Monday, November 1, 2010

Shopping in Regency London, and Willoughby's Return

I've just been in Bath this last weekend and inevitably find myself wandering round the shops, which at this time of year is a real treat as there are all sorts of tempting gifts on offer with Christmas in mind. Jane Austen enjoyed a little bit of shopping too, if this next account is anything to go by. In 1811 she was staying with her brother Henry in Sloane Street to go through her edits on Sense and Sensibility. After Chawton village, London must have seemed to offer limitless choices. Here she is writing to her sister Cassandra and describes how she was tempted by the fabrics on offer, trimmings and stockings.
I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant, and spending all my money, and, what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too; for in a linendraper's shop to which I went for checked muslin, and for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty-coloured muslin, and bought ten yards of it on the chance of your liking it; but, at the same time, if it should not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3s. 6d. per yard, and I should not in the least mind keeping the whole. In texture it is just what we prefer, but its resemblance to green crewels, I must own, is not great, for the pattern is a small red spot. And now I believe I have done all my commissions except Wedgwood.
I liked my walk very much; it was shorter than I had expected, and the weather was delightful. We set off immediately after breakfast, and must have reached Grafton House by half-past 11; but when we entered the shop the whole counter was thronged, and we waited full half an hour before we could be attended to. When we were served, however, I was very well satisfied with my purchases -- my bugle trimming at 2s. 4d. and three pair silk stockings for a little less than 12s. a pair.

In Willoughby's Return I wanted to show how exciting it would have been for a young Margaret Dashwood to arrive in London to stay with Marianne and the Colonel. Margaret is starting to attend dances and balls, and she has her own beau, Henry Lawrence, who calls to take her to Gunter's tea-shop. When I was researching Willoughby's Return, I visited the shopping areas that Jane Austen mentions in Sense and Sensibility in the area around Bond Street where it it still possible to imagine what it must have been like to go shopping in Jane's day. Sadly, Gunter's teashop is no longer in Berkeley Square, and much of it has been modernised. Here, in the following extract Margaret comes to London for the first time and is driven down the thoroughfare to admire the shops.
After travelling for three days with two nights spent in comfortable inns, Margaret felt tired but elated to find that they were entering London and being driven down Oxford Street at last, moments from their destination. Fascinated by everything she saw, marvelling at the shops on every side, Margaret exclaimed at all she witnessed. Watchmakers, silk stores, and silversmiths displayed their wares behind sparkling glass, illuminated by the amber glow of oil lamps. Exotic fruit and towering desserts in the fruiterers and confectioners formed a dazzling spectacle; pyramids of pineapples, figs, and grapes cascaded from porcelain epergne. Marchpane castles, rosewater creams, and fruited cake vied for attention on platters of every shape and size. And the crowds of people stretching across the wide pavements, the ladies gathered outside in admiration of the linen shops, draped with silks, chintzes, and muslins were a sight to behold; such fashionably dressed gentility as Margaret had never seen before.
Later on, Henry arrives to take Margaret for her promised visit to the famous teashop. They were interrupted by Henry’s arrival. He greeted them both with great cordiality and immediately applied to Marianne for permission to take Margaret out in his curricle.
“I hope you will grant this small wish, my dear Aunt Brandon,” he beseeched her, “We have a little time before the dinner hour and I promised Margaret I would take her to Gunter’s on our very first afternoon. There may not be another chance. My mother has gone to see her dressmaker and my father set off for his club as soon as he arrived, so you see, I would be left all alone and feeling very miserable if not for this opportunity to sample London’s supreme ices and your sister’s finest company.”
Marianne recognised the look in Margaret’s eyes, which begged her agreement to the scheme. Nodding her approval, she was amused to see them hasten out of the room with hardly a nod or a backward glance. As Margaret wrested her pelisse and bonnet from the arms of the waiting servant, giving no time to fastenings or ribbons, the front door opened as if conspiring to let them out as quickly as possible.
“Good day, Uncle Brandon,” shouted Henry, taking Margaret’s arm with a movement toward the iron railings and white steps as the Colonel passed through into the hallway. “Please forgive me for not stopping, but Miss Margaret and I have an appointment to keep.”
With barely a nod of his head or a curtsey from his friend, the pair escaped as Colonel Brandon started to open his mouth to acknowledge them. With a bemused expression he watched them mount Henry’s vehicle and drive away at a trot.
Henry’s route was not the most direct but all the more colourful for riding down New Bond Street so that Margaret should be able to see the very best of the shops from her wonderful vantage point. After the relative quiet of life in Devon and Dorset, she could not believe how noisy London was to her ears; not only the sound of rumbling carriages and carts, but the clatter of pattens on pavements and the distinctive cries of street sellers rang everywhere about. Henry pointed out the landmarks and shops, not failing to direct Margaret’s attention to any sight, which he thought might amuse or entertain. They were in high spirits as they trotted into Bruton Street.
“I’ll take you to Piccadilly and Hyde Park next time,” Henry announced, reining in his horse as they rapidly approached their destination. “Here we are arrived at Berkeley Square for your pleasure and there under the sign of the pineapple is Mr Gunter’s celebrated tea shop. Now, which is your favourite ice?”
“I have no idea,” Margaret admitted, “I really have little experience of exotic flavours such as I have heard Marianne describe.”
Helping her down from his equipage and taking her across the road to see the window of the shop with every variety of ice imaginable, Margaret was stunned into silence by the display. Glasses of fruit ice decorated with crystallised rose and violet petals, sugar baskets filled with painted paste flowers and artificial gardens with parterres of mousseline and gravel walks of sugar sand occupied every tier in the window. Pastilles de chocolat, curled wafers, and candied jonquils overflowed from bonbonnieres onto snowy cloths. But the centrepiece, a sugar turban on a tasselled cushion complete with flowers, crescents, and a tall, waving feather, made Margaret catch her breath with pleasure.

I often go into London just before the Christmas rush just to look at the window displays which is almost as much fun as shopping itself. Some of the large department stores like Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges, and Liberty's have stunning displays. What are your favourite shops that you like to visit?

3 comments:

Alexa Adams said...

This post contains one of my very favorite lines from Austen's letters: "I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant, and spending all my money, and, what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too". Love it! It certainly 'tis the season for shopping, and I am afraid I have already done a bit too much. These days, I am very rarely in a department store of mall. I tend to do a great deal of my shopping online or at a few, local boutiques. I am also an enormous fan of our designer overstock stores - TJMaxx and Marshalls. Is there an equivalent in England?

Jane Odiwe said...

Hello Alexa,
Online shopping is great for convenience - I must admit I did a lot last Christmas. We have TKMaxx here and I often go to the one in St. Albans to do a bit of gift shopping!

Sue Wilkes said...

I hate all shopping other than prowling around second hand bookshops. I would love to go back in time and browse in Ackermann's print shop!