Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 14 - At Southampton

For two and a half years, that is to say from May 1801 to September 1804, we do not hear any more of Jane Austen from her own correspondence. Then, while she was staying at Lyme, she sent a letter to her sister which is given in Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir. It will be remembered that part of the scene in Persuasion takes place at Lyme, where the principal characters are transported, and where Louisa Musgrove meets with her accident. Captain Wentworth's friend, Captain Harville, had settled there for the winter, and wrote such a glowing account of the fine country around that "the young people were all wild to see Lyme." The party that finally went were the heroine, Anne Elliot herself, her brother and sister-in-law, her two friends, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove, and her quondam lover, Captain Wentworth, who was at this time paying rather more attention to Louisa Musgrove than could be borne with easiness by poor Anne, who had realised the dreadful mistake she had made in giving him up seven years before. "They were come too late in the year for any amusement or variety which Lyme, as a public place might offer; the rooms were shut up, the lodgers almost gone, scarcely any family but the residents left--and as there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost: hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which in the season is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger's eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful vista of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight; these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood."

It is wonderful that Jane should have remembered in such detail a place which she had apparently only seen on one visit, and that many years before she wrote the book in which the description is embodied, but it is not unlikely that, as the instinct of word-painting was strong within her, she wrote down some such account on the spot, and had it for reference afterwards.

Louisa's wilfulness in leaping down the steps of the Cobb, and her subsequent accident, at which Captain Wentworth deceives Anne further as to the real state of his feelings by displaying much poignant and unnecessary grief, form the chief episode in the book.

While at Lyme herself, Jane took part in the usual amusements; she went to a dance and was escorted back by "James and a lanthorn, though I believe the lanthorn was not lit as the moon was up." She walked on the Cobb, and bathed in the morning, also she looked after the housekeeping for her father and mother, who were with her in lodgings.

This was in September. In the beginning of the following year her father died, but there is no letter yet published from which we can judge any of the details or the state of her feelings at this great loss.

In the April after this event there are two letters, given by Mr. Austen-Leigh, written from Gay Street, Bath, in which no allusion is made to her father's death. She and her mother were then in lodgings. It was at the end of this year that they moved to Southampton.

Jane's pen had not been altogether idle while at Bath, for it is supposed that she there wrote the fragment The Watsons which is embodied in Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir.

It must also have been at this time that the MS. of Northanger Abbey was offered to the Bath bookseller, a transaction which is described elsewhere.

Before leaving Bath Jane went to stay with her brother, Edward Knight, at Godmersham; this was in August of the same year, 1805. Godmersham, to which the Austen girls so often went on visits, is thus described by Lord Brabourne, who certainly had every right to know--

"Godmersham Park is situated in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent, namely, in the valley of the Stour, which lies between Ashford and Canterbury. Soon after you pass the Wye station of the railway from the former to the latter place, you see Godmersham church on your left hand, and just beyond it, comes into view the wall which shuts off the shrubberies and pleasure grounds of the great house from the road; close to the church nestles the home farm, and beyond it the rectory, with lawn sloping down to the river Stour, which for a distance of nearly a mile runs through the east end of the park. A little beyond the church you see the mansion, between which and the railroad lies the village, divided by the old high road from Ashford to Canterbury, nearly opposite Godmersham. The valley of the Stour makes a break in that ridge of chalk hills, the proper name of which is the Backbone of Kent.

"So that Godmersham Park, beyond the house, is upon the chalk downs, and on its further side is bounded by King's Wood, a large tract of woodland containing many hundred acres and possessed by several different owners."
The children of Edward and Elizabeth were now growing up. The eldest boy, Edward, was delicate, and there was some talk of taking him to Worthing instead of sending him back to school; however, he apparently grew stronger, for he returned to school again with his brother George. The next two boys were Henry and William; Jane says, she has been playing battledore and shuttlecock with the younger of the two, "he and I have practised together two mornings, and improve a little; we have frequently kept it up three times, and once or twice six."

The eldest girl, Fanny, had become almost as dear as a sister to her aunt, and the next, Elizabeth, are also mentioned in the letters; there were besides these younger children, two more boys and three girls, a fine family!

Before coming to Godmersham Jane had stayed at Eastwell, where George Hatton and his wife Lady Elizabeth lived; their eldest son succeeded later to the title of ninth Earl of Winchilsea; Jane mentions this lad as a "fine boy," but was chiefly delighted with his younger brother Daniel, who afterwards married a daughter of the Earl of Warwick. At the time she wrote this letter, Cassandra was at Goodnestone with the Bridges. The two sisters soon after changed places, crossing on the journey, as Jane went to Goodnestone and Cassandra to Godmersham; owing to the difficulty of carriage transit, journeys must frequently have been arranged thus to save the horses double work.

Jane in writing from Goodnestone alludes much to the two Bridges girls, Harriet and her delicate sister Marianne.

There was to be a great ball at Deal for which Harriet Bridges received a ticket, and an invitation to stay at Dover, but this was suddenly put off on account of the death of the Duke of Gloucester, brother of George III. Jane opined that everybody would go into mourning on his account. Mourning was of course much more generally used then than now, and everyone seems to have rushed into it whether they belonged to the Court or not on the death of any member of the Royal Family.

During the four years that had passed since the beginning of the century, Europe had been in a continual turmoil, a turmoil that could never cease while Napoleon was at liberty. The Battle of Alexandria in the first year of the new century had taught him that the English were as formidable on land as on sea, and the Battle of the Baltic in the following month, further convinced him that there was one unconquered nation that dared oppose him. He recognised, however, that while he could not but acknowledge the superiority of Britain on the sea, and in places accessible by sea, he could do much as he pleased on the Continent, therefore a compromise was arrived at, and on March 27, 1803, the Treaty of Amiens was signed, and for the first time for many years the strain of war was relaxed in Great Britain.

The arrogance of Napoleon, however, made a continuous peace impossible, and by the spring of the next year (1803) the two nations were again ready to spring at each other's throats. Napoleon seized and detained 10,000 British travellers who were in France, and this provoked fury in Great Britain. Great preparations were now once more made in France for the long-cherished project of the invasion of England, where in a few weeks 300,000 volunteers were enrolled. The national excitement was tremendous, and Jane must have heard at least as much about the preparations for war, and the dangers of invasion, even in the frivolous society of Bath, as about dress and trivial society details.

In May 1804, Napoleon threw aside all disguise, and had himself proclaimed Emperor of the French, and by the end of the same year Spain, having thrown in her lot with France, declared war also against England. The whole of 1805 must have been one of tense excitement to everyone with a brain to understand. The future of England trembled in the balance, yet Jane's pleasant letters from Godmersham deal in nothing but domestic detail and small talk, not one allusion is there to the threes which threatened to rend the national existence.

In the autumn of 1805 both the sisters had returned to their mother, who in their absence had had the companionship of Martha Lloyd. Then came the removal to Southampton, where they went to "a commodious old-fashioned house in a corner of Castle Square."

Mr. Austen-Leigh, writing from recollection, says: "My grandmother's house had a pleasant garden bounded on one side by the old city walls; the top of this wall was sufficiently wide to afford a pleasant walk, with an extensive view, easily accessible to ladies by steps. . . . At that time Castle-Square was occupied by a fantastic edifice, too large for the space in which it stood, though too small to accord well with its castellated style, erected by the second Marquess of Lansdowne, half-brother to the well-known statesman who succeeded him in the title. The marchioness had a light phaeton drawn by six, and sometimes by eight little ponies, each pair decreasing in size and becoming lighter in colour. . . . It was a delight to me to look down from the window and see this fairy equipage put together, for the premises of the castle were so contracted that the whole process went on in the little space that remained of the open square. . . . On the death of the Marquess in 1809 the castle was pulled down. Few probably remember its existence; and anyone who might visit the place now would wonder how it ever could have stood there."

Mrs. Austen was not well off, for her husband had had no private means and she herself but little, yet her son Edward was well able to help her, for Chawton alone is said to have been worth £ 5000 a year. There was also money in the family, for Jane some years later speaks of her eldest brother's income being £ 1100 a year. She and her sister must have had some little allowance also, as it was with her own money that she paid for the publication of the first of her books. Simply as she had always lived, she does not seem to have had small ideas on the subject, the couples in her books require about two thousand a year before they can be considered prosperous, and incomes of from five thousand to ten thousand pounds are not rare. She makes one of the characters in Mansfield Park remark, on hearing that Mr. Crawford has four thousand pounds a year, "'Those who have not more must be satisfied with what they have. Four thousand a year is a pretty estate.'"

There was apparently some question raised by her relations about the income bestowed by Jane upon the mother and daughters in Mansfield Park, namely, five hundred pounds a year. But having regard to all the circumstances, the style to which they were accustomed, and Mrs. Dashwood's inability to economise, this could perhaps hardly have been made less.

We hear at the close of one year at Southampton that Mrs. Austen is pleased " at the comfortable state of her own finances, which she finds on closing her year's accounts, beyond her expectation, as she begins the new year with a balance of thirty pounds in her favour."

And afterwards, "My mother is afraid I have not been explicit enough on the subject of her wealth; she began 1806 with sixty-eight pounds; she begins 1807 with ninety-nine pounds, and this after thirty-two pounds purchase of stock."

In this year, 1805, the income tax was increased from 6 1/2 per cent. to 10 per cent. on account of the tremendous war expenditure.

At this time an amicable arrangement had been arrived at, by which Frank Austen and his wife shared the house of the mother and sisters at Southampton, Frank himself being of course frequently away. His first wife, Mary Gibson, whom he had only recently married, lived until 1823; and is referred to by her sister-in-law as "Mrs. F. A.," doubtless to distinguish her from the other Mary, James's wife. Martha Lloyd, whom Frank married as his second wife, long, long after, seems to have been such a favourite with the family that she practically lived with the Austens at Southampton, as her own mother had died some years before.

The country round Southampton is pretty, and the town itself pleasant; we have a contemporary description of it in 1792. "Southampton is one of the most neat and pleasant towns I ever saw . . . was once walled round, many large stones of which are now remaining. There were four gates, only three now. It consists chiefly of one long fine street of three quarters of a mile in length, called the High Street. . . . The Polygon (not far distant) could the original plan have been completed, tis said, would have been one of the first places in the kingdom. . . . At the extremity a capital building was erected with two detached wings, and colonnades. The centre was an elegant tavern, with assembly, card rooms, etc., and at each wing, hotels to accommodate the nobility and gentry. The tavern is taken down, but the wings converted into genteel houses." (Mrs. Lybbe Powys.)

There does not seem to be any record of the first year spent here, there are no letters preserved, and we know that Jane wrote no more novels. Household affairs and altering clothes according to the mode must have filled up days too pleasantly monotonous to have anything worth recording. Southampton evidently did not inspire her, for it figures in none of her books, though its neighbour, Portsmouth, is described as the home of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Yet in October 1805, just at the time Jane was settling into her new home, was fought the Battle of Trafalgar, which smashed the allied fleets of Spain and France, and freed Britain from any fear of invasion. As it was a naval battle, we can imagine for the sake of her brothers she must have thrilled at the tremendous news, which would arrive as fast as a sailing ship could bring it --probably a day or two after the action.

In January 1807, Cassandra was again at Godmersham, and Jane writes her several letters full of family detail as usual.

James Austen had then been staying at Southampton with his wife; perhaps they had brought with them the little son who looked out of the window at the fairy carriage and the ponies; as he was born in November 1798 he would be between eight and nine years old. His little sister Caroline certainly was there, for she is mentioned by name.

In speaking of a book Jane draws a distinction between her two sisters-in-law, "Mrs. F. A., to whom it is new, enjoys it as one could wish, the other Mary, I believe, has little pleasure from that or any other book."

The garden at Southampton was evidently the cause of much enjoyment. "We hear that we are envied our house by many people, and that our garden is the best in the town."

"Our garden is putting in good order by a man who bears a remarkably good character, has a very fine complexion, and asks something less than the first. The shrubs which border the gravel walk he says are only sweet briar and roses, and the latter of an indifferent sort; we mean to get a few of a better kind therefore, and at my own particular desire he procures us some syringas. I could not do without a syringa, for the sake of Cowper's line. We talk also of a laburnum. The border under the terrace wall is clearing away to receive currants and gooseberry bushes, and a spot is found very proper for raspberries."

In this extract the odd use of the active for the passive tense, in fashion in the eighteenth century, jars on modern ears, these and similar constructions, used throughout the novels, have had something to do with the opinions of those people who have dismissed these brilliant works as "vulgar."

Terrific fighting continued on the Continent, and in December the prestige of Napoleon was enhanced on the stubborn field of Austerlitz. In the beginning of 1806, England had the misfortune to lose by death the great minister Pitt, who had steered her through such perilous times. It is said that the news of Austerlitz was the final blow to a nature worn out by stress and anxiety. In September of the same year his talented but inferior rival, Fox, died also. In this year was issued the famous Berlin Decree, by which Napoleon prohibited all commerce with Great Britain, and declared confiscated any British merchandise or shipping. But Britain had spirit enough to retort in the following year with a decree declaring a blockade of France, and that any of her merchant vessels were fair prizes unless they had previously touched at a British port.

The war continued without intermission throughout 1807. Austria, exhausted, had sullenly withdrawn, Prussia had plucked up spirit to join with Russia in opposing the conqueror of Europe, but in June, after the hard fought battle of Frieland, France concluded with Russia the secret Peace of Tilsit, based upon mutual hatred of England. England, however, soon found out the menace directed against her, and as the French troops marched to Denmark, evidently with the intention of summoning that country to use her fleet in accordance with their orders, England by a prompt and brilliant countermove appeared before Copenhagen first, and by bombarding the town compelled submission, and carried away the whole fleet for safety's sake. Those were glorious days for the navy, when measures were prompt and decisive, when no hesitation and shilly-shallying and fear of "hurting the feelings" of an unscrupulous enemy prevented Britain from taking care of herself.

Britain was now at war with Russia and Denmark as well as France, but the unprecedented duplicityof Napoleon in Spain in 1807 gave Britain an unexpected field on which to do battle, and allies by no means to be despised. Spain was France's ally, yet France after marching through the country to crush Portugal, quietly annexed the country of their ally in returning, and by a ruse made the whole Royal Family prisoners in France, while Napoleon's brother Joseph, King of Naples, was subsequently proclaimed King. The Spaniards were aroused, and though the best of their troops had been previously drawn off into Germany by the tyrant, they managed to give a good account of themselves, even against the invincible French. Joseph Buonaparte had been proclaimed King of Spain in June 1808. In that month Jane was at Godmersham again, and though she did not know it, this was the last visit she would pay before the death of Mrs. Edward Knight, which occurred in the following October, at the birth of her eleventh child; Jane seems to have noticed her sister-in-law was not in good health, she says, "I cannot praise Elizabeth's looks, but they are probably affected by a cold."

Mr. and Mrs. James Austen accompanied her on this visit, and her account of the arrival gives such a homely picture that, trivial as it is, it is worth quoting. "Our two brothers were walking before the house as we approached as natural as life. Fanny and Lizzy met us in the hall with a great deal of pleasant joy. Fanny came to me as soon as she had seen her aunt James to her room, and stayed while I dressed . . . she is grown both in height and size since last year, but not immoderately, looks very well, and seems as to conduct and manner just what she was and what one could wish her to continue."

"Yesterday passed quite á la Godmersham; the gentlemen rode about Edward's farm, and returned in time to saunter along Bentigh with us; and after dinner we visited the Temple Plantations. . . . James and Mary are much struck with the beauty of the place." Lord Brabourne gives a note on the Temple Plantation, it was "once a ploughed field, but when my grand-father first came to Godmersham, he planted it with underwood, and made gravel walks through it, planted an avenue of trees on each side of the principal walk, and added it to the shrubberies. The family always walked through it on their way to church, leaving the shrubberies by a little door in the wall at the end of the private grounds."

The casual sentence "Mary finds the children less troublesome than she expected," adds one more stroke to the character of that sister-in-law which Jane makes us know so well.

Mrs. Knight senior was still living, and was generous toward the other members of her adopted son's family besides himself.

"This morning brought me a letter from Mrs. Knight, containing the usual fee, and all the usual kindness. . . . She asks me to spend a day or two with her this week . . . her very agreeable present will make my circumstances quite easy; I shall reserve half for my pelisse."

It will be remembered that Mrs. Edward Knight had been a Miss Bridges, and the good-natured Harriet, her sister, was now staying at Godmersham with her own husband, Mr. Moore, whom Jane did not think good enough for her, though she admits later, "he is a sensible man, and tells a story well." She refers to her sister-in-law's opinion of her, "Mary was very disappointed in her beauty, and thought him very disagreeable; James admires her and finds him pleasant and conversable."

It was at the conclusion of this visit that Jane wrote to her sister of the pressing necessity of coming home again to meet the visitor with whom her "honour as well as affection" were engaged.

She was now thirty-two, no longer a young girl, and not at all likely to mistake the nature of attentions of which she had had her full share. However it was, whether the visitor did not come, or coming proved himself unequal to her ideal, we do not know, and in any case the romance so mysteriously suggested by these few words, must ever remain in the shadow.

Jane speaks with pleasure of her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, "having a very sweet scheme of accompanying Edward into Kent next Christmas." Alas, before that Christmas came, the loving mother, who seems to have been in every way a perfect wife and sister, was no more.

When this sad event occurred in October the sisters had again changed places, Cassandra being at Godmersham and Jane at Southampton. The first of Jane's letters of this period is congratulatory on the birth of Edward's eleventh child, and sixth son, but very shortly afterwards she writes in real sorrow at the dreadful news which has reached her of the death of her dear sister-in-law. The news came by way of Mrs. James Austen and her sister Martha, who was at Soutbampton.

"We have felt--we do feel--for you all as you do not need to be told; for you, for Fanny, for Henry, for Lady Bridges, and for dearest Edward, whose loss and whose sufferings seem to make those of every other person nothing. God be praised that you can say what you do of him, that he has a religious mind to bear him up and a disposition that will gradually lead him to comfort. My dear, dear Fanny, I am so thankful that she has you with her! You will be everything to her; you will give her all the consolation that human aid can give. May the Almighty sustain you all, and keep you, my dearest Cassandra, well."

"With what true sympathy our feelings are shared by Martha you need not be told; she is the friend and sister under every circumstance."
Poor Fanny was then in her sixteenth year, the time when a girl perhaps feels the loss of a sensible, affectionate mother more than any other. She acquitted herself splendidly in the difficult task that fell on her as the eldest of so many brothers and sisters. Her next sister Lizzy was at this time only eight years old, and though she seems to have felt the loss keenly, it could not be the same to her as it was to Fanny.

Mourning at that time entailed heavy crape, and Jane at once fitted herself out with all that was proper. The two eldest boys, Edward and George, were by this time at Winchester College, but when their mother died they went first to their aunt and uncle at Steventon, and on October 24 came on to Southampton. Jane's next letter is full of them. "They behave extremely well in every respect, showing quite as much feeling as one wishes to see, and on every occasion speaking of their father with the liveliest affection. His letter was read over by each of them yesterday and with many tears; George sobbed aloud, Edward's tears do not flow so easily, but as far as I can judge, they are both very properly impressed by what has happened. . . . George is almost a new acquaintance to me, and I find him, in a different way, as engaging as Edward. We do not want amusement; bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable, spillikens, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the ebb and flow of the river, and now and then a stroll out keep us well employed."

Rhymed charades were a very common form of amusement at that date, and all the Austen family excelled in them.

It will be remembered that Mr. Elton's charade, of which the meaning was "Courtship," further misled the match-making Emma into thinking he was in love with Harriet the dowerless, while she herself, the heiress, was the real object of his attentions.

Several charades of this type made up by the Austens are still extant; the two following are Jane's own.

"Divided I'm a gentleman
In public deeds and powers;
United, I'm a monster, who
That gentleman devours."
To which the answer is A-gent.
"You may lie on my first by the side of a stream,
And my second compose to the nymph you adore;
But if, when you've none of my whole, her estesm
And affection diminish--think of her no more."
Which is easily read as Bank-note.

Both of these specimens show the gaiety of spirit so noticeable in the smallest extracts from her letters.

Her observations on her nephews put the two boys before us to the life. "While I write now George is most industriously making and manning paper ships, at which he afterwards shoots horse chestnuts, brought from Steventon on purpose; and Edward equally intent over the Lake of Killarney and twisting himself about in one of our great chairs."

Her wonderful powers as an entertainer are clearly shown in this sad time, when she strove to keep her nephews occupied to the exclusion of sad thoughts; she took them for excursions on the Itchen, when they rowed her in a boat, and she was never weary of entering into their sports and feelings; her real unselfishness came out very strongly on this occasion.

Sir Arthur Wellesley had sailed for Spain in the July of this year, and now England was in the threes of the Peninsular War; some of the very few aliusions that Jane ever makes to contemporary events are to be found in reference to the Peninsular War, and these are more personal than general. On hearing of Sir John Moore's death in January 1809, she writes: "I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a mother living, but though a very heroic son, he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. . . . I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the hero in his death. Thank heaven we have had no one to care for particularly among the troops, no one in fact nearer to us than Sir John himself."

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.