The King's Theatre and Mr. Darcy's Valentine
In so many regency stories set in London, the characters go to see a play or an opera. But concerts were just as popular. Aside from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the southern part of the site of what is now Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket has been in continuous use for entertainment longer than any other place in London. When I set Mr. Darcy’s Valentine in the winter of 1812, it was called the King’s Theatre. It had burnt down in 1789 and was only rebuilt in 1791 after a lot of arbitration over disputes between the owners. But it was already was looking a little worse for where by the time our not-yet-happy-couple run into one another there in early 1812.
The King’s Theatre had an orchestra in the center in front of the boxes, and the pit contained twenty-one benches and could hold about 800 people. There were five tiers of boxes around the stage, and each box could hold six people, all of whom would have a good view. Those held nearly 900 people, and were usually rented for the season by the most wealthy. Others sat in the gallery where seventeen benches held another 800 people. It also had a card room, coffee room, tea room, and other gathering spaces where someone might have a chance to catch the eye of an old acquaintance amid those nearly 2,500 people.
It was primarily known as an opera house and was devoted to music and dancing rather than putting on plays. In John Feltham’s Picture of London, he mentions that on or around every February 1 a “concert of ancient Music commences in the Great Room in the King's Theatre Haymarket.” In this context, ancient music doesn’t mean the music of preclassical societies, but rather ancient as opposed to modern music. The music played at this concert was from composers like Handel and other Baroque composers from the early eighteenth century.
This ancient music concert is the performance in Mr. Darcy’s Valentine where Bingley first learns that Jane is in town. In the scene below, Elizabeth has just had a pleasant conversation with an eligible young man before she sees a familiar face and, given what she’s realized about how the Bingleys left Hertfordshire, she’s none too happy about seeing Mr Darcy.
When her aunt gave her an expressive look, Elizabeth felt herself blush again. She turned from the others to look around the crowded vestibule and settle her mind. Mr Elgin’s notice was flattering, but it was too soon to know if it meant anything real. Still, she smiled and touched her warm cheeks, looking at everything and nothing, until she locked eyes with Mr Darcy.
They were within twenty yards of each other, but there was a crowd of concert goers between them. He was standing at the edge of a group that included Mr Bingley. Mr Darcy’s companions were facing away, engrossed in some conversation, and he appeared to be idly looking across the vestibule just as she had been.
He will coldly withdraw his eye and pretend he never saw me. As he continued to look, she supposed that cutting her would be heartlessly rude even for a man who said she was not handsome enough to dance with. She bowed her head in greeting, expecting that at any moment Mr Darcy would touch his forehead or bow, and then turn away.
The seconds stretched out, and she wondered what he was thinking. His intent gaze held hers for a little longer, and then passed over her companions. She watched Mr Darcy bow, but to her utter amazement, he touched Mr Bingley’s arm and spoke into his ear. His friend then started and she could see his lips form the word “what”.
Mr Bingley then spun round, and looked all over, until Mr Darcy subtly pointed to where she was standing. Mr Darcy’s expression was as reserved as it ever was, but Mr Bingley’s face broke into a wide smile when he noticed who was standing next to her.
Elizabeth instinctively turned away, her heart pounding fast. Mr Darcy told his friend that Jane is here. The incredulity in Mr Bingley’s expression as he cried “what” told her that he had never known that Jane was in town. He would certainly make his way over to them.
“Jane,” she said, gripping her sisters arm. She had only a moment before he appeared. “I think Mr Bingley cared for you, and his sisters and friend knew it, and persuaded him to forget you. And Miss Bingley never told him that you were in town.”
Jane’s curious expression fell. “Lizzy, no! If they believed him attached to me, they would not try to part us; if Bingley was so, they could not succeed.”
“But Jane, he—”
“By supposing he had an affection for me, you make everybody acting unnaturally and wrong, and me unhappy.”
“He has just seen you!” Jane paled and brought a hand to her throat. “He looked shocked, and is coming this—”
They turned to see not only a pleased Mr Bingley, but also his solemn friend. Within a few moments, Jane had received his compliments and introduced him to her aunt and uncle, and Mr Darcy had deigned to allow Jane to present him to two people who live in Cheapside. Elizabeth was not without the expectation of Mr Darcy’s decamping as fast as he could from such disgraceful companions, but while he did not leave neither did he engage them in conversation.
Bingley was smiling with delight, Jane had a heightened colour, and both were saved from their excited manner and polite nothings by the pleasant conversation of her aunt and uncle.
Mr Darcy was silent but eyeing the Gardiners curiously. That he was surprised by the connexion was evident. He likely thought it impossible that anyone who lived in Gracechurch Street could speak with intelligence, taste, and good manners. What an exceedingly proud man. While their friends turned pink and smiled and said nothing of note, she could either be silent, or she could provoke Mr Darcy into speaking.
It would be the greater punishment to him to oblige him to talk.
Regardless of what Darcy and Elizabeth say to one another at the King's Theatre, it’s the start of many meetings between them from February 1 until the fateful Valentine’s Day.
What do you think of stories set entirely in London? What do you like to see the characters do while in town?