Her char­ac­ters con­verse in par­lours and gal­li­vant across the land, but what was Jane Austen’s own life like? Two cen­turies af­ter the novelist’s death, his­to­rian Lucy Wors­ley vis­its some of the great au­thor’s favourite places to peer into her world

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Lucy Wors­ley trav­els the au­thor’s land­scapes, from her Hamp­shire youth to her re­treats by the sea at Lyme Regis.

At first sight, it looks like just an­other empty, grassy field. But you’ll of­ten see cars parked near the Hamp­shire vil­lage of Steven­ton, and peo­ple peer­ing long­ingly into this par­tic­u­lar field through its hedge. They’re look­ing for the re­mains of Steven­ton Rec­tory, birth­place – and home for the first 25 years of her life – of Bri­tain’s best-loved novelist.

The re­mains of the Austen fam­ily’s wa­ter pump are still vis­i­ble, and when the sun falls low, you can see the lines of gar­den ter­races in the slope of the hill. But the site has re­cently given up many more se­crets to a team of coura­geous vol­un­teers, whose ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion has re­vealed just how deeply Jane Austen’s life (1775-1817) was em­bed­ded in the Hamp­shire coun­try­side.

Jane’s fa­ther did not make quite enough money, as the lo­cal rec­tor, to live in the style of a gen­tle­man. So he also used his rec­tory as the head­quar­ters for a farm­ing busi­ness. Far from grow­ing up in a grand coun­try house, like the ones we know from the fea­ture films of her nov­els, Jane her­self was ex­pected to help in the dairy, where cheese was made from the milk of her mother’s herd of lit­tle cows. And the rhythms of the farm­ing year echoed through her life: the buy­ing of sheep, the har­vest home, the pick­ling of the gluts from the kitchen gar­den. “Good luck to your jam­ming!” wrote a friend in the mar­gin of one recipe for pre­serves in the Austen fam­ily’s cook­book.


But when Jane was 25, and still un­mar­ried, her fa­ther de­cided he would move the fam­ily to the city of Bath. He was get­ting too old to run the farm, and he needed to find hus­bands for his daugh­ters, to sup­port them af­ter he was dead. Among the hard, bright-white stone

pave­ments and streetscapes of Bath, Jane moped and pined for the coun­try­side. Now she had to pay six­pence merely to visit the plea­sure gar­dens, where she spent as much of her time as pos­si­ble. “Yes­ter­day was a busy day with me,” she wrote af­ter one visit, “or at least with my feet… I was walk­ing al­most all day long.”


One ad­van­tage, though, of not hav­ing the live­stock to tie them down, was that the Austens could now go on hol­i­day to the sea­side. Un­til the late Ge­or­gian age, you wouldn’t have ac­tively sought out the sea; it was wild and dan­ger­ous. But now the in­creas­ingly ur­ban lives of fam­i­lies like the Austens en­cour­aged them to en­joy the con­trast pro­vided by sea-bathing, or walk­ing in beau­ti­ful scenery. They even started to ap­pre­ci­ate bad weather, which could of course be sub­limely beau­ti­ful as well as in­con­ve­nient.

Jane stayed a cou­ple of times in Lyme Regis, the for­mer port now turn­ing into a re­sort. She once de­scribed her­self as a ‘des­per­ate’ walker, so she was in her el­e­ment fol­low­ing the Dorset coast to the neigh­bour­ing vil­lage of

Char­mouth, swim­ming in the sea, and danc­ing in Lyme’s As­sem­bly Rooms. I be­lieve that she was hap­pi­est when she was away on hol­i­day like this, liv­ing in lodg­ings, away from a home where the du­ties of a spin­ster daugh­ter were many (and un­paid). Lyme Regis, the sea­side, were places for ro­mance, and there are hints that it was on a sea­side hol­i­day that a rather mys­te­ri­ous but im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship in Jane’s own life un­folded. And that’s why in her novel Per­sua­sion, Lyme Regis is a place for fall­ing in love.

It’s harder to prove ex­actly which other real-life places in­spired Jane’s nov­els, so care­fully did she fic­tion­alise her world. The beau­ti­fully ob­served coun­try out­ing to

Box Hill in Sur­rey, which Jane Austen de­scribes in Emma, was surely in­spired by the real place. It’s more dif­fi­cult to prove, al­though it’s likely, that the Gar­diners’ tour of the Peak District in Pride and Prej­u­dice was in­spired by a visit Jane paid to a cousin in

North Stafford­shire, and that the up-and­com­ing Ge­or­gian sea­side re­sort of Wor­thing in­spired the in­com­plete novel San­di­ton that Jane was work­ing on at the time of her death.


When Jane’s fa­ther died in Bath in 1805, she and her sis­ter were thrown into fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Now they had to live on char­i­ta­ble hand­outs from their brothers. They lived a makeshift life in a suc­ces­sion of tem­po­rary lodg­ings, un­til their rich­est brother of­fered them a cot­tage rent-free in the Hamp­shire vil­lage of Chaw­ton. This home­com­ing to her na­tive county al­lowed Jane to feel set­tled enough to pro­duce the three great nov­els of her ma­tu­rity: Mans­field Park, Emma, and fi­nally, Per­sua­sion, the last novel she com­pleted be­fore her hor­ri­bly early death, at the age of just 41.

Peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the fea­ture films of the books might think of Jane Austen, wrongly, as the au­thor of ‘chick lit’, al­ways telling sto­ries in which boy meets girl. In re­al­ity, she’s much more sub­tle than that. She re­veals, among other things, how her char­ac­ters re­act to the prob­lems un­fold­ing in the Ge­or­gian coun­try­side. The Napoleonic Wars lasted for most of Jane’s life­time, push­ing up the price of grain, and mak­ing it de­sir­able for landown­ers to in­close their fields, fer­tilise their soil and keep out both the peo­ple and an­i­mals who had

“Even the grow­ing suc­cess of Jane’s nov­els did not earn her much money of her own”

wan­dered freely there be­fore. To en­close meant to put up a fence, but to in­close was to change the land’s le­gal sta­tus, re­mov­ing for­mer rights to graze or for­age. This de­prived many poorer peo­ple of their tra­di­tional sources of food. Hints of this painful change in coun­try­side life would pop up time and again in Austen’s nov­els, from the man who mends a hedge (the sym­bol of in­clo­sure) in Mans­field Park, to the hun­gry gyp­sies who might have stolen High­bury’s poul­try in Emma. We can al­ways judge Jane’s male leads, who are largely landown­ers, by how gen­er­ously they treat their landed es­tates and work­ers.


Dur­ing her sec­ond long spell of liv­ing in Hamp­shire, en­joy­ing the coun­try­side and na­ture once again be­came im­por­tant for Jane. She and her sis­ter Cas­san­dra might walk a mile to the shops at the nearby town of Al­ton, or take ad­van­tage of their ac­cess to her rich brother Ed­ward’s house, just up the road, where they “liked to stroll about the grounds – some­times to Chaw­ton Park – a noble beech wood, just within a walk”. Sadly, these woods had to be sold off as the fam­ily faced fi­nan­cial prob­lems and even the grow­ing suc­cess of Jane’s nov­els did not earn her very much money of her own be­fore, in 1817, she had to move to Winch­ester for med­i­cal treat­ment.

In 1942, one Jane Austen his­to­rian spoke to a Mrs Luff of Al­ton, whose grand­mother could re­call, as a lit­tle girl, hear­ing “the grown-ups” talk­ing about Jane Austen and her life in Chaw­ton. What Mrs Luff’s grand­mother clearly re­mem­bered was the de­scrip­tion they’d given of Jane Austen in the act of “run­ning across the field to call on her friends”.

This last hint of Jane from a mem­ory-chain of lo­cal peo­ple is telling. Yes, what they re­called was the au­thor not at her desk, but run­ning through her beloved Hamp­shire fields.

ABOVE The Jane Austen Cen­tre in Bath OP­PO­SITE PAGE, CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP The beau­ti­ful sea­side town of Lyme Regis, where Jane hol­i­dayed; Jane would of­ten walk from Lyme Regis to Char­mouth; Chaw­ton House in Hamp­shire, for­merly the home of Jane’s brother...

The Pa­rade Gar­dens on the banks of the River Avon in Bath. Jane moved to the city in 1800, and it fea­tures heav­ily in her nov­els

St Ni­cholas Church on the park­land in Chaw­ton in Hamp­shire. Jane Austen’s brother Ed­ward was adopted, aged 12, by a wealthy child­less cou­ple and in­her­ited Chaw­ton. Jane vis­ited reg­u­larly and later lived in a cot­tage on the es­tate

Lucy Wors­ley is an English his­to­rian, TV pre­sen­ter and au­thor of Jane Austen at Home: A Bi­og­ra­phy. She presents The Houses That Made Jane Austen on BBC Two, which is cur­rently avail­able on iPlayer.

“We have all a bet­ter guide in our­selves, if we would at­tend to it, than any other per­son can be,” writes Jane Austen in Mans­field Park. The au­thor was at­tuned to the nu­ances of both hu­man na­ture and wider na­ture and de­lighted in walk­ing the fields and...

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