Sea and Seasonality: Jane Austen in Devon

Although Jane Austen was largely based in and around Hampshire during her writing years, she was known to have thoroughly enjoyed the British seaside, especially in and around Devon. Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that “Sidmouth is now talked of as our summer abode” and in another letter Jane favours the seaside above an offer from a family member to stay at his estate; Cooper “is so kind as to want us all to come to Hamstall this summer, instead of going to the sea, but we are not so kind as to mean to do it. The summer after, if you please, Mr. Cooper, but for the present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations” (25 January 1801).

Jane visited Sidmouth in 1801 and it was said she always held a place for this coastal town in her heart. As Devonians we like to think this was because of the stunning views and picturesque landscape! However, it could be because she met the man that she thought was to be the love of her life here. Tragically it seems that he died very soon afterwards, and little is known about this mysterious suitor aside from the possibility of him being a member of the clergy. There are no known surviving letters to her sister and other family members around this time, and some suggest this was due to grief after her loss, or that they were destroyed by Cassandra.

Tithe Map of ‘Pynes Barton’ from 1838. Copyright Devon County Council and Devon Heritage Centre.

Teignmouth was also on the list of places visited by the Austen family, with them staying at a place known as “Great Bella Vista” (perhaps what is now Den House) during or around 1802. At this time Teignmouth was a well-established resort, including the all-important assembly rooms which were a focal part of the seafront.

It has even been rumoured that Jane wrote Sense and Sensibility with an area of Mid Devon in mind, Barton House in Upton Pyne perhaps based on the Grade II* listed building now known as Pynes. It has never been confirmed that Austen visited Upton Pyne, though she may well have had opportunity during her family holidays in Devon. Nearby Woodrow Barton Farm has been suggested as the more humble Barton Cottage where the Dashwood sisters lived.

Austen passed away in July 1817 aged 41, so 2017 marks the bicentenary of her death.