Tag Archives: royalty

The Inevitable Blog About the Royal Wedding

If you live in a developed country and last week you were not on a wilderness backpacking adventure, a religious retreat, or a coma ward, you probably know that Prince William got married on Friday.

As soon as the engagement was announced American readers asked me to write about it. But with two people I don’t know getting married, what could I possibly have to say? Somebody suggested I could report on the media hype here, but there was hardly any then, and wasn’t much more until the final couple of days before the event.  At the announcement of the engagement, newspapers said cynically that the wedding was timed to cheer up a nation in the midst of funding cuts and rising unemployment, and pretty much left the subject there, though they did publish more than usual about Kate Middleton’s wardrobe, spurring sales of any dress she wore.

Readers asked what my friends and neighbors thought about the upcoming wedding, and pretty much everyone I know seemed to think the same thing: isn’t it great that we get a day off? Parliament voted to make the wedding day a public holiday, what the British call a bank holiday and Americans usually call a Monday holiday. (Both terms come from long-ago legislation designating official public holidays.)

One tiny bridesmaid who found the crowds a bit overpowering. Is it my imagination or...

Whether the newspapers were right about the politicians merely wanting to give us bread and circuses I couldn’t say, but the Prime Minister certainly did encourage us to celebrate in Britain’s traditional way: street parties. It’s not as long-established a tradition as many here, where every other village seems to have an antler dance or a fair that dates back eight hundred years or so. Still, ever since the armistice that ended the first world war Britons have marked important occasions, especially royal events such as weddings or jubilees (anniversaries of the monarch’s accession to the throne), with street parties.

The last round of these celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, that is, the 50th anniversary of her reign. You close the street to traffic, set up tables so it looks as though one long table runs for yards and yards along the centre stripe of the road, and then you and the neighbors load up the tables with food. Sounds good. So for Prince William’s wedding day, the government wanted to see us out there partying in the streets, too, except that by giving people the day off they actually reduced the number of street parties: people weren’t here to celebrate because they were off on vacation (UK: holiday).

Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays already, as is May Day (our Labour Day). But Easter seldom occurs as late as it did this year (April 24), so the three holidays came in a cluster. Throw in the extra Friday off for the Royal Wedding and people with Monday-to-Friday jobs realized they could go off to France or Spain for eleven days and only use up three days of annual leave (US: three vacation days), so millions of them left.

But I don’t have that excuse; I was right here, and I did want to see the wedding. A reader asked whether I would go up to London to see the wedding procession. (Insert here the obligatory not-really-funny joke about my invitation to the wedding having been lost in the post; lots of people tell that one and don’t we split our sides laughing?) I suppose I could have gone and waved the flag with everybody else, but even with so many people leaving the country altogether, there would be a million or so lining the streets, the half million without stupid hats trying to see over the stupid hats of the other half million, and I hate crowds. I’d just as soon watch it on television.

...or does that photo remind you of Raphaels' famous cherubs?

In the last few days before the wedding, all but the most die-hard Republicans—which here means those who want to abolish the monarchy—did get caught up in events. The couple managed to keep a lot of the arrangements secret, which generated as much interest as the details that couldn’t be hidden such as the live trees, some of them 20 feet tall, that workers manhandled into the Abbey. For those who said the royal wedding was a waste of public money there were Royal Wedding commemorative sick bags, while some royalty fans went to extremes; you may have seen photos on the internet of Bristol plumber Baz Franks, who spent 6 hours at the dentist and paid £1000 to get Prince William and Kate Middleton tattoos on his front teeth.

As coverage ramped up, the press devoted significant airtime to who was and wasn’t invited. Ex-prime ministers Blair and Brown of the Labour Party were not invited, but Tory ex-prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major were. The day before the wedding the invitation to the ambassador from Syria was withdrawn for diplomatic reasons.

Costs were considered: the families of the bride and groom may have paid for the wedding, but the public had to pay for the security. Part of the decision to hold the wedding at Westminster Abbey was to keep down costs, as St Paul’s is farther away and security cost tens of thousands of pounds per mile. Security was easier on the route to the Abbey anyway, because almost every building the royals passed is government owned. For days before the wedding, police officers checked the route, looking into storm drains and opening up the boxes housing Walk/Don’t Walk buttons to make sure no one had planted bombs there. But the money saved by shortening the procession route was spent again when Parliament made the day a public holiday; police, guards, snipers, and presumably even sniffer dogs get double time for holiday work.

Things had changed since Charles and Diana’s wedding: Prince Harry was called a best man rather than a supporter (supporter is the usual term at royal weddings), and the bride wore a dress that made her look like a grownup; I might go so far as to say the bride wore the magnificent dress this time, while in Diana’s case, the dress was so overwhelming it seemed to wear the bride. William and Kate were formal without being stiff; they looked like they were trying not to break out laughing at the altar. You could see they actually like each other. And thank goodness that in 2011 we could forego the embarrassment of medical inspection to prove virginity. Thirty years ago, a doctor had to peer up Princess Diana’s dress to verify that all was intact, as if she were an expensive animal to be checked out by a vet before the purchase was binding.

So I enjoyed the wedding coverage and all the associated stories—the verger who was caught on camera turning cartwheels up the nave of the Abbey after the service, the little bridesmaid unhappy with the noise, and the reactions around the country. In London, the mayor gave the couple a tandem bicycle, Morris Men danced in Kate’s hometown, and in Abingdon in Oxfordshire the town council threw currant buns off a roof to crowds below, as it has done to celebrate royal weddings all the way back to 1761. (That’s when George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which you may already have known, but which I had to look up.)

After the wedding I stopped in at our village street party, but didn’t stay, as it turned out to be a sad little affair, mainly for children, held in the car park (US: parking lot) of the Royal British Legion building. So I can’t offer you photos of a real live British traditional street party, but you can several such photos here.

Nationwide over 5500 requests were made for permits to close the streets, including one for a party hosted by the Prime Minister. Presumably you didn’t have to have a permit for a party on the first Armistice Day, but today there’s a fair bit of paperwork. A former mayor of Guildford, unhappy with the bureaucracy, told me that along with their applications for street closure, Guildfordians had to include risk assessments (outlining everything that could go wrong and what they would do if the worst did happen) as well as proof of insurance. Perhaps there would have been more parties in Guildford if residents hadn’t been required to apply for street closure a month in advance and do heavy-duty paperwork. Up in London, the Prime Minister presumably had someone to do the paperwork for him, but at least Guildford residents were spared the usual application fee of £104 (about $170); the Borough Council waived such sums to encourage the national celebration.

By now the tons of rubbish have been swept away from local streets as well as from London thoroughfares—where the main problem along the procession route was horse dung, from what I’ve read—the eleven-day holiday period is over and it’s back to business as usual. The concerns about security, protocol, ceremony, and wardrobe can be packed away until next time, though I do wonder—do you think William will wear that snazzy red Irish Guards uniform when he and Kate go out on their tandem?


Filed under Culture, Current events

A Visit to Miss Austen’s House

Living in the south of England puts me in easy visiting distance of the homes of a whole collection of classic authors, though I’m not sure what you call a group like that. If geese come in gaggles and lions come in prides, what about writers?  A booklet?  A folio?  A rejection of writers?

Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage from the street, which would have been a busy thoroughfare in her day

I’ve been to several of them—places such as Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire (as in George Bernard) or Bateman’s in Kent, where Kipling lived.  Undershaw, built for Arthur Conan Doyle, stands empty at the moment while protestors try to stop its redevelopment into flats; we had a memorable dinner there a couple of years ago during its restaurant phase.  I have even, on a few occasions, volunteered at Virginia Woolf’s house in West Sussex, spending the afternoon sitting in either her bedroom or her sitting room, making sure that nobody walked off with any books or damaged any upholstery, answering questions when I could.

But Jane Austen’s house is closer to me than any of them, so I don’t know why, in over a decade of living half an hour’s drive from the place, I’d never been to see it. If I were saving it for a rainy day, then–this being England–I’d had ample opportunity. Recently, on a beautiful sunny May afternoon, I managed to go have a look.

Looking across the courtyard at the rear to the bake house and other outbuildings (UK: outhouses — no, really, that is the term they use here)

The tale of how Jane Austen came to live in Chawton in Hampshire sounds straight out of her novels: The death of the male head-of-household leaves the heroine, her sister, and their mother in a perilous financial state.  A distant cousin saves the day when, having no children of his own, he adopts the heroine’s brother as his heir.  In due course this brother inherits a small handful of large country estates and can offer his mother and unmarried sisters a cottage, rent-free, for the rest of their lives.  This frees them from worry about how they will live although the heroine, a fine judge of class distinctions, is always conscious of the social divide between their little cottage and her brother’s manor house as she walks through the fields and woods the short distance between the two.

The house from the side garden

Edward Knight (Jane Austen’s brother; he changed his surname to that of his benefactor), lived in Chawton House, currently a library promoting study of the work of women writers; the cottage he gave to his unattached female relatives is now a museum showcasing Jane Austen, her family, and her times.

Cottage, by the way, is a word the Americans and the British use differently.  Setting aside those Americans, mostly in New England I think, who use cottage to mean a huge posh vacation home, most Americans on hearing that someone lived in a cottage would expect the place to be small, cosy, rural, picturesque, and probably thatched. Not so in England.  There’s no hard and fast rule, but almost any house below the size of a stately home can be called a cottage.

A bit of the garden, though most of it is lawns surounded with hedges and trees. The Austens also grew their own plants for dyeing cloth.

The Austens’ cottage is a three-story brick house with six bedrooms plus staff quarters, as well as a separate kitchen, bake house, and coach house, and—by today’s standards, anyway—a huge garden.  Even with all of that space, Jane never had her own study or any kind of privacy while writing.  She always shared a bedroom with Cassandra, her only sister, and wrote at a tiny table by the dining room window.

The dining room, with Jane Austen’s small writing table near the window.

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own used Jane Austen as an example of how society cramps a female writer’s style.  Austen wouldn’t allow anyone to fix the creaking door of the dining room, because the creak gave her enough notice that someone was coming that she had time to pull a sheet of blotting paper over her work, to keep it secret.  The family knew she wrote books—her father was involved in early attempts to publish her work, and her mother and sister took over all the running of the household to give her all the time she wanted for writing—but their wider sphere of acquaintance did not; it wasn’t ladylike to write for money.  Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, came out with nothing but “By a Lady” to indicate the author, and after that, the title pages said only “By the Author of” and listed her previous successes.

Jane Austen’s writing table

I’d always thought of Jane Austen at her inadequate little table, a martyr to interruptions, hiding her pages, as I imagine Woolf meant readers to think of her: an example of female genius unreasonably constrained by society’s rules.  But it’s easy to do the math and find that with six bedrooms (not counting the servants’ quarters on the top floor), four people to accommodate (the sisters, their mother, and Martha Lloyd, a family friend), two of whom (Jane and Cassandra) shared a bedroom, even if they saved two rooms for guests, an extra room remained free.  Surely she could have had a private study if she’d wanted one.

In any case, she managed to write out by hand on little sheets of writing-paper (I’ve recently learned that it is thought common here to call it notepaper, though I have no idea why), more lasting works of literature than any one person has a right to, and do it without losing her reputation as a gentlewoman, so she must not have felt too constricted.

Costume drama, anyone?

Most of the house is open to view, with mannequins showing off period dresses, wall displays showing her letters and giving details of her life and her family, cases and shelves of memorabilia and documents.  My favorite of these comes from correspondence between Austen and the Prince Regent’s librarian, who wanted her to write a romance involving royalty.  She replied:

I am fully sensible that an historical romance founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Just the kind of thing you’d expect from the woman who dreamed up Elizabeth Bennett.

The dining room displays some of the wedding china that belonged to Edward Knight and his wife; I don’t know about you, but while I have known at least one family who could boast a Wedgwood dinner service, none of them went directly to Wedgwood to arrange a custom design including their crest.  Food came into the dining room from the separate kitchen, but tea was kept under lock and key—servants, it was thought, were inclined to pilfer it—so the family brewed it themselves on the stove at the end of the room, where a copper kettle of the sort they used now stands.

Another view of the house, from yet another part of the garden

But none of this paraphernalia made the kind of impression on me I expected, not even seeing Jane Austen’s bedroom, furnished with a replica—historically accurate in every particular—of the bed in which she slept, not even seeing almost unbelievably fine lace she made by hand and a quilt that she helped to sew.

The well in the courtyard

Had I not read enough of the Austen canon?  Was this just not a period of English history that came high on my list?  Was it the damping effect of the  signs for tourist set up almost as soon as you cross into Hampshire, telling tourists they’re “Welcome to Jane Austen Country”?  Was it that the museum-like fixtures made the place seem less of a house where real people lived?

I don’t mean to run it down.  It’s definitely worth a visit and I’m sure I’ll go back, but I didn’t get the little internal shivery feeling I usually get when I feel I’ve found some connection in the modern world with the life of someone from the past whom I really admire.

Sheep in a field skirted by the path to Chawton House.

It did hit me, eventually.  We went back through the car park and followed the path a little ways toward Chawton House, and that is when it hit.  We crossed a stream where a man watching his grandson pulling up water plants and getting thoroughly soaked remarked on what a fine day it was, then went through a stile into the sort of timeless picturesque landscape American Anglophiles dream of, that tamed rural paradise of fields and copses that seems to go on forever.  Four or five heavy horses with feathered feet cropped grass alongside a flock of storybook-quality woolly sheep.  The path led into a little wood complete with hollow trees and moss and ferns and even bluebells.

Another rural scene on the path to Chawton House

Not only was it quintessentially English and completely idyllic on a perfect day, but—and yes, I know I’m a philistine and my reactions stem not from Austen’s novels alone but from all those movie scenes with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth walking in the woods between the Bennett ménage and Mr Bingley’s great house—this was the path that Jane Austen walked. I could look down at my trousers and running shoes (UK: trainers) and almost see the long skirt of an Empire dress and the toes of delicate slippers, at least for a fraction of a second, because the idea that anyone would have walked through fields and woods in satiny slippers is completely ridiculous.  Still, I was walking the path Jane Austen walked, and the shivers came along on cue.

Bluebells in the wood–along with some stinging nettles.

I see it mooted on some other blogs that “Brontë is the new Austen”—though they don’t mention which Brontë and apparently mean all of them put together.  Jane’s out and the Haworth three are in?  Not for me.  I’m no Janeite—if anything, I’m a Woolfian—but I prefer Austen’s novels to those of any Brontë I’ve read so far; Austen beats all three with one hand tied behind her back.  In a lady-like literary sense, you understand.  Besides, it’s a lot farther up to Brontë country; by the time I get organized to make the pilgrimage up there, the pendulum will surely have swung back.


Filed under Arts, Culture, History, Many Books Little Time