Ladies, raise your skirts – you don’t want to muddy the hems. And gentlemen, please extend an arm. We are going for a walk in Jane Austen’s London. (Contact me to book this Chelsea literary walk in person or as a virtual tour.)
Jane Austen didn't come to London often; she spent most of her short life in Hampshire. But her older brother, Henry, lived in London during the early 1800s and this gave Jane the chance to visit the big city. She had a grand time, according to letters she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, who remained at home in Hampshire. The sisters were close and corresponded almost daily when they were separated. I guess if FaceTime had existed, they would have used that. Frankly, it pains me to think of Jane engaging in such high-tech communication.
I'd rather cast my mind back to Regency London, the time when King George III's son, also George, became the Prince Regent because his father was declared unfit to rule. (That's a whole other saga.) It is a special time in London's history, associated with architectural elegance, grand society and a certain opulence exemplified by George himself. But there was also a dark undercurrent in non-affluent areas. And this is when Jane came to London.
Jane’s older brother Henry was a partner at a bank in Covent Garden and in 1809 he rented number 64 Sloane Street, where he lived with his wife, Eliza (Henry’s and Jane’s first cousin and possibly the model for the character, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park). Jane stayed here in 1811, although the house would have looked different. This building, which now houses a financial entity, looks far grander than it did when Henry lived here. The elegant white finish with black-framed windows was placed over the classic red-brick Chelsea façade in the later 1800s. The best surviving example of what Henry’s house would have looked like can be found at number 123 Sloane Street, closer to Sloane Square.
Jane brought with her the proofs of Sense and Sensibility, soon to be her first published novel. Cassandra worried that the distractions of London would keep Jane from her work but Jane wrote and assured her, “I could no more forget S&S than a mother could forget a sucking child.”
That’s an interesting reference. Jane never had children – indeed never married – so her work was able to take centre stage in her life. But on this visit, she easily left her "baby" at home in order to explore London. One of Jane’s greatest pleasures was walking into town on shopping expeditions. At the time of Jane’s visits, Sloane Street was part of Hans Town, essentially an 18th -Century suburb and distinct from London proper.
In her letters to Cassandra, Jane describes walking with Eliza’s maidservant, Manon, from the house at Sloane Street to Grafton House, at New Bond Street where the fabric shop, Wilding and Kent was located (about 1 and ½ miles).“I liked my walk very much; it was shorter than I had expected, & the weather was delightful. We set off immediately after breakfast and must have reached Grafton House by ½ past 11..."
They would have walked along Sloane Street and turned right where the present-day Harvey Nichols is located. (This luxury shop opened in 1831, a bit to the south of its current location, by Lowndes Square.) At the time of Jane’s visit, the present location of Harvey Nichols was occupied by a floorcloth (canvas floor covering) factory.
The women would have walked on towards Hyde Park Corner (about one-half mile) where the London city limits were marked by a toll gate for vehicles. Grafton House was located at the junction of New Bond Street and Grafton Street. Once there, Jane encountered the modern-day vexation of London shopping: crowds. “…when we entered the Shop, the whole Counter was thronged & we waited full half an hour before we could be attended to.”
Jane also might have visited Fortnum and Mason which opened in 1707. Maybe Jane had a browse at the wonderful Hatchard’s Bookshop at 187 Piccadilly – still at the same location as in this great writer’s day. Although Hatchard’s still has something of a Regency-era flavour, Sloane Street is nothing as it was. Instead of the international designers that line this high-end thoroughfare now, there would have been rather ordinary low-rise buildings.
In fact, Jane visited this area just before its big building boom. Hans Town was a chic place to live and the influx of wealthy people here naturally gave rise to the development of Knightsbridge as a shopping district. To the east, towards present-day Lowndes Square, there would still have been fields with grazing cattle. Further along towards Belgravia, lay Five Fields, a well-known hangout of highway robbers. Although it was safe in the daytime at least by the time Jane came to London, the area was so notorious that Charles Dickens wrote in his novel, Barnaby Rudge, “Few would venture to Chelsea unarmed and unattended.”
In addition to shopping and theatre, Jane also enjoyed her brother’s elegant social life. In her letters, Jane describes a musical evening hosted by Henry and Eliza. Although the front of Henry’s former residence has changed, you can see the original room where this party took place by walking along nearby Hans Street to the rear of the building. The large bay window with yellow and red bricks frames the room where Jane enjoyed Henry’s party.
Her recounting shows that she preferred to hang back from the centre of the scene and observe – fitting for a writer. “The drawing room being hotter than we soon liked, we placed ourselves in the connecting Passage, which was comparatively cool ,& gave us all the advantage of the Music at a pleasant distance, as well as that of the first view of every newcomer. I was quite surrounded by acquaintance, especially Gentlemen…”
Jane returned to this house in April, 1813. Her year started with great excitement as Pride and Prejudice was published in January. But not long after, she came to London to help look after her seriously ill sister-in-law. After Eliza died, Henry moved to Henrietta Street in Covent Garden which opened a whole new chapter in Jane’s relationship with London.