Jane Austen, Cassandra and Mrs Austen lived with and Mary Austen, wife of Frank, in Southampton from 1806 to 1809.

The old port of Southampton had by this time long been in decline but when Jane Austen lived there Southampton had a short lived popularity as a fashionable place to live, take the waters and bathe in the Solent. From the mid 18th century, new houses were built, inns were modernised and communications with London improved and the fashionably rich built villas in the surrounding countryside. Promenades were created and shops boomed along with circulating libraries etc.

This is a general description of it from my copy of A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham

EQUALLY adapted for health, pleasure, and commerce, Southampton, distant about seventy-seven miles from London, is bounded on the east by the river Itchin which flows past the ancient city of Winchester, and on the west by the Tese or Anton, which rises near Whitchurch. It occupies a kind of peninsula, the soil of which is a hard gravel ; and, as the buildings rise from the water with a gentle ascent, the streets are always clean and dry. The approach from the London road is uncommonly striking and grand; in fact, it is almost unparalleled in the beauty of its features, for the space of two miles. At first appear an expanse of water, and the distant Isle of Wight, the charming scenery of the New Forest, and Southampton itself, in pleasing perspective. Elegant seats and rows of trees, nearer the town, line the road on both sides ; and, on entering the place, by one of its most fashionable streets, that venerable remain of antiquity the Bargate, gives a finish to the scene, and fixes the impression of the objects through which we have passed.

But by the time of Jane Austen’s death in 1817 its star had faded, and it was only with the introduction of the railway system, in the 1840s that Southampton once again became a port and place of some import.

However, it was undoubtedly a pleasant place to be in Jane Austen’s time:

THE lovely situation of Southampton, the elegance of its buildings, the amenity of its environs, and the various other attractions which it possesses, in a very high degree, will always render it a place of fashionable residence, as well as of frequent resort. As a sea-bathing place, indeed, it has less reputation than some others that are described in this work. It has no machines, nor is its beach favorable for immersion; the marine is, also, deeply mixed with the fresh water; but, if the opinion of those is correct, who maintain, that water acts only by the shock and ablution, and that one cold or one warm bath is the same as another, Southampton, notwithstanding the disadvantages we have mentioned, is as eligible as any other station on the coast, and, in many respects, it is superior. The air is soft and mild, and sufficiently impregnated with saline particles to render it agreeable, and even salutary, to those who cannot endure a full exposure to the sea, on a bleak and open shore.

(See: A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham)

Jane Austen as we know from her letters was a keen play goer, and there was a theatre in Southampton which she could visit. However, the theatre in Southampton was a far cry from the theatres she knew in Bath and in London. It was a place where amateur and provincial theatre companies performed. I suppose we can assume that the performances Jane Austen saw there were probably not always first rate evenings.

The first theater built in  Southampton as not at all salubrious, despite this description of it, again from The Guide to all the Watering Places etc by John Fletham (1803):

THE Theatre, which was built by subscription in 1766, is commodious, and capable of admitting a large audience. It is under the management of Messrs. Collins and Davies, who exert themselves to give satisfaction, and have a full attendance during the season.
They usually open their campaign in the beginning of August, and perform every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, till the end of October, after which they take a regular circuit to Portsmouth, Chichester, and Winchester.

This theatre was however  thought to be in such a run down and dowdy condition that the Company-the fashionable people who visited Southampton to take the waters or to bathe, or lived in the fashionable villas, did not care to go there. So in 1803-4 a new theatre opened in French Street, almost exactly opposite the site of the old theatre:

The Theatric Tourist (1805) written by the actor/manager James Winston , gives this account of the history of the new theatre:

The elegant fashionables visiting Southampton refused to patronize the theatre on consequence of its ruinous condition and most deplorable entrance; therefore as the lease was nearly out on the 12th September 1803 they commenced campaigning in another built under the regulation of Mr Slater. Collins gave 450 guineas for St John’s Hospital and the ground on which it stood in French Street nearly opposite the former theatre: the charity being discontinued this old building furnished him with ample materials for this new one. He says his theatre cost him £3000 which with due deference we should suppose an error; if we  give credit for £2000 besides the purchase of the ground we think it not amiss.

He did not think much of the interior of the theatre, and as an actor/manager his opinion has some worth:

It has a bad gallery; the Pit is much too low; the Stage is short and the Boxes so near the Pit that the lower tier resemble the Orchester (sic) boxes of Drury lane the company appearing to sit below the level of the stage. The old theatre  had this fault also; but we acknowledge the Green Room to be good. The house holds upwards of £100; 4 shillings admission to the lower boxes, which have a good lobby; as have also the upper tier. Charges £23. The benefit of favourite performers generally amounts to £60 or £70 .

The illustration of the theatre which was included in The Theatric Tourist and was also drawn by James Winston has this  withering “explanation”:

The right hand entrance is to the Boxes to which there are two lobbies, lighted by the only two windows in the elevation; the door on the left is to the Pit,gallery and Stage; here the old saying is verified,”spoil the ship”etc.,- for the niche over each door,meant undoubtedly for Statues of Tragedy and Comedy; and the plinth at the top for the Royal Arms, both remain blanks.

As Southampton had minor fashionable status as a spa and sea-bathing resort- Charles Dibdin, the dramatist,

who was born in Southampton, related the popularity of Southampton to the increasing number of;

“genteel families who have made it their residence-

it is no surprise that stars from the London stage made occasional visits-for example Mrs Siddons visited in 1802

and Dorothea Jordan, one of Jane Austen’s favourites

appeared there in 1803.

We know that Jane Austen took the opportunity, while in Southampton, to visit the theatre. She took her niece Fanny Knight to the theatre in French Street on 14th September 1807, (Fanny recorded the event in her diary) and that  night  they saw the famous comedy actor, John Bannister

in “The Way to Keep Him” .

Interestingly The Way to Keep Him by Arthur Murphy includes the following lines, spoken by Sir Brilliant Fashion:

Never be so abrupt. Who knows but Lady Constant may be the happy wife, the Cara Sposa of the piece ! and then, you in love with her, and she laughing at you for it, will give a zest to the humour, which every body will relish in the most exquisite degree.

(Act II)

Paula Byrne in her book Jane Austen and the Theatre posits the theory that Jane Austen, after hearing the phrase Cara Spousa delivered with relish at Southampton, then took this ‘fashionable Italisniam” and ran with it in Emma:

For Emma there is  no clearer mark of  Mrs Elton’s vulgarity  than her references to her husband as “Mr E “ and “my caro sposo”…Scholars have debated  the source of Austen’s use of the phrase, but no one has noticed its presence in Murphy’s comedy, where spoken by the coxcomb Sir Brilliant Fashion, it surely got a laugh in the theatre.

Amateur dramatic performances took place in the theatre as well as professional ones.

In 1807 Hume’s tragedy Douglas– was performed at the French Street theatre by the local grammar school boys for the benefit of British prisoners of war in France.

This may explain why Jane Austen put these words into Tom Bertram’s mouth in Mansfield Park , when he was reminiscing about reading aloud at home as a young lad;

“And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays

Mansfield Park , Chapter 13.

Jane Austen certainly had the opportunity of seeing this play at the theatre, and I would not be surprised if she had seen these productions at Southampton and they had made a mark.

I do love these speculations, don’t you?