No, you’ve not spotted another of my infamous typos…the arguments are quite persuasive that the town of Ware in Hertfordshire is Jane Austen’s inspiration for Meryton in Pride and Prejudice. In my last article I was a little economical with the truth, and deliberately failed to mention other pressing reasons why Jane Austen may have chosen to base her novel in Hertfordshire, because I wanted to write this separate post. Let’s take a look at them now, shall we?
Jane Austen gives us tantalising and teasing references to Meryton and Longbourn’s situation in the text of Pride and Prejudice. The most definite information we have is that Longbourn, Meryton and the nearby town of ____(Blank) are in Hertfordshire. But in fact it is not until Chapter 3 of the novel that we are given this vital information:
An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs. Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping, when an answer arrived which deferred it all. Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be..
We eventually learn that Longbourn is about one mile from Meryton, and that the journey from London, (Gracechurch Street) to Longbourn is exactly 24 miles( Chapter 27). In Chapter 46 we learn, via Jane’s letter to Elizabeth, which discloses the fact of Lydia’s elopement, that Longbourn must be within a ten-mile radius of The Great North Road, as it was assumed that Wickham and Lydia were travelling from Brighton via London to Scotland on to the final but dubious destination of Gretna and a clandestine marriage:
They were off Saturday night about twelve, as is conjectured, but were not missed till yesterday morning at eight. The express was sent off directly. My dear Lizzy, they must have passed within ten miles of us.
Dr. R. W. Chapman in his Oxford University Press edition of Pride and Prejudice has this characteristically blunt assessment of the situation:
Note._ There is no reason to suppose that Longbourn, Meryton and the town of ____ are other than fictitious. Longbourn was 24 miles from London and within 10 miles of the North Road through Barnet and Hatfield. Assuming this was West or East, Meryton and ___ would correspond , roughly, to Hemel Hempstead and Watford or to Ware and Hertford.
Here is a section from John Cary’s map of Hertfordshire dating from 1787, and I have annotated it with all the places that have relevance to our quest to find “Meryton” (Note, you can enlarge it by clicking on it):
6. The great North Road-Barnet and Hatfield
The first indication that Jane Austen may have based her fictional town on a real one, and indeed, had some personal knowledge of Hertfordshire, was given to us in an article written by William Jarvis and published in the Jane Austen Society’s Report of 1978. In his article he revealed that the Reverend Thomas Bathurst who was curate at Steventon from 1754 until George Austen, Jane’s father took up his duties there in 1764, was in fact George Austen’s cousin and after his time at Steventon, in
1765 he was inducted into the valuable living of Welwyn in Hertfordshire
He remained there till his death in 1797.
In their 1992 article, Jane Austen and the Militia published in JASNA’s Persuasions (no 14), John Breihan and Clive Caplan established that the Derbyshire Militia were quartered in Hertford and Ware in 1797-5. Welwyn is six miles west of Hertford as you can see on the map, above. Deirdre le Faye in an article in the 1996 Jane Austen Society Report argued that it was possible that Jane Austen became aware of the existence of the Derbyshire’s billeting in Hertfordshire (and made aware of news of possibly scandalous behaviour) through correspondence George Austen may have had at this point from his cousin, Thomas. First Impressions, the early version of Pride and Prejudice was written by Jane Austen between October 1796 and August 1797, and it is possible that Jane Austen was inspired by some gossipy letters between her father and his cousin…..but, further in an article entitled Meryton Revealed: The Derbyshire Militia at Hertford and Ware, Clive Caplan argued that Jane may have had another, more direct source of news about the goings-on of the Derbyshire militia in Hertfordshire:
During the winter of 1794-5 while the Derbyshire were in Hertfordshire, Jane Austen’s closest brother, Henry was studying at Oxford University. Simultaneously he was serving as an officer in the Oxfordshire regiment of militia and showing an interest in financial affairs by becoming acting regimental paymaster. This may have been the time when he established relationships with two officers, both then serving in the Derbyshire regiment, who were to feature prominently in his future financial dealings. One man was Captain Winfield Halton who in 1806…was involved in the award of the army agency of the Derby shires to Henry’s firm, Austen and Co. The other was Captain George Goodwin who later left the militia and returned to private life. In 1809 opening the Buxton and High Peak Bank he adopted Austen and Co as his London corresponding bank.
I think it might be entirely possible that Jane Austen received information about the Derbyshire militia and its time in Hertfordshire though both sources. One should imagine that the contents of the correspondence from Henry Austen differed significantly in tone from the letters written by Reverend Bathurst. However , on reading the article the presence of the Derbyshire militia in Hertfordshire – always referred to as the __(blank) militia in the text- makes absolute sense when considering the career path of George Wickham.Hailing from Derbyshire – Pemberley itself- he would no doubt choose to be commissioned into that regiment above others. And Darcy, as a prominent landowner in the county would no doubt have had close connections with the regiment.
In the 2005 edition of JASNA’s Persuasions the argument was taken in a different direction by Kenneth Smith in his article, The Probable Location of Longbourn in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He speculates that Harpenden was the location for Meryton. I think this unlikely given the distance Harpenden is from London, but, nevertheless, he makes some interesting points in his article, most importantly about places near to Harpenden that may have inspired Jane Austen, especially the village of Kimpton which she may have altered in her text to Kympton, the living that never was for “poor” George Wickham. He also argued that Redbourn, a village but a mile from Harpenden , may have inspired the name “Longbourn”. I’m not so convinced of that point, but I have no doubt that when writing Pride and Prejudice ( or First Impressions) Jane Austen studied a map of Hertfordshire very closely and, therefore she may have been inspired by the name of Kimpton. We shall never know for sure.
However, you may be interested to learn that while researching this article I discovered that a Bennet (and a Lucas!) family actually lived a mile from Kenneth Smith’s Meryton. Do take a look at this section from my Cary’s Itinerary of 1802:
As you can see, I trust, a Bennet and a Lucas family clearly lived in the area. Cary’s itinerary not only detailed routes between towns but gave the reader notes on points of interest. It recorded the fine houses and country seats that the traveler might see as he rode along in his carriage, book in hand. According to this entry, a Mrs Bennet was then the owner of this particular estate:
“Within 1 Mile of Harpenden on l(left) is Rothamstead House, Mrs Bennet
Rothamstead House, or rather, Manor, still exists, see below, and is now a research and conference centre.
Here is an extract from the history of the house on the website:
The present appearance of the house is due to John Wittewronge, who, in the 17th century, gave it its Dutch style. John graduated from Trinity College, Oxford in 1634 and by the time he was 18 had taken up his duties as Lord of the Manor. He was knighted by Charles I, made commander of the Aylesbury garrison by Cromwell and made a baronet by Charles II. Hr served as M.P. for Hertfordshire on several occasions, married three times and had six children. He wrote his family history and kept a diary and weather book, all of which give fascinating details of the times.
During the 18th century little was done to the Manor House, which was inhabited by John’s descendants until 1763. In that year Thomas Wittewronge died and the Manor passed to his cousin John Bennet, who eventually died childless. The house was left to John Bennet Lawes, the elder, son of John Bennett’s sister Mary, who had married Thomas Lawes, a London lawyer. John Bennet Lawes the elder lived at Rothamsted for part of the time he owned it, but did little to it – his friendship with the Prince Regent left little money for that!
In 1814 his son, John Bennet Lawes the younger, the founder of Rothamsted and a descendant of Jacob Wittewronge, was born here. He was educated at Eton and Oxford but never took his degree. As well as experiments on fertilisers and plant nutrition, and the factories he set up at Deptford and Barking Creek for fertiliser manufacture, he played a prominent part in local affairs and showed a great concern for the wellbeing of the people of Harpenden. In 1863 he added the Great Drawing Room to the Manor to celebrate the majority of his son Charles. He was created a baronet in recognition of his services to agriculture in 1882.
Now to Lucas. According to my copy of Daniel Lysons’ Magna Britannica (1806) the Grey family had lived at Wrest for centuries but
On the death of Marchioness Grey in 1797, without male issue, that title became extinct; but the barony of Lucas…descended to her eldest daughter Annabel…now baroness Lucas who is the present owner of the manors of Flitton and Wrest.
( Note, the current main building of Wrest Park is a product of the 1830s.)
Jane Austen could clearly have had access to a road book such as Cary’s and when studying it to work out the movements of her characters may, indeed, have discovered a Bennet family living in Hertfordshire, and was inspired. Or not, as the case may be. Again we will probably never know.