Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London

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Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.

The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.

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There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.

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The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift.  Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.

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The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner.  The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.

If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1818

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Northanger Abbey was actually written in the final years of the 18th Century but was not published until after her death in 1817. Although it has similarities in style and content to “Sense & Sensibility” and “Pride & Prejudice” there are also some major differences.
It is a comedy of manners, but it is more a satire of the gothic novels that were fashionable at the time. So, it does make gentle fun of the contemporary styles of the day, but this book is more specific in its target than her first two novels. This is not to say that she is not just as funny when pointing out the differences between what is said and what is meant in genteel society at that point in history, but this is not the main thrust of the novel.
The story is laid out in the style of a gothic horror novel, with many things foreshadowing dark happenings in the imagination of Catherine, our heroine. These intrigues usually turn out to be much more mundane, such as her discovering that the scrolls found in the desk are only an old laundry list. The books mentioned in the Northanger Abbey are real novels that were popular at the time and, Austen’s knowledge of their content and style shows that, she must have enjoyed reading them herself.
Catherine Morland is much more the ingénue than the usual lead character in a Jane Austen novel, she takes longer to notice when people are behaving badly towards her. This gives the author the opportunity to write some particularly materialistic and vain characters, she is merciless and sharp with these.
This book feels much less a Regency romantic comedy and more the story of an imaginative 17 year old girl leaving home for the first time. Catherine comes of age by realising that the world she has read about in her books is not quite the same as the world she occupies in real life. This gives it a universal truth that is just as true today as it was when it was first written.
In conclusion, although Northanger Abbey, would probably not be my first recommendation as an introduction to the novels of Jane Austen, it is nevertheless, a fine book and worthy of its place as a classic of English literature.
 
 
 

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is probably the most famous opening line to a novel in the whole of the English language.
Pride and Prejudice is one of the most loved books as well, it recently came second in a BBC poll of Britain’s best loved books and first in a major Australian poll of theirs. It was the second of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed and it is even wittier than Sense and Sensibility, her first.
Jane Austen gives a great idea of what it was like to be middle class in England in the late 18th century. She manages to portray the hopes and aspirations of the time, while gently poking fun at them. She has a fantastic talent for writing characters and, even though every one of them is slightly caricatured, we care about them despite their faults. She has a wonderful art of showing how people fool themselves into believing what they wish to believe, and this has a timeless quality, just as true today as it was over 300 years ago.
First and foremost, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel and there are 4 wonderfully different romances going on here, from the quite inappropriate, through the mildly shocking, to the wildly romantic and we have insight, as it also a comedy of formal manners, into how polite society looks upon them all.
The language is relatively concise, less of the longwinded descriptive prose that was fashionable at the time and more of the pithy epigram. It is easy to read, the story pulls you along, each chapter leaves you wanting to know what will happen next. The ending is wonderful and I’m sure this novel is at least partly responsible for the popularity of costume drama even today.
There are many good reasons why this is still one the most popular books written in English and, if you wish to become acquainted with classic English Literature, there is no better place to start.
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