A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter I." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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JANE AUSTEN

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CHAPTER I

AN ARRIVAL IN AUSTEN-LAND

ON a fine morning, in the middle of September, a country chaise was threading its way through Hampshire lanes. In it were seated two ardent admirers of Jane Austen, armed with pen and pencil who were eager to see the places where she dwelt, to look upon the scenes that she had looked upon, and to learn all that could be learnt of her surroundings.

The chaise in question had been hired in a country village from a blacksmith, and was driven by the blacksmith's wife. The good woman knew little more than we (the travellers) did of the cross-country journey of twenty-two miles that lay before us. Still, there would be fingerposts to direct us and, no doubt, wayfarers to be questioned; and in the meantime our sturdy pony trotted so briskly along that he seemed ready to accomplish a yet longer journey.

We had studied the map and fancied that by various short cuts we could accomplish the drive [Page 2]  before nightfall. But alas for short cuts! We were puzzled at the very first choice of byways! There was nothing for it but to inquire at a group of roadside cottages. So one of us walked up a garden glowing with late summer flowers and tapped at the entrance-door. No answer came from within, so we tried another - flanked with laden apple-trees - and another and another, with no better success. Then it occurred to us that the inhabitants must be all away hop-gathering. We had, indeed, left the villagers hard at work at our starting-point, where the parson's young daughter had joined one of the groups and was busy helping some old women to fill their sacks.

How beautiful were those narrow lanes through which we passed, with their hedgerows of arching trees and their steep banks adorned with yellow bracken and the long sprays of blackberry-bushes covered with ripening fruit! The immediate goal of this journey was none other than Steventon - birthplace of Jane Austen; but Steventon, it seemed, was a village where no lodging was to be had, and we had been advised to halt at Clarken Green, a hamlet within a few miles of Steventon, where we might sleep at a small country tavern. For Clarken Green, therefore, we were bound.

Once we asked our way of a field labourer we chanced to meet, but found that he was unaware [Page 3]  of the very existence of Clarken Green. At last, having arrived at something of a village, a good-natured innkeeper standing in the midst of his pigeons and poultry, entered into our difficulties; told us that we had come far out of our way and advised our making for the Basingstoke road. This, with the aid of his directions, we succeeded in doing, and towards evening found ourselves entering the old town of Basingstoke. After a short halt we again resumed our journey, and finally, as darkness was closing in, we drew up triumphantly at the solitary inn of Clarken Green. But our triumph was of short duration. Within doors all was confusion - rooms dismantled, packing-cases choking up the entries, and furniture piled up against the walls. The innkeeper and his family, we found, were on the eve of a departure. It was impossible, he said, to receive us, but he offered us the use of a chaise and a fresh horse to take us on to Deane - a place a few miles farther west - where he thought it possible we might find shelter in a small inn. The name struck our ears, for Deane has its associations with the Austen family. There Jane's father and mother spent the first seven years of their married life. By all means let us go to Deane! So bidding farewell to our charioteer, the blacksmith's wife, as she led her sturdy pony into the stable, we drove off cheerily along the [Page 4]  darkening roads. Before long a light appeared between the trees, and in a few minutes we were stopping in front of a low, rambling, whitewashed building - the small wayside inn of Deane Gate.

Our troubles were now over, and much we enjoyed our cosy supper, which we ate in a tiny parlour of spotless cleanliness. A chat with our landlady gave us the welcome intelligence that we were within two miles of Steventon. Our small tavern and Gatehouse (as it was formerly) stood, she said, where the lane for Steventon joins the main road to the west. This, no doubt, would give it importance for the Austens and their country neighbours; and we recalled the words of Jane in one of her letters, when speaking of a drive from Basingstoke to Steventon she says: "We left Warren at Dean Gate on our way home." So we fell asleep that night with the happy consciousness that we were really in Austen-land.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom