Friday, August 27, 2010

A Fanciful Encounter

Inspired by the a young volunteer with a deep love for Jane Austen, I am taking a flight of fancy this week in writing our blog.

The novels of Jane Austin are more popular today than they ever were during her lifetime. Despite being about 200 years old, they have inspired half a dozen movies that I can think of in the past ten years as well clubs, events, and that crazy series of zombie books (I'm really curious about these!).

People love to get absorbed into her world. The Jane Austen Society of North America organizes book discussions, English Country Dances, and even trips to England (pictured at left) to celebrate their love of Austen's work and taste just a little bit of her era. Still other, less formal groups gather for tea parties and dress-up occassions that enable them to the escape into a world more interesting than the hum-drum of our daily lives.

While thinking about this, my own mind wandered off into a tangent of living "a day in the world of Jane Austen," and I began to think about Clermont during the same era. What sights and smells would an English visitor find here? Part of lure of Jane Austen's books for me has always been the creation of a believable world. So here goes:

"It is such a happiness when good people get together--and they always do." This quote from Austen's book Emma is posted on the JASNA website, and I'm going to borrow it to set the tone for this fictional visit.

The fall of 1807 is a good time for visiting Clermont. Freshly returned from France where he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, the Chancellor is also flush with his most recent scientific victory: the first practical steamboat.

The trip up the Hudson (still called the North River) is a welcomed departure from the congestion of Manhattan. For $5, our visitor boards the steamboat at 5 'clock Saturday night and sleeps in one of births of common ladies' or gentlemens' cabins. On Sunday, gliding steadily against the tide at about 4 miles an hour, our English visitor is impressed with the heavily-cultivated valley. Large fields are now being harvested under the rising hulks of the Catskill Mountains.

The river is busy with boats, primarily sloops, many laden with fall harvests, and many at anchor awaiting the change in the tides or the river, but the steamboat moves on, belching smoke and occasionally a rather unnerving spray of sparks from its stack.

Once disembarked at the Red Hook dock, our visitor is retrieved by the Chancellor's carriage, and approaches New Clermont on "The Avenue" the road which runs along the river on the Livingston estate. Perhaps our visitor is as amazed with the fall colors as William Strickland was in 1794 when Clermont's trees glowed "the brightest yellow & orange...the most brilliant scarlet or purple. Europeans accustomed to the sober brown of their autumn, can form no idea of the splendor of that season, while the sun shines upon the woods."

Coming up from the south side in the failing sunlight (our visitor didn't even arrive at Red Hook until 5:00 according to the steamboat schedule), our visitor would first see an "English garden with only flowers and rare bushes...This little garden adjoins and loses itself in the wild promenade which descends to the river." (Niemcewicz, 1796). Perhaps this garden is a little torn up tonight, as Dollard, the new French or Swiss gardener whom the Chancellor brought back from his trip, is getting a head start on fall plantings. But some of the apple trees along the perimeter are heavy with late-season fruit, glittering red scattered in amongst the shifting leaves.

In the terraced courtyard in front of the mansion, the Chancellor himself greets our visitor, accompanied by his wife Mary, daughter Margaret Maria (shown at right with her best fringe of Grecian curls) and her husband Robert L. Livingston (shown above). There is just enough to time change for dinner in one of the guest bedrooms on the second floor (hung with fine French wallpapers, possibly in the popular new "French green," a color which used arsenic as one of its ingredients) before sitting down to a formal supper at nine o'clock.

The dining room is graced with stunningly large windows which face the setting sun and the Catskill Mountains. The furniture is in the simple, fine style which has been popular for a decade or so. In America it will later be called Federal; in England, Regency. In any case, the furniture is lightweight to the point of delicacy, with thin square legs, ornamented swags or chains of tiny flowers to reflect Classical Greecian and Roman taste, which Americans percieve as being appropriate for their new Republic.

The table is spread with a series of white linen clothes which are gradually removed as each new course is cleared. The "profusion, variety, and excellence of the dishes were quite remarkable; and when the cloth was drawn [dessert was served on a bare table], what exquisite pastries and confectionaries appeared!" An earlier English visitor paid the Livingstons his highest compliment with the summation there was nothing there "that might not have graced the best English table."

The Chancellor's wife Mary has taken the opportunity to use the new china just brought back from France. The Dartes Freres dishes are part of an 80 piece set, and tonight the meal is finished off with a dessert of pot de creme, a French custard served in individual little cups (matching the set of course!) to each diner (shown at left).

The meal has been served by something of a curiousity: a mix of white servants and black slaves. Americans are still wrestling with the issue of slavery, and although New York passed the Gradual Manumission act in 1799, the Chancellor still has a small number of enslaved people (probably 5) at his service. England has abandonded the practice of slavery, and it is a surprising novelty to most travelers.

Dinner conversation covers many polite topics though; mostly tonight it is about the curious nature of the Livingston's dependance on tenant farming, something which sounds decidedly Fuedal to our English visitor. Tenants, primarily of "German" origin (many descended from the earlier Palatine migration of 1711, but others of English descent) pay wheat or fowl annually to the Chancellor and provide him with several days labor. It's a system which has bennefited his family emmensely, only adding to their extreme wealth.

The wine has poured freely, and the Chancellor is on quite a rant about his sheep. He has been importing sheep from various countries, including Ireland, for years, but his most recent pride are four Merinos he got out of France. He seems to be quite bent on breeding them with his existing stock to enhance their own quality.

But our guest is sleepy. The ladies have long since retired to their own devices, and although it is only midnight, it is time for him as well. With a single candle, he climbs the stairs to his own bedroom and retires to bed, where he draws the curtains against the chilling fall air.

Clermont and the Chancellor's New Clermont (later called Arryl House) were some of the finest estates along the Hudson River, inhabited by some of the wealthiest of American citizens. In the wake of the steamboat success they were excitedly dreaming of the wealth it would bring them. Their homes represented the peak fashion and were now refreshed with new French imports. Almost any visitor would have been impressed.

However Jane Austen herself would not have received an invitation to the Livingston mansions. Lacking significant social standing or finances, she did not even gain fame from her novels, as they were published anonymously. , In 1807, Jane was facing one of the shakiest times in her life. She, her mother, and her sisters were without a permanent home, left in a state of confusion by her father's death. While other English guests marveled at the country estate, surrounded by attractive gardens and a peseant-like tentantry, Jane herself was facing entirely other realities at home.

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