Mistaken has its fair share of twists and turns, and it never hurts to drop a good plot bombshell in a public place—you know, to maximise the impact on your poor unsuspecting characters. The theatre might seem a clichéd choice of public venue, but in the absence of Netflix or Nando’s, it was popular evening entertainment for those reality-TV-starved Regency folk.
In order to make my theatre scenes credible, it was necessary for me to do a fair amount of research, and though most of what I learned has been relegated to a file buried somewhere on my hard drive or a long-forgotten bookmark on my browser, some of what I discovered was more memorable. So before I reveal Elizabeth’s encounter, I thought I’d share some of my own unexpected discoveries about the theatres of the Regency period.
The predominant trait I stumbled upon in my research was their propensity to burn down. With alarming regularity, the playhouses of London were reduced to cinders—a sight altogether greyer and less interesting to watch than the eponymous pantomime that occasionally graced the stages on those rare occasions when they were not engulfed in flames.
The Theatre Royal in Covent Garden burned down twice, as did Her Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket. The theatre presently situated on Drury Lane is the fourth to have stood on the site, two having burned down and one having been completely demolished just for the fun of it.
All these pyrotechnic shenanigans make writing a historically accurate evening at the theatre during the Regency far trickier than it ought to be. Though I dug up all manner of information about which plays were billed at which times, starring which actors, I invariably found that on the night I needed my characters to attend, the theatre in question was either in the midst of a blazing inferno or the throes of a years-long reconstruction. Thus, other than Darcy’s one mention of “the new theatre on Drury Lane,” (which opened on 10th October, 1812 after—guess what?—a fire!), every other mention of theatres in Mistaken is hopelessly but deliberately vague.
That’s the buildings themselves covered; now onto what went on inside them. Far from the refined, elegant outing I had previously imagined, a typical Regency evening at the theatre seems to have been more akin to a pub lock-in. People arrived early, remained late into the night and consumed food and alcohol in copious quantities as they watched a whole succession performances ranging in nature from high drama to the aforementioned pantomime.
It seems that by the beginning of the C19th, the theatre had ceased to be the bastion of the very rich (not that they were so very well behaved either, but that’s another story). Though the wealthy kept to their private boxes, the lower classes had begun attending in numbers too, squeezing into the gallery up in the rafters and filling up the pits in front of the stage. This led to a mix of people in the audience whose social conventions were rather at odds.
According to the British Library, prostitutes in the pits were a given, riots in the stalls were commonplace and heckling was routine. One doesn’t like to imagine the stately Mr. Darcy partaking in such bawdy behaviour, but it seems to have been de rigueur to hurl at least one “boo” and possibly a rotten tomato at the stage. People talked amongst themselves, sang along to popular songs, and came and went as they pleased throughout the performances—though another snippet of information I happened across led me to think people did not get up and go quite as often as they should have.
According to QI.com, people without the privilege of a box were so unwilling to give up their unreserved seats that they occasionally relieved themselves where they sat. Though such a practice would at least have offered some much needed protection against the constant threat of fire, the problem was so severe that in the mid C19th, a theatre in Newcastle was forced to line the floor of its gallery with lead to save the wealthy patrons in the boxes below from the “inconvenience” of being dripped on.
All in all, my research painted a very different picture of the theatre than I had previously imagined Darcy and Elizabeth might experience—a fact I think readers will see reflected in the theatre scenes in the book. Fortunately, the characters in Mistaken don’t behave quite as poorly as this. That’s not to say they all behave well, mind, as you’ll see in the excerpt below…
Wednesday, 22 April 1812: London
The intermission came, more an interlude to Elizabeth’s tragic narrative than to Shakespeare’s, and Mr. Gardiner was sent for refreshments. The ladies had not long been alone when an altercation erupted between two men a short way off.
“Oh, dear! Let us move away,” Mrs. Gardiner whispered.
Elizabeth would have done so directly had not one of the men then mentioned he who had been uppermost in her thoughts all evening.
“…never known anybody so high in the instep. Well, fie on him and his righteousness! I say Mr. Darcy is a sanctimonious prig!”
She fixed her eyes on the clearly inebriated speaker, her lips pursed against all the things she should like to say but could not. True, she had accused Mr. Darcy of worse, but she was acquainted with him well enough to have received an offer of marriage. She sincerely doubted this horrid little man had any such claim to intimacy.
“I never said he was not, but he did not cheat you, Wrenshaw,” the other man replied, and it seemed very much as though it was not the first time he had said it.
“How is it then that we parted with the same piece of land within two months of each other, and he made a fortune while I made naught but a fool of myself?”
“Because you are reckless with your money!”
“Piffle!” the man named Wrenshaw shouted to the tittered delight of the growing crowd. “He took advantage of me, I tell you! He is cheat—a bounder! Do not be fooled by the stick up his bailey. No man can be that damned proper. I wager he has a whore in every bedroom at Pemberley!”
A squall of gasps flew up.
“Come away, Lizzy,” her aunt repeated, but she could not leave.
“Mr. Darcy does not deserve this! He is not a bad man!”
“I confess I am surprised to hear you defend him.”
“I know, but I was very wrong about him.”
“Here we are!” Mr. Gardiner announced behind them. Before either lady could do more than receive the drinks he had brought, he added, “Good gracious, is that you, Harding?” and walked directly to the pair of squabbling men.
Mrs. Gardiner groaned. Elizabeth felt nothing but relief that Mr. Wrenshaw would be silenced. Within moments, her uncle was gesturing for them to join him. He introduced the quieter of the two men as a business acquaintance, Mr. Harding, and the other as that gentleman’s friend, Mr. Wrenshaw.
“And this is my lovely wife, Mrs. Gardiner. She has spent a good deal of time in your part of the country actually, Mr. Wrenshaw, in Lambton. And this is my niece, Miss—”
“Lambton? In Derbyshire?” Mr. Wrenshaw interrupted.
“Yes, between Pemberley and Yewbridge,” answered Mrs. Gardiner, looking as displeased with his incivility as Elizabeth felt.
“I know very well where it is, madam,” he replied curtly. To Mr. Harding he said, “It was Lambton that Crambourne wished to bypass with his blasted railway. And since Darcy would part with nary an inch of hisestate, the arrogant swine bought half of mine and sold that to Crambourne instead! Now tell me he is not a swindling bleater!” His voice grew louder as he warmed to the topic, recalling the attention of all the eavesdroppers who had begun to lose interest.
Elizabeth’s vexation flared. “Upon my word, you have been very free with your opinion of that gentleman this evening, sir.”
Mr. Wrenshaw looked at her sharply. “What of it? You cannot have any peculiar interest in him.”
“I daresay the energy with which you have maligned him has provoked us all to be a little curious,” Elizabeth replied, indicating with a glance the scores of inquisitive faces watching their exchange. “You are obviously keen that we should all agree with your estimation of his character, but none of us will be able to until you decide what it is you wish us to think of him.”
His countenance reddened. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You have accused Mr. Darcy of being righteous and depraved. I have been used to consider those opposing qualities. I am afraid he cannot be both.”
“I merely suggested, madam, that the appearance of one often conceals the presence of the other.”
“Indeed?” Elizabeth resisted a smile. “Then, it is to all our advantages that there are respectable men such as yourself to evince the difference for the rest of us.”
“Lizzy!” Mrs. Gardiner hissed.
“Indeed!” Mr. Wrenshaw assured her airily, to all appearances satisfied with the turn of the conversation—until several people sniggered nearby and his brow creased in puzzlement.
His friend wasted no time engaging Mr. Gardiner on another matter. Elizabeth retreated, happy to observe the crowds and their interest dissipating and happier still when the second curtain call came and she was able to escape Mr. Wrenshaw’s odious company.