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Archive for March, 2014

Mary Brunton

Inquiring readers, frequent contributor, Tony Grant from London Calling, has written an interesting article for this blog about Mary Brunton.

In 1814 Jane Austen wrote a letter to her beloved niece Anna Lefroy.

Anna Lefroy

Anna Lefroy

To Anna Lefroy

Thursday 24th November 1814
“……Mrs Creed’s opinion is gone down on my list; but fortunately I may excuse myself from entering Mr……as my paper only relates to Mansfield Park. I will redeem my credit with him, by writing a close imitation of, “Self Control” as soon as I can;- I will improve upon it; my heroine shall not merely be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself, she shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, and never stop until she reaches Gravesent.-“

From this extract it appears that Jane was sensitive to criticism about her novels. Mr, (the name on the original letter is missing) is critical, and it seems, not in a positive way, about Jane’s work. She senses that he is the sort that would enjoy more melodramatic novels such as the one she refers to, “Self Control.” There does seem to be an element of cynicism towards, “Self Control,” in Jane’s comment. At the time it was published, 1811, the same year Sense and Sensibility was published, it was popular. It went to a number of editions. It had very strong moral overtones. Fay Weldon, the English author and feminist has stated that she likes it. There are definitively feminist overtones.The main character, Laura Montreville, partakes in rugged and manly exploits. In some ways it was a rival of Sense and Sensibility and Mary Brunton herself, was a rival of Jane Austen. They were competing for the same market. In 1813 Jane had mentioned Mary Brunton’s novel before and in slightly more flattering terms. It also appears that she read it more than once.

Mary Brunton

Mary Brunton

“I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does. – Jane Austen (1813)

Here is the part of, “Self Control,” near the end of the story, that Jane mentions in both quotes. It’s obviously the part of Mary Brunton’s story that struck her the most.

“…………she beheld close by her an Indian canoe. With suddenness that mocks the speed of light, hope flashed on the darkened soul; and, stretching her arms in wild ecstasy, ‘Help, help,’ cried Laura, and sprung towards the boat. ………………………………………………………………………………..

Each object hastened on with fearful rapidity, and the murmuring sound was now a deafening roar.

Fear supplying super-human strength, Laura strove to turn the course of her vessel. She strained every nerve; she used the force of desperation. Half-hoping that the struggle might save her, half-fearing to note her dreadful progress, she toiled on till the oar was torn from her powerless grasp, and hurried along with the tide.

The fear of death alone had not the power to overwhelm the soul of Laura. Somewhat might yet be done perhaps to avert her fate, at least to prepare for it. Feeble as was the chance of life, it was not to be rejected. Fixing her cloak more firmly about her, Laura bound it to the slender frame of the canoe. Then commending herself to heaven with the fervour of a last prayer, she, in dread stillness, awaited her doom………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

With terrible speed the vessel hurried on. It was whirled round by the torrent—tossed fearfully—and hurried on again. It shot over a smoothness more dreadful than the eddying whirl. It rose upon its prow. Laura clung to it in the convulsion of terror. A moment she trembled on the giddy verge. The next, all was darkness!

Can you imagine Jane Austen writing like this? I can’t. Jane’s writing appeals to us through the generations and touches the human condition. This extract, I can understand how Mr…. would enjoy this sort of writing, is a pot boiler, an airport, W H Smiths offering to keep the executive employed on a long haul flight. It’s the sort of plot that combines outward bound pursuits with feminine whiles. Something revolutionary in scope for the time.

Jane was kind about it and saw its appeal, “my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.” but she notices too, it doesn’t address the real human condition.

So what of Mary Brunton ?

Mary Brunton and Jane Austen were the same age and both died nearly at the same age.

Mary Brunton , born Mary Balfour, was born on the 1st November 1778 in Burray in the Orkney islands. Mary was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick and Francis Ligonier. Like many girls of the period, her education was limited but her mother thought it proper for her to learn music, Italian and French. In about 1798 she met and fell in love with the Reverend Alexander Brunton, a minister of the Church of Scotland.  She eloped with Brunton on the 4th December 1798. He took her from the Isle of Gairsay in a rowing boat. Her penchant for dramatic situations obviously helped her later in her writing career. The excitement of this rowing adventure spilled over into her novel writing. Her excitement for action was something Jane Austen did not adhere to. Jane explored the subtle interactions between human beings. Mary often explored the dramatic interactions with her environment.

Greyfriars Church

Greyfriars Church. Image @Tony Grant

Alexander Brunton was the minister at Bolton until 1797. He then moved with Mary to Edinburgh where he became the minister at two Edinburgh parishes, Greyfriars in 1803 and at the Tron Kirk in 1809. Both these churches are entwined strongly with Scottish and Edinburgh history.

In 1637, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles I and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, met with a reverse in their efforts to impose a new liturgy on the Scots. The Covenanters whose ideas later lead to Presbyterianism, formed their own covenant. In 1638 the New Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Church. After the English Civil war and Charles had been beheaded Cromwell persecuted the Covenanters and some were imprisoned in Greyfriars churchyard.

Tron Kirk. Image @Tony  Grant

Tron Kirk. Image @Tony Grant

The Tron, situated prominently in The Royal Mile, near St Giles Cathedral, came about during this struggle of the Scottish Church against Charles and Archbishop Laud . They turned the High Kirk into St Giles Cathedral and in retaliation the Scottish Bishops built a new church near to St Giles called, The Tron Kirk which was begun in 1636. The Scottish nobility, The Lord High Chief Justice of Scotland and many more moved their worship to The Tron Kirk. Many famous Edinburgh people have been married there. Alexander Brunton was no ordinary minister, being the minister of these two key important churches, he was also the Professor of Oriental languages at the University of Edinburgh, a short distance from The Tron in South Bridge Road.

Guided by her husband, Mary Brunton began an interest in philosophy. She wrote to her sister while living in Edinburgh that she was in favour of women learning the ancient languages of Greek and Latin and that they should learn mathematics too. These studies were male preserves and it was revolutionary and unheard of that women should study them. Mary eventually became pregnant at the age of 40. She gave birth to a still born son and she died soon after on the 7th December 1818. Her novels did not keep their popularity and soon were no longer revered.

Edinburgh University. Image @Tony Grant

Edinburgh University. Image @Tony Grant

Edinburgh, Old Town, up to the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century was an unhealthy place to live. It was prone to diseases and infections. The town had been built along the ridge, that stretches like a tail down from the great rock, an ancient volcanic plug, on which Edinburgh Castle is built. This is a typical medieval town design. In a medieval town, the town spreads out like a tail from the castle along a main street that leads directly from the castle gate. This area would invariably be walled for protection and this was so with Edinburgh. From this long main street where shops, workshops and manufacturing would have been located, small alleyways lead off at right angles. These alleyways, known as courts, closes and wynds, were not much more than dark narrow paths about two or three metres wide. They were the location for the houses, called tenements, in which people lived. The tenements were built with granite and basalt rocks quarried from the surrounding terrain. The poor people lived on the ground floors, the wealthy lived above them. Some of these houses in Edinburgh were built up layer after layer over years and some might reach fourteen storeys. To get from one floor to the next, rickety wooden staircases were constructed against the walls of these buildings. These courts, closes and wynds had no sanitation. They sloped sharply down from the high street, nowadays known as The Royal Mile, to the left and the right of the volcanic ridge. Rubbish, human excrement, urine and all sorts of effluent flowed down these streets to lakes and marshland at the bottom of the slopes. To the north the marsh was called N’Or Loch.These marshes filled up with effluents. Edinburgh did not get the nick name,”Old Reekie,” for no reason.

Eventually in the late 1770’s a new town was begun across the valley on the other side of the N’Or Loch. A design competition was held in January 1766 to find a suitably modern layout for the new suburb. It was won by 26 year old James Craig. He drew up a grid pattern with parks and squares and circuses, similar to the circus at Bath. These were spacious new houses. All the wealthy people began to abandon Edinburgh Old Town and move to this new area. The lake was drained and Princes Gardens, still sometimes called N’Or Loch, was created with Princes Street running along one side with new town behind it.

Eventually the Old Town was virtually abandoned until it was allowed to expand beyond the old ancient city walls. The fact that all development of the old town had been restricted to the area within the old walls and that there was a growing population, the problems had only been exacerbated. Once the old town was allowed to expand it too developed into a habitable place once more.
In a way, it is no wonder Mary Brunton died, living in the unhealthy conditions of the Old Town.

Self Control by Mary Brunton, Project Gutenberg

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The Royal Kitchens at Kew were opened in May 2012 to visitors for the first time in over 200 years. They were virtually untouched since the mid-1700s, during the era of King George III. This introductory video, The Royal Kitchens at Kew: a food history, provides a brief overview of the kitchen in 1788-1789, showing all the features of a typical Georgian kitchen:

The following video helps you step back in time to 6 February 1789 when George III was given his knife and fork back after his first bout of ‘madness’. Using similar cooking utensils as the Georgians, working in a Georgian kitchen, and making the soupe from an 18th century recipe, the chef hopes to recreate food that has the look and taste of cuisine 200 years ago. During this period, soup was often served by the male head of the household. We can easily imagine Rev. Austen or Mr. Bennet performing this office.

Mutton was a staple back in the Georgian era. This video demonstrates how one can make Mutton smoured in a frying panne. I am struck by how easy the ingredients are to come by today. I would love a charcoal stove like the one depicted, but would be afraid to burn my house down!

This video demonstrates the making of a rich chocolate custard tart. During this age, chocolate was used as a drink. Chocolate bars would not be “invented” until the 19th century. I love the chef’s messy style – it reminds me of my own cooking.

The kitchen is closed for the winter and is set to reopen March 29, 2014. To print the Georgian recipes in PDF format, click here.

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These days I am scouring Netflix, Amazon Prime, Acorn, and Xfinity to find a serial costume drama to keep my free nights as satisfyingly occupied as my viewing time with Downton Abbey. I know I have been harsh with my reviews this season. Consider this: One Top Chef’s judge’s explanation of his harsh reviews of the dishes he sampled by the excellent chefs competing on that show was that all the chefs served outstanding dishes. It was his job to find the one dish that stood out from the rest. In that light, I viewed Downton Abbey Season 4 as a sterling show and each episode as a separate dish. The season started out tepid and somewhat disappointing, but finished strong, pleasing my palate and leaving me hungry to see Season 5. Let’s face it, there aren’t many outstanding shows like DA out there, not if you like your characters to be polite, beautifully clothed, and moving in breathtaking interiors and scenery.

downton-abbey-season-4

Cast for the Christmas Special

I admit to enjoying House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and Vikings – but these violent shows are far from polite, and I prefer my daggers drawn verbally, a la Violet. While I liked watching Mr Selfridge (soon to be aired), Call the Midwife, Sherlock, and other PBS Masterpiece specials, they do not compete with my DA addiction.

Last week, I found myself watching DA Episode 1, Season 1 with my sister-in-law, who rarely watches television, but who had FINALLY been persuaded to give the show a try. By the second night, she had watched the entire first season.

Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to ruminate over Season 4, what did you think of the final two episodes? Thumbs UP, Thumbs down, Meh, or Can’t Decide? Curious minds want to know.

Other posts about Season 4

Dowton Abbey Season 4: Episodes 3-6

Downton Abbey Season 4: Episodes 1-2

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