Welcome to All Things Austen in April!
Today I’ll be talking a bit about the area the Gardiners lived in and I have a little peek preview of my WIP.
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One of the memorable moments of Pride and Prejudice is the sneering remark Miss Bingley makes to Mr. Darcy about Elizabeth’s uncle’s house in “Cheapside,” with the goal, of course, of making it sound like the Gardiners live in the Cheap side of London. The name of the district has unfortunate associations. Apart from the first meaning, the word cheap is from old English ceapan, ‘to buy’ and refers to a market street. Of course, anything to do with commerce would have been considered unfashionable to the social circles in which Darcy moves. Naturally, as a social climber, Miss Bingley wants to distance herself as much as possible from anything with a whiff of trade. Now this is interesting because, with Jane Austen’s brother being involved in banking, along with the Austen family connection with Warren Hastings, who started off his career as a clerk in the East India Company, we would have to wonder if upper-class society wasn’t, in fact, more complex in its perception of “trade” than Miss Bingley would have us believe.
Certainly the world of fashionable society was not completely cut off from the world of wealthy commerce. Gracechurch Street in particular would have been familiar to Darcy and Georgiana as the warehouses there were often frequented by upper-class society. This image is later than Jane Austen’s time, but it gives you an idea of what it would have looked like on a typical day.
Architecturally, Cheapside was not to be sneered at. Two of London’s largest and most famous churches were located in the area. You can see how Cheapside attracted some very fashionable visitors in this print from 1832. The tall building on the left is Mary-le-Bow, which you’ll probably know of through the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons, said the Bells of old Clemens … said the Great Bells of Bow.”
The Gardiners would only have been able to see the top of the spire of St. Mary-le-Bow from the upper floors of where they lived, but they would have been able to tell the time from the bells, particularly the bell announcing the curfew at 9 o’clock every night. The tradition of the curfew bell at the church was a very long one. It existed as far back 1469 and continued until 1876. It used to mark the end of the workday for apprentices. The bells were destroyed several times, including during the fire of London when the whole church was rebuilt by Christopher Wren. (As an interesting aside, when the old bells deteriorated in the early 20th century, Mr. Selfridge was involved in having them restored). The peal of the bells was the iconic sound of London until Big Ben came into being. This is what they would have heard.
Gracechurch Street itself at the time of Jane Austen continued in a straight line down to the river as Fish Street Hill, where the Monument to the Great Fire of London was located. Just a few steps more and you would be at the Thames, with the old London Bridge extending before you.
This is the view towards the monument from the river and towards Gracechurch Street.
Immediately to the left of the image would have been the Fishmongers’ Guildhall, one of the powerful twelve Guilds of London, with a building that displayed it’s wealth and status. Definitely, in Jane Austen’s time, the Monument would have been clearly visible from the Gardiner’s house, as can be seen in this picture looking down Gracechurch Street towards Fish Street Hill, which is where the Monument is located. The monument could be visited for a small charge. The climb to the top involved 315 steps up a spiral staircase.
In my current WIP, Darcy is rejoicing that Elizabeth has agreed to marry him. He leaves the Gardiner’s house and walks down Gracechurch Street towards the River. It’s rather difficult to trace his route based on a modern map because the landmarks have shifted since then. The old London Bridge was torn down and replaced with a new one in a different position, and streets were shifted accordingly. In Darcy’s case, his walk down towards the river follows a straight line from Gracechurch, through Fish Street Hill down to London Bridge.
Here is an excerpt.
As he passed Monument Yard, Darcy looked up towards the gilded top of the Monument. He had been up there when he was child, had counted all three hundred and eleven steps with his father and stared down from the top at the spiral staircase that looked like the inside of a seashell. The view from the viewing platform – the highest point in London, his father told him — had been both wondrous and frightening. He had gazed out over the city spreading on and on, until his father had tapped his shoulder and told him they should go down. When they were once more outside the towering column, his father had made him read the Latin inscriptions on each side.
The memory saddened him. He would have liked his father to be present for his wedding. He had few memories of his mother. He had been too young when she had died. It was at times like this that he wished they were still with him to celebrate the occasion.
He dismissed the gloomy thoughts. It was up to him now to create a new life for himself. He would take his own children up, as his father had done with him. Meanwhile, he would go up with Elizabeth, he determined. She was a good walker and would be able to climb the spiral staircase easily. They would stand at the top of the world and hold hands and look down over the spires and house-tops of London together. He caught sight of himself grinning in the elegant looking-glass in the window of Wilcoxon and gave a start. Was this handsome man with a joyful expression really him?
The bells of St Mary-le-Bow pealed, the musical resonance of her ancient bells filling the falling dusk. Darcy was tempted to go in to give thanks for the happiness that had been granted to him, but he was in too much turmoil to wish to be enclosed. He was still reeling with a sense of disbelief that his life had been so completely altered in the course of one day. The cloud that had hung over him for weeks – nay, months – had finally dissipated, leaving him with a fierce joy that was almost overwhelming. Yet he could not find peace, not yet, not until he had resolved matters with Mr. Bennet.