Attending the theatre in Jane Austen’s life-time

In my Regency period novels I often set scenes in theatre boxes, and for some that may seem a strange place when there would be little conversation between characters, yet, for the 19th Century that wasn’t true. As I learned from descriptions in the diary of a courtesan, Harriette Wilson.

Writings that talk about the every day life in that era are rarer, and I usually search this information out in letters between family members, but it was Harriette’s diary that helped me visualise what going to the theatre meant at the time. For the middle and upper class, it was a place to meet people, to see people and be seen, in the same way we might use a night club now. The rich paid to retain a box for months. Though, if they were not using the box they may let others hire their seat for an evening. The owner of the box often saw entertainments numerous times, and so they had no desire to listen, or men may pop in to listen to one particular element of a performance that they loved most and leave again. Those with no interest in the performance often talked through a whole performance. Something Harriette laughed about when someone became annoyed with her, because talking was why people used the boxes. She told the couple they should have sat in the seats below. For Harriette, the theatre was also part of her shop window. It was one of the best places where she and her fellow courtesans could meet new men, they clubbed together to rent a box and dressed up to be admired and deliberately laughed and conversed loudly to sell themselves as good company. They needed to be admired because the more men who were interested in them the higher price they could charge the men they agreed to enter into a relationship with.

So then, with all of these comings and goings, and the continual conversation, and I’m sure the actors shouting to be heard, the theatre would have been a very different place than it is today, and it’s one of those regency ways of life that fascinates me. I was, therefore, thrilled when I saw these prints hiding high up on the stairway of a 17th Century pub in the Lake District which depicted exactly what I have imagined from Harriette’s descriptions.

The Interior of the Royal ~ as it appeared on the night – New Theatre Hay Market – of it’s opening night 4th July 1821, published London 1 January 1823

This first print, which is contemporary to the time, shows exactly what I have read described, look at how many people in the boxes are seated with their backs to the stage, and are clearly talking, it displays how much of a social event theatre going was for those with money. While in the pit, we see those who may have their one and only opportunity to see the entertainment facing forward and concentrating on the stage.

The image of the second theatre, The Royal Theatre Cobourg Surrey dated as the opening night in 1818 published 1 January 1819, is not anywhere near as busy a picture, and yet again it portrays that the people attending are talking, some with their backs turned on the stage. Both images portraying the theatre was a social hub.

A wonderful insight, so, if you love insights into history as I do, keep your eyes peeled for those interesting wall-filling prints in old hotels and pubs. I always have a walk around and a good look.

For more information on the history of theatres take a look at the UK’s National Archives here

Sign up to receive my new newsletter here

The history of Christmas part 5: Christmas Eve is the perfect day to explore the evolution of Father Christmas or Santa Claus

Coca Cola would like us to think they invented the modern-day depiction of St Nicholas as Father Christmas. They did not. Coca Cola first commissioned Haddon Sundblom to depict Santa Claus in their advertising in 1931. As you can see in the image above, taken from a Christmas Card dated 1909, Haddon Sundblom was not the first to draw the image of a plump, jolly Santa Claus in a red suit. We can trace a gradual evolution of the figure we recognise today in historical records and fiction.

Bishop ‘Saint’ Nicholas was born in Greece in 280AD. His saint’s day, the day that the church chose to remember his life on, was December 6. He lived through the persecution of Christians. He was imprisoned for large parts of his life and defiantly held his faith. He was declared a saint by the Church for performing miracles, such as, bringing three boys back to life after an inn keeper had murdered them and hidden them in barrels in a basement. He also gave the father of young girls a gift of gold to pay their dowries so they could marry and avoid prostitution. These were the reasons he became known as the patron saint of Children. At the time it was common for people to pray to a saint for particular needs. Just as people had used to pray to one of several pagan Gods, they would call on St Nicholas in their prayers to protect good children and manage badly behaved children. He was a popular saint to call on for other reasons too, sailors and some countries chose St Nicholas as their patron to watch over them and keep them safe. Across the Roman Empire, including Britain, as Christianity spread and the recognition of other gods ceased, people no longer had the excuse of the celebration of the Roman god Saturn to exchange gifts in December. The recognition of St Nicholas’s day at the beginning of December, therefore obliged, and gift-giving became connected with this saint’s day.

St Nicholas continued to be associated with the gift-giving of the Christmas season into medieval times. Independently of this there was also a spirit of Christmas. Medieval actors professionals and amateurs, known as mummers , used to travel around villages and houses enacting traditional plays, generally portraying stories from folklore. Sir Christmas or Mr Christmas appeared in these plays.

The term Father Christmas first appeared in literature to our knowledge in 1616, mentioned by a playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Ben Jonson.

Following the English Civil War, Cromwell banned all plays and any recognition of saints or pagan spirits, though. Recognising St Nicholas and his gift-giving was considered sinful and a wicked distraction from Christ. In the years that these practices were outlawed, people’s behaviour over Christmas changed in Britain. After the restoration of the monarchy, the crowning of King Charles II, the general population were used to more subdued celebrations. There was, though, still a need to encourage the good behaviour of children, and still a desire to have someone to watch over children. Christ became the gift-bringer, merging the tradition of gift-giving with the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25. But this was only in Britain, elsewhere in Europe the traditions of another gift-bringer continued, particularly in northern Europe, where he thrived as the bearded ‘SinterKlass’ who travelled about houses delivering gifts.

It was the Europeans who populated America who brought together all of these traditions, arriving from different countries, the favourite traditions gradually merged. The spirit, the father, of Christmas, St Nicholas the patron saint of Children, SinterKlass the gift-giver. In 1809 Washington Irving’s book, A knickerbockers History of New York, records St Nicholas riding in a flying wagon, sliding down chimneys to bring presents to the good children and switches to the bad children.

In 1821 an illustrated anonymous poem, entitled The Children’s Friend, dressed St Nicholas in the furs of the Germanic gift-giver and introduced a reindeer to pull his flying wagon.

In 1822, Clement C. Moore wrote A visit from St Nicholas for his own children, the poem that became known as The Night Before Christmas. This poem, depicting a plump Santa Claus, riding a sleigh with not one but eight reindeer, was published anonymously a year later.

When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, with scenes describing English Christmas celebrations, the recognition of a spirit of Christmas was something familiar still in the Victorian world, more so than St Nicholas. Father Christmas was like Father Time or the Green Man. You can see this in the illustration of The Ghost of Christmas Present. Father Christmas was a representation of the spirit of good will and hopefulness that turned the dark nights, not someone who was a part of the celebrations. In those days, although it took a while for traditions to globalise, popular behaviours and interests did spread. In the wake of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert making the indulgent Germanic Christmas traditions fashionable too, the jolly figure of Santa Claus became the depiction of Father Christmas across the British Empire.

Father Christmas’s red suit began to appear later in the 1800s notably in Thomas Nast’s cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. The elves in Santa’s workshop were also introduced through the press, in a drawing published on the front cover of Godey’s Lady’s book in 1873.

So by 1931, when Santa Claus first appeared in the Coca Cola adverts they were in fact capturing a figure that children already knew.

An Edwardian Father Christmas costume

Sign up to receive my new newsletter here