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Eugène François Vidocq: Misérables Inspiration

Eugène François Vidocq

Eugène François Vidocq

“The book the reader has now before his eyes – from one end to the other; in its whole and in its details, whatever the omissions, the exceptions, or the faults – is the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.”
-Les Misérables

No list of the greatest novels ever written would be complete without Pride and Prejudice, if not all of Jane Austen’s novels. However, one other novel that often joins Jane at the top of such lists, is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Set in France during the tumultuous years 1813-1840, the novel examines the complex themes of sin, grace and redemption.

It will, no doubt, come as a surprise to many that the two main characters of this novel, Jean Valjean (a convicted thief) and Inspector Javert (the officer dedicated to making him pay for his crimes) were inspired by the same person. Eugène François Vidocq, a direct contemporary of Jane Austen, was an ex-convict who became a successful businessman widely noted for his social engagement and philanthropy.  In 1828, Vidocq, already pardoned, saved one of the workers in his paper factory by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders as Valjean does in the novel. Vidcoq, a personal friend of Victor Hugo, eventually became the head of the Sûreté Nationale, the first recorded private detective, and possibly even the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

Eugène François VidocqEugène François Vidocq ( July 24, 1775 – May 11, 1857) was a French criminal and criminalist whose life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. A former crook who subsequently became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency, Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology  and of the French police department.He is also regarded as the first private detective.
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Mary, Countess of Belmore: Mistress of the Upper Rooms

Our Theatre has been well attended this week. On Wednesday evening the performances were patronized by Lieut-Col.Sturt and the Officers of the 59th Regiment, for the Benefit of Mr.Tockley. The house was fashionably and numerously attended. The Countess of Belmore bespeaks a Play and Farce to-morrow evening, when, without doubt, there will be an overflowing house.
The Salisbury and Winchester Journal
Weymouth, October 22, 1813

Bath’s famous Assembly Rooms, known to Austen readers as the Upper Rooms (the much older “Lower Rooms” burned to the ground in 1820 and were not rebuilt) opened in 1771, only a few years before Jane Austen’s birth. Here, as in the Lower Rooms, the fashionable of Bath came to see and be seen, attend balls, concerts and small theatrical events. Assemblies held here provided a public ball with dancing, dining and cards and flirtations galore for all who cared to purchase a ticket.

The official website for the rooms explains, “Bath’s magnificent 18th century Assembly Rooms were opened in 1771. Known as the New or Upper Rooms (to distinguish them from the older Assembly Rooms in the lower part of the town) they were designed by John Wood the Younger, the leading architect in the West Country.

There are four rooms: the Ballroom; the Tea or Concert Room; the Octagon Room (linking all the rooms), and a Card Room. The Ballroom is the largest 18th century room in Bath. Dancing was very popular and balls were held at least twice a week, attracting 800 to 1,200 guests at a time. The high ceiling provided good ventilation on crowded ball nights and windows set at a high level prevented outsiders from looking in.

The Tea Room was used for both refreshments and concerts in the 18th century (and was sometimes known as the Concert Room).During the evening entertainments there was an interval for tea, the cost being included in the price of a ball ticket. On Sundays there were public teas when admission cost sixpence per person.

The Ballroom and Tea Room are linked by the Octagon Room which was originally intended as a circulating space which could also be used for music and playing cards. On Sundays, when cards were not allowed, visitors could listen to the organ, which once stood in the musician’s gallery. A new Card Room was added in 1777 but the architect is not known.

The Octagon Room is dominated by Gainsborough’s portrait of the first Master of Ceremonies at the Upper Rooms, Captain William Wade. Bath’s most famous Master of Ceremonies, Richard “Beau” Nash, never knew this building as he died in 1761.”

Another who was often to be found at the Assembly Rooms was
Mary, Countess of Belmore

Born on 17 April 1755, Mary was, by all accounts, a relatively poor girl, with a dowry of only £2,000 when she became the Viscount of Belmore’s 3rd wife, marrying Armar Lowry-Corry, 1st Earl of Belmore in Bath in 1794. The daughter of Sir John Caldwell, 4th Baronet.

Through her marriage, Mary Anne Caldwell gained the title of Viscountess Belmore on 11 March 1794. She later obtained the title of Countess Belmore on 20 November 1797.

Armar Lowry-Corry was the son of a wealthy Irish landowner and Politician. When his father declined to run for re-election in 1763, he suggested that Armar run instead. He.was indeed elected, though at a cost of over £3,000, and sat for Co. Tyrone until his elevation to the peerage in 1781. The Earl’s other titles include Viscount Belmore (created 1789) and Baron Belmore (1781), both of which are in the Peerage of Ireland.

Armar was less fortunate in love marrying once in 1772 only to be widowed in 1775. His second marriage to Lady Harriet Hobart, daughter of the reigning Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, seemed more auspicious, but it also ended in tragedy. On 6 January 1781 Lowry-Corry was raised to the peerage as Baron Belmore, and on 15 June 1781 he and his wife entered into a deed of separation by which he agreed to pay her £1,000 a year. They were never reconciled and the marriage was finally dissolved by divorce in April 1793 (at a cost to Belmore in legal and parliamentary fees of well over £4,000.)

Fortunately for both, the third marriage was, by all accounts, a happy and content arrangement which lasted until the Earl’s death in 1802. The couple’s home, Castle Coole, is now owned by the National Trust.

Designed by James Wyatt and completed in 1798 for the first Earl of Belmore, Castle Coole’s interior was created by some of the leading craftsmen of the 18th Century. Marble chimney-pieces were carved by Westmacott, plasterwork created by Joseph Rose and scagioli columns the work of Bartoli. Magnificent State Rooms with their sumptuous Regency furnishings, include The State Bedroom prepared for a visit by George IV in 1821.

After the Earl’s death, Lady Belmore moved to Bath in 1805 and lived at 17 Royal Crescent for thirty years until her death on 13 December at the age of eighty-six. For a long time she presided over balls held in the Assembly Rooms; and it was here that Dickens must have encountered her, probably in 1835. He completed Pickwick Papers shortly afterwards, and immortalised the dowager countess as Lady Snuphanuph in the chapters of the novel that deal with Mr Pickwick’s experiences in Bath. (Chapter 35)

She is buried at Caledon, County Fermanagh, Ireland.

Today, the Assembly Room is owned by the National Trust and open for visitors. The basement houses Bath’s exquisite costume collection, featuring original items from a variety of time periods. Though #17 is not available, #1 Royal Crescent has been turned into a museum, showing what these apartments would have looked like in the19th century, at the height of their fashion.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica located at Wikipedia as well as from They Came to Bath.

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Christmas Day with the Austen Family

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.”
A Christmas Carol
, by Charles Dickens

 

Christmas did not become a national holiday in England until 1834–Seventeen years after Jane Austen left the world. However, it had been growing in popular observance for much longer, and during Jane’s lifetime was already a greatly anticipated holiday of wistful longings and merry-making; replete with customs, rituals, rites and superstitions, church-going and devotion—much like the holiday portrayed by Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

In fact, the one thing Victorian–and modern life have to offer that was lacking in Jane’s day (with regard to Christmas) is commercialism and unashamed exuberance, which only came with national recognition and a growing middle class, later in the nineteenth century.

In other words, Christmas was not yet commercialized, so that Jane Austen (and many others of her day) viewed it primarily as a sacred holiday. As the daughter of a pious clergyman she was schooled to understand it in all its Christian significance and beauty. (Being a man of the church did not necessarily mean that one was devout, but in Mr. Austen’s case, it did, and Jane herself appears to have taken her readings in The Book of Common Prayer quite seriously.)

Though the Victorians are usually credited with “inventing” our modern-day Christmases, it is more accurate to say they popularized it commercially. They did not invent any of the age-old traditions that had long been in place such as the Yule log, the roast goose and potatoes, or the Christmas pudding. Likewise, carols and caroling (called, “wassailing” or singing by “the waits”) were already long-entrenched customs, as were many others, including mistletoe , feasting, gift-exchanging, decorating with evergreens, and the like. What then, did the Victorians add? Primarily, “respectability” (by making it fashionable to observe Christmas); the Christmas “cracker” (still popular today), and the use of tall trees. Additionally, technology grew and enabled Christmas cards and prints to be exchanged, fueling the popularity of the holiday.


What Was Jane’s Christmas Like?

She most likely made tea for her family in the morning as was her custom; then went to church with them; helped with the great Christmas dinner, if she were to eat at home (rather than at Godmersham or another relative’s house), enjoyed a gift exchange with her siblings and close relatives and a good friend or two; participated in parlour games (Charades was a family favorite), with perchance a good card game, or even a dance, if it were held. She may have played carols on the pianoforte, joined the others to sit ’round the fire for storytelling or reading aloud; and she may have joined the family in prayer, perhaps reading one of her own making, aloud. The family would have enjoyed special food and a favorite brew, such as mulled cider or wassail at some point in the evening; and if company stopped by, all the better. In short, Jane and the Austen family enjoyed a festive day, and in fact welcomed all festivities during the full twelve days of Christmas. May you and yours do likewise!

 

Linore Rose Burkard is the author of Before the Season Ends, an inspirational regency romance. Visit her website for more information about this, and her other books.

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