REVIEW: The Drawing Rooms of Jane Austen

GeorgeFest – a 10-day festival celebrating the town of Richmond’s rich Georgian heritage – has just come to a close. Looking at the programme, events and activities ranged from guided walks and talks to musical promenades, dancing and a bit of gin drinking – something the Georgians were evidently rather good at! Linking them all was an enthusiasm for the subject – a love of history and the desire to explore what it was like to live in that colourful period.

Ruthanne Baxter and Nick Finnigan’s presentation on The Drawing Rooms of Jane Austen at The Georgian Theatre Royal on the last weekend of the Festival was a fine example of this enthusiasm. “We’re not historians, we’re not curators, we just love the subject” the couple (who had travelled down from Edinburgh) said at the beginning of the evening. And they were keen to share their personal knowledge and research with a like-minded and appreciative audience.

Their chosen subject was the role of the drawing room in fact and fiction through the books, music and life of Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Literary readings were interspersed with fun facts, first-hand historical accounts and even music from the period, played beautifully on the harp by local music student Connor McMurray. “We found him on the Internet,” explained Ruthanne excitedly and his contribution certainly added to the general ambience.

Drawing rooms evidently had a great significance in the Regency era. They were places to flirt and find spouses, as well as providing the opportunity to conduct serious business.

In terms of style, they were often green (to echo the gardens and landscapes beyond) and French influences loomed large. This is rather strange given that for huge chunks of the Georgian period Britain was at war with France but conversation was peppered with French, French wines and brandies were drunk and the fashion was French-led.

Musical instruments were very prevalent in the drawing room and very much the preserve of the female sex who wanted to demonstrate their qualities for the marriage market. Instruments were carefully chosen to show off a lady’s best posture. Wind instruments were off the agenda because they were considered too phallic but harps were OK because they showcased the hands.  According to conduct manuals from the period, performances were judged not on technical skills but on ‘cheerfulness’ of playing. Indeed, too much skill was considered dangerous as it may lead to vanity!

In the second part of the presentation, the role of the drawing room as a place of business was explored almost solely through the activities of John Murray II – a London publisher who used his house to entertain the literary greats of the period. He was the publisher of Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott and many others, and his home and office at 50 Albermarle Street was a literary epicentre, fostered by Murray’s tradition of “four o’clock friends”, afternoon tea with his writers.

On of Murray’s most notable writers was the infamous Lord Byron. On 10 March 1812, Murray published Byron’s second book, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which sold out in five days, leading to Byron’s observation “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. Not all his business ventures were as successful. In 1826, Murray launched the fated newspaper The Representative with the young Benjamin Disraeli. Intended to rival The Times, the paper was wound up in only a few months but cost Murray an enormous £26,000.

It was all fascinating stuff and the enthusiasm of the two presenters was infectious. They also clearly loved Richmond’s Theatre and after extoling its virtues, Ruthanne invited everyone in the audience to come and see the Georgian St Cecilia’s Hall and Music Museum in Edinburgh. If GeorgeFest is about sharing the knowledge and the passion, then this presentation had plenty of both.