Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Jane Austen's Bath and Southampton Years

Jane Austen lived at her father's parsonage in Steventon, Hampshire, for the first twenty-five years of her life. In 1801 he decided (to her disappointment) to retire to Bath.

Bath was undergoing a massive expansion. John Wood the elder had designed King's Circus and the Royal Crescent. The Pulteney Bridge had been built two years before Jane's birth. She was to live in Bath for 6 years. While the Austens' home was in Bath, they took holidays in Dawlish, Teignmouth, Lyme Regis and Sidmouth.

Bath appears in all the main novels except Pride and Prejudice. It comes to life, as in Northanger Abbey on a particular Sunday: 'As soon as divine service was over, the Thorpes and Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which every body discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company'.

In Sidmouth, Jane probably met a man she might have married. The evidence is in comments which their niece Louisa Lefroy said Cassandra made late in life. The young man was possibly a clergyman. It was agreed that he would join the Austens later in their tour but he died before this could happen. Further evidence is that Cassandra seems to have destroyed all Jane's letters of the next few months. Various remarks in Jane's novels and letters may be significant. These include the comment by Anne Elliot about women loving longest 'when all hope is gone'.

We know that in November 1802, while at Steventon as the guest of her brother James, Jane certainly received a proposal from Harris Bigg Wither, five years her junior and heir to the nearby Manydown Estate (the house was demolished in 1965). She accepted but, in great distress, changed her mind the following morning. Harris two years later married Anne Howe Frith, daughter of a lieutenant-colonel. They had ten children.

After Bath, her next home was in Southampton, where she lived for two and a half years, before moving to the cottage her brother provided at Chawton, where she spent her final eight highly-productive years.

The death of Jane’s father had been a severe blow. His income died with him. Mrs. Austen and her daughters had to manage on slender means. Even during her father's life, Jane's personal allowance was only £20 a year - Jane herself was totally dependent.

A lifelong friend was Martha Lloyd, daughter of a local rector. When Martha's parents had died, it made sense for her to join the Austen household, and she remained with them at Chawton until Jane's death.

We have known since 1989, incidentally, that Jane spent the season during 1805 (the year her father had died) at the newly-fashionable resort of Worthing. The evidence is in a diary kept by her 12-year-old niece Fanny Knight. The party travelled from Kent, via Battle and Brighton.
At the time, Worthing’s population had risen to 2500 and the town was fast developing into a serious resort. Jane stayed in the centre of the town at Stanford Cottage, Stanford Square. From the upper windows, she would have been able to admire the sea - about 350 yards away beyond what would then have been open fields. No doubt this holiday provided much of the inspiration for Sanditon.