In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. … She saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.
One of the pivotal plot points in “Pride and Prejudice” — when Lydia meets Wickham while on holiday with the military — takes place off-page in Brighton. What was it about Brighton that drew Lydia — and countless others — to the resort town in southern England?
A doctor in the house
In the 18th century, the fishing village was already becoming more popular with tourists, but Sussex physician Richard Russell put the town on the map by extolling the health benefits of salt water. Up sprung bath houses and assembly rooms, helping to lead to its evolution from just a place of health to one of pleasure and decadence.
Introducing the Prince of Wales
George, the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), raised Brighton’s profile even more, by deciding to make it his home away from home. He built his Pavilion on 600 acres of farmland (more on this in a bit), and where he went high society followed. Events such as the Brighton races drew crowds, the founder of the White’s gentlemen’s club in London founded Raggett’s in Brighton, and the town’s libraries were centers of socializing.
Built over 30 years, George’s grand Pavilion features Indian-inspired domes and Asian decor. It also included modern (for the era) touches including gas lighting and water closets. Over the years, the home fell out of favor with the royalty. Queen Victoria sold it to the town of Brighton in 1850, stripping it of furniture and such. In World War I it served as a hospital for Indian soldiers. Recently the Pavilion’s saloon, decorated in 1823, was restored.
Because of the town’s position between France and London (it had the shortest route from the English Channel to the seat of the British empire), Brighton was particularly vulnerable to invasion — hence the reason for the military presence. In the summer soldiers drilled and practiced maneuvers and took part in mock battles. The prince even participated in some of these activities. And Jane Austen’s brother Henry was stationed there in 1793.
Sources: “An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England,” Venetia Murray; “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels,” Deirdre le Faye