The Heat is On! Summertime in Regency England
As spring gives way to summer, our guest blogger Dr, Gabrielle Malcolm, author of There’s Something About Darcy, considers some of the pastimes and pleasures of the Regency summer as found in Jane Austen’s novels.
What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance!
Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, 1796
We know how you feel, Jane!! When a heatwave hits, people flee for the coasts and the green spaces, and this was the case in Regency England. Some people could afford a country estate, others hoped that they could secure an invitation for a chance to fish, or even swim, in private waters.
Austen makes this clear in Pride and Prejudice (1813) when Elizabeth Bennet goes on her tour of the North with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. Much to Elizabeth’s embarrassment, they wind up at Mr. Darcy’s Derbyshire estate of Pemberley, and she must endure the guided tour in a mood of high anxiety, thinking all the time how she could have been mistress there if she had only accepted his first proposal. It’s a great example of Austen’s ability to ramp up the tension. It’s summertime, it’s hot, and suddenly Mr. Darcy is back on the scene!
Whilst the character in the novel does not cool off by jumping into his lake (as in the famous BBC 1995 dramatisation), he does offer Elizabeth and the Gardiners access to his grounds, and of especial importance, Darcy invites Elizabeth’s Uncle Gardiner to go fishing. To be part of a sporting gentleman’s house party for country pursuits was a true compliment to Elizabeth’s relatives.
Whilst Elizabeth is hosted in Derbyshire by her gentleman suitor at his estate, her younger sister Lydia is having an altogether different – and more risqué – experience in Brighton. Brighton, the holiday home of the Prince Regent, is where the militia are billeted for the summer. It was one of the new resort towns of the early-nineteenth century and quickly established a racy reputation for pleasure and, in Lydia’s case, a liaison with Mr. Wickham that almost leads to her family’s downfall.
Perhaps, though, a tense summer fling is not to your liking? Well, how about a picnic and some strawberry picking? Austen’s Emma (1815) is the novel for you in that case. Be entertained by the strawberry-picking expedition at Donwell Abbey, the home of the Knightley Family. This is the time when Mrs. Elton, who has set herself up – in vain – to be Emma’s social nemesis, brags about her love for, and knowledge of, strawberries – only to have to wilt under a tree before too long as the heat gets to her.
Another outdoor escapade in the novel is that of the picnic at Box Hill in Surrey, when Emma embarrasses herself thanks to her acid tongued comment aimed at Miss Bates. She was trying to show off her wit in the heat of the moment only for it to fall flat and backfire. Austen is so good at showing us the learning curve of her characters.
So, summertime in Austen’s novels seems fraught with tension and the problem of social faux pas and misunderstandings. Perhaps, instead a quiet picnic before the Royal Crescent? A stroll along Gravel Walk? (And if you’re feeling really energetic, purchase a ticket to the costumed Summer Ball taking place at the Guildhall on 25th June.)
Soon, there will be more hot weather attractions in Bath with the restoration of the Cleveland Pools. With National Lottery funding, the Trust that runs Britain’s oldest lido will announce the opening dates for 2022 very soon! The lido had to be established in 1815 because of the fondness Regency visitors had for swimming nude in the River Avon. The Bathwick Water Act prohibited skinny dipping, and costumes and trunks are still a must for outdoor bathing to this day. So, Mr. Darcy will need to keep his shirt on!
Baths of Bath -1910. Photo of Cleveland Pools – courtesy of Bath Records Office
Gabrielle will be giving a talk at the Jane Austen Festival 2022 in September on ‘The Anatomy of an Austen Novel’.