The last Regency Remnant

Today’s post was inspired by a visit to the now-closed St. James Gardens in London, illustrated in the remarkable blog , A London Inheritance.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of bodies are buried in the Gardens–the remnants of those who lived during the flower of the Regency. They are buried under the footpaths and grassy flats which will soon become the busy hub for the Hs2 high-speed train.

The Gardens was originally established in 1788 as a secondary burial ground for St. James Church in Piccadilly. A so-called chapel of ease was built in the churchyard to allow parishioners to attend services there, particularly as the journey to the mother church in Westminster might prove difficult or inconvenient. In 1793, amid expanding urbanization of the St. Pancras area of London, the chapel of St. James became an independent parish church.

The Christie auctioneer family memorial is in the gardens. The National Temperance Hospital in the background is also set to be demolished (if it hasn’t already) to make way for the station.

Strangely enough, one of those interred was Lord George Gordon (1751 – 1793). He had famously converted to Judaism, and one would think a Christian burial was not what he had in mind. Then again, his wishes must have been easy to disregard in the wake of the destruction wrought by his eloquence. One of the houses destroyed in the riots which bore his name belonged to the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, 1st Earl Mansfield (1705 – 1793), featured in this blog. Rioting was a serious issue during the Regency, for who could have foreseen a crowd being convinced Catholic relief legislation would lead to a renewal of the Inquisition?

Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) is also buried in the Gardens–a captain in His Majesty’s Navy who tradition says christened Australia, is immortalized on countless statues, shilling notes and geographical points, and lives on in the 1940s best seller, Love Must Wait.  During his voyage to the continent that made him famous, Captain Flinders was captured by the French and imprisoned for many years.  Perhaps it was some consolation the Admiralty had refused to permit his new wife to accompany him, else she would have suffered the same fate. In the end,  the joy of reuniting with his childhood sweetheart was tragically cut short, for he died upon returning to England from the illness he contracted during his confinement.

Anne and Captain Wentworth’s happy ending  was denied to Ann and Captain Flinders

The last resting place of an Irish nobleman is also in the Gardens–Laurence Harmon Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, (1749 – 1807). As Sir Lawrence Parsons and parliamentarian, he published the book Thoughts on Liberty and Equality. That was in 1793, when pretty much everyone’s thoughts ran along those lines, for the Reign of Terror had just begun across the Channel. The Parsons family was notable for their interest in astronomy and photography, bequeathing their passion to the young son of sixth Earl’s countess–photographer and later Lord Snowden, husband of Princess Margaret.

Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret on a visit with  LBJ and Lady Bird. What a world we live in! (or used to)

By virtue of Burial Act of 1852, which dealt with (literally) overflowing London burial grounds, the St. James cemetery was closed to future interments and made into a garden. In a slow but sure progression of decay, by 1964 only remnants of the Regency existed at the site. Most of the memorials had been removed and the church was demolished. From a BHO description of the chapel, it is interesting to note that the Ten Commandments prominently displayed behind the pulpit had been covered up.

Thou hast outliv’d thy popularity and art become

(unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing forgotten,

as the foliage of thy youth.

–from The Yardley Oak by William Cowper




Wordsworth: Edward Ferrars

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) is the Romantic poet who once said he wrote to “shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.”

Austen must have known of his poetry when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. She does not mention the poet in her work, least of all in connection with the slightly awkward Edward Ferrars.

Nevertheless, I believe the screenwriter Andrew Davies was onto something when he included a passage from Wordsworth’s beloved Tintern Abbey in the 1995 film adaptation of Austen’s novel:edward ferrars

I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air…

What connection can one possibly fathom between pedestrian Ferrars and the highflown language of Wordsworth? Besides, it was Willoughby who recited that passage.

Well, I’ll tell you…

A strong theme in Sense and Sensibility is the promotion of honesty, particularly in Christian marriage. Austen was the daughter of a cleric and strongly invested with the ideals of the good old C of E:

He, too, was awkward like Edward Ferrars, with a shy demeanor and a good humour adored by Charles Lamb.

He, too, was awkward like Edward Ferrars, with a shy demeanor and a good humour Charles Lamb adored.

In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world.” — The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo from a book review by Friar Paul Byrd, to be read in its full content here

Willoughby may have read Wordsworth’s words, but he was a dishonest character and we cannot suppose he felt “sense sublime” at all honestly. Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, was the honest character that Elinor Dashwood needed in a life-long companion. He revealed his mistake in engaging himself to Lucy Steele, yet remained faithful to it, without sentimentality attendant on thwarted love.

Once released, he turned his full devotion to the one he would best love, who was best suited to helping him be fully devoted to the ideal of Sense, versus Sensibility.

Recall how Edward read Cowper, and rather poorly in Marianne’s eyes. He did not fully engage in the feelings of overwrought nature:

“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees…I have more pleasure in a farm-house than a watch-tower.”

He preferred the honesty of “nature put into practice” — a pleasure taken in nature, yet glorifying the utility it is put to. Any other “romanticizing” of nature is simply that–a useless ornament.

Like love that idles dormant.