Jane Austen's Southampton, 1807-1809
When Jane moved with her parents and Cassandra to Bath in 1801, she no doubt felt that it was going to be for a very long time. But in fact her father died early in 1805. It took about another year for Mrs Austen to decide to settle temporarily with her son Frank, by then a naval captain, who had rented lodgings in Southampton.
Frank had a pleasant young wife and by the time the full party finally arrived at Southampton, early in 1807, the first of Frank and Mary's 11 children were on the way. They were joined by Martha Lloyd, who had lived with the Austen women since her mother's death nearly two years earlier. The lodgings were expensive and they soon all moved into a "commodious old-fashioned" house in Castle Square, Southampton, which was rented from the Marquess of Lansdowne.
The Austens' house had a garden that hugged the old city walls of Southampton, which the river reached at high tide, with steps giving the family access to the promenade along the top of the walls, and the view they had from the house must have been a delightful one, westwards across Southampton Water. The house is thought to have been sited where the 'Bosun's Locker' now stands.
The medieval town that Jane knew was, according to the diarist Mrs Powys, "one of the most neat and pleasant towns I ever saw ... once walled round, many large stones of which are now remaining. There were four gates, only three now ... one long fine street of a quarter mile in length ... At the extremity a capital building was erected with two detached wings, and colonnades. The centre was an elegant tavern, with assembly, card room, etc., and at each wing hotels to accommodate the nobility and gentry. The tavern is taken down, but the wings converted into genteel houses" (Mitton 1917).
The Austens made family excursions by boat on the River Itchen to see warships being built at Northam and the Gothic ruins of Netley Abbey. Jane continued her long walks when she was in Southampton through the lovely countryside surrounding the town, beside Southampton Water and along the banks of the Itchen and Test rivers.
Busy place though it was, Jane certainly did not view Southampton in the harsh light of London and Bath, or she would not have made her Emma Woodhouse say with such fervour of Southend (as she might too have said of Southampton) "Come, come ... I must beg you not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable; I who have never seen it!" (Emma).
Jane and Cassandra attended dances in Southampton, including some in the upstairs rooms of the Dolphin Hotel, which is still open today. But their social life was less exciting because their mother was left comparatively poor after her husband's death.