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…

Advertisements

Sense & Slightly Foxed Sensibility

A trip to our dentist often involves long waiting times, so taking along something sustaining to read is essential. As I left the house on my way to my check-up this week, I grabbed an issue of the wonderful Slightly Foxed magazine – and in the waiting room, settled my jittery attention on an enjoyable, stirring article about Jane Austen (Plain Jane? Plain Wrong by Daisy Hay – Winter 2009 Issue, No. 24). Just a few minutes later, I was stifling an urge to laugh out loud (seemed too incongruous in the silence of collective dread all around me…) when I read:

[Jane Austen’s] notebooks demonstrate that she enjoyed collecting the views of her more censorious friends and neighbours, including one Mrs Augusta Bramstone who ‘owned that she thought S[ense] and S[ensibility] and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M[ansfield] P[ark] better, & having finished the 1st vol – flattered herself she had got through the worst.’

That’s just so Jane! Sending brimstones…erm…sorry Bramstones of criticism sparking back at herself, with such a lightness of heart, even glee. And doesn’t the brimful Mrs Augusta B just come alive in those few short lines?

I’ve read this before, but finding it again in the Slightly Foxed article, came just at the right moment… The power of Jane; inspiring perspective and laughter – even in a dentist’s waiting room! Brilliant!

…As is Slightly Foxed; a place to find many a reading gem…

Picture of three issues of Slightly Foxed Magazine