The City of Southampton is just one of several, but possibly the most surprising of all, venues in Hampshire getting ready to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, in 2017.
Hampshire was not only the birthplace of Jane Austen: its people and the society in which she moved also provided inspiration for many of her novels. Known for proudly reminding people that she was “a Hampshire born Austen”, she was finally laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral, in 1817 – at the age of just 41.
Jane, and her sister Cassandra, had to leave their beloved Hampshire when their father retired and their parents announced they were all moving to Bath in 1801. It was an unhappy five years for Jane. As her chief biographer Claire Tomalin notes inJane Austen: A life, “The Austen ladies had left Bath…Jane and Cassandra rejoicing at their escape from the place they had come to hate, to which they never went back”.
In 1807 Jane, her mother and Cassandra returned to Hampshire – moving, first, to Southampton to share a house with brother Frank and his new wife Mary. A little more than two years later they would be living happily in Chawton, and Jane would be relaxed – and most importantly of all – writing again.
The City of Southampton Society has commemorated Jane Austen’s association with their city in a Heritage Trail, which can either be followed occasionally in the company of a guide, or by picking-up a copy of the leaflet and following in the footsteps of Jane on a walk around The Old Town.
At the time when the Austen family lived there, Southampton was an old seaport with medieval streets tumbling down to a quay. It was also reinventing itself as a fashionable spa town – in much the same way that the city is currently undergoing a major transformation to bring it up-to-pace with the 21st century demands of its current day residents and visitors.
The trail itself highlights nine key locations within the remains of the old city walls which have strong associations with Jane Austen either at the time of her living there, or else in her earlier life.
A plaque at The Bargate, for example, reminds visitors of Jane’s first visit to Southampton as a seven-years-old schoolgirl; while No.2 Castle Square, where The Juniper Berry pub now stands, is where she lived in Southampton from early 1807 to April 1809.
At her happiest when she was writing or dancing the trail pinpoints two venues where she ‘took to the floor’. The first is the former Long Rooms and Hot Baths, which were built in 1767 and where dances were held four nights of the week. The second is The Dolphin Hotel, believed to be where she was taken to by brother Frank to celebrate her 18th birthday, and where she also danced on at least two other occasions between 1808 and 1809.
Today, The Heritage Trail stands alongside some major developments for the vibrant port city. West Quay Shopping Centre is undergoing an £80m transformation, and will be rebranded as West Quay Watermark. At the same time a new arts complex will appear within Southampton’s redeveloped Cultural Quarter. This will become home to The John Hansford Gallery, which holds a world-renowned collection of contemporary art, and a performing arts centre featuring a 450-seat theatre.