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Delve into the local history of novelist Jane Austen

Have you ever wondered why we have a sculpture of Jane Austen in Market Place, when usually you only hear about her presence in Winchester and Bath?

Yet, we know that poor Jane spent only the last eight weeks of her life in Winchester, taken there by her brothers and sister, Cassandra, when she became very ill. And as for Bath, she really didn’t like it much – it was a sad time for her family as her father died there quite suddenly.

Photograph supplied by Basingstoke Heritage Society – Terry Hunt.

What we do know about Jane Austen is that she was born in Steventon Rectory on 16 December  1775, the seventh child in the family and the second girl. Even by the age of 12 she was writing to amuse her family, jokey history and that sort of thing, now known as her ‘Juvenilia’. By 1800 she had drafted three novels. Including Pride and Prejudice. Her father, Reverend George Austen, decided to retire to Bath in 1801 but by then she was already 25, a keen dancer and a regular attender at the Balls held in Basingstoke in the Town Hall.

Copy of a print of Market Place with the old Town Hall

The Town Hall in those days was in Market Place. The Town Hall and Assembly room where Jane and her sister went to dances stood where the Lloyds Bank building is today, but extended  eastwards into Market Place. Girls were always chaperoned at dances and if Mrs Austen could not attend, then Mrs Clerk from Worting House obliged. The chaperone had of course to be a married woman!

Image provided by Basingstoke Heritage Society.

Jane’s family was not wealthy, but she had friends such as Catherine and Alethea Bigg from Manydown with whom she went to dances. If there was a shortage of men to dance with, then sometimes women danced together. Jane, who is known for her sharp comments, was not always very positive about the available dance partners. She wrote “there was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much …”.

You might have seen the film ‘Becoming Jane’ with the story of Jane’s short love affair with Tom Lefroy. Tom was the Irish nephew of good friends of the Austen family, the Lefroys of Ashe. The Reverend Lefroy was vicar there. Jane wrote frankly to her sister about Tom, who she had met at a dance at Ashe Rectory in 1795, when she was just 20 ….

“He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together”.

The brief romance was not going anywhere. Tom Lefroy had no money and he was bundled home by his aunt and uncle. Although her letters to Cassandra are very chatty and easy – more like the way we phone our friends today – I think she did fall a bit in love with Tom.

Some seven years later, she came from Bath to go to a ball with the Bigg sisters from Manydown, and their brother Harris proposed to Jane. No doubt thinking of the financial security this would bring, she accepted him. Following what must have been a dreadful, sleepless night, she sought him out next morning and retracted. This was a big issue – so much was possible by marrying a wealthy landowner. She asked to be swiftly taken to her brother in Steventon and from there back to Bath.

Jane’s brother, Edward, had been adopted by wealthy childless relatives and was brought up as a gentleman with a large estate in Kent, eventually inheriting the Chawton estate near Alton. After Jane’s father had died, she and her mother and sister had no home and for the next four years made their home with Jane’s brothers’ families. Finally, in 1809, wealthy Edward offered them a cottage in Chawton. Here, for seven years, Jane wrote again, revising her early works and beginning to publish albeit anonymously at first. The women had a good home here. Now the Jane Austen House museum.

Jane Austen’s writing slope. Image provided by Basingstoke Heritage Society.

Jane’s fame as a novelist came long after her death. One of her precious possessions was the portable writing slope with a drawer which her father had bought from John Ring in Basingstoke. John Ring lived in a house in Lower Church Street, which we can still see today.

John Ring lived in this house. Photograph provided by Basingstoke Heritage Society

When she became ill, her family took her to Winchester to be cared for by Dr Giles Lyford, the nephew of the family’s doctor in Basingstoke whose premises were almost certainly in Cross Street.

Steventon Church. Photo supplied by Basingstoke Heritage Society.

We are lucky that many of her letters survived, with her quick, sharp tongue. Steventon Church is well worth a visit and Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton really lovely. Closer to home, there is a Trail of Jane’s Basingstoke on the website of Basingstoke Heritage Society.

Blog written by Debbie Reavell – Basingstoke Heritage Society

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