JANE AUSTEN’S COUNTRYSIDE
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
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.
A COUNTRY GIRL
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...