On May 24, 2018, Catherine Bilson became one of our new authors on the Austen Authors’ blog. I thought I would share her debut post here, mainly because of the lovely images she includes and because of her connections to Jane Austen. Enjoy!
I’m extremely honoured to be invited to join the Austen Authors, and dithered for ages on what to write in my first blog post. In the end, I decided to go with one of my personal connections to Jane Austen’s works; the fact that I lived, for a while in the 90’s, in Hertfordshire.
I lived in one of the new parts of Stevenage, a town conceived and designed as a ‘dormitory town’ to accommodate London commuters, and rather soulless in its modernity and plethora of roundabouts. However, Stevenage was also possessed of an Old Town, which most certainly existed in Jane Austen’s day. The 1801 Census recorded Stevenage as having 1,430 residents, and its position on the Great North Road (now the A1(M)) had twenty or more stage coaches passing through each day. The Bowling Green was the most popular meeting place for people in Stevenage for over 800 years, where people came to hear proclamations, to celebrate, or to remember the dead. Famous writer and MP Samuel Pepys visited to play bowls in 1664, one of the many times that he visited Stevenage.
In 1861, Charles Dickens visited Stevenage and wrote “The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters to shut up nothing as if it were the Mint or the Bank of England.” Which, at least in the drowsiness, sounds very much as I have always imagined Meryton.
What fixed Stevenage Old Town as Meryton in my headcanon, however, was its proximity to the gorgeous Knebworth House.
Who could possibly look at Knebworth and not imagine it as Netherfield, Charles Bingley and Mr Darcy cantering across that expanse of green lawn on their horses? Described by Sir Henry Chauncy in 1700 as ‘a large pile of brick with a fair quadrangle in the middle of it, seated upon a dry hill, in a fair large park, stocked with the best deer in the country, excellent timber and well wooded and from thence you may behold a most lovely prospect to the East.’
Really, those words could have been said by Mrs Bennet herself, waxing lyrical about the house of which she hoped her eldest daughter would one day be mistress.
If you watched the film Victoria & Abdul you would have seen some of the rooms from Knebworth House. It doubled as Balmoral and bits of Windsor in the film, and has also been filmed as Balmoral in the Netflix series The Crown.
Just imagine that awkward meeting between Darcy and Lizzy in that library!
However, Knebworth House didn’t look quite like the picture above in the early 1800s. It was ‘improved’ and vastly enlarged in the Victorian era. I did find a pencil sketch c. 1829 which still shows it as a spectacular house of which any lady would be delighted to find herself mistress. Perhaps Jane and Bingley were even the ‘improvers’…
So, we have Meryton and Netherfield; what about Longbourn?
Well, it’s a touch further from Knebworth than I’d care to walk at 6.7 miles (according to Google Maps) but the 14th century Hitchin Priory certainly looks the part, both inside and out. (It’s now a lovely country house hotel and conference venue).
Did Jane Austen use these places as inspiration for her fictional locations in Hertfordshire? Unless new notes or letters come to light, we will probably never know. In my writings, however, I’ll always have these beautiful houses in mind when writing Netherfield or Longbourn, and I certainly used Old Town Stevenage’s location in A Christmas Miracle At Longbourn when calculating the time it would take to drive to Hatfield or ride there from London. A Christmas Miracle At Longbourn was released in late May, and I do hope my fellow Austen devotees will enjoy the read! Exclusive to Amazon, it’s available in Kindle Unlimited.
Do you have any favourite English country houses in mind which could double as the locations in Austen novels? Of course, Chatsworth will always be Pemberley to most of us (though Lyme Park was a beautiful stand-in in the 1995 TV version), but I’d love to hear if you have any alternatives for Longbourn, Netherfield, Rosings, Northanger Abbey, Hartfield, Donwell, Mansfield Park or Sanditon!