Please welcome Joana Starnes as our guest to the blog today. In further celebration of our Jane in January month of posts she’s taking us on a tour of some houses and places associated with our beloved author! Thank you very much for joining us, Joana, and over to you.
As any Jane Austen devotee, over the years I have looked for traces of her wherever I could. In Steventon and Chawton, of course, and other well-known places – but, to my surprise and pleasure, I also found connections where I least expected.
Some were at The Vyne, a country house in Hampshire. It still stands in the parish of Sherborne St John, where Jane’s older brother James was once vicar. He was often invited to dine at the ‘great house’ and to hunt with the master of the estate, William Chute, and his brother Tom. William Chute inherited The Vyne when he was thirty-three and single, which must have set the local matrons’ hearts aflutter, for a single man in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a wife! Jane Austen, then fourteen, could not have been one of the contenders. But she was old enough to be aware of the feverish speculations as to which of the local beauties would be lucky enough to become the mistress of one of the best houses in the county.
Sadly for the neighbouring ladies, William Chute did not choose any of them. He married Miss Elizabeth Smith, a young lady from further afield, Devizes in Wiltshire. Later on, Mrs Chute was to write often in her diaries about the ‘Austins’ (for some reason, she never spelled their name as they did). She is in fact thought to be the artist who drew the charcoal sketch now on display at Chawton – the one that many people would like to believe is a likeness of Jane Austen, portraying her as a strong, mature woman, a writer, rather than the frilly and rather vapid Victorian version.
The charcoal sketch is marked on the reverse ‘Miss Jane Austin’, which is consistent with Elizabeth Chute’s spelling, and the sitter certainly has the ‘Austen nose’. But – there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? – for some reason Mrs Chute never seemed to warm towards the ‘Austins’, except perhaps to Henry, and according to some tart remark in one of Jane’s letters, the sentiment was mutual, so it’s perhaps unlikely that she would have drawn a sketch of the ‘Austins’ youngest daughter.
We might never know whether Jane Austen actually sat for Mrs Chute or not. But, given the connection between the Chutes and the Austen brothers, it’s easy to believe that Jane once stood in the exquisite hall at The Vyne, when she came to call on the lady of the house or dance at the balls hosted there.
Not far from Hampshire, there are other connections. One is the childhood home of Mary Russell Mitford, who had unkindly likened our favourite author to a poker and claimed that her own mother remembered the young Jane Austen as ‘the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly.’ Now this may sound harsh, but I think there is poetic justice in the fact that, 200 years on, Jane Austen’s house is a place of reverent pilgrimage, whereas Mary Russell Mitford’s is a dental practice…
But never mind the sour Mitfords! Let’s move on to another place: Shaw House. It still stands near Newbury, not far from the famed ‘Pelican’, so favoured by Regency romances. Shaw House was owned by James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, one of Jane Austen’s distant and very grand relations (her mother’s great-uncle). His first marriage was not one of the heart but some of his letters show that his second wife, Cassandra Willoughby, made him very happy. They both had great affection for Shaw House, their quiet, idyllic retreat, away from the bustle of London.
It might be a bit nosy to pry into other people’s lives, but it feels good to read about real-life love matches and find endearing snippets, such as the besotted words a society lady wrote in a letter to her sister. In 1810, a year into her marriage, she writes about her husband that ‘it is quite amusement enough to look at his beautiful face […] he is much handsomer than ever’ and ‘his kindness, sense and sweetness make every hour passed with him happier than the one before it’.
I can easily imagine Elizabeth Darcy writing such a letter to Jane Bingley. Two hundred years ago, many people might have married for reasons we no longer hold valid and they might have defined a successful marriage very differently too. But it’s good to read about relationships we can relate to, and be reassured that the sort of marriage we imagine for Mr and Mrs Darcy in our variations is vibrantly real and perfectly possible, not just a modern one dressed in Regency clothes.
Thanks for going on this Jane Austen trail and I hope you enjoyed it.
(References and nineteenth century gossip from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen and from letters between the daughters of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire).
Thank you so much for visiting us today, Joana, and telling us all about the places you’ve visited. If you’d like to read more of Joana’s work, please visit her website. Her new book, (which I am enjoying very much) The Falmouth Connection is out now!