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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History


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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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On the Jane Austen Trail in Southampton: Humor, Gardens and Balls

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ June 14, 2019

Southampton was more than a seaside resort to Jane Austen. It was home to her for almost 3 years and her letters from there provide some of the most sparkling examples of her wit, as does as a reference in her early writing.

Although Jane seems to have been happy during her abode in Southampton, in spite of the fact that she was apparently too occupied with family matters and comings and goings to write anything but letters there, Southampton does not fare well in her Juvenile novel Love and Freindship, written in 1790.

In this cautionary epistolary tale, Laura writes to warn the younger Marianne of the dangers encountered by the girl’s worldy-wise mother: “Isabel had seen the World. She had passed 2 Years at one of the first Boarding-schools in London; had spent a fortnight in Bath and had supped one night in Southampton.”

Laura goes on to warn her friend (freind?): “Beware of the unmeaning Luxuries of Bath and of the stinking fish of Southampton.”

But Marianne despairs: “Alas! (exclaimed I) how am I to avoid those evils I shall never be exposed to? What probability is there of my ever tasting the Dissipations of London, the Luxuries of Bath, or the stinking Fish of Southampton? I who am doomed to waste my Days of Youth and Beauty in an humble Cottage in the Vale of Uske.”

My Uber ride took me between rolling hills of white chalk exposed beneath a green carpet. Bushes of yellow gorse and white May bloomed everywhere. The blue sky overhead was likewise similarly accented with white clouds, and beyond, on both sides, the shine of sun on harbors.

Would the landscape have been similar when the Austen women left their residence in Bath for a new home? In July of 1806 Jane’s eldest brother Francis was married to Mary Gibson. Jane, Cassandra, their mother and friend Martha Lloyd moved to Southampton to live with the newlyweds. They would be good company for the soon-pregnant Mary while Francis, one of Jane’s sailor brothers, was at sea.

I arrived at the Bargate set in the city wall built by the Normans in the 12th century. The lions there have been guarding the city since the 1600s. Today, a plaque proclaiming it to be the first stop on the Jane Austen trail recounts that in the spring of 1783, at the age of 7, Jane, her sister Cassandra and their cousin Jane Cooper attended a school nearby. An outbreak of typhus closed the school after only a few weeks and the girls return home to Steventon. Was that perhaps when Jane encountered “the stinking fish of Southampton” referenced below?

Sadly, Southampton was heavily bombed during World War II so very little is left of the Georgian City that Jane knew. Worship was central to the Austens’ lives and they regularly attended All Saints Church in the High Street, not far from the Bargate. Today only a plaque marks the spot.

We have numerous references to their church attendance, however, in Jane’s letters. She wrote in great detail to her sister Cassandra, who had gone to their brother Edward’s estate in Kent to help with the birth of their 11th child. The lengthy separation of the sisters resulted in an out-pouring of correspondence which included frequent comments on whether or not the weather had allowed the Southampton family to get to church.

Sadly, Edward's beloved wife Elizabeth died in childbirth. In Jane’s letter to Cassandra after the death of their sister-in-law we find the most fervent expression of her faith outside the prayers she composed. “We have felt, we do feel for you all . . . & for dearest Edward, whose loss & whose sufferings seem to make those of every other person nothing—God be praised! That you can say what you do of him—that he has a religious Mind to bear him up, & a Disposition that will gradually lead him to comfort. . . May the Almighty sustain you all . . . Tell Edward that we feel for him & pray for him.”  

Next stop on the Jane Austen Heritage Trail, laid out by the City of Southampton Society, is the site of the Spa Gardens. Southampton became a spa town in 1740, thanks to the discovery of a spring of chalybeate water. The area was developed as Spa gardens and earned royal patronage. That further encouraged fashionable society to Southampton and aided its prosperity. The waters were said to cure everything but a broken heart.

Today all that is left of what must have been a peaceful, bucolic scene in Jane’s day is broken fragments of the city wall overlooking a busy street and the WestQuay shopping centre.

Ascending the 40 steps and walking along the top of the wall takes one to No. 2 Castle Square where the Austens lived.

They had been deprived of their own garden during their time in Bath, so it was a great delight, especially to Jane, to have a garden that backed on the city wall. She informed her sister: “We hear that we are envied our House by many people, & that the Garden is the best in Town.”

She wanted to improve what was already there and the family hired a gardener: “a Man who bears a remarkably good Character, has a fine complexion & asks something less than the first. The Shrubs which border the gravel walk he says are only sweetbriar & roses, & the later of an indifferent sort,—we mean to get a few of a better kind therefore & at my own particular desire he procures us some Syringas. I could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s line.”

William Cowper, Jan’s favourite poet wrote in “Winter Walk at Noon” from his lengthy poem “The Task”: . . . “Laburnum rich/In streaming gold; syringa iv'ry-pure;” this is a special pleasure to me, since Syringa is the Idaho State Flower.

Jane also mentions getting a laburnum and having currants, gooseberry bushes and raspberries planted.

Today the site is occupied by the Juniper Berry pub.

In Austen’s time their home from the front overlooked Castle Square where the Marquis of Lansdowne built a mock gothic castle. Described by Jane’s nephews as: “by a fantastic edifice, too large for the space in which it stood, though too small to accord well with its castellated style, erected by the second Marquis of Lansdowne.” 

The Marquessa was fond of driving about in a carriage drawn by six ponies, which young visitors to the Austens found a fairy tale sight. Today a tall block of flats occupies the space of the former castle.

Beyond the Austen’s rear garden they looked over the town wall to a view of the New Forest and River Test. Perhaps the curving lines of the modern walkway seen there today are to suggest the graceful lines of the river?

My next stop was to locate the site of the long Rooms and Hot Baths where dances were held 4 nights a week.

We have no record of Jane bathing here, but the Austens attended a ball shortly moving to Castle Square. The plaque claims this site for the ball they attended in December of 1808, (although the noted authority Deirdre Le Faye believes it was at the Dolphin). Either way, Jane must have been in an exceedingly lively mood when she reported on this to Cassandra—the letter is alive with her distinctive raillery:

“Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected. Martha liked it very much, and I did not gape till the last quarter of an hour. It was past nine before we were sent for, and not twelve when we returned. The room was tolerably full, and there were, perhaps, thirty couple of dancers. The melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders. It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago. I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. We paid an additional shilling for our tea, which we took as we chose in an adjoining and very comfortable room. There were only four dances, and it went to my heart that the Miss Lances . . . should have partners only for two. You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance, but I was— by the gentleman whom we met that Sunday with Captain D’Auvergne. We have always kept up a bowing acquaintance since, and, being pleased with his black eyes, I spoke to him at the ball, which brought on me this civility; but I do not know his name, and he seems so little at home in the English language that I believe his black eyes may be the best of him.”

As always Jane indulged her taste for theatre as well as for dance in her new home. As with most of the Austen sites here, only a plaque marks where the Theatre Royal once stood. In addition to the evening recounted on the sign, Jane wrote that on 20th November 1808: “Our brother we may perhaps see in the course of a few days, and we mean to take the opportunity of his help to go one night to the play. Martha ought to see the inside of the theatre once while she lives in Southampton, and I think she will hardly wish to take a second view.” Since this was at least Jane’s second visit, the remark may tell us more about Martha than about the theatre.

So surrounded by water as Southampton is, it’s perhaps not surprising that Jane makes frequent references to ferry rides to visit friends or to entertain visitors. Such as the January excursion planned with her brother: “we are to treat ourselves with a passage over the ferry. It is one of the pleasantest frosts I ever knew”.

She later reports to Cassandra in detail about taking her nephews Edward and George on a ferry excursion when they had gone from school in Winchester to stay with the Southampton Austens to recover from the death of their mother. “We had a little water-party yesterday; I and my two nephews went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley to-day; the tide is just right for our going immediately after moonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain; if we cannot get so far, however, we may perhaps go round from the ferry to the quay. I had not proposed doing more than cross the Itchen yesterday, but it proved so pleasant, and so much to the satisfaction of all, that when we reached the middle of the stream we agreed to be rowed up the river; both the boys rowed great part of the way, and their questions and remarks, as well as their enjoyment, were very amusing; George's inquiries were endless, and his eagerness in everything reminds me often of his uncle Henry.”

My final stop, one I have been much anticipating, is at one site Jane would recognize today—the Dolphin Hotel.

On Wednesday, January 1809, Jane teased her sister about the forthcoming event: “I am sorry that you must wait a whole week for the particulars of the evening. I propose being asked to dance by our acquaintance Mr. Smith, now Captain Smith, who has lately re-appeared in Southampton—but I shall decline it.”

The following Tuesday we get the full account: “Your silence on the subject of our ball makes me suppose your curiosity too great for words. We were very well entertained, & could have stayed longer but for the arrival of my list shoes to convey me home, & I did not like to keep them waiting in the cold. The room was tolerably full, & the ball opened by Miss Glyn.—The Miss Lances had partners, Captain Dauvergne's friend appeared in regimentals, Caroline Maitland had an officer to flirt with, and Mr. John Harrison was deputed by Captain Smith, being himself absent, to ask me to dance.—Everything went well, you see, especially after we had tucked Mrs. Lance’s neckerchief in behind & fastened it with a pin.”

Having no invitation to a ball there, I contented myself with making reservations at the Dolphin for afternoon tea. Before going in I admired its distinctive architecture with the largest freestanding bay windows in the UK.

Upon entering my first stop was an attempt to repair my thoroughly wind-blown state, and met another lady doing the same. She explained that she and a friend had come over on the ferry from Hythe, likewise for afternoon tea.

It turned out that my new acquaintance was a member of the Duke of Wellington’s Regency Dancers who meet at the Dolphin regularly for Regency balls. Having fallen in love with English country dancing at Jane Austen events myself, it was great fun to share experiences.

And most amazing of all, it seems that I had actually seen the Duke of Wellington Dancers in 2014 at the Brighton Pavilion. Just one example of the joys of a Jane Austen connection.

The hotel manager was happy to show me the upstairs ball room, even though it was set for a business meeting just then.

My host obligingly recounted 2 stories of the 6 ghosts that are said to haunt the Dolphin. In the 16th century Tim, one of the kitchen staff, was said to have been murdered by the head chef in the vast cellars under the hotel. And Molly, the housekeeper, hung herself on the lamp post by the entrance. Her shade has been reported to be seen floating on the first floor of the hotel.

Our tour will continue next week as we explore Jane in Portsmouth where I had the fun of presenting my 2 Austen books: A Jane Austen Encounter and A Most Singular Venture at the annual Portsmouth MysteryFest before attempting to reconstruct Jane’s time in that great naval city.

We began this series with an overview, then visited Teignmouth,  Dawlish and Sidmouth. We spent 2 weeks in Lyme Regis with Part 1 and Part 2. Please return each week as we continue with Portsmouth, Bognor Regis, Worthing, Brighton, Ramsgate, and finally, move inland to Chawton.


Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

Read More: Jane Austen Seashore Tour

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