Jane Austen’s London #1 | Mayfair

As I mentioned last month in my bookish birthday blog post, one of the presents I received this year was Walking Jane Austen’s London by Louise Allen. The book contains eight walks around various parts of London which Jane Austen herself visited, or locations which are mentioned in one of her novels.

A couple of weeks ago, I went on walk #3 around Mayfair, and decided to blog about some of the interesting facts I learnt and locations I saw along the way.

The walk began at the exit of Green Park tube station, with the first landmark of interest being The Ritz hotel.

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I could well imagine such an iconic, fashionable establishment being around during the Regency era – so I was surprised to discover that the Ritz was not, in fact, a hotel during Jane Austen’s time. When she visited London, it was in the Bath Hotel across the street that she stayed, because the Ritz was at that time a boarding point for stagecoaches. Jane wrote that she was not impressed with her stay at the Bath Hotel – perhaps she would have found the Ritz preferable if it had been open during her time!

Just around the corner was another landmark, this one very relevant to Jane Austen’s career.

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Number 50, Albemarle Street was previously the address of publisher John Murray. Jane Austen’s first three novels had been published by Thomas Egerton – but after negotiating via letters with Jane’s brother Henry, John Murray agreed to publish Emma in 1815, followed by Northanger Abbey and Persuasion after Jane’s death.

After meandering through a number of streets which have largely retained their Georgian architecture, I came to Berkeley Square, where Elinor and Marianne Dashwood stayed with Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility. In this square there was once a fashionable tea house, which also had space to sit in the gardens opposite. The building in which Gunter’s tea shop was housed is interestingly still a coffee shop today – but one of a rather different nature!

Here is the site of the old Gunter’s tea shop in modern day, side-by-side with an image of the square as it would have looked during Jane Austen’s time.

Berkeley Square

Credit: Ackermann’s Repository

During the final part of the walk I came to Grosvenor Square, which I previously wrote about during a writing research post, as it was home to a family of characters in my Regency novel A Lady’s Fate. Having researched the area for my novel, I was excited to learn that it also featured in one of Jane Austen’s novels – it was home to none other than Mrs Hurst, one of Mr Bingley’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice!

This walk was so much fun to do – with every street I felt Jane Austen’s London come to life around me, especially as some of the buildings are still standing today. If you enjoyed this post, do let me know, and I will continue to blog about each of the other seven walks as I complete them!

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Review: The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown

I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy. During the final year of my physics degree, I selected almost exclusively astronomy based modules, and for my research project I studied supernovae, the beautifully bright explosions which occur when certain types of stars end their lives.

My passion for stars, planets and galaxies means that I also love reading about astronomy – so The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown, which combines astronomy with historical fiction, seemed a perfect fit for me.

I think I probably began this book with heightened expectations, which is often a mistake as you risk being left disappointed – and unfortunately, this was the case here. Brown’s novel tells the story of Caroline Herschel, sister of celebrated astronomer William Herschel – who discovered the planet Uranus, amongst several other notable achievements – following her life from childhood to her death.

As the entirety of Caroline Herschel’s adult life is covered during the novel, it had a biographical feel. The lengthy acknowledgements section at the end highlights the extensive research Carrie Brown carried out when writing about William and Caroline Herschel’s lives – which is why I found it very confusing and frustrating that she chose to deliberately alter several details for the purpose of the novel, including inventing entire characters who didn’t really add anything to the plot.

Brown chose to write about the stargazer’s sister rather than William himself – but unfortunately, for me Brown’s portrayal didn’t do Caroline Herschel justice. She was an astronomer in her own right, but throughout the novel it was mainly William’s achievements which were covered, only briefly mentioning those of Caroline. As a character I didn’t feel she had any depth; she came across as rather weak and bland.

Another aspect I found quite odd was Brown’s choice of third person present tense narrative. For me, present tense usually lends itself better to first person narrative, and to immersive novels where the reader can feel each moment with the protagonist – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins being a prime example. With the more biographical style of this novel, however, I didn’t really feel this choice of tense worked.

Despite not particularly enjoying this novel for its plot, what I did enjoy was discovering more about the remarkable developments in astronomy and engineering William Herschel contributed to. His ingenuity is to be greatly admired, and there’s no doubt that he was a remarkable person – but that’s not the story I wanted to read when I picked up this book.

Although I was personally disappointed by this novel, those more fond of biographies and not bothered by the invented characters and altered details may well find The Stargazer’s Sister a very enjoyable read. For me, though, I think I’ll just have to remember in future that a book which combines two of my passions is not necessarily one I will like twice as much!