Hampshire’s Literary Haunts
Craig Roberts explores an English County that was home to many of our most famous writers.
“Welcome to Jane Austen Country” announce the county boundary road-signs, informing visitors to the county that Hampshire has proved a creative environment for this and many other of history’s great writers over the centuries. Some were drawn here because of its beautiful countryside while others were actually born here.
Jane Austen in particular, spent most of her life in the county that was so dear to her and it gave her great inspiration to write some of her most famous novels. She was born on December 16th 1775 in the village of Steventon nr Basingstoke where her father was the local vicar and the family lived in the rectory. From here she wrote some of her most famous novels including, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The house was demolished soon after Jane’s death in 1828, but you can still see iron railings around an old iron pump that replaced the original wooden one that had served the house.
The church at Steventon where Jane worshiped, does still exist though. Dating from the 12th Century, there is a bronze plaque inside the church commemorating Jane. There is even a weather vane on top of the church in the form of quill pen in her memory.
Jane and her older sister Cassandra enjoyed a very full social life whilst living at Steventon, attending dances at The Vyne at Sherborne St John now owned by the National Trust, as well as the former Assembly Rooms in Basingstoke Market Place. A plaque commemorates Jane on the wall of Barclays Bank, which now stands in its place.
Jane spent her first 25 years at Steventon and after a brief period in Bath returned to Hampshire to Castle Square in Southampton to live with her brother Frank. Soon after Frank received his captaincy of H.M.S. St Albans, Jane and her family moved to the village of Chawton to a cottage owned by her brother Edward.
She resumed her writing here and completed six of her most famous novels, all of them always published anonymously. The house is now open to the public as a museum. The nearby church of St. Nicholas is where Jane’s mother and sister Cassandra are buried.
Jane had just started her new novel Sanditon, when she was forced to give it up, as she had become desperately ill and subsequently it was never finished. She moved to a house in College Street in Winchester to be near her physician. Sadly, she died soon after from Addisons disease aged just 41. She is now buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral.
Charles Dickens, the author famous for his books David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His birthplace opened in 1903 as a museum, at 393 Old Commercial Road and is restored and furnished in its original 19th Century style and contains personal relics and first editions of his novels. He was baptized nearby at St. Mary’s church at Fratton, which is one of Portsmouth’s largest and most beautiful churches.
His father worked in the dockyards and is said to be the inspiration for the character Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. Increasing debts caused his family to move house twice to smaller properties in Portsmouth, both sadly destroyed in the Second World War.
Dickens mentions Hampshire in his novel Nicholas Nickleby where he describes a wayside inn where Nicholas and Smike join the theatrical company of Mr Crummers. This building can still be seen at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park close to the A3.
The other writer born a Hampshire Hog is Gilbert White, the naturalist, who wrote The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Born at the old rectory in Selborne in 1720, he moved onto Surrey and Sussex with his family before returning to Selborne aged nine to live at the Wakes. After once again leaving the village to study at Oxford he returned to Selborne in 1755 where he spent the rest of his life. He eventually became curate of the village, although only near the end of his life and after serving other parishes through the years.
His famous book was based on 17 years of watching birds, wildlife and plants in his garden and around the village and the letters of correspondence detailing them. White died in 1793 and the house is now a museum furnished in 18th century style and has displays of his studies as well as the original manuscript to his famous book.
White himself is buried in the church of St. Mary opposite the house, the simple grave marked by a stone featuring just his initials and date of his death. There are also two stained-glass windows in his memory.
William Cobbett wrote about Hampshire in ‘Rural Rides’, and lived in Botley from 1805-1817. He was a farmer and journalist and described Botley as “the most delightful village in the world. It has everything in a village that I love and none of the things that I hate”.
He visited the River Test and Avington during his writing and also stayed at Rookery Farm at Hurstbourne Tarrant, referring to it by its old name of Uphuband. His writing celebrated the county as well as deploring the changes that he saw. A memorial stone in the Botley Market Square commemorates him.
The writer behind the Sherlock Holmes books, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a doctor by profession who set up his practise at Elm Grove in Southsea and wrote the first famous detective story ‘A Study In Scarlet’, whilst living there.
As well as detective stories Doyle also wrote other historical novels that featured Hampshire. These included ‘Copper Beeches’ which mention Winchester and ‘The White Company’ which is set in the New Forest where Doyle had a second home.
Doyle died at Crowborough in 1930, but was reburied in 1955 at Minstead church in the New Forest, a village that he dearly loved.
Charles Kingsley is best known for his book ‘The Water Babies’. Born in 1819 he was the vicar of Eversley for 30 years and founded the village school, which is named after him. The school gates feature a chimney sweep in their design, which was a character from the book. He also stayed in nearby Alresford and Itchen Abbas whilst writing the book and is now buried under a large white cross with his wife in St. Mary’s churchyard.
Chimney sweep on the gates of Eversley School
‘The Compleat Angler’ is the classic work on angling by Izaac Walton, which he wrote whilst living with his future son-in-law, William Hawkins at Droxford. William was rector at the church and a plaque in the church commemorates him. He had moved into The Close at Winchester when he died in 1683, where he was living with his daughter and now son-in-law William. He is buried in the Cathedral and above his tomb is a memorial window with the legend ‘Study To Be Quiet’ which was one of his favourite quotes.
The village of Steep, nr Petersfield, is synonymous with Edward Thomas. Born in 1878 he is most famous for his poems. He grew up in South London and moved to Steep with his wife in 1907. His wife was also a writer and her book ‘As it Was - World without End’ describes life in the village and many of the people living there.
Several of his poems refer to the landscape on the nearby Shoulder of Mutton Hill where there is now a memorial stone on the hillside. He was killed in the First World War and there are now two commemorative windows in Steep Church installed in 1978 to celebrate the centenary of his birth.
Other notable literary figures with Hampshire links include William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote Vanity Fair that featured a fictitious Hampshire country estate, who also stayed at The Dolphin Hotel in Southampton, the same hotel that Jane Austen attended dances at.
Then there was Edward Gibbon the historian who wrote ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. He lived at Buriton at the Manor House in his early years and is buried in the village churchyard.
Charlotte M. Yonge was a prolific Victorian writer who lived in Otterbourne nr Winchester and wrote ‘Heir of Redcliffe’ amongst 160 others. Her stories were set in the Hampshire countryside around Winchester and Otterbourne. She was also a publicist for the poet John Keble, a great friend and influence on Yonge and both are now buried in St Matthew’s church in Otterbourne. There is also an ornamental screen for Charlotte in the Lady Chapel in Winchester Cathedral.
One famous writer still living in the county is Richard Adams. He made famous the countryside around Kingsclere with his book Watership Down that was later made into an animated film.
Hampshire will no doubt inspire many future writers with its beauty and tranquillity and they too will be synonymous with Hampshire in literary history.
All images and text copyright © Craig Roberts 2001