monthly Museum, January 1805. Author’s collection.

Review of ‘Emma’

Jane Austen’s 'Emma' always sets me a problem, albeit a very nice one. I always think ‘Pride & Prejudice’ is my favourite Austen novel until I re-read ‘Emma’ – there are so many good things I discover in it which I have never noticed before.
Did BBC1's Emma come up to scratch? I thought the beginning was very dark – my jaw dropped when coffins appeared – do we really need the back-story of Emma’s childhood as an introduction? It might have been more imaginative to ‘flash back’ to it. As always, the costumes and settings looked stunning. At first I felt it was a rather lack-lustre ‘Emma’ – a pale imitation of the novel. Emma’s character was deeply annoying, but then she is supposed to be at the start of the book. Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig) was far too quiet – she is supposed to be a ‘great talker on small matters.’
As usual Austen’s dialogue stands out whenever used, so why not include more of it?
Mr Elton (Blake Ritson) was very good, just enough of a toady without turning into Mr Collins, but I had my doubts about Mr Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller) at first. Does he have enough gravitas for the part? However, I found myself warming to him by the end of the programme, especially when he tore a strip off Emma (Romola Garai) over Robert Martin’s romance. I will be watching part 2 at the weekend.
To the critics who ask whether we really need another Austen novel on screen, I would much rather watch an Austen adaptation than the likes of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘X Factor.’
Having said all that, a little imagination from the programme makers wouldn’t go amiss – how about an adaptation of Austen’s Lady Susan? Now that would be worth watching!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Regency Cheshire countdown begins!

I had a letter from Robert Hale yesterday confirming the launch date for Regency Cheshire is 30 October, which is very exciting! Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving you a sneak preview of some of the topics covered in the book.

Although Cheshire was a long way from the capital, its inhabitants liked to keep abreast of the latest fashions. Shops advertised the London styles, and Cheshire’s gentry and nobility gave houses and mansions such as Eaton Hall a smart new look.

I acquired a lovely Regency fashion print (see image) from the Lady’s Magazine last week, but unfortunately it is undated. I think it is from about 1808-1810, but if there are any expert Regency fashionistas out there who can date it more accurately, or have got that issue of the Lady’s Magazine, please do get in touch.

Image: Fashionable walking and full dress, Lady’s Magazine. Author’s collection.