Ah, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens! Who among us hasn’t wished we could go back in time and visit this epicenter of entertainment in its heyday?
Continuing my series on real-life places that appear in my books, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is a prominent location in my upcoming novel A Favorable Impression. Previously, I featured the Royal Menagerie, Russell Square and the British Museum, all of which were visited by characters in Not In Want of a Wife.
Vauxhall Gardens was a popular spot for members of the beau monde ever since it first opened to the public in 1661 under the name “New Spring Gardens”. Originally, visitors could only access the gardens via water. After the construction of Westminster Bridge, completed in 1750, a second entrance was opened for visitors arriving by land.
Numerous concerts, ballets, festivals, and other public events were held in the gardens. On any given evening, a visitor might enjoy supper beneath one of the pavilions, live music and dancing, and a stroll through the many wooded pathways throughout the garden. The garden featured two primary venues for music. Outdoors, crowds would gather around a multi-storied structure known as “the orchestra”, which housed the musicians. Indoor concerts were held beneath a 70-foot Rotunda, which was attached to a large ballroom known as the Turkish Pavilion.
The garden was laid out in a grid with numerous walks running through it. Around the perimeter was the Dark Walk, known to be a place where couples often engaged in illicit sexual acts. It was frequented by prostitutes, as well as pickpockets and other miscreants. A gentle-bred lady knew to keep to the well-lit paths near the front and center of the garden to avoid any taint on her reputation.
When setting the scene for Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth, and company’s visit to Vauxhall, I relied heavily on the detailed maps and descriptions given by Rachel Knowles at RegencyHistory.net to understand the entire layout and buildings in the gardens.
My Vauxhall chapters take place on July 20, 1813. On this day, a large fête was held to honor the soldiers under General Wellington who had won against the French at the Battle of Vitoria a month earlier. The festivities included a banquet beneath the Rotunda for 1,000 gentlemen who were guests of the Duke of York, a concert of patriotic music, fireworks, and dancing. An estimated 12,000 guests attended the fête that evening.
A satirical cartoon by George Cruikshank, above, published in August, 1813, depicts the revelry. The captions are quite difficult to read, but I was able to find information from the page on the British Museum website which explains the scene in depth if you’re interested.
I won’t highlight every one of them here, but among the funniest ones are the Lord Mayor (center, with the long coat) saying to his companions, Sir William Curtis and Lord Castlereagh, “Now the Girls are come we’ll have some fun we’ll have a Hop in the Dark Walks D—n me.” Further to the right is the Duke of Clarence chasing a woman. “”What! won’t you have a Kiss from a Royal Duke?!!” She screams: “Oh! you Nasty beast if you kiss me I’m sure I shall faint.” Next to them, holding a bottle, Lord Yarmouth grabs a woman by the arm and says, “Welcome sweet Ladies, we wanted some variations in our pleasures—we long to do homage at the shrine of your beauties.” The woman shrieks, “Get away you Drunken red whiskerd Intriguing Rascal.”
Clearly, there was a lot of debauchery happening that evening!
The Vitoria Fête was such an auspicious event, that the October, 1813 edition of La Belle Assemblée featured a collection of gowns that were worn that evening.
I can just imagine the Bennet sisters or Caroline Bingley wearing some of these, can’t you?
In the course of my research about this event, I came across an article by Ann Lethbridge which recounts this amusing anecdote.
“One young lady who attended spoke of the hours that she waited trying to approach the gardens by carriage. And having failed to do so because of the traffic, her party then took a ferry. She was most indignant that the waterman who handed her into the boat put a dirty fingerprints on her white gown. She also describes having her gown cut by a pickpocket and her hair falling in disarray about her face. They did go into the ballroom, but because of the crowds were unable to dance more than a quarter of a half a dance and went home thoroughly disgruntled.”
I enjoy working real-life stories into my books at times, and Caroline Bingley seemed to be the perfect avatar for this young lady.
Here is a brief scene from my upcoming novel, “A Favorable Impression”, to whet your appetite.
The crush of carriages trying to reach Vauxhall Gardens was unbelievable. Westminster Bridge Road was backed up for miles. After waiting in the carriage for more than an hour without moving, their party grew restless, especially Miss Bingley.
“Is there not some other way we can reach the gardens? At this rate, it will be dawn before we reach it!” she complained.
“Can you not see that nobody is moving?” Louisa argued back. “There is no going forwards or back.”
A loud snore emanated from Mr. Hurst, who took advantage of the lull to settle in for a long nap.
“By all logic, the congestion must clear, eventually, as carriages further down the line are able to move,” Mary postulated.
“Yes, but by then, we shall have missed most of the festivities,” Miss Bingley complained again.
Elizabeth had a thought. “Perhaps there is another way to reach the gardens. We are near enough to the bridge that we might disembark. Perhaps a ferry or other boat could carry us across.”
“We may as well try,” Miss Bingley agreed, fanning herself. “Anything is better than remaining in this hot carriage.”
Bingley’s carriage was, fortunately, just behind Hursts’. When he saw them getting out of the carriage, he called them. They quickly walked over and told him what they were about, and all in Bingley’s carriage disembarked also.
They told their drivers what their plan was, for them to remain in the queue, and that if they did not return to the carriage, to assume that they were successful. They subsequently directed them where to meet them at the end of the evening.
It took them less than five minutes to reach the River Thames on foot. They were in luck. Many enterprising ferrymen took passengers down and across the river to the old water entrance for Vauxhall.
“I am grateful we have arrived at last,” Miss Bingley said, “but what a state I am in! That waterman that handed me into the ferry put his dirty fingers on my white gown, and now there is a stain.”
“I am certain nobody will notice in this crowd, Caroline,” Bingley said. “Now, stay together, or we shall never find one another again.”
The gardens had never been more packed than on that evening. Elizabeth heard someone remark that the total number of tickets sold exceeded twelve-thousand. Except for a thousand invited gentlemen who supped with the Duke of York under the Rotunda, most attendees ate on the lawns and underneath marquees. They met Mr. and Miss Darcy, Lady Catherine, and the two Mr. Worths by the Chinese Pavilion. Somehow, Darcy had secured a table and chairs in advance, and his servants had prepared a picnic supper in the corner of the pavilion.
“It was so good of you to arrange the picnic, Mr. Darcy,” Miss Bingley crooned, sitting beside him. “We would never have found you if you did not insist on choosing a meeting place.”
Elizabeth noticed that Mr. Worth sat beside Miss Darcy, and Mr. Nathaniel chose to sit beside Kitty. She was seated at the far end of the table from Mr. Darcy.
Nevertheless, she could not help observing his interactions with Caroline Bingley. Miss Bingley fawned over Darcy, frequently putting her hand on his shoulder or leaning close to whisper something in his ear, making him laugh. She even insisted on feeding him a grape, a gesture that Elizabeth expected would have repulsed him. However, he took the grape in his mouth straight from Miss Bingley’s fingers, eliciting a giggle and a warning not to bite her.
Elizabeth turned her attention to her plate and forced herself to cut the whole bird into tiny bites before eating it.
She would not admit to anyone that Miss Bingley’s comments about Mr. Darcy in the carriage and seeing them tease each other made her jealous.
Toward the end of their picnic, they were alerted by a voice passing by. “There you all are! I wondered whether I might ever find you. Such a crowd this evening!” The voice belonged to Viscount Fitzwilliam, who passed that way with his friends, Lord Halsbury, Sir Anthony Dunning, Lord and Lady Bottrell, and their daughter.
“I say, Darcy, how did you manage to set up a table for yourself? None of us had such luck, even though Lady Bottrell is acquainted with the Duchess of York. We ate our picnic on the lawn, but it was bloody hot out there, even though there was a bit of shade from the trees. Do let us join you for a bit.”
Elizabeth noticed Miss Darcy visibly stiffened and kept her eyes on her plate. Lord Halsbury, meanwhile, was red in the face. Elizabeth wondered what occurred to cause such discomfort between them.
Darcy cleared his throat. He glanced at Lord Halsbury with disdain before turning to his cousin. “As you can see, Jamie, I am afraid we have no room for any additional guests at our table. I hope you enjoy your evening.
“Come, Darcy! We can find some additional chairs to use.”
“That would likely prove difficult.” Darcy gestured around the room. It was quite clear there were no extra chairs to be found, and even if there were, Darcy made it plain that he did not want their company.
“Well! More’s the shame,” the viscount said.
Turning to Elizabeth, he said, “Miss Bennet, I do hope you are feeling better. I tried to call at Number 44 the other day but was told you were not accepting any callers. Since that was the second day in a row, I can only assume you were unwell.”
“Yes, I had a terrible headache, and the day before, we were already engaged.” Her lips formed the barest of smiles.
“Dear me! You are not prone to headaches, are you, Miss Bennet?”
“Not often. I thank you for your concern.”
“Perhaps if you are well today, you might join me for a stroll along the walks? I see you have nearly finished your meal. I will bring you back to your party before the concert.”
Elizabeth glanced at Miss Bingley and Darcy, their flirting still fresh in her mind. She looked back at Viscount Fitzwilliam. “Yes, I would be happy to walk with you, provided my mother approves.”
“Oh, I have no objections whatsoever!” Mrs. Bennet pressed her hands together. “Feel free to take her off of my hands!”
Viscount Fitzwilliam gave a slight bow and a grin to Mrs. Bennet. “I can assure you, your daughter will be in excellent hands with me.”
Mr. Darcy stood quickly, his chair making a screeching sound. “Why don’t we all walk together? I am sure that Miss Bingley wishes to see the gardens here also.”
Surprised, Miss Bingley gained her feet, ready to follow Darcy to the moon. Several others rose also.
“You young people, go ahead,” Mrs. Bennet volunteered, remaining in her seat. “I will stay here and keep Lady Catherine company. Lord and Lady Bottrell, you would be welcome to join us. There will be plenty of empty seats with the young people gone.”
“A Favorable Impression” will be available on April 18, 2023 on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Pre-order your copy here.
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