Words penned in 1801 give some idea of the attraction of pleasure gardens:
On her visits to London, Jane Austen either personally or vicariously through the characters of her writing, certainly enjoyed the parks, and tangentially, the pleasure gardens. She mentions drives through the City in 1813, The driving about, the carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, and was ready to laugh all the time at my being where I was.
She also refers to walks in Kensington Gardens, next to Hyde Park the biggest of the royal parks. It was as well to keep your eyes open for thieves and wounded duellists, as Hyde Park was a favourite place for duels, illegal though they were. More peacefully, you could see deer and a railed enclosure on summer evenings with as many as 300 carriages full of fine ladies and gentlemen. They came and drove slowly round in order to see and be seen.
Dust was laid by sprinkler carts. The gentry did not appear on Sundays, because the populace invaded the park on their only day off. The very size of the park made it ideal for mass occasions such as army reviews.
Charles II had opened the most colourful of the royal parks - St. Jamess Park to pedestrians. Notables could drive along one of its avenues in their beautiful carriages, but only with royal authority. The thing to do in St. Jamess Park was to walk about and as usual, see and be seen!
A French gentleman, M. Grosley, could hardly believe his eyes when on a late March day, the park was incessantly covered with fogs, smoke and rain, and even then, filled with walkers. In the summer, certain spoil-sports complained of indecent practices by a set of disorderly persons playing and betting at unlawful games, bathing and running races naked, particularly on the Sabbath day. Casanova approved of the park for just this reason.
The grass plots were covered with cows and deer. About noon, most of the cows were tied to posts and milked. The milk was served with all the cleanliness peculiar to the English, in little mugs at a penny a mug. When some cows died in an epidemic of cattle plague affecting Europe, the milk bar surely the first had to be closed.
Despite its royal walkers, St. Jamess Park always had a slightly shady reputation. Royal rules and directions, although they covered any eventuality except rude girls, did not altogether succeed in their objective. In St. Jamess Park, there had to be an official clean-up campaign, to clear the park of gamesters and other loose persons. Gamblers, beggars, nosegay women and persons selling things, and at night, common prostitutes and soldiers were to be apprehended.
Embodied in the pleasure garden was the principle of commercialised amusement. London and its surrounding villages boasted more than 200 open-air pleasure resorts of various kinds, of which Ranelagh and Vauxhall were the grandest and the best known. All the resorts offered Londoners refreshments in pleasant surroundings and often had additional attractions of music, fireworks, games, ornamental fish ponds and cascades.
It was to Ranelagh and Vauxhall that fashionable society went night after night in their thousands. Refreshments and music were of high quality and fireworks had a famous reputation.
Ranelagh, at the time of our review, was the newest of the three great London pleasure gardens, dominated by a great rotunda in which were both an orchestra and an organ. There was an ornamental lake and a Chinese pavilion. It was built to be fashionable from the start, and avoided the raffish atmosphere of Marylebone and Vauxhall. It was said: you cant set your foot without treading on a Prince or a Duke. Also: Its a charming place and the brilliancy of the lights made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle, for it all looked like magic to me.
Vauxhall became a generic term for other pleasure gardens, similarly named, as in the case of Baths Spring Gardens Vauxhall, the top pleasure garden in Bath by the time the Austens went to live there, and the original (London) Vauxhall, the most popular of the London gardens, set the trend for all the fashionable gardens in the Regency period, twelve acres of unprecedented splendour. There were globe lamps and other illuminations, Chinese pavilions, romantic ruins and a cascade.
A stigma of disreputability had always clung to pleasure gardens. A certain air of sexual intrigue still clung to some of Vauxhalls remoter avenues, notably the Dark Walk, the Druid Walk and the Lovers Walk. Ladies of the town frequented the walks. Ranelagh apart, Londons pleasure gardens are depicted as places where a young ladys virtue came under serious threat.
It may now be clearer why Jane Austen kept her experience of the pleasure gardens of London tangential!! Jane never takes her readers to the London pleasure gardens (and, as far as we know, she herself never went to any of the London pleasure gardens). The only references are in two of her early stories in the Juvenilia. In Catharine, Camilla Stanley recalls having met an acquaintance at Ranelagh wearing a frightful cap and in Lesley Castle, Charlotte Lutterel, whose only interest in life is cooking, says she always longed particularly to go to Vauxhall, to see whether the cold beef there is cut so thin as it is reported. Also, the food at Vauxhall was notoriously expensive and the helpings very small. Cold ham was cut so thin that the carver could cover the entire gardens with the slices from a single ham.
|Vauxhall Gardens in 1751. The supper boxes were in the two curved arcades and the orchestra played in the octagonal bandstand. Picard, Dr Johnsons London, 2000, p202-3.||
The young Jane Austen was not writing from personal experience. In fact, she was echoing Evelina in which, when they go to supper, much fault was found with everything that was ordered. The dearness of the provisions provided discourse during the whole meal.
My own limited understanding of pleasure gardens relates to Sydneys Vaucluse House and Government House. Thanks to todays topic, my innocent ignorance has been shattered.
Picard, Liza Dr. Johnsons London Weidenfeld and
Nicolson, UK, 2000. Chapter 5 Green Spaces.
29 January 2004