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A Jane Austen Evening: Historian Cheryl Butler At Cobbett Road Library

A photograph of Cobbett Road Library

We have in Southampton our own Jane Austen expert – a historian who knows a great, great, deal about the history of our city, too. Cheryl Butler is well known in Southampton and gives many talks, is a writer of local history books and theatre performances, and guides walks in the medieval areas of the city.

On Thursday evening, Cheryl spoke to those gathered at Cobbett Road Library, a community hub in the suburb of Bitterne Park. Now run by a small staff and volunteers, and championed by a great Friends group, it is one of if not the oldest standing library in the city, inhabiting a building that was created in 1939 expressly for the purpose of book lending; decorated still by its original wood paneling, it encompasses a stunning lobby that is the nucleus, the main library to one side, and a community room and children’s library to the other.

A photograph of Cheryl Butler

Cheryl came to the library to give her Jane Austen & Southampton Spa talk and whilst I believe everyone expected to leave having learned quite a bit, the sheer amount of information Cheryl knows was something else. Reason being – there’s not much known generally about Austen’s time in Southampton, indeed it’s completely overlooked by her time in Bath and Chawton, yet she visited and stayed in Southampton three times over the course of her life and there is good reason to believe she preferred this city to Bath. Living in Southampton, one learns a bit just by walking around and patronising the city centre – everyone knows that Austen stayed at the very haunted Dolphin Hotel near the sea’s edge, and that she stayed in a house the grounds of which were later rebuilt upon to become what is now a pub. There are other plaques baring information near the water’s edge and it’s fairly well known that she liked the ruins of Netley Abbey.

Jane first visited Southampton when her sister Cassandra’s school mistress moved her school to the city. Jane joined them; the school was based somewhere on the High Street. Cheryl believes that Jane’s talk of a similar-sounding school in Sanditon may point to an influence. Due to the movements of the military at the time – the various wars that were going on – there was a lot of disease about and Jane, Cassandra, and their cousin caught Typhus. That was the end of the first visit.

On the eve of her 18th birthday, Jane returned to the city, staying with relatives. These relatives were rich, at the upper end of society, and had connections to the East India Company. This was the visit during which the author danced at the Dolphin Hotel, in the ballroom which stretches across the first floor. (William Thackeray is also known to have visited the hotel.) Jane’s relatives are buried at Pear Tree Church, across the river from the city centre (Southampton spans two sides of the Itchen).

A photograph of Pear Tree Church

Jane’s third visit happened when her brother, Francis, moved to the city. The Austens got a property together in Castle Square; a gothic castle had been built by the Marquis of Lansdowne with expensive houses surrounding it, the most expensive of which was rented by the author’s family. The castle no longer exists (the ruins remaining in the city are of the medieval castle) but the area is still called Castle Square. Jane wrote about their garden; she grew a flower that William Cowper, her favourite poet, had composed a work about. (Cowper was another visitor to Southampton.) The family grew strawberries. Jane enjoyed attending a theatre on French Street, a place that would later host her favourite actress, Sarah Siddons – though Jane did not see her perform here.

Cheryl believes it’s possible that we don’t know more about Jane’s time in Southampton due to Cassandra’s burning of her letters after she died. [Full disclosure: I haven’t included everything in this post.] We have some of her letters which include notes on Southampton and given this, it’s likely there were originally more. Cheryl also posed the interesting question – if Jane’s letters that include her dislike of the upstanding vicar of All Saints Church were not burned by Cassandra, then what in the world did the burned letters contain?

We have no evidence that Jane worked on her novels whilst in Southampton, but do know that she corresponded with her publishers for the return of a manuscript that they had yet to do anything with. That manuscript was ‘Susan’, which later became Northanger Abbey.

Do you enjoy learning the history of where you live?



March 15, 2018, 12:25 pm

How fascinating, and new to me, is all this info!

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