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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

A Few Thoughts on the Locations of Jane Austen’s Novels

We are told Longbourn of Pride and Prejudice is in Hertfordshire, within ten miles of the Great North Road, about 24 miles from Gracechurch Street; so we can picture it in, say, Wheathampstead or Ware. Incidentally, in November 1794 the Derbyshire Regiment of Militia – about 500 men – was moved to its new billet based around Hertford and Ware. This could have given Jane the idea for her use of the militia.

Similarly, clues suggest Hunsford is somewhere in the region of Sevenoaks, since Elizabeth is to change horses at Bromley on her way back to London.

The Highbury of Emma seems to match Leatherhead. Later generations of Jane's family thought so; and its distance from Richmond (nine miles) and Box Hill (seven miles) supports the idea.

Northanger Abbey is in Gloucestershire, about 30 miles from Bath (presumably in the region of Stroud or the Severn Estuary). We know that Petty-France (Badminton) is on the journey. Henry, however, has a parish at Woodston which is closer to Bath and twenty miles from Northanger.

Catherine Morland's family home is at Fullerton in Wiltshire. Mr. Allen says Fullerton is nine miles from Salisbury, moving in a direction away from Gloucestershire, so we may imagine it as, say, Newton.

No matter where the rural location, Jane Austen is always skilful in populating the community and giving it life, as frequently in the use of dialogue. It is a common device in Emma. And here is Mrs. Bennet: 'Mrs. Long says... he agreed with Mr. Morris... in general, you know, they visit no newcomers...'.

London, well known to Jane Austen through visits to her brother Henry, was still fairly compact. In Sense and Sensibility, the Palmers take a house for the season in Hanover Square. Mrs. Palmer's parents, Sir John and Lady Middleton, stay in Conduit Street. Colonel Brandon stays in St. James's Street. Lucy Steele and her sister stay in Bartlett's Buildings (less fashionably on the city side of Holborn), to which Lucy says Edward dare not come 'for fear of detection'. The Dashwoods take 'a very good house for three months' in Harley Street. None of the awfulness of modern architecture, modern materials and modern communication had yet appeared. Travellers can hardly ever have seen anything ugly – which is precisely the impression we derive from Jane's work.

Nevertheless, there is more description of places and settings in Bernard Shaw's stage directions than in the whole of Jane Austen's novels!