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Southampton an 'elegant town' for teenager Jane Austen
“Southampton is an elegant, well-built town. It stands on the confluence of two large waters; and when the tide is full, is seated on a peninsula.
“It is a town of great antiquity, and still preserves its respectable appendages of ancient walls and gates.’’ With use of words like “confluence’’ it can be guessed this description of Southampton was written a long time ago.
The author was the socially reforming Rector of Boldre, the Rev William Gilpin, who was writing in 1775.
By the time the renowned author Jane Austen came to live in Southampton, the town had grown a great deal.
Between Gilpin’s description and Jane’s stay lay an important quarter of a century, a time which saw many English towns improve in elegance and many coastal spots become fashionable seaside resorts.
From the autumn of 1806 until the spring of 1809 the novelist made her home in Southampton with her mother and sister, her brother, Frank, and his new wife, Mary, and Martha Lloyd, who was recently homeless following her mother’s death.
Jane already knew Southampton, having been at school, albeit briefly, in the town, and at 18 she danced there at a public ball.
One historian wrote: “That she greatly preferred it to Bath, even to Canterbury, is evident, and not hard to explain.
“It was her home county, and on the coast, two powerful recommendations.
“Southampton’s pretensions to fashion were slight compared with Bath’s and its air agreed with her better.’’ The Austens rented a house in Castle Square from the Marquis of Landsdowne, which had a garden bounded on one side by the old walls as well as a view across to the New Forest.
Nearby was the Marquis’s mock Gothic castle, described by Jane’s nephew as “a fantastic edifice’’.
Not far away was a pump room, assembly rooms, several baths, and a theatre, which the author only visited once.
Jane rarely joined in the evening amusements and though she evidently liked the place, Southampton does not seem to have given her any inspiration as she wrote no fiction during her stay.
Jane was knowledgeable of many places outside Hampshire, but she was essentially a county girl, born in Steventon, living in Chawton, and dying in Winchester where she lies within the cathedral.