Report by Sarah Noon
What a great way to end the year! Our meeting on 16th December 2021 was all about celebrating Jane Austen, on what would have been her birthday (she was born on 16th December 1775).
The first part of the evening (after a very successful book fair) was a talk given by Dr Cheryl Butler, entitled “Jane Austen and Southampton Spa.” A little-known fact about Southampton is that it was a Spa Town between 1750 and 1940. During this time Austen visited Southampton, in fact living there on three separate occasions.
Dr Butler has a keen interest in discovering how Southampton inspired Austen and finding evidence of this within her novels. Her first port of call was Northanger Abbey. Originally titled “Susan”, Austen wrote this gothic novel after a stay at Southampton Spa. Dr Butler tells us that whilst the manuscript was at the publishers, Austen asked for it back, wanting to further work on it following her time in Southampton Spa (in the novel, Southampton’s Dolphin Hotel and other landmarks are mentioned).
Dr Butler discusses how the description of the gothic Northanger Abbey itself is heavily influenced by nearby Netley Abbey. There were many cultural references to Netley Abbey at this time including paintings from Constable and Turner as well as poems and music inspired by the ruins. In 1806, when the Gothic movement was at its height, Austen moved back to Southampton, living opposite Southampton Castle – another Gothic building. Dr Butler explains that it is around this time that “Susan” is rewritten by Austen and renamed Northanger Abbey.
Dr Butler’s talk gave us a fascinating insight into Jane Austen’s links to Hampshire and Southampton in particular, and her research culminates in her book “Jane Austen & Southampton Spa.”
The second part of the evening was an intimate and captivating performance given by actress Rowan Suart entitled “Austen Sisters” in which Rowan performed letters written between Jane Austen and her younger sister, Cassandra. The recital also featured extracts from Austen’s early writings (“Juvenilia”) as well as poems and excerpts from her novels (in particular, Persuasion).
Suart began by explaining that Austen had six brothers in addition to her sister, and that she had a particularly close bond with Cassandra. As a result, Suart explains, Austen knew about sisterhood, and this is frequently reflected in her novels where she constantly explores this relationship – perhaps none more so than the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice.
Rowan’s commanding performance enabled the audience to make an emotional connection to Austen, further understanding the person behind the novels – someone about whom we know relatively little with regards to her personal life.