Visiting Steventon, Austen’s Birthplace

On Wednesday, the Jane Austen Society of the UK’s wonderful secretary, Maureen Stiller, picked me up from the Stables and drove me out to Steventon. For those of you who do not know the significance of Steventon, it is the village where Jane Austen was born and lived in for the first twenty-five years of her life. At Steventon, JA wrote her juvenilia and early drafts of Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. These novels were not named such originally. Rather they were called “Susan,” “First Impressions,” and “Elinor and Marianne.” Believe it or not, Austen also originally envisioned the texts that would become PP and SS as epistolary works!

To visit Steventon was a true gift, for I am writing about Austen’s juvenilia and desired to see the place where Austen grew up.  This village is situated in the middle of nowhere, exactly as I expected. I can relate, for I too grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere (Texas). While some people might shudder at the thought of being so far removed from a bustling town or city, I find this locale comforting and peaceful–a place to observe and think. On my visit to Steventon, I could imagine Jane and her siblings walking, perhaps running, around the village and having loads of fun.

Unfortunately, the house in which JA was raised does not exist anymore. It was torn down in the 1820s because of deterioration. The land upon which the house sat is in a valley, so years of rain led to poor conditions. Other cottages, too, suffered the same fate. However, archaeologists have spent years digging at the site in order to learn more about the Austens’ home. To document this process, Debbie Charlton has published a book that explains much about the village and some of the misinformation about the appearance of the house.

So, a visit to Austen’s home in Steventon can’t be had, but you can see the field upon which the house sat:

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If you take a peek around the left you can see where the Austens’ house would have been.

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Now you see an orange cone that has a sign pointing left and right for the site of the rectory. 😀

You can also see the house across the street built for Edward Austen Knight’s reverend son, William, who would become rector of Steventon after James Austen, and then Henry Austen. In the picture below you can see the house and current land, replete with bleating sheep.

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While I did not trespass over either field, I did get to enter St. Nicholas Church, the church Jane and her family attended, and the church for which Mr. Austen and James served as rectors. The church sits at the top of an adjacent lane–a rather steep, hearty road for the Austens and others to climb to attend services. Here it is:

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The church is absolutely beautiful. It was constructed in the 12th century and has been improved over the centuries, but upon entering this humble chapel, you can imagine a close-knit community worshipping.

At present the church is filled with many flower arrangements, which not only aid in the space’s beauty, but also make the place smell wonderful. I felt at peace in this church. I have visited a bunch of churches in the last five-and-half-weeks, and I can say that this one is my favorite. Its scale is intimate; it feels like a home.

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James Austen and his second wife are buried in the adjacent graveyard.

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Maureen also drove me out to Deane and Ashe, other Austen-related church and rectory sites, one of which includes the remains of James Austen’s first daughter, and Jane’s first niece, Anna Austen Lefroy. Jane and Anna were very close, and Anna even looked to her aunt for inspiration as she set out on her own endeavours to write a novel.

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My morning with Maureen also included a visit to the Wheatsheaf Inn, where mail used to be delivered and where we had coffee and chatted for a little while. Finally, we drove through Overton, a town in which the Austens would have done their shopping while living in Steventon. I took this last picture to help myself remember the materials for which Maureen told me the facade of the Austen rectory in Steventon would have contained. See the church in Overton? It has the stone and brick. That’s what Maureen said the Austen’s home would have been built like–brick around the edges of windows and walls, the flint stone in between.

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Of course, Austen’s house would have looked something like this image below with the attic rooms, five windows on the second floor, and four on the bottom.

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However, Maureen believes that the materials would resemble the church in the picture.

Ultimately, I enjoyed riding around with Maureen and learning so much from her about the Steventon area. This is why one must visit not just read about a site. Seeing is not only believing, but also understanding and remembering. There is no replacement for being in Steventon in person. I will carry my experiences here and memories with me as I continue to paint my own picture in writing of the young Jane Austen.

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In front of St. Nicholas Church in Steventon

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