The Verse’s Lou Clement reviews An Evening with Jane Austen, held at the Royal Pavilion on the 4th September.
While Brighton is not exactly lacking in special evenings, my expectations were surpassed at the Royal Pavilion’s An Evening with Jane Austen. This was not only because I love Jane Austen – and the event included actors from the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice TV series, but also because of the setting; the Royal Pavilion is an iconic Arabesque palace built in the 1700s that provided the perfect backdrop to the event.
I’ve previously visited as a tourist, ushered around the grand banqueting hall, with its exquisite and highly ornamented ceiling. As with most historic houses, the dining table was laid for the guests and a rope, surrounding the table, divided visitors from the immaculate dark wood surface and sparkling glasses. This imitation of the past creates a longing for it and it is our novelists and historians that bring the past to life. As good as this visit was there wasn’t time to stop and take in the vast and majestic decoration and appeal, or really get a feel for the place. I suppose I’m talking a bit about an immersive experience; maybe in the future we can expect a 3D show, we might watch a portly Prince Regent entertain his guests in a lavish style. Fortunately, the Jane Austen event went some of the way to delivering that experience and bringing to life the decadence and difficulties of 18th century high society.
We were very lucky to have a carefully chosen program of readings and stories which sought to engage the audience and were evocative of Jane Austen’s life and work. The actors billed were Adrian Lukis (Mr Wickham in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) and Caroline Langrishe (Judge John Deed, Sharpe). As I sat down, I noticed a reserved label on the chair in front of me. It was for our special guest Benjamin Whitrow (Mr Bennet in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) who was later introduced and read for the audience and memorably delivered Mr Bennet’s comic lines of typical dry humour.
The event began with an introduction from author Catherine Curzon, better known as Madame Gilflurt, the blogger about everything 18th Century who published a book, Life in the Georgian Court, back in June this year. She delighted the audience with historical anecdote and scene setting in the music room, with its massive fireplace and gilt designs, before soprano Rosie Lomas and harpist Camilla Pay took to the stage. Between the readings and performances I learnt that Austen kept an extensive handwritten collection of sheet music and that although the Prince Regent had all of her books, she really didn’t care for him in return! I found myself wondering what she would think of this event being held in his former palace.
Austen chose a life alone, rather than marriage. On Austen’s request, her sister Cassandra destroyed the majority of her letters, however around 200 survived and from these we glean a little information of Austen’s own social circle, family situation and relationships. Lukis and Langrishe shared information on the night about the difficulties Austen faced in publishing Pride and Prejudice (which failed to attract a publisher for many years) and the time of instability that the author faced following her father’s death. It was at Chawton House, in a village within the South Downs National Park, that the security and settled life resumed (and subsequently her writing). Although I find the struggles of an 18th century author difficult to really understand, what is made clear during An Evening with Jane Austen is that without a husband, her struggles only increased. There was joy, singing and laughter at the event, with many of the attendees dressed in typical Georgian attire, which only added to the spectacle, whereupon the elation that Austen wrote into the successes of her heroines was drawn upon as well as the feisty and erudite speeches that continue to entertain to this day.