Monday, 20 August 2018

Jane Austen's Meryton - where was it?

Before I pose the theory Jane Austen did as many authors do today, and indeed shuffled the location of Meryton and Longbourn, thus placing it a county removed, she probably did so out of politesse to relatives and friends. After all, she had numerous connections within Berkshire, not least the Leigh side of the family. She also attended a boarding school in Reading, which was markedly different than Reading of today. She no doubt made friends, some better liked than others, a quite natural consequence of boarding establishments. It was known she was fond of Windsor and Wargrave, and Windsor itself was markedly different in her day. It was much smaller and rural in extremes, aside from the castle, as were other well known market towns and villages once situated outside London and now part of Greater London. Jane was an intrepid traveller as can be seen from reading her letters, and the distance between Reading, Wargrave, and Windsor pretty much traverses Berkshire. So with that in mind, hold that thought...   

This water colour of Jane Austen was painted by her sister, Cassandra. That much we do know!

But, there are several portraits purportedly that of Jane Austen, and not one of those portraits can truly be verified with absolute surety they are that of Jane Austen. I suppose desire to see the lady's face probably inspired artists to create impressions from descriptions, and while it may seem odd to us that there is no definitive record or extensive collection of Austen family portraits thus depicting Jane and Cassandra, one has to remember portraits were jolly expensive items in her day.       

Nonetheless she has become the most admired lady authoress of contemporary fiction - yes contemporary novels set within, and penned within her own lifetime. One can only ponder what Jane would have felt if she had become as popular in her own lifetime as has been her latter literary fortune since the mid 20th century and now into the 21st century, therefore, does not the word "ecstatic" leap to mind?   
Press images to see full size.

The original Lambourne House had Stuart connections - so what did Jane think of it? 

Now to the teaser questions that have puzzled Jane Austen fans for simply ages:

a) where is Meryton and where is Longbourn situated? 
b) was it wholly fictional, or did such a place exist in her time? 
c) did she change the name to disguise the places mentioned

This is a house once situated near Bath but no longer exists, and it was two counties distant to Berkshire, but Jane probably looked upon it with some regularity when passing by on her way to or from Bath. So much of old England is gone, the landscape changed from the days of the Georgian period, but as authors today search for houses and interiors suitable for depicting the lifestyle of fictional characters, Jane probably utilised those of which she was already familiar, or those she could only admire from a distance but readily suited to her fictional families.    

Rather than beat round bushes and lengthen suspension, or mayhap stir disbelief, I'll come out and say it, for I believe she pulled the same stunt as I do within my novels. by locating houses in differing places and changing the names. 

Is it not likely Jane Austen swapped the setting of Longbourn from Berkshire to Hertfordshire, thus she protected the occupants of the house she had used as inspiration for Longbourn. She had family connections within Berkshire, knew it extremely well. Perhaps mini anagrams exist and one day a clever person will unravel a puzzle Jane posed as a teaser game - find Meryton you'll discover Longbourn, or vice versa.     

Windsor was estimated at 24 miles + from London in Jane's time ,  and Jane was not only acquainted with Windsor (fond of it and the castle), she had resided in Reading as a boarder (school), and stayed in Wargrave, all three places on several main coaching routes to Bath, Gloucester, and Holyhead. Her family connections in the county cannot be denied. Aside from which, numerous country houses and estate parkland she would have seen and probably paid visit to on occasion, many vanished (demolished) to make way for modern  rebuilds or municipal housing in later times, plus modern post WWII housing estates were built in and around original parkland and grounds of former glorious houses, often the original estate's name then utilised for road names in like to example: Manor Hill Drive, Manor Hill Crescent, Manor Hill Terrace.      

Add the extra snippets, how at fifteen years of age she wrote an account of history. It was a tad satirical and amusing, but she revealed a great and abiding interest and affection for the Stuarts - Mary Queen of Scots to Charles I and presumably to the remainder of the Stuart era. Could she therefore be deemed a Royalist sympathiser or was her interest nothing more than general observance of those troubling times? We shall never know, but the tragedy of the French Revolution and the guillotine impacted on the Austen's in a personal sense. And her immediate family were later affected by the Napoleonic wars as were no doubt others of her acquaintance and theirs. No wonder then she chose to pen escapist writing, of a lighthearted and amusing bent, not only to escape the dreadful realities of the war dead and the returning wounded, there was always the constant fear great loss could befall the family all over again.        

Might that sense of knowing Berkshire too well set Jane to sage thought of exchanging one county for another? Could it be Meryton and Longbourn reflect places she knew within Berkshire? No one can know for sure, but it adds a new dimension in the search for both places, and perhaps a county distant for the fictional setting eased her conscience in writing of places she knew inside and out! 

Goodnestone Park Manor, Kent, the very house and family Jane Austen's brother married into. 

Here's another thought on Rosings and Pemberley, for Goodnestone Park Manor House was built in 1704 by Brook Bridges. It is accepted as fact the house build was started in 1704 because a brick on the main front declares it thus. We also know from early paintings there were extensive formal gardens, which were redesigned in the 19th century when Sir Brook Bridges, the 3rd baronet and great-grandson of the builder, replaced the gardens with a landscape parkland setting in the fashion of the time, later turned back to smaller contained gardens. He married Fanny Fowler, co-heiress of the ancient Norman barony of FitzWalter, though it was much depleted by the 19th century. In earlier times a Fitzwalter was one of the men who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The FitzWalters were renowned as courtiers (politicians too) and became Earls of Sussex with many cadet branches of the family. 

But back to J. Austen, for Brook and Fanny's daughter, Elizabeth, married Edward Austen, Jane Austen's brother, thus the pair's early married life was conducted at Goodnestone estate within the family fold until they removed to nearby Godmersham Park. There is a strange circumstance related to Edward Austen, for why did the Knight family adopt Edward from the Austen's and to later inherit the estate he had to change his name to Austen-Knight.  

Needless to say, Jane was a regular guest at Goodnestone in the early days of her brother's marriage. A significant factor therefore is that Jane began writing her first novel, Pride and Prejudice, immediately after staying at Goodnestone Park in 1796.

Did Jane utilise Goodnestone as Rosings, and Godmersham Park as Pemberley?  


She probably knew Brook Bridges (extremely wealthy) had bankrolled the marriage to Fanny by loans afforded to the ailing Fitzwalter estate. 
And of course Darcy's mother, Lady Anne Darcy and her sister Lady Catherine de Bourgh, were "Fitzwilliams"! We know the fictional Fitzwilliam (colonel Fitzwilliam) and the earldom had fallen short in monetary quarters, i.e. the estate was run down as was the Fitzwalter estate. 

Hence Jane, again, no doubt set Pemberley in Derbyshire to allay any connection with houses she was indeed familiar. Added to which she does indeed say Elizabeth and the Gardiners ventured to great houses of Derbyshire, not least that of Chatsworth.

The truth of the matter, it's a little sad how TV dramas and Movies have effectively provided Mr. Darcy with houses he could only dream of. 
The Duke of Devonshire's income was £35,000 from his estate at Chatsworth, copper mines and coal mines. 

The following two pictures are houses that were featured as that of Pemberley within TV dramas, namely:


Dyrham Park too provided an income of 20, 000 + from 250 acres and business interests. Twice Darcy's income. 

Dyrham Park

Both Chatsworth and Dyrham are almost as large as Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke's of Marlborough, and all well in excess of Darcy's  Regency era income.

Blenheim Palace.    

Food for thought, what say you, in how Jane Austen rarely if ever ventures to great detail on houses and fashions etc., and here's a little teaser: 

Jane began writing Pride and  Prejudice in 1796 and it was first published in 1813. It is said PP is set in 1812, so did the publisher, as they're of wont today, suggest she update it to a later time-frame, because it was completed long before its publication day.  Remember Jane lived through the years of the French Revolution 1789-1799.

After all, two of her brothers were naval officers and both were involved in action at sea. Jane had a cousin, the Comtesse Elizabeth de Feullide, Elizabeth sought sanctuary back in the family fold when her husband the Compte went to the guillotine. Elizabeth later married Henry Austen, and no doubt this is why Jane sought escape from the horrors of reality. In retrospect her novels are not a true depiction of her day despite her social awareness and collective impressions of wealth Vs poverty and bettering one's prospects. She did indeed gloss and paint a picture of rural delights with happy carefree picnics, soirees and much dancing as though the country was not at war with France and in 1812, America.