On my recent trip to England, in May, my first order of business (or rather, pleasure!) was to spend a day with my friend Ron Dunning, who is not only a descendant of the Austen family (multiple great grandson of Francis Austen), but knows his Jane Austen well, and is possessed of an acute historical imagination. He is, for me, the friend every dedicated Janeite ought to have on arriving in London. For Ron has “the knowledge,” not only of London and the best ways to navigate it, but he’s the kind of person who can casually show you where the Fleet used to be a river, and precisely how neighborhoods have changed over the centuries. Driving with him opens new vistas of what you are seeing as if a hand is revealing what’s underneath – and how it all relates to Jane Austen. I can never go back to how I saw London before the tours Ron has given me on recent trips, a truly great gift.
On this occasion, we set out driving to Richmond via Roehampton, and after stopping to enjoy watching the deer in the park, we arrived at Ham House. This is one of England’s greatest 17th century houses, an impressive pile in the grand old manner, in a beautiful position on the winding Thames. (It featured in the British 2008 Sense and Sensibility.) We fortified ourselves with lunch in the cafe (lentil soup with scones), and then went over the house, with its scores of dark old paintings and portraits of the ages of King Charles I and II, green views out the windows, and elaborate furniture within. Did Jane Austen ever visit Ham House? I can find no evidence that she did, but she may have done. Certainly she knew Richmond, for she often drove through it on her way from Hampshire to London, as historical blogger Tony Grant writes about that route:
The ferry to Twickenham
Jane Austen mentions Richmond in Emma, in connection with Mrs. Churchill:
“It soon appeared that London was not the place for her. She could not endure its noise. Her nerves were under continual irritation and suffering; and by the ten days’ end, her nephew’s letter to Randalls communicated a change of plan. They were going to remove immediately to Richmond. Mrs. Churchill had been recommended to the medical skill of an eminent person there, and had otherwise a fancy for the place. A ready-furnished house in a favourite spot was engaged, and much benefit expected from the change.”
This Richmond scheme, however does not answer. For Jane Austen tells us:
“The following day brought news from Richmond to throw every thing else into the back-ground. An express arrived at Randalls to announce the death of Mrs. Churchill! Though her nephew had had no particular reason to hasten back on her account, she had not lived above six-and-thirty hours after his return. A sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more.”
Frank Churchill is very much associated with Richmond, going frequently back and forth between there and Highbury, as is seen when he leaves Mrs. Churchill to ride to the strawberry-party at the Abbey. Emma says:
“We are going to Box Hill to-morrow; you will join us. It is not Swisserland, but it will be something for a young man so much in want of a change. You will stay, and go with us?”
“No, certainly not; I shall go home in the cool of the evening.”
“But you may come again in the cool of to-morrow morning.”
“No — It will not be worth while. If I come, I shall be cross.”
“Then pray stay at Richmond.”
“But if I do, I shall be crosser still. I can never bear to think of you all there without me.”
Later he explains his quarrel with Jane Fairfax to Emma, “In short, my dear madam, it was a quarrel blameless on her side, abominable on mine; and I returned the same evening to Richmond, though I might have staid with you till the next morning, merely because I would be as angry with her as possible.”
A place to go for health, to be at some distance from the city but convenient enough to be within reach, Richmond is divided from Twickenham by the river, easily crossed, both in Jane Austen’s day and ours.
Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk
So, after seeing Ham House we walked down to the river, and took a little ferry across to the Twickenham side. We walked a short distance to see Marble Hill House, where lived George II’s mistress Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk. This was an enchanting house, built in the 1720s, and much copied (the model for many plantation houses in the American colonies) with a fascinating story behind it, circumstances no doubt well known to Jane Austen.
Paid well by the king, Henrietta had the house built for herself, and although she was deaf, her wit and intellect were such that her home was frequented by a glittering circle that included Alexander Pope (who wrote verses about her), and Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Lord Chesterfield and Horace Walpole. Years later Mrs. Fitzherbert, mistress of George IV, on learning of his marriage, exiled herself to Marble Hill House, so it has a royal and romantic history.
Marble Hill House, Twickenham
For our purposes, it is significant that Twickenham is where Maria eloped with Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park!
Jane Austen writes:
“Mrs. Rushworth had gone, for the Easter holidays, to Twickenham, with a family whom she had just grown intimate with: a family of lively, agreeable manners, and probably of morals and discretion to suit, for to their house Mr. Crawford had constant access at all times.”
Mary Crawford writes cynically to Fanny: “Mrs. R. has been spending the Easter with the Aylmers at Twickenham (as to be sure you know), and is not yet returned…I suppose Mrs. R.’s Easter holidays will not last much longer; no doubt they are thorough holidays to her. The Aylmers are pleasant people; and her husband away, she can have nothing but enjoyment.”
At the end of the novel, Edmund laments Mary’s casual cynicism: “She saw it only as folly, and that folly stamped only by exposure. The want of common discretion, of caution — his going down to Richmond for the whole time of her being at Twickenham — her putting herself in the power of a servant; —it was the detection in short — Oh! Fanny, it was the detection, not the offence which she reprobated.”
But Twickenham has still another wicked association in Mansfield Park, as the site of the vicious Admiral’s cottage. What a place!
Mary Crawford relates: “Three years ago the Admiral, my honoured uncle, bought a cottage at Twickenham for us all to spend our summers in; and my aunt and I went down to it quite in raptures; but it being excessively pretty, it was soon found necessary to be improved, and for three months we were all dirt and confusion, without a gravel walk to step on, or a bench fit for use. I would have everything as complete as possible in the country, shrubberies and flower–gardens, and rustic seats innumerable: but it must all be done without my care. Henry is different; he loves to be doing.”
Such quotations, associations, and reflections, aided by Ron’s descriptions, made beautiful but wicked Twickenham come alive for me. I liked seeing the place where nobles came down the river in launches for their louche parties, or to visit the mistress they had stashed away. Seeing the river, the houses, thinking about the stories, both literary and historical, it suddenly all seemed so real, and so much easier to picture.