“The place is not free to you”: The georgian assembly room and the ends of sociability

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In 1902 the Hill sisters, Constance and Ellen, made a tour of sites in the south of England connected with the life and fiction of Jane Austen. One of the most evocative of their encounters occurred at the Angel Inn in Basingstoke where the Hills had gone to inquire about the location of an assembly room that Austen had frequented in the late 1790s. The landlord was unable to help them but his wife drew their attention to a large room over the stables at the back of the inn. Then used as a hayloft, this space was the room that the Hills had been searching for. Constance Hill uses the present tense to convey the dramatic immediacy of the discovery: “there are the handsome chimney-pieces, the sash windows and the double-flap doors that mark a reception-room of importance; and when we push aside the litter beneath our feet, the fine even planking of a dance floor appears.” The present of 1902 then uncannily gives way to the past as evidence of decay - “the discoloured and mouldering plaster” and the “broken panes … all vanish, and we seem to see the room as it appeared in its palmy days when prepared for a county ball.” Kathryn Sutherland has highlighted the importance of the Hills’ book in the development in the twentieth century of “heritage Austen,” that is, Austen’s status as a temporally mobile signifier of both a sentimentalized English past and the recuperability of that past as contemporary fashion. The Basingstoke episode in the Hills’ evocation of Austen’s “haunts” can also be seen as an example of the enduring importance of the assembly room as a portal into the Georgian past, giving access to a lost world of sociability which persists in manifesting both its spectral and its more concretely material traces. Austen herself inaugurated this trend in her representation in Emma of the assembly room at the Crown Inn which attracts the attention of Frank Churchill on his return to Highbury: “its character as a ball-room caught him; and instead of passing on, he stopt for several minutes at the two superior sashed windows which were open, to look in and contemplate its capabilities, and lament that its original purpose should have ceased.”.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSociable Places
Subtitle of host publicationLocating Culture in Romantic-Period Britain
EditorsKevin Gilmartin
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781107587779
ISBN (Print)9781107064782
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017

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