Jane Austen’s link with coastal towns explored at Brighton exhibition

Engraved portrait from A Memoir of Jane Austen by J. E. Austen-Leigh, 1869
Engraved portrait from A Memoir of Jane Austen by J. E. Austen-Leigh, 1869

A new display at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton will explore Jane Austen’s relationship with coastal towns, and life in Brighton during her time, to mark the bicentenary of her death.

Jane Austen by the Sea will look at the seaside context of Austen’s plots and paint a picture of Brighton in the early 1800s, when it was a fashionable ‘watering place’ featured in novels like Pride and Prejudice.

George IVs copy of Emma - Royal Collection Trust c Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.jpg

George IVs copy of Emma - Royal Collection Trust c Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.jpg

Although there is no clear evidence that Austen visited Brighton she included it in several of her works, alongside other resorts on England’s south coast. The display will reassess her relationship with the town in the light of a long-term misunderstanding, arising from a hand-written letter of 8 January 1799.

Curator Dr Alexandra Loske said: “For many years, Austen has been quoted as having written: ‘I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Brighton as much as you can do..’, but her sentence actually referred to Bookham, a village in Surrey, rather than Brighton. The misquote appeared in the early ‘Brabourne’ edition of Austen’s letters from 1884 after the editor deciphered the placename wrongly, and his mistake was repeatedly copied and cited; however we now know that Austen may not have felt as negatively about the town as has been thought.”

George IV, who created Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and spent long periods living in the town when he was Prince Regent, was certainly a high-profile fan of Austen’s - and although she didn’t seem to approve of his lifestyle she was encouraged to dedicate Emma to him in 1815. In turn he kept a full set of her novels in each of his palaces, and Jane Austen by the Sea will present the King’s personal, specially-bound copy of Emma at the Royal Pavilion for the first time. And that won’t be the only tome on show.

Curator Dr Alexandra Loske said: “When Jane Austen died 200 years ago she left an unfinished novel, Sanditon, set in a seaside town in Sussex. We’re thrilled to be able to exhibit a three-volume manuscript copy, in the hand of Jane’s sister Cassandra, here on the Sussex coast, as part of our exploration of Austen’s interest in its emerging bathing resorts.”

Old Steine Brighton from the North 1796 Jacob Spornberg c. Jim Pike

Old Steine Brighton from the North 1796 Jacob Spornberg c. Jim Pike

As well as investigating Jane Austen’s own experiences by the sea, the display will also bring Regency Brighton to life direct from the writer’s pen, via a series of quotes from Austen’s fiction and letters.

Exhibition coordinator Fiona Redford said: “Brighton offered huge potential for Austen’s wry, tongue-in-cheek humour. She used the town as a backdrop for some of the more reckless, frivolous and silly characters in her novels, which could be viewed as a thinly-masked statement. We’ll explore parallels between the way she wrote about Brighton and work by contemporary caricaturists, who also highlighted the foibles and follies of the day.”

Visitors will also be able to enjoy the Royal Pavilion’s new Regency Dressing up Box, where they can try on and take selfies in reproductions of Georgian costume. Options include Empire-style dresses, bonnets, breeches, waistcoats and Mr Darcy-style shirts, with some of the costumes inspired by pieces in the city’s dress collection.

Jane Austen by the Sea takes place at the Royal Pavilion, from June 17 to January 8.