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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Bait and switch?

When these headlines popped up on my Google alert last weekend, my first thought was not, “Oh, if only I had a spare £8.5 million (about $10.3 million) to spend on a palatial Hampshire estate.”

No, my first thought was, “Jane Austen’s birthplace? What the heck?”

Because as Janeites know, the rectory in the English village of Steventon, where Jane Austen was born on a December night in 1775, was torn down two centuries ago, probably around 1820. Janeite pilgrims take pictures of the only relic that remains, a pump standing in an empty field.

My 2011 picture of the rectory site. I think the pump is on the far right, but I'm such a terrible photographer that it's hard to be sure.

So what exactly is it that’s selling for £8.5 million? Real estate prices are crazy these days, but presumably no pump, even an Austen-linked one, is worth quite that much.

Indeed, once you read past the clickbait headlines, the true story is rather less dramatic: Steventon House, the thoroughly renovated six-bedroom Georgian mansion that’s now on the market, is located on roughly the same land where the Austens’ home once stood. Built after the previous building was demolished, Steventon House served as the local rectory for about a century, but when parishes merged in 1930, its church function ceased.*

Exactly how cushy was the rectory in Austen’s time? The evidence is mixed, but in 2005, Linda Robinson Walker concluded that it was probably on the modest side, at least for a place that housed up to twenty-two people (family members, servants, and the Rev. George Austen’s pupils) during the first two decades of Jane Austen’s life.

Judging from the real estate agents’ brochure, the Steventon House that stands today is a different beast entirely, what with its gorgeous French windows, wood-paneled living room, temperature-controlled wine cellar, on-site tennis court, heated outdoor swimming pool, and to-die-for kitchen, not to mention its fifty-acre grounds and free-standing two-bedroom cottage. The Austens did not possess the nineteenth-century equivalent of this kind of wealth; they were middle class, not landed gentry.

But it’s no surprise that this real estate story has encouraged at least one breathless journalist in search of clicks to suggest, fictitiously, that Austen grew up in a “stately Hampshire home” on “an English country estate.” Exactly this kind of standard-of-living inflation characterizes plenty of Jane Austen screen adaptations, which turn Austen’s comfortably-off protagonists into mansion dwellers. From there, it’s a short hop to the assumption that Austen herself lived in a mansion.

She didn’t. But if, unlike me, you’ve got a spare £8.5 million, maybe you can.

* Amusingly, it appears that the real estate boosterism involved in this most recent sale has a long history: In 2010, Deborah Barnum unearthed the newspaper notice of a previous sale, c. 1931, which erroneously referred to the rectory as “a house where the great novelist was ‘without impertinence’ called ‘Jane.’ ”


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