Could Worthing have been the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Sanditon?
by Donna Fletcher Crow
Jane Austen’s connection with Worthing was completely unknown until late in the 20thcentury when Fanny Austen’s diaries came to light and Austen scholar Deidre Le Faye began studying them. Before then, all that was known were the references in Jane’s letters regarding plans to visit Worthing. There was no confirmation, however, that the trip had actually come about, rather, considerable doubt was cast on the likelihood:
24 August 1805 Jane, who was at Godmersham, wrote to Cassandra about their 10-year-old nephew Edward who was ill and not recovering well. It looked unlikely he would be able to return to school in Winchester with his brothers when term started that autumn, “& he will be of the party to Worthing.__If sea-bathing should be recommended he will be left there with us, but this is not thought likely to happen.”
Six days later she wrote of a new complication: “The journey to London [to visit brother Henry] is a point of the first expediency and I am glad it is resolved on, though it seems likely to injure our Worthing scheme. . . It gives us great pleasure to hear of little Edward’s being better,” he was expected to be able to return to school.
She concludes by saying, “We shall not be at Worthing so soon as we have been used to talk of, shall we? This will be no evil to us, and we are sure of my mother and Martha being happy together.”
Mrs. Austen and their friend Martha Lloyd went ahead of the others to Worthing, staying in Stanford’s Cottage, the house in Warwick Street which still stands today. It was a charming dwelling, whose south-facing bow windows in those days had an uninterrupted view to the sea. Today it is a Pizza Express, but retains some recognizable features of the Austen’s time there, including the bow windows, although the view is extremely limited.
The streets on the north side of the cottage had only recently been upgraded from a farm-track. The view northwards was therefore over fields with a few scattered buildings and the Downs beyond.
Looking for links to Austen and her time there, as I was, the Pizza Express was my first stop. I approached with a certain amount of skepticism, but was given a warm welcome, a delicious lunch and encouraged to enjoy the building.
The walls are covered with collages of Austen quotations, Regency drawings and framed Penguin editions of her books.
I was told that the Jane Austen Society holds a yearly meeting in their upstairs room.
Enjoying the sight of the sun reflecting from the bay windows onto the courtyard, I thought, “They have done well with their heritage.”
Jane Austen arrived in Worthing on Wednesday 18 September 1805 with Cassandra, their brother Edward, his wife Elizabeth, oldest child Fanny and her governess Miss Sharpe. Fanny gives us a detailed record of a day at the resort. They walked on the sands, bought fish on the beach, and bathed “a most delicious dip.” That afternoon they entertained a guest (Miss Fielding, who may have been a relative), dined at 4:00, and in the evening went to the Raffle where Jane won 17 shillings.
The next day Fanny waited for Aunt Cassandra to come out of Wick’s warm baths and walked on the sands again. They went once more to the raffle as well, but apparently none of the party was enriched by the event.
On Sunday morning Fanny attended church with Aunt Jane and others. This was probably at the parish church of St Mary at nearby Broadwater, since there was as yet no church in Worthing.
The Godmersham party left Worthing the next day.
We know that Jane stayed at least 7 weeks in Worthing because on 4 November she witnessed a signature to her mother’s will. The visit may have continued until 1 January 1806 when Jane and Martha Lloyd arrived at Steventon, but there is no certain record since we are not told where they arrived from.
This positive evidence of Jane Austen’s time in Worthing, however, gives the town a considerable boost in the “Discover the Real Sanditon” stakes. In spite of the persuasive claims I presented for Bognor Regis last week, there is no documentation of Jane Austen having ever been there.
Indeed, Jane Austen not only spent considerable time in Worthing, she also seems to have become good friends with Edward Ogle, Worthing’s chief citizen and front-runner among contenders for the model of Tom Parker, Sanditon’s developer.
“Sweet Mr Ogle”, she wrote 8 years after their visit to Worthing, “I dare say he sees all the panoramas for nothing, has free admittance everywhere. He is so delightful! Now you need not see anybody else.” This, in a letter to Cassandra at Godmersham, it seems to be in reply to something Cassandra said to her in a previous letter—perhaps reporting on a letter she had received from Mr. Ogle.
Mr. Ogle’s entrepreneurship makes him a likely model, but not, perhaps his personality. In several readings of Sanditon, “sweet” was never a word I would have applied to the energetic and rather over-bearing Mr. Parker. Although, it’s always possible Jane was making a pun, since Edward Ogle and his brother James were involved in the sugar trade with the West Indies.
One writer explained the references to the panoramas Jane mentions as the splendid views of London from the river, which Ogle was able to see for nothing because he could travel up and down the Thames on his barges whenever he liked.
I take the reference more literally, though, as does Deidre Le Faye, who references Henry Aston Barker’s Panorama in Leicester Square which exhibited views of great cities, of battles, and so forth. LeFaye suggests Ogle may have been a friend of Barker and therefore given free admission. Jane, however, seems to attribute his free entry to his pleasing personality.
In 1801, four years before Jane Austen’s stay in Worthing, Edward Ogle purchased Warwick House and began to build Worthing into a thriving seaside resort. The house had been built in 1781 by the town’s first speculator-developer John Luther. Ogle laid out the gardens and made other improvements. Many believe this was the model for Mr. Parker’s Trafalgar House, although it was not on a hilltop. In the summer of 1807 seven-year-old Princess Charlotte’s stay in Warwick House brought Worthing to national prominence.
At this time Worthing had only a few terraces of lodging-houses and was not much more than a straggling overgrown village, largely reliant on farming and fishing. The only road into the town was essentially a sequence of winding lanes, which were all but impassable in severe weather. There was no drainage, no market, no church, no theatre and indeed no proper modern hotel.
Ogle’s first project was to build the Colonnade, at the corner of Warwick Street and High Street, just across the road from his house. The building consisted of three lodging-houses at the northern end, together with a library at the corner. Libraries were the main social institutions in seaside resorts of the period. As well as reading, they offered opportunities for gossip, gambling, musical entertainment, and shopping—“you can get a Parasol at Whitby’s,” Mr. Parker tells his wife. The Colonnade Library and its rival, Stafford’s Marine Library, which had opened in 1797, would have been the main meeting-places for visitors to Worthing.
The Austen ladies could choose between the Colonnade Library practically across the street from where they were staying, and Stafford’s Library some two hundred yards away on the seafront. Mr. Parker offers just such a visit to Charlotte Heywood on her first evening in Sanditon right after dinner: “Mr. P. could not be satisfied without an early visit to the Library and the Library Subscription book;”
They had chosen a quiet time. “The Shops were deserted – the Straw Hats and pendant Lace seemed left to their fate both within the House and without, and Mrs. Whitby at the Library was sitting in her inner room, reading one of her own Novels for want of Employment. The List of Subscribers was but commonplace.”
Today’s fully modern library focuses on reading and information, but still offers meeting rooms.
Most importantly, Worthing possessed that prime requirement for a seaside resort—bathing facilities. As we saw in Fanny’s diary, Wick’s warm water baths were patronized by Cassandra, and the sea-bathing was “delicious”. This detail from a print of the time shows Wick’s on the right and bathing machines perched on the left.
Mr. Parker declares Sanditon, “the favourite – for a young and rising bathing-place – certainly the favourite.” “The finest, purest Sea Breeze on the Coast – acknowledged to be so – Excellent Bathing – fine hard Sand – Deep Water ten yards from the Shore – no Mud – no Weeds – no slimey rocks. Never was there a place more palpably designed by Nature for the resort of the Invalid – the very Spot which Thousands seemed in need of!”
Worthing today offers a beautiful seafront with art deco and Italiante buildings, their white and cream stucco gleaming in the sun.
Unlike Mr. Parker’s “fine, hard sand” Worthing has a pebble beach with crashing waves. It made me hope that Jane had a strong dipper to keep her upright in the surf.
Edwardian lampposts and fishermen lined the Victorian pleasure pier. “What do you catch?” I asked. “Bass and all sorts, really,” was the reply. It made me think of Fanny Austen buying fish on the beach with her grandmother.
The first theatre, which we know Jane would have enjoyed, wasn’t built in Worthing until two years after her visit. Today Worthing offers two theatres. The Connaught, built 1914, and the Pavilion, built 1926, host theatrical productions, concerts and cinema.
One of the pleasures of a visit to Worthing today is walking in the Steyne Gardens, just west of the former Stanford’s Cottage, running parallel to the footpath Jane and all the Austens would have taken to the shore.
The echoes of Jane Austen and Sanditon are strong in Worthing. Its location on the coast of Sussex, its enthusiastic, charismatic developer, library, sea-bathing, a grand house, lodgings to let . . . the list of similarities is persuasive. Ultimately, though, it’s unlikely that anything could be more real for Jane than the structure in her own head. That’s the resort I most long to visit.
This article about Jane Austen and Dawlish was written by Donna Fletcher Crow, and the article is reproduced here with her permission.
Donna is a novelist of British history, and a traveling researcher who engages people and places from Britain’s past and present – drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today’s reader. Her website can be found here.