Southampton in Jane’s time
So Southampton was a very attractive town in Jane’s day, with a population in 1801 of almost 8,000, still surrounded by its mediaeval walls and open walks beyond the walls beside the sea. The town was quite compact at the beginning of the 19th century, with an intense network of narrow mediaeval streets and tall overhanging buildings. But the sea virtually surrounded it on three sides so it did not feel confined, and there were plenty of sea breezes. The fresh sea air suited Jane, although sometimes the breezes were more like gales and Jane referred to them as ‘Castle Square weather’.
In the late 18th century the town had attempted to become fashionable for a brief period as a spa resort. Assembly rooms were built and baths were constructed so that the high tide provided sea bathing throughout the day. Many distinguished visitors came and went, including Pope and Voltaire, and the patronage of George II’s eldest son Frederick brought some prosperity for a while, but the district evidently didn’t possess enough natural resources to be successful in this respect and the town remained – and remains to this day – a working seaport rather than a pleasure resort.
Unfortunately for Janeites visiting Southampton today, the whole area around Castle Square where she lived has been redeveloped, and a tower block of council flats now occupies the site of her home. However it is still possible to walk around parts of the old town walls and stand at the place where it is thought that the Austen garden abutted the wall. The view beyond has obviously changed due to modern land reclamation: where Jane would have looked out over the waters of West Bay towards the trees of the New Forest, today we see a forest of docks, cranes and warehouses!
Jane’s association with Southampton
There are three episodes in Jane’s life associated with Southampton:
The reason Jane went to live there was that her brother Frank had married Mary Gibson in 1806, and as he would be away at sea a great deal he suggested he and Mary should share a house with his widowed mother and two sisters. This arrangement would lessen household expenses for all of them, and provide Mary with companionship whilst he was away serving in the navy. He suggested Southampton as a suitable location for them all, and for Frank it was conveniently near the naval base at Ports-mouth. This was already familiar territory to the Austens and they looked forward to the move. Jane refers to ‘happy feelings of escape’ on leaving Bath. They moved into furnished lodgings in the autumn of 1806 and began to look for a house.
They found it in a ‘commodious old fashioned house in a corner of Castle Square’. It was an old house, not in good repair but it was spacious – necessary with nine in the household, as there were two maids and a cook, and their friend Martha Lloyd, who had come to join them, having been recently rendered homeless by the death of her mother.
There is some dispute as to the site of Jane’s house. We know the address was 3 Castle Square, but we don’t know the precise location. However the most likely spot is near the Juniper Berry Public House in modern Upper Bugle Street, not far from the mediaeval Bargate in the NW quarter of the town.
The house was in a pleasant if rather curious situation because in 1804, only two years before the Austens arrived, the landlord, the Marquis of Lansdowne, had built in the middle of the square a Gothic fantasy miniature castle on the ruins of the central keep of the mediaeval castle, which Jane refers to as ‘the fantastic edifice’. Jane and her family could watch his lordship drive out in ‘a light phaeton drawn by six or eight ponies in graduated shades of brown’.
The Austens took to homemaking with enthusiasm. Frank, like Captain Harville always clever with his hands, took to knotting fringes for curtains. Their garden backed onto a section of the city walls and consisted of a gravel walk bordered by roses. It was possible to ascend the town wall at the end of the garden by means of steps, so even the ladies could climb up and saunter along for exercise and to admire the views. A garden, especially since she was living in a town rather than the country, was essential to Jane’s well-being, and she began to plan planting it out with flowering shrubs and fruit trees. She mentions currants and gooseberry bushes as well as raspberries, and evidently her plans bore fruit (pardon the pun!), as she wrote that ‘We hear that we are envied our house by many people and that the garden is the best in town’.
Jane enjoyed excursions both in and outside the town. At one of the coaching inns, the Dolphin Hotel (which survives today), Assembly Balls were held once a fortnight from 1775. We know from her letters that Jane attended several of these. The Long Room used for these functions is the one behind the first floor bow windows (see picture). Jane attended a ball there in December 1808, writing to Cassandra afterwards ‘you will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance – but I was!’
The Dolphin Hotel, at which Jane attended several
As well as the fine shops and the assembly rooms, there were circulating libraries and a theatre. During a visit from her brother Edward and his wife Elizabeth, Jane accompanied them to see the actor John Bannister in The Way to Keep Him, Arthur Murphy’s popular satire on women who stop bothering to please their husbands after marriage.
Jane delighted too in long walks through the surrounding countryside beside Southampton Water and along the banks of the River Itchen.
They took a boat trip to Hythe, and another to visit the picturesque ruins of Netley Abbey. Drives into the New Forest were customary trips, with Beaulieu Abbey being a particularly favourite destination.
In autumn 1808 Jane’s sister-in-law Elizabeth (Knight) died suddenly with the birth of her 11th child.
The two eldest boys in her brother’s family were at school in Winchester, and Jane expressed a desire to help, so they came to visit her at Southampton before returning to school.
Jane tried to cheer up the newly motherless boys and played games with them like spillikins and cards, told them riddles and jokes, and encouraged them to make paper boats and sink them with horse chestnuts. She took them on what she called ‘a little water party’ along the River Itchen and they enjoyed rowing upstream to inspect a man o’ war moored at Northam Bridge.
Jane’s newly widowed brother Edward then decided it would be better if the family were a little closer together, so he offered his mother and sisters a choice of a house near Godmersham or one at Chawton. As we know, the Austens decided on the latter. They left Southampton in April and after a couple of visits to relatives, moved to Chawton in July 1809.
Before leaving Southampton, Jane decided to take full advantage of her social opportunities there. ‘A larger circle of acquaintance and an increase of amusement is quite in character with our approaching removal. Yes, I mean to go to as many balls as possible that I may have a good bargain’.
Jane’s letters show that she did attend at least two, but sadly these are the last we hear of such events in her letters.
Southampton, as mentioned in her works
Given these connections I searched in vain for any mention of Southampton in the six major novels, but rather surprisingly the only mention of the town by Jane was in her juvenile fiction Love & Freindship when Laura writes to Marianne
Despite this disparaging comment Jane often sent gifts of ‘soals’ to her friends, and there is no evidence to suggest that she disliked her few years in Southampton. Indeed, as Maggie Lane tells us, she preferred it to Bath, even to Canterbury. However she wrote no fiction during her years there, suggesting that she was not quite settled in her mind or spirits at this time. She really preferred country living to town life and missed the intimacy of a small village. The Watsons was left unfinished and perhaps she was discouraged by the fact that after six years Susan (later Northanger Abbey) had still not been published. Actually, during the last week that Jane was in Southampton she wrote to the publishers Crosby and Sons enquiring about her manuscript, so perhaps she was anticipating getting back to her writing again soon. And, as we know, when she settled at Chawton she did so.
05 July 2003