Return to Castle Square
The Austens had barely arrived in Southampton before they were thinking of leaving and they received the happy news that a house would be made available for them towards the end of 1808. The house was a property owned by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, in Chawton, fifteen miles away from where she had grown up in Steventon. Edward had been adopted by a distant cousin as a child and had inherited Chawton House in Hampshire and Godmersham Park in Kent.
In Southampton the Austens were far from cut off from their family, even after Frank and his wife went back to sea. Austen and her sister Cassandra went often to Godmersham Park. Usually they visited alone and it is to this that we owe Austen’s letters during their time in Southampton. She wrote frequently to her sister either to or from Southampton. Her eldest brother, James, was the rector of Steventon, the post formerly held by their father. James and Edward visited Southampton often. Another brother, Henry, a banker at that time (for he had a number of careers), lived in London and the sisters usually visited him on their way to and from Kent. The youngest brother, Charles, was, like Frank, making a successful career at sea. Along with the brothers came sisters-in-law and various nephews and nieces. When Edward’s wife died while Cassandra was visiting Godmersham Park, two of his sons stayed with their Aunt Jane and their grandmother in Southampton. Austen’s letters told both of their morning and of the things she had done to entertain them, as well as asking if Cassandra had seen their sister-in-law’s body.
As they had been wherever they lived the Austen were busy. Austen’s letters tell about altering dresses and bonnets. They walked almost every day in the Spa Gardens, by Southampton Water which was doubtless very bracing. They visited friends, although, knowing that their stay in Southampton was not permanent, they did not make a great effort to make new friends. They visited locally, taking ferries across Southampton Water to the New Forest and across the Itchen to Northam. As we have seen, they attended balls. As well as in the Dolphin they danced in the Long Rooms, which were even closer to Castle Square. Dances were held there four nights a week. Nothing remains of this building. Its location would have been in the road by the second lamppost in this photograph.
It’s very easy to forget that there was a very real fear of invasion at the time. The invasion of Britain had long been one of Napoleon’s aims, although the threat had diminished greatly after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Southampton was very much involved in the war. Austen talks in her letters about seeing warships being built. With two brothers in the navy, she would have taken an interest in this. As well as being a port, Southampton also had shipyards and ships were also built on the other side of Southampton Water at Bucklers Hard. Until shortly before the Austens arrived the town had been a busy garrison.
The Austens also went to the theatre. The Theatre Royal was in French Street, a few minutes’ walk from their house in Castle Square. It was a few yards past the Medieval Merchant’s House which is [pictured] at the beginning of the post. It, too, is no longer with us. The Austens loved amateur dramatics and the theatre must have provided them with much entertainment.
It was this very busyness that probably kept Austen from writing as much as she would have wanted while she lived in the town. Even though the Austens could not afford to keep a carriage, there was a wealth of diversions within walking distance. The Austens left Southampton in July 1809 for Chawton, where they lived very quietly. There was little to distract Austen from her writing and she entered her most productive period.
Due to the RNA Conference and a concert there will be no post next week.