It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a good costume must be in want of adventure…
Halfway through Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, heroine Elizabeth Bennet takes a vacation with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner to the Derbyshire Peaks, home to a certain Mr Darcy. Before visiting the fictional Pemberley, Miss Bennet enjoys “the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peak”. It’s an odd episode, and one so very specific about the places the party visits it’s clear the author knew exactly what she was talking about.
All these places are still visitable – and, indeed, are visited, by thousands each year. But I was curious. All of these places – often outdoor, and requiring of vigorous exercise to experience – would have been done by Elizabeth – and, of course Austen herself – wearing flimsy, Empire-line Regency costume. How would wearing such inefficient clobber have affected the way these two ladies, real and imagined, enjoyed their visit?
Which led me to wonder further: Could dressing like a Regency traveller give unfamiliar insight to familiar great houses and towering peaks?
It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any ofthe remarkable places through which their route thither lay; Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenelworth, Birmingham, &c. are sufficiently known.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
We ‘sufficiently know’ most of these even now – great houses, dreaming spires and even what was then a novelty: industry. Birmingham’s steam-fuelled blast furnaces, mechanised cotton mills and chemical factories would have been tourist attractions. Health and Safety could whistle.
I can’t help suspecting Blenheim, the first stop on my journey, might have inspired Austen to create Mr Darcy’s terrifying relative Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s country pile Rosings, and much of that feeling comes directly from my visit…
This kind of place was way above the social station of the
Bennet family. Mr and Mrs Gardiner, as ‘gentlefolk, would have applied to the housekeeper to be shown around the state rooms much as we might walk around a National Trust property, but they would not have been welcomed as invited guests. Then, as today, this was the home of the aristocracy, and Elizabeth in her respectable but decidedly home-made clothes would have known her place.
Perhaps it was the prim day dress, bonnet and gloves ensemble that lent a self-consciousness Lizzie must have felt walking up those great golden-stone steps. I felt genuinely small in comparison to the sheer splendour of the massive columns, ornate carvings, towering ceilings and very finest of fine art.
It was spectacular. It was also slightly intimidating, a sensation I have never experienced walking round a stately home in modern mufti, and it gave me a little shiver. As did the massive banqueting table and fabulous painted ceiling.
A much smaller space gave the biggest shiver of all; this time a delightful one. The exquisitely-painted Indian Room’s glass-panelled doors look out across the grounds, enjoying an intimacy that conjures lazy afternoon tea for visiting ladies of leisure. The murals arrived in 1820, so Lizzie would have just missed them; the room was called The Stone Gallery in her day.
No claim is laid that Austen enjoyed a cuppa here, perhaps she never did, but as I sipped champagne, chose one of the 14 blends of tea and nibbled the delicate finger sandwiches and cakes of the Winston Tea (named for Blenheim’s most famous resident, Sir Winston Churchill) I couldn’t help dreaming that maybe, just maybe, she sat here too.
The cable car operator called the day ‘murksome’. Matlock’s Heights of Abraham, named for the scene of Wolfe’s Battle of Quebec, were so shrouded in wet, white fog there was no view whatsoever. Inclemency notwithstanding, by the early 19th Century Matlock’s views were a major draw.
The Great Rutland Cavern was opened to the public in 1810. Doughty travelers were lowered in buckets into what was still a working lead mine, frocks, bonnets n’all for a penny.
It was another penny if you wanted to go up again, this vital information not advertised on the way down. I was relieved to find the service is no longer provided; a walk-in entrance has been made instead. The Great Masson Cavern, opened in 1844, does, however, boast a round, ‘candle’ chandelier hanging from its roof, demonstrating the kind of light 19th Century tourists would have experienced.
As every visitor to Derbyshire knows, the weather changes by the hour. The following day the sun was shining, the grass glowing, the rivers sparkling and the blue skies above Dovedale warm and inviting. There’s no argument as to why Elizabeth and her family would have fallen in love with the soft, rolling hills, their mellow grey, dry-stone walls and woolly white lambs. It’s enchanting.
Many scholars have argued Bakewell, four miles from Chatsworth House, was the inspiration for the village of Lambton, where Lizzie stays before her visit to Pemberley. The town remains compact, gorgeous and, apart from the constant traffic, not unlike Jane Austen would have known it, with tiny courtyards, meandering alleys and what seems like dozens of bakeries, each claiming to be the one and only home of the original Bakewell pudding.
I was entranced to find a ribbon shop in a pink, half-timbered courtyard that would have kept Kitty and Lydia in enough lace to drive Mr Bennet to distraction. Lunch was at Byways, a cute 17th Century tearooms serving such enormous portions it provided evening picnic too, the solicitous staff donating a most un-Regency plastic box to transport it in.
Like Lizzie herself, I was rather nervous of visiting the great house at Chatsworth. Despite being named in the novel, it’s often regarded as the model for Pemberley, and the view that greets one’s carriage (or in my case, car) as it turns the corner still catches the breath.
I chose my grandest dress for the occasion, a gold-striped, paper-satin affair, though the wind got the better of my hair. I’m guessing Lizzie would have had a lady’s maid. I met one, actually, a costumed guide in a bedroom, though I would have needed a time machine to make use of her services, since she was from the 1890s. Once again I felt self-conscious, detained by curious members of the public, but the staff were unsurprised. “We get a lot of people dressing up,” one steward told me. “We had a couple from Australia recently, on their honeymoon, in full costume.”
Like Elizabeth, I toured the parts of the house open to general inspection, pausing, as she did, at a window to enjoy its prospect.
“And of this place,” thought she, “I might have been mistress.”
Sadly I had no such illusions.
At last, the Peaks themselves. Bleak on the sunniest day, their stark beauty is captivating and awesome in equal measures. Elizabeth Bennet would have worn kid-leather ankle boots. Mine were somewhat sturdier. We come from namby-pamby times, and I was just about to clamber about over rocks in a frock. And a Bonnet. Which refused to stay on in the gale-force wind. Happily the Air Ambulance charity shop in Bakewell keeps a supply of hatpins in a drawer. “We don’t get much call for them,” said the lady behind the counter as I bought three. I guess not.
Spencer buttoned, bonnet pinned, shawl clasped, parasol clutched, I tramped over thin soil, through sparse bracken, past uninterested sheep stolidly chewing on whatever sheep chew that high up. Smooth, round rocks I might have skipped over in jeans became awkward obstacles, shallow pools of rainwater major hazards. Once again I admired the hardiness of our 19th Century forebears, determined to enjoy the sights of England in spite of their clothes.
Then the top. And that view. Gosh, the Peaks are inspiring, whatever period you live in.
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