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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Sneak-Peek of Jane Austen 200 in Basingstoke

I'm lucky to live near Basingstoke, a place very familiar to Jane Austen. This was a place she visited several times, being the nearest large town to Steventon, and there are still some landmarks known to her in the town. A small but fairly modern town, Basingstoke has, in my opinion, been spoilt by juxtaposing period buildings and modern, box-like architecture, leaving little of the Georgian feel to the town. However, I did spot a few examples of Georgian architecture on my visit there last week and, with a little imagination, could place Jane Austen there in my mind's eye. 

I visited the Willis Museum for a preview of the "Jane Austen 200 - A Life in Hampshire" exhibition together with my children who attended a reading of Jane Austen's "My Beautiful Cassandra". The book, taken from Jane Austen's juvenilia, was written by Jane Austen when she was 12 years old and dedicated to her sister, Cassandra. It tells the story of a girl who wears a bonnet and gets into a lot of trouble one day. The children were delighted with the workshop where they got to make a Regency style bonnet, Jane Austen bookmarks and write with a quill and ink. 

I, in the meanwhile, had a chance to look at the exhibition, which is part of a large-scale event to take place in Basingstoke next year. The event is organised by the Hampshire Cultural Trust and will certainly attract a great many visitors to Basingstoke (myself included!). Jane Austen's writing desk, ink pot and glasses, usually looked after by the British Library, have been specially brought to Basingstoke for the exhibition and visitors also get a chance to see the original manuscript of The History of England, which forms part of Jane Austen's juvenilia. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the exhibition, but you can see a video about the exhibition on the Hampshire Cultural Trust website

Austen artefacts come to Basingstoke

Image source:

It was quite touching to see Jane Austen's writing slope, a priceless article in itself. The mahogany article was purchased by Jane Austen's father, George Austen, at Ring Brothers in Basingstoke in 1794, probably intended as a present for his daughter's upcoming birthday. Jane placed the slope on her tiny, round writing table close to the window in the sitting room. At the time, writing slopes held precious and private information and could be taken anywhere with you in the same way that our laptops do these days - a writing slope therefore would have been of utmost importance to its owner. Perhaps Jane Austen kept her letters and manuscripts within it. As Paula Burne writes, the writing slope must also have been of symbolic importance to Jane Austen. It symbolised her father's faith in her and in his encouragement of her writing. 

In 1798, Jane Austen nearly lost her writing slope. On her way from her brother, Edward's estate in Godmersham, she stopped at an inn to change horses and her package was accidentally taken to another chaise that was just leaving and the goods would have ended up in the West Indies. Jane wrote to Cassandra,

"I should have begun my letter soon after our arrival but for a little adventure which prevented me. After we had been here a quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies. No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, £7, and my dear Harry's deputation. Mr. Nottley immediately despatched a man and horse after the chaise, and in half an hour's time I had the pleasure of being as rich as ever; they were got about two or three miles off."

Did you know that Jane Austen wore glasses? We do not usually associate her with glasses as she does not wear glasses in the few surviving images that we have of her. However, it is likely that she only wore them for detailed work, such as embroidery, and perhaps reading and writing in poor light. I was also surprised at how small the glasses really were, almost as if they belonged to a small child. She must have worn them at the end of her nose, as I cannot imagine her wearing them close to the eyes as we do these days, or her head would have been extremely small. The pretty, embroidered (by Jane?) glasses case is absolutely tiny as well. 

At the exhibition I also discovered that Jane Austen would have known the two buildings opposite the Willis Museum. She used to dance in a ballroom at Angel Inn in the building  right opposite the Willis Museum, now housing Barclay Bank. 

Jane and Cassandra had their first dances at Moot Hall, in the town hall, which in Jane Austen's time was to the right, roughly where Lloyds Bank now stands. 

I now look forward to learning more about Jane Austen's Basingstoke in next year's event, which sounds very exciting indeed!


Burne, P. (2013) The Real Jane Austen - A Life in Small Things. Harper Press.  


  1. I have found your blog Anna. I have driven past Basingstoke so many times but never actually visited it. I have always associated it with Basing House and the Civil War. Of course I know about Janes connection. Aren't you lucky living in Hampshire , Janes county?????

    1. Yes indeed I'm lucky to be living here :) I was surprised to hear that you haven't been to Basingstoke yet! It's not a remarkable place as such, but it is Jane Austen country...


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