Bath, Thursday 7th May 1815 My dearest Cassandra. How may I convey to you the calamity that overtook me after my letter to you on Tuesday? As I related, Frances and I arrived at Bath and installed ourselves comfortably in our lodgings. Imagine, though, my alarm when, on Tuesday evening, we paid our first visit to the Assembly Rooms and discovered a great throng of people, all talking about books. It appears the spa of Bath has instituted a literary festival and it was our misfortune to arrive on its first day. My immediate thought was to retreat and to take the earliest coach to Weston super Mare. But too late! We had been spotted by Lady Chichester, whom you may remember we met at a luncheon in March where she entertained the party with her Historical Conundrums. Lady Chichester greeted me most warmly, indeed as if she could scarcely believe her luck. Pity me, dear sister, as Lady Chichester paraded me around with the air of a sportsman who has bagged a particularly plump partridge. Worse followed as she pressed me to return to the Assembly Rooms the following day, when a select group would be discussing the topic: “Addiction or Education? The Dark Power of Historical Romance.” She suggested that I bring some copies of my latest novel as these would be eagerly purchased by those present, particularly when signed. She made the suggestion as if it were an irresistible lure, guaranteeing my attendance at this repellent event. Did she imagine that I carry copies of Emma around with me to press upon strangers? So, dear sister, I found myself yesterday in the Chinese Salon, facing an attentive audience. I confessed that I had not prepared a discourse on Historical Romance but would be content to listen to their contributions and offer any pertinent thoughts of my own (not that I had any in my head). Whether the discussion was interesting I cannot say, as I found myself distracted by a pretty silk hanging depicting two peacocks in a tree and had embarked mentally on a design whereby we could reproduce this pattern in crewel-work as a cover for the piano stool. However, it seemed to me that all the speakers mentioned at least one of my books in their addresses, which was a wonder as I have never written an Historical Romance in my life, and most of them had found clever and convoluted contrivances in my novels, such as were certainly not placed there by me. Afterwards I rejoined Frances in the tea garden, but I had taken only one bite of my Bath bun when two gentlemen approached. I recognised them as adherents of Historical Romance. One, a middle-aged, plump fellow with a large, shiny forehead, introduced himself as Mr Joseph Kimpton, President of the Harpenden Literary Circle. ‘I have the honour, Miss Austen, of hailing from the county made famous in your most accomplished work,’ he announced. ‘Ah, Mansfield Park – you come from Northamptonshire?’ I said. He was confused at this. ‘No indeed, Miss Austen. Hertfordshire. God’s own county and the setting of the sublime Pride and Prejudice.’ At this the other gentleman, an older man, tall and stooped, spoke up: ‘As am I, Miss Austen. Andrew Lea Esquire, Secretary of the Hertford Mathematical, Scientific and Literary Society, at your service.’ I expressed my pleasure at meeting both gentlemen. ‘Harpenden,’ repeated Mr Kimpton. ‘A town close to your heart Miss Austen.’ It was my turn to be confused. ‘Really sir?’ I said. ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Oh come Miss Austen. It is a thinly disguised secret that Harpenden is the model for Meryton. I understand that you came to know the town when you visited Hertfordshire as a guest of your father’s cousin in your younger years. It makes the heart of every cultivated person in Harpenden – and there are many such – to think that our town inspired such a triumph of literature.’ Mr Lea broke in. ‘Forgive my friend, Miss Austen. He has for years laboured under the misapprehension that his obscure outpost of the county is Meryton, when it is clear that you naturally took the important shire seat of Hertford as your model.’ I could think of nothing to say, but this mattered not as the gentlemen themselves continued at length. Mr Kimpton turned to me. ‘Miss Austen, you have cleverly disguised your locations, but there can be no concealment from those of us familiar with the territory. I myself live not far from the charming village of Redbourn, a name which you transmuted into Longbourn, where the Bennets live and which is as far outside Meryton as Redbourn is outside Harpenden. No doubt your time there left you with many pleasant memories.’ He smiled at me and, Cassandra, I could swear he winked! ‘Hertford too has many outlying villages at a walkable distance,’ said Mr Lea. ‘I might mention Hertingfordbury. The town itself has all the attributes of Meryton, including our magnificent Shire Hall, venue for many a ball, as depicted in that delightful novel. ‘Furthermore, Hertford has the clear model for Mr Bingley’s residence, Netherfield, in the shape of Balls Park – one of the most elegant and imposing houses in the county, the like of which Harpenden has nothing to offer.’ ‘Harpenden is plentifully supplied with elegant homes,’ exclaimed Mr Kimpton, who was becoming rather pink in the face. ‘I will not trouble to name them now, but we are known for the architectural grace of our high street. We are not some muddy market town where you must elbow your way past cattle and bales of malt and the stench of the brewery hangs like a miasma in the air!’ Mr Lea was not deterred. ‘I would remind you, sir, that in chapter 27, Elizabeth Bennet travels 24 miles from Longbourn to the Gardiners’ house in Gracechurch Street. Hertford lies 24 miles from Gracechurch Street.’ ‘Have you measured it?’ enquired the other, sourly. ‘Indeed. The Mathematical, Scientific and Literary Society made an expedition to the City of London last year to accomplish the task.’ ‘I do not believe it can be exactly 24 miles,’ scoffed Mr Kimpton. ‘Furthermore,’ added Mr Lea. ‘You have no military presence at Harpenden, so pivotal to the plot of the novel. Hertford is the county town and we regularly have a militia stationed there.’ ‘And the morals of the place are much the worse for it,’ said Mr Kimpton. ‘You will take that back sir!’ said Mr Lea. ‘It is common knowledge.’ ‘You are insulting the birthplace of Pride and Prejudice!’ ‘Birthplace my ar… foot. Miss Austen did not go near Hertford.’ ‘She was never in Harpenden in her life. And neither was any other person of note.’ ‘How dare you sir? We have many eminent residents.’ ‘Name one’. ‘You would not know them.’ ‘Harpenden is a puffed-up village of little regard which has no place on the map of English literature.’ ‘Hertford is a smelly excuse for a county town, where no right thinking person would set a civilised novel.’ ‘Snob!’ ‘Deluded fool!’ ‘Liar!’ This last accusation of Mr Lea’s was followed by a painful silence. Frances and I held our breath. Mr Kimpton spoke, with a chilly edge to his voice. ‘You have said enough sir. The honour of the Harpenden Literary Circle is at stake. I demand satisfaction.’ Mr Lea was equally cold. ‘You shall have it sir. Let no one accuse the Hertford Mathematical, Scientific and Literary Society of cowardice. Dawn tomorrow in the Parade Gardens?’ ‘I shall be there.’ With that, the two gentlemen bowed stiffly and left by separate exits. You can imagine, dear sister…
Jane Austen laid down her pen and flexed her wrist. The pomposity of the rivals had been amusing, yet their dispute lifted the sluice gates on a flood of memories, which had troubled her as she lay down to sleep last night. Her younger years… She had indeed been only 17 when she travelled from Hampshire to Hertfordshire to visit the Greens, relatives on her father’s side. Mr Green was a pleasant enough man of few words, who had married a woman a great deal younger, and more lively, than himself. When Jane arrived at their house, the largest in a village somewhere in the vicinity of Hertford (what was its name? It began with a B… or was it a W…?) it was clear that Eleanor Green’s two small children, newly delivered piano and pile of recently read novels were not enough to satisfy her questing mind. ‘I am so glad you are here, Jane,’ said Eleanor on the third day of the visit. ‘What is the point of reading if you have no-one with whom to discuss the merits of the book afterwards? I have tried to interest Mr Green in novels by reading to him when we go to bed but it merely sends him to sleep sooner.’ Jane agreed and remarked that she was fortunate in having her sister Cassandra, with whom she could share almost all her thoughts. ‘Ah, you will miss each other’s company when you are both married,’ Eleanor said, with a melancholy note in her voice. But she brightened in the next moment. ‘My dear Jane. I have an idea which may please and surprise you. It will surprise but perhaps not please my husband, so we will not speak of it with him, except in the vaguest terms.’ The prospect of a secret female plan was deliciously exciting, even though Jane had no clue as to what Mrs Green proposed. The next morning at breakfast, Eleanor spoke confidently to her husband. ‘We will need the carriage this morning my dear. Jane and I are to pay a visit to Essendon Place.’ Mr Green smiled benignly. ‘Certainly. How nice it will be for Jane to meet the cream of our local society.’ Jane was somewhat disappointed that the plan was being put into effect with so little subterfuge. ‘I knew it would be easy,’ whispered Eleanor as they went upstairs to change. ‘Mr Green has no idea who lives at Essendon Place but of course it sounds respectable. Now, which is the prettiest dress you have?’ The road to Essendon took them through dense woods. Shafts of sunlight struck the twisted forms of coppiced hornbeams, and branches met so closely above the sunken lane, that Jane felt she was entering a tunnel leading deep underground. ‘What time are we expected?’ she asked. ‘Oh, the time will not matter,’ said Eleanor. ‘The invitation is always open.’ They turned down a long drive. Now Jane could see the house: pleasingly symmetrical with a Grecian portico, it promised refinement and culture, while a peacock on the lawn touched the scene with opulence. A butler took their cloaks and told them that Lady Bathsheba was in the pink salon. While Jane followed her friend along the corridor it occurred to her that this information was of little use, as every room they passed was pink. The house was bigger inside than she had expected and they tripped along carpets as soft as moss. Pervasive whispers and giggles and tinkling music came from all sides. They paused outside the salon. ‘Are you ready to meet Lady Bathsheba?’ Eleanor asked. ‘Yes, but who is she?’ said Jane. ‘My dear, she is the most famous female novelist in England!’ A female novelist! Could there be such a thing, in Hertfordshire, so far from the slums of Bloomsbury? Could she be introduced to one? Jane blushed at the thrilling impropriety. Eleanor pushed open the door. They were in a large sunlit room, with tall windows giving on to the lawns. Although it was a warm summer’s day, a fire burned in the hearth, breathing an incense-like perfume. Lady Bathsheba was reclining on a couch, cuddling two lapdogs. She wore a voluminous white robe, trimmed with a river’s worth of swansdown, over her gown of rose silk. Her button nose and large eyes gave her a girlish look from a distance, but close up, Jane found that the apple cheeks, rosebud mouth and black lashes were so emphatic that they might have been painted on, were it conceivable that any lady would do such a thing. Kneeling at Lady Bathsheba’s feet was a slim young man holding a pen and sheaf of paper. As they approached he got up in one lithe movement, bowed and stepped back. Jane felt an unaccountable urge to blush again. He was very handsome. ‘Mrs Green, how delightful,’ pronounced Lady Bathsheba, sitting up with a struggle and extending a hand on which two enormous diamond rings jostled for space. ‘One of my most avid readers. And is this a young initiate?’ ‘Miss Jane Austen, a second cousin of my husband, from Hampshire. I hope we are not interrupting your work?’ Lady Bathsheba gave a wheezy sigh. ‘No my dear. We have reached a little hiatus. Most unlike me. I generally count on writing twenty pages after lunch and I am stuck today at seventeen. ‘Perhaps your arrival might be of use. Sometimes the presence of a listener gives me inspiration. Antoine – let us have the last page.’ The handsome young man came forward and began to read from one of his sheets of paper: ‘The ballroom swam around Eloise as she danced with a succession of eager swains. After the last quadrille, she repaired to the refreshments table for a cooling drink. Her blonde ringlets stuck to her temples and her white bosom heaved as she gulped in the cooling night breeze from the open casement…’ ‘Too many coolings..’ interjected Lady Bathsheba. ‘…sweet night breeze from the open casement. So many eligible men! Why did she feel so dissatisfied in their company? Why was she cursed with this yearning for something more? ‘Then, she saw him, framed in the doorway. He looked through the crowd, straight into her eyes. Eloise blushed prettily and lowered her face. ‘She soon realised that the new arrival had drawn the attention of the whole room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien and enormous inheritance. Her friend Carlotta was beside her at the refreshments. ‘Who is that man?’ Eloise asked, a virginal tremble in her voice. ‘Oh that is Sir Duncombe Dingley,’ answered her friend. ‘Owner of one of the largest estates in England. He has a handsome face but looks can deceive. You would not think from his elegant person that he had such a lamentable flaw as…’ Here Antoine stopped reading. ‘As what?’ mused Lady Bathsheba. ‘What flaw can he have? My last hero was a gambler saved from squandering his fortune by the pure love of a beautiful girl. The hero before that was over-fond of duelling and had a sabre scar which added to his rugged virility. ‘What vice could this hero have? Avarice? Not really. Gluttony? Certainly not.’ ‘Vanity?’ suggested Mrs Green. ‘I did that in my sixteenth novel, The Looking Glass of Love …’ ‘Pride?’ offered Jane. ‘Hmph. Pride. No I think I prefer vanity. After all, The Looking Glass of Love was 39 novels ago… Antoine!’ The young man took up position again at her feet, pen poised. ‘Thank you ladies. Please do stay, join the others,’ murmured Lady Bathsheba. ‘Such a lamentable flaw as vanity…’ ‘What artistry,’ whispered Eleanor reverentially. ‘Who is that young man?’ ‘He is an amanuensis. Imagine! She is always surrounded by devoted helpers.’ Jane looked around the room. There were several young men and women, some reading together, some talking and laughing. All seemed to be more lightly dressed than was customary, though it was very warm in the room. Jane felt an urge swell within her to cast off her pelisse and join them… In the carriage home, Eleanor was full of excitement. ‘Just think Jane – you have met the famous Lady Bathsheba de Cartelande. Won’t that be delightful news to tell your sister?’ ‘I do not think my family would approve of my consorting with novelists,’ said Jane. ‘Neither would Mr Green. But oh, how I long to write novels myself! I am certain I could do it very well, if only I could think of what to write. I cannot wait to go again to Essendon.’ Jane felt envious. Why could she not live in such a fortunate place as Hertford? Soon she would return to Hampshire and be forever shut out of the world of novels. The world of novels… But perhaps it would not be beneficial always to live in that world. She suddenly saw that the young girl whose head was turned by novels might herself be the subject of a novel. A few words swimming in her mind began to form themselves into sentences. To be frank, she did not care for Lady Bathsheba’s style. If she were writing… Jane’s thoughts ran on as the carriage rolled home.
At her desk in Bath, Jane leaned back in her chair. She felt tired, having been woken soon after dawn that morning by what sounded like a pistol shot. An ensuing clamour from the gardens below had prevented her from getting back to sleep and she had been afflicted with a headache since breakfast. It surprised her that people fancied she had based the town of Meryton on a particular place. She tried to remember what Hertford looked like, but she had no recollection of it, nor of Hatfield, nor Ware, nor Harpenden, nor the other towns she must have visited. Yet the memory of the excursion all those years ago had stayed with her: the green tunnel through the woods, the perfumed smoke from the fires, the glimpse of a young man’s bare chest through the thin cambric of his shirt as she gazed with him through the windows of Essendon Place and they talked of books while the peacock’s swaying tail swept the lawn. But it was a long time ago and tomorrow she would be going back to Hampshire, where she belonged.
Note: Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is set in Hertfordshire. Unfortunately, there is so little description in the book of the locations that it is hard to tell if Jane Austen was writing with first-hand knowledge of the county. However, she did have relatives in Hertfordshire and she is precise about some geographical details, such as the distance of the fictional Meryton from London and the route of the Great North Road. There is much debate among scholars and Austen aficionados as to the identity of the ‘real’ Meryton, Longbourn and Netherfield. Hertford has often been taken to be Meryton, in which case Hertingfordbury would be a good fit for Longbourn, but claims have been made for other towns, including Harpenden. Some well-researched arguments can be found at Julie Wakefield’s blog www.austenonly.com (see 8 February 2013) and at www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number27/smith.pdf