Kent is a county in the south east of England. It reaches from the outskirts of London to the White Cliffs of Dover. West Kent is my husband, Hugh’s, land of origin, so it has become familiar territory to me too. I already knew that Jane Austen had family connections to the Sevenoaks area of West Kent; I have recently enjoyed the opportunity to explore these links on the ground. Join me in following in Jane’s footsteps during the summer of 1788 when she spent time in the town of Sevenoaks and the neighbouring village of Seal. Who did she meet and what might have been the lasting effects of her first visit to this part of England?
In July 1788, Jane Austen, age 12½, was introduced to her great uncle, the rich 90-year-old Francis Austen II who lived in Sevenoaks. She travelled there with her parents and sister, Cassandra. In Jane’s immediate family, Uncle Francis was held in esteem and gratitude as he had paid for her father, George Austen, to attend the nearby Tonbridge Grammar School and, later St John’s College, Oxford. Jane’s parents presumably thought their daughters should meet their father’s benefactor and Uncle Francis was happy to receive them at his residence, the Red House. Francis held a large family luncheon, which included the Walter family and probably his son, Francis Motley Austen, and grandchildren.
How might Jane have reacted to meeting her great uncle at his fine red brick town house, which is still prominently situated on the High Street of Sevenoaks. 
One of Francis’s aunts who visited the Red House in 1751 was very impressed. In her view, “the house and garden were very delightful; [my Nephew] shew’d me all the Offices where Brewing and Baking, Washing etc. [are done], Coach House, Grainery, where to dry Hopps etc. & lastly his Cellars, well stored with the best wines & other good liquor.”
Jane must have noticed that this property was a far cry from the humble rectory and its surrounds that she currently inhabited in rural Hampshire.
Uncle Francis had achieved personal, professional and material success. Presumably Jane knew that his late wife, Jane Austen née Chadwick (1758-1782), had been her godmother, and she had most likely heard family stories about his professional acumen. He had practised law at Clifford’s Inn, London and in Sevenoaks, served as a Clerk of the Peace for Kent, acted as parliamentary agent for the Lionel Sackville, first Duke of Dorset and as agent for the Duke’s huge estate, Knole, at Sevenoaks. Francis was also a rich landowner. As for his physical appearance, Ozias Humphry’s fine portrait, titled “Francis Austen Esq. of Sevenoaks” (1780) provides clues to how her great uncle would have appeared to Jane.
According to her brother, Henry, who saw the portrait on a visit to the Red House, about 1780, Francis was depicted wearing “a wig like a Bishop, & a suit of light grey, ditto coat, vest and hose … He retained a perfect identity of colour, texture and make to his life’s end.” Certainly, in the painting, Francis’s expression and style of dress are suggestive of authority accompanied by wealth.
It is likely that Jane’s encounter with her Uncle Francis in Sevenoaks made a lasting impression on her as she came to appreciate the diversity of her family’s past accomplishments, not to mention her uncle’s links with the aristocracy. Given Francis’s long term associations with the Dukes of Dorset, presumably Jane knew about the Sackville family’s reputation and great wealth. As the Red House was located close to Knole, she most likely had at least a glimpse of the grandeur of the huge mansion of 365 rooms, which is still surrounded by a magnificent Deer Park.
Jane Austen showed an early interest in the aristocratic world, whose members she delighted in satirizing in her juvenile writings. Perhaps it was observations made while in the home territory of the Sackville family that inspired her imagination when she wrote a short story for her brother Charles, titled “Sir William Mountague.” It was created only a month or so after the family’s visit to Sevenoaks  In it, Jane included details which seem to reflect the Sackville family and their property.
Her story begins by poking fun at the intricate patterns of inheritance among the aristocracy. She lists the convoluted line of descent within the Mountague family, where sons and a nephew sequentially lay claim to the family’s title, and other remoter ancestors are cited. Compare the relationships in the Sackville family of Knole: the first Duke of Dorset was succeeded by his eldest son, the second Duke by a son, the third Duke, by his nephew. Additionally, Austen’s young hero, Sir William Mountague, inherits “a handsome fortune, an ancient house and a Park well stocked with deer.” This description fits Knole remarkably well, as the estate had been the Sackville family seat since 1603, the mansion house dating from the mid 15th century and the 300-year-old deer park had medieval origins. As well, the fictional Mr Stanhope, who is shot by Sir William, bears the name of another aristocratic family associated with Sevenoaks, the Stanhopes of Chevening.
Deirdre Le Faye thinks that the George Austen family visit to Sevenoaks and area could have lasted from mid July to the end of the month. If so, there was time to appreciate not only the significance of Knole and its park but also a chance to explore an even earlier family connection with Sevenoaks. This entailed showing Jane the Sevenoaks Grammar School, which is located on the High Street near to the Red House. Founded in 1432 by William Sevenoke, a foundling and later Lord Mayor of London, the school had since its inception offered a comprehensive classical education. It is still in operation, now as a well regarded private school.
From 1708 onward Uncle Francis’s mother, the genteel Elizabeth Austen née Weller, had been the housekeeper for the Master of the Sevenoaks School and responsible for its resident pupils.
Her story was one of courage and determination. Left widowed at an early age, with five sons to educate and minimal resources after paying off the debts of her husband (John Austen IV), she had taken the post at the school with the understanding that her sons would be educated almost free of charge. In her view, she “could not do a better thing for my children’s good, their education being my greatest care, for I always tho’t that if they had learning they might ye better shift in ye world.” Here was a role model for a young girl like Jane Austen to take seriously. As Jane grew older, she displayed the focus, dedication and determination necessary for a writer. Elizabeth was a woman with a goal and the resolve to achieve it. Jane Austen resembled her ancestress in this characteristic.
While Jane was absorbing details of a new place and new people, someone else was observing her. Twenty-six-year-old Phylly Walter, daughter of William Walter, the half brother of Jane’s father, was at the family lunch at the Red House. She subsequently wrote to her brother on 23 July 1788: “The Youngest (Jane) is very like her brother Henry, not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve; but it is “hasty judgement which you will scold me for.” But after the George Austen party spent a day at the Walter home, the Grey House, in the nearby village of Seal, Phylly added that “Jane is whimsical and affected.”
This is the only description on record of Jane Austen just before her teenage years. What might be made of Phylly’s assessment? It appears there was little bonding between Jane and Phylly during their tine in each other’s company. This may have been because Phylly was particularly impressed by Cassandra (age 15½), who she declared was like herself in “features, complexion and manners,” and who “keeps up conversation in a very sensible and pleasing manner.” Jane, in Phylly’s view, simply did not pass muster. The serious minded Phylly may not have appreciated, or even understood her younger cousin’s range of remarks and sense of humour. In consequence, Jane is dubbed as “whimsical” and “affected.” There is no evidence that others in the family party shared Phylly’s opinion of Jane; it would be interesting to know what Jane thought of Phylly!
I have been fascinated to explore connections to Jane Austen in Sevenoaks and Seal. Her ancestors Elizabeth Weller Austen and Francis Austen II showed a determined sense of purpose in life, which Jane grew up to exhibit as well. Moreover, it is intriguing to consider what was happening in Jane’s life at the time she was beginning to write her first fiction. From her perspective, there had been plenty to see and think about during her visit to Sevenoaks. She had stayed in an elegant town house, the Red House; she had met a venerable and valuable family benefactor. It is highly likely that she was briefed about her courageous ancestress, Elizabeth Austen, and was also exposed to the history of the prestigious Sackville family and saw something of their impressive estate. The young Jane’s social behaviour apparently did not impress her older cousin Phylly Walter, but that opinion need not be considered definitive in the absence of other evidence. Jane Austen’s summer sojourn in Sevenoaks and Seal was full of interest for her and, in a different way, for us, her later readers.
 The Red House can be found at 50 High Street, Sevenoaks, looking much as it did in Jane Austen’s day. It was built in 1686 and owned by Francis Austen from 1743-1791. According to John Newman, in West Kent and the Weald, (Penguin, 1969), 515, it is “the finest house on the street… it represents the late 17th century ideal.”
 Quoted in Sevenoaks An Historical Dictionary, compiled and edited by David Killingray and Elizabeth Purves, (Phillimore, 2012), 151.
 According to Brian Southam, John Sackville, the Third Duke of Dorset, “valued Francis as highly as had his grandfather and relied on him for a host of official and personal services.” See Southam, “Old Francis Austen The Rich Lawyer of Sevenoaks,” Jane Austen Society Report, 2006, 38.
 Henry also recalled: “I think he (Francis) was born in Anne’s reign, and was of course a smart man of George the First’s. It is a sort of privilege to have seen and conversed with such a model of a hundred years since.” See Brian Southam, “Old Francis Austen,” 38. Perhaps Jane reflected on their great uncle similarly. Given her growing interest in history, (she would soon be writing a tongue in cheek piece “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1 st.”) to have met someone whose life had spanned so many decades and different reigns must have seemed impressive.
 Knole is now looked after by The National Trust.
 See Catherine and Other Writings, ed. Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray, (OUP. 1993), 38-39.
 Deirdre Le Faye thinks this dating is plausible. See A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family (CUP, 2006), 118.
 See Deirdre Le Faye, Chronology, 116.
 Quoted in “Elijah Fenton: The Man Who Employed Mrs Austen, by Claire Graham in Austentations, vol. 9, Spring 2009, 50.
 See Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen A Family Record, (Cambridge, 2004), 64.