For this post I’m going to take you with me on a tour I did a couple of years ago of the beautiful part of England where Jane Austen lived as a girl. I’ve visited the ‘big’ Austen places like Chawton and Bath, and seen the house where she died in Winchester, but what I hadn’t done was explore the area around Steventon, in Hampshire, where Austen was born in December 1775. We started at the Wheatsheaf inn in North Waltham. In Austen’s time this pub was on the major coaching road down towards Salisbury, and Jane Austen would have come here often to collect her post. You can imagine her sitting in one of the front windows, sipping a cup of tea, awaiting the arrival of one of the ten coaches that travelled this route every day.
From here to Steventon is only a short two-mile drive, but while it’s a tarmac road now, in Austen’s day they were often dirty and impassable, even wearing pattens (heavy wooden overshoes that lifted the wearer a few inches above the mud). Our first stop was in a tiny lane overlooking a cow pasture, and though there’s no plaque, and no visitor centre, this is the birthplace of one of England’s most celebrated novelists.
The rectory building was demolished in 1820, and a new one built further up the hillside, after her brother Edward, the patron of the living, declared it was ‘unfit for clerical use’. It’s not hard to understand why – when Austen was living there the building would flood regularly in the winter, and the family would have to retreat to the upper floors.
Austen’s father was Vicar of Steventon, and our next stop was the tiny but delightful church, with its ancient yew outside, and inside the newly-restored medieval and Victorian wall paintings. Many aspects of this landscape are much as they were when Austen lived here – there are more hedgerows now (the result of the 19th century agricultural enclosures), but otherwise it’s still a predominantly farming area, that either grows wheat, or rears cattle.
On from Steventon to Ashe, where George Austen was also rector, and where the Lefroys lived in Ashe House, a beautiful Georgian house with gardens overlooking the source of the river Test. It was here that Austen met their young Irish relative Tom Lefroy in 1795, an encounter that became the subject of the film Becoming Jane. While it’s certainly true that after her death Austen’s sister Cassandra burned any papers or letters of a personal nature, the references to Tom Lefroy that remain hardly suggest an overwhelming or life-changing romance. Personally, I always think the unknown young clergyman Austen allegedly fell in love with while holidaying in Sidmouth in 1801 was far more likely to have been ‘the real thing’, but I’m not a Hollywood producer!
One reason why I think the Sidmouth episode was so significant (and I’m not the only one), is that it was followed so swiftly by her accepting a proposal from the brother of her friends Alethea, Elizabeth, and Catherine Bigg, who lived at Manydown House, a few miles from Steventon. Austen was by then 27, and may well have thought it was her last chance of marriage. And certainly, if I may paraphrase Pride & Prejudice, ‘to have been mistress of Manydown would have been something’. It was a significant estate, and marrying Harris would have saved her from ending her life as a poverty-stricken spinster. Sadly Harris Bigg-Wither was no Mr Darcy – he was tall, yes, but six years younger than Austen, and generally considered to have been plain, uncouth, and awkward. This may well be why Austen changed her mind, having experienced what her niece Fanny called ‘a revulsion of feeling’, and she withdrew her acceptance the following day. It was a decision that must have demanded a great deal of courage, and certainly created considerable upheaval and distress. The house at Manydown is no longer there, but we were able to visit the church, and see Harris’ memorial, which refers to his wife and ten children. But as Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin has said, “We would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma than the Bigg-Wither baby Jane Austen might have given the world”!
The next destination was rather a sad one. It was Monk Sherborne, where Jane Austen’s brother George is buried in an unmarked grave. We may never know exactly what it was that was wrong with George – he may have been deaf, or suffered epileptic fits – but what we do know is that he was brought up separately from the rest of the family, and lived out his days in a cottage in this village, which he shared with his uncle Thomas, who was also afflicted in some way, finally dying at the age of 72. His story raises interesting and poignant questions about contemporary attitudes to mental illness and impairment. While we may consider it heartless of the Austens to have removed their son from the family home, and made no further reference to him, it may be that the solution they devised for him was rather far-sighted for the time, and certainly much more humane than consignment to a lunatic asylum.
Our last destination was The Vyne, a beautiful house near Basingstoke, which belonged to the Chute family in Austen’s day. It’s possible that Austen went to balls at The Vyne, just as she did at other big houses nearby, like Kempshott Park, Hackwood Park, and Hurstbourne Park, as well as the (now demolished) Assembly Rooms in Basingstoke. What intrigues me most about the Chutes is the fact that William Chute and his wife adopted a three-year old relative, Caroline Wiggett, and brought her up as their own. There are clear parallels here with Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, but one can only hope that Caroline had a happier time of it than Fanny did, even if she, too, was a poor relation.
After this tour round the real places Jane knew when she was a girl, I thought it would be fun to put together a quiz about the real and imaginary places we’re all familiar with in her novels. So see how many of these you can get right!
1. The first question is ‘People and Places’. Which character, in which Austen novel….
a) … goes to London for a hair cut
b) … misses out on a trip to the Lake District
c) … is taught for a while near Plymouth
d) … does not enjoy a stay in Portsmouth
e) … passes a winter alone in Deal
f) … refuses to accompany his father to Hereford
2 The next question is ‘Factual and Fictional’. In which real English counties does Austen set the following imaginary places?
a) Hunsford, in Pride & Prejudice
b) Everingham, in Mansfield Park
c) Highbury, in Emma
d) Fullerton, in Northanger Abbey
e) Delaford, in Sense & Sensibility
f) Enscombe, in Emma
3 The third question is ‘House and Home’. Can you name the house occupied by the following people?
a) The Palmers, in Sense & Sensibility
b) Mr and Mrs Musgrove (senior), in Persuasion
c) Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Pride & Prejudice
d) Mr and Mrs Weston, in Emma
e) The Owen family, in Mansfield Park
The original version of this post was written for the AustenAuthors website in 2013
The answers to the quiz questions are below:
a) Frank Churchill, in Emma
b) Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride & Prejudice
c) Edward Ferrars, in Sense & Sensibility
d) Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park
e) Mrs Croft, in Persuasion
f) Henry Tilney, in Northanger Abbey… misses out on a trip to the Lake District
a) Hunsford is in Kent
b) Everingham is in Norfolk
c) Highbury is in Surrey
d) Fullerton is in Wiltshire
e) Delaford is in Dorset
f) Enscombe is in Yorkshire
b) The Great House, Uppercross