Jane Austen's Return to West Kent, 1813

Introduction: Regular readers of my blogs may wonder why a webpage titled Jane Austen’s Naval World includes posts about Jane Austen in distinctly landlocked places, such as Sevenoaks and Seal in Kent, England (see 31 May 2019). There is an explanation. I have been in the UK for the last 10 weeks, living in a part of West Kent that was known to Jane. Being on location during a lovely British summer has got me thinking about what some of the local places meant to Jane Austen. Today’s post, with accompanying photos, is about Jane’s weekend in the attractive village of Wrotham situated eight miles from Sevenoaks, Kent and twenty-seven miles south east of London.

It was mid November 1813. Jane had been at Godmersham for several months, enjoying the luxury of her brother Edward’s estate. He offered to take her back to Chawton, by way of Wrotham, where his sister-in-law, Harriot Moore, née Bridges, lived with her husband, George, the rector of St George’s church. Thus, on Saturday, 13 November, the Knight carriage, with passengers Jane, her niece Fanny, and Edward, proceeded up the long driveway to be warmly received at Court Lodge, the Moore’s spacious and elegant rectory. For the next three days, Jane enjoyed Harriot’s company,[1] admired her handsome home and had a chance to become better acquainted with George Moore.[2]

Fig.1: George Moore, Rector of St George’s Church, Wrotham, Kent

Fig.1: George Moore, Rector of St George’s Church, Wrotham, Kent

Margaret Wilson, in her article titled “The Rev. George Moore,” notes that “the character of Dr Grant in Mansfield Park is sometimes compared to George Moore, for he also enjoyed a luxurious life style.”[3]  I agree there is a similarity between the two men regarding a  taste for comfortable living, but there is nothing in Jane’s descriptions of George Moore to suggest he values good food to the extent that the obsessive gourmand, Dr Grant, clearly does. Moreover, Dr Grant blames his wife when the cook is in error, but Jane does not think George Moore censured his wife when the error is someone else’s. She cites as evidence a recent occasion when she and the Moores were together in Canterbury but were kept waiting by a servant who was late bringing the carriage. She describes George Moore as speaking to the servant “in a very loud voice & with a good deal of heat,” but adds “I was pleased he did not scold Harriot at all.”[4]

However, there could be another link with Mansfield Park. As Wilson notes, “in the novel, Jane depicts Henry Crawford trying in vain to persuade Edmund to improve his Parsonage ‘from being the mere gentleman’s residence’ into a house which could ‘receive such an air as to make the owner be set down as the great land-owner of the parish.’”[5] Arguably, George Moore’s attitude to  his rectory and its surrounds is reflected in Henry Crawford’s views. During her visit, Jane could see for herself how Moore valued the impression that his property made on others. His past behaviour was further evidence of his priorities. 

When Moore was appointed at Wrotham, he acquired the rectory and the wealthy living with its associated rights and glebe lands.[6] However, he found the existing rectory unsatisfactory, even though historian Edward Hasted had recently described it as “a Handsome building … considerably improved of late years.”[7] Using influence to get permission for a replacement (his father was the current Archbishop of Canterbury), Moore hired Samuel Wyatt, brother of the acclaimed architect, James Wyatt, to design a new rectory he named Court Lodge. The house is still standing today.

Fig. 2: The porch of Court Lodge

Fig. 2: The porch of Court Lodge

Fig.3: Court Lodge, built 1802

Fig.3: Court Lodge, built 1802

The entry porch is decorated with fluted Greek columns. On the garden front there is a segmented bay window, behind which Wyatt had added a shallow lead dome. In later years Bagshaw’s Directory described Court Lodge as “a handsome building… beautified with tasteful pleasure gardens and shrubberies.”[8] Moreover, in Moore’s time as rector, the living included considerable agricultural lands, which may have created the impression that he controlled a small estate. It was an impression which would have gratified George Moore, whose attitude may have been captured by Austen in Henry Crawford’s advice to Edmund.   

On Sunday, 14 November, Jane was kept busy attending two church services but before she left Wrotham, she might have caught a glimpse of a near by property, even finer than Court Lodge. This was St Clere, the elegant seventeenth century mansion and home of the Evelyn family. It was located west of Wrotham, near the foot of the North Downs hills with extensive views across its surrounding fields and woodlands. William Evelyn, of St Clere and Queens’s Parade, Bath had served as MP for Hythe from 1768 to 1802. He had also been known to the Austen family since at least 1775.[9] Edward Knight had purchased horses from him,[10] and Jane had mixed in the same social circles as the Evelyns in Bath as early as 1799. With all these connections in mind, there would be every reason for wanting to have a look at St Clere before they left the neighbourhood.

Fig. 4: St Clere, built c. 1633

Fig. 4: St Clere, built c. 1633

Fig. 5: St Clere from the garden

Fig. 5: St Clere from the garden

Jane’s earlier encounters with the elderly Mr Evelyn are recorded in her letters to Cassandra, including a vivid and teasing account dating from 26 May 1801 when she was twenty-five. She wrote: “I assure you inspite of what I might chuse to insinuate in a former letter, that I have seen very little of Mr Evelyn since my coming here; I met him this morning for only the 4th time, & as to my anecdote about Sydney Gardens, ... he only asked me whether I were to be at Sidney Gardens in the evening or not. -- There is now something like an engagement between us & the Phaeton.” On the following day Jane received a note from Mr Evelyn “soon after breakfast” and joined him for a drive “to the top of Kingsdown” in “the very bewitching Phaeton & four.”[11]   

Jane’s jaunty description would scarcely cause Cassandra alarm. She knew Mr Evelyn had been a family friend for many years and as Jane wrote: “I really beleive he is very harmless; people do not seem afraid of him here, and he gets Groundsel for his birds and all that.”[12] Her remarks acknowledged his kindness to birds and elsewhere his keen interest in horses is noted: there is no suggestion of any personal attraction on Jane’s part.

However,  the fact remains that she had gone for a drive with a much older married man, who in some quarters had been rumoured to have had an adulterous affair with Miss Mary Cassandra Twistleton, a distant cousin of Jane’s through the Leigh family.[13] This contextual information about Evelyn’s amorous history adds another twist to the import of Jane’s drive in the “very bewitching Phaeton.” Austen biographer, Park Honan, thinks that “the significance of the Evelyn incident would not be worth observing, perhaps, if it did not show that her quiet independence allowed her to enjoy the company of an interesting man whose adultery was his concern.”[14] At any rate, the cheeky manner of Jane’s remarks about her drive with Mr. Evelyn appears to suggest that she was well aware that her choice, in the views of others in Bath, might appear to push the boundaries of acceptable genteel behaviour for unmarried young ladies.

We do not know if Jane Austen even got close to St Clere or if she did, whether being in its proximity was enough to trigger fleeting recollections of the pleasure of her outing with Mr Evelyn and the gesture at independence that it portended. Whatever the case, now, twelve years later, Jane had charted a different course for autonomous action. She had become a published writer and her novels were being read and appreciated. She was about to bring Mansfield Park to publication. The weekend at Wrotham would be her last visit to West Kent. In fact, her social visits with relatives became less frequent. From then on, Austen was very involved with her writing. Emma would absorb her time and energies and there was Persuasion yet to come. Her stay in Wrotham was a pleasing pause, an occasion which may have sparked an idea for use in Mansfield Park. In recollection, she most likely remembered it as an interlude of novelty and sociability in a comfortable place.   

[1] Jane had been friendly with Harriot for some years. They had recently spent time together at Godmersham where, according to Jane “Harriot [was] quite as pleasant as ever, we [were] very comfortable together, & [talked] over our Nephews and Nieces occasionally as may be supposed.” See Jane to Cassandra, Jane Austen’s Letters, [hereafter Letters] ed. Deirdre Le Faye (1995) no. 94, 245.

[2] In the past George Moore had had a mixed press in his parish. According to Kent historian, Edward Hasted, Moore was so disliked by his parishioners at the time of his wedding to Harriot Bridges in 1806 that they substituted a funeral hymn for the traditional wedding psalm. See Margaret Wilson, “The Rev George Moore,” Jane Austen Society Report, 2004, 360.

[3] See Wilson, 362.   

[4] See Letters, no. 94, 245.

[5] See Wilson, 362.

[6] It was worth £1000 a year. Wilson, 362.

[7] See E. Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent (Canterbury, 1797) vol. V, 31.

[8] See Wilson, 363.

[9] See the letter from George Austen to his half brother, William Walter, December 1775: “Mr Evelyn is going to treat us to a ploughing match in this neighbourhood on next Tuesday, if the present frost does not continue and prevent it, Kent against Hants for a rump of beef; he sends his own ploughman from St Clair.” Quoted in Terry Townshend, Jane Austen in Kent (2005), 35.  

[10] Jane wrote about this to Cassandra, 19 June 1799: “[Edward] made an important purchase…a pair of Coach Horses; his friend Mr Evelyn found them out & recommended them.” Letters, 47.

[11] See Letters 38, 90-91.

[12] See Letters, 91.

[13]According to Park Honan: “as to the man who might be involved with Miss Twisleton’s sexual delight every bit of gossip and suspicion focused on old Mr Evelyn who usually spoke of nothing but horses.” See Jane Austen: Her Life by Park Honan (1997), 173.

[14] See Honan, 173-4.