JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (A)


This year is the 200 anniversary of the death of the novelist, Jane Austen, (1775- 1817) and there will be many celebratory offerings on radio, television, and the printed media. I offer this appreciation for the readers of Deskarati, being uniquely unqualified to do so. When I visited Chawton Cottage (2) in Hampshire, where a number of the novels were written, I confessed, to the rather splendid lady custodian, that I had never actually read any of Jane Austen’s novels. “Don’t worry,” she said, “very few of the men who come here, have either.” The implication being that the men were acting as drivers for their mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, nieces or woman friends.


Despite not having read any of the novels, I have been familiar with the plots and characters since childhood. They were regularly serialised on BBC radio in the 1940s and 50s. By the time of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, most households in Britain had acquired television sets and this new viewing audience was introduced to Jane Austen by the televised serialisation of her novels, after the black and white era, so mainly in colour versions (4). Running parallel with this were the regular film versions (3), cut down, and telescoped to fit into 90 minutes of projection time.


Is this enough to enable me to write about Jane Austen’s novels? No, this series of twelve essays is about some of the places associated with Jane Austen, which, even today, give something of the flavour of her times in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I have been fortunate to have a close friend, who is a great enthusiast for Jane Austen’s novels, and it has been a great pleasure, over many years, to have visited with her, many places associated with Jane’s life story.

REMINDERS OF THE PAST

A wonderful aspect of life in Britain is the continuing reminder of times past. I live in a small market town and I relish the thought that people have been drinking in the same old inn buildings for three or four hundred years. Children have been playing on the Green for twice or three times as long. As I walk down the London Road to the High Street, the long straight vista reminds me that the Roman Army surveyors (5) laid out this highway, nearly two millennia ago.


One of the most profound remarks about tourism and visiting, was made by an astute American, and appeared in the book, “84, Charing Cross Road”. The author, Helene Hanff, after delaying her visit to Britain for most of her adult life, was now finally in an aircraft, circling over the London suburbs, preparatory to landing at Heathrow Airport. Her initial impression of London from the air was disappointing.

In the next seat, her new American acquaintance said, “Tourists find the things they go looking for. If they expect slums, and impoverished children, they’ll find them. If they expect beautiful historic buildings and quaint old street markets, they’ll find them. Helene said, “I’m looking for the London of Geoff Chaucer, Sam Pepys, and Charles Dickens.” “Then you’ll find them!” replied her new friend triumphantly.


Helene would be pleased that the Westminster Hall of today (6) and Lambeth Palace, (7) residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, are much as they were on Geoffrey Chaucer’s time. The “Tabard Inn” of the Canterbury Tales is still a pub, though an uninspiring modern building. Samuel Pepys would be delighted to see that the beautiful old Watergate to York House (8), very close to his home, was still in existence, but now in a small park. Charles Dickens would immediately recognise the “Cheshire Cheese” inn (9).


This essay is in no way a gazeteer, or even a guide to sites associated with Jane Austen, but rather a private odyssey, or even a pilgrimage. Despite the fact that Jane lived in the pre-railway age, she made a remarkable number of journeys to places in England. A complete list of these would take in many locations that we visit, quite apart from any connection with her.

For example, I have been to both Brighton and Cheltenham several times, but without knowing that Jane Austen spent time there. I lived in Tonbridge in Kent, for fourteen years, without ever realising that the town, and area towards Sevenoaks, were part of the ancestral origins of the Austen family, and were regularly visited by Jane and her parents.

Consequently, I have limited myself to places visited because of their association with Jane Austen. The first map (10) shows most of the extent of Jane’s associations.


PART A. HAMPSHIRE CHILDHOOD

Jane Austen was born on the 16 December 1775, in the Rectory of Steventon, a small village in north Hampshire, a few miles south-west of the town of Basingstoke. She was the seventh of the eight children of her mother Cassandra, (nèe Leigh) and her father, the Reverend George Austen, Rector of Steventon, and a farmer as well as a clergyman.

“Her youthful impressions were formed in this quiet agricultural village, which was to be her home for the first twenty-five years – the greater part of her life. Here, scenery which was pleasant but unspectacular, found its way to her heart – and rendered her suspicious of the claims made on behalf of wilder and grander landscapes to excite emotions of sublimity.” (Ref C)

Steventon is still a small village today, with a population of about 250 people. The small and rather plain twelfth century church (11) appears much as it would have done in Jane’s day. A small brass plaque (12) records that Jane worshipped there, and gives her birth and death dates.


There is also a white marble wall monument to Jane’s brother, the Reverend James Austen, who succeeded his father as Rector of Steventon. It was quite common in the 18 and 19 centuries for the “living” to be kept in the family and passed from one generation to the next. The “living” was the income in rents from local tenant farmers of the lands owned by the church.


Jane’s home, the Old Rectory, was pulled down about 1824. A new rectory, named Steventon House, was built by Jane’s brother Edward between 1820 and 1822, and this is still standing today, although it would, of course, have been unknown to her. It was a larger building (14) on a better, south-facing site.


Attempts have been made to recreate the Old Rectory in visual terms. It was a modest building for the Rector and his wife, their eight children, and their domestic servants.


SERIES TO BE CONTINUED

REFERENCES

A. “Britain from the Air”, by Michael Swift and George Grant, PRC, 2000

B. “Jane Austen’s England”, by Maggie Lane, Robert Hale Ltd, 1986

C. “Jane Austen”, Wikipedia article

D. “Hadrian’s Wall in the days of the Romans”, by Ronald Embleton and Frank Graham, published Frank Graham, 1984

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. The Royal Crescent, Bath – the epitome of eighteenth and nineteenth century elegance (Ref A)

2. Chawton Cottage, Chawton village, near Alton, Hampshire (After Ref C)

3. First film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, made in 1940 for MGM (Ref C)

4. “Pride and Prejudice”, with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett, and Colin Firth as Mr D’Arcy BBC TV series from 1995 (Google images)

5. Roman Gromaticus, (Surveyor) with his groma or survey instrument – a drawing by Ronald Embleton (Ref D)

6. Westminster Hall (Google images)

7. Lambeth Palace (Google images)

8. Old Watergate to York House (Google images)

9. Dickens “Cheshire Cheese” inn (Google images)

10. Jane Austen’s England (Author)

11. Parish Church Steventon (Author)

12. Brass memorial plaque to Jane Austen (Author)

13. Marble wall memorial to Reverend James Austen (1765-1819) brother of Jane (Author)

14. Steventon House (Google images)

15. Modern recreation of Old Steventon Rectory, by Lynne Shepherd

SERIES SUMMARY

CODE

MAIN SUBJECT

OTHER THEMES

A Hampshire Childhood Introduction-Reminders of the Past
B Kent Country Houses “Improvements”, and Garden Design
C City Elegance History of Bath, Neo-Classical Architecture
D Coastal Scenes Sea Drinking and Sea Bathing
E The Bristol Avon
F The Warwickshire Avon and the Cotswolds Adlestrop
G Return to Hampshire Portsmouth Point
H Winchester Days Medicine in the Early Nineteenth Century
I Locations “Sense and Sensibility” The Regency Period
J Locations –”Pride and Prejudice” The Picturesque
K Locations – “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” The Ha-Ha Boundary, “Lovers’ Vows” play
L Locations-“Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” The Gothic Novel, Irish History


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One Response to JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (A)

  1. Deskarati says:

    Great start Alan, I can’t wait until the the next instalment in two weeks time.

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