A Celebration of Women Writers

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

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 23] 

CHAPTER III

STEVENTON

"Love and Joy and friendly Mirth
Bless this roof, these walls, this hearth."

WE are soon again at Steventon, and now, whilst sketches of the manor house and of the church are progressing, I will glance through my notebooks, and endeavour to realise the conditions of life in Steventon Parsonage more than a hundred years ago.

Jane Austen, who, as many of us are aware, was born on December 16, 1775, passed the greater part of her life in Hampshire, first at Steventon and afterwards at Chawton. Just twelve years later than this date, on the same day of the same month, and in the same county, a sister authoress was born. The two writers never met, but we shall find that they frequently cross and recross each other's path - a fortunate circumstance indeed, for the writings of Mary Russell Mitford often describe the surroundings of Jane Austen.

Miss Mitford's grandfather, Dr. Russell, was [Page 24]  rector of Ashe, near Steventon, and her mother, before her marriage, was acquainted with the Austen family, although Jane herself was then only a child. Mary Russell Mitford's path in literature is much more confined than that of her greater contemporary, but it is pleasant to see that the two writers approached their art in the same spirit and chose the same setting or background for their stories, a background which was familiar to both.

In the opening pages of "Our Village," the author, after dwelling upon the attractions of life in a rural hamlet, remarks: "Even in books I like a confined locality, and so do the critics when they talk of the 'Unities.' Nothing is so tiresome as to be whirled half over Europe at the chariot-wheels of a hero, to go to sleep at Vienna and awaken at Madrid; it produces a real fatigue, a weariness of spirit. On the other hand, nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Miss Austen's delicious novels, quite sure before we leave it to become intimate with every spot and every person it contains." Miss Mitford loved to write of a small compact community, "a little world of our own" she calls it, "close packed and insulated like ants in an anthill, or bees in a hive, or sheep in a fold, or nuns in a convent, or sailors in a ship; where we know every one, are known to every one, and [Page 25]  authorised to hope that every one feels an interest in us."

Miss Austen also loved "a confined locality in books." She writes to a young niece, who had asked for her advice and criticisms respecting a novel she was composing: "You are collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so favourably arranged."

A third distinguished author, Gilbert White, born many years earlier than Jane Austen, was still living and in Hampshire during her girlhood, and whilst she was learning her lessons he was recording at Selborne in his letters and diaries the various occurrences of his "tranquil uneventful life," told with all "the simple humour of a happy naturalist."

It is remarkable that these three writers, who have each left such a powerful mark on the literature of our country, should have been born in the same county and have been, for some years at least, contemporaries. And it is also remarkable that they, who have given to the world works so full of peace and happiness and racy humour, should have lived through the tragic period of the French Revolution. A faint echo of the storm [Page 26]  comes to us occasionally in their letters, but their works reflect only their own healthful natures and peaceful surroundings.

We must remember, however, that in those days foreign intelligence came slowly and long after the event, and that travelling, which now unites all nations in personal knowledge of each other, was then difficult and expensive. Even at home the movements of country people were much restricted by the condition of the roads. Mr. Austen-Leigh, in his biography of his aunt, tells us that "it was not unusual to set men to work with shovel and pickaxe to fill up ruts and holes" in side roads and lanes "on such special occasions as a funeral or a wedding." The Rev. George Austen kept "a pair of carriage horses," which were necessary in those days "if ladies were to move about at all;" the style of carriage then in vogue being too heavy to be drawn by a single horse over the rough roads. "The horses, probably, like Mr. Bennet's in 'Pride and Prejudice,' were often employed in farm work."

Ladies did not walk much abroad. Their shoes were too thin for such exercise. We remember how Elizabeth Bennet, on first arriving at Hunsford, turned back when Mr. Collins, in the pride of his heart, wished to take her from the inspection of his garden to that of his meadow, [Page 27]  "not having shoes to encounter the remains of a white frost." And yet Elizabeth was attired for travelling, having just alighted from a postchaise that had brought her and her friends from London. It is true that in bad weather ladies could walk for a short distance in pattens, which were foot-clogs supported upon an iron ring that raised the wearer a couple of inches from the ground. But these were clumsy contrivances. The rings made a clinking noise on any hard surface, and there is a notice in the vestibule of an old church in Bath, stating that "it is requested by the church-wardens that no persons walk in this church with pattens on."

Many country ladies, however, like Mrs. Primrose, were too much engaged with domesticities to have even time for much walking. Young ladies often assisted in cooking the daintier parts of the family meals. Recipes were handed down from generation to generation. "One house would pride itself on its ham, another on its game-pie, and a third on its superior furmity or tansey-pudding. Beer and home-made wines, especially mead, were largely consumed." Miss Austen remarks in one of her letters: "We hear that there is to be no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our stock of mead. I am sorry to perceive that our stock of twenty gallons is nearly out." Our ancestors must have [Page 28]  required some patience in the production of this beverage, for, according to a cookery book, mead, made in the old style, had to stand for fifteen months before it was fit for use; made in the modern style it stands but for half an hour.

Mr. Austen-Leigh feels sure that the ladies of the parsonage house "had nothing to do with the mysteries of the stew-pot or the preserving pan . . . but it is probable," he adds, "that their way of life differed a little from ours, and would have appeared to us more homely." Jane frequently managed the housekeeping for her mother during the absence of her elder sister. Writing to Cassandra in November 1798, she remarks playfully: "My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason - I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping."

A frequent visitor at the parsonage was Jane's little niece Anna - the child of her eldest brother James by his first wife who died in 1795. This lady had "been a very tender mother, and the poor little girl missed her so much and kept so constantly asking for 'mama' that her father sent her to Steventon to be taken care of and consoled [Page 29]  by her aunts Cassandra and Jane." This 'Anna' has left in manuscript the following description of the house and of its inmates:

"The rectory at Steventon had been of the


STEVENTON PARSONAGE (BACK VIEW)

most miserable description, but in the possession of my grandfather it became a tolerably roomy and convenient habitation; he added and improved, walled in a good kitchen garden, and planted out the east wind, enlarging the house [Page 30]  until it came to be considered a very comfortable family residence.

"On the sunny side was a shrubbery and flower garden, with a terrace walk of turf which communicated by a small gate with what was termed 'the wood walk,' a path winding through clumps of underwood and overhung by tall elm-trees, skirting the upper side of the home meadows. The lower bow-window, which looked so cheerfully into the sunny garden and up the middle grass walk bordered with strawberries, to the sundial at the end, was that of my grandfather's study, his own exclusive property, safe from the bustle of all household cares.

"The dining, or common sitting-room, looked to the front and was lighted by two casement windows. On the same side the front door opened into a much smaller parlour, and visitors, who were few and rare, were not a bit the less welcome to my grandmother because they found her sitting there busily engaged with her needle, making and mending.

"In later times . . . a sitting-room was made upstairs, 'the dressing-room,' as they were pleased to call it, perhaps because it opened into a smaller chamber in which my two aunts slept. I remember the common-looking carpet with its chocolate ground and the painted press with shelves above for books, and Jane's piano, and an [Page 31]  oval glass that hung between the windows; but the charm of the room, with its scanty furniture and cheaply-papered walls, must have been, for those old enough to understand it, the flow of native household wit, with all the fun and nonsense of a large and clever family. Here were written the two first of my aunt Jane's completed works, 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice.'"

The same niece writes of her grandfather, the Rev. George Austen: "As a young man I have always understood that he was considered extremely handsome, and it was a beauty which stood by him all his life. At the time when I have the most perfect recollection of him he must have been hard upon seventy, but his hair in its milk-whiteness might have belonged to a much older man. It was very beautiful, with short curls about the ears. His eyes were not large, but of a peculiar and bright hazel. My aunt Jane's were something like them, but none of the children had precisely the same excepting my uncle Henry.

"His wife (Cassandra Leigh) used always to say 'she had never been a beauty,' but that may have been only by comparison with her sister Jane, who married the Rev Edward Cooper and who was remarkably handsome.

"Cassandra was a little, slight woman, with fine, [Page 32]  well-cut features, large grey eyes, and good eyebrows, but without any brightness of complexion. She was amusingly particular about people's noses, having a very aristocratic one herself, which she had the pleasure of transmitting to a good many of her children.

"She was a quick-witted woman with plenty of sparkle and spirit in her talk, who could write an excellent letter, either in prose or verse, making no pretence to poetry but being simply playful common sense in rhyme.

"During the early part of her married life her usual dress was a riding-habit made of scarlet cloth, which in due course was cut up into jackets and trousers for her boys."

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom