A Celebration of Women Writers

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

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 197] 

CHAPTER XVIII

GODMERSHAM

"Where the deer rustle through the twining brake."

GODMERSHAM Park, in Kent, where her brother Edward and his family lived, was almost a second home to Miss Jane Austen as well as to her sister Cassandra. Jane had been warmly attached to Edward's wife, and the death of her sister-in-law increased her devotion to her beloved brother and to his motherless children.

Godmersham Park lies in a wooded, undulating country about eight miles south-west of Canterbury, and is watered by the pretty river Stoure. The house, a long, low building of white stone with two wings, has a wide portico supported by columns. We have passed through this stately entrance, by the kind permission of the present owner, and have sat in the rooms where Jane sat, looking, as she must have looked, upon the sunny, green slopes of the park where deer were feeding beneath shady trees. A great, square hall occupies the centre of the mansion, rich in carved [Page 198]  doorways which are flanked by white pilasters and surmounted by pediments.

Writing from Godmersham to her sister in 1813, Jane describes the arrival of her sailor brother, Charles, accompanied by his wife and their two children, and tells how they were met and welcomed in this hall. "They came last evening at about seven," she says. "We had given them up, but I still expected them . . . . They had a very rough passage. . . . However, here they are, safe and well, just like their own nice selves; Fanny looking as neat and white this morning as possible, and dear Charles all affectionate, placid, quiet, cheerful, good humour . . . . Cassy was too tired and bewildered just at first to seem to know anybody. We met them in the hall - the women and girl part of us - but before we reached the library, she kissed me very affectionately . . . . It was quite an evening of confusion, as you may suppose. At first we were all walking about from one part of the house to the other; then came a fresh dinner in the breakfast-room which Fanny and I attended; then we moved into the library, were joined by the dining-room people, were introduced and so forth; and then we had tea and coffee which was not over till past ten. Billiards again drew all the odd ones away, and Edward, Charles, the two Fannies, and I, sat snugly talking."[1] [Facing Page]


HALL IN GODMERSHAM HOUSE
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[Page 199]  We can picture to ourselves this happy group seated in the library, whose walls are of wainscot, painted white with large and richly framed panels, then filled by the family portraits.

The drawing-room lies at the back of the house. It is a long room with windows down to the ground that overlook flower beds and green lawns which terminate in a long ascending glade on the side of a wooded hill. Here Jane sat writing to her sister one November day: "I am all alone - Edward is gone into the woods. At this present time I have five tables, eight-and-twenty chairs, and two fires all to myself."

With the children of the family "Aunt Jane" was always the centre of attraction. "She was the one to whom we always looked for help," writes a niece. "She could make everything amusing to a child . . . . She would tell us the most delightful stories, chiefly of Fairyland, and her fairies had all characters of their own. The tale was invented, I am sure, at the moment and was continued for two or three days if occasion required - being begged for on all possible and impossible occasions."[1] Sometimes she composed impromptu verses for their entertainment. She is described as "standing in one of the windows at Godmersham when awaiting the arrival of her brother Frank, and his newly-married wife, [Page 200]  allaying the impatience of the little nephews and nieces, watching with her, by a poetical account of the bride and bridegroom's journey from Canterbury; the places they passed through, the drive through the park, and the arrival, at last, at the house."

Several members of the Austen family besides Jane were endowed with this faculty of invention - a faculty termed by Mrs. Austen "sprack wit." They often wrote amusing charades to enliven their evening gatherings, when "merry verses and happy, careless inventions of the moment would flow without difficulty from their ready pens." Some of these "charades" have been collected and printed for private circulation. We are permitted to give two of them. The first is by Jane Austen's father. Its solution was unknown to his descendants, but two ingenious answers have been suggested by readers of these pages.

"Without me, divided, fair ladies, I ween,
At a ball or a concert you'll never be seen;
You must do me together, or safely I'd swear,
Whatever your carriage you'll never get there."

(Flambeau - Alight.)

The second is by Jane herself.

"When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit
If by taking my whole she effect her release!"

(Hemlock.)

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"A YOUNG GIRL OF SPIRIT"
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[Page 201]  Sometimes the evenings at Godmersham were passed in listening to the reading of some notable book. It was in June 1808 just four months after "Marmion" had appeared before the public, that Jane wrote: "Ought I to be very much pleased with 'Marmion'? As yet I am not. James[1] reads it aloud in the evening - the short evening beginning at ten, and broken by supper." But a further acquaintance with the poem made her change her opinion, for writing a few months later of sending out a worked rug to her brother Charles in the West Indies, she remarks: "I am going to send 'Marmion' out with it - very generous in me I think."

Miss Austen often mentions "Sackree," the children's nurse and a general favourite. "I told Sackree," she writes to her sister, "that you desired to be remembered to her which pleased her; and she sends her duty and wishes you to know that she has been into the great world. She went on to town after taking William to Eltham, and, as well as myself, saw the ladies go to Court on the 4th. She had the advantage, indeed, of me in being in the Palace."[2]

Sackree "lived on at Godmersham" Lord Brabourne tells us, "saw and played with many of the children of her nurslings, and died in 1851 [Page 202]  in her ninetieth year." We have seen her grave in the pretty churchyard of Godmersham village church, where she is described as "the faithful servant and friend, for nearly sixty years, of Edward Knight, of Godmersham Park, and the beloved nurse of his children."

One of Miss Austen's little nieces living to old age has only recently passed away - Miss Marianne Knight. A cousin of a younger generation, to whom the old lady used to talk of her early recollections, records the following words of Miss Knight:

"I remember that when Aunt Jane came to us at Godmersham she used to bring the MS. of whatever novel she was writing with her, and would shut herself up with my elder sisters in one of the bedrooms to read them aloud. I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door, and thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful. I also remember how Aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library, saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before."

When Miss Austen visited Godmersham in 1813, both "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride [Facing Page]


MR. THOMAS KNIGHT
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[Page 203]  and Prejudice" had appeared before the public and much curiosity was felt concerning their author. "Oh! I have more sweet flattery from Miss Sharp," Jane writes playfully. "She is an excellent kind friend, I am read and admired in Ireland, too. There is a Mrs. Fletcher, the wife of a judge, an old lady, and very good and very clever, who is all curiosity to know about me - what I am like, and so forth. I am not known to her by name, however . . . . I do not despair of having my picture in the Exhibition at last - all white and red, with my head on one side; or perhaps I may marry young Mr. D'Arblay. I suppose in the meantime I shall owe dear Henry a great deal of money for printing, &c."[1]

We find mention of much pleasant visiting among friends and neighbours in the "Letters" written from Godmersham. Sometimes Jane spends a few days at Goodnestone with the Bridges family, the relatives of her brother's wife; sometimes a day and night at the "White Friars " in Canterbury - the home of Mrs. Thomas Knight after her quitting Godmersham Park. Writing of a visit to the latter place, Miss Austen remarks: "It was a very agreeable visit. There was everything to make it so - kindness, conversation, variety, without care or cost. Mr. Knatchbull from Provender, was at the White Friars [Page 204]  when we arrived and stayed dinner, which with Harriet,[1] who came, as you may suppose, in a great hurry, ten minutes after the time, made our number six. Mr. K. went away early; Mr. Moore succeeded him, and we sat quietly working and talking till ten, when he ordered his wife away and we adjourned to the dressing-room to eat our tart and jelly." The next morning Mrs. Knight "had a sad headache which kept her in bed," but Jane, after paying some calls, returns to find her up and better; "but early as it was - only twelve o'clock," she continues, "we had scarcely taken off our bonnets before company came - Lady Knatchbull and her mother; and after them succeeded Mrs. White, Mrs. Hughes, and her two children, Mr. Moore, Harriet and Louisa, and John Bridges, with such short intervals between any as to make it a matter of wonder to me that Mrs. K. and I should ever have been ten minutes alone, or have any leisure for comfortable talk, yet we had time to say a little of everything. Edward came to dinner, and at eight o'clock he and I got into the chair, and the pleasures of my visit concluded with a delightful drive home."

If the engagements did not happen to furnish much amusement in themselves Miss Austen managed to get entertainment out of them in another way. [Facing Page]


MRS. THOMAS KNIGHT
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[Page 205] 

"'Tis night! and the landscape is lovely no more,'" she writes, "but to make amends for that, our visit to the Tyldens is over. My brother, Fanny, Edward, and I went; George stayed at home with W. K. There was nothing entertaining or out of the common way. We met only Tyldens and double Tyldens. A whist-table for the gentlemen, a grown-up musical young lady to play at backgammon with Fanny, and engravings of the colleges at Cambridge for me . . . . Lady Elizabeth Hatton and Anna Maria called here this morning. Yes, they called; but I do not think I can say anything more about them. They came, and they sat, and they went."

"It seems now quite settled," she writes, "that we go to Wrotham on Saturday, the 13th (Nov.) spend Sunday there and proceed to London on Monday. I like the plan. I shall be glad to see Wrotham."[1]

The Rev. George Moore was Rector of the beautiful village of Wrotham which lies among the western Kentish hills. His wife was a sister-in-law of Edward Knight. We like to fancy Jane attending service in the fine old church on the village green or, perhaps, climbing Wrotham hill to trace the line of the old Pilgrims' route as it winds along the valley marked by its dark yew trees.

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Footnotes



[Page 198]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 199]
1 "Memoir," by J. E. Austen-Leigh.


[Page 201]
1 He was then staying at Godmersham.


2 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 203]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.


[Page 204]
1 Harriet Bridges, lately married to the Rev. George Moore.


[Page 205]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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