Walking with Austen: Sevenoaks and the Red House
Sevenoaks, a lovely well-preserved old town in Kent close to Westerham, is associated with several of Jane Austen’s relatives, most particularly Jane’s Uncle Francis Austen (Frank). We know that Jane visited her uncle on at least one occasion, namely in 1788, when she was 12, where she met other (more priviledged) members of the Austen family. Rumors abound that a village close to Westerham was the model for Mr. Collins’ Parish village Hunsford and that Rosings was based on an estate in the area, Chevening, where Jane’s cousin John became rector in 1813.
I visit Sevenoaks several times a year since I love to picnic in the Knole, a property partly owned and inhabited by Lord Sackville and partly by the National Trust. The grounds hold a deer park with an ancient herd of deer roaming around, which, along with the green rolling hills, makes for a wonderful backdrop (if you can find a spot that doesn’t have deer droppings, that is).
The Knole has its own literary connections to boast of, since it hosted both Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf, but this time the Knole wasn’t the center of my interest. I actually took a proper walk through the old section of Sevenoaks, trying to trace the footsteps Jane might have taken. Since many of the buildings have remained unchanged since her time, I thought it might be fun to do a fanciful recreation of some of the things she might have seen.
The walk begins with the Jane Austen plaque in the ground indicating a spot she would have very likely stepped on herself, just outside her uncle Francis’ house — The Red House, which we know she was invited to visit when she was around 12 years old.
When she arrived by carriage with her father and sister Cassandra, this is where they would have gone in. Would a footman have opened the gates for them to enter?
I wonder if she looked out of any of those windows? If so, she would have see one or two of these cottages. But wait a minute. What is the name of one of the cottages — the one at the bottom? Now why does that name have a familiar ring to it? Was the cottage named after Netherfield in the novel, or did Jane remember this name and use it several years later in her novel? History and fiction are getting confused here.
Out of her window she would have seen the Upper Street Gardens, with the lovely old village well surrounded by flowers. As a twelve-year-old child she would have been eager to leave the adults to their conversation and explore the outside. She would have crossed the street and ran through the Gardens, perhaps going down into the lower area from which you can look into the closely clustered houses in what was intriguingly called Six Bells Lane.
Who could have resisted a lane with a name like that?
Jane would have wanted to find out if the six bells were still there. I walked down the steep lane and didn’t find the bells, but found some lovely old cottages with small doors, tiny windows and unexpected corners. I even found a cottage with the address spelled out in handmade white lace. Jane would have shuddered at the many hours of work that would have gone into it and thanked providence that no one had made her work on anything like that.
The path continued at an incline, leading eventually to Rectory Lane and to St. Nicholas’ Church which was built in the 13th century and featured the famous poet John Donne as its Rector in 1616 for almost twenty years. On a Sunday, of course, she would have attended the service there, passing the lovely medieval window as she went in.
For me, it was whimsical journey through time (though I have to say, the photos don’t do it justice). For her, perhaps, it was a constant reminder that she was the poor relative, the one who didn’t live in a grand house and didn’t have a large estate like many of her relations there did. Or perhaps she delighted in making fun of her more prim and proper relatives. Perhaps in that very church the germ of an idea came to her as Mr. Collins.
We will never know what she was thinking, of course, but I can say I had a wonderful time looking at the things she saw and trying to imagine her there walking with me.
Monica Fairview is the author of The Other Mr. Darcy and The Darcy Cousins.