JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (B)


The introduction to this series of twelve essays, in Part A, explained that this is a personal record of a number of places associated with the life of Jane Austen, but it is in no way a gazeteer. The opening essay described her birthplace in the small village of Steventon, Hampshire.

B. KENT COUNTRY HOUSES


(i) Steventon and
Manydown Park

Jane Austen’s early life in Steventon was relatively simple, with country walks and visits from relatives to create a certain amount of variety. As she grew older, she became part of the wider social network of her extended family. As a young girl, with her sisters, she often attended the monthly Basingstoke Assemblies, social occasions with music and dancing.

Afterwards, the Austen girls would stay overnight at Manydown Park (2), a grander building than the Steventon Rectory. It was the home of the Wither family for some 400 years and later the Bigg family. It is of interest to Austen scholars, because Jane received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, in 1802, when she was twenty-seven. She hesitated for some time, and finally turned him down. He was the only boy in the family, and would have inherited Manydown Park in due course, and Jane would have become mistress of a fine house. However, childbearing and domestic duties would have left her little time for writing, and that may have influenced her decision.


There seems to be a blight on some buildings associated with Jane Austen, because Manydown Park, despite its charm, has also been demolished, although it managed to survive until as late as 1965. Maggie Lane, (Ref A) outlines Jane Austen’s enthusiasm for the county of Kent, and the great houses, some of which, happily survive to the present day.

“After Hampshire, the county best known and best loved by Jane Austen was Kent. It was the home of all her paternal forebears, and of some of the wealthiest of her relations. ‘Kent is the only place for happiness: everybody is rich there’, she once humorously wrote, and over a period of twenty-five years, from a series of comfortable country houses and great parks, each with ‘its beauties and its prospects’, she received a vision of England that was gracious, mellow, affluent, well-ordered, and very lovely.” (Ref A)


(ii) Sevenoaks

Jane’s first visit to Kent was in 1788 when she was twelve. The family had gone to see Francis Austen, who was her father’s uncle, to whom they were greatly indebted for his kindness and generosity. Jane’s father, George, had lost his own father, William, when he was only six. His uncle, Austin, stepped in to support the bereaved family, and later paid for the education of George at Tonbridge Grammar School.

After George had qualified as a clergyman, Uncle Austin presented him with the “living” of the parish of Deane, to supplement the meagre income from the small parish of Steventon. When Jane and the family went to visit Francis Austen, they stayed with him at “The Red House” (4), in Sevenoaks, so-called because it was built of red brick in the classic late seventeenth century style, with the gardens laid out as a “parterre”, of rigidly geometrical flower beds and very low hedges.


Fortunately, “The Red House” has survived to the present day (5) and occupies a prominent place in Sevenoaks High Street. It was “listed” as a Grade II building in 1951, protecting it from demolition, or unsuitable alterations. It is such a pity that the same protection was not applied to Manydown Park at the same time, instead of allowing it to be demolished some 14 years later.

(iii) Godmersham and Goodnestone Park

Maggie Lane, (Ref A) speculates, quite reasonably that “the 1788 visit concluded at Godmersham, near Canterbury, home of Thomas and Catherine Knight – and of Jane’s brother Edward, then aged twenty. The Knights, wealthy and childless, had adopted the fortunate Edward as heir to their three estates of Godmersham in Kent, and Steventon and Chawton in Hampshire. (It was Mr Knight’s father, another Thomas, who had presented the living of Steventon to his distant cousin, George Austen, Jane’s father.)

During his teens, Edward came to spend more and more of his time at Godmersham, until he was living there permanently, and it is unlikely that the Austens would be in the same county as their son, and his benefactors, without going on to visit them, especially as Edward was about to embark on a lengthy absence from England.” (Maggie Lane, Ref A)


It is gratifying to know that the house, Godmersham Park, is still standing today, as shown in the beautiful aerial photograph shown (1) at the head of this essay. The charmed life of Jane’s brother, Edward, continued, as Maggie Lane explains, “In the spring of 1791, shortly after returning from a Grand Tour of Europe, Edward became engaged to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Brook Bridges, of Goodnestone Park, a rich neighbour of the Knights. Her father died during the course of that year and her brother inherited the Great House and the title, while her mother and unmarried sisters moved into Goodnestone Farm, in which, while grander than it sounded, ‘everything seems for use and comfort’, wrote Jane approvingly when she stayed there several years later.” (Ref A)


Goodnestone Park was an historic site, and the imagined aerial view, (8) produced by an artist in 1704 (8) shows another classical parterre gardens, comparable with that of “The Red House” in Sevenoaks (4).


Tastes in garden design changed, and the strict formality of the seventeenth century, originally derived from the French parterre model of the French Loire chateaux, (9) was replaced by an eighteenth century concept. This banished straight lines, and went for sweeping curves, and contrived viewpoints of distant “charms” like classic temples, or statuary.


By 1792 Jane’s brother Edward was a rich man, with two fine houses, Godmersham and Goodnestone on adjoining lands, near Canterbury. Jane, with her parents visited her brother in both these properties, and came to know something of the social life of the grander country houses.

The generous example of Francis Austen towards his little nephew, George Austen, on the death of his father, has been described earlier. It might have been hoped that Edward Austen, from a position of far greater affluence than Francis Austen, would have followed this example, and shown some similar generosity towards his sisters. Such generosity was not forthcoming.

Maggie Lane is interested in the matter of “improvements”, and she says that they were, “One of the constant themes of discussion at Steventon Rectory.” The Austens were not only keen to adopt the fashionable garden concepts of the mid-eighteenth century, but were innovators on the glebe lands they farmed as part of the church properties. George Austen was as much a farmer as a Rector, and Mrs Austen was keen to persuade the cottagers of Steventon to try growing the new vegetable, called a “potato” (pp.42-44 Ref A).


The map, of part of England above, shows Steventon, (1), close to Basingstoke, and Manydown Park was nearby. Godmersham and Goodnestone (2) are close to Canterbury. “The Red House” at Sevenoaks, not shown on the map, is about 17 miles (28 Km) south-east of London.

This essay, on the country houses associated with Jane, ends with a final glimpse of the Classical luxury of Goodnestone Park (12, 13)


SERIES TO BE CONTINUED

REFERENCES

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

B. “Grade II listed buildings in Sevenoaks District” (Wikipedia article)

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. Godmersham Park, near Canterbury, Kent, home of Jane’s brother, Edward Austen (Google images)

2. Manydown Park, Hampshire, in its heyday (Ref A)

3. Manydown Park in the 20 century (Wikipedia)

4. “The Red House”, Sevenoaks, Kent in 1719, home of Francis Austen (Ref A)

5. “The Red House”, today in modern Sevenoaks (Ref B)

6. Godmersham Park in 1785, home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward (Ref A)

7. Sir Brook Bridges, 3rd Baronet (portrait by Pompeo Bartoni) and his wife, Fanny Bridges, (portrait by Francis Cotes) (Google images)

8. Plan of Goodnestone Park, as it appeared in 1704 (Google images)

9. The parterres at the Chateau de Villandry, France (Google images)

10. Goodnestone Park as it appears today (Google images)

11. Jane Austen’s England (Author)

12. The Classical Portico, with Doric columns, of Goodnestone Park (Google images)

13. An interior at Goodnestone Park (Google images)

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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