It is a truth universally acknowledged (well, maybe …) that Jane Austen was clearly quite familiar with Hertfordshire and used several locations in the county as the inspiration for places and incidents mentioned in her most popular book, Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. There is no real evidence that she actually ever visited Hertfordshire and the reason why she chose to use it as the setting for her novel remains a bit of a mystery, but there has been much speculation and interest in trying to identify places in the locality that may have inspired her as she sought to provide imaginary settings for her characters.
The main locations
Meryton, the ‘small market town’ near which the Bennet family lived and where the headquarters of the militia regiment were located, is generally assumed to be based on Hertford. The Assembly Rooms, where Mr Darcy first appears at a ball and rather rudely refuses to dance with Elizabeth Bennet, sound very much like the original beautiful ballroom on the first floor of the 18th-century Shire Hall in the centre of Hertford.
The Bennets lived in the small village of Longbourn, which was situated about 1 mile from Meryton, suggesting, perhaps, that it was based on Hertingfordbury. Epcombs, a large Georgian house (still a private residence) that stands near the entrance to the village not far from the main road into Hertford, was reputedly used as the model for their home and some sources suggest that Jane Austen might even have actually visited this house at some point. There are frequent references to the Bennet girls walking into Meryton from their home – often several times a week – sometimes to visit their aunt, Mrs Phillips, and a nearby milliner’s shop or simply to catch up on local news, especially concerning the local militia! Although the distance was described as ‘convenient’, it must nevertheless have been quite a walk bearing in mind the fashionable, but not very practical, clothes and shoes of the time.
One of the Bennets’ near neighbours and friends was Sir William Lucas, a local businessman and former mayor of Meryton. He had originally lived in the town, but had decided to move with his family to a house ‘about a mile from Meryton’ and ‘within a short walk of Longbourn’. His house was called Lucas Lodge and it is possible that Panshanger is the inspiration for this. Another contender that has been suggested is Goldings, but as this is situated nearly 2 miles to the north of Hertford and is therefore quite a bit further away from Hertingfordbury it is probably less likely.
Netherfield (Netherfield Park) was the home of Charles Bingley, ‘a young man of large fortune from the north of England’, who eventually married Jane, the eldest Bennet daughter. It was clearly an impressive property – Mrs Bennet declares that she does not know ‘a place in the country that is equal to Netherfield’. It is also, of course, famous for being where Elizabeth first danced with Mr Darcy at the much-anticipated ball that took place there.
She tells us that Netherfield was ‘only three miles’ from her home in Longbourn (when she plans to walk there to look after Jane who has been taken ill whilst visiting the Bingley sisters, Louisa and Caroline), so this might suggest that the location for Mr Bingley’s home is Balls Park. Its closeness to Longbourn is reiterated when it is revealed that after Mr Bingley and Jane married they stayed at Netherfield for only a year because ‘So near a vicinity to her mother and Meryton relations was not desirable even to his easy temper, or her affectionate heart’.
References to the county
There are several passing references to Hertfordshire in the novel. When Elizabeth Bennet is talking to Mr Wickham one evening at her aunt’s house in Meryton she declares that Mr Darcy ‘is not at all liked in Hertfordshire’. A little later the clergyman Mr Collins tells Elizabeth, as he is about to propose to her, that he came ‘into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife’. Caroline Bingley writes in a letter to Jane Bennet that she does ‘not pretend to regret anything I shall leave in Hertfordshire, except your society, my dearest friend’.
There are also occasional references to specific places in Hertfordshire, namely Barnet (formerly in Hertfordshire) and Hatfield, where Colonel Forster enquires unsuccessfully at local inns concerning the whereabouts of Mr Wickham and the youngest Bennet daughter, Lydia, who have eloped together.
So, regardless of whether Jane Austen ever visited Hertfordshire, there would seem to be a clear connection between the county and the settings for Pride and Prejudice, adding to the literary heritage that already exists in the area and highlighting some of its impressive and historic houses – not to mention a certain pride among local residents in having such a connection!