Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that the novels of Jane Austen were about nothing more than the making of marriages. There are many others, however, who think Jane Austen is a wonderful writer. In these divided opinions I'm reminded of the different ways in which cheerful Mr Bingley and moody Mr Darcy look at the first ball they attend in Pride and Prejudice:
"Bingley had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life; everybody had been most kind and attentive to him... and as to Miss Bennett, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful. Darcy, on the contrary, had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion... Miss Bennett he acknowledged to be pretty but she smiled too much" (Pride and Prejudice P12).
Pride and Prejudice is about how we look at things. In the places I'll suggest you visit related to Jane Austen, you might see small villages, or big, impressive mansions. Jane Austen did not live a recognisably "big" life, but she invites us to see a small world with big eyes, or a big world with small eyes. She punctures pomposity, and finds unexpected importance in apparently small lives.
Jane Austen was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon on 16th of December 1775. Her father, George Austen, was Rector of Steventon. Her mother, Cassandra Leigh Austen, belonged to the "lesser gentry". Jane was the seventh of eight children. Her early childhood was busy and active, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, and a number of other children who attended the rectory school run by George Austen. At age seven Jane was sent to boarding school in Oxford, and then Southampton. After a period of illness she was sent to Abbey School in Reading. Abbey School may have resembled Miss Goddard's school in Emma, a place of "healthful food, outdoor exercise, and a less than rigorous academic programme" (Jane Austen by Carol Shields, P19). Jane was brought home in 1786 at the age of ten. This was the end of her formal education. Jane now settled down to quiet village life in Steventon. By 1795 she had started writing, and between 1795 and 1799 she producing a short novel called Lady Susan and early drafts of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. A woman's effort to win a man is the major theme, but Jane herself was to remain single. In 1796 there was a brief romance with a man named Tom Lefroy who was visiting relatives at nearby Ashe Parsonage. But Tom's parents did not approve of a parson's daughter, and he was taken away. A few years later, in 1801, Jane received an offer of marriage from a Mr Bigg Withers, a man who was "big and awkward," and who she did not love. The proposal was accepted initially, only to be withdrawn the following day. Perhaps Jane remembered the advice of her cousin Eliza, following her disappointment with Tom Lefroy. Eliza, recently widowed, consoled Jane, telling her that marriage could be a form of subjection: "there might be other possibilities for a woman of wit and intelligence."
Jane's brothers and sisters were all going their own way, into the navy, into marriage. Her brother Edward had been adopted by the wealthy Knight family and had become a landed gentlemen in Kent. He lived at the family seat in Godmersham, and Jane would often visit to help with Edward's rapidly expanding family. Jane probably had Godmersham Park in mind when she was creating the Darcy estate of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice . On her first visit to Pemberley Elizabeth Bennett thought to herself: "To be mistress of Pemberley might be something." Jane must have thought the same looking at Godmersham, a place where she was often treated as the poor relation. Godmersham Park can still be seen in the village of Godmersham, just off the A28 between Ashford and Canterbury, Kent. Godmersham is privately owned and is not set up for visitors. However, you can see the front of the house, and there is a walk from the estate's main gate, through the park down towards the river Stour.
Jane continued to write, but publishers showed no interest. Life went on at Steventon, with domestic activities and the quiet production of great books. Nothing now remains of the rectory in Steventon, but other eighteenth century buildings in the village survive. The church in Steventon where her father worked is much the same, as is the Wheatsheaf Inn at nearby North Waltham. Jane Austen, like Elizabeth Bennett, was a keen walker, and perhaps like Elizabeth she probably put up with veiled comments from those who thought of walking as unbecoming for a woman. Jane and her sister Cassandra also went to many dances in grand houses in the Steventon area. Some can still be seen, notably The Vyne, which is now a National Trust property near Basingstoke. Jane played cards with Thomas Chute, son of The Vyne's owner William John Chute. Wandering through the drawing rooms I talked to a National Trust guide who described furniture pushed back against the walls, giving room for the youngsters to have their dances. The rooms are actually not as big as you'd think looking at the house from the outside. There is no extravagant ballroom. Dances attended by Jane here were rather intimate little affairs.
Box Hill, Surrey
There were also visits to Great Bookham in Surrey where a cousin had married the rector Samuel Cooke. Excursions from Great Bookham were made to nearby Box Hill. In many ways this famous hill personifies Jane Austen's work. Box Hill had been a tourist destination for day trippers since the reign of Charles II. Austen's work is about the dreams of people in a closely circumscribed world. Box Hill is not particularly high or inaccessible, but after only a relatively short climb up a winding road, a visitor is suddenly confronted with views suggesting immensity. Day trippers find themselves in a bigger world. Jane Austen's Emma goes to Box Hill wishing to see what all the fuss is about. She has a disappointing picnic there. In her disappointment she wishes she was "sitting almost alone, and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her". Emma returns home in tears. Box Hill is "not Switzerland" according to Emma, but the experience of seeing so much immensity so close to home is a shock. Even in limited lives the sense of something bigger is not far away.
Royal Crescent, Bath
Jane's life was turned upside down in 1800 when it was announced that the family would move from Steventon to Bath. Bath is an important influence in Austen's novels, and is often portrayed as an exciting place offering escape from the mundane. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham escapes his dull life by running away to Bath. Catherine in Northanger Abbey is all "eager delight" at arriving in the city. But for Jane Austen her move to Bath was not a happy one. Much as she chafed against her limited life in Steventon, leaving the village was deeply traumatic. The traditional tale is that she fainted on hearing news of the move. She stopped writing, and was unable to start again for ten years. In 1805 George Austen died leading to difficult circumstances. It was only after 1809, when her rich brother Edward provided Jane with a permanent home at Chawton in Hampshire, that writing began again.
Not long after moving to Chawton, Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. After so many years of obscurity, the joy of this time was immense. Jane had her own house, and now she was a published author. She settled into her writer's routine, producing Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. The Chawton house is now a popular tourist attraction. Click on the link for details. Sadly Jane Austen's time at Chawton was not to last very long. In 1817 she began to feel unwell and her health quickly deteriorated. Her biographer Carol Shields suggests she may have been suffering from breast cancer. Other historians have suggested Addisons disease. She went to Winchester to receive medical attention, but died there on 18th July 1817.
Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Garden at Jane Austen's house in Chawton.