WHEN JANE AUSTEN WAS JUST THREE YEARS OLD, two brothers, quite unknown to her family, crossed Salisbury Plain to visit an heiress, with a view to marriage. The elder of the two brothers, the prospective bridegroom, was an Oxford graduate and heir to a baronetcy; the younger brother was a vigorous, handsome charmer, about to enter Oxford. As is the way with these things, the heiress promptly fell in love with the penniless younger brother. They were married the following year, 1779, in the little Saxon church at the bottom of the garden of Netheravon House, Wiltshire, home of the bride, Henrietta Maria Beach. The bridegroom, Michael Hicks, described himself, in his courting letters to Henrietta Maria, as "your Constant, Sincere and Affectionate Lover," and so he remained for the rest of his life (Hicks Beach 283).
The bride's mother, Mrs. Anne Beach, was a daughter of Charles Wither, of Oakley Hall, near Manydown Park, Hampshire. Henrietta Maria's aunt (also Henrietta) had married Edmund Bramston. Their son, Wither Bramston, appears in Jane Austen's letters as the host who served "sandwiches all over mustard" (25 October 1800). The Beach and Wither families were well known, and frequently discussed, by the Austens at Steventon. When Michael and Henrietta Maria Hicks Beach, as the young couple were now designated, lost one of their babies, in 1796, Jane Austen was well enough acquainted with their romantic story to confide to her sister Cassandra, "I am sorry for the Beaches' loss of their little girl, especially as it is the one so like me" (9 January 1796).
The grieving couple also received a letter of condolence from the pleasingly plump curate of Netheravon church, the Rev. Sydney Smith. He wrote to Henrietta Maria, "Pray remember me to Mr. B. I feel for you both sincerely, may God make those children which remain dutiful and amiable, your pride, and pleasure: and the comfort of your old age" (Smith 7). Michael Hicks Beach took a great fancy to Sydney Smith and encouraged the curate to set up a Sunday School at Netheravon, quite a rare occurrence in those days. Sydney Smith not only gave religious instruction to hostile, inattentive children from poverty-stricken homes, he established an Industrial School, teaching village girls how to knit, sew, and darn. At first the farmers and laborers refused to come to his church, but by degrees he made friends of them and they came to gape through his sermons. Three generations later his name was remembered with affection at Netheravon.
The parish of Netheravon is remotely situated on the edge of Salisbury Plain; the only excitement for Sydney Smith was the weekly visit of the butcher's cart from Salisbury. "Nothing can equal the profound, the immeasurable, the awful dullness of this place," he complained, "in which I lie, dead and buried, in hopes of a joyful resurrection in the year 1796" (Pearson 30). However, the three-monthly annual stay by the flicks Beachs, at Netheravon House, was a welcome distraction (Michael and Henrietta Maria had large properties in Gloucestershire and North Wiltshire where they spent various seasons of the year). Michael Hicks Beach, sensing despair, kindly invited Sydney to enjoy a holiday at their home, Williamstrip, situated near Lechlade, in Gloucestershire. "Your offer of a horse to carry nay portmanteau," Sydney wrote, "I cannot accept, and for two reasons. The first is, you have no horse here; the next, I have no portmanteau" (Pearson 30).
Sydney Smith was known to pay flying visits to Bath, thirty miles away, to see his mother and enjoy the delights of that city. These excursions to Bath, visiting his mother, bring Sydney closer to us; he has been named as the model Jane Austen used, in Northanger Abbey, for Henry Tilney. Sydney stayed at Edgar's Buildings whilst Jane was resident with her relations at The Paragon, in Bath, only a minute's walk from each other. Bath in the late eighteenth century was the magnet that drew them both. …