Thursday, November 19, 2015

Tracing Jane Austen's Footsteps: Sevenoaks by Monica Fairview

Knole at  Sevenoaks
Virginia Woolf  at The Knole
I visit Sevenoaks, Kent, several times a year since I love to picnic or walk in Knole. The grounds include a deer park with an ancient herd roaming around, which, along with the rolling hills, makes for a wonderful backdrop for a meal on a pleasant summer day (if you can find a spot that doesn’t have deer droppings, that is). Knole is partly owned and inhabited by Lord Sackville and partly by the National Trust. One of its claims to fame is that it is one of England top five largest houses, with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. Another is its Elizabethan association with Robert Dudley. A third is its association with writers like Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. 
Sevenoaks itself has a lovely well-preserved old town. It's well-worth a visit in and of itself but its particular interest for me is that it's associated with  several of Jane Austen’s relatives, most particularly Jane’s Uncle Francis Austen (Frank) who lived at the Red House whenever he was at Sevenoaks. Frank Austen was a lawyer and a wealthy landowner with a number of large estates in Kent and Essex. 

The Red House where Jane Austen stayed with her uncle

We know that Jane stayed with her uncle on at least one occasion, namely in 1788, when she was 12, where she met other (more privileged) members of the Austen family. It is claimed that it was during that visit her uncle commissioned Ozias Humphry to paint the Rice Portrait. John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (residing at Knole) was particularly fond of Humphry, and Jane Austen's uncle had already had two portraits of his own commissioned from the artist.
Portrait believed to be of Jane Austen aged 12
Since much of the area around Red House has remained unchanged, it isn't too difficult to follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen during her visit. There's a plaque that names the Red House and there's also a plaque in the ground outside the house and this is the obvious starting point. 

As a twelve-year-old child she would have been eager to leave the adults to their conversation and explore the outside. She would have crossed the street and looked down into the closely clustered cottages in what was intriguingly called Six Bells Lane. Who could have resisted a lane with a name like that? Jane would probably have wanted to find out if the six bells were still there. 

I walked down the steep lane and didn’t find the bells, but found some lovely old cottages with small doors, tiny windows and unexpected corners. I even found a cottage with the address spelled out in handmade white lace. Jane would have shuddered at the many hours of work that had gone into it and thanked providence that no one had made her embroider something like this.
A pretty doorway

The path continued at an incline, leading eventually to Rectory Lane and to St. Nicholas’ Church which was built in the 13th century and featured the famous poet John Donne as its Rector in 1616 for almost twenty years. On a Sunday, of course, Jane would have attended the service there, passing the lovely medieval window as she went in. Would the duke have been in attendance, or did he only attend the private chapel at Knole House? For Jane Austen, perhaps, seeing cousins and acquaintances of her uncle may have been a reminder that she was the poor relative, the one who didn’t live in a grand house and didn’t have a large estate like many of her relations at Sevenoaks did. Or perhaps she delighted in making fun of her more prim and proper family members. She might even have been too busy thinking up her Juvenile writings to listen to the sermon. Perhaps in that very church the germ of an idea came to her that later took form as Mr. Collins. There is speculation that a village close to Sevenoaks was the model for Mr. Collins’ parish Hunsford and that Rosings was based on an estate in the area, possibly Chevening, where Jane’s cousin John became rector in 1813. It would have been a steep climb up to the Red House after the service, unless, of course, Uncle Frank had provided transportation.

When were the cottages built and named?

Just to the side of the Red House I came across a sign with captured my attention at once. A row of cottages borders the house and can be seen from the windows. Perhaps the twelve-year-old Jane looked out of the window and spotted one with an intriguing name. Look at the last name on the sign. I wonder which came first, Netherfield in Sevenoaks or Netherfield in Meryton?


Elizaqbeth Hawksley said...

Interesting post, Monica - plenty of scope for speculation! I particularly liked the intriguing appearance of 'Netherfield'.

Jane Odiwe said...

Wonderful post, Monica-I've been to Knole a couple of times-fabulous house to visit. It's lovely to see photographs of places Jane knew well. I hadn't heard of the Netherfield connection before-I'd love to know the answer.

Monica Fairview said...

Elizabeth -- thank you. I know, that's what we like to do as writers, fill in the empty spaces. I wish she had left some more specific information behind.

Monica Fairview said...

Jane -- it is a fabulous house. So much history. It would be fun to find out which came first. To judge by the other names of the cottages, it isn't a deliberate attempt to use JA name places.

Fenella J Miller said...

Great post -always good to know more about Jane. However, wouldn't girls of twelve still been in pinafores? Also high-waisted gowns, as far as I remember, didn't become fashionable until later than this portrait would have been done.

Monica Fairview said...

Fenella -- that's part of the controversy surrounding the painting. For more about it there's a web page that presents the evidence that's been collected proving that the style of dresses used in other paintings in the 1780's of young girls. Here's the link

Lots of material there about the painting.

Monica Fairview said...

Just to add to the above -- apparently girls and young teenagers in the 1780s were wearing this style of clothing before it became fashionable for adult women.

Fenella J Miller said...

I didn't know that.