Brighton is situated in Sussex, on the south coast of England. It has a long history, being mentioned in the Domesday Book, and by the 1730s it was developing a bathing season. The first visit of the then Prince of Wales in 1783 led to Brighton’s becoming the favourite haunt of all London. Its popularity waxed and waned through the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Prince’s Pavilion, built and remodelled over a period of some 30 years, is today the main tourist attraction. Brighton is mentioned in only two of the six completed novels, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park.
During the 40 or so years of the Prince’s patronage, first as Prince of Wales, then as Regent, then as King George IV, the middle classes followed the rich, and the town developed continuously, with grand squares and terraces and smaller residences being built, so that soon one classical terrace after another stretched from the Prince’s Pavilion down to the coastline. In the year 1826 alone, 500 houses were under construction. The transition of Brighton from health resort to a town designed for leisure and pleasure happened quickly under royal patronage.
Brighton was nothing if not smart and vulgar. The sixth edition of the New Brighton Guide, published in 1796, advertised it as a place ‘where the sinews of morality are so happily relaxed, that a bawd and a baroness may snore in the same tenement’. The pale green twilight of the underground halls of the Aquarium, opened in 1872, were popular with honeymooners and lovers, who discovered therein a congenial darkness and seclusion, and a recent guidebook to the UK says of Brighton:
And as it is now, so it has always been – I’m sure we can all call to mind some of Jane Austen’s characters who may have succumbed to temptation in an establishment not dissimilar to a small, discreet hotel.
It is on the periods when the Prince visited every year, for the summer season and at Christmas, that we shall concentrate. It is not surprising that a resort made so fashionable by the Prince of Wales, with a large population and substantial military presence, should lend itself to disreputable activities. In 1796, when the Light Dragoons were again in camp at Brighton, the Times led its readers to believe that the camp motto was ‘long live love and wine’ (Vivent l’amour et Bacchus).
Whilst the Prince was in Brighton, amongst the things he enjoyed, such as racing, bathing, shooting parties and playing cricket on the Steine, were the sham naval battles and reviews of soldiers from the Brighton camp. The constant fear of invasion from France called for a military establishment at home, and the militia roamed the British countryside, camping at hospitable sites for relatively short duration then moving on. The primary occupation of the officers in Pride and Prejudice was wining, dining, dancing and general merrymaking in Meryton – there is no mention of military exercises, or even a parade. Once their appointed stay was accomplished, and winter over, it was time for Colonel Foster to move his regiment to larger quarters at the fashionable resort of Brighton. Historically, the militia were stationed at Brighton many times whilst England was at war with France. The highlight of the Brighton season was the annual celebration of the Prince’s birthday on 12 August and a mock naval battle was held with soldiers in full uniform on Race Hill to commemorate it. In 1810, when Brighton was at the height of its consequence, there were about 10,000 troops. The whole populace would turn out, in carriages, curricles, phaetons, farm and fish carts, and cheerfully create enormous confusion among the opposing lines of troops. The Prince, himself the head of a regiment, had detailed knowledge of uniforms and parade punctilio, and the rich could indulge their passion for extravagant uniforms and beautiful horses.
Resorts vied with one another for visitors, so a range of amenities had to be provided. Daily life at a watering place generally followed a pattern. Bathing very early in the morning was followed by a walk or ride along the cliffs or downs, or a stroll in the public gardens. Much of the social life of the day was centred on the circulating libraries (in Brighton, Fishers and Donaldsons). These were not only lenders of books, but centres for men and women to gossip, read current periodicals and shop. Lydia, obviously not a great reader, writes to her mother that ‘they were just returned from the library, where such and such officers had attended them, and where she had seen such beautiful ornaments as made her quite wild’. Since they were places where patrons loitered, they also became places for casual meeting and conversation, and even assignations. In the evenings there were balls at the Castle and Old Ship Inns, or meetings, balls and card parties in the Assembly Rooms, where strict rules governed deportment and dress. Visitors to the Pavilion must have taken time out from partying to read occasionally as well. In a letter to Jane Austen on 27 March 1816, (Letter #138A, Le Faye p.311) written from the Pavilion, James Stanier Clarke, the Prince’s librarian, conveys the Prince’s thanks to her for a copy of Emma and continues ‘many of the nobility who have been staying here, paid you the just tribute of their praise’.
Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.
Maggie Lane asserts that if Surrey was used by Jane Austen to celebrate England under good management, Sussex was used to confront the prospect of England misguidedly managed in the name of fashion. Brighton in the novels is associated with immorality. The characters who spring most readily to mind when the name Brighton is mentioned, are Lydia and Wickham, and perhaps to a lesser degree Maria Bertram, who went there on her honeymoon with Rushworth and took her sister Julia with her to dilute the effect of his company.
Men of weak will did not fare well in Brighton. After a stay of only eight or so weeks, Wickham managed to run up debts of more than £1000. And for Lydia, the effect of Brighton was to do away the remains of such decorum as she may have possessed in the country – which was not much to begin with. In a place of such excess and indulgence, and with her irresponsibility and carelessness of consequence, the invitation to Brighton was, as Elizabeth tried to convince her father, the death warrant of all possibility of common sense for her. After all, what was there in such a place of indulgence to influence Lydia into the sudden acquisition of some self control?
In her imagination,
And who can, after all, fail to attribute significance to Lydia’s throwaway line in her hastily dashed off letter to Col Forster’s wife on the occasion of her elopement ‘I wish you will tell Sally to mend a great slit in my working muslin gown’ (I only mention this because I could, and did, miss the behavioural inference for many years till enlightened by one of the good folk of JASA!).
In any of her visits to seaside towns, I am sure Jane would have easily withstood the many temptations to indiscreet and uncontrolled behaviour which they had to offer.
19 July 2003