The Jane Austen Weekend
We seemed to have gone back in time as a series of bonneted ladies and men in breeches meandered their way to Crowhurst Village Hall. It was of course the Jane Austen evening as we marked the bi-centenary of her death.
The hall itself had been transformed into a gracious Regency Drawing Room with attractive curtains, silver candelabra, floral displays and silhouettes of Austen’s principle characters displayed around the room. Up on the stage Sandra Hunt has also arranged a small writing desk for the writer herself.
Jane Austen did put in an appearance, when Elizabeth Hone read from some of her letters, but mostly we heard from her characters. John and Katie Spall made a splendid Mrs and Mrs Bennett and Liz McCall, as Lizzie Bennet, turned down the marital proposal of the obsequious Mr Collins played by Richard Day. Chris Newton became the snobbish Sir Walter Elliot with narration read by Anne Auger. Jo Crouch then read the part of Mary Elliot. Fr Michael went military for the night and as the anguished Colonel Brandon recounted the moral indiscretions of Willoughby. Jan Stewart then concluded the readings with a passage from Emma. Presiding over all the literary readings was Mike Stewart, looking highly rustic in his smock. He introduced each section where we were both informed and entertained regarding Jane Austen’s life and writings.
We enjoyed a period menu drawn largely from recipes used by Martha Lloyd, Jane Austen’s friend and housekeeper, at her Chawton home. We began with a cold platter and moved on to Mr Darcy’s Beef Steak Stew or Henry Tilney’s chicken one pot. The Regency period didn’t much go in for potatoes, so we had it with a generous portion of herb pudding. We were rather spoilt for puddings with syllabub, apple pie, plum pudding and all sorts of variants on bread and butter pudding. Valerie Mighall and Frances Hamson produced the first two courses and Ray Grayson and Pam Thomas co-ordinated the puddings.
Towards the end of the evening the Crowhurst Regency Dancers performed a gracious reel up on stage. Rather like the Generation Game volunteers were then invited to have a go with hilarious results. The evening concluded with the famous clip of Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, diving into the lake at Pemberley.
On the Sunday a special commemorative service was held at St George’s. Many of the congregation went into costume again. If you had looked inside the tower you would have seen three ladies in poke bonnets furiously pulling the bell ropes.
Jane Austen is rightly rated as a gifted novelist. Her wise and witty observations of love and romance, virtue and failure are as pertinent as when she first penned them. The novels abound in clever turns of phrase and memorable characterization, which have translated very well to the world of film and television. What is perhaps less immediately apparent is that her Christian faith was an important part of her life and lies behind many of the theme explored in her novels. She was born into a Vicarage family and had numerous clerical relations. Two of her brothers ended up as clergymen as did four of her cousins and her naval brothers also seem to have been known as devout men. Frank took his obligation to lead prayer on board seriously and was known as ‘the officer who knelt in church.’
We took the Prayer Book Service of Morning Prayer and followed it pretty faithfully. The exceptions were the use metrical versions of psalms, since it is more likely that these were used in a parish setting. We also included a couple of hymns contemporary with Jane Austen, although she is unlikely to have sung any. The singing of hymns was regarded as showing signs of religious enthusiasm, so would have been frowned upon within the Church of England two hundred years ago. Famously Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra, on the 24th January 1809 that ‘I do not like the Evangelicals.’ However she seems to have changed since only five years later in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight she wrote, ‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not to be all Evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest and safest.’
The Crowhurst Choir sang the Te Deum beautifully. We were very grateful to Jane and Linda Ireson, from Catsfield choir, who performed ‘The Good Old Way’ for the anthem.
Austen’s novels explore all sorts of moral issues, so we had readings from both Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice paralleled with biblical passages. We were also able to draw upon the three prayers, in the Prayer Book idiom, which she wrote for private family devotions. Her prayers encourage spiritual self-examination, thankfulness for blessings received and intercession for family, friends, neighbours and the wider world.
Austen enthusiasts may ask why we held a weekend in Crowhurst. Sadly there is no evidence that Jane Austen ever visited Crowhurst although she did know members of the Papillon family, who had connections with the village. She did stay in Sussex at Worthing and had relations at Shoreham. Her unpublished novel, Sanditon, was also set in a fictional seaside village not far from here. Possibly her naval brothers knew Captain George Hardinge (1781-1808) who is commemorated in the church. Hardinge was considered another Nelson after his victory against the French ship Piémontaise in 1808.
The main reason for the commemoration was simply that the works of Jane Austen continue to give a great deal of pleasure to those who read them and provoke much discussion. There was certainly plenty of that when everyone gathered post-service, in the Parish Room, for Bath buns, yeast cake, spa water or a Regency cup of tea or coffee in fine china.
Posted By: valerie