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Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice and her Surrey life

PUBLISHED: 13:07 08 November 2013 | UPDATED: 11:59 25 March 2015




With the literary world celebrating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice and a BBC homage set to be broadcast this winter, 
Amanda Hodges explores Jane Austen’s many links to our own county

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice, arguably Jane Austen’s best loved novel.

It’s a literary occasion due to be celebrated this winter with the appearance of the BBC drama Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James’ mystery revisiting Elizabeth and Darcy six years after we last encountered them.

Preparing for the lavish annual ball at Pemberley their plans are suddenly thwarted by the unexpected arrival of Lydia, Elizabeth’s wilful younger sister, and by the gruesome discovery of a body in the grounds of their estate, an event that threatens to engulf their world as they are unwittingly plunged into a murder investigation.

Matthew Rhys, cast as Darcy opposite Anna Maxwell Martin’s Elizabeth, says of the chance to embrace such an iconic character: “Exciting as it is, one of the challenges of a part such as Darcy are the comparisons that will be drawn to those who’ve institutionalised him in the past. The beauty of Pemberley is that it is an entirely new and different Darcy six years on.”

And, in a wry reference to Colin Firth’s memorable appearance in the BBC’s acclaimed Pride and Prejudice of 1995, he states that he’s happy to find that, on this occasion, he “doesn’t have to appear from a lake in a white shirt and breeches.”


A Surrey life

Interest in Austen’s fiction clearly remains unabated and although she’s chiefly associated with Hampshire, the county in which she’d been born in 1775, she did have both practical knowledge of and personal links with Surrey. In fact, the 17th century house in Chawton where she spent the last eight years of her life, which is now home to Jane Austen’s House Museum, is only 10 miles down the road from Farnham.

Her principal connection, however, was through her godfather, the Revd Samuel Cooke who was married to her mother’s cousin Cassandra and who was also, until 1820, the vicar of St Nicholas church in Great Bookham – a tablet in the chancel commemorates his tenure.

There was a family visit to this area in 1799 and, 15 years later, Austen went alone to stay with her cousins, continuing Emma whilst there, the book having been begun in January 1814 with the opening sentence: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’

She was, as Austen conceived her, a heroine ‘whom no one but myself will much like,’ but readers have disagreed and the novel is often considered her most perfectly crafted work.

Writing to sister Cassandra in early June 1814 from Chawton, Austen happily shares her travel invitation. ‘The only letter to-day is from Mrs. Cooke. They do not leave home till July, and want me to come to them, according to my promise. And I have resolved on going. My companions promote it.’

Referring to her brother, adopted by cousins and now a wealthy landowner, she continues, ‘I will not go, however, till after Edward is gone, that he may feel he has a somebody to give memorandums to, to the last. I must give up all help from his carriage, of course. And, at any rate, it must be such an excess of expense that I have quite made up my mind to it and do not mean to care.’

She would be met at Guildford she hoped and was clearly looking forward to the visit, merrily anticipating adventures. ‘In addition to their standing claims on me they admire Mansfield Park exceedingly. Mr Cooke says ‘it is the most sensible novel he ever read,’ and the manner in which I treat the clergy delights them very much. Altogether I must go, and I want you to join me there.’ Austen departed on June 24 and subsequently stayed for some weeks with her cousins at the Rectory in Great Bookham, a building that is sadly no longer standing today.


A mystery village

Austen’s knowledge of Surrey directly inspired the topography of Emma, her fourth novel and the last to appear –anonymously – in her lifetime, both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion being published posthumously.

The book revolves around the fictional village of Highbury, with places such as Leatherhead, Esher and Cobham all claimed as potential candidates for its inspiration, but Austen may well have been deliberately vague in specifying a location.

What is clear though is that the leafy countryside around Great Bookham provided the novel’s backdrop with an important scene that takes place during a picnic at nearby Box Hill, which offered stunning views of the North Downs. Picnicking had just become a fashionable pursuit in the early 19th century, its aesthetic appeal emerging in the wake of the Romantic movement.

‘They had a very fine day for Box Hill. Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment and every body had a burst of admiration on first arriving.’

Unfortunately for Emma, the day’s promise does not materialise, her unkind remarks to Miss Bates earning her a stern reproof from family friend Mr Knightley, something that finally awakens Emma to her faults and begins her journey towards redemption and romantic fulfilment.

Apart from Emma, Surrey also featured in other novels as Maureen Stiller, honorary secretary of the Jane Austen Society of the UK emphasises.

“As mentioned in Austen’s letters, many visits to friends or relatives took her through places like Croydon, Farnham, Guildford or Cobham where they would change horses or stay overnight,” she says. So it was clearly familiar territory that would inevitably find its way into her fiction.

“Epsom, of course, is notorious in Pride and Prejudice for having been the place where Lydia and Wickham changed horses on their elopement from Brighton and where they alighted from a hackney coach that had brought them from Clapham, then in Surrey.

“Austen also used Surrey in her unfinished novel The Watsons. She sets the action in a town known just as ‘D’ (presumably Dorking) and mentions the White Hart Inn there. In a revised version, the heroine’s brother practices law in Croydon where he lives with his wife and daughter and where they give genteel parties.”

When her niece Anna sought advice on fruitful subject-matter for a potential novel in late 1814, Austen (still in the midst of writing Emma) replied: “you are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them into exactly such a spot as is the delight of my life – 3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” This would indeed form the foundation of her own fiction, her instinctive grasp of human psychology and ironic wit cementing her reputation as one of our greatest novelists. 

A novel approach

It will be intriguing to see how PD James’ three-part mystery, “an unexpected and audacious period drama” as producer David Thompson describes it, will honour the spirit of Austen’s carefully delineated world, offering what he calls the tantalising prospect of a blend of “murder and Jane Austen, a delicious combination!”

Two hundred years on, it’s clear that Austen’s words continue to inspire and provoke just as much as they ever did.



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