Brighton was already growing in popularity by the the 1770s, thanks to the belief that fresh seaside air, sea-bathing, and even drinking sea water provided health benefits or even cured illness. One of the things that drew people thither was the renown prowess of Martha Gunn as a dipper. A dipper was a woman maintained the bathing machines that took female bathers down into the edge of the surf, and then assisted the ladies to float in the healing waves. Dippers were by necessity built like Valkyries, and Martha Gunn was a particularly stalwart example of these brawny babes. Public opinion had it that to be dipped by Martha Gunn was to be dipped by the very best.
By 1780, Georgian terraces had started springing up in town, and after Prince George visited in 1783 the place really took off. Brighton was not only reasonably close to London, it was now where the heir to the throne spent most of leisure time. He loved the little costal town so much he started construction on a Royal Pavilion in 1787, which served to draw additional crowds of vacationing Brits and members of the Ton.
Prince George was convinced that Brighton was an ideal place to maintain his health, which was always iffy thanks to gluttony, heavy drinking, and a lack of exercise. He found a “shampooer” (which indicated a full medical scrubbing rather than the mere washing of one’s hair), Sake Dean Mahomed, at Brighton, and was so enthused about the Muslim’s bathing techniques that he declared him the official royal shampooer, much to Mahomed’s delight and financial benefit. (Sake Dean Mahomed is also the guy who opened the first ever “Indian” restaurant in London.) Regardless of how much excellent shampooing the Prince received, his continual indulgence in food and alcohol prevented him from obtaining any noticeable benefits from Mahomed’s work except hygienically.
To further swell Brighton’s population, a “permanent military presence was established in the city with the completion of Preston Barracks in 1793”. This meant that Brighton was not only filled with genteel tourists, it was filled with soldiers and all the dens of iniquity needed to service men in the service. Droves of people came to Brighton in pursuit of pleasure, but not all those pleasures were pure. Prostitution was rife at the resort, from street walkers to the establishments of elite courtesans like Harriet Wilson, and Brighton became a Regency hot spot in more ways than one. Nevertheless, the activities of sea-bathing and sight-seeing gave Brighton a lovely veneer of respectability that made it quite acceptable to vacation there.
The town had grown so popular – and yet so associated with indulgence in vice — that it showed up more than once in the works of Jane Austen, as a shorthand for potential moral danger. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Bennet revealed himself to be a careless idiot when he let his flirtatious youngest daughter, Lydia, go to Brighton with a friend. The heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, tried to warn her father but he would not head her. Sure enough, it was from Brighton that Lydia eloped with the dastardly George Wickham. Brighton also shows up in Mansfield Park. Shortly after Maria Bertram became Maria Rushworth, she and her husband headed to Brighton to honeymoon. Maria’s quest for ‘novelty and entertainment’ in Brighton was a foreshadowing of her fall from grace. Her transgression was much greater than Lydia’s, in that Maria left a husband to run away with another man. Lydia was eventually redeemed in Austen’s novel, but Maria was condemned to the eternal torment of living with Mrs Norris for her sins.
Brighton is also where the Prince installed his illicit wife, Mrs Maria Fitzherbert. There marriage wasn’t legal, inasmuch as it was a forbidden match and a Catholic ceremony to boot, but everyone knew she was his wife in all but Realpolitik. Certainly Maria considered herself wed, and believe a Papal blessing trumped the disapproval of the Protestant royal family. She lived comfortably at Steine House, a large residence in the center of Brighton, from 1804 until her death in 1837.
As a devotee to Austen, and in an attempt to be accurate to the period, and frankly to use up some of the copious research I amassed, I also included a mention of Brighton in my retelling of Mansfield Park. In the following extract from my novel, Mansfield Parsonage, Mary Crawford has recently been to that pinnacle of seaside resorts, and tells her less-travelled sister, Mrs Grant, all about it:
“Tell me all about Brighton, dear. I know little about it from first-hand information.”
“What do you want to know?” Mary asked with a smile, tickled by her sister’s unsubtle divergence from the subject of Catholicism.
Mary’s smile widened at her sister’s enthusiasm. “My word! I don’t know if I can tell you everything about Brighton. Will you be satisfied just to know what my aunt and I did there?”
After Mrs Grant swore she would be satisfied with only such paltry information as that, Mary did her best to recall the most pleasurable parts of the sea resort.
“Let me think. The first thing my aunt and I did was to go sea bathing. My aunt’s doctor had recommended it or she wouldn’t have gone to Brighton — she always felt as though sea breezes were the absolute ruin of beauty and health — but she trusted Dr Godmersham and was willing to try. We were dipped by Martha Gunn herself, who is considered the best of the sea dippers. I found out the locals call her the Venerable Priestess of the Bath, and I cannot say they were wrong. She was a woman of very sturdy proportions — fat and tall and strong as an ox! — and I felt very safe as she dipped me, even though the waves were a little rough that day. You need only to relax as Mrs Gunn keeps you afloat and pulls you gently through the waters. We were dipped twice a week for the six weeks we were there, although we were only able to secure Martha Gunn’s services for about half of those times. The other dippers did their jobs well, but I never felt as safe or content with them as I did when Martha Gunn dipped me. I recommended her strongly to Maria.”
“I should like to go sea bathing at Brighton,” Mrs Grant said wistfully. “However, Dr Grant prefers Bath so it is there that we go every spring for his gout.”
“Perhaps Dr Grant can be persuaded to go to Brighton next autumn,” Mary said consolingly, “and I shall go with you.”
“Perhaps,” Mrs Grant agreed without much conviction. “But until then I wish to at least hear more about it.”
“It is a very social place, ma’am, with many opportunities to make new acquaintance. There are two sets of Assembly Rooms; one set at the Old Ship Inn and the other set at the Castle Inn. The Castle Inn is considered the most elegant, but in my opinion the Old Ship Inn had the best food and drink. Both establishments made sure to keep their schedules in harmony, so that visitors to Brighton could have as much enjoyment as possible. The Castle Inn has a ball on Mondays and a card party on Wednesdays, while the Old Ship Inn has a ball on Thursdays and a card party on Fridays. Then, of course, they both have a public tea on Sundays.”
“My word! That is a whirl of gaiety!” Mrs Grant exclaimed. “Did you ever have an unengaged day?”
“Seldom, if I tell the truth. There was often someone having a private ball during the week as well, so I could go to as many as six balls in a fortnight.”
“Did that not satisfy even your insatiable appetite for balls?” Mrs Grant chuckled.
“You would think so, but no — I was foot-sore but determined to dance at them all! The tradesmen and laundresses of the town had good reason to thank me, I believe. I must have worn through a score of slippers and dozens of shoe roses, and I had to buy more gloves several times, not to mention needing new underthings to wear while all my others were being washed. There were so many dinners and balls that my aunt and I even bought three new evening dresses apiece from the mantua maker.”
“Three?” Mrs Grant was somewhat amazed by the exorbitance.
“Yes, but think of how unfit a gown is to be worn after a ball until it has been properly cleaned and aired. Since we are alone, I will say it frankly: I sweat like a horse while dancing at a large ball. There is so little air, and the great number of people and candles make it so warm, that it is like a miniature August in one room. After a public ball, or even a large private one, I find that perspiration has usually soaked my stays and shift, and that necessitates a wash for the petticoat and gown as well, even assuming no one has splashed negus or punch on me in the crush. Sometimes only the sleeves of a gown need to be removed and washed, but it takes time for Beatty and I to sew them back on. Besides, it isn’t as if I wouldn’t need them in London as well. It is only here in the country that having seven evening dresses is seen as exorbitance, my dear Mrs Grant.”
“You are right, of course. I had not thought of that. Are the stores in Brighton as good as the ones in Bath?” Mrs Grant asked.
“I would say better. Bond Street in London offers nothing better than what can be purchased on St James’s Street in Brighton. I was as able to buy the most perfect muslin for dresses and the best poplin and silk for petticoats there as I am able to in Town. Everything there, every furbelow and bonnet, was the latest crack of fashion, and excellent half-boots could be bought for rather less money than one must pay for them at home — that is, in London. You could buy any household goods you wished, as well. The breakfast china I sent you for New Year’s was purchased in Brighton.”
… “and Brighton must be quite the place for romance.”
“For me, it was quite the place for books,” Mary said. “There is a circulating library there called Donaldson’s and it is a delight. It had a wonderful selection of novels and music. I copied at least three pieces from there into my music-book.”
“What else was delightful at Brighton?”
“Haven’t I told you of felicitousness enough?” Mary joshed.
“Is there any end to felicitousness in Brighton?” Mrs Grant joked in return.
“There must be, but I confess I didn’t find it. There seemed to be always something to be doing there. One morning my aunt and I hired a pony-cart and driver and were taken to the village of Rottingdean, which is very picturesque. It has a stone church (called St Margaret’s if my memory hasn’t failed me), which has exceptionally beautiful stain glass windows and what we were told was a Saxon tower; it was quite Gothic looking. We were also told we must see the windmill in there, which was thought to be a marvel when it was built in ‘02, but we did not find it special. It is just a black wooden smock mill, and for the life of me I do not know why it causes such a stir. But I will tell you what did cause a stir.”
“What?” Mrs Grant leaned forward, her white-on-white work forgotten in her hands.
“On our fourth day at Brighton, and I remember it quite clearly, it was our privilege to see what I can only assume to be a foreign gentleman strip entirely naked on the beach to go bathing.”
“Gracious God! Really?”
“Oh, yes. He was obviously a man of some means, and was wearing some of Beau Brummel’s style of trousers so he was clearly up to date on the latest fashions in Town. He and what I can only assume was his wife were sitting on a beach-rug and they appeared so unexceptional I didn’t give them the slightest notice at first. However, when he began to strip off his clothes to go sea bathing he caught my attention, as well as the observance of everyone for a mile in either direction. At first, I thought he would at least retain his smalls, scant modesty though they would provide when wet, but no — he was as Adam in paradise when he approached the water.”
Mrs Grant could not help her amusement. “I should be reprimanding you for looking but I confess I would have been unable to ignore such a spectacle either!”
“I found it mighty educational,” Mary said dryly, “but I will never be able to look upon a cooked goose’s neck the same way again.”
She had to wait some time for Mrs Grant to stop fizzing and spluttering with mirth before she could continue.
“When the good fellow emerged from the water, his lady helped him dry himself with towels, and he redressed with the nonchalance of an emperor. My aunt and I waited at our posts for more than half an hour to see if the wife would do the same, but I am sad to report that the couple was done providing entertainment for the day.”
“Now I am determined to go to Brighton one day,” Mrs Grant said. “I have never seen that sort of thing in Bath.”
“In truth, I cannot say it was an everyday occurrence at Brighton, either.”
Although I fictionalized it, in 1811 a local Brighton paper reported that an unknown gentleman had been perceived to be bathing naked on a public beach. Although children would go into the water as nude as eggs, for an adult of either sex to do so in a public area caused significant consternation and comment. I couldn’t resist having Mary Crawford and her aunt be among the witnesses to this scandalous spectacle.