Jane Austen’s Steventon and Her Life There

Jane Austen’s Steventon was not only the place where she was born but was also the spot where she lived when her creativity flourished and she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility. Steventon was a rural village with a small population located in north Hampshire, England situated about 7 miles south-west of Basingstoke, between the villages of Overton, Oakley, and North Waltham. Jane lived there from 1775 to 1801, before she moved to Bath with her parents.

Jane Austen and Steventon were connected not only because she was born there but also because while living there her creativity flourished and she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility. Steventon was a rural village with a small population located in north Hampshire, England situated about 7 miles south-west of Basingstoke, between the villages of Overton, Oakley, and North Waltham. Jane lived there from 1775 to 1801, before she moved to Bath with her parents.

Picture of Jane Austen drawn by her sister Cassandra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jane’s father, George Austen, served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon and nearby Deane and was married to Cassandra Leigh. He obtained a church living and the rectory from a rich relative, and Jane was born in the Steventon rectory house on 16 December 1775, nearly two years before the famous French socialite Madame Récamier. Jane Austen arrived in the world much later than expected. In fact, her father wrote to his sister, Philadelphia, on 17 December stating:

“You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little … for Cassy certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago; however, last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister [Cassandra], and a future companion.”[1]

Jane Austen and Steventon

Location of Steventon within Hampshire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A harsh winter meant it was several months after her birth before Jane was baptized. It happened on 5 April at a local church when she received the simple name of Jane Austen. As to George’s prediction of the girls being friends, he was right. A deep and abiding friendship developed between the two sisters and they always had a special link with one another.

Jane was not the last Austen child born at Steventon. Her younger brother Charles was born there in June of 1799 resulting in the Austen children swelling to eight and being comprised of 6 boys – James, George, Edward, Henry, Francis (Frank), and Charles – and the two girls, Cassandra and Jane. With such a large family, George needed help to make ends meet and he and his wife took in boarders as students, who lived in the attic with the Austen boys.

Charles Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

George also taught these young boarders and his own sons reading, writing, Latin, Greek, and literature. As far the girls, they were under the supervision of their mother and learned everything related to running a household: cooking, cleaning, mending, washing, and caring for children. In fact, of Jane’s womanly chores, she once wrote:

“I am very fond of experimental housekeeping, such as having an ox-cheek now and then; I shall have one next week, and I mean to have some little dumplings put into it, that I may fancy myself at Godmersham.”[2]

The house Jane grew up in was somewhat large as it consisted of 7 bedrooms, 3 sitting-rooms, and 2 attics. A description of the house comes from Jane’s niece born in 1793 to Jane’s oldest brother James. Her name was Anna Lefroy:

“The dining or common sitting-room looked to the front and was lighted by two casement windows. On the same side the front door opened into a smaller parlour, and visitors, who were few and rare, were not a bit the less welcome to my grandmother because they found her sitting there busily engaged with her needle, making and mending. In later times … a sitting-room made upstairs: ‘the dressing room’, as they were pleased to call it, perhaps because it opened into a smaller chamber in which my two aunts slept. I remember the common looking carpet with its chocolate ground, and painted press with shelves above for books, and Jane’s piano, and an oval looking-glass that hung between the windows; but the charm of the room with its scanty furniture and cheaply painted walls must have been, for those old enough to understand it, the flow of native with all the fun and nonsense of a large and clever family.”[3]

Another description of it states:

“A gravel-sweep and lawn led to the front of the house, which faced north and looked on to the Waltham Road … The house itself was improved by … George and made larger and more comfortable. It had two projecting wings at the back.

The Rector’s study was on this, the south side and there was a pleasant view from the bow window over the garden – on to a wide grassy walk, bordered with strawberries, leading to a sundial at the foot of the terrace.”[4]

Steventon rectory, as depicted in “A Memoir of Jane Austen,” was in a valley and surrounded by meadows. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although life at Jane Austen’s Steventon was quiet, letter writing and the gossip that was happening in around the area often found its way into Jane Austen’s letters. One letter involved the Harwood family, a family where several generations had been living at the Deane House since the seventeenth century. Their house also happened to be located next to the old Parsonage where George and Cassandra lived for the first few years of their marriage. John Harwood VI and his wife Anne had three sons: John VII, Earle, and Charles, and, in early November of 1800 Jane mentioned one of the Harwoods in a letter:

“Earle Harwood has been again giving uneasiness to his family, & Talk to the neighbourhood; – in the present instance however he is only unfortunate & not in fault. – About ten days ago, in cocking a pistol in the guard-room at Marcou, he accidentally shot himself through the Thigh. Two young Scotch Surgeons in the Island were polite enough to propose taking off the Thigh at once, but to that he would not consent; & accordingly in his wounded state was put on board a Cutter & conveyed to Haslar Hospital at Gosport; where the bullet was extracted, & where he now is I hope in a fair way of doing well. – The surgeon of the Hospital wrote to the family on the occasion, & John Harwood [VII] went down to him immediately attended by James, whose object in going was to be the means of bringing back the earliest Intelligence to Mr. & Mrs. Harwood, whose anxious sufferings particularly those of the latter, have of course been dreadful. … James came back the next day, bringing such favourable accounts as greatly to lessen the distress of the family at Deane, tho’ it will probably be a long while before Mrs. Harwood can be quite at ease.”[5]

Jane’s brother Edward eventually inherited the Steventon Estate, and, in 1828, he replaced the rectory house that Jane had grown up it with a new one. Also, on the estate was the Steventon Manor House, and, during the time that Jane and her family lived at the Rectory, the Knights, who were Lords of the Manor, leased it to a family name Digweed The Austen family was friendly with them and Jane mentioned the Digweeds in her correspondence. For instance, a week before Christmas on 1799, she wrote to Cassandra on 18 December telling her of a terrible accident involving a Digweed:

“James Digweed has had a very ugly cut – how could it happen? – It happened by a young horse which he had lately purchased, & which he was trying to back into its stable; – the Animal kicked him down with his forefeet, & kicked a great hole in his head; – he scrambled away as soon as he could, but was stunned for a time & suffered a good deal of pain afterwards. – Yesterday he got up [on] the Horse again, & for fear of something worse, was forced to throw himself off.[6]

Edward Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On Thursday, 20 November 1800, Jane teased her sister about James Digweed stating:

“The three Digweeds all came on tuesday, & we played a pool at Commerce. – James Digweed left Hampshire to day. I think he must be in love with you, from his anxiety to have you go to the Faversham Balls, & likewise from his supposing, that the two Elms fell from their greif at your absence.”[7]  

Besides the occasional visits to and from the Digweeds, the Austen’s also enjoyed visiting other people living in the area. For example, in late October of 1800, when the weather was “delightful,” Jane mentioned that she and her family visited many of their neighbors and shared her adventures in a letter to Cassandra:

“We have been exceedingly busy ever since you went away. … On Thursday we walked to Deane, Yesterday to Oakley Hall we did a great deal – eat some sandwiches all over mustard, admired Mr. Bramston’s Porter & Mrs. Bramston’s Transparencies, & gained promise from the latter of two roots of hearts-ease, one all yellow & the other all purple for you. At Oakely we bought ten pair of worsted stockings, & a shift. … This morning we called at the Harwoods, & in their dining-room found Heathcote & Chute for ever – Mrs. Wm Heathcote & Mrs. Chute – the first of whom took a long ride yesterday morning with Mrs. Harwood into Lord Carnarvon’s Park & fainted away in the evening, & the second walked down from Oakley to Steventon afterwards.”[8]

Silhouette of Cassandra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As mentioned, people walked in and around Jane Austen’s Steventon, and they did so extensively as it was the most common means of transportation at the time. Jane and Cassandra spent many hours walking, and when roads were dirty or muddy, it did not mean they stayed home. One memoir of Jane states that “the sisters took long walks in pattens.”[9] These devices were placed over the shoes and raised them above the wet or muddy ground thereby keeping the bottom of gowns clean and dry.

Balls were another popular pastime for those living in the area of Jane Austen’s Steventon. She mentioned the Assembly Balls that she attended in the market town that was about 9 miles from Steventon called Basingstoke. When attending these events, she often stayed with her great friends Catherine and Alethea Bigg who lived at Manydown Park, about six miles from Steventon. The Biggs home was an ancient manor in Wootton St Lawrence, Hampshire, and described as a fine house “with a broad staircase leading to the long drawing room with its marble chimney-piece and large bay window.”[10]

Jane wrote Cassandra on 8 January 1799 of a ball she attended:

“[T]he Biggs & Mr. Holder they dine there tomorrow & I am to meet them; I shall sleep there. Catherine has the honour of giving her name to a set, which will be composed of two Withers, two Heathcotes, a Blachford, and no Bigg except herself. … I spent a very pleasant evening, chiefly among the Manydown party – . There was the same kind of supper as last Year, & the same want of chairs. – There were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time. … There was one Gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good looking young Man, who I was told wanted very much to be introduced to me; – but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, We never could bring it about. – I danced with Mr. John Wood again, twice with a Mr. South a lad from Winchester … One of my gayest actions was sitting down to Dances in preference to having Lord Bolton’s eldest son for my Partner, who danced too ill to be endured.”[11]

Besides balls, the Austen family also loved to perform theatricals at Steventon and they were said to have taken “great pains” to ensure these were splendidly dramatic. Philadelphia’s daughter and Jane’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, wrote about them stating:

“My uncle’s barn is fitting up quite like a theatre and all the young folks are to take their part. The Countess is Lady Bob Lardoon in the former and Miss Tittup in the later. They wish me much of the party and offer to carry me, but I do not think of it. I should like to be a Spectator, but am sure I should have the courage to act a part, nor do I wish to attain it.”[12]

Eliza mentioned the theatricals again writing in November of 1787 when she wrote to her cousin, Phylly Walter:

“You know we have long projected acting this Christmas in Hampshire & this scheme would go on a vast deal better would You lend your assistance You may remember when You was at Tunbridge my expressing a very earnest & a very natural wish to have You with me during the approaching festival, & on finding there were two unengaged parts immediately thought of You & am particularly commissioned by My Aunt Austen & her whole Family to make the earliest application possible & assure You how very happy You will make them as well as myself if You could be prevailed on to undertake these parts & give us all your Company. … Compliance will highly oblige me & your declining my proposal as cruelly mortify me. I know you have engagements but if You love me put them off to another Year consider it is the only Christmas we may pass together for many Years …  As to any diffidence in regard to succeeding the Parts, I beg it may be sent to Coventry, for I assure You they are neither long or difficult, & I am certain You will succeed in them. … Do not let your Dress neither disturb You, as I think I can manage it so that the Green Room should provide You with what is necessary for acting. … Remember I must have a favourable answer.”[13]

Another social activity enjoyed during the time of Jane Austen’s Steventon was something that happened weekly. It was when people attended church on Sundays. In the city of London many people skipped church, but for those living in the country attendance was more regular and Jane was known to attend church services twice every Sunday to listen to her father preach.

George addressed his congregation at a small parish church known as St. Nicholas that was about a half mile away from the center of Steventon and reached from the Austen’s rectory house by a stony pathway. It dated from the twelfth century and was a plain narrow building that during Victorian times was restored and had a steeple added. The church was described as having a “certain dignity.” Later, the two Cassandras (Mrs. Austen and Jane’s sister) were buried behind this church.

Jane Austen and Steventon

St. Nicholas Church. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Jane’s father retired, the family moved to Bath, but that did not mean that she did not on occasion visit Steventon as it always held a special place in her heart. When she died, although there was no mention of her books on the grave slab of the floor of the Winchester Cathedral where she was buried, there was a mention of Steventon. The inscription in part reads:

“In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County, she departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian.”[14]

References:

  • [1] W. Austen-Leigh and R. A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters: a Family Record (New York: Smith, Elder & Company, 1913), p. 22.
  • [2] E. Austen-Leigh, Janes Austen and Steventon: A Guide Book Illustrated (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co. Ltd., 1937), p. 47.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 3.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [5] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 55.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 27.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 62.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 49–50.
  • [9] James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (London: Richard Bentley and Son London, 1871), p. 38.
  • [10] E. Austen-Leigh, p. 17–18.
  • [11] D. Le Faye, ed., p. 34–35.
  • [12] Le Faye Deirdre, ed., Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillilde (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 80–81.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 81–82.
  • [14] E. Austen-Leigh, p. 48.

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