Today we shall look at Hertfordshire, the county where the Bennet family lived and where a lot of the action in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice takes place, especially after Charles Bingley decides to take a lease of an estate, Netherfield, there. Jane Austen didn’t ever, or so it would seem, visit Hertfordshire. Deirdre Le Faye has discovered that Jane Austen had some distant cousins living in the county. There is no evidence, as far as I can see, that she visited them, however. When she travelled on her one recorded journey to the northern midlands county of Staffordshire, in 1806, she travelled there from Gloucestershire via Warwickshire. All her other recorded journeys avoid the county. Does this matter? Well, writing about a county with which she was unfamiliar goes against the grain of her professional advice to her literary minded niece, Anna Austen, as expressed in her letter of the 10th August 1814:
We finished it last night after our return from drinking tea at the Great House. The last chapter does not please us quite so well; we do not thoroughly like the play, perhaps from having had too much of plays in that way lately , and we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.
So the choice of this county this might then seem surprising. However, Jane Austen clearly had access to a map or Itinerary like John Cary’s, which was used for planning journeys around England and Wales by the main and cross roads, and given its position with regard to London and the North,she may have decided to set her novel there, as given her characters’ movements and status, it was a logical choice.
Here is a section from John Cary’s 1812 map of England showing the position of Hertfordshire and the important counties in this novel:
The Main points numbered on the map and indicated by the red arrows, are as follows:
3. London, in Middlesex
Let’s look at some contemporary descriptions of the county. First, this geographical description taken from my copy of John Atkin’s book, England Described (1818).
The county of Hertford has to the north Cambridge and Bedfordshire; to the west the latter county and Buckinghamshire, with the last of which it is singularly intermixed; to the south Middlesex; and to the east, Essex. Its boundaries are nowhere marked by nature, except where the rivers Lea and Stort separate it from Essex. Its shape is rendered extremely irregular by projections and indentations especially on the western side. Its greatest length from north to south may be reckoned at twenty-five miles; its extreme breadth at forty miles. Its area in square miles is 602. It is divided internally into eight hundreds.
So now we can place this county with some certainly…what was it like? Today, the southern part of the county is commuter land, very developed with housing and with busy motorways- the M25, A1(M) and M1- running through it. In Jane Austen’s time things were slightly different, but its proximity to the capital did have an affect on its character, even then.
Here are some descriptions of it taken from Volume VII of The Beauties of England and Wales by Edward Wedlake Brayley (1808):
The general aspect of this country is extremely pleasant; and though its eminences are not sufficiently elevated, nor its vales sufficiently depressed and broken to afford decisive character of picturesque or romantic beauty, yet its surface is enough diversified to constitute a very considerable display of fine scenery. The southern part is its most hilly; and a range of high ground stretches out from the neighbourhood of Kings Langley toward Berkhampstead and Tring, which in many parts commands a great extent of country.
Most of the country is inclosed; and the inclosures being principally live hedges, intermixed with flourishing timber, have a verdant and pleasant effect. Independent of the wood thus distributed in hedgerows, large quantity of very fine timber are grown in the parks and grounds belonging to the numerous seats of the nobility and gentry that are spread over almost every part of Hertfordshire, and give animation to almost every view.
The country was primarily an agricultural one, and in addition to the usual crops, it had this interesting one: cherries
In the south west corner of the county…are many orchards; apples and cherries are their principal produce. The apples are most profitable ; but the cherries are very beneficial to the poor in the quantity of employment which they can afford in gathering the crop. In ten years after planting, cherry trees begin to bear; each tree should have nine square perches of land. A full grown tree will produce fifty dozen pounds in a favourable year; and from ten to twenty years, six dozen; prices vary from ten pence to three shillings per dozen. The Caroon and small black are the favourite sorts;the Kentish will not thrive here…The orchards whether of cherries or apples should be under grass and fed with sheep and for ten years after planting great care should be taken to keep the trees from the sheep as their rubbing impairs them. The size of the orchards seldom exceed four or five acres and their greatest vale does not exceed £4 per acre.
So, would Bingley have found he had many houses and estates from which to choose when he decided to settle in Hertfordshire? It would seem he would…
The landed property of Hertfordshire is greatly divided: the vicinity of the capital (London-jfw) the goodness of the air and roads and the beauty of the county have much contributed to this circumstance, by making this country a favourite residence, and by attracting great numbers of wealthy persons to purchase lands for building villas; this has multiplied estates in a manner unknown in the distant counties. Freehold estates here have of late sold at twenty-five and twenty-eight years purchase and under particular circumstances some very large tracks have obtained from thirty to thirty-two years purchase. The largest estate in the county is about the annual value of £7000. Several others averaged at from £3000 to £4000 annually; more at £2000 and below that sum they may be met with every amount…
So, yet again it would appear that Jane Austen knew exactly what she was doing when she allowed Bingley to settle in this county, despite her probably not having any first hand experience of it herself. The evidence is that he was not the only rich man looking for a home not far from the capital and there were many available to him in this particular county. The opening sequence of this novel, having a rich batchelor testing the water by taking a lease of an estate in this county, would not I submit, have seemed such an out of the ordinary thing for Bingley to have done. Living here gave him easy access to London and yet it still afforded him access to the north along the Great North Road, which went through the county( more on this later) and connected him with his old friends and possibly, family. It is clear from the accounts of his movements in the novel that the Bingleys still had many social connections in the north, and of course it is from the north that they originally hailed:
They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 4
So, placing him near London, but in Hertfordshire a county just north of the capital. makes perfect sense, rather than allowing him to settle in the more southern counties,such as Surrey or Kent which would have made frequent visits to the north longer and less easy to accomplish.And this was probably the deciding factor for Jane Austen.
Next, where exactly was Meryton?