I recently posted about this at my sister blog, My English Country Garden- and thought that it really ought to be reposted here. I’ve expanded on some of the details for you….
This Regency house, –Steventon House– shown above, and which is now for sale ,has some relevance to those of us interested in Jane Austen because it was built to replace her birthplace, the old Steventon Rectory . This was the place in which she was born on the 16th December 1775, and where the Austens raised their large brood of interesting children and schooled many a fine young gentlemen in preparedness for life at public school. I’ve long held the impression that it was a bustling, busy and happy household.
Jane’s father, The Reverend George Austen, was of course rector of Steventon from 1761-1805.
He held the living, which was in the gift of his distant cousin, the excellent Thomas Knight II , though in late 1800 he took the decision to retire to Bath, leaving his son James as the priest in charge and quitting the rectory at the same time. James became rector of Steventon in 1805 on his father’s death.
Austen family tradition has it that on hearing the news that the family were to move to Bath Jane Austen fainted with shock:
As she and Martha arrived from Ibthorpe early in December they were met in the rectory hall by Mrs Austen, who greeted them with :
“Well girls, it is all settled, we have decided to leave Steventon in such a week and go to Bath”
– and to Jane the shock of this intelligence was so great that she fainted away. Mary Lloyd, who was also present to greet her sister, remembered that Jane was greatly distressed”
(See Page 128 Jane Austen: A Family Record, Deirdre Le Faye)
None of her letters to Cassandra have survived from the month of December 1800: Le Faye suggests that they were so intensely, ones wherein Jane Austen gave full vent to her feelings of anger and grief regarding the prospect of the move to Bath, that they were among the first letters that Cassandra destroyed. Frankly, I’m not surprised at Jane Austen’s probable feelings of anger, grief and possibly impotence in the face of Mrs Austen’s determination to move to a city like Bath, but equally I can understand see why someone like Mrs Austen would want a retirement in a vibrant place with all its attractions,near to her relatives(the Leigh Perrots), and away from the confinement of the country, particularly in the winter months.
But I can also very much sympathise with Jane Austen who must have viewed the prospect of life in Bath in an entirely different light as the dependant un-married spinster of the family, at the beck and call of her relatives, thrown in a social world where the visitors came took the waters and left-a place of transient relationships must be unsettling and unsatisfying. And , of course, she was fervently attached to her neighbourhood in Hampshire….
…being a desperate walker, and loving the peace of the quitet, remote countryside surrounding Steventon.
Not much peace was to be had in Bath I fear…..The letters that do survive show a determination to appear cheerful but the underlying tone is bleak:
My mother looks forward with as much certainty as you can do to our keeping two maids; my father is the only one not in the secret. We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side. There are three parts of Bath which we have thought of as likely to have houses in them — Westgate Buildings, Charles Street, and some of the short streets leading from Laura Place or Pulteney Street.
Westgate Buildings, though quite in the lower part of the town, are not badly situated themselves. The street is broad, and has rather a good appearance. Charles Street, however, I think, is preferable. The buildings are new, and its nearness to Kingsmead Fields would be a pleasant circumstance. Perhaps you may remember, or perhaps you may forget, that Charles Street leads from the Queen Square Chapel to the two Green Park Streets.
The houses in the streets near Laura Place I should expect to be above our price. Gay Street would be too high, except only the lower house on the left-hand side as you ascend. Towards that my mother has no disinclination; it used to be lower rented than any other house in the row, from some inferiority in the apartments. But above all others her wishes are at present fixed on the corner house in Chapel Row, which opens into Prince’s Street. Her knowledge of it, however, is confined only to the outside, and therefore she is equally uncertain of its being really desirable as of its being to be had. In the meantime she assures you that she will do everything in her power to avoid Trim Street, although you have not expressed the fearful presentiment of it which was rather expected.
We know that Mrs. Perrot will want to get us into Oxford Buildings, but we all unite in particular dislike of that part of the town, and therefore hope to escape. Upon all these different situations you and Edward may confer together, and your opinion of each will be expected with eagerness.
As to our pictures, the battle-piece, Mr. Nibbs, Sir William East, and all the old heterogeneous miscellany, manuscript, Scriptural pieces dispersed over the house, are to be given to James. Your own drawings will not cease to be your own, and the two paintings on tin will be at your disposal. My mother says that the French agricultural prints in the best bedroom were given by Edward to his two sisters. Do you or he know anything about it?
She has written to my aunt, and we are all impatient for the answer. I do not know how to give up the idea of our both going to Paragon in May. Your going I consider as indispensably necessary, and I shall not like being left behind; there is no place here or hereabouts that I shall want to be staying at, and though, to be sure, the keep of two will be more than of one, I will endeavour to make the difference less by disordering my stomach with Bath buns; and as to the trouble of accommodating us, whether there are one or two, it is much the same.
According to the first plan, my mother and our two selves are to travel down together, and my father follow us afterwards in about a fortnight or three weeks. We have promised to spend a couple of days at Ibthorp in our way. We must all meet at Bath, you know, before we set out for the sea, and, everything considered, I think the first plan as good as any.
My father and mother, wisely aware of the difficulty of finding in all Bath such a bed as their own, have resolved on taking it with them; all the beds, indeed, that we shall want are to be removed — viz., besides theirs, our own two, the best for a spare one, and two for servants; and these necessary articles will probably be the only material ones that it would answer to send down. I do not think it will be worth while to remove any of our chests of drawers; we shall be able to get some of a much more commodious sort, made of deal, and painted to look very neat; and I flatter myself that for little comforts of all kinds our apartment will be one of the most complete things of the sort all over Bath, Bristol included.
We have thought at times of removing the sideboard, or a Pembroke table, or some other piece of furniture, but, upon the whole, it has ended in thinking that the trouble and risk of the removal would be more than the advantage of having them at a place where everything may be purchased. Pray send your opinion.
Martha has as good as promised to come to us again in March. Her spirits are better than they were.
I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.
(extract from Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 3rd January 1801.)
This seemingly happy house, the one Jane Austen so dreaded leaving for Bath in 1800, was eventually demolished by Edward Austen Knight, her rich brother in 1824.
He owned the Steventon estate in Hampshire, which included the benefice , the church of St Nicholas and the Rectory , for he had inherited it along with the Hampshire estate of Chawton and the Kent Godmersham estate from his “adoptive “cousins we have mentioned before, Thomas Knight II and his wife.
St Nicolas’s is a fascinating church, though somewhat altered since Jane Austen knew it.
It lies a short walk along the lane from the site of the old rectory and Jane’s eldest brother James, who was also rector of Steventon following in his fathers footsteps, is buried in the churchyard there with his second wife Mary (née Lloyd):
The field where Jane Austen’s home once stood is still empty save for a sad relict: the water pump that supplied the household. Steventon House has therefore little direct association to Jane save for the fact that Edward Knight built it as a replacement for her old beloved home , and that the first possessor of the new house was her nephew and Edward’s son, the Reverend William Knight, who became rector in 1823 , succeeding to the living from Jane’s brother Henry ( who held the living from 1820)
The benefice was brought by the second Duke of Wellington in 1855, by which time most Austen family associations with the rectory has ceased. The Duke’s associations with the manor of Steventon ceased in 1877,when he sold it to the Harris family.
This house remained as the rectory for the village till 1930,when the parishes of North Waltham and Steventon were amalgamated. Since that date it has been a private home.
The house, I have to say, is beautiful and elegant as those later Regency rectories often are. It possesses 59 acres of gardens, parkland ,paddocks and woodland (I wonder if they are hangars?) and (here’s the rub) a price tag of £4.5 million. I wonder what Jane Austen would have made of that. A somewhat caustic and wondering comment no doubt. I know it means that I wont be moving to Hampshire any time soon, however much I might desire it…