Bah Humbug! And A Peek Inside The Austen Family Songbooks


I have some more insider information about Jane Austen and the Waterman.

You will have heard the news about the piano and the ballroom (and Professor Plum?) but there is something else. Those of you who have viewed the event page for our premiering play will know that it is about a fictional meeting between Jane Austen and Charles Dibdin.

It’s something that didn’t happen – but the history behind it is quite true.

If you’re like me and a bit of a Janeite, you may have seen the handwritten manuscripts of Jane’s novels. What you probably haven’t seen are the handwritten pages of music notation that Jane did for her family’s songbook. And some of the compositions in the family songbook were by Charles Dibdin. We have our own Southampton University to thank for the digitalisation of the books.

Charles Dibdin was Southampton born and bred. He did go to Winchester College but it’s us lot on the coast who can lay claim to him. Do you know the operatic song often played on the Last Night of the Proms, “Tom Bowling”? That was Charles Dibdin.

Living between 1745 – 1814, Charles was the most prolific English singer/songwriter of his time. Also an entertainer, he was noted for his ability to tune his voice to a provincial note at the drop of a hat. Our play is called Jane Austen and The Waterman because The Waterman was one of his operas. If you visit Holyrood Church you’ll find a memorial plaque to Charles on the west side. There is a bigger memorial to him in Camden Town.

The plaque at Holyrood. Photo: Philip Glassborow.

Says playwright Philip Glassborow:

“I’ve always wanted to tell Charles Dibdin’s story from his viewpoint… I thought it would be fun contrast his ramshackle public and private life with that of Jane Austen, who writes about a world obsessed with propriety and manners.”

I’ll leave you with this fun fact and the evidence to back it up: Charles Dickens referred to Dibdin’s work in Little Dorrit and a copy of the song was found in the author’s library upon his death. Here is Dickens’ line, from chapter 6:

On these truly British occasions, the smugglers, if any, made a feint of walking into the strong cells and the blind alley, while this somebody pretended to do his something: and made a reality of walking out again as soon as he hadn’t done it—neatly epitomising the administration of most of the public affairs in our right little, tight little, island is.

And here are Dibdin’s lyrics:

Daddy Neptune one day to Freedom did say,
“If ever I lived upon dry land.
The spot I should hit on would be little Britain!”
Says Freedom, “Why that’s my own little island!”
Oh, it’s a snug little island!
A right little, tight little island,
Search the globe round, none can be found
So happy as this little island.

Jane Austen and the Waterman stars Downton Abbey’s Cathy Sara and comic Mervyn Stutter, and will be performed at 2pm and 4pm on Sunday 22nd October at The Dolphin Hotel.

For more information and tickets, click here.

By Charlie Place.

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