Fireworks in the time of Jane Austen
Surely the idea of an evening out watching a fireworks display, possibly one set to music, is a modern notion, right?
There is to be a grand gala on Tuesday evening in Sydney Gardens, a concert, with illuminations and fireworks. To the latter Elizabeth and I look forward with pleasure, and even the concert will have more than its usual charm for me, as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.
Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra June 2, 1799
Jane and her contemporaries were no strangers to fireworks. Fireworks originated in China during the Song Dynasty as a blend of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter. This blend burns well and, when compressed in an enclosed space, it explodes. Marco Polo is credited with bringing Chinese gunpowder to Europe in the thirteenth century, but it might have been brought by returning Crusaders or Arab traders. Once in Europe, it quickly became used in rockets, guns, and cannons as well as for grand celebrations.
The first recorded use of fireworks in England was at the wedding of Henry VII in 1486. Queen Elizabeth I created a “Fire Master of England" and this fire master role evolved into one who performed their duties for public events like coronations and military victories as well as private events the same way that a pyrotechnics engineer would today. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the fireworks were orange or white.
George II commissioned Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks to accompany a firework display held in the Green Park to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. Details of the types of fireworks on display that evening are on both sides of the picture above. An enormous pavilion, known as The Temple of Peace, was built in the park for the event and caught fire during the firework display.
On October 25, 1809, at the start of the 50th year of his reign, George III became the first British monarch to celebrate a jubilee. Illuminations, fireworks and other lavish celebrations marked the occasion nationwide.
But Jane Austen didn't have to wait for a battle victory or a coronation or a jubilee to experience fireworks. Displays were common at the gardens where people enjoyed na evening outside to promenade, dance, seat, drink, and listen to music. Vauxhall Gardens was popular throughout Austen's lifetime, but in the letter referenced above, she was planning to attend a gala at Sydney Gardens in Bath.
After the redevelopment and renaming of Vauxhall Gardens in London in the 1780s, pleasure gardens opened in many cities in the United Kingdom. These often incorporated Vauxhall into their titles as with the Bath Vauxhall Gardens. Sydney Gardens—originally known as Bath Vauxhall Gardens—is a public open space at the end of Great Pulteney Street. It was laid out in the 1790s and opened in 1795.
There were generally three evening galas each summer, usually on the birthdays of George III and the Prince of Wales, and in July to coincide with the Bath races. During these galas the gardens were lit with thousands of lamps and the guests took supper accompanied by music and fireworks.
Last night we were in Sydney Gardens again, as there was a repetition of the gala which went off so ill on the 4th. We did not go till nine, and then were in very good time for the fireworks, which were really beautiful, and surpassing my expectation...
Jane Austen June 19, 1799
Fire works were well known in the Georgian era, and Jane Austen clearly had an opinion on them. They were hardly a novelty in London or Bath pleasure gardens or at any significant celebration.
Did you watch any fireworks to ring in the new year? Do you think a firework display should make its way into one of my Jane Austen variations? Who do you think would enjoy them and who do you think couldn't be bothered?