It feels hard to be writing this to someone I have come to consider a wise and much valued friend. Your tales of true love among the upper middle classes in Regency England helped me through puberty and gave me an appreciation of empire lines that has resulted in me looking pregnant for much of my twenties. But I never considered your writing anything less than warm, witty and sensible.
However, recently I have been troubled. Every so often, a writer or academic (admittedly just using your good name to get to some handy publicity for their own latest tome) will stir up trouble by bringing up repeated allegations of your regional snobbery. The latest example involves Brummie and Princeton historian David Cannadine and this particular quote from your 1816 novel Emma:
‘They came from Birmingham, which is not a place to promise much, you know, Mr Weston. One has no great hopes of Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound.”
As both Cannadine and David Lodge have previously noted, this opinion comes courtesy of the snotty Mrs Elton, not a character to be admired. But similarly, these two eminent academics have shared my deep-seated suspicion that your own opinions, Miss Austen, might not necessarily always be those of your heroines Elizabeth, Elinor, Emma and Anne etc. Rather you may be burying your narrow-minded hubris (albeit with an arch self-awareness) in your more judgmental characters.
‘Confined and unvarying?’
Mr Darcy’s withering dismissal of rural Hertfordshire society is ultimately confirmed by the you, the author because you attribute the words to your own version of Prince Charming. But as you had more experience of the limited social opportunities in the Home Counties, we figure you know of what you speak. Yet it is worth considering what Birmingham was really like during the Regency. Was the Georgian grape-vine beyond reproach or was it more like playing Chinese Whispers?
As one of the centres of the industrial Revolution, Birmingham probably just conjured thoughts of fumes and the encroaching vast canal network being built but the denizens of Birmingham were working to overcome stereotyping even back in the day. The famous Lunar Society of Birmingham was a major society for political thought in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It has even been revived today at the University of Birmingham and is an informal addition to the existing debating societies around here. And the coffee house scene that so defined the Enlightenment was buzzing. Freeth’s Coffee House was the meeting place of the radical Birmingham Book Club that survived into the 1960s and provided the Birmingham Library with most of its original stock.
Seems like a bit of a sausage fest huh? Well the brilliant Mapping Birmingham blog has a fascinating account of Birmingham’s assemblies and dances. Don’t worry Jane, these events were highly exclusive so even your Mrs Elton and Mr Darcy could not complain. There were two main assembly rooms (in Bull Street and the Square) and other private assemblies which were held at the Grand Hotel. Party on Austen!
Birmingham still possesses some examples of Regency architecture such as St Phillip’s Cathedral and St Pauls Square. St Paul’s is the only Georgian square left in Brum but this is not surprising as the money did not start pouring into the city until the Victorian era – hence the plethora of Victorian and Gothic Revival buildings around the city. Birmingham represented the modern age while the Regency towns such as Bath, Cheltenham and Leamington lost their glamour and fashionable clientele very quickly.
Jane, when you wrote your assessment of Brum it probably wasn’t as pleasing to the eye or exciting as London or Bath. But you cannot have been ignorant of the potential for industrial cities to eventually surpass their established counterparts. At the very least you have been found narrow-minded in your lack of scope.
‘You’re a virgin who can’t drive…’ (Clueless, 1995)
Look, I’ll always love curling up with your books but I think this episode has left me wondering why girls take your word as gospel. I think it’s time we took a look at your credentials for passing so many unqualified opinions. After all, you gave me unrealistic expectations of men and an annoying penchant for inkhorns and superfluous dexterity of sentence formation.
These days, your heroines being grounded and well-educated young women would, I expect, not only know the value and heritage of our industrial towns but would even dare to take the not unreasonable drive up the M1/M6 to visit Birmingham or Newcastle (because girls these days can do that – and without a chaperon, you know).
It is because of these freedoms that I lived near Newcastle for a time. And instead of finding it the unworthy backwater that you vaguely alluded to in Pride and Prejudice as a suitable social prison for Lydia and Whickham, I found a city with beautiful Regency buildings that sweep elegantly downhill in a picturesque spectacle that would rival Leamington or even Bath. The social side may have had you reaching for your smelling salts but is that a bad thing?
So far I have not come across any record of you having visited either Birmingham or Newcastle. At least Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte jumped at the chance to travel around a bit.
Jane, I highly suspect if you were around today, you would be writing for Vogue, forever documenting the fashions and prevailing opinion of the zeitgeist but never daring to think forwards in terms of culture.
After all we’ve been through, I will always have fond memories of your books but it’s time to acknowledge we’ve grown apart. Of course I was going to defect to Emily Bronte after a while, having a normal adult sex-life saw to that. Thank God for Persuasion or as I call it ‘Austen for grown-ups’ as the girls who read you as Eliza Bennets can rejoin you as Anne Elliots; slightly older, wiser and a little bruised by life but unafraid to visit Birmingham.