By Damon Young
It is a May morning in East Hampshire， 1811. Jane Austens Orleans plums are budding. From her letters and relatives recollections， I have an imagined portrait of the author， sitting in her favorite spot： near the front door of the cottage， at a small， twelve-sided walnut table， writing on tiny sheets of paper. At the creak of the front door， the pages are tucked away. On this day， her family gives her seclusion1， if not quiet. Page after page is filled with her tiny writing： dip， hover， scribble， cross out， scratch and dip. She works quickly， because she has little free time， and concentrates intensely because she has no quiet study of her own. Every so often， she puts down her quill， and conjures up a vision： Fanny Price trembling for the rake Henry Crawford， or stewing over the wickedness of theatre.2 Then she picks up the pen， and starts again. Eventually the sounds of cooking， cleaning and talk are too much. The plots and subplots of her novel chafe3. The clanking pots and servants chatter are jarring， and her eyes hurt. Enough. Austen puts her pen in the inkwell， and walks out into Chawton Cottage garden.
I am pretty well in health and work a good deal in the Garden. Jane Austen， letter to Anna Austen， July 1814我身體尚好，大把时光都打发在花园里了。—— 简·奥斯汀，1814年7月，致安娜·奥斯汀信
Let us have the luxury of silence. Edmund Bertram， in Jane Austens Mansfield Park让我们享受沉默的奢侈。—— 埃德蒙·伯特伦，记于简·奥斯汀的曼斯菲尔德庄园
It is an instant break from the cramped dining parlour. The air is fresher， the light brighter. There is room to move. As her letters record， Austen notices the mock oranges bold white petals and thick， sweet scent. The peony， a recent migrant from Asia， has blossomed again. And what Austen does not see， she anticipates： pinks， sweet williams， columbines and fat plums. She walks slowly， looks carefully， breathes deeply. But not for too long—Austen has the usual chores and errands for the afternoon， and her unfinished manuscript goads4 her from the parlour. But by the time she returns indoors， with her characteristic businesslike step， the garden has already done her good. Jane Austen returns to her tiny workbench refreshed—not by books or gossip （both in good supply）， but by a short holiday amidst Chawtons fruit trees， clipped turf and exotic imports.
With these working habits， Jane Austen wrote her last three novels in about four years—three of the most beloved books in English literature： Mansfield Park， Emma and Persuasion. Despite sickness， domestic duties and the bittersweet ties of family， Austen kept scratching away on her tiny table， creating her incomparable characters.
Jane Austen was not always so prolific. Without a garden， her writing suffered. In December 1800， the very month of her twenty-fifth birthday， Austen basically stopped writing for a decade. She penned letters， of course—perhaps thousands， even if we only have a handful now. Nevertheless， her novels were left mostly untouched. She sold Lady Susan to a shortsighted publisher， who shelved it （holding it for 10 ransom5）. She tried writing a new novel， The Watsons， but its gloomy， embittered story went nowhere. From 1800 to 1809， Austens books disappear from the public and private record. The woman whom literary critic FR Leavies called “the first modern novelist” was barely writing at all.
Behind Janes silence was a four-letter word： Bath. In December 1800， her ageing parents announced their retirement： Mr and Mrs Reverend George Austen， and their unmarried daughters Cassandra and Jane， were moving to Bath， on the west coast. Once a Roman resort， and then an English one， Georgian Bath was a brand-new， fashionable holiday destination and health spa. Aristocrats and the rich took vacations there， immersing themselves in the sea， the hot springs and the Pump Room gossip. Architecturally and archaeologically， the city was exciting. Roman ruins and artefacts stood alongside grand new hotels and shops， chiselled6 from Bath stone. And Baths urban amenities were balanced by the charm of the local countryside， where a pleasant stroll was never far away—including Prior Park， with its grotto， Palladian bridge and wilderness. “Bath is the finest place on earth”， wrote Dr Johnsons biographer， the often-pickled whore-hound James Boswell， “for you may enjoy its society and its walks without effort or fatigue”. For many， Bath was a vibrant， beautiful city， which offered all the modern comforts and amusements， without Londons grime and sprawl.7
Jane Austen may have enjoyed Bath as a visitor. But as a resident， she hated it. Even in sunshine she thought it ugly. “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations”， she wrote to her sister in her first year in the new town. “I think I see more distinctly through rain”. She didnt like its ceaseless balls and parties， its flirtatious mood or its stone （“white glare”， she dubbed it in Persuasion）.
Even if Bath had been virtuous and quiet， it was sorely missing one thing： It wasnt her town in rural Hampshire， with her private garden. It wasnt Steventon， where she was born and raised， and where she wrote her first three novels. Apart from two brief， painful exiles for schooling， Austen had lived： for a quarter of a century—her whole life， in other words—in Steventon. A small village surrounded by agricultural land， Steventon was home to perhaps thirty families， alongside the requisite corps of chickens，8 cows， horses， sheep and pigs. Janes father， George， was the parson， and schoolteacher to many of the local boys （including five of Janes brothers）. If she was excited by the “bustle” of a journey west， and the promise of seaside living， Austen still felt a loss.
Country Hampshire wasnt Arcadia9： it could be freezing， lonely and dull. No doubt the villages size and isolation occasionally stifled Austens expansive imagination. Before she left， she wrote to Cassandra， suggesting that her village had grown tiresome to her. But this reads like irony or bravado， not genuine complaint. Steventon was her home， and her archetype of civilized， genteel10 life. Its intimacy， airiness and domestic rhythms were crucial to her wellbeing. “The same household routines and daily walks in the garden… the same sounds and silences”， writes her biographer Claire Tomalin， “all these samenesses made a secure environment in which her imagination could work”.
So part of Jane Austens silence was undoubtedly shock： the sudden， unavoidable removal of her security. She was accustomed to change： travelling， lifes unexpected grief and her parents economic uncertainty， which she handled with her trademark stoicism11. But Steventon was one tangible， familiar constant—the promise of home， after so many trips away. The landscape， neighbors， weather； the familiar walks， visits and conversations； the intricate knot of identity that entangles a place—nothing in polite， modern Bath could measure up to this. The Austens new terrace12 house was large， comfortable and located away from the citys thumping heart. But it wasnt Hampshires agrarian parsonage， and there was no familiar garden to escape to.
While she kept busy with travelling， socialising， bathing or the duties of “Aunt Jane”， Austen lost her voice in Bath—she left it in Steventon， soon occupied by her eldest brother， James， and his second wife， Mary （whom Jane disliked）. Her letters， once lively， portray Austen as deflated， if not depressed.
With the return of a private garden came Austens familiar energy and productivity. In 1806， she moved with her widowed mother and sister to a new home， Castle Square， in Southampton on the Hampshire coast. Alongside snark and trivia， some of Janes later letters gleam with enthusiasm for the landscape. She was back on home turf—still maudlin and grumpy，13 but closer to familiar ground.
In February of the next year， she wrote Cassandra a long epistle14， which she hoped was interesting. “I flatter myself I have constructed you a smartish letter”， wrote Austen in her closing lines，“considering my want of materials， but， like my dear Dr Johnson， I believe I have dealt more in notions than facts”. For most of the letter， of course， she grumbled. She complained that Cassandra was so long returning to Southampton. She noted that other folk were having babies and taking lovers—not her. She carped15 about sole （or its absence at the markets）. And she lamented the loss of shyness in England， replaced by confidence. Theres a Pythonesque16 tone to Austens letters—as if she were about to burst out with： “You had fish？ Luxury. We had to salt some coal and call it cod”.
But amidst the groaning and bitching is a lovely passage. There is a quiet exuberance， missing in so many of her Bath letters； a playfulness， untinged with cynicism or coolness， suggesting a genuine change of mood. It describes the garden at Castle Square， and its an arresting17 glimpse into Jane Austens inner life. Its worth quoting the “authoress” （as she called herself） at length：
Our garden is putting in order by a man who bears a remarkably good character， has a very fine complexion， and asks something less than the first. The shrubs which border the gravel walk， he says， are only sweetbriar and roses， and the latter of an indifferent sort； we mean to get a few of a better kind， therefore， and at my own particular desire he procures us some syringas. I could not do without a syringa， for the sake of Cowpers18 line. We talk also of a laburnum. The border under the terrace wall is clearing away to receive currants and gooseberry bushes， and a spot is found very proper for raspberries.
This tone of easy delight returned in later letters， once Jane was living in her final home， Chawton Cottage， and working on her last novels. Before settling in the house （which Jane hadnt yet seen）， she wrote to her brother about the grounds.“What sort of kitchen garden is there？” she asked， combining domestic economy with private interest. There was also talk of having the turf “cropped” before they moved in. In late spring 1811， once settled， Austen wrote to Cassandra in Kent， giving her a portrait of Hampshire life. Alongside newborns， illnesses， controversial marriages and the weather， she sketched the changes she saw in the garden. The flowers were blooming nicely， but Cassandras mignonette from Kent had “a wretched appearance” （Jane frequently made comparisons with her sister—partly because she missed her and perhaps partly out of pride in her own green thumb）.19 The plums were on their way， and Cowpers syringas—obviously planted in Chawton as well as Southampton—were ready to blossom. Austen offers an attractive picture of an English cottage garden in spring. “Our young peony at the foot of the fir-tree has just blown and looks very handsome”， she wrote， “and the whole of the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with pinks and sweet williams， in addition to the columbines already in bloom”. Then Austen returns to family journeys， health， the spring storms.
Three years later， staying in her brother Henrys London home， Austen was again struck by the gardens. In 1813， Hans Place was in a rural suburb of London， though hardly provincial—large houses， a good school， and fashionable gardens， all within walking distance of London city （Jane strolled there to do her shopping）. Henry Austen s abode20 wasnt a palace with a large estate， but it was generous （at the time he was a well-to-do banker）. His sister commended the houses span and coziness， and then said simply： “the Garden is quite a Love”.