Manydown meant so much to Jane Austen and seemed to play a role in the key events of her life.
Seated in the pretty village of Wootton St Lawrence in Hampshire, Manydown was surrounded by woods, park lands and flowers.
It was the home of their close friends Alethea, Catherine and Elizabeth Bigg, and Jane became a particular close friend to Catherine. It was here she first flirted with Tom Lefroy at a ball in January 1796, and where a few years later received a marriage proposal from the heir of Manydown, Harris Bigg-Wither, in the December of 1802.
Jane and Cassandra so often came to stay at Manydown, sometimes for weeks at a time, and Jane often mentions Manydown in her letters. She also stayed here for a month in January 1801 before the dreaded move to Bath.
Manydown Park had been in the Wither family for over 400 years. In 1789, the last Mr Wither died without an heir and Manydown was left to his cousin, Reverend Lovelace Bigg. He was a well-to-do widower with seven daughters and two sons. As was custom at the time, and as a token of thanks to his cousin, he added Wither to his and his sons names.
Alongside the house, the surrounding woods in the estate were very valuable and over 500 acres of parkland and 4000 acres of plantations were included. Ironically, they supplied William of Wykeham with timber when he was reconstructing the nave Winchester Cathedral in 1392, where Jane is buried.
Manydown Park was in the neighbourhood of Steventon, and Jane was 14 years old when the families became friends. Lovelace rebuilt the front of the manor in 1790, and the doorway seen here is where Jane would have entered.
From the entrance hall was a large staircase that took you up to a drawing room on the first floor. A unique gear mechanism was installed from the well so water could be pumped up inside the house to the upper rooms. For Jane and Cassandra, it must have been so much more comfortable than the cosy Rectory.
As Manydown was a mere 2.5 miles from Basingstoke, it was an easy carriage ride into Basingstoke. The girls would go shopping in town, and when they became the right age, be escorted to the balls held in the Market Square or the Angel Inn assembly rooms.
Flirting with Tom Lefroy
It was at Manydown where Jane shockingly flirted with Tom Lefroy in January 1796,
I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can excuse myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after the next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all.
Tom was sent away by his mother and Jane’s friend Madam Lefroy before it became too serious. Tom went back to Ireland to complete his legal studies, and later became Chief Justice.
It has been said that Tom Lefroy was the love of Jane’s life and ‘the one that got away’. It was later this year in 1796 Jane started writing First Impressions that would become Pride and Prejudice.
A Marriage Proposal
Thursday 2 December 1802 brought a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of the Bigg sisters. Jane had known Harris since he was 8 years old, so they had been family friends for many years.
Harris had a form of psoriasis and a stammer, and rather than being meek, although he was described as being tall and broad-shouldered.
In 1800, when Jane was 25 years old and Harris 20 years old, she wrote,
“Harris seems in a poor way, from his bad habit of body; his hand bled again a little the other day and Dr Littlehales has been with him lately.
Harris was 13 years old when his elder brother died and he became heir to Manydown. In December 1802 when Harris was 21, he proposed to Jane and was accepted. She would become the mistress of Manydown, the families would be joined and they they would all live happily together. It would have meant security for herself and her family, as well as for her friends, the Bigg sisters.
The next day Jane announced a change of heart. She was coming up to her 27 th Birthday and may have felt pressure to accept, and Harris may have felt pressured by his sisters. In order to avoid embarrassment, she and Cassandra fled to her brother James and his wife Mary at Steventon.
Harris married Anne Howe-Firth two years later and went on to have 10 children. After his father’s death he returned to Manydown in 1813 when he inherited the estate. He rented it out and moved to the more comfortable Tangier Park close by. He remained here until his death from a stroke age 51.
This incident did not seem to harm their friendship and Jane references Manydown and the Bigg sisters often throughout her letters.
She wrote about a ball to Cassandra on 8 January 1799,
Catherine has the honour of giving her name to a set, which will be composed of two Withers, two Heathcotes, a Blachford, and no Bigg except herself.
In fact, they remained lifelong friends and it was and Elizabeth and Alethea who secured the rooms on College Street in Winchester where they visited Jane almost every day, and where she died.
In 1871 the Bigg-Wither family ended their love affair with Manydown and sold it to Sir Edward Bates.
It featured so much in Jane’s life, and sadly had to be pulled down in 1965 when the funds could not be found for its restoration.
This photograph was taken just before Manydown was demolished.
Only the stables and the coach house, and a scattering of outbuildings remain. They are now part of a small farm which is surrounded by a housing estate.