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An Unrequited Love
By Andrew Norman
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Andrew Norman,
All rights reserved.
Steventon: The Cradle of Jane's Genius
Steventon in Hampshire, the birthplace of English novelist Jane Austen, was said by William Austen-Leigh, Jane's great-nephew and grandson of her eldest brother James, to be 'the cradle of her genius'.
The hamlet, with its cottages, church, rectory, and manor house, was situated 6 miles from Basingstoke amidst rolling hills, woodland and farmland. A drawing by Jane's niece Anna Lefroy, daughter of her eldest brother James, depicts Steventon in the late eighteenth century. Here, in a meandering leafy lane, are sturdy-looking cottages with climbing plants ascending their walls and hurdle fencing and wicket gates enclosing their gardens. And who inhabited these cottages? Why, shepherds and farm labourers whose wives and children assisted them in the fields, especially at harvest time.
In the words of Oxford scholar R.W. Chapman:
The north Hampshire chalk is a thin soil and does not grow the finest trees. But it is a country of pleasing irregularities, abounding in lanes and lovely farms and cottages.
James E. Austen-Leigh, son of Jane's brother James, describes how, in the shelter of Steventon's hedgerows, primroses, anemones and wild hyacinths grew. Whereas in the churchyard were to be found sweet violets, both purple and white, 'which grew, "in abundance" beneath the church's south wall'. Here, also, were to be found 'large elms ... old hawthorns', and 'the hollow yew tree'.
As for the surrounding area, small thickets or plantations of trees dotted the landscape – Burnt Wood, Popham Woods and Nutley Wood, for example. But generally, this was a landscape of fields devoted to crop-growing and cattle- and sheep-grazing. (In former times there were areas of common land, such as Basingstoke Down and Basingstoke Fields to the east, where the lower classes had been accustomed to graze their animals or collect acorns for their pigs to eat, or timber and turf for firewood. This land had, however, been swallowed up by the Enclosure Acts of 1787 and transferred to private ownership.) At nearby Overton there were silk mills and a brickworks.
Although not located on a main thoroughfare, the hamlet of Steventon was by no means cut off – except perhaps in winter when deep snow lay on the ground. A mile or so to the north was the Basingstoke to Andover road from where it was possible to catch the London coach, two of which ran nightly, from Dean Gate. On this road lay Overton – the post-town – which was where a main branch of the Post Office was situated. Likewise, a mile or so to the south was the Basingstoke to Winchester road, known as Popham Lane, along which coaches also ran.
Steventon is recorded as a manor (feudal lordship) in the Domesday Book – a comprehensive record of the extent, value and ownership of the land made in 1086 by order of King William I. However, there is no mention of a church there, although churches were recorded at the nearby villages of Ashe and Deane. Nonetheless, evidence that the Saxons may have worshipped there is provided by the limestone fragment of the shaft of a Saxon cross, believed to date from the ninth century, which was discovered in 1877. It had been used in the construction of one of the walls of Steventon Manor House.
The Norman Church of St Nicholas, Steventon, with its crenulated tower and spire, was built in about the year 1200 by the lords of the manor: the de Luvers family; minor alterations were made in the thirteenth, fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The stencilled wall paintings which decorate the chancel arch are thought to date from the Victorian era, whereas the small decorated area below the wall light to the right of the chancel arch is from the medieval period.
Here, members of the Austen family served as clergymen from 1754–1873, a period of 119 years. They were curate Thomas Bathurst (1754–65), and rectors Henry Austen (1759–61), George Austen (1761–1805), James Austen (1805–19), Henry Thomas Austen (1820–23) and William Knight (1823–73). This is where Jane and four of her siblings: Henry, Cassandra, Francis and Charles, were baptised and where Jane's maternal grandmother Jane Leigh is buried.
When the Reverend George Austen arrived in Steventon in the spring of 1764, he found the church roof to be in a poor state of repair; the reason being that the spire, a pyramidal wooden structure atop the church tower, had blown down onto the roof in the winter of 1763–4 in a severe gale.
Steventon's Tudor manor house, with its 'circling screen of sycamores', was situated adjacent to the church at the end of Church Walk. It was built by Sir Richard Pexall to replace the former Norman building which he demolished in 1560. The present occupants were the Digweeds who rented the property from the Knights of Godmersham Park, Kent.
Curiously, there were no cottages in the vicinity of the church and manor house, perhaps because the original hamlet had been destroyed by a pandemic of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, which occurred in the fourteenth century.CHAPTER 2
Jane's Parents: Steventon Rectory
Jane's father, the Revd George Austen, born in 1731, had an unpropitious beginning to his life. His mother Rebecca had died in 1732 when he was only a year old, whereupon his father William, a surgeon of Tonbridge, Kent, was subsequently remarried in 1736 to Susanna Kelk. When William died the following year at the early age of 36, Susanna promptly expelled George and his sisters, Philadelphia and Leonora, from the house. The children were sent to London to be looked after by their Uncle Stephen who was a bookseller. George was fortunate, however, in having another uncle – the wealthy Francis Austen of Sevenoaks – to pay for him to be educated at Tonbridge School and St John's College, Oxford, where he became a distinguished scholar and a Fellow from 1751–60. Meanwhile, in 1754 he was ordained. He then returned to his old school at Tonbridge as second master.
In 1761 George Austen became Rector of Steventon, Hampshire: a living presented to him by his kinsman Thomas Knight (I) of Godmersham Park, Kent. He remained non-resident and continued to live in Oxford where he was a don at St John's College; the parish was left to the care of his cousin the Revd Thomas Bathurst.
In his book Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, William Austen-Leigh states that:
George Austen's handsome, placid, dignified features were an index to his mind. Serene in temper, devoted to his religion and his family, a good father and a good scholar, he deserved the love and respect which every evidence that we have shows him to have gained from his family and his neighbours.
Jane's mother was Cassandra, née Leigh, born in 1739, whose family seat was Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. Cassandra was proud of her Leigh family history, one of her ancestors being Sir Thomas Leigh, who was Lord Mayor of London in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and who had ridden at the head of the procession during the Queen's proclamation at St Paul's Cathedral. In social terms, therefore, the Revd George Austen had married somewhat above his station. Intellectually, however, as a classical scholar, he was by no means Cassandra's inferior.
In his book A Memoir of Jane Austen, James E. Austen-Leigh writes:
In Mrs Austen ... was to be found the germ of much of the ability which was concentrated in Jane, but of which others of her children had a share. She united strong common sense with a lively imagination, and often expressed herself, both in writing and in conversation, with epigrammatic force and point.
James E. Austen-Leigh might also have mentioned that Mrs Austen was an expert at needlework and 'wrote in an admirable hand, both powerful and interesting'. Her talent for writing poetry was recognised at the age of 6 when her uncle, Theophilus Leigh, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, described her as 'already the poet of the family'.
When the Revd George Austen married Cassandra Leigh on 26 April 1764, the newly-weds immediately moved to Hampshire and took up residence, not at Steventon, but at the rectory at Deane. This was because Steventon Rectory – invariably referred to as The Parsonage – suffered from damp and was in a state of disrepair. This is not surprising, as the rectory was situated in a valley into which the fields of the glebe lands (lands attached to the parish church), including 'Quintence Meadow', 'South Meadow', 'Home Meadow', 'East Meadow', 'Nursery Meadow' and 'Hanging Meadow', all drained. (Only a fraction of this land was occupied by the Revd Austen, as will be seen.) In the words of William Austen-Leigh:
The rectory had been of the most miserable description but George Austen improved it until it became a tolerably roomy and convenient habitation.
Rent was payable by the Austens to the Rector of Deane, the Revd William Hillman, who, having private means, chose to live at nearby Ashe Park rather than at the rectory. R.W. Chapman stated that the Revd Austen 'improved and enlarged [Steventon Rectory] until it was sufficiently commodious to hold pupils [of his] in addition to a growing family'.
Steventon Rectory was situated on the south side of the Steventon to North Waltham road, near to the corner of Church Walk which led to the Parish Church of St Nicholas, a quarter of a mile away. A woodcut depicting the front of the rectory, which appeared in James E. Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1870, shows it to be a substantial property, even before it was enlarged. As for the Revd Austen's alterations, they are evident from an illustration of the rear of the rectory – executed by Anna Lefroy – where it is apparent that two substantial two-storey wings have been added, one at either side.
These works took several years to accomplish and it was not until about 1768 that the Austens were able to transfer to Steventon Rectory. In that year, Susanna (née Kelk), the Revd Austen's widowed stepmother, who had expelled George and his sisters from the family home, died, whereupon George received the sum of about £1,200 from the sale of the family house. Likewise, when Mrs Austen's mother Jane (née Walker), widow of the Revd Thomas Leigh, died – also in the same year – the former received a legacy of some £1,000.
R.W. Chapman's work entitled Jane Austen: Facts and Problems contains the following description of the rectory, gleaned from a number of different sources:
The 'dining or common sitting-room', which 'looked to the front and was lighted by two casement windows', was perhaps to the right of the front door – the position of the chimney suggests a kitchen [as being] on that side of the house. The front door 'opened into a small parlour', where visitors were likely to find Mrs Austen 'busily engaged with her needle'. The larger room to the left may have been the Rector's study, looking to the garden, 'his own exclusive property ... But the study had a bay-window at the back of the house, and may have been wholly in the added part'.
Where the Revd Austen's library was situated is not clear, but it is likely that the pupils' classroom (with dormitories above) was contained in one of the new extensions.
Servants at the rectory included a cook, a groom/coachman (the Austens kept a carriage and pair of horses), a nanny for the children, a housekeeper/lady's maid and a washerwoman.
In addition to the rectory, the property included:
... one barn ..., one lesser barn ... one close [enclosure] of gleib-land [glebe land] adjoining to the said parsonage house and barns, which is by estimation two acres & a half ... One parcel of gleib-land lying in the middle-common-field ... [which] is by estimation half an acre.
This area of 3 acres (which corresponds to plots 1, 2 and 3 as shown on the Plan of the Glebe Land of Steventon), served as part of the Revd George Austen's benefice. Also, the rector was entitled to tythes 'of what nature and quality soever, arising within the said parish', and to 'five eggs, payable on Good fryday' from every house within the said parish. For officiating at a marriage ceremony the rector's fee was 1S 6d, and for 'Churching of a woman' (taking a woman who has recently given birth to church for a service of thanksgiving), 6d. By 1727, however, the land adjoining 'ye Parsonage house' was recorded as being 11/2 acres. In addition, the Revd Austen farmed the 200-acre Cheesedown Farm, situated in the north of the parish.
At Steventon, George Austen occupied himself in his spare time by revising the Parish Register. (In this his daughter Jane would subsequently take a hand, albeit an unauthorised one, in making her own additions to the register, as will shortly be seen).
As a clergyman, George's income was a modest £100 per annum approximately, which was augmented by the profits from Cheesedown Farm. This income was further increased when he took in pupils from well-to-do families – half a dozen or so in number who boarded at the rectory and whom he tutored, along with his own sons, prior to them being admitted to Oxford University. They included George (born 1757), son of Warren Hastings of the East India Company and subsequently Governor-General of Bengal, and Richard, son of William Buller, Bishop of Exeter.
When the Revd Hillman died in 1773, George became Rector of Deane as well as of Steventon; this living having been purchased for him by his Uncle Francis Austen of Sevenoaks, Kent, who, as already mentioned, had also paid for his education. Reverend Austen now received an extra £100 per annum in consequence.
Mrs Austen, in addition to her wifely duties, kept a 'Little Alderney' – a small fawn-coloured cow, the strain of which originated from the Channel Island of Alderney and which yielded rich milk and creamy yellow butter. She also had a 'nice dairy fitted up with a bull and six cows'.
According to author Maggie Lane:
At Steventon, the Austens ... enjoyed one of those old-fashioned gardens in which flowers and vegetables jostled for space. The family were always experimenting with growing things: their strawberry beds were famous, and they were the first people in the neighbourhood to grow potatoes – to the astonishment of their parishioners, who had never seen or tasted that vegetable, and who could not be convinced that it was worth cultivating! Alongside this more homely branch of gardening, the Austens kept up with the fashionable improvements of their time: designing the carriage sweep, and planting trees to screen a farmyard, or to create sheltered walkways.
With eggs from poultry kept in the yard, the Austens were largely self-sufficient in food.
In addition to socialising with those neighbours of theirs who were on the same social plane, the Austen family made, and received, visits to and from their relations in Kent, Bath and elsewhere. What with the Austen family, its servants, and the Revd Austen's pupils and visitors, the rectory was indeed a busy and bustling place. It became more so when Mrs Austen's eldest sister Jane, widow of Dr Cooper, Vicar of Sonning near Reading in Berkshire, died in 1783, whereupon her children Edward and Jane spent much of their time at Steventon.
The Austens came into contact with the nobility and gentry at balls, held by the owners of stately homes and set in large estates which comprised woodland, expansive lakes and extensive parkland complete with trees and grazing sheep and cattle. Such people included Lord Dorchester (Kempshott Park); the Earl of Portsmouth (Hurstbourne Priors); Lord Bolton (Hackwood Park); the Holders (Ashe Park); the Bigg Withers (Manydown Park); the Chutes (The Vyne, Sherborne St John); the Portals (Freefolk); the Harwoods (Deane House); the Bramstons (Oakley Hall, Overton), and others.
Besides these balls, it appears that the Austens established 'no great intimacy with any of the neighbours [with whom they] were upon friendly but rather distant terms'. Nonetheless, Jane herself, and probably the rest of the family, had 'a regard' for their neighbours and 'felt a kindly interest in their proceedings'.
Beyond this largely tranquil and self-contained world was a wider one. In 1778, for example, 1,000 French prisoners of war were imprisoned at Winchester (France's King Louis XVI having declared war on Great Britain on 10 July). The following year, some 8,000 men were imprisoned at Andover and Basingstoke.
Dr John Lyford of Basingstoke sometimes visited Steventon in order to attend Mrs Austen who suffered from indifferent health; after which he joined the family for dinner and 'partook of our elegant entertainment'.
In November 1800 there was great excitement in the Steventon household when some new furniture arrived. Jane said:
The tables are come & give general contentment. I had not expected that they would so perfectly suit the fancy of us all three [presumably herself, her mother and her father] or that we should so well agree in the disposition of them ... The two ends put together form our constant Table for everything, & the centrepiece stands exceedingly well under the glass [mirror]; holds a great deal most commodiously, without looking awkwardly. The Pembroke has got its destination by the sideboard, & my mother has great delight in keeping her Money & papers locked up. The little Table, which used to stand there, has most conveniently taken itself off into the bed-room & now we are in want only of the chiffonier, which is neither finished nor come.
This implies that the furniture had been hand-made to order.
Excerpted from Jane Austen by Andrew Norman. Copyright © 2010 Andrew Norman,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Steventon: The Cradle of Jane's Genius,
2 Jane's Parents: Steventon Rectory,
3 The Young Jane Austen,
4 Jane's Siblings,
5 Enter Eliza Hancock,
6 Jane's Juvenilia,
7 Further Adventures of Eliza: Her Influence on Jane.,
8 Romance: Tom Lefroy and Edward Bridges,
9 Pride and Prejudice,
10 Sense and Sensibility,
11 The Reverend Samuel Blackall,
12 Northanger Abbey,
13 The Austens Leave Steventon,
14 A Proposal of Marriage,
15 The Watsons,
16 Mansfield Park,
17 Jane and Eliza: Two Opposites,
18 'Mary Crawford': The Reincarnation of Eliza,
21 Jane Austen: A Loss of Youth and Bloom,
22 Jane's Mystery Illness Explained,
24 The Death of Jane Austen,