Spotting Wickham…

On Saturday 15th September, we found ourselves stepping into a universe of slightly fuzzy edges, where bonnets and smartphones became complementary accessories – and Time seemed to knit together a dreaming of two eras.

We had arrived in Bath just in time for the start of the 2012 Jane Austen Festival Regency Promenade – and so many Emma Woodhouses and Lizzy Bennets were passing us by in conversation on their mobiles, I began to wonder if Regency reticules might become the surprise new “must haves” for carrying those ‘excessively diverting’ devices.

Caught in that parasol-twirl of the centuries, we hurried to join the crowds along Milsom Street, and found the militia already gathered there…

…with the Town Crier leading the way

– and a whole host of Admirals and Captain Wentworths, Charlotte Collins, Lady Catherines, Mrs Dashwoods and Mary Crawfords following on behind.

Feeling hopelessly inelegant in our 21st century jeans, we trailed in the procession’s wake amongst shoppers and buskers

…past the Pump Rooms and along Abbeygate; through Abbey Green, and past the now serene and welcoming shadow of its beautiful ancient plane tree, where only a bruised and recoiling patch of earth – from which the grass is said never to regrow – holds a shuddering memory of the public hangings that once took place there…

Walking away from that time, into a recreation that both engages with and leaves it behind, we emerged near the Roman Baths and the Abbey…

…stopping traffic along Grand Parade

…and to the final destination at Parade Gardens.

With elbows resting on the balustrade wall…

…and feeling thoroughly absorbed by the spectacle in the gardens below…

– wild, Lydia-esque ideas began to form in my mind. I’m not really one for dressing up, but occasionally I feel the lure…. And now, inspired visions began to take hold in which I (suddenly possessed of seamstress super-powers) would thread miracles through an imaginary sewing machine, and effortlessly run up an empire line frock in time for next year…

I’ve always been totally useless with a needle and thread (hence the imaginary status of my sewing machine) but I’d read, in a recent copy of Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine, how many of the devotees of the Festival create their own costumes – and marvelling now at their skill, I fantasised about fashioning an elegant velvet pelisse, or smoothing onto a hanger a finished muslin gown with the pride of a job well done…

All a hopeless dream.

This is the girl who, in school needlework lessons, took a whole year to not finish sewing a tote bag!

But surely I could manage to trim a bonnet, couldn’t I? Looking at the wonderful creations around me, I began to doubt it… Jane’s words from a letter to her sister Cassandra, written in Bath’s Queen’s Square in June 1799, suddenly seemed to echo teasingly through the streets:

‘Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers’, but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or greengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five, I believe, but this is at some of the dearest shops. My aunt has told me of a very cheap one, near Walcot Church, to which I shall go in quest of something for you…

…Elizabeth has given me a hat, and it is not only a pretty hat, but a pretty style of hat too. It is something like Eliza’s, only, instead of being all straw, half of it is narrow purple ribbon. I flatter myself, however, that you can understand very little of it from this description. Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to explanations as to give a clear one on any occasion myself! But I must write no more of this.’

And from another letter written a few days later:

‘We have been to the cheap shop, & very cheap we found it, but there are only flowers made there, no fruit… Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. – What do you think on that subject?’

All the ladies around us were impeccably elegant in their choice of bonnet adornment – not a discordant or misplaced ribbon, flower, feather (or greengage!) ‘growing out of the head’ to be seen.

In my own efforts at such practical decoration (be it trimming the Christmas tree, wrapping presents, attempting costume making etc.) there always seems to be a yawning gap between the tasteful effect I aim for in my imagination – and the dog’s dinner that usually takes shape in my hands. Suddenly, I had visions of looking like Lydia gone bonnet-overboard after blowing a whole year’s allowance at the haberdashers…

“If you could dress up as a Jane Austen character, who would you choose?” I asked my husband – and watched as his eyes, bright with the sight of red-coated militia marching to pipe and drums…

…suddenly shadowed with fear…

“Er…er..” he stumbled, warily, not wishing to back himself into any inadvertent corners.

“Mr Collins?” our daughter suggested helpfully, with a teasing glint in her eye. We looked around – plenty of admirals, colonels, Mr Gardiners etc, but no Mr Collins.

“You’d be unique…” I added, encouragingly. “Or you could be Mr Darcy – and take a dip in the Avon over there for added Colin Firth effect…”

Not liking where this was going, my husband’s brow suddenly cleared as he saw a get out clause. “No, no – I’d be Mr Bennet, without a doubt. Then I could stay at home, shut up in my study all day, no family interruptions. Just peace and quiet.” A dreamy expression came over his face. Mr Bookish Nature doesn’t get much peace and quiet…

“Anyway,” he said, diverting attention away from himself, “Who would you be?” he asked our daughter, the teasing gleam turning tables. “Mary Bennet?”

“That’s not very flattering…” she said, sardonically.

“No – she’d be Lizzy. Everyone wants to be Lizzy.”

“Yeah – so you’d have to be Lizzy too!”

“Oh, Lord no – I’m far too old…” I protested – and then suddenly realised, with a mix of horror and mirth, that if my daughter was Lizzy – that would make me…

“Mrs Bennet!” we chorused.

“Oh, my poor nerves!”

How the pages of life turn…

We fell silent again in amused reverie – and returned to admiring the costumes of the Regency folk in the gardens below.

A few time-transporting performances from the militia on the pipe and drums later…

…I noticed my daughter was scanning the crowd with a gleam in her eye.

I questioned her with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, I’m just trying to see if I can spot any Mr Wickhams…” she said, glowing with a sense of fun…

I laugh and feel as old as Methuselah…

Humanity, and all the patterns to which we dance, essentially never change – books, life, people, time; the pages turn and we find the same stories. Art and experience mingle. Life is mirrored; dressed up and displayed back at us. Different times are transposed, one against the other, capturing between their layers truths for us to grasp and tuck like bookmarks into the pages of our own lives.

Through the decades, ever since I was the age my daughter is now – Jane Austen has helped me to bookmark so many truths – through experience, through her novels; the two overlaying each other like tracing paper revealing the pattern by which to cut the cloth…

The often perilous schisms between reality and surface; the traps where truth lies struggling and smothered in self-delusion; the quiet, seeping devastations of daily thoughtlessness, selfishness, deception or hypocrisy; the momentous revelations to be unpicked from the knit of our every-days; the celebration of the quietly kind, the too often overlooked and truly valuable in the face of the dazzle and casual cruelty of the world; the sparkling humour that pins together the absurdities, the discord, the joys and variety of life’s patchwork fabric; and self-knowledge that should sear from time to time if the cut of the pattern is to hold true, and the needle be willing to repair the stitches that go astray. These are just a few of the threads in the Jane Austen weave that have guided my hand on my imaginary sewing machine, as I’ve stitched a garment of learnt insights to wear through my days, helping me to withstand (and to endeavour to understand) the vagaries of life and people – and myself!

And I’m so pleased that my daughter is a Jane Austen fan – and that we are here in Bath today, seeing Jane’s world come alive in front of our eyes – and in ourselves. And I am so very glad that Bookish Nature Junior is already busy stitching her own garment of insights, guided by Jane’s hand; finding truths, learning about life, about people – about how to spot a Wickham! …And, most importantly of all, tackling those very tricky stitches that are all about learning to know herself…

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13 thoughts on “Spotting Wickham…

  1. Wonderful! Lovely account of the day and event, and even lovelier account of how Jane Austen is so timeless in her observations of human nature and can still enrich our lives 200 years on.

    • Evie! 🙂 Thanks so much; I’m really glad you enjoyed this. And it’s lovely to see you back blogging! The enrichment I get from Jane Austen’s work is fathoms deep – and I was thinking yesterday that I ought to make a badge saying something like ‘Jane Austen is my Sanity Blanket.’ Her presence in my life feels more and more like that as time goes by! I keep meaning to get one of those posters you can buy online, or at the Jane Austen Centre, that reads ‘Keep Calm and Read Jane Austen.’ So relevant, it really should be up on my wall!

  2. Really lovely pictures – thanks for posting. I was once in Rochester during the Dickens Festival, and that was great fun. Reading your post, I couldn’t help wondering how the Austenite plots would have turned out if the characters could all phone & text each other! (PS. I plan another attempt at Austen next year: my last foray did enhance my understanding – and hence my appreciation – considerably, and I think one more attempt will do the trick!)

    • Thanks Himadri – really glad you enjoyed the pics! I was thinking that too regarding plots, with letter writing – and time and distance separations – often playing such a part. I’ve often thought about those small moments of chance – usually escalating to huge consequences – in Thomas Hardy’s novels, which sometimes turn on missed communications like a letter unseen, accidentally hidden under a doormat etc – and how they might be less likely now, in the age of texting and twitter… I suppose a character would have to turn off their mobile/ laptop/ iPad etc in a fit of unsociable pique, run down their battery or leave their smartphone on the train for the same plot device to work these days!

      I think it’s so brilliant the way you’ve persevered with reading Jane Austen. Before the whole family went down with a cold (bringing blogging to a halt for a while…) I was working on a post about Hardy which touches on my dismay when I see people dismiss a writer or a literary work simply on the grounds of personal taste/ response/ perspective – and I know you share that sense of dismay, and always seek to find the intrinsic worth beyond any personal and immediate accord/ discord with a writer’s particular vision. No-one could say you haven’t given Jane’s work a fair go! It really warms this Janeite’s heart to see you warming to her! Good luck with your next foray – and do let me know how you get on!

      (P.S. Apologies for the delay in replying – and sorry if what I’ve written is incoherent – a cold symptom head-haze is clogging up all my attempts to think straight today!)

      • Oh, please don’t apologise! It’s lovely to hear from you.

        (I am just packing up at work now, but have a few minutes before rushing of fto the train to write a quick reply.)

        On the matter of trying out Austen, I was struck recently by a comment mae by a well-read friend of mine: “Emma”, he said, “is the is a novel of Mozartean perfection.” This struck me because I love Mozart – he is probably my favourite composer. Many complain that his music is too decorous, and that it lacks passion, and I have always tried to argue that there is indeed great passion there, but it lies below the surface, and is not obviously displayed. And it struck me: can the same not be true of the novels of Austen? The general consensus of opinion is that it’s the Brontes who are passionate, but Austen is detached and merely decorous – “bloodless”, as Charlotte Bronte put it. But if Austen’s novels can bear comparison with Mozart’s music, this consensus is clearly off the mark; and if, with greater familiarity of the novels, I can find the passion underneath the decorous surfaces – as I have done with Mozart – then the effort would surely be worthwhile.

        Well, I’d better run for the train now. I’ll speak to you later,
        Himadri

        • Himadri… my heart is warmed even more on reading this! I really like your friend’s comment about ‘Mozartean perfection’ and I can’t even begin to tell you how strongly I feel all that life, passion and feeling simmering below the surface in Jane Austen’s novels! For me, this is so at the heart of her work, and why I love it so much, that it’s almost too big to speak about; to truly do it justice. Indeed, my inability to grasp all of my deep response with an outpouring of words epitomises, in itself, a truth Jane captures in her writing. As Mr Knightley tells Emma “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” That line so sums up what lives and breathes within, and animates Jane’s work: depths of true feeling that gain even more of a sense of truth because of the hushed meeting of mind with emotional enormity. A sense that the quietest person can seethe with untold emotion, remaining true to feeling’s authencity by recognition of something beyond outward show. And conversely, a highly effusive person can hide a lack of true feeling in a seeming oncoming tide of emotional outpouring. This whole issue, of course, sizzles in the themes of Sense and Sensibility.

          As you know, I love a bit of drama and outward show in literature – and relish Romanticism and Wordsworthian or Brontesque outpourings of feeling. But, for me, that element in Jane Austen of hidden passion is so potent and equally authentic in its reach and power. Indeed, its potency finds so much of its power in those very qualities of restraint and control on the surface. I’ve always been saddened by Charlotte Bronte’s assessment of Jane – I think she missed the mark so widely. I’ve long loved the work of the Brontes, but whenever I read Charlotte Bronte’s words of scorn about Jane Austen, I feel their injustice so keenly! Remember that scene in Jane Eyre, where Jane says to Mr Rochester “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!”

          That inward, long-suppressed cry revealed in this moment could be applied to the plight of so many Jane Austen characters. All the unjust emotional knocks and judgements heaped on the heads of the quietly suffering Fanny Price and Anne Elliot by those around them for instance, whilst others receive undeserved high regard. When I read those scenes, Jane Austen conveys that sense of injustice so viscerally – and I recognise from experience all too well the unfair assumptions that are too often made on the strength of outward appearances. This is so much a part of the central passion of Jane Austen’s novels; that unjust suffering borne on judgements made on the criteria of surface alone. I also feel that Charlotte Bronte underestimated Jane Austen’s emotional attachment to the landscape, the strength of which I always pick up so clearly from her novels. Though Jane’s is not a Brontesque response to the beauty of the land, it is nevertheless a very deeply felt one.

          All this (and so much more!) is there beneath the surface in Jane Austen’s novels, all waiting to be discovered. And, sometimes of course, the passion is right there on the surface. Enter Captain Wentworth and his words to Anne Elliot – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.” – and Mr Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet: “My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you…”

          Well, for someone whose depth of feeling was supposed to have stolen expression, I seem to have become very wordy! The irony is very appropriate – very Austenesque! 🙂 I do so hope your next voyage into Jane’s novels, armed with that really useful Mozart analogy, will be a fruitful and rewarding reading experience, Himadri – even if she might never be, for you, like a favourite whisky to be savoured by the fire on a winter’s afternoon…

          Great to have this chat! Quite like old times!

          All the best,

          Melanie

  3. ‘Bookmarking truths’… I love your descriptions of the intricate threads and ‘perilous schisms’ of Jane Austen’s work and of life itself which her work is but a reflection of. Funny thing to think, that writers merely mirror the life around them… But their mirrors capture distilled essences so purely that they show us things we would otherwsie miss… Like a mirror held up for you to see the back of your head that you would not otherwise see even though it is so evidently there! I so enjoy your writing for its bounteous offerings of such distilled essences. Many thanks as ever! x

    • Thank you for your kind words, Amanda. It seems that we are doing a swap and exchange in enjoyment of each others’ writing! I feel the same about your blog posts!

      It is wonderful, isn’t it, how the books we read and the insights of novelists, poets etc help us find our way through all the ups and downs of life; sometimes when we experience things, everything is scattered and in fragments of thought and understanding – sometimes we feel isolated in that experience – but to recognise it as a universal and shared thing through the shaping of art – especially when it is expressed by an insightful and pin sharp mind such as Jane Austen’s – gathers all those shards of our own perceptions together and helps us to build a recognisable pattern to it all.

      I don’t know how I’d get by without the help of the great writers!

      Thanks again for reading and responding to my ramblings. Hope you’re well – and safely back to where your heart is! x

  4. Oh wow! I spotted myself in your photos. 3rd picture up from the bottom. On the far right with green bonnet, spencer, yellow shawl and cream dress. It was my first time at JAF. And I’m going again this year with a new outfit.
    Will you be dressing up and joining in this year?

  5. How lovely to hear from you – I’ve been wondering if anyone reading this might see themselves in the photos! And that photo is one of my favourites! You all looked so striking standing together like that – unconsciously forming such a natural and spontaneous “Regency tableau”. So elegant. Like a little moment of time travel. An insight into another era. I just had to capture it with my camera!

    I love your costume – you look wonderful! Did you make it yourself?

    One half of me is very tempted to dress up and join in (I do covet a spencer jacket!) – the other half of me is not so brave (worried I might feel like a fish out of water!) At the moment though, it’s a little uncertain whether we’ll be able to get to the Promenade this year. So, if we do manage to come along, we’ll be there as spectators again (with camera!) Which reminds me, I’ve got some photos of the 2013 Regency Promenade which I’ve been meaning to post here on the blog. I must get round to that soon (only nearly a whole year late!) Were you there last year too?

    • I think we were discussing our outfits. lol!
      I felt like I was travelling in time all the days I was dressed up (its not just the promenade there are activities all week from a regency fair to dance workshops to book readings).
      Yes I made the costume myself. Used the sense and sensibility regency dress pattern. its nice and simple. the jacket is an old one from primark I cut to make it short and the bonnet is an old straw hat. (if you go to my blog and serch for jane austen festival you’ll find someof my pictures. Maybe I captured you?)
      Its lots of fun. You don’t feel silly at all…I traveled in on the bus in costume and felt like a celebrity people kept asking for my photo. You should give it a go.
      I didn’t get to go last year its a bit pricy so I can’t afford to do it every year.

      • So sorry – I meant to reply again days ago, but things are a bit hectic here at the moment! The whole Jane Austen festival sounds a lot of fun. It would be lovely to get more involved one year – I think my daughter would really enjoy the chance to dress up, and my sister-in-law is a huge Jane Austen fan too (she and her sister have expressed interest in donning some Regency costume on more than one occasion in the past!) – so I might be able to rope them all in to take part sometime in the future!

        I’m in awe of your sewing skills – I’m rubbish with a needle and thread. I’ve just been enjoying your lovely blog (love your fun Regency meets the Daleks dress design – we’re also Doctor Who fans in our family!). It’s been a real treat to see your photos and read your accounts of your time at the Bath JA Festival. Lovely to see the Promenade, and its various moments when we were there, from a different perspective – and to gain insights into the other events we didn’t get a chance to go to. The dance workshop looks great!

        I haven’t spotted us in the crowd in your photos so far – will enjoy looking through them again in more detail when I get a quiet moment…

        I meant to say before; please feel free to copy and pass on the photo above (and any of the other JA Festival photos here) with your friends, if you’d like to.

        • No one starts off a sewing expert. 😉 I was rubbish once. You just have to start…
          Oh, you can sign up for the various activities separately. So if you can’t do the promenade you could sign up for a dance workshop. Or go to a book reading.
          http://www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk/festival-programme/
          Still hoping The Doctor will visit jane austen one day. 🙂
          I’ll be putting up pics this year as well…so keep your eyes peeled.

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