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Image of the book cover Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Aiken HodgeIt is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Jane Aiken Hodge’s (JAH) biography of Jane Austen is characterized by the biographer’s distinctive voice. It is as clear as spring water and as refreshing. She expertly braids a variety of sources consisting of biographies, articles, letters, and Austen’s own novels to tell us about the author’s life. JAH uses a straightforward yet descriptive writing style that takes us effortlessly through the stages of Austen’s personal journey, career, triumphs, and struggles.

Aiken Hodge’s descriptions paint a vivid word picture of a gifted author living the double life of a proper lady in a bygone era, who, unbeknownst to contemporary readers, chose career over marriage, a daring move in an age when genteel women were expected to marry, rule a household, and breed heirs and spares. JAH’s conclusions, although not footnoted like an academic, are laid out persuasively and supported by her choice of the source materials available to her in 1972, the year this biography was first published.

The book begins with a description of Steventon Rectory in the context of the rising middle class and rising costs of goods resulting from war, societal changes brought about by the industrial revolution, vast improvements in travel created by a network of canals and macademised roads, changes in fashion (barely mentioned by Austen), the advent of circulating libraries, and more.  Aiken Hodge describes a rural world where a stage coach clattering through a small village drowned out bird song or the voice of a farmer calling out to his cattle.

The elder Austens worked hard to put food on the table and clothes on their family’s backs. They performed double duty in almost all aspects of life. Rev. George Austen used his horse to plow his glebe land and perform the functions of his ministry. He was both a rector and the head of a small boarding school. Mrs. Austen oversaw the household, diary and chickens, and the children (including Rev. Austen’s male students) yet found the time to create recipes in rhymes.

Unlike many girls of their time, Jane and her older sister Cassandra were given free reign of Rev. Austen’s extensive library (books were extremely expensive in that era). Their hard-working and resourceful, parents still found time to join in the fun of riddles, charades, and plays and journey forth for family visits. Jane’s writings, actively encouraged by her family, are preserved in 3 volumes of her Juvenilia, which she painstakingly copied as an adult. The Austen family adored reading novels, hence the title of this book, Only a Novel. This was an age when reading novels over serious fiction and nonfiction was a habit akin to liking reality tv today over serious, well-researched documentaries. (I humbly confess to still watching ‘Survivor’.)

The difference between the Austen boys’ freedom and her own and Cassandra’s must have rankled Jane, whose independent career choice was curtailed by conventions. Sons could ride horses and carriages and venture forth at will. Their actions were unrestrained compared to the girls’ strict upbringing. JAH describes at great length how both Jane and Cassandra could not travel unescorted. In order to arrange for transportation, they had to wait for proper chaperonage, even if this meant delaying a return trip for weeks.

We know today that through her novels and letters Jane displayed a lively and irreverent sense of humor. In public, however, she presented herself as quiet and restrained, especially after she donned a spinster’s cap and had given up all pretense of seeking a husband. Before the publication of her first novel, friends and neighbors knew Jane to be friendly yet unobtrusive. (Her family knew an entirely different and much livelier Jane.) After Pride and Prejudice and subsequent novels were published, acquaintances and neighbors became more cautious around this keen, sometimes acerbic observer, thus the full title of this biography, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen.

Aiken Hodge compares the rural settings of Steventon Rectory and Chawton Cottage to the city settings of Bath and London and the hectic, at times unpredictable, pace of her visits to family houses and friends. These events, including the shock of moving to Bath, Rev. Austen’s sudden death, and the Austen women’s peripatetic life for eight years, stood in the way of Jane’s creativity. Fortunately for posterity, her move to rural Chawton Cottage in 1809 spawned her productive period – her reworking of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, and creation of Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all masterpieces. These days we can also enjoy her incomplete works (Lady Susan and Sanditon ) and her Juvenilia. While this period in Austen’s life was adequately covered by Jane Aiken Hodge, especially regarding Jane’s relationship with her publishers (through her male relatives) and quest for an independent living as a single woman, I longed for more details, but I quibble. Aiken Hodge’s description of Chawton Cottage, which sat so close to Winchester Road (and which ran through Chawton Village), allowed passersby to view the Austen women dining intimately in the dining room or conversing, was like a snapshot in time.

Jane Austen’s fatal disease, characterized more by fatigue than pain (and still studied by modern diagnosticians), took her family a long time to accept as dire. Aiken Hodge writes about the events leading to Jane’s death without over-emotional hand wringing. Her restrained description of Austen’s last days allowed my imagination to take hold. I cried once again at my and the world’s loss of this talented author at the height of her writing power. Almost as an afterthought, JAH mentioned that only four male mourners (brothers Edward, Henry, and Frank, and nephew James-Edward) were present at her funeral, whereas neither her mother nor sister could attend, as it was not the custom of females to accompany the funeral cortege.

JAH concludes her biography by describing Austen’s close relationships with her family (she and sister Cassandra were “everything to each other”), including her nieces and nephews. She had, through these associations, a special affinity with children. I was struck by this recollection from a nephew after her death:

He expected particular happiness in that house [Chawton] and found it there no longer. The laughter had died…”

JAH concluded that the laughter lives on through Austen’s novels and characters. Letters saved by her kin and memoirs published after her death preserved precious memories before all first-hand memories about her were lost.

Image of Only a Novel by Jane Aiken Hodge with reviewer notesCompared to Claire Tomalin’s biography Jane Austen: A Life (1999), which is filled with images and illustrations and attachments with postscripts, two appendices, page notes, bibliography, family tree, and index consisting of 73 pages, Aiken Hodge’s Only A Novel provides six pages of notes and bibliography. Instead, JAHs bibliography uses the memoirs, letters, histories, biographies, and papers available to her in the early 70’s.  I loved reading this biography. From the photo on the right, you can see by the sticky notes how much interesting information I found. Aiken Hodge’s lovely writing style suits me to a tee. I also own another JAH biography, the wonderfully illustrated The Private World of Georgette Heyer, published in 1984 and which I have kept all these years. Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen is worth every penny of its purchase and has become a grand addition to my Austen library.

________

Image of author Jane Aiken Hodge

Jane Aiken Hodge

Jane Aiken Hodge was born in Massachusetts but moved with her family to East Sussex in Britain when she was three years old. After reading English in Somerville College, Oxford, she moved to the US to undertake a second degree at Radcliffe College. Whilst she was there, she spent time as a civil servant and worked for Time Magazine before returning to the UK to focus on her career as a novelist. In 1972 she became a British citizen. She is the daughter of the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Conrad Aiken.

Aiken Hodge is known for her works of historical romance. In a career spanning nearly fifty years, she published over thirty novels, exploring contemporary settings and the detective genre in her later life. She died in 2009, aged ninety-two.

Purchase the book:

Product details:

  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Agora Books (April 25, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1913099253
  • ISBN-13: 978-1913099251

Hashtag:  Please use the hashtag #OnlyANovel when posting or talking about Only a Novel on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Also, make sure you tag us – @AgoraBooksLDN on Twitter and Instagram!

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winter spruce branches-vjs

Image of evergreen branches © Vic Sanborn

Inquiring readers,
Spruce beer was a popular beverage during Jane Austen’s lifetime. On December 9, 1808, Austen wrote her sister Cassandra from Castle Square:

But all this,” as my dear Mrs. Piozzi says, “is flight and fancy, and nonsense, for my master has his great casks to mind and I have my little children.” It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask for we are brewing spruce beer again.”

(More about this quote later)

 

About spruce beer

According to Wikipedia, spruce beer describes an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink that is made from the buds and needles of spruce trees. The flavor depends on which species of spruce grows near the brewer, the season in which the needles and buds are collected, and the recipe used in the preparation.
The taste of spruce beer varies. Some describe a pleasant spruce tip bitterness to the alcoholic version, while another source states that spruce beer soda, a non-alcoholic soda largely made in Canada, tastes like

a Christmas tree in a glass … The soda itself was very effervescent and light, with very sharp flavor. It tasted like the smell of Vicks VapoRub and pine needles.” – Eater

Images of spruce beer show a dark brown-greenish concoction, which isn’t attractive to my eye but pleases a variety of palates. According to Andrew Schloss in an article for The Splendid Table, the taste of the “piney turpene flavor, ” reminiscent of the “essence of the forest,” is an acquired one.

 

A short history of spruce beer

Martin Cornell in “A Short History of Spruce Beer Part Two: The North American Connection” quotes Swedish-Finish botanist Pehr Kalm about the discovery of spruce beer by French, Dutch, and British settlers as early as the 17th century. Kalm wrote in letters to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

Spruce beer is chiefly used by the French in Canada; a considerable quantity is indeed made by the Dutch who live round Hudson’s river, in the most Northern parts, but the English seldom have it except in New England and New Scotland; because in Canada the tree is very common…”

The botanist visited the colonies from 1748-1752 when he observed that French Canadians largely drank spruce beer. The origins of spruce beer are not quite clear. According to Jim Dykstra in “A History of Spruce Beer,” Beer Connoisseur, 11/07/2016,

spruce beer has been around for quite some time. Depending on who you ask, it was either first made by indigenous North Americans pre-European Scandinavians – “Vikings purportedly brewed it for fertility and strength in battle.” – Jim Dykstra, A History of Spruce Beer: Old World Cheer, or Any Time of Year 

jane-austen-brewercol-vjsmed

Drawing © Vic Sanborn

Spruce beer was consumed to ward off scurvy

In the 18th Century the British navy encouraged drinking spruce beer as a treatment for scurvy. (Spruce and other evergreens, such as hemlock pine and juniper were used as sources for Vitamin C. – Small Beer Press). Captain James Cook wrote in Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784),

Besides fish, we had other refreshments in abundance. Scurvy-grass, celery and portable soup were boiled every day with the wheat and pease; and we had spruce beer for our drink. Such a regimen soon removed all seeds of the scurvy from our people, if any of them had contracted it. “– April Fulton, Don’t Waste That Christmas Tree: Turn it Into Spruce Beer, NPR

Fulton states that the connection between spruce beer and scurvy prevention, while strongly supported in the 18th and 19th centuries, has largely been debunked by modern medicine, since fermentation destroys vitamin C.  In “A History of Spruce Beer,” Jim Dykstra writes that the beer wasn’t always alcoholic and that native Americans tended to use spruce infusions, whereas colonists brewed and boiled the beverage, which significantly reduced its ability to prevent scurvy.

Still, the connection between spruce beer and Jane Austen’s sailor brothers, and the Georgian belief that the beer was a sort of elixir for scurvy cannot be ignored. European sailors spread word about spruce beer around the world. (Dykstra) Sadly, the recipe that Austen used is lost to time, but Benjamin Franklin, who was introduced to the beer during his stay in France (1776-1777) shared a recipe in French:

Way of Making Beer with Essence of Spruce:
For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence and 13 Pounds of Molases. – or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water: Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.” – Food History & Culture
“Don’t Waste That Christmas Tree: Turn It Into Spruce Beer,” April Fulton, NPR, January 4, 2013

This recipe must have produced enough beer for several weeks, if not months depending on the drinker’s daily intake. There are other, more modest recipes from this era easily found online, including recipes created for today’s palate.

 

Back to the Jane Austen spruce beer quote

In this section I venture a few “educated guesses” about segments of Jane Austen’s quote. “Mr. Piozzi in charge of the great casks” most likely explains that by the time Jane wrote her novels, brew masters, who had once predominantly been women, were replaced by men during the age of industrialization when public taverns began to make profits. In the 17th century, brewing, once thought of as a woman’s domain in the kitchen, was overtaken by men and widows, who inherited their husbands’ businesses. Mrs. Piozzi mentions her domestic duties “having her little children” with no connection to the great casks.

Then Jane Austen’s writes:

It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask for we are brewing spruce beer again.”

In this instance Cassandra was most likely minding her widowed brother James’s children, while Jane oversaw domestic duties.

While commercial brewing became the domain of men, home brewing remained in the hands of women in the countryside. Housewives, mothers, and daughters, as in Jane Austen’s case, brewed ales and beers, and made wines for household consumption. According to William Cobbett, this domestic habit continued until the last quarter of the 18th century (Van Dekken). Jane’s quote, written in 1808, proves that this domestic practice continued well beyond that date.

We don’t know if the recipe Austen used was alcoholic or nonalcoholic, and I wonder if it was influenced by her sailor brothers, whose concerns about scurvy while spending months at sea must have been on their minds. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British navy encouraged the use of spruce beer. Individuals sailing vast distances for months at sea or enduring long, harsh winters in the far north faced decreased access to vitamin C as fresh fruit was consumed or rotted. For sailors, stored casks of spruce beer became one way of staving off the debilitating results of scurvy. For colonists facing a long winter without fresh fruits and vegetables, making the brew from abundant fir trees became a life saver.

Thank you, Tony Grant, for forwarding the article “Jane Austen Brewed her own Specialty Beer” to me.

 

Sources:

 

 

Links in this blog:

 

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Jane Austen’s Christmas Day at Godmersham Park, her brother’s estate in the English countryside of Kent, was a merry one. As described by Claire Tomalin in Jane Austen: A Life , “Christmas was celebrated with carols, card games, blindman’s bluff, battledore, bullet pudding and dancing.”

Austen herself described the gaiety and revelry of Christmas in Persuasion, Chapter 14:

On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were trestles and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of the noise of the others.”

The games mentioned by Tomalin in her excellent biography of Austen included Hunt the Slipper, which, when played by children, would be fun and boisterous, and when played by adults at a country house gathering could have a naughty connotation, as in the 1802 image in the Hunt the Slipper: A Story, (Peabody Essex Museum).

Game directions for Hunt the Slipper

Hunt the Slipper game directions. (Hunt the Slipper, The American Folk Song Collection,  Kodaly Center, Holy Names University.

Image of Hunt the Slipper by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1787, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (GMII): Image in the public domain. Wikimedia

Francesco Bartolozzi, 1787, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (GMII): Image in the public domain. Wikimedia

Hunt the Slipper reminds me of musical chairs, only the slipper is passed secretly to the players until the song ends. This simple but fun song/game is still played today. You can view the “Hunt the Slipper” image by Kate Greenaway,  who lived in the last half of the 19th century, then read the 2008 description of the game in The Guardian at this link: click here. The rules over the centuries are remarkably similar.

In her book, Claire Tomalin mentioned a second song and game that the Austen family (and other families of the era) played called “Oranges and Lemons.” References to this traditional song and nursery rhyme appeared as early as the 17th century.

The first published record of Oranges and Lemons dates back to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, although it’s fair to assume it had been in circulation for some time before then. There is a reference to a square dance with the same name in a 1665 publication…– What is London’s Oranges and Lemons rhyme all about? by Benjamin Till, People Features, London, BBC Home, 13 November, 2014

Till discusses the many meanings of this song. In short, London’s churches, which are located in distinct districts within the city, are identified with certain trades.

References to “pancakes and fritters”, “kettles and pans” and “brick bats and tiles” tell us of bakers, coppersmiths and builders in areas around St Peter Upon Cornhill, St Anne’s and St Giles, Cripplegate respectively.” — Till, BBC Home

A version of the song can be heard on YouTube.

Many versions of this song exist, which makes one wonder which lyrics Jane Austen and her family sang. This is one version:

“Oranges and Lemons”

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple,
Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,
Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,
Oranges and Lemmons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clemens,
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch,
When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,
When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Pauls

Here is another version, date unknown by me:

Gay go up and gay go down,
To ring the bells of London town.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clements.

Bull’s eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Margret’s.

Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Giles’.

Halfpence and farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter’s.

Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells of Whitechapel.

Pokers and tongs,
Say the bells of St. John’s.

Kettles and pans,
Say the bells of St. Ann’s.

Old Father Baldpate,
Say the slow bells of Aldgate.

You owe me ten shillings,
Say the bells of St. Helen’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

Pray when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

Chop chop chop chop
The last man’s dead!

This YouTube video of Oranges and Lemons from Gresham College performs the earliest known version of the song by Catherine King. The illustration of the dance for “Oranges and Lemons,” which is copyright free, is by Agnes Rose Bouvier (1842 – 1892).

One can imagine how much fun Aunts Jane and Cassandra must have had singing these popular songs while dancing and playing the games during the Christmas season with their nieces and nephews and the family in general.

As I end this post, Christmas day has nearly come to an end. I wish you all a happy holiday season and New Year’s celebration. May you all find joy, dear readers, in the gifts and love of your family, faith, and friends.

Sources:

Tomalin, Claire, 1999. Jane Austen: A Life. New York, Random House, First Vintage Books Edition.

What is London’s Oranges and Lemons rhyme all about? by Benjamin Till, People Features, London, BBC Home, 13 November, 2014

Other Christmas Posts on this Blog:

Click on this link for posts related to the topic

Games Regency People Play: Blind Man’s Bluff

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“Ah! there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” This line from Mrs. Elton in Emma is quite humorous, but the quote itself holds an eternal truth for most of us. There really is no place like one’s own home.

For Jane Austen, “home” was in Hampshire, a lush, green county in the south of England. She seems to have been happiest there, and it’s no wonder. When I visited there in June, it was as lovely as ever. The narrow country roads wind slowly through gentle hills and are lined with tall trees and thick bushes. Large, green fields stretch out for miles beyond. Here and there, there are houses set far back from the road. The storybook villages that pop up every few miles are complete with thatched roofs, wood and brick buildings, and picket fences around the gardens.

The air is still and quiet there. But for the cars that pass by every so often, it’s like stepping back in time.

STEVENTON

Austen’s home for the first 25 years of her life was at the Rectory in Steventon, and it surely brought comfort to her in many ways. She grew up there, was educated there, and spent many happy years with her family there.

Image 1 Rectory Site (1)

Rectory site today. Image Rachel Dodge

The lanes become more and more narrow as you near Steventon. Queen Anne’s Lace grows in profusion and the undergrowth presses close to the road. Trees grow up over the roads to form deep green tunnels of dappled light. Though the Rectory was torn down long ago, one can see the place where it once stood. Today, it is a large green field dotted with white sheep.

Image 2 Steventon Walk to Church

Road to St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo Rachel Dodge.

Driving further up the lane to St. Nicholas Church, where her father Reverend George Austen was the rector, one enters a tunnel of trees that stretches around a bend and out of sight. It’s not hard to imagine Jane and Cassandra walking that beautiful lane on a fair Sunday morning to attend services at the church.

Image 3 Exterior Steventon Church

Exterior of St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Image Rachel Dodge

The church itself is still in use today and looks the same as it would have in Jane’s time, making it quite unique. It is a small, simple church, built around 1200 by the Normans. In the heat of summer, its thick stone walls provide a cool, quiet place to sit and look, ponder, or pray. People from the neighborhood are known to stop by to visit and pray.

Image 4 Interior Steventon Church (1)

Interior, St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo Rachel Dodge

Highlight: When we were there, one of the locals showed us how to open the door, which is kept unlocked for any who wish to visit and rest. The church is a place of stillness and beauty with its soft, rose colored-light from the mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Image 5 Wheatsheaf

Wheatsheaf Hotel, Basingstoke. Image Rachel Dodge

Up the road three miles is the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Basingstoke (known as the Wheatsheaf Inn during Austen’s life), where Austen walked to post letters and collect the family mail. Though it has since been expanded and updated, and now houses a lovely hotel and pub, the original building is still visible.

CHAWTON

The Austen family left Hampshire in 1801 when her father retired from his position as rector, and by all accounts, Jane Austen did not find that same home-comfort she had known at Steventon until she came back to Hampshire again years later. In 1809, several years after her father’s death, she moved with her mother and Cassandra into “the cottage” at her brother Edward’s estate in Chawton, Hampshire. Though Austen traveled frequently to visit family and friends during her adult years, Chawton Cottage and its surrounding areas once again became her true home.

Image 6 Jane's House Sign

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen’s house sign. Image Rachel Dodge

Jane Austen’s House Museum, or Chawton Cottage, is where Jane lived until she moved to Winchester to seek medical attention toward the end of her life. The lanes, the village, the church, and the areas surrounding Chawton became the happy backdrop for the most prolific period of writing in Austen’s life.

Image 7 Jane's House Front

Front of Chawton Cottage. Image Rachel Dodge

Jane Austen’s House is open for tours daily and is surrounded by beautiful flower gardens. Baskets of books by Austen sit on benches in the shade for any guest who wants to sit and read. In the kitchen, there is a station set up for making lavender sachets and another where visitors can practice writing with a quill. There are also straw bonnets and dresses for guests to borrow if they wish to enjoy a more authentic experience!

Image 8 Roses Entrance

Entrance to Chawton Cottage with rose bower. Image Rachel Dodge

Inside the home, there are many items that are original heirlooms belonging to the family or are similar to what Jane would have known. I sat and played the piano (left image), which they allow visitors to do if they are pianists. In the dining room, one can see the Knight family’s Wedgwood dinner service, the tea things Jane would have used to make tea, and Jane’s writing desk (right image). Upstairs, guests can view the bedrooms and read more about the history of the family.

Image 9 Piano

Piano, Chawton Cottage. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 10 desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk. Image Rachel Dodge.

Highlight: At Jane Austen’s House, I met and spoke with a descendant of Austen’s, Jeremy Knight. He grew up at Chawton House (or the “Great House”), as did his daughter Caroline. When I visited, he was standing in the bedroom of Chawton Cottage, where Jane and Cassandra once shared a room, happily sharing Jane Austen’s history with visitors. What a treat! For further information about Chawton Cottage, you can read more here: https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/

Image 11 Bed

Bed inside the room that Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, shared. Image Rachel Dodge.

St. Nicholas Church, Chawton is larger and more grand than the church at Steventon. Though it does not look as it did in Austen’s day, one can see the evidence of years of history inside and out. Like the church at Steventon, the church at Chawton is still a working parish church today.

Image 12 Chawton Church Exterior

Exterior, St. Nicholas, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 13 Chawton Church Int

Interior, St. Nicholas Church, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

Highlight: If you walk around the back of the church, you can see the graves of Jane Austen’s mother and sister there. (Austen’s grave and memorial are found at Winchester Cathedral in Winchester.) Both women lived long, full lives, unlike our dear Jane.

Image 14 Graves at Chawton

Gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister. Image Rachel Dodge

Chawton House and its gardens are open for public tours today. The Elizabethan era house, originally owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight, is now a library and study center devoted to women writers. There is also a tea shop inside the house.

Image 15 Chawton Great House Ext

Chawton House interior. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 16 Chawton House Int

Chawton House interior. Image Rachel Dodge

Highlight: Caroline Jane Knight, daughter of Jeremy Knight and 5th great-niece to Jane, released a book in June called Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage. It tells her personal story of growing up at Chawton House, the family’s Christmas traditions, baking with her Granny, and helping in the tea room. She is the last Austen descendent to have grown up in the house (before it was sold and later became the Chawton House Library).

Caroline has also formed the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to helping support literacy in communities in need worldwide. https://janeaustenlf.org/

For more on the history of Chawton House, you can read more here: https://chawtonhouse.org/about-us/our-story/

CELEBRATING 200 YEARS

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death later this month, there are many special events all around Hampshire this summer and throughout the year. The people there are proud of their Austen heritage.

As part of the 200th year celebration, Jane Austen’s House Museum has a special exhibit called “41 Objects.” The number 41 marks the number of years that Jane graced this earth, and the objects can be found in and around the museum. Read here for more: https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/41-objects

Image 17 41 Objects Plaque

Chawton Cottage plaque. Image Rachel Dodge

 

Image 18 41 Objects Wedgwood

Wedgwood china, Chawton. Image Rachel Dodge

One highlight for those visiting Hampshire during the “Jane Austen 200: A Life in Hampshire” celebration is the “Sitting with Jane” park benches. These “Book Benches” are scattered throughout the Hampshire area and are part of a public book trail. Each of the 24 benches focuses on a Jane Austen theme as interpreted by a professional artist. Fans can take photos sitting on the benches and post them to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #SittingWithJane. Visit http://www.sittingwithjane.com/ or search @SittingWithJane on Twitter to see the benches or learn more.

 

Image 19 Steventon Bench

Sitting with Jane bench. Image Rachel Dodge

Image 20 Chawton Bench

Sitting with Jane bench. Image Rachel Dodge

For a full list of the events and exhibits scheduled for this year, you can read more here: http://janeausten200.co.uk/

If you have the chance to travel to England, visiting Jane’s beautiful Hampshire countryside is a must. Hampshire has all of the charm and beauty of modern British culture alongside a long, rich, and vibrant history of the past.

Other posts about Steventon, Chawton Cottage, and Chawton on this blog – Click here to see posts.

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Inquiring readers,

In celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, frequent contributor, Tony Grant, visited Chawton House to view a special exhibit. Read his post about the exhibit on Jane Austen in Vermont in this link. Tony reserved a slew of photos for this blog and added his commentary. I inserted some observations by Constance Hill and Jane’s grand niece to round out this post. Enjoy!

Chawton is a Hampshire village and civil parish. It lies within the area of the South Downs National Park. The 2000 census shows that 380 people live in Chawton.

Google map

Google map of Chawton, and Chawton Cottage and Chawton House in relation to each other.

Chawton village is first mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book which was administered from Winchester, the first capital of England, under William the Conqueror,after 1066. The fact that the village lies on a main route from London to Portsmouth by way of Winchester suggests that because of its important position there must have been a Saxon settlement there before 1066 and possibly going back to Iron Age times. The Normans did instigate the creation of new villages such as at West Meon a few miles south of Chawton but most settlements were continued from previous ages. Its location shows it as perhaps a stopping place on a major route but its prime importance would have been farming.

Farming must have been its main importance right up to and after the second world war. Chawton House and its estate has sheep and horses on it to this day. There are still many farms in the area. However the population today is not what it would have been in the past. In previous centuries there would have been representatives of the whole range of the class system.

The Great House

The great house at Chawton owned by the Knight family, image by Tony Grant

The Knight family owned the great house and estate and most famously from the early nineteenth century, Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s brother. The middle classes would have been represented by Jane Austen and her family and perhaps the local vicar of the parish of St Nicholas and some minor landowners and farmers. Probably the working class and farm labourer class predominated though. There are plenty of small Victorian cottages, Georgian cottages and cottages dating back to the 16th century and before in Chawton and surrounding areas. These would have been accommodation for farm workers. Nowadays though these cottages surrounded by idealistic country gardens, climbing roses and wisteria, looking picture postcard perfect, are owned by wealthy people who work in the City and use them as weekend homes.

There are examples of large Georgian and Victorian mansions in the village. They can only be owned by company directors or wealthy bankers and other people of that ilk. Looking at estate agent web sites for Chawton, a mansion such as the one you can see at the start of the long driveway that leads to Chawton House, is priced at £2,000,000. The small picture postcard cottages start at about £350,000. The prices of the two properties I have quoted are the top and bottom of the range.

The ordinary, everyday worker is excluded. I am sure there are no farm labourers are living in Chawton these days.This is a shame because local customs are lost. The rich diverse local customs formed over time by families living there for their whole lives, generation after generation, is lost and although Chawton looks lovely today it has lost to a certain extent, its heart. It has lost its soul.

car park

Chawton Car Park, Image Google earth

All is not lost. The other day I walked from the car park, opposite Jane Austen’s cottage next to the Greyfriar pub, along the road to Chawton House Library. On my left, through the trees and across the children’s playground a gentleman was sitting astride a motor mower cutting the grass on the village cricket pitch. I could see that the sight screens were in place for a match and the cricket club flag was flying from the club house flagpole.

Sight screen on the cricket pitch

Sight of village cricket pitch. Image by Tony Grant

As I approached the Great House I passed Chawton Village Junior School on my right. Put in mind that this was midweek, a Wednesday, and the time was 12.30. The school was in the middle of its lunch break and a whole mass of children were playing in the playground on climbing frames and ladders. They were yelling and whooping and having the time of their lives. I always feel heart warmed at the sound of children. I have spent my whole working life as a teacher teaching them after all. So really there are three things.

Chawton has a great pub, The Greyfriars, it has a wonderful vibrant school and the village a cricket team. A new heart has been created perhaps? Yes, not all is lost.

junction

Jane Austen’s Chawton Cottage is straight ahead. To the right is Cassandra’s Cup, a tea house attached to The Greyfriar pub.

Chawton Cottage, a former steward’s cottage, was previously home to local farmers. Between 1781 and 1787, the house was briefly a public house called The New Inn. This pub was the site of two murders. After the second murder, the house was let by Edward Austen Knight to a Bailiff Bridger Seward. (Wikipedia)

Edward then allowed his mother and sisters to move permanently into the residence. Jane lived there with her mother and sister, Cassandra, and long time family friend Martha Lloyd, from 1809 until May 1817, when she moved to Winchester to be near her physician before her death in June of that year. (Wikipedia

Through the window

View of Jane Austen’s writing desk from the cottage window. Image Tony Grant

Later in the 18th century, Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight (who had been adopted by the Knights) succeeded, and in 1809 was able to move his mother and sisters to a cottage in the village. Jane would spend among the most contented, productive years of her life here.

 

trees

A glimpse of the cottage’s garden.

“I remember the garden well,” writes Miss Lefroy [a grand-daughter of the Rev. James Austen]. “A very high thick hedge divided it from the (Winchester) road, and road it was a pleasant shrubbery walk, with a rough bench or two where no doubt Mrs. Austen and Cassandra and Jane spent many a summer afternoon.”

Miss Lefroy recalls her mother’s happy memories with her Aunt Jane, Aunt Cassandra, and grandmother in Chawton.

“As may be supposed a great deal of intercourse was kept up between Steventon and Chawton. Our grandfather was a most attentive son, and one of the pleasures of my mother’s youth was sometimes riding with him to see her grandmother and aunts through the pretty cross roads and rough lanes, inaccessible to wheels, which lay between the two places . . . In her Aunt Jane, who was the object of her most enthusiastic admiration, she found a sympathy and a companionship which was the delight of her girlhood, and of which she always retained the most grateful remembrance . . . But I will copy my mother’s own account.

‘”The two years before my marriage and the three afterwards, during which we lived near Chawton, were the years in which my great intimacy with her was formed; when the original seventeen years between us seemed reduced to seven or none at all. It was my amusement during part of a summer visit to the cottage to procure novels from the circulating library at Alton, and after running them over to narrate and turn into ridicule their stories to Aunt Jane, much to her amusement, as she sat over some needlework which was nearly always for the poor. We both enjoyed the fun, as did Aunt Cassandra in her quiet way though, as one piece of nonsense led to another, she would exclaim at our folly, and beg us not to make her laugh so much.'” – Constance Hill, Jane Austen: her homes & her friends, 1902.

view from chawton cottage

View from Chawton Cottage in the early 19th century painted by Ellen Hill

 

The village of Chawton lies in a specially beautiful part of Hampshire, about five miles from Gilbert White’s own Selborne, and, like it, famed for its hop fields and its graceful ‘hangers.'”

Chawton Cottage stands at the further end of the village, being the last house on the right-hand side of the way just where the Winchester road branches off from that to Gosport, and where a space of grass and a small pond lie in the fork of those roads.”

 

Chawton has a single church, St Nicholas. A church has stood on the site in Chawton since at least 1270 when it was mentioned in a diocesan document. The church suffered a disastrous fire in 1871 which destroyed all but the chancel. The rebuilt church was designed by Sir Arthuer Blomfield and is now listed Grade 2.” – (Wikipedia)

The two Cassandras

The Knight family is buried in the churchyard. Jane Austen’s mother and sister are buried there also.

“The ‘Great House’ and the cottage lie within a few hundred yards of each other, the gates of the park opening upon the Gosport road. The house, a fine old Elizabethan mansion, with its Tudor porch, and its heavy mullioned windows, may be seen by the passer-by, standing on rising ground; while a little below it, in a gentle hollow, lies the old church of Chawton–a small grey stone edifice embowered in trees.”- Constance Hill

chawtoncottage_chawtonhouse

Chawton has only two road exits, one leading to a roundabout connected to the A31 and the A32, and the other to the A339/B3006 Selborne Road.

The village of Chawton lies in a specially beautiful part of Hampshire, about five miles from Gilbert White’s own Selborne, and, like it, famed for its hop field and graceful “hangers”; while within easy reach is the cheerful little town of Alton.” – Hill

 

Selborne Rd

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happy birthday Jane AustenJane Austen was born on a bitterly cold night on December 16, 1775.

Little is known about birthday celebrations on one’s natal day during the Regency era. Jane makes no mention of them, as far as I know, in her letters and novels. Please correct me if I am wrong. Common sense tells us that family members recognized this important day, but how? Perhaps a special meal was made and a handsome present or two were given. In Persuasion, Jane described a Christmas celebration in Uppercross, which gives us a sense of how a boisterous family celebrated an important event:

On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of all the noise of the others.

The rich might have made more of a fuss for a loved one’s birthday – gifting a girl with a diamond brooch or a pearl pendant or the young heir with a sporty phaeton.

In celebration of Jane Austen’s 240th birthday, I’ve made a list of the gifts that people exchanged in Jane’s day, and came up with a variety of items that her family and friends might have given her:

  • Brother Edward, a plump goose and a brace of pheasants from his lands
  • Brother Charles, a gift of exotic spices and tea from the West Indies.
  • Sister Cassandra, an exquisite embroidered shawl made from fine cloth given by brother Frank.
  • Her friend, Madame Lefroy, a year’s subscription to a circulating library.
  • Brother Henry, several music sheets of songs that were the current rage in London.
  • Her mother, a clever poem in her honor, and her father, ink, goose quills, and paper for her literary pursuits.
  • Her good friend Martha, special recipes to prepare Edward’s gifts of food.

 

An other article about Jane’s birthday on this blog:

Baby Jane Austen’s First Two years: Happy 235th Birthday, Jane!

 

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The blog, Carla-at-Home features an interesting post on the progression of Regency fashion. The images were taken from John Peacock’s book: Costume 1066 – 1966, A Complete Guide to English Costume Design and History (copyrighted 1986). Mr. Peacock was the senior costume designer for BBC Television when the book was printed. Here is one of the images. Click on the link above to visit the site and see the rest of them. You can see that over time the hemlines raised to show the ankle and how increasingly intricate the hems became. Also, the English bosom tended to be covered up during the day, but at night even shy ladies showed their assets.

Image @Carla-at-Home. Click on image to view a larger version.

1800- 1811. Image @Carla-at-Home. Click on image to view a larger version.

Below are images of some dresses that were prevalent between 1800-1811. The gowns are classic and tend to be free of frills. The hems in the fashion plates below are longer than in the modern image above. Earlier in the century even the day gowns still sported trains. Hats were embellished with ribbons and feathers, but not with many fruits or flowers.  In these fashion images, bosoms are covered during the day and exposed in the evening. The waist rises until it can go no higher, as in the 1806 image. In the 1810 image, you see that waists start to lower again. Gloves are often made of kid, but can also be fashioned from fabric.

Ladies Monthly Museum, afternoon dress, 1800

Ladies Monthly Museum, afternoon dress, 1800

The fashion plates of 1800 and 1801 show round gowns with skirts that are fuller than later fashions that sported a more columnar silhouette. (See 1804, 1805).

Nicholas Heidelof, morning gowns. 1801

Nicholas Heidelof, morning gowns. 1801

The period between 1800 and 1811 was a time of turmoil for Jane Austen. She was 25 in 1800, perilously close to sitting on the shelf, and a confirmed spinster at 36 when her brother, Edward, gave the Chawton Cottage to his mother and sisters and their friend, Martha Lloyd, to live in, providing them with some stability and security. During these 11 years, Jane was to live in all the places she was ever to call home, except for the last one in Winchester, where she died in 1817. During her prime adulthood, she and her sister Cassandra would have worn fashions that were similar to (but remarkably plainer and less costly than) the fashions depicted in the fashion plates below.  The Austen family lived in Steventon until 1801 and then moved to Sydney Place in Bath until 1804. In 1802, Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Jane (then 27), who accepted him in the evening and rejected his suit the following morning.

1802 Ladies Monthly Museum

1802 Ladies Monthly Museum

1803 must have brought Jane some joy, for her novel, Susan, was sold to the publisher Crosby for £10. She was to be a published author. Sadly, the novel (to be renamed Northanger Abbey after Jane’s death) languished on Crosby’s shelves for 10 years.

Mirroir de la Mode, undress, 1803

Mirroir de la Mode, morning gown, 1803

Fashions of London and Paris, 1804. @Museum of London

Fashions of London and Paris, 1804. @Museum of London

After the lease in Sydney Place ran out in 1804,  the Austens moved to Green Park buildings. A few months later,  Rev. George Austen died suddenly in January 1805.

Fashions of London and Paris, evening dresses, 1805. @Museum of London

Fashions of London and Paris, evening dresses, 1805. @Museum of London

Their income severely reduced, the women found lodging in Gay Street, Bath from 1805 to 1806. The Jane Austen Centre is located at this building today. During this sad time, I can’t quite imagine Jane attending a ball in the Bath Assembly Rooms wearing an evening gown with an exposed bosom, such as the dresses worn by the women below.

La Belle Assemblee, opera and drawing room gowns, 1806

La Belle Assemblee, opera and drawing room gowns, 1806

In the first half of 1806, the Austen women lived for a short time in Trim Street, then lived a peripatetic life from 1806 through 1807, visiting friends and family, and always on the move.

John Bell, full dress, roxborough jacket, 1807

John Bell, full dress, roxborough jacket, 1807

They landed in Southampton in March of 1807 at the invitation of Frank Austen, who was newly married. Jane, Cassandra, their mother and friend Martha Lloyd, and new sister-in-law, Mary Austen (nee Gibson),  lived there until July, 1809. With money in short supply, the womens’ gowns must have been simple and largely refashioned from older gowns that were still wearable and sturdy.

La Belle Assemblee, walking dresses, 1808

La Belle Assemblee, walking dresses, 1808

Fabric was quite expensive in an era before easy mass production, which is why clothes were recycled. There were occasions when the Austen women needed to purchase cloth for new clothes, but the quality wasn’t always guaranteed. In this letter to Cassandra, written while she lived in Southampton, Jane complains about a tradesman in that city:

As for Mr Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation; how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There is four shillings thrown away.”

Sadly, the Austen women were in no position to fritter away their money, and this poorly made cloth must have been a low blow for Jane’s finances.

Ackermann, walking dresses, 1809

Ackermann, walking dresses, 1809. The overdress with lace edging at the hem is lovely.

In 1809, Edward Austen invited his mother, sisters, and Martha to live in  Chawton Cottage, which began an era of fruitful creativity for Jane and her writing.

Ackermann, walking and morning dresses, 1810

Ackermann, walking and morning dresses, 1810

As you can see, the classically simple fashions depicted in these fashion plates were popular during a time when Jane Austen’s life was in a state of constant uprooting and confusion. She did not regain her equilibrium as a writer until she was settled in Chawton Cottage. When Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, Jane might well have worn a more simple version of the elegant gowns depicted in this last Ackermann plate.

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