A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Dublin. I had visited the capital of Ireland on several occasions, but for some reason – possibly the beautiful weather and clear blue skies – this time I paid a great deal of attention to its Georgian architecture. The fluted Greek columns, the refined and delicately moulded cornices, the elegant windows are just outstanding, and such a particular feature of the city that the Dublin Regency doors alone are famous enough to warrant posters and fridge magnets.
A Perfect Regency Town
In Dublin, the spirit of the Regency is everywhere, and no wonder. It was a time of economic bounty for a privileged few, with money from trade pouring into the city, and the local elite opting to expand and beautify their capital rather than eventually have to send it to London. Walking in the wide cobbled streets, contemplating the fine ironwork and majestic bow windows, I inevitably felt transported to Jane Austen’s times.
There are traces of Ireland in Jane Austen’s novels. At the time, it was the second biggest British city outside London, after the 1800 Acts of the Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, so it is no wonder that the country and its people and customs make several appearances. In most cases, the mentions are in passing, but they give a fascinating insight into the way English regarded their neighbours across the Irish sea.
Music, Landscapes and Craic
The Irish have a reputation for being musically inclined, and Irish music makes several appearances in Jane Austen’s novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet, to the mortification of her sister Elisabeth, plays Irish airs at the piano during a gathering at Sir William Lucas’. In Emma, Jane Fairfax’s new pianoforte, of mysterious provenance, comes with a new set of Irish melodies, which were often played during her Weymouth stay, when she becomes secretly engaged to Frank Churchill.
Moreover, Jane’s skills at the pianoforte are much admired by Mr Dixon, the Irishman courting her particular friend Miss Campbell, who often asks both ladies to play together. It is an unusual request, and one that Frank Churchill suggests is proof of Jane’s proficiency, for Dixon is “a very musical man, and in love with another woman”. (Emma, needless to say, thinks otherwise).
Ireland is also known for its breathtaking scenery. No surprise, then, that Mr Dixon often talks about the beauty of his home country when talking to Miss Campbell, with Jane often also present. The wish to see her parents and best friend enjoy the Irish countryside are one of the reasons why the lady, once married and settled in Ireland, insists on their visiting her. And she must be onto something, for once the Campbells are there, they postpone their return, not once, but twice, spending the best part of half a year at their son-in-law’s seat.
No mention of the Irish is complete without talking about their gift for friendly, witty and entertaining conversation, and Jane Austen seems to agree. In Mansfield Park, when the party of young people accompanied by Mrs Norris travel to Sotherton, Maria Bertram is bitter that it is her sister Julia and not her the lucky lady to accompany Mr Crawford in the barouche-box. Maria observes to him later that they seemed to laugh a great deal, and Mr Crawford attributes it to the fact that he “was relating to her some ridiculous stories of an old Irish groom of (his) uncle’s”.
The Irish Charm
In her personal life, Jane Austen indeed met several Irish individuals, but as all Janeites will know, one, in particular, stood out from the rest. Tom Lefroy was a nephew of Mrs Lefroy, an older friend of Jane’s. Tom and Jane appeared to have courted, or at least have engaged in some serious flirting, for the best part of a year, and she refers to him as “my Irish friend” in a letter to Cassandra.
Their love, sadly, was not to be. Tom was ambitious and had a large number of siblings to support, so the logical step for him was to marry a wealthy woman, which he went on to do. Some scholars say that Jane was brokenhearted, others that her pragmatic approach made the disappointment much easier to bear. In any case, she certainly appreciated the charm of the young Irishman.
Many years later, when penning Persuasion, perhaps she thought of Tom when writing the concert scene that takes place in the Octagon Room in Bath, with Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth as protagonists. Anne overhears her father remark to his cousin, Lady Dalrymple, that the Captain is “a very well-looking man”. Lady Dalrymple who also happens to be a member of the Irish nobility, could not agree more:
“A very fine young man indeed!” said Lady Dalrymple. “More air than one often sees in Bath. Irish, I dare say.”
Persuasion, Chaapter 20
Whether the sentence was intended as a secret message for Jane’s former love, we will never know.
If you would like to immerse yourself in Bath and meet Anne Elliot, Lady Dalrymple and many other well-loved Austen characters in the company of Georgiana Darcy, check out Miss Darcy’s Beaux, a Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice Continuation.