With Christmas less than two weeks away, many of us are making the trek to London's famous shopping streets for our festive purchases. Today, Regency romance author Louise Allen leads us on an altogether different kind of shopping excursion in the capital city. Join us as we explore Jane Austen's London.
Jane Austen knew London very well from visits that began in 1788 and continued until her banker brother Henry left London in 1816. Jane came to visit friends, shop and stay with brother Henry, both for pleasure and to support him through illness and the loss of his wife. Here is a walk through some Jane Austen hotspots that you can do in an hour on your next trip to London – allow as long as you like to explore all the side streets and shops along the way!
Start at Admiralty Arch with a view down the Mall to Buckingham Palace (The Queen’s House in Jane’s day) and Trafalgar Square, which was completed several years after her death. Turn left into Spring Gardens. In 1813, Jane visited the Society of Painters in Watercolours exhibition here looking – without success – for an image, which represented her imaginings of Elizabeth Bennett, who she was sure would be dressed in yellow. She did find one of Jane Bennett though – like all authors Jane seems to have enjoyed ‘finding’ her characters in pictures. These days we are more likely to find them in adverts and in movies!
Turn left into Cockspur Street and left again into Pall Mall to Waterloo Place and a view from the foot of the Duke of York’s Column over St James’s Park to the towers of Westminster. Walk back up to Pall Mall on the left hand side and you’ll pass a mounting block put in to accommodate the aging Duke of Wellington. Turn left into Pall Mall. In Jane’s day you would now be passing the Prince Regent’s Carlton House, a luxurious monument to his extravagance.
Jane did not much like the Regent because of his treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline, but he was an admirer of her novels and so his librarian invited her to visit in 1815. It was made clear that the dedication of her next novel to the Prince Regent would be acceptable, but Jane was reluctant. Eventually her publisher and family persuaded her that it was not so much a suggestion, more a royal command, and Emma was duly dedicated.
Continue along Pall Mall in Jane’s footsteps as she went with her brother Henry to view the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings in 1813. You will come to the dark brick of Schomberg House, home of fashionable drapers, Harding, Howell and Co. Jane was a keen shopper for fabric and they had an extensive selection. At the foot of St James’s Street we come to St James’s Palace, virtually unchanged since Jane’s day and a familiar sight for her.
Turn right up St James’s Street, keeping to the right hand side. This area has always been the heart of masculine London with clubs, gaming houses, bawdy houses and shops catering for men’s needs. These all still exist, some more discreet than others!
You come almost immediately to the early 19th century shop front of Berry Bros and Rudd. The perfectly preserved interior has sloping wooden floors and their famous scales. Here the cream of society, including Byron, the Prince Regent, William Pitt, Nelson and Lady Hamilton, were weighed and records kept in books that are still retained. It is doubtful that Jane would have entered a wine shop, but this shop front would have been a familiar landmark and you can image Jane trotting past the windows. She had friends living close by and Henry Austen had a branch of his bank in Cleveland Court, just off St James’s Place opposite.
A few shops up is Lock and Co., the hatters, who have been here since 1765. The shop front dates to c1810 and there are all sorts of early hats gathering dust on top of the display shelves. In a showcase at the foot of the stairs there is one of the Duke of Wellington’s hats and a replica of the hat with a green eyeshade designed to Lord Nelson’s specifications. This was very much a men’s hatters, so Jane, who often bought caps in London, would not have been able to indulge her passion for millinery there, but it would have been familiar to her.
Almost next door is the site of Lord Byron’s apartments at no.8, where he was living when Lady Caroline Lamb created a scandal by arriving in boy’s clothing to visit him. Jane shared a publisher – John Murray – with Byron and admired his work. I love to imagine the scandalous lord and the Hampshire spinster meeting in St James’s or on the steps of Murray’s office.
Turn right into King Street and peep down Crown Passage on the right to see a narrow alley very evocative of the seamier side of Georgian life. A little further along Almack’s Assembly Rooms, the Marriage Mart for young ladies of breeding, opened in 1765 on the site of the modern Almack House, no.28. Jane would have heard all about Almack’s from her cousin and sister-in-law, Eliza. Eliza was thrilled to attend and wrote that she was ‘the greatest rake imaginable!’
Back in St James’s Street, you can walk up passing shops that date back to the 18th century and the famous clubs including Brooks’s, White’s, Boodles. White’s, almost at the top of the street, threw a great victory ball in 1814. Guests included King George III, the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia – and Henry Austen. ‘Henry at Whites! Oh! What a Henry.’ Jane was thrilled.
When you reach Piccadilly, cross over into Albemarle Street and on your left is the offices of John Murray, Jane’s publisher. You can stand on the steps that Byron and Jane would have trodden on and admire the handsome brass nameplate.
From here you can continue north to explore Mayfair or retrace your steps a short way down St James’s Street and turn into Jermyn Street, full of delicious old shops such as Paxton and Whitfield, cheesemongers, dating back to 1742, and the perfumiers Floris, established in 1730.
If you turn right into Duke of York Street you pass the tiny Victorian pub, the Red Lion, before reaching St James’s Square. You can take a well-earned rest in the central gardens while thinking of Jane coming here to help her brother Edward buy china from Wedgwood’s showrooms, which was on the eastern corner of the square and Duke of York Street.
This just scratches the surface of one corner of Jane Austen’s London of course – happy exploring!
Louise Allen's book, Walking Jane Austen's London, is available to buy now.