Portrait of a Lady? An Anti-Austen Exhibition in Bath

Those of you who are familiar with my work understand that I have a special relationship with 18th century fallen women, so when I was approached to curate an exhibition on my favourite subject, I simply couldn’t refuse. What made this offer especially delectable was its venue – No. 1 Royal Crescent, Bath’s Georgian townhouse museum. Not only is No.1 a glorious 18th century house, filled with all sorts of architectural and historical gems, but it would be hard to find a more perfect setting to plant my banner of anti-Jane Austenification in the sand.

Before anyone gets their chemises in a twist, I should make one thing clear I’m no Jane Austen hater. Jane’s razor-sharp insight into her world, her witty dialogue and characterisation deserves all the recognition it receives, but not at the expense of everything else. In recent years I’ve watched with horror as the influence of Jane Austen has crept triffid-like across the garden of the Georgian era. It twists and smothers and chokes everything in its path. It explodes its frilly, perfumed blossoms all over the narratives of other men and women of the period. Increasingly, on TV and in film, as well as on the bookshop shelves (real or virtual) there is room for only one perspective on the late Georgian era: our imagined view of a world we’ve extrapolated from Austen’s books. Well, it’s time to sharpen the pruning shears.

Some important misconceptions that need snipping away:

1. The 18th century is not ‘The Regency’. Rapidly expanding Austenization has begun to colonise areas where it does not belong.  Few things raise my ire more than seeing the late 18th and early 19th century referred to as ‘The Regency’. The real Regency lasted from 1811 when the Prince Regent (or the Prince of Wales) ruled in place of his mentally incapacitated father, George III. It promptly ended in 1820 when mad King George died and the Prince Regent became King George IV. It’s that simple.

2. There’s more to the 18th century than ‘Jane Austen’s England’. Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817, and guess what? A lot of other people lived at that time too. In fact, according to the early 19th century statistician, Patrick Colquhoun, the population numbered just under 17.1 million in 1814. Not everyone had the same experience, in fact, Jane’s experience, living as a semi-privileged spinster in rural England was quite rare. Austen and Lizzie Bennet are no more capable of speaking for their entire era than are Helen Fielding and Bridget Jones, so while it’s fun to view the past through one set of eyes, it’s also a totally misleading exercise. Nearly 12 million of those 17.1 million who inhabited ‘Jane Austen’s England’ lived in a state of poverty or near poverty. Needless to say, they would have viewed the lifestyle, security and hot meals enjoyed by Bennet sisters with great envy. What does the label ‘Jane Austen’s England’ or ‘the Era of Jane Austen’ tell us about their experiences? Nothing.

3. ‘Jane Austen’s England’ is not and was never a real place. ‘Jane Austen’s England’ is the love child of media and marketing. It’s a multi-million pound business and we, like Lydia Bennet have been seduced by its charms. Here lies the twisted root of Austenization, wrapped around a wet-shirted Darcy. In my mind, nothing exemplifies the dark horrors of this better than the Colin Firth tea tray and matching tea towel set. I won’t tell you in which august stately home gift shop I found this bit of tacky tin tat, but needless to say it was not the first time I’d spied such a thing. But this isn’t the issue. People are entitled to buy whatever spin-off merchandise they want –  so load up on Downton tea cozies and Ripper Street pen-knives to your heart’s content. No, the problem here is the bleed between fact and fiction. The problem here is that Mr Darcy appeared on the shelves next to legitimate history; the biographies of the previous owners of this stately home, the books on architecture and catalogues of the family’s treasures. The problem here is context.

Curators know that the placement of an object speaks volumes about its context and how we perceive it. If this is the case then somehow it seems that heritage, Jane Austen, fantasy and history have all become snarled up in one giant knot of knitting wool. At the very best this is disconcerting, at worst it’s a truly worrying trend and a statement about our ability to separate out and distinguish all of these subjects from one another. More to the point; we need to take stock of our understanding of where fantasy ends and history begins. Line-blurring is dangerous but very few of us would put our hands up and admit to not being able to distinguish fact from fiction where history is concerned.

Nowhere is this the blurring of these lines more in evidence than in Bath. Here, amid John Wood’s yellow stone townhouses and twinkling assembly rooms it’s very easy to forget all the nasty parts of history. All we see, or wish to see is bonnets and top hats. But that’s what ‘The Regency’ in ‘Jane Austen’s England’ was about, wasn’t it? My favourite quote to this effect comes from a participant in Bath’s recent ‘Regency’ parade. Responding to the question of why she and over 500 others don early 19th century garb and promenade around the city each year, she answered;

It is not just about Jane Austen, it is about a way of life which was much more elegant, much more refined. It is a much better way of living and people lived a wonderful lifestyle.

I rest my case.

This is why I feel so strongly about Portrait of a Lady? Ruin and Reputation in the Georgian Era and I feel so gratified that it’s happened in Bath. We need to shock ourselves back into reality and recalibrate our perceptions of what life was genuinely like for women in ‘Jane Austen’s England’.

During the 18th century, it is suggested that one in five women were engaged in prostitution at some point during their lives. Some of the most celebrated figures of 18th century society, such as Kitty Fisher and Fanny Murray, began their careers in this profession at a shamefully young age. Women of all classes were for the possessing. It didn’t matter if you were the Duchess of Devonshire or a lowly servant girl, your rights as a woman were virtually non-existent. You couldn’t vote, hold property in your own name or divorce your husband. Rape within marriage was legal and if you didn’t like it and chose to leave, your husband could legally forbid you from seeing your children and had a right to confiscate any money you earned. Even if you were an heiress all of your money belonged to your husband. The professions were closed to you and it was virtually impossible to make a comfortable income doing traditional ‘women’s work’ like mending, washing, and street vending. I won’t give away all the goods here. You’ll have to get yourselves to Bath to view these remarkable 18th century mezzotints and ephemera which help to tell the varied and surprising stories of real women’s lives. It’s a far a cry from Pemberley.

Portrait of a Lady? runs until the 14th of December at No 1 Royal Crescent in Bath.
http://no1royalcrescent.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/

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