Strictly Jane Austen

The Man who put the spring in Jane Austen’s Step

As spring arrives at last, our guest blogger Zoe Wheddon, author of Jane Austen Daddy’s Girl, The Life & Influence of The Revd. George Austen, looks at the role Jane’s father, the Reverend George Austen played in fostering his daughter’s ‘effusions of fancy’.

At this time of year, we all feel the benefit of the winds of change which spring ushers in. Getting outside and taking more notice of the things about us, we all get a boost. Be it that first lungful of clean air or from searching for little signs and shoots of new life on our daily walks, our glimpses of primroses, daffodils and crocus as they emerge and pop with colour before our eyes or the joyous sight of frolicking newborn lambs on a hillside awaken something new and creative inside of us.

It is not as well known that Jane Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen was also a farmer as well as a clergyman, and that the seasons and the work of mother nature guided and determined the rhythms and routines of Jane’s early family life. From her home, the rectory at Steventon where she spent the first 25 years growing and thriving, Jane’s regular daily romps across her father’s Cheesedown farm fields kept her in touch with all the little additions and adjustments in her local flora and fauna and attuned her senses, her focus, and her keen observation skills.

St Nicholas Church, Steventon

 George was a diligent and caring father and he in turn noticed and nurtured all the subtle tweaks and developments in all his children. He paid attention to their needs and talents and took care to heed his fatherly heart in his care and regard for them.  When it came to Jane, he spent many a time reading alongside her in his study and chatting about books by candlelight late into the evening. He encouraged her reading life and equipped her imagination with paper, ink and later even a writing slope of her own. He knew how to sow seeds to spark her interest and her intellect and his fatherly pride in her sensibilities and insights lead him to foster and liberally tend to her literary needs, creating a wonderful atmosphere in their happy home. Admiring of her skills as they blossomed and marvelling at her unique way with words, he championed his daughter’s efforts and extolled her ‘effusions of fancy’ as he called them, to all about him, from the humble villager to a city of London publisher.

He encouraged her reading life and equipped her imagination with paper, ink and later even a writing slope of her own.

Throughout all the unpredictable seasonal weather, from mad March, through summer’s harvest to winter frosts in the Hampshire countryside, George particularly encouraged making time for the outdoors in all his children. From his happy place, sequestered in his private study, he would look out of his bay window to his cucumber patch, his strawberry plants and the sun dial in his garden and listen to the sounds of his family enjoying themselves there.

This hunger for the ‘physicking’ qualities of walking outside in the power of nature, was an intentional part of Jane’s early education. It took root in her from childhood days spent rolling down the terraced bank behind their parsonage between lessons and learning, under the gaze of her father, and spilled forth into her young adulthood, filled as it was with walks in the frost and ice and afternoons spent scouring the hedgerows for the bounty of the season. Those simple strolls lead to ponderings and unleashed her mind enabling her thoughts to rove and roam, free from fetter or restraint.

In all my understanding of George Austen, it is this gift of time to Jane to wander but not be lost, to ramble but not be unrooted and to hike and exert herself but without undue focus on particular productivity or performance which lead to her following that most important of paths – her intuition. In making fewer demands of his daughter than other fathers of the time had to or decreed necessary, George gave Jane a precious opportunity. Leaving us of course with her legacy, those characters, heroes and heroines, places, and plots which she met along the way and who now linger with us as we walk beside a brook, stroll amongst a strawberry patch or picnic upon a hillside.

Nowadays, It is so charming to walk where Jane walked and Bath held a special place in both George and Jane’s hearts. In her youth Jane holidayed there with her family and her aunt and uncle. Then, later, in his retirement George removed himself, his wife Cassandra and his two daughters to the city permanently. With the work of one decision, some even said a whim, he swept away the old and brought in the new for ‘the girls’ as he would always refer to them.

In the early days when they were still looking for their first home Jane loved touring and trawling the streets. She noticed every interesting detail and felt the excitement and allure of the labyrinth in Sydney gardens, the wide-open paths and bridges, the ornate buildings, and the impactful colours of each stone. The surrounding hills called to her and it was here where she enjoyed the freedom of stretching out on a signature long walk once more. The area was located perfectly for excursions and holidaying in nearby areas too; indeed, the city proved itself a gateway to further adventures.

This is the perfect time of year for us to follow in Jane and George’s footsteps along the springtime Georgian streets of Bath and to allow all that we see to stir something up within us that may well have been lying dormant. Ruminating on all that George opened up to Jane may offer that necessary little nudge of encouragement to stimulate our new growth and new beginnings just as he did all those years ago for is beloved daughter and our dear friend, Jane Austen.

Royal Crescent in spring

A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zoe lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, Zoe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen. Her latest book, Jane Austen Daddy’s Girl, The Life & Influence of The Revd. George Austen is out soon.