When I worked in publishing one of the most rewarding aspects was that each new publication offered a chance of entering into a whole new field of knowledge or into another’s way of life – the firm I worked for, William Kimber, published memoirs, history and military titles (as well as ghost stories and some other fiction). While I was editing a book I often became a temporary ‘expert’ on the subject concerned.
Writing novels has offered me the same opportunities. Researching a subject for fiction brings great rewards, but is often frustrating because most of what one learns never reaches the printed page. But blogs offer the chance to share a little of that pleasure. My current Marsh & Daughter crime novel, Murder in Abbot’s Folly, although a contemporary novel has a puzzle about Jane Austen at its heart set in Kent where she often stayed, in particular with her brother Edward. There are several years ‘missing’ from her life story, as no letters have survived – probably due to their destruction by her family during the course of the nineteenth century. In these’ missing’ years she wrote several chapters of The Watsons, which she abandoned for reasons that are not known. It was also during this period that she received and accepted a proposal of marriage, which she promptly rejected the following day. Various other snippets are known through the memories of third parties but her own voice as expressed in letters cannot be heard. What a temptation for a novelist to consider what might have happened to her during that period.
I live reasonably close to the houses that Jane Austen knew best when she stayed in Kent, although it is also likely she knew the Sevenoaks area well. It was Godmersham Park (see the photo above) where she stayed most frequently however, since her brother Edward lived there with his family. His wife was Elizabeth Bridges, daughter of the family who owned Goodnestone, which Jane also knew well. Both houses are still to be seen, although neither is regularly open to the public. The Goodnestone gardens are, however, and Jane would have known their glories much as they are today. Turning off the Ashford to Canterbury road into the lane that leads to Godmersham Park is like stepping into one of her novels. Little has changed in the views that she would have seen. The lane passes the Saxon church of St Lawrence the Martyr, where Jane Austen would have worshipped, and then skirts the high red brick wall of the Godmersham estate. A public footpath past the entrance to the house’s grounds leads into the fields from which a good view can be obtained of the house itself. Inside the grounds there is a stone Temple, which would have been recently built when Jane Austen stayed at the house and where she must often have sat to admire the views (and perhaps scribble a line or two). Not far from Godmersham and perched on top of a hill is Chilham Castle, where Jane Austen enjoyed a ball in 1801 given by the Wildman family, and in the opposite direction she dined at Godinton House, a splendid Jacobean mansion (see the photo on the right), again with lovely gardens – and both house and garden are open to the public.
And then there’s Lenham, whose vicar Edward is said to have proposed to Jane Austen. It came to nothing of course – but in later years she famously spoke of his wife as ‘a poor Honey – the sort of woman who gives me the idea of being determined never to be well’. Lenham’s vicarage is now divided into flats, but it’s still easy to imagine what it must have been like when Jane Austen ‘baited’ in Lenham, according to her letter to her sister Cassandra.
Peel off the layers – and the eighteenth century isn’t so very far away.