A Celebration of Women Writers

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

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 5] 

CHAPTER II

STEVENTON

"By hedge-row elms on hillocks green."

THE sun shone brightly on our first morning in Austen-land, and showed us that we were in a peaceful country of green pastures and low wooded hills. My companion was soon seated by the roadside making a sketch of the inn, whilst I took a hurried peep at the small village of Deane and at Deane Manor House, a fine seventeenth-century building, whose grounds adjoin the churchyard. But we shall return to Deane later on, and must now hasten to Steventon. The chaise that brought us from Clarken Green last evening is waiting to take us there.

As we drive along Deane Lane we think of the family party which made that same journey a hundred and thirty years ago. When Mr. and Mrs. George Austen quitted Deane in 1771, to make their home at Steventon, Deane Lane "was a mere cart track, so cut up by deep [Page 6]  ruts as to be impassable for a light carriage. Mrs. Austen, who was not then in strong health,


THE DEANE GATE

performed the short journey on a feather bed, placed upon some soft articles of furniture in the waggon which held their household goods."[1] [Page 7]  We seem to see the quaint caravan moving in front of us, as we follow the same track and look, as the Austens did, upon the green slopes of Ashe Park on either side of the lane.

Leaving the park, the road turns abruptly to the right, and we find ourselves entering the sunny village of Steventon, which lies in a gentle hollow. We alight from our chaise and walk between the gardens of pretty cottages that border the road. These cottages, it seems, form the village, and passing them we proceed along Steventon Lane. A knoll, on the left, is surmounted by the new rectory, and on the right, green fields and woods cover a hillside, on the top of which, we are told, we shall find the church. Presently we reach a meadow at the foot of the hill and notice that the ground slopes up to a grassy terrace. This is the place! We cannot mistake it. This is the site of the old parsonage-house where Jane Austen was born! For her nephew tells us that "along the upper or southern side of the garden ran a terrace of the finest turf." There is the very terrace described! We know that the house stood between it and the lane, but what is the exact site? Can no one tell us? May there not be some person yet living who remembers the parsonage pulled down in 1826?

Inspired by this idea, we hurry back to the cottages and speculate upon each open door as to [Page 8]  what might be gained from its dark interior. At last we see an old man leaning on his garden-gate.

"Can you tell us," we anxiously inquire, "where the old parsonage stood in which the Austen family lived long ago?"

"Ay, that I can," he exclaims: "maybe you've seen the field at the corner where the church lane cooms out o' Steventon Lane? Well, if you saw that, did you notice a pump in the middle o' the field?"

"Yes, yes!"

"Well, that pump stood i' the washhouse at the back o' the parsonage. There's a well under the pump. The Austens got their water from that well. I was a little 'un when the old house was pulled down, but I well recollect seeing all the bricks and rubbish lyin' about on the ground."

"The house faced the road, did it not?" we ask.

"Yes; and the gates o' the drive were at the corner o' the field, between the church lane and Steventon Lane. I remember when you could make out the line o' the drive quite well, 'cause the grass grew poor and thin where the gravel had been."

Presently we learn that our informant's grandfather, whose name was Littlewart, was coachman to Mr. James Austen, Jane's eldest brother. [Page 9] 

" I used to hear a deal about the Austens when I was a lad," continued our friend. "from my


SIGHT OF THE OLD PARSONAGE, STEVENTON

mother, for she was a god-daughter o' Miss Jane's. People tell me now that Miss Jane wrote some fine stories, and I've just seen her name in [Page 10]  a newspaper. I'll go and fetch the paper for you to see." And the old man hurries into his cottage.

Whilst he is away I refer to a volume of Jane Austen's Letters which I carry under my arm, to see if, by chance, the name of Littlewart occurs in any of them. Yes! here it is in one dated November 1798. Jane is writing from Steventon to a sister-in-law, and after telling her that "their family affairs are somewhat deranged" owing to illness among the servants, she goes on to say "You and Edward will be amused, I think, when you know that Nanny Littlewart dresses my hair." It was evidently this Nanny Littlewart's daughter that was godchild to Jane Austen. So we have been actually talking to the son of her god-daughter!

After showing proper appreciation of the newspaper paragraph, we return to the meadow where the parsonage stood. My companion sits down on a bank to sketch the terrace and the pump, for the pump, barely noticed before, has become interesting now as the only visible relic of the Austens' home. Meanwhile I wander over the field endeavouring to

"Summon from the shadowy past
The forms that once have been."

I can now picture to myself the exact spot [Page 11]  where the parsonage stood, and can fancy the carriage drive approaching it "between turf and trees" from the gates at the corner of the two lanes. I can even fancy the house itself, being familiar with two old pencil views of it taken by members of the Austen family. These show that the front had a latticed porch, and that the back


STEVENTON PARSONAGE (FRONT VIEW)

had two projecting wings and looked on to the garden which sloped up to the terrace "walk." In both sketches fine trees are introduced, and as I saunter about I notice some great flat stumps of elm-trees in the grass. The sight of these brings to mind a letter of Jane's, written in November 1800, in which she says: "We have had a dreadful storm of wind in the fore part of this day, which has done a great deal of mischief among our trees. I was sitting alone in the dining-room [Page 12]  when an odd kind of crash startled me; in a moment afterwards it was repeated. I then went to the window, which I reached just in time to see the last of our two highly-valued elms descend into the Sweep!!!! The other, which had fallen, I suppose, in the first crash, and which was the nearest to the pond, taking a more easterly direction, sank among our screen of chestnuts and firs, knocking down one spruce fir, beating off the head of another, and stripping the two corner chestnuts of several branches in its fall. This is not all. One large elm, out of the two on the left-hand side as you enter what I call the elm walk, was likewise blown down; the maple bearing the weathercock was broke in two, and what I regret more than all the rest is, that all the three elms which grew in Hall's meadow, and gave such ornament to it, are gone; two were blown down, and the other so much injured that it cannot stand. I am happy to add," she continues, "that no greater evil than the loss of trees has been the consequence of the storm in this place, or in our immediate neighbourhood. We grieve therefore in some comfort."[1]

The "elm walk" alluded to, which is sometimes called the "wood walk" in the "Letters," extended from the terrace westward and led to a rustic shrubbery. The shrubbery has disappeared, [Page 13]  but there are groups of trees on the slope of the


ENTRANCE TO STEVENTON CHURCH

terrace that may have shaded the "walk." One group is especially beautiful. It consists of tall sycamores with their pale grey stems and dark [Page 14]  green foliage, among which an old thorn has entwined its branches. We read in one of the "Letters" from Steventon: "The bank along the elm walk is sloped down for the reception of thorns and lilacs."

Perhaps these features of her home may have been in the author's mind when she described "Cleveland" in "Sense and Sensibility." "It had no park, but the pleasure grounds were tolerably extensive . . . . It had its open shrubbery and closer wood walk . . . . The house itself was under the guardianship of the fir, the mountain ash, and the acacia."

The ground between the house and the terrace "was occupied by one of those old-fashioned gardens in which vegetables and flowers are combined, flanked and protected on the east by one of the thatched mud walls common in that country, and overshadowed by fine elms."[1] I look on the sloping grass "where once this garden smiled," and fancy I see fruit-trees and flowers and that I even catch a glimpse of two girlish forms moving among them - those of Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra; that only sister so dear to the heart of Jane, of whom she spoke, "even in the maturity of her powers, as of one wiser and better than herself."

We are told that a path called the "Church [Page 15] 


THE SQUIRE'S PEW

[Page 17]  walk" started from the eastern end of the terrace and ascended the steep hill behind the parsonage to the church. It ran between "hedgerows under whose shelter the earliest primroses, anemones, and wild hyacinths were to be found." Let us cross the meadow, gentle reader, where the path ran which the Austens must have trod each Sunday morning as they walked to church. Leaving the meadow, we enter a small wood, and, on emerging from this wood, find ourselves on high tableland. There above us stands the church, a modest edifice of sober grey, seen through a screen of great arching elms and sycamores. Behind us stretches a fertile valley fading into a blue distance. The only sounds that meet the ear on this still September day are the twittering of birds and the distant bleating of sheep. How often must Jane Austen have listened to these sounds as she passed on her way to church!

We follow a path which crosses the churchyard beneath the boughs of an ancient yew-tree, and enter the small silent church. Our attention is caught at once by the squire's pew on the right of the chancel arch. Square and big and towering above the modern benches it stands - solid oak below, but with elegant open tracery above through which the occupants could see and be seen. In the Austens' time a family named Digweed rented [Page 18]  the Manor of Steventon. Its owner was Mr. Thomas Knight, a distant relative of the Rev. George Austen, but the Digweeds held the property for more than a hundred years.

After examining, with great interest, many tablets to Austens and Digweeds, we quit the dark church and step into the sunshine once more; and, passing through a wicket gate, find ourselves upon a wide spreading lawn adorned with great sycamores. Beyond the trees rises a stately mansion of early Tudor date, with its stone porch, its heavy mullioned windows, and its great chimney-stacks all wreathed with ivy - the old Manor House of Steventon.

The house is no longer inhabited, for the present owner, we learn, has migrated to a new mansion erected hard by, but the old building itself has suffered no alteration, as far as its outward walls are concerned, since the Digweeds lived there, when there was much intercourse between the squire's and the rector's families.

We sit down upon a grassy bank under the shade of tall limes and, looking to the right of the old grey building, we can see the corner of a gay flower garden, whose red and white dahlias and yellow sunflowers rise above a high box hedge. To our left is a bowling-green, across which the shadows of great trees are sweeping. Whilst my companion sketches the porch of the Manor House [Page 19] 


THE OLD MANOR HOUSE

[Page 21]  I turn over the leaves of Jane Austen's "Letters" and my eye falls upon these playful remarks, written in November 1800 to her sister Cassandra: "The three Digweeds all came on Tuesday, and we played a pool at commerce. James Digweed left Hampshire to-day. I think he must be in love with you, from his anxiety to have you go to the Faversham balls, and likewise from his supposing that the two elms fell from their grief at your absence. Was not it a gallant idea? It never occurred to me before, but I daresay it was so."

We are told that "Mr. Austen used to join Mr. Digweed in buying twenty or thirty sheep, and that all might be fair it was their custom to open the pen, and the first half of the sheep which ran out were counted as belonging to the rector. Going down to the fold on one occasion after this process had been gone through, Mr. Austen remarked one sheep among his lot larger and finer than the rest. 'Well, John,' he observed to John Bond (his factotum), 'I think we have had the best of the luck with Mr. Digweed to-day, in getting that sheep.' 'Maybe not so much in the luck as you think, sir,' responded the faithful John, 'I see'd her the moment I come in and set eyes on the sheep, so when we opened the pen I just giv'd her a "huck" with my stick, and out a' run.'"[1] [Page 22] 

When evening approaches we leave the old manor house and its smooth lawns under the glowing light of the setting sun and descend the hill to Steventon Lane. There our chaise awaits us and we make our way, not back to Deane, but on to Popham Lane, the main road between Basingstoke and Micheldever, and establish ourselves at an old posting inn, called the Wheatsheaf, which we find will be within reach of many a place visited by Jane Austen as well as of Steventon.

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Footnotes



[Page 6]
1 "Memoir of Jane Austen," by J. E. Austen-Leigh.


[Page 12]
1 "Memoir," by J. E. Austen-Leigh.


[Page 14]
1 "Memoir," by J. E. Austen-Leigh.


[Page 21]
1 "Letters of Jane Austen," edited, with an Introduction and Critical Remarks, by Edward, Lord Brabourne. Macmillan.

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