"They had a very fine day for Box Hill", wrote Jane Austen in the seventh chapter of Emma. While many of Jane Austen's locations are imaginary, this important, dramatic scene takes place at a location that still exists with the name of "Box Hill".
As we had a very fine day, we decided to drive to Box Hill with my family. I have been wanting to visit Box Hill for a long time, and was really pleased to visit the famous picnic spot on such a lovely, sunny day.
Box Hill is situated between Leatherhead and Dorking amidst some of the most beautiful countryside of Surrey - called "an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty".
It is easy to imagine horse carriages along these the old, narrow zig zag roads that lead up to top the hill.
The views from the top of the hill are phenomenal and present a gorgeous panorama over the beautiful Surrey countryside. No wonder the place is still popular with picnickers - a lovely place to admire the views or to paint a landscape (as below).
Picnics have been popular ever since the beginning of the 19th Century, although they must be a great deal simpler to organise these days. In Jane Austen's days, it must have demanded a great deal of labour, cooks and servants, to deliver a wholesome picnic. These days, Box Hill is a popular tourist site owned by the National Trust with walking tours and family trails amongst other activities.
Jane Austen was obviously familiar with Surrey, frequently travelling through the county to London to visit her brother, Henry, in London and Edward in Kent. On the way, she sometimes called on her mother's cousin, Cassandra's family in Great Bookham. Cassandra had married the Reverend Samuel Cooke, who was rector of Great Bookham from 1769 to 1820. He was Jane's godfather and the Austens were close to the family.
Interestingly, Jane visited Great Bookham in June, 1814, the year when she had started writing Emma. During this visit, she might have got inspired to set one of the most important scenes of her novel on Box Hill. Perhaps, like Emma, she visited Box Hill and was "in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her". While I am partial to Hampshire (for obvious reasons), I must say that I have fallen a little in love with the Surrey countryside as well.
Of course, the midsummer picnic starts with a "very fine day, and all the outward circumstances...were in favour of a pleasant party", but as we know, the party ends in a disaster, with Emma not the least to blame. The Box Hill episode shows her the strength of her power over others and humbles her down. Badly done Emma.
References and further reading:
Chapters 6-7 in Jane Austen's Emma.
Edwards, A-M. (1991) In the Steps of Jane Austen - Walking Tours of Austen's England. Wisconsin: Jones Books.
Picnicking on Box Hill in Jane Austen's World
Box Hill in Jane Austen's Emma in Jane Austen in Vermont