Persuasions #9, 1987 Pages 56-58
Papers from the New York
New York Conference was principally devoted to Lady Susan and the
Juvenilia, and a selection follows of papers delivered there. Anthony
Trollope’s dinner speech, however, was a special address, particularly
pleasant in coming from him as the Honorary Secretary of the Jane Austen
Society, our counterpart in England.
A Scotchman at Overton: Jane
Austen’s North Hampshire
It is with vivid pleasure that Rosemary and I are with you tonight as guests of the Jane Austen Society of North America. It is also the first occasion that the Secretary of the Jane Austen Society has been invited to propose the toast of that important part of the family of Jane Austen disciples. “Who lets slip Fortune, her shall never find. Occasion once pass’d by, is bald behind.” I have no intention to look like that if I can possibly avoid it!
I thought it would be an exciting start to span the physical distance between the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and Steventon in England where Jane Austen was born by taking you, as it were, for a walk in the countryside from Steventon to Overton, and so compare the life around her then and life today. We have lived in Overton for nearly twenty years and know well the field where the Austens’ Rectory once stood; probably several of you know it too. This is where our walk starts and we have to imagine the house where Jane was born in 1775 because it was pulled down shortly after her death in 1817, at the instigation of Thomas Knight, whose son, William, stepped into the living at Steventon with its excellent stipend and new rectory. The old Austen house was swept away without a murmer. There is no visible testimony today in that peaceful field of that two-storeyed house with its flat façade, narrow roof, square sashed windows, and the Rector’s study with its bow windows. My wife and I remember only the old water pump standing alone in this field, but even this has now gone.
We now leave the field and turn left into the narrow lane to the village of Steventon, which Jane knew from her birth in 1775, and where she spent the first twenty-five years of her life. There has been a transformation. It was in her day little more than a row of cottages, the important families of the neighbourhood living at some distance on their estates. The Rectory stood on the south side of the lane, which was at the time quite wide and had to have its holes filled up whenever a larger company was expected at the adjoining houses. The twelfth-century church stands above and aloof from the village, but is unchanged from Jane’s day. The enormous yew tree, with its timeless history, mentioned in the Domesday Book, stands in an expansive embrace beside this elegant building with its windows that give the hall-mark of its age and design. The splendid generosity of members of your Society recently has under-written the physical life of this very special sanctuary, for which we are all deeply grateful.
As Jane walked along this little lane towards Overton, she would have known everyone she met. She and her family were surrounded by scenes and people to love, and this atmosphere still shrouds the area: the railway embankment and a few modern houses have made a physical intrusion, but this has not taken away the character of the countryside which the Austen family knew so well. As we go on our way I would also invite you to turn aside to Ashe Park, and eventually Ashe Rectory, now Ashe House, the splendid Georgian mansion at which we have dined many times, and where in Jane’s day Madame Lefroy lived. Here Jane met Tom, Madame Lefroy’s Irish nephew, whom she found “very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant,” and earned some reproof from her sister, Cassandra, for repeated flirting at a ball. Jane would recognize the interior of Ashe House, whose eighteenth-century character has been most lovingly kept.
Leaving Ashe we strike out into the rolling openness of the Hampshire country scene with the casual, as well as the planned groups and avenues of trees which have changed very little, except for the disappearance of the elm trees which suffered from a murderous disease about ten years ago, the origin of which has never been identified.
Jane, in summer muslin or a winter cloak, with pattens over her shoes to keep her above the mud, would have come down into Overton past the house in which we live. The house is called Yield House and must have been associated with the collection of dues to the Bishop of Winchester. Jane must have walked by many times; many of the cottages in the same street, several of them thatched, stand today, apart from one or two minor additions, as Jane and her contemporaries must have known them.
Jane had family reasons for visiting Overton. Her brother James, once he was ordained, was curate-in-charge at Overton and set up house when he married Anne Matthews. They found the Rectory much too small and moved into Court House nearby: it is now a farm but otherwise unchanged, a substantial Georgian house of rosy brick. The Rectory was rebuilt on a larger scale on the same site, as curates who succeeded James Austen also found the existing house too small. Overton was an old village even when Jane knew it, granted to the Bishop of Winchester in 909 by Edward the Elder, the rents being paid in the same Court House which was to become Jane’s brother’s house nine hundred years later. One of the most ancient roads in the whole country passes through Overton. The Harroway led from Stonehenge and Sarum to the ports on the coast of Kent: metals and skins were carried along it from an early age. Overton itself was nothing but swamp and forest at the time. Overton suffered badly during the Black Death of 1349, but under the Tudors recovered its prosperity: the registers show a great variety of trade and occupations among its residents, ranging from brick-burning to peruke-maker. Employment in paper-making started in about 1720, about fifty years before Jane was born.
The Overton Jane knew has grown, but the link to her and her family is perpetuated by the famous paper mill at Overton, still going strong. The history of the paper-making industry is such a unique story that I think it is an important part of the scene of yesterday and today that I am describing to you. Henri de Portal was a Huguenot Frenchman, that is to say, he belonged to that group which refused to conform to the diktats of the Catholic Church in France, and took advantage of a moratorium on compliance, offered under the Edict of Nantes, to escape, and arrived at Southampton in about 1685. He was a paper maker and was anxious to re-establish his craft here: he met one of the lords of the manor who offered him a water-mill, where he started making the paper of a very special kind for money notes. This enterprise, now lodged in a large factory at Overton railway station, produces the currency paper for virtually every country of the world, including the American dollar. Jane Austen lived through the period of its early development and knew some members of the family. William Knight, Jane’s cousin, became Rector of Steventon and married Caroline Portal, who was the eldest daughter of John Portal, a descendant of the original Henri. Up until recently the Portal family owned the business which has been a very vital element in the happy mixture of industrial and agricultural activity in this part of England, which has successfully withstood the intrusion of industrial buildings into the scene that Jane Austen and her family knew and loved.
Of course, Jane did not only come to Overton to visit her family. She came, we know, to shop. And now, at last, I will reveal why my title is “A Scotchman at Overton.” Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra: “The Overton Scotchman has been kind enough to rid me of some of my money, in exchange for six shifts and four pair of stockings. The Irish is not so fine as I should like it; but as I gave as much money for it as I intended, I have no reason to complain. It cost me 3s. 6d. per yard” (Letters, p. 32). The building occupied by the Scotchman was pulled down only recently and we witnessed its departure under protest, and its replacement with a structure of facile modernity. I am sure you all share our regret that another real link with Jane has gone.
Tonight’s occasion is historic – the first link, I believe, in a special chain of friendship and partnership in the spreading of the legacy of great literature which Jane Austen has bequeathed to the world. Thank you all very much for your wonderful welcome and hospitality.