Jane Austen’s association with Southampton is often overlooked — it does not provide as picturesque a backdrop to her life as Bath or Winchester, nor is it a setting for any of her novels. Nevertheless, Southampton was briefly her home as a schoolgirl and again from October 1806 until early 1809. Although much of the town that she knew no longer exists, glimpses of it can be seen in many of the Cope Collection’s older prints and in contemporary publications such as The Southampton Guide (1806).
It was after the death of Rev. George Austen, that Jane, her mother, her sister Cassandra, and friend Martha Lloyd, moved to Southampton to set up home with her brother Frank and his wife. At first they lived in lodgings, but in March 1807 moved to 2 Castle Square, a house rented by Frank from the Marquis of Lansdowne, the owner of the mock gothic castle nearby.Jane described preparations for the move in letters written to Cassandra, who was visiting their brother in Kent. She appeared especially pleased with the garden, in which the town wall formed a terrace overlooking the river. Her remark that “We hear that we are envied our House by many people and that the Garden is the best in the town” is confirmed in the contemporary guidebook by Sir Henry Englefield, who described the view from the gardens in Castle Square as “commanding an enchanting view of the bay, from the town to the village of Millbrook, and the river beyond it quite to Redbridge”. Something of the life led by the Austen family in Southampton can be seen in later letters to Cassandra. They attended All Saints Church, the comparatively new church at the corner of the High Street and East Street, visited the market near the Audit House and no doubt the pastry-cook Mr Webb, whose house was badly damaged by a fire which Jane Austen witnessed. Dealings with silk dyers were mentioned, spruce beer was brewed and books read each evening, much time was also spent receiving and paying calls. The streets of Southampton must have become very familiar to Jane Austen. A “regular walk” took in Bellevue, the large house towards the northern end of London Road and the Austens also enjoyed the pleasant walk through the suburb of Above Bar to the Polygon. A certain amount of stamina was needed to visit the Lances of Chessel House, Bitterne, which involved walking to the ferry to cross the Itchen, continuing to the house which was in the vicinity of Chessel Avenue and returning home via the new Northam Bridge. After such a walk in Dec 1808, Jane described herself and Martha Lloyd as “scarcely at all fatigued”. There were occasional visits to the theatre, apparently not well thought of – “Martha ought to see the inside of the Theatre once while she lives in Southampton & I think she will hardly wish to take a second view” and also to the Ball. Only attendances at those held at the Dolphin during the winter months are recorded, Jane attending one in December 1808 and also the Queen’s Birthday Assembly Ball in January 1809. The Austens hosted a number of family visits during their years in Southampton. A visit in September 1807 by Edward Austen Knight, his wife Elizabeth and children William and Fanny was recorded by Fanny, then aged fourteen. On Sunday, after going to Church there was a walk to the Polygon, Monday included a visit to the theatre and Tuesday brought a boat trip to Hythe. On Wednesday everyone except Mrs Austen senior took a boat to Netley Abbey and according to Fanny, they ate some biscuits which they had taken, and returned quite delighted. Later the same day she and her Aunt Jane walked in the High Street till late. On the final day, all except Aunt Jane went on a drive through the New Forest to Lyndhurst and Lymington. Jane Austen’s letters record little of her views on Southampton itself, but some of the residents did not escape her judgement. Of Mrs Lance of Chessel House she wrote, “they live in a handsome style and are rich, and she seemed to like to be rich”, of a Mrs Bertie, “Mrs Bertie lives in the Polygon, & was out when we returned her visit – which are her two virtues” and of the Marchioness of Lansdowne and Mr Husket, the painter employed by the Marquis, “I suppose when the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about My Lady’s face”.
In recent years, Jane Austen has been reclaimed as a famous former resident of Southampton, there is now a Jane Austen Heritage Trail and her remark on the “stinking fish of Southampton” has not only been forgiven but also adopted as the name of the festival with which the City is marking the 200th anniversary of her death.
Austen, Jane Jane Austen’s Letters ed. Deidre Le Faye 4th ed. (Oxford, 2011)
Englefield, Henry A Walk through Southampton 2nd ed. (Southampton, 1805)
Le Faye, Deidre A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family (Cambridge, 2006)