Explore Jane Austen’s connections to Kent
- Credit: Archant
Jane Austen, 1775-1817, whose bicentenary we mark this year, has many Kent connections and visited the county and her relatives here throughout her short but hugely significant life
2017 marks the bicentenary of the death of one of Britain’s best-loved authors, Jane Austen, at the early age of 41.
Her sixth and last novel, Persuasion, was completed in August 1816, and she was at work on a seventh, Sanditon, until two months before her death; sadly, it was never to be completed.
She was not a huge bestseller in her lifetime, but 200 years later, is read and loved all over the world. There are Jane Austen Societies from Argentina to North America, from The Netherlands to Italy, from Mumbai to Australia.
It is in our lovely county of Kent that Austen roots are found: William Astyn lived in Yalding, died in 1522 and his descendants moved to Horsmonden.
Austen memorials are found in the pretty church of St Margaret’s. Inside the church there is a charming brass memorial inlaid into the floor to Joan Berry Austen who died in 1604; it’s well worth reading the inscription which includes ‘let neither husband nor children nor lands nor goods separate me from my god’.
Joan Berry married John Austen I and bore him nine children, but died aged just 36. In the graveyard which looks over the Kentish countryside, there are many Austens, including a gated tomb.
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Travel towards Horsmonden village passing the houses the Austens occupied: Grovehurst and Broadford. The Austens were cloth makers and known as the ‘Grey Coats of Kent’ which reflected their plain dress.
Tonbridge has a wealth of Austen associations. It was here that Jane’s great grandmother, Elizabeth Weller, was born and brought up. She lived in some comfort in Bordyke in a house called Chauntlers (now divided into The Priory and The Red House).
Elizabeth married John Austen IV of Broadford, Horsmonden, to whom she bore seven children before he died, leaving her in considerable debt. Elizabeth wrote: “I cou’d not do a better thing for my Children’s good, their education being my great care .. I always tho’t if they had Learning, they might ye better shift in ye world.” Elizabeth procured employment at Sevenoaks School, where she became the housekeeper, and in return for her work the five sons with her were educated (her daughter, Betty, also lived with them).
Three of her children returned to Tonbridge, including William, Jane’s grandfather, who became a surgeon. Jane was well aware of the status of surgeons in those times; in The Watsons one of the characters declares: “The Edwardses look much higher. Her father and mother would never consent to it. Sam is only a surgeon you know.” Thomas, an apothecary, also returned to Tonbridge and lived in Blair House in the High Street; Betty married into a well-established family of lawyers, the Hooper family, living at Powells (now Lyons) in East Street.
Jane’s brother, Francis, visited Tonbridge with his parents, but there is no documentary evidence that Jane herself ever came here. However, her birth on 16 December 1775 was announced by her father to his half-brother, William Walter: “We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny”.
Tonbridge is mentioned in the first lines of Sanditon: ‘A gentleman and lady travelling from Tunbridge ….’ ‘Tunbridge’ was the original spelling before it was changed to differentiate it from Tunbridge Wells.
Jane was well acquainted with the Tonbridge associations of the Austens. Of the wedding of John George Children she writes in 1796: “Mr Children’s two sons are both going to be married, John & George. They are to have one wife between them”.
Jane’s grandparents William and Rebecca Austen are buried in the Parish Church of St Peter & St Paul; in the same tomb their infant daughter, Hampson, is interred as well as William’s second wife, Susanna. Since St Peter and St Paul has been reordered, the tomb is magnificently displayed under glass.
William and Rebecca were the parents of Jane’s father, George, who was educated at Tonbridge School. As well as other Austen-associated monuments in the church, there is a circular walk you can take around Tonbridge which brings together other buildings in the Tonbridge story. It is also well worth reading Margaret Wilson’s excellent book Jane Austen’s Family and Tonbridge.
One of Elizabeth’s sons, Robert (called Robin) died of smallpox aged 25; his brothers and sister placed a monument to him in St Mildred’s Church, Tenterden.
Francis stayed in Sevenoaks, becoming an extremely wealthy lawyer and the steward to the Sackvilles at Knole; the Red House he occupied is still a law firm to this day. Francis’s second wife was Jane Austen’s godmother. Jane visited here at the age of 12 in 1788, a visit which is recorded in a letter written by Philly Walter in which she says: “Yesterday, I began an acquaintance with my 2 female cousins, Austen. My uncle, aunt, Cassandra & Jane arrived at Mr F Austen’s the day before”.
The tomb of Francis’s son, Motley, is in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church and his very large house, Kippington, is just outside the town. This tomb provides the connection to Court Lodge, Lamberhurst, as Col Thomas Austen’s wife, Margaretta Morland, is also interred in this tomb.
Jane’s brother, Henry Austen, lived with his wife Eleanor in Sion Place in Tunbridge Wells. Henry died there and is buried in the very pretty Woodbury Park Cemetery.
The quotation by Jane Austen opposite was rather tongue-in-cheek: Jane’s older brother, Edward, had been adopted by extremely wealthy relations who owned property in Hampshire and Kent which resulted in Edward inheriting Godmersham Park.
Jane’s family lived in a rectory at Steventon in Hampshire, which meant that visiting Edward made a rather luxurious change. Jane writing to Cassandra on 25 September 1813 says: “But I have no occasion to think of the price of Bread or of Meat where I am now; let me shake off vulgar cares & conform to the happy Indifference of East Kent wealth”. In a letter on 3 November 1813 Jane says “At this present time I have five Tables, Eight & twenty Chairs and two fires all to myself”.
Jane also visited Goodnestone Park where Edward’s wife’s family, the Bridges, lived and Rowling, where Edward and Elizabeth lived at the beginning of their married life. She wrote from Rowling in September 1796: “We walked Frank last night to Crixhall ruff”. Crixhall ruff was a woodland area nearby.
Jane stayed at Goodnestone Farm in August 1805 and commented:“We have walked to Rowling on each of the two last days after dinner, and very great was my pleasure in going over the house and grounds”.
While staying at Godmersham, Jane made many visits. She went to Canterbury with her brother when “He went to inspect the Gaol, as a visiting Magistrate, & took me with him. I was gratified – & went through all the feelings which People must go through I think in visiting such a Building”.
She dined at Chilham Castle in the delightful village of Chilham which was where the 2009 BBC adaptation of Emma was filmed.
Egerton Brydges recorded Jane Austen’s presence in Ramsgate: “When I knew Jane Austen I never suspected that she was an authoress; but my eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full. The last time I think that I saw her was in Ramsgate in 1803”.
Jane’s opinion of Ramsgate is made fairly clear in Mansfield Park when Tom Bertram travels to Ramsgate to visit his friends the Sneyds, where he finds them on the pier with Mrs Sneyd “surrounded by men”.
In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, 15-year-old Georgiana Darcy is taken to the town by her companion Mrs Younge and persuaded to elope with Mr Wickham, who has his eye on the teenager’s fortune.
Of course there are many other places Jane visited in East Kent but now we need to think of her travelling from London and stopping at the Bull at Dartford for the night. In 1798 there was quite a dramatic episode when Jane’s writing and dressing boxes had been put into a chaise and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies. Another stay in 1807 led Jane to remark they had “about the same bad butter”.
In December 1808 Jane Austen refers to an acquaintance who “knows a great many of our Connections in West Kent” which would include the Austens at Horsmonden and connections in Tonbridge. George Austen’s half brother William Walter and his family, lived in Seal near Sevenoaks.
In June 1808 we hear “I shall be sorry to pass the door at Seale without calling but it must be so”.
Edward was in a great hurry on this trip and “tho’ Harriot (Edward’s sister-in-law) is very earnest with Edwd to make Wrotham in his Journey” on this trip they will not get closer than Wrotham Gate.
However on a later trip, Fanny Knight, Jane’s favourite niece, records on Saturday 13 November 1813 “Papa. At. J. & I came to Wrotham, waiting some time at Lenham” and on the Sunday she writes “Fine day. Went to Church Twice”.
They were visiting Fanny’s Aunt Harriet who was married to Rev George Moore of whom Jane records on 26 October 1812: “… Mr Moore was very angry – which I was rather glad of – I wanted to see him angry & though he spoke to his Servant in a very loud voice & with a good deal of heat I was happy to perceive that he did not scold Harriot at all”. Mr Moore was angry as the Coachman brought the Coach half-an-hour late due to some difference in the clocks!
It’s not possible in this article to mention all the places Jane visited in Kent but do read her letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye to find out more. Among her other books, she has written A Chronology of Jane Austen and her family 1600-2000 which details every single piece of information about where Jane was and what she was doing at many precise moments of her life.
There are literally thousands of books written about almost every aspect of Jane’s work; I say ‘almost’ as new books appear with great regularity when you think the subjects must all be exhausted.
Find out more
Should you like to learn more about Jane Austen’s life and work and meet other Austenian enthusiasts, there is a Jane Austen Society Kent Branch you can join. There are three newsletters each year, a publication Austentations, two meetings each year of a discussion group Novel Views, a winter lunch with a speaker, the AGM with a speaker, and a summer event when there are various entertainments.
Jane Austen’s birthday is celebrated in Tonbridge in December every year and this year we welcome back Professor John Mullan. There is a relaxing annual Austen Ramble around parts of Kent associated with our favourite author.