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Jane Austen Bicentennial: Must-See Sights from Her Life & Literature

On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, Keiren Phelan, a trustee of Jane Austen’s House Museum and editor of the website Literary Winchester, retraces the author’s life and literary career through some of the most significant locations in her biography.

It may be painful for Wintonians but Jane Austen was far more familiar with Basingstoke, and indeed Southampton, than she ever was with Winchester. She is of course buried in Winchester Cathedral and her sister Cassandra wrote that she was very fond of it, as indeed many people are. Her bookish father had an account at John Burdon’s bookshop in College Street (now P & G Wells); her music teacher, the Cathedral’s assistant organist George Chard, used regularly to ride to Steventon to provide piano lessons; several of her nephews attended Winchester College; her friends Mrs Elizabeth Heathcote and Miss Alethea Bigg lived in the Cathedral Close, and she is commonly believed to have danced at St John’s Assembly Rooms in the Broadway (though there is no evidence for this).

However,  Jane Austen’s first 25 years were spent very happily in her father’s rectory at Steventon, eight miles west of Basingstoke. Her dancing days were spent in the Assembly Rooms in Basingstoke or in the great country houses of the family’s many friends to the west and south west of the town. In 1801 the family moved to Bath, and more dancing, for five rather unhappy years and then to Southampton in 1806 for two and a half years, following the death of her father. Southampton proved more enjoyable to Jane (with plenty of dancing at the Dolphin Inn) and a fine river on which to take her nephews boating. Then in 1809 with her mother and elder sister she moved to Chawton, returning to the Hampshire countryside near Alton. This was the happiest move of all and came about due to her brother Edward’s good fortune. He had been adopted by his father’s very rich cousin and when he came into his substantial inheritance he was the owner of three fine estates, one in Kent where he preferred to live, one in Steventon and the other in Chawton. As successful sons often do, he eventually provided a house for his mother, and his two younger sisters, in the bailiff’s cottage in the middle of the village. Improvements were of course made to the property but it was still a cottage and in rather questionable contrast to the Elizabethan splendor of the great manor itself, Chawton House.

One shouldn’t look for autobiography in Jane Austen’s fiction but she is extremely prescient in her first published novel Sense and Sensibility, begun in 1795 when she was 20 and polished and polished thereafter until publication in 1811, about 15 months after moving into Chawton Cottage. In the opening chapters of the novel it is possible to experience the emotions surrounding an elder brother’s adoption, the pain of being turfed out of a childhood home, of its graceless management by an elder brother and grasping sister-in-law, and then living in poignantly reduced circumstances:

“With the size and furniture of the house Mrs Dashwood was upon the whole well satisfied; for though her former style of life rendered many additions to the latter indispensable, yet to add and improve was a delight to her; and she had at this time ready money enough to supply all that was wanted of greater elegance to the apartments. ‘As for the house itself, to be sure,’ said she, ‘it is too small for our family, but we will make ourselves tolerably comfortable for the present . . .These parlours are both too small for such parties of our friends as I hope to see often collected here; and I have some thoughts of throwing the passage into one of them . . . this, with a new drawing-room which may be easily added, and a bed-chamber and garret above, will make it a very snug little cottage. I could wish the stairs were handsome.” 

Hampshire: The Main Stage for Her Creativity

The main consequence of returning to Hampshire’s countryside was that Jane Austen began writing again. While at Steventon she had begun her juvenilia at 12, all manner of satires, plays and poems to amuse herself and occasionally her family, and also started Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. After settling in Chawton, she revised Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, wrote Mansfield Park, then Emma and then Persuasion. Whatever the place of Winchester, Bath or Basingstoke in her life, it was clearly Hampshire, with its villages and country houses, which was the main stage for her creativity.

In Chawton, the Austen women exchanged Basingstoke for the somewhat more homely Alton as their nearest town. Winchester was sixteen miles away, by a goodish road, on a busy coaching route. Chawton Cottage stood right on the road itself, opposite the inn and close by the village pond and from its windows Jane Austen kept an amused eye on the human and wheeled traffic. Winchester barely figures in her letters from Chawton, with most references being about her nephews at the College, as well as this gleeful comment to one of them, James-Edward Austen, in July 1816: “We saw a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys pass by yesterday morning – full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, & Vilains.” 

It was this very Hero, James-Edward Austen-Leigh, who was to publish the first biography of his aunt, in 1870, a memoir which maintained and promulgated the deceit of Jane Austen as a demure and maidenly spinster. After Jane’s death in 1817, her sister Cassandra destroyed some of  the letters in her possession: those which might have reflected indiscreetly on their author and the family, leaving 160 extant, albeit many with waspish intent which escaped Cassandra’s censorship. Jane Austen was lively, fun, irreverent and engagingly acerbic, with the breezy insouciance of the well-born, if not the well-off. It’s little wonder that her nephews and nieces cherished her and even Cassandra can be forgiven her pyre for this tender letter to their niece Fanny Knight in Kent, two days after Jane’s death: “I have lost such a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” 

In literary terms, Jane was also poorly served by her elder brother Henry, amiable, charming and doing his best as an unofficial literary agent and then co-literary executor after her death. However, he was a man who had made such a hash of running his own bank that it folded, and his lackluster efforts with London’s stony hearted publishers contributed to the six great novels being largely unknown except to bands of enthusiasts for the next 50 years. Jane’s father had rather sweetly offered to submit her first completed novel (titled ‘First Impressions’) to a publisher but it was promptly rejected without consideration. It was shrewd of the Rev George Austen to write to Thomas Cadell, who published the best-selling Fanny Burney and Charlotte Smith as well as David Hume and Samuel Johnson, but turning down the initial draft of Pride and Prejudice was a pretty startling blunder. Jane had slightly better luck when Henry secured an offer of publication for Northanger Abbey in 1803 from B. Crosby & Co, the publishing firm which dominated the book pages of the Hampshire Chronicle 4. Crosby’s endless advertisements for fiction, travel, memoirs, gardening and children’s books might have encouraged Henry to think all was well, but after six years Jane’s novel still hadn’t been published; Crosby said she could buy back the copyright for the £10 they’d paid for it but she couldn’t afford to do this until 1816 when Henry retrieved the rights and it was published a few months after her death in 1818. Jane Austen’s first publisher, the military specialist Thomas Egerton of Whitehall, chose not to promote her first three books in the Hampshire Chronicle, the national Morning Chronicle sufficing; by 1818 four of the books were in the hands of the final and most favoured publisher, John Murray, who advertised the firm’s non-fiction in the Hampshire Chronicle but not his fiction list. The first collected edition of all six novels didn’t appear until 1833.

Jane’s Final Poem

There is one piece of work by Jane Austen which is indisputably rooted in Winchester. It is a poem written just three days before her death in 1817, while she was lodging in College Street in the city, and is a droll complaint about the town’s citizens who profanely spend St Swithun’s Day at the races instead of their devotions. It was written, or more probably dictated to Cassandra, on St Swithun’s Day itself, perhaps as a response to wet weather, and it is her last composition. She enjoyed writing light and occasional verse, and had done so since childhood. Ironists may detect a deeply sardonic spirit underlying this poem, bearing in mind the saint’s reluctance to be buried inside the cathedral and what befell the original spire when his wishes were ignored.   

Venta*

Written at Winchester on Tuesday the 15th July 1817

When Winchester Races first took their beginning

It is said the good people forgot their old saint

Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin

And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.

 

The races however were fix’d and determin’d

The company met & the weather was charming

The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d & ermin’d

And nobody saw any future alarming.

 

But when the old Saint was inform’d of these doings

He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof

Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins

And thus he address’d them all standing aloof.

 

Oh, subjects rebellious, Oh Venta depraved

When once we are buried you think we are dead

But behold me Immortal. – By vice you’re enslaved

You have sinn’d and must suffer. – Then further he said

 

These races & revels & dissolute measures

With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain

Let them stand – you shall meet with your curse in your pleasures

Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

 

Ye cannot but know my command in July.

Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers,

Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry,

The curse upon Venta is July in Showers.

(*Venta Belgarum was the Roman name for Winchester. The poem is predicated on the legend of rain for the next forty days if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (15 July). Swithun was a Bishop of Winchester and and there is a memorial shrine in the cathedral. The once-fashionable Winchester race-track was on Worthy Down to the north of the city.)

Jane Austen Sights to See

Jane Austen offers literary tourists two fine sites in Winchester and an exemplary one further afield. The Winchester sites are, regretfully, associated with her death. On May 24, 1817 the seriously ailing Jane was taken from Chawton by her brother’s carriage to 8 College Street where she lodged at Mrs David’s house. Mary David, or Mrs Bradfield as she had been, was a subscriber to the County Hospital, a substantial 112-bed hospital which dominated the east side of Parchment Street from 1759 until 1868. The County Hospital was, of course, for the poor and indigent and its chief surgeon was Mr Giles King Lyford, highly regarded by his peers. When the Alton apothecary William Curtis said he could do no more for Jane, this led to her move to Winchester where she could be treated by Lyford, who of course also had a thriving private practice. He lived in some style in St Thomas Street, in a substantial house on the south-east corner at the junction with St Clement Street (on the site now occupied by numbers 4, 5 and 6), and attended his patients in their own homes, or in this case the home of Matthew and Mary David. Mrs David’s support for the hospital in Parchment Street indicated a willingness to aid the sick and may have been a factor in Jane’s friend Elizabeth Heathcote recommending her house on College Street. Of Mary David we know little, except that she was 57 when Jane came to stay; her parish church of St Swithun upon Kingsgate records her death in October 1843 and she is buried by her second husband Matthew David in the Cathedral churchyard, within the locked enclosure on the north side.

However, Jane’s illness (generally now diagnosed as Addison’s disease, quite possibly Hodgkin’s disease, and the subject of much speculation) was beyond curing although Lyford’s treatment of her, and towards the family, was scrupulous and tactful. Jane Austen spent her final eight weeks in College Street, attended by Cassandra, her brothers, her friend Elizabeth Heathcote who lived a few hundred yards away in the Cathedral Close, and of course Lyford.

On occasional visits Jane Austen might well have stayed in three different Close houses while visiting Elizabeth Heathcote: number 10 (the cathedral’s current education centre), number 2 and number 12. Number 2, demolished in 1856, had been the home of Thomas Ken, one of England’s greatest hymn writers of the 17th century and eventually Bishop of Bath and Wells. By virtue of the Buggins’ turn which prevailed among the Close residents, Ken had also lived in number 11, but this house was demolished in about 1846, representing another literary loss 9. Literary pilgrims today, though, can gaze at the house in the corner (now re-numbered 11) and know that Jane and Cassandra had stayed there for a week’s visit at the end of 1814. While gazing, they might also wonder why the estimable Mrs Heathcote chose later to fix Jane Austen in lodgings rather than in her own capacious house.

Three days after arriving in College Street, Jane Austen wrote a brave-hearted letter to her nephew James-Edward at Oxford, describing their lodgings as comfortable with a neat little drawing room and a bow window overlooking Dr Gabell’s garden. The reference to Gabell is interesting: he was Winchester College’s headmaster at the time and, in harness with the warden George Huntingford, presided over one of the most disorderly periods in the school’s long history. Several of Jane Austen’s nephews who attended the College were unfortunate to be there during this reign and she would have been well aware of Gabell’s ineptitude as head. However, his garden, on the north side of College Street where there is now open space, appears to have provided some solace.

Her Final Resting Place

The other significant site in the city is her gravestone, laid in the floor on the north aisle of the nave. Of the cathedral’s 300,000 annual visitors, many identify this tomb as a prime reason for their visit and this was recognized by the installation of a permanent exhibition to the writer in 2010. Surprise is often expressed by commentators that the epitaph – probably composed by her brother Henry – makes no reference to her as a novelist. It would be far more surprising if there had been such a reference in 1817 as only three of her novels had appeared by then, published anonymously and selling in small numbers, although to a most appreciative readership. She would have needed the fame of a Walter Scott or Mary Wollstonecraft before her achievements were incised in stone, and even the graves and tombs of such acclaimed writers as Aphra Behn, Maria Edgeworth or Fanny Burney (and Sylvia Plath in our own time) make no reference to their writing. All Henry can do is bravely refer to ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’ in the inscription and then, 55 years later, a memorial brass tablet of 1872 on the north wall of the nave begins by describing her as ‘known to many by her writings’. This was followed in 1900 by a memorial window above the tablet, more commemorative of  Jane Austen’s piety than her art.

In the circumstances it is far more curious that Jane Austen is buried in the cathedral at all, but the clue to this is in Henry’s reference to her extraordinary mind. By the time of her death, she and  her books were gathering an influential band of admirers and she was enjoying the literary attention. This band naturally included Mrs Elizabeth Heathcote, widow of a cathedral canon, resident in the Close and still with firm connections there; her father-in-law, Sir William Heathcote Bt of Hursley Park; brother Henry, ever enthusiastic and curate at Chawton; brother Edward Knight, lord of the manor at Chawton; and brother the Revd James, the eldest and like Mrs Heathcote, well acquainted with the Dean Thomas Rennell. Taken altogether, there was considerable social and literary weight behind the family’s undoubted desire for Jane to be laid to rest in the cathedral (rather than the crowded graveyard outside on the north side) and the Dean and Chapter appears to have played its part handsomely.

Had she lived, Jane Austen would have been aghast to see her childhood home, Steventon Rectory, pulled down in 1824  and astonished to know that Elizabeth Heathcote’s house near Steventon, Manydown Park, was demolished in 1965, together with Kempshott House and Hurstbourne Park in the same year, just three of  the 30 or so Hampshire country houses destroyed during the twentieth century. However, of the other fine houses she knew, Ashe House survives, as does the Vyne, Worting House, Hackwood Park and Deane House. A far humbler survival, and rather more accessible, is the Wheatsheaf inn on the A30 at North Waltham between Basingstoke and Winchester; this Grade II listed building was in effect one of the Austens’ post offices, a two mile walk from Steventon and where letters and parcels could be collected. The other surviving coaching inn and post house is Deane Gate Inn, on the B3400 between Basingstoke and Overton. 

Chawton Cottage

Most gloriously – in literary rather than architectural terms – Chawton Cottage survives and flourishes as one of the finest writer’s houses in the country. Visitors can savour, for example, the full Austenesque anguish of class, money and social standing by strolling the few hundred yards from the comfortable, cosy cottage she lived in towards the grandeur of her brother Edward’s Chawton House, all the while pondering life’s unfairness and inequality, most especially for women. Without reference to the geography and environment of this, or any other literary ‘place’, it can be difficult to experience and appreciate such contrasts. (Happily, Chawton  House is now a study centre and library focussing on women’s writing in English from 1600 to 1830. The estate came close to dereliction during the 20th century but was restored by 2003 and the stairs are still exceeding handsome.) In Chawton Cottage itself stands perhaps the most poignantly intimate of all the curated artifacts, the small round occasional table Jane Austen used to write upon. Another legend, dating from her nephew’s 1870 memoir, refers to her desire to maintain the creaking of a door to forewarn her of intruders while she was writing and so conceal the page she was working on. It’s impossible to believe that this was a serious concern when she was writing, whether letter, manuscript or shopping list, in a small busy house with creaking floorboards, and her mother, sister and their friend Martha Lloyd all knowing perfectly well what she was about.

Keiren Phelan is a trustee of Jane Austen’s House Museum and editor of the (temporarily dormant) website Literary Winchester.

Jane Austen’s House Museum is an independent museum dedicated to the life and work of Jane Austen, one of the most popular and important novelists that England has ever produced.  It is of international importance as the place where she spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all her novels.  A site of significant cultural relevance and a unique source of information on the life and works of Jane Austen, the house retains the charm of a Hampshire village home.  To mark 200 years since Jane Austen’s death, the Museum have launched Jane’s Fund, an appeal to help to restore and protect Jane’s precious home.