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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Endangered Dolphin

In December 1793, during a visit to cousins in the Hampshire city of Southampton, the soon-to-turn-eighteen-year-old Jane Austen danced at a ball at the venerable Dolphin Hotel, whose history as a coaching inn dated back to the seventeenth century.


In December 1808, Austen, by then a Southampton resident, returned to the Dolphin for another ball: “It was the same room in which we danced 15 years ago!” she wrote to her sister, Cassandra (Letter #62, in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Although the Dolphin still stands, the past centuries haven’t been kind: A £4 million ($5 million) renovation in 2010 failed to generate hoped-for buzz, and two years ago, the hotel’s owners contracted with the British government to house asylum seekers instead of tourists. The government contract expired this spring, and now the hotel’s owners hope to turn the building into college-student housing.


In their planning application, the management team says the Dolphin has no future as a hotel: Its status as a historic building means it can’t be remodeled to offer the amenities that tourists expect, and that competitors supply. Accommodating students in the building’s ninety-nine rooms will apparently entail minimal refurbishment: I guess British students don’t expect much in the way of amenities.


Predictably, the proposal drew opposition during a brief comment period earlier this year, with both city councilors and members of the public expressing dismay that a storied piece of Southampton history could soon be closed off to public access, just a year before the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Austen’s birth.


“Many people are working very hard to celebrate Jane Austen in Southampton next year to attract visitors,” one commenter wrote. “They will want to experience the Dolphin, follow Jane up the curving staircase, linger in the ballroom. This planning application will defeat any chance of that.” Opponents even showed up in Regency attire in an effort (successful!) to generate more publicity for the cause.


But no less an authority than the Hampshire branch of the UK Jane Austen Society sounded resigned. “Whilst we are not enthusiastic about this proposed change of use, it does mean that the building will have a future which it currently does not,” the society wrote in its public comment. “This is preferable to the building allowed to become derelict. . . . In the present economic climate we are realistic in our recognition of there being no available funds to develop this building into a heritage asset.”


The Dolphin, though of indubitable historic value, is hardly a core Jane Austen site. Despite the Daily Mail's desperate efforts to keep this clickbait story going by roping in a random British comedian, it seems pretty unlikely that a Janeite savior will emerge at the eleventh hour. So it looks like teenagers with TikTok profiles may soon be munching pizza in a building where a teenage Jane Austen once danced at a ball. What would she have made of the changes wrought by the passage of centuries?

Her return to the Dolphin’s ballroom brought a moment of reflection, Jane told Cassandra back in 1808. “I thought it all over,” Austen wrote, “& inspite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then.”


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Kylowna Moton
Kylowna Moton
Jun 20

I wonder if the students will ever know the history of the building they inhabit. I was in Dublin once, and I took a tour of Trinity College. I was surprised and a bit disappointed that there was no mention of Oscar Wilde or Jonathan Swift--or anyone else who had matriculated there. The Dolphin Hotel building claims even less of Jane Austen's time than Trinity claimed of those writers. 😕

Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Jun 22
Replying to

Yeah, probably the Dolphin's undergrad tenants will be more worried about their next exam than about whether they're walking in JA's footsteps, alas. . .

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