Warning: Book Ends contain spoilers so please don't look at the notes of a novel you are planning to read.
The setting for A Place of Confinement was influenced by Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel Sanditon. The few existing chapters of Sanditon are tantalising; no lover of Austen’s work can fail to speculate about the development of that story and there have been some fine continuations written. One thing that fascinates me about the beginning of the story is the hint contained in it that Mr Parker who has committed his fortune to turning Sanditon into a seaside resort has overreached himself and is in danger of financial disaster. I would love to know how this theme – which is not evident in any of Austen’s previous books – would have been handled. This gave me the idea for the pecuniary difficulties of the Fenstantons – though I am certainly not suggesting that Mr Parker of Sanditon might ever have been tempted to commit murder in order to redeem his fortunes!
The chamber horse also originates with Sanditon. I was puzzled when I first read of such a thing. But it would seem the Georgians were almost as keenly aware of the importance of exercise for good health as we are. In Mansfield Park Fanny Price rides ‘for her health’ rather than simply for pleasure. And when bad weather prevented a lady (or gentleman) from taking healthful exercise why not ride indoors?
Ever since I read first read Sanditon I had been longing to see a real chamber horse and so I was delighted to find one in the long gallery at Chastleton House in the Cotswolds. It is a kind of chair with very large springs in a strong leather seat, there are high handles to hold on to and one sat upon it and bounced up and down as if riding. It was, I suppose, the exercise bike, or rowing machine, of its day.
The electrical tractors which Aunt Manners finds so effective in relieving her headaches were patented by an American, Elisha Perkins, in 1796 and soon became popular in Britain. Perkins claimed that they were made of a rare metal alloy, but, in fact, they consisted of steel and brass. They were pure quackery (Dido’s instincts are accurate here) and an experiment carried out in Bath in 1800 effectively ‘debunked’ them. Painted wooden ‘tractors’ were found to have just as much effect as the patented device. This did not prevent their continued popularity. I am sure that for many patients, like Aunt Manners, a charming doctor and a belief in the efficacy of the treatment worked a very effective cure.
The priest hole and hidden stairs were suggested by a house I lived near as a child – Harvington Hall in Worcestershire – which has probably the finest surviving collection of such hiding places in the country. They date from the latter half of the sixteenth century when it was high treason for a catholic priest to be in England.
And the kittens, of course, were introduced simply for my own pleasure!