Archive for the ‘Steventon’ Category

“[They] thrive by sleep, not long but deep”
– Welsh saying*

Recent research shows that until 200 years ago our sleep patterns followed two cycles every night. “Each block of sleep would be around four hours, with most people staying awake for two to four hours in between.” (Sleep in the 1800’s…, 2014).

In many societies interrupted sleep was so common that it was considered normal. The first awakening occurred around midnight, three to four hours after nightfall, when people in Western cultures generally went to bed due to lack of light, for most of the populace did not have the means to afford expensive candles. 

Two decades ago Roger Ekirch, a university distinguished professor in the department of history at Virginia Tech, researched sleep habits in Europe and America. He discovered many references to biphasic sleep in over 500 original sources from centuries past, such as diaries, medical texts, literature, prayer books, and even a crime report: He found descriptions written in English, Italian, French, and Latin. Sleep documentation also existed in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America, with some referring back to Ancient Greece. Ekirch would uncover over 2,000 preindustrial sleep documents in his searches.

According to sources, some individuals took the quiet time of first wakefulness to complete tasks, such as those of housewives or servants, or to write letters, or record their dreams. Others ate a small snack, chatted with a guest or spouse, read, prayed, attended to necessary bathroom needs, or made love. Individuals followed their own nightly rituals, be it alone or with someone else. 

“…it was suggested that fertility among laborers was increased due to the midnight wakefulness; men who came home physically exhausted were more likely to have enjoyment, and successful intercourse, if there was a rest period after the day’s troubles.” – The History of Sleep Before the Industrial Revolution (historycooperative.org)

Although there were many references to segmented sleep in the past, knowledge of this once common phenomenon was largely lost to the modern world. Interrupted or biphasic sleep was not practiced everywhere. The diaries of Samuel Pepys and James Boswell indicate that both men slept uninterrupted. Studies the world over mentioned a variation of sleep patterns and practices. While hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Namibia, and Bolivia slept through the night, a rural society in Madagascar practiced segmented sleep. – (The Atlantic)

The Industrial Revolution changed sleeping patterns for Western Europeans. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, lamps filled with whale oil, kerosene, or coal gas lit streets, factories, and homes many hours beyond sunset. This increase in light both outside and inside homes and establishments affected daily habits. 

“Following experiments with coal-gas for lighting in the 1790s, gas lights now illuminate streets, house, factories and commercial properties.” –  P. 42, A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England. 

Sue Wilkes, author of the Visitor’s Guide, discussed an 1817 article in Ackermann’s Repository that mentions improved lights in a variety of city settings, including factories. The new brilliantly lit lamps were used

“for lighting Halls, Staircases, Dining-Rooms, Drawing-Rooms, Counting-Houses, Banking-Houses, Public-Offices, Churches, Chapels, Ball-Rooms, Public Places, etc.” – Wilkes, A Visitor’s Guide,  p 42

Lamp-lit city streets (by 1807 in London and 1820 in Paris) promoted increased travel and crowd participation in nightly entertainments, including operas and gambling clubs. 

Not everyone was so affected. People living in the rural countryside and small villages still scheduled nightly events to coincide with the full moon to guide their way along unlit lanes. When visiting friends in an adjoining village, the gentry and pseudo gentry (like the Austens) would remain as overnight guests after a long event like an assembly ball, rather than to return home in the dark of the night. Thus, sleeping habits changed more slowly in areas with far flung villages – but even the people in these regions would change their bedtime behavior by the mid 19th century. 

For many, sleep transformation was sadly a result of economic necessity. Poor country folk, who were displaced from their common lands and denied access to growing their own food and feeding their animals, flocked to cities where factory owners recruited cheap labor. Their employers found no profit in 8 hour work days, and so laborers returned home after working from 10-14 hours a day, 6 days per week. They stumbled into beds for a few hours of sleep before waking and returning to work. The laborers (which included men, women and children) had no choice but to change their sleep habits. 

Yet was one long, uninterrupted sleep period possible in a factory city? The cheaply built houses (tenements) for the poor, described in excruciating detail by Ian Mortimer in his book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain, were located in narrow streets and had thin walls that let in the incessant noise of clattering wagons, loud conversations, and barking dogs. The squalid, overcrowded conditions, overpowering stench of rotting food, putrid effluence of backed up privies, and the constant infestation of lice and bed bugs in uncomfortable beds prevented sound sleep. Most likely these poor factory ‘slaves’ stumbled out of beds still tired. 

Sleep patterns for aristocrats and the very rich varied vastly, for these groups had the luxury of choice. For them, the cost of candles did not factor as a deterrence against staying up at all hours. They could choose to go to bed early or to stay up until dawn and sleep uninterrupted into the afternoon. Their comfortable and very expensive beds and beddings contributed to a sound night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the servants suffered. They remained at their stations to prepare their employers for bed at a moment’s notice, and arose early to anticipate their every need when they awakened. 

According to Ekirch, by the mid-1800s, prolonged uninterrupted sleep and early rising was practiced in England and America. The second leisurely sleep was now reduced to stealing a few extra minutes of shut eye before getting ready for the day. 

Jane Austen fans and scholars know that she and her sister Cassandra were practically inseparable. Anna Lefroy wrote that the two sisters shared a small sitting room that

“Opened into a smaller chamber in which my two aunts slept. I remember a common-looking carpet with its chocolate ground, and painted press with shelves above for books, and Jane’s piano…but the charm of the room…must have been…the flow of native wit, with all the fun and nonsense of a large and clever family.” (W.& R.A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, 1913.

I wonder if in rural Steventon, Jane and Cassandra experienced biphasic sleep. If so, I imagine them awakening at midnight, chatting and giggling, or discussing Jane’s progress in writing, before falling asleep again. In Chawton Cottage, where the Austen women finally settled down after years of moving from house to house after Rev. Austen’s death, the two women shared a cramped bedroom. They must have been happy, for Jane’s writing blossomed. 

There’s something magical about that first awakening in the stillness of the night. At times, when this happens to me, I go to the computer and write a few lines for this blog, or read before dropping off to sleep again. Perhaps our ancestors knew something that we’ve lost over time.


*(‘They’ substituted for ‘men’)


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When visiting Jane Austen’s England today, you can stroll through the gardens at Chawton House and Jane Austen’s House Museum, explore the churches at Steventon and Chawton, and tour the homes and churches where Jane Austen and her relatives lived and worshipped in Bath and other areas of England. But what about Steventon Rectory (or parsonage) where Jane Austen and her family lived for the first 25 years of her life?

At Steventon, you can see the site of the rectory and get an idea of where it used to sit before it was torn down in the 1820s. It’s a beautiful spot in the lovely Hampshire countryside. And there’s more to see than just the fields and lanes where Austen grew up.

The old rectory site where the parsonage once stood. A well is the only visible remnant of that house.

If you drive up the tree-canopied lane further, you come to St. Nicholas Church, where Jane’s father preached and where Jane and her family attended church. The church is usually open for visitors who want to look or sit or reflect.

Road to St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo @ Rachel Dodge.

The Rectory Landscape

Though we can’t take a tour of the gardens and property surrounding the Rectory, we do have detailed descriptions available to help us imagine what it once was like.

Deirdre Le Faye paints a descriptive picture of the Rectory garden in Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels: “Mr. Austen’s study was at the back of the house, on the warm southern side, overlooking the walled garden with its sundial, espaliered fruit trees, vegetable and flower beds and grassy walks.” Green meadows stretched beyond it, dotted with livestock.

In A Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh provides this further description of the landscape surrounding the Rectory:

“[T]he neighbourhood had its beauties of rustic lanes and hidden nooks; and Steventon, from the fall of the ground and the abundance of its timber, was one of the prettiest spots in it… It stood ‘in a shallow valley, surrounded by sloping meadows, well sprinkled with elm-trees, at the end of a small village of cottages, each well provided with a garden, scattered about prettily on either side of the road…”

Parsonage, Steventon

Austen-Leigh continues with this: “North of the house, the road from Deane to Popham Lane ran at a sufficient distance from the front to allow a carriage drive, through turf and trees. On the south side, the ground rose gently and was occupied by one of those old-fashioned gardens in which vegetables and flowers are combined, flanked and protected on the east by one of the thatched mud walls common in that country, and overshadowed by fine elms. Along the upper or southern side of the garden ran a terrace of the finest turf…”


In Jane Austen’s England, Maggie Lane provides several details about the changes the Austens made during their residency there. She says one of the “constant themes of discussion at Steventon Rectory was ‘improvement.’ Much had been done even before Jane’s birth, but throughout her twenty-five years’ residence there her parents were enthusiastically planting and landscaping their modest grounds.”

The following are some of the grander changes the Austens made to the landscape:

  • They planted a “screen” of chestnuts and spruce fir to “shut out the view of the farm building.”
  • They cut “an imposing carriage ‘sweep’ through the turf to the front door.”
  • The Church Walk – a “broad hedgerow of mixed timber and shrub, carpeted by wild flowers and wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath for the greater shelter and privacy of the family in their frequent walks to the church.”
  • The Elm Walk (or Wood Walk) – a similar hedgerow walk that skirted the meadows and included the “occasional rustic seat” where “weary stollers” could sit or rest.

In Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, he provides further details about the walks and hedgerows:

“But the chief beauty of Steventon consisted in its hedgerows. A hedgerow in that country does not mean a thin formal line of quickset, but an irregular border of copse-wood and timber, often wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath, or a rough cart-track. Under its shelter the earliest primroses, anemones, and wild hyacinths were to be found; sometimes the first bird’s nest; and, now and then, the unwelcome adder. Two such hedgerows radiated, as it were, from the parsonage garden. One, a continuation of the turf terrace, proceeded westward, forming the southern boundary of the home meadows; and was formed into a rustic shrubbery, with occasional seats, entitled ‘The Wood Walk.’ The other ran straight up the hill, under the name of ‘The Church Walk,’ because it led to the parish church…”

Hampshire is still breathtaking; scenes like these give us a sense of the greenery and vegetation Austen might have known.

In October 1800, Jane wrote to Cassandra about the improvements her parents were undertaking at the time: “Our improvements have advanced very well; the bank along the elm wall is sloped down for the reception of thorns and lilacs, and it is settled that the other side of the path is to continue turfed, and to be planted with beech, ash, and larch.”

In November, she wrote again: “Hacker has been here to-day putting in the fruit trees. A new plan has been suggested concerning the plantation of the new inclosure (sic) of the right-hand side of the elm walk: the doubt is whether it would be better to make a little orchard of it by planting apples, pears, and cherries, or whether it should be larch, mountain ash, and acacia.”

Reading these descriptions, it’s easy to see why Jane Austen included “improvements” to the grounds of the estates featured in so many of her novels.

Food and Livestock

However, the Austens didn’t just improve their land to make it more pleasing to the eye or pleasurable for walking. Lane tells us that “the garden at Steventon Rectory was a happy compromise between fashionable ideas and down-to-earth utility – typical of the balanced Austen approach to life.”

In Mrs. Austen’s garden, “vegetables and flowers [were] combined” to balance beauty and provision. One can imagine how the garden must have looked in the spring, summer, and fall, with its tangled profusion of color.

Today, “companion planting” is popular for many gardeners who include flowers among their vegetables.

Beyond the gardens around the Rectory, the Austens kept livestock and grew crops. Mrs. Austen oversaw the poultry-yard and the dairy: “She supervised making all the butter and cheese, baking all the bread and brewing all the beer and wine required by a large household. With the exception of such commodities as tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, the Austens were virtually self-sufficient in food.” As for Rev. Austen, he grew “oats, barley and wheat, and reared cattle, pigs and sheep” and was able to “not only feed his family, but to sell the surplus.” (Lane)

“All the fruit, vegetables, and herbs consumed by the family were raised here. The Austens’ strawberry fields were famous, and Mrs. Austen was one of the first people in the neighbourhood to grow potatoes.” Taking this all into account, we get a better idea of the gardens and food Jane Austen enjoyed in her youth.

Today, strawberry crops are still grown and produced in Hampshire.

Reading these descriptions of the land surrounding Steventon Rectory can help us better envision what the gardens and fields looked like when Austen was growing up. It’s lovely to try to imagine where she walked and read and thought and imagined; what foods she ate; and what her parents did.

If there ever was a fundraising campaign I could get behind, it would be to someday see a replica (or a scale model) built of the Steventon Rectory and its surrounding gardens. Wouldn’t that be something? For now, I’ll keep dreaming and imagining, which almost just as nice.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the Steventon Rectory and its garden and farm, you can read “Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question” in Persuasions On-Line by Linda Robinson Walker.

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog. She is the bestselling author of The Little Women Devotional, The Anne of Green Gables Devotional and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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