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Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

It's Jane Austen's birthday today and over at My Jane Austen Book Club, there are books and prizes to be won, as well as contributions from authors, like myself, which will be posted over the next 24 hours - don't miss it! In celebration, Project Darcy and Searching for Captain Wentworth are both on offer on Kindle, as well as Mr Darcy's Secret - I hope you'll enjoy them if you get a chance to read them!

 This week I went to see the Georgians Revealed exhibition at the British Library. It's well worth going to see and imaginatively put together. Sadly, I was unable to take photos to give you a glimpse of what's on offer, but a plethora of imagery was used to illustrate the themes of Homes and Gardens, Shopping and Fashion, Culture and Ideas, Leisure and Pleasure. Some of my favourites included Humphry Repton's Sketches and Hints in Landscape Gardening, with examples from his 'red books' where he showed before and after images of how a garden might be 'improved'.
I used this idea in Mr Darcy's Secret. Thomas Butler designs a folly for the Darcys in my Pride and Prejudice sequel - he is a young landscape gardener, and has a 'green book' to display his designs, which more than capture Miss Georgiana Darcy's fancy!

One of the exhibits I really enjoyed was a pamphlet displayed about the tea-table. Of course, taking tea was a fashionable and expensive business, and so the genteel ladies who indulged were given guidance on suitable conversation whilst taking tea. It reminded me of Mr Collins with his practised bon-mots, and surely reading a publication like 'The Tea-Table' and handbooks like Jonathan Swift's 'Polite Conversation, consisting of smart, witty, droll and whimsical sayings collected for his amusement and made into a regular dialogue', would have prompted many a practised discussion!
I was reminded of Jane Austen so many times, not only because her writing desk formed part of the exhibition, but because of the activities we know she indulged in. It was interesting to see originals of the Ackerman prints, we love and know, to do with shopping - The Linen Draper, Wedgwood's Rooms, and Harding, Howell and Co's Grand Fashionable Magazine, etc. Shopping and consumerism were gaining new heights - I loved the prints of shop-fronts and the highly decorated trade cards, there were examples of Wedgwood and Blue and White china, which we know Jane Austen's family enjoyed, and examples of mass-produced staffordshire ware which was made for the middle classes.
Mrs Siddons
I was reminded very much of the times we live in now as I wandered round the exhibition, and I couldn't help thinking how much our society has in common with the Georgians. Celebrities of the day seemed to enjoy the same sort of adulation as they do now, and the rise of the theatre had much to do with this phenomenon. The exhibition shows playbills of the time advertising plays and shows, and has examples of celebrities in printed form like Joseph Grimaldi who was one of Britain's best-loved clowns. He also performed in pantomime which was really coming into its own at this time. Mrs Siddons and Dorothy Jordan were famous actresses of the day - Jane Austen really wanted to see Mrs Siddons perform, but she didn't get the opportunity to her great disappointment.
The Georgians were well known for scandal as well as culture, and Elizabeth Chudleigh became a celebrity for exposing 'her charms' at a Ranelagh masquerade, dressed as Iphigenia. The word 'dress' here is improperly used-it is said she was near-naked and prints of the time bear this out, though some were imaginary like the one shown!

  Elizabeth came from an upper-class background and entered court circles as a maid of honour to Augusta, the young princess of Wales in 1743. She married, but by 1749 she had separated from her husband because of her infidelity. The same year she made her appearance as Iphigenia and instantly became the talk of the town! She became mistress to Evelyn Pierrepoint, Second Duke of Kingston upon Hull and married him in 1769, after a court ruled that her first marriage had not taken place. After the duke died, questions were raised about her marital status - she was tried in 1776 and found guilty of bigamy and consequently was shunned by most of society. The trial and several accounts of her life were published in various forms.

The exhibition shows several prints and books which show the notation of dancing and how popular dances were performed. I found these fascinating as a past student of ballet and dance! It was also lovely to see originals of Philip Astley's Circus, which Jane Austen went to see. I set a scene in Project Darcy at Astley's where Jane goes with her brothers and a certain young Irishman to see the entertainment.

Four white horses trotted in sideways marching in time to the music of the band. A troupe of young men in skin-tight breeches leaped and jumped from one to the other drawing gasps of approbation from the crowd.
‘Do you think you’re up to the challenge of a bareback ride, Miss Austen?’ Tom whispered, as the sight of the steaming horses diverted my brothers’ attention. Thundering round the circus arena, two of the riders stood aloft, performing acrobatics as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I laughed and whispered back, ‘I could do anything if you were willing to catch me.’
‘And I should be most happy to oblige, Miss Austen.’
His fingers found mine for a second, and when the inevitable happened and my brother Edward remarked on the warmth of my complexion, I made the excuse that it was the heat of the August night that made me so pink. From Project Darcy
Jane Austen at her desk

I hope you've enjoyed a glimpse at the exhibition - there is much to see! Don't forget to visit Maria Grazia's blog for the birthday celebrations. Happy Birthday Jane Austen!