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Finding Jane Austen’s Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 11:02 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:56 25 July 2017

Rothamsted Manor (photo: Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise)

Rothamsted Manor (photo: Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise)

Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise

This month marks 200 years since the death of novelist Jane Austen, whose insightful romances among the landed gentry continue to grip us. With Hertfordshire a key location in Pride and Prejudice, Sandra Deeble goes looking for the Bennet’s footprints

Balls Park, near Hertford - inspiration for Mr Bingley's Netherfield home? (photo: City and Country) Balls Park, near Hertford - inspiration for Mr Bingley's Netherfield home? (photo: City and Country)

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that much of Pride and Prejudice is set in Hertfordshire. Yet whether the places in Jane Austen’s classic novel are based on real locations in the county, is where fact and fiction begins to blur. A question pondered by Austen experts is did Jane visit the county? And as for Meryton – the market town so handy for sundries and a place where the Bennet daughters flirted with members of the militia – can we put a finger on the county map and say ‘there it is!’?

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice, I have to say that Meryton bears a strong resemblance to Hertford. But it also feels remarkably like Harpenden. And what about Ware? It’s easy to let the imagination run away. I’m half expecting to bump into Mr Darcy in my home village of Welwyn, or am I actually hoping for Colin Firth? I wake up. It was all a dream. Time to get real and pursue the facts.

Tom Carpenter is the grandson of the founder of the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire and was chairman until recently. As luck would have it, the day I call the museum, he is there, with historian Lucy Worsely. I recommend her brilliant new book, Jane Austen at Home. Equally lucky, is Tom has a sister who lives in Hertford and knows the county well. He tells me that given the number of coaching inns between Hampshire and Hertfordshire and the public transport system of stagecoaches, that yes, Jane might have made the journey from Hants to Herts! Yet while he agrees that Hertford is very similar to the fictional Meryton, he can’t confirm whether Jane based her market town on a real place.

‘Her father had a very good library of reference books,’ Tom says. ‘And Jane was proficient in England’s main geography.’ She did travel a bit too, Tom adds. ‘She definitely went to London and to Kent. Her brother Henry was in London. And she may even have gone to Hendon.’ Just south of Herts – getting warmer I think.

The Bennet sisters in Hertbreak Productions' open air performance of Pride and Prejudice (photo: Heartbreak Productions) The Bennet sisters in Hertbreak Productions' open air performance of Pride and Prejudice (photo: Heartbreak Productions)

Jane had a whirlwind romance with Tom Lefroy, but it didn’t lead to the expected marriage proposal. Anna Austen, Jane’s niece, married Tom’s cousin, Benjamin Lefroy in 1814 and the couple moved to Hendon. There are letters from Jane in Chawton to Anna in Middlesex. Then Tom brings me back down to earth. ‘But we don’t know whether she actually did visit Hendon,’ he says.

Lucy Worsley writes that Pride and Prejudice ‘is firmly set in Austen-land – that carefully realised country neighbourhood with the occasional big house and plentiful parsonages.’

‘Austen-land’ is indeed a landscape that fits many counties, particularly within a reasonable carriage commute of London. But how did Jane choose her locations and research them? In Pride and Prejudice, most place names are made up. The only real locations mentioned are Hatfield, Barnet, the Great North Road and Gretna Green, all relating to Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham. Oh, and Gracechurch Street in London.

In her book, Jane Austen’s England, author Maggie Lane says, ‘As far as is known, Jane Austen never travelled north or east of London into East Anglia or the East Midlands. However, that did not prevent her enlisting ‘the fine open sea’ of Cromer or the ‘mud’ of Southend into her high comedy of Emma; nor of setting a fine proportion of Pride and Prejudice in Hertfordshire (though Barnet and Hatfield are the only real places mentioned) and almost all of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire.’

Hugh Thomson illustrated Pride and Prejudice  'Peacock edition' of 1895 Hugh Thomson illustrated Pride and Prejudice 'Peacock edition' of 1895

An insight into Jane’s approach to research, and, as Lane puts it, ‘her search for verisimilitude’ when writing Mansfield Park, the author asked her sister Cassandra to find out if Northamptonshire is ‘a county of hedgerows’. Lane writes that Jane’s brother Henry was ‘on visiting terms with at least one gentleman whose country seat was in Northamptonshire’, so perhaps other questions were put to him.

In Jo Baker’s wonderful Longbourn, a work of fiction that tells the story of the Bennet family from the point of the view of the servants, Hertfordshire is mentioned on the very first page. In Pride and Prejudice, it doesn’t pop up until chapter three.

In Pride and Prejudice, with much excitement about the arrival at Netherfield of the wealthy Mr Bingley, Mrs Bennet invites him to dinner. Yet he is unable to make it because he is obliged to be ‘in town’.

‘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 always be flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be.’ It was ever thus – buy a country house in Hertfordshire and commute to London for business.

McMullen brewery's horses and dray outside The White Hart, Hertford. Is the county town the real Meryton? McMullen brewery's horses and dray outside The White Hart, Hertford. Is the county town the real Meryton?

There are those who believe that Netherfield, Mr Bingley’s house, is based on 17th century Balls Park in Hertford. Others like to think ancient Rothamsted Manor in Harpenden was an inspiration – its Great Drawing Room would have been perfect for formal Regency dances and is a popular wedding venue today.

The Bennets are great friends with Mr Lucas, who also has a rather magnificent country pile. Could Jane have written about his home with Panshanger in mind? Or Goldings, perhaps? And is it part of being English, to swoon at the thought of a country house?

I ask Nick Ingle, director of Savills estate agents in Harpenden, whether anyone has wanted to buy property in the county believing it to have been an inspiration for Pride and Prejudice, and whether he can find me a property with a ballroom?

‘There’s no association with Jane Austen that I’m aware of,’ says Nick. ‘But there are sometimes properties with very grand sitting rooms.’ He mentions the Dower House at the Grade II listed Cheverells House in Markyate, currently for sale, is just such a property. Markyate also used to be a major coaching stop. ‘People often want this kind of house as a weekend retreat,’ he says. Just like Mr Bingley, perhaps?

Thinking about dancing and ballrooms, some people have a hunch that when Elizabeth Bennet takes her first steps on the dance floor with Mr Darcy, Jane had in mind the ballroom on the first floor of Hertford’s Shire Hall.

Some ‘proof’ about possible inspiration for locations, according to the marvellous website Austenonly.com, leads us to Harpenden and away from Hertford. There were real Bennets living in the area – in fact an owner of Rothamsted Manor was John Bennet – which suggests… well, you decide.

Veteran Welwyn archaeologist Tony Rook (who helped save the town’s Roman baths from destruction) tells me he once went to Hertingfordbury, a mile from Hertford, in search of a house called Epcombs. This is believed by some to be the inspiration for the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. In Pride and Prejudice the Bennet daughters regularly walk from Longbourn to Meryton, often dragging petticoats in the Hertfordshire mud. It’s a private house, but Tony managed to work his way in, and the current owner offered him a cup of tea, but no definitive answer on the link.

Back in Welwyn, I find myself searching the church graveyard because – and this is fact – the Rev Thomas Bathurst is buried here. I wasn’t able to find his grave but thanks to Maureen Stiller, honorary secretary of the Jane Austen Society, I know he was the second cousin of the Rev George Austen, Jane’s father. Thomas was curate at Steventon in Hampshire until he moved to Welwyn in 1765 to become the rector. Jane’s father took over as rector in Steventon at this point. Thomas lived in Welwyn until his death in 1797. Perhaps the cousins wrote to each other and Thomas told Jane’s father all about his new life and the landscape of Herts?

We will probably never know the truth about Jane’s Herfordshire. However, if you want to definitely step in her footsteps you would be advised to visit Chawton and Bath this summer where a huge number of 200th anniversary events are taking place. Closer to home, I suggest you take a walk around Hertford, take a look at Shire Hall, perhaps walk to Hertingfordbury. On another day, you could take a turn around Rothamsted where there is a footpath across the front of the manor. You could even stop for tea at the café at Rothamsted Research. You may be close on Jane’s trail.

Herts authors

I recommend the work of Kate Miller, Hertford writer and local historian. Her anthology of stories, Four Rivers and a Castle, which takes inspirations from Jane Austen’s possible links to Hertford (as well as those of Elizabeth I, Cromwell and van Gogh), is available via hertfordwriterscircle.org

George Bernard Shaw lived in Ayot St Lawrence, now the National Trust property, Shaw’s Corner. You can enjoy performances of his plays Major Barbara and Too Good to be True in the house’s garden on June 23 and July 21 respectively.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, owner of Knebworth House, was a bestselling Victorian novelist. He was a friend of Charles Dickens and coined the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ His great-great-great-grandson, current Knebworth custodian, Henry Lytton-Cobbold recently released his two-volume book on the tragic life of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s daughter, Emily, In the Bosom of Her Father.

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