The life and times of "The Pride and Prejudice" author, visiting Jane Austen's stomping grounds in rural Hampshire.
The American Revolution started in the year Jane Austen was born. When she was 17, the Reign of Terror began in France. Two years before her death, England and France fought the Battle of Waterloo. Austen lived in a world torn by revolutionary violence, and she never wrote a word about any of it. But she did know about it. Two of her brothers saw extensive combat as naval officers during the Napoleonic wars. Her cousin and close friend, Eliza de Feuillide, was a guillotine widow. In fact, Eliza was staying with Austen’s family in Hampshire when her husband’s head was severed for the benefit of a Paris mob. Oh yes, Miss Austen knew all about it.
Rural Hampshire was a refuge for Austen; although for some time she lived elsewhere, she wouldn’t write elsewhere. For the first 25 years of her life she lived with her parents and seven siblings in the tiny village of Steventon. After that, she suffered through eight unproductive years in the bustling towns of Bath and Southampton. Then, nine years before her death, she returned to rural Hampshire, to live with her mother and sister in the village of Chawton, only a dozen miles from Steventon.
It was in Steventon and Chawton that Austen composed all of her novels. These were novels of peace and serenity—novels in which, if gentlemen lost their heads, they usually ended up married instead of dead. She eschewed the Great Themes—war, death, suffering, revolution and injustice. Instead, she described her work as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour …. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” Her works are not merely novels of comedy and comfort, however, or of amiable young ladies finding eligible young men.
Uncertainty and risk are the constant backdrops to comfort and pleasure; successful love is always fenced about by moral dilemmas and hard realism; and harsh satire is hurled at those who lack the backbone to do what is right. After all, Austen is one of the few people you can cite as the greatest novelist ever and not get sniggered at, and she didn’t get there by writing trivia.
The Austens at Steventon were a big, affectionate, prosperous family, headed by the village rector. The house itself (now long gone) was a fashionable Georgian structure, large by the standards of the day but bursting its seams with the Austen clan. Jane’s father had a good “living” off the agricultural tax that supported his church, and off the farm lands attached to the rectory (known as the glebe). With the Austens, that income was enough to enable them to take their place in society as respectable gentry.
ANYONE WHO HAS READ AN AUSTEN NOVEL CAN GUESS WHAT HER LIFE AT STEVENTON WAS LIKE. THERE WERE VISITS AND CARDS AND DANCING.
The gentry were those country families who were not aristocratic but had enough money so as not to have to dirty their hands with the chores of farming. Not that they didn’t work. The squire had to busy himself with managing the household’s lands and keeping the family prosperous. Younger sons of the gentry typically would find their own way to respectability, becoming lawyers, military officers, bankers or churchmen, and the Austen brothers went on to become admirals, bankers and rectors. Daughters were expected to form marriage alliances with other families, bringing in useful social connections or money.
Steventon, where Austen spent her early years, can be reached by driving a short distance off the M3 between Heathrow and Winchester. The present-day village, a straggling line of cottages along a remote lane, offers not so much as a pub or a post office to mark a village center. While the little hamlet today looks neat and prosperous, your imagination can paint in the earthy details from Austen’s day—narrow lanes choked with mud, and old cottages filled with two or three poor families each.
Steventon’s tiny medieval church is located a half-mile up a lane on the village’s east side. Dedicated to St. Nicolas, the Steventon church is little changed from the days when young Jane’s father gave his sermons there. It’s a simple rectangle with thick walls made of flints and covered in plaster. The Austens lived at the other end of the lane, surrounded by gardens that were both decorative and functional (Mrs. Austen liked growing potatoes). Jane grew up surrounded by beauty, nurtured by family and in constant contact with symbols of stability, continuity and eternity.
Anyone who has read an Austen novel knows what her life at Steventon was like. There were visits and cards and dancing. One of young Jane’s favorite destinations, The Vyne, is in the care of the National Trust and can be seen in all its glory—mute testimony to the quality of the Austen family connections. There were quiet family evenings and whispered sisterly confidences. And there were frequently long country walks. Austen herself loved to walk and would volunteer to go down to the Wheatsheaf Inn on the coach road to pick up the family mail, a six-mile round trip. The Wheatsheaf is still there today, and remains a good place to down a pint.
It was at Steventon Rectory that Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice—all between her 20th and 24th birthdays. You might expect such a happy life to produce happy novels, and happiness and comedy do tend to abound. However, Austen’s heroines are anything but carefree. Impoverished by virtue of their sex and nearly helpless in determining their fate, they are often members of families that could lose everything should they not “marry well”—capture the attention of a well-connected man with enough money to bail the family out of its money woes. In a romance novel, the correct choice would seem to be marriage based on love rather than lucre, but Austen was no romantic. She was well aware that love alone was not enough to support a family—a point emphasized in her novel Mansfield Park. And she would not obscure the sordid reality that the horrors of poverty would almost surely destroy love.
These unromantic realities were of personal concern to the young Austen. Her family’s genteel life depended on her father’s living—and that would die with him. Young Jane knew her own obligation to her family. In fact, at least one neighbor considered her a tremendous flirt, a “husband-hungry butterfly.” Nevertheless, the young novelist was unable to marry her first suitor (the first of four unsuccessful petitioners) because neither had enough money; their alliance would have brought too much disadvantage to both their families.
IT WAS AT STEVENTON RECTORY THAT AUSTEN WROTE NORTHANGER ABBEY, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND HER MOST FAMOUS NOVEL, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
Jane’s father retired in 1801, turned his rectory and his living over to his oldest son, and moved to Bath. In that era unmarried daughters stayed with their parents no matter what, so Jane and her sister Cassandra went along as well. Jane despised Bath. She hated its crowds, its obsession with fashion and appearances, its vicious gossip and its Byzantine social system. In two of her later novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Austen would include lengthy acidic descriptions of Bath, lampooning the city and its society as a pit of insincerity and superficiality, where silly people went to be seen and evil people went to find victims.
To make things worse, it was at this juncture that Austen realized she couldn’t get her novels published. As a woman, she couldn’t negotiate for herself, and her father had proved ineffective as an author’s agent (although he did try). When Jane’s father died, the family finances worsened. As a result, she, her mother and Cassandra moved to Southampton to save money.
Fortunately for the genteelly poor Austen women, the brothers were out earning a solid living by that time, and one was getting outright rich. Brother Edward had been adopted by a wealthy, childless family, becoming Edward Knight. When Edward inherited his adopted family’s considerable property, the estate included their ancient home, Chawton House, in the rural Hampshire village of Chawton. Edward moved his mother and sisters into an ancient and respectable brick house there, right on the coach road and not two blocks from his own manor house.
At Chawton, Jane returned to her country ways—taking long walks in the country, attending balls at the local manor houses and reading with her mother and sister in the parlor. Jane found Chawton a lovely village—a single row of thatched cottages along a lane. It was also a convenient location. Not only was brother Edward living in the local manor house and brother James preaching at the old family homestead, but brother Henry was running the bank in nearby Alton. Jane and Cassandra would walk to Alton every day to pick up the family’s mail from Henry.
In her new home Austen resumed her writing career—in part thanks to her brother Henry, who started taking Jane’s manuscripts with him on his trips to the bank’s main office in London, working to drum up interest among publishers. It worked: Sense and Sensibility came out in 1811, earning Jane a tidy £140. Jane immediately set about revising Pride and Prejudice, making it a collaboration between her younger and older selves. (The third of the Steventon novels, Northanger Abbey, would be published posthumously by Henry.) Pride and Prejudice was an immediate hit, bringing favorable attention from Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent.
Today Austen’s home is a wonderful museum, with an authentic 18th-century garden and a large collection of memorabilia. Brother Edward’s Chawton House is being restored to its 18th-century grandeur, earmarked to become a library and research center dedicated to the women novelists of Austen’s time. The village itself is little changed from Jane’s day, a row of closely spaced thatched cottages with immaculate gardens. There’s a first-rate pub now, just across from Jane’s home (The Greyfriars, founded in 1840), and the village road is largely empty of traffic, since a bypass was built in 1971.
As you tour the Austen house, the novelist’s writing habits become clear. She generally wrote in the family parlor while her mother and sister sewed. She sat at a tiny round table, not much bigger than a modern lamp table, using smaller-than-normal pieces of paper. She placed the table by a large window, not on the private, garden side of the house as one might expect, but right on the busy coach road. She apparently thrived on the noise, the business and even the odors of that thoroughfare. But she insisted on privacy to write her novels. When anyone came in, a squeaking door would warn of their approach, giving her time to hide the tiny pieces of manuscript under larger sheets of letter paper. This served a double purpose, allowing the amiable Jane to be cordial without giving any sense that the visit was an intrusion, and preventing the intruder from spying out her newest novel. The writer we meet in family memoirs is the sweet and smiling Aunt Jane—always welcoming, always courteous, always mild. Quite a different individual appears in the letters she wrote to Cassandra, where she vents a wickedly sharp humor at the silly people who try her patience.
At Chawton Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion in succession. These were more subtle than her earlier works, showing ordinary life with such rich character and sublime humor that bustle and incident seem like intrusions. She would finish Persuasion on her deathbed, as she slowly succumbed to Addison’s disease.
Jane Austen died in July 1817 at the age of 41 in Winchester, where she had moved to be close to her doctor. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral. Fresh flowers are kept at her grave even today.
WHILE VISITING AUSTEN‘S ENGLAND
Getting There. You’ll find Jane Austen’s Hampshire about 50 miles southwest of London’s Heathrow Airport, a fast and easy drive via the M3. Steventon is a few miles north of the M3’s Exit 7, while Chawton is a dozen miles south of Exit 6 via the A339.
Jane Austen’s House, Chawton. This delightful museum and garden is open daily, March through November, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; in the off-season, it’s open weekends, with the same hours. Adults, £4.00; seniors and students, £3.00; children 8 to 18, £.50. Address: Chawton, Alton, Hampshire GU34 lSD, England. Phone: +44 (0) 1420 83262. E-mail: [email protected]. Web site: http://www.janeaustenmuseum.org.uk.
Chawton House Library, Chawton. Restored in 2002, this collaborative project between a private foundation and Southampton University is nearing completion. At this writing, you will need to contact them for information on public visits. Address: The Administrator, Chawton House Library, Chawton, Hampshire GU34 lSJ, England. Phone: +44 (0) 1420 541010. E-mail: [email protected]. Web site: www.chawton.org.
Food and Accommodation. The Greyfriars, immediately across the street from the Jane Austen House, has excellent food and traditional cask ales. Phone: +44 (0) 1420 83841. THE WHEATSHEAF can be easily reached at the M3’s Exit 7. The British hotel chain Premiere Lodge has a modern hotel immediately adjacent. Address: Wheatsheaf Hotel, North Waltham, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG25 2BB, England. Phone: +44 (0) 1256 398282; Web site: www.premierlodge.co.uk.