In the Authors Note and Sources to my first Pride & Prejudice derivative, Intrigue At Longbourn, I speculated that the fictional town of Meryton might have been based on the town of Harpenden, citing an article entitled ‘The Probable Location of “Longbourn” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’ by Dr Kenneth Smith of Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, High Wycombe, UK. The article is published on the Jane Austen Society of North America website. The Harpenden theory was no particularly fixed idea of mine. I simply found it convenient to have a geographical point to work from.
Now, in writing Easter At Netherfield my second Pride & Prejudice sequel, I’m starting to re-think after attempting to research where an important concert might have taken place in Hertfordshire in the late eighteenth century. I presumed a civic building, perhaps an assembly rooms but research suggested that most towns did not have assembly rooms at the time. Harpenden incidentally did not seem to have had an assembly rooms in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Many assembly rooms were built well into the nineteenth century. No doubt someone will correct me if this is wrong and certainly a village near me, Dedham, has Assembly Rooms dating from 1745 which must make it one of the oldest assembly rooms in the country.
Pride & Prejudice made much of the assembly in Meryton which the Netherfield party attended after first coming to Hertfordshire. Nowhere, however, does it mention specifically Assembly Rooms. It referred to an ‘assembly-room’, however in that era, in smaller towns a single large room attached to the best inn might serve for the occasional assembly for the local landed gentry and this type of set-up could have been the setting for the ball in Chapter 3 of Pride & Prejudice.
Certainly, P D James in Death Comes To Pemberley did not dignify Lambton with an assembly rooms. The book contains a fictional King’s Arms at Lambton and features an inquest. The book says:
The inquest was held at the King’s Arms in a large room built at the back of the inn some eight years previously to provide a venue for local functions, including the occasional dance dignified always as a ball.
It has been said that the fictional Lambton was based on the Derbyshire town of Bakewell, but I cannot find that Bakewell has ever had an assembly rooms as such. Bakewell Town Hall houses the Assembly Room Theatre, but the Town Hall was built in 1889. There is an Old Town Hall which sources state dates from 1602 with improvements in 1709 but sources do not state that it included an assembly rooms.
Another possible basis for the fictional Meryton is the Hertfordshire county town of Hertford. The Shire Hall in Hertford, built in 1771, did include assembly rooms at that time, but it also housed the courts for the county, and the town’s corn exchange on the ground floor.
The attached image is of an engraving of Fore Street in Hertford, published in 1823 and shows the Shire Hall in the background, prior to the addition of a clock on the building, apparently not added until 1824.
If Meryton was based on Hertford, Pride & Prejudice makes no reference to the Shire Hall or to courts or a corn exchange in relation to the first Meryton ball attended by the Netherfield party.
Therefore the likely place on which Meryton was based cannot be reliably gleaned from information about assembly rooms.