Jane Austen called Hampshire home for the majority of her life and her family’s strong connection to the county is revealed by some truly amazing documents held here at Hampshire Archives and Local Studies.
Jane was born in Steventon in December 1775 and her baptism record, which was written by her father, Rev. George Austen, can be found in the parish register. Jane is not the only Austen recorded in the register with the baptisms of her siblings, Henry, Cassandra, Francis and Charles also entered. There are also a number of entries, written circa 1801, which appear to be written in Jane’s hand. Jane may have been helping her father with his duties as he grew older and his hand became more unsteady.
The Steventon rectory which was home to Jane Austen is no longer standing, but we do have some tantalising glimpses as to how it was furnished from the account books of John Ring, auctioneer and furnisher of Basingstoke which survive from 1785 to 1796. Ring’s clients include many of the local gentry and aristocratic families, including the Dukes of Bolton, as well as the Revd George Austen of Steventon. Entries include ‘a small mahogany writing desk with a long drawer and glass ink stand compleat.’ Perhaps used by Jane for her early attempts at writing?
Jane, her parents and sister, moved to Bath in 1801, after the retirement of her father. Cassandra mentions in a letter the plays and concerts held in Bath but also the difficulty they had in finding suitable accommodation in the city.
‘Anna is quite well; Cassandra and Martha a good deal better, the latter ventured to the Play on Tuesday Evening, it was an ex-ertion, but an engagement of long standing & an earnest desire to see & hear Cooke in the Character of Macbeth encouraged her to venture- Jane call[e]d on her yesterday and found her pretty well, only a little headache….
We are disappointed of the lodgings in St James’s Square,…..We have look[e]d at some others since, but don’t quite like the situation- hope a few days hence we shall have more choice.’
Unfortunately, it was in Bath where Rev. George Austen died on 21 January 1805.
In 1809, the family moved to Chawton, after a brief stay in Southampton, where they were invited to stay at the request of Edward Knight, Jane’s brother. Edward Knight had been adopted by Thomas and Catherine Knight, wealthy landowners in the area who were childless. They adopted Edward as their heir and he inherited their estates on the condition that he changed his name from Austen to Knight. In the stewardship accounts for Edward’s estate we find various references to work being carried out at ‘Mrs Austen’s’ including ground laid in the garden by the mud wall.
Jane moved to Winchester with her sister on 24 May 1817 when she fell ill but two months later she died on 18 July 1817. Her sister, Cassandra, and sister-in-law, Mary Austen, cared for her while she was ill. Mary records this period in her diary and the moment of Jane’s passing.
17 July 1817: ‘Jane Austen was taken for death about ½ past 5 in the Evening’
18 July 1817: ‘Jane breathed her last ½ after four in the morn; only Cass[andra] and I were with her’
Her brother James Austen wrote a poignant poem about his sister after her death:
‘ In her, rare union, were combined a fair form, and a fairer mind;
Hers fancy quick, and clear good sense,
And wit which never gave offence;
A heart as warm as ever beat,
A temper even; calm & sweet.
Though quick & keen her mental eye
Poor nature’s foibles to espy,
And seemed for [ever?] on the watch,
Some traits of ridicule to catch
Yet not a word she ever penned
Which hurt the feelings of a friend…’
These are just a few of the amazing documents we hold and I haven’t even mentioned the letters written by Jane or the music books that she would have used. There is also the intriguing tale of Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, who was a militia officer, banker and a clergyman at different stages of his life. His story can be traced through the documents we hold, including a letter he wrote to the Bishop explaining why he wanted to join the clergy at so late a stage in his life. He was obviously conscious that his past would harm his reputation and his opportunity of joining the clergy. He states:
‘I was not unsuccessful till rendered so by the conduct of those Gentleman who unfortunately for me were my partners in the bank at Alton. Their mismanagement of that concern obliged me to close all my other concerns……
Conscious of no criminality I state my worldly failure without hesitation. I bow most humbly to the stroke of Providence, and am rendered thereby more desirous than ever of devoting the rest of my life and talents such as they may be to the more immediate service of religion.’
Why not join us on 19 July as we mark the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death with a special evening event. See the wonderful documents I have mentioned and many more about the life of Jane, her family and the period she lived in. Listen to Professor Emma Clery from the University of Southampton, as she talks about Henry Austen and financial scandal in Regency England. Or perhaps just enjoy some live Regency music from The Madding Crowd and drinks and canapés.
6.30pm-9.00pm. Price: £12, advance booking required. Book by phoning 01962 846154 or online.
Matthew Goodwin, Archivist