Robin Mills went to Lyme Regis to meet Diana Shervington. This is her story.
“I was only about one year old when we moved from Ireland, where I was born, to the Isle of Man. For six years we lived there, where my father had bought a farm. He’d ended up a Lieutenant Colonel in the Rifle Brigade after the first war, during which he lost his only brother—and my mother lost all her brothers, so they’d had an awful war and desperately wanted to live somewhere absolutely peaceful. The Isle of Man was wonderful, and I can still remember the two Shire horses we had on the farm.
We moved back to England, to Chawton in Hampshire. Chawton House was our family home; Mummy had been chief bridesmaid to Aunt Flo when she took over the house, so they were very close. When Uncle Monty, whose surname was Knight, died, we as a family looked after Aunt Flo at the Dower house, and that was the reason, when eventually she died, that I, as the youngest aged about 16, was given various small items of Jane’s—Jane Austen, that is.
My family connection to Jane Austen goes back to my two grandmothers, who were sisters. They were the granddaughters of Jane’s brother Edward, who later became Edward Knight, and he inherited Chawton House, where Jane lived nearby with her sister and mother from 1809. One of my grandmothers married Sir Edward Bradford, who ended up Chief Commissioner of the Police. The other Granny, on my mother’s side, married a Hardy. They lived at Chilworth Manor near Guildford. I can remember going to stay there many times; it was a former monastery and still had all its fishponds, and was connected to nearby St Martha’s church by a secret passage, which as children we actually explored one day—marvellous fun.
Jane Austen was one of 8 children. The eldest was James, a clergyman after his father; then came Henry, who helped publish her books. Next was George, who wasn’t very strong, but despite that got into Winchester. Brother Edward was adopted by Thomas and Elizabeth Knight—hence his surname—and inherited their estates. Cassandra, her sister, was next, then Francis. Jane herself was next, and her youngest brother was Charles. It was probably these last three who were closest and would have played together as children, the boys going to Naval College followed by successful careers in the service. During the whole of Jane’s writing career there was war, which must have been a great influence on everyone’s life. One of my favourite possessions from Jane is a lovely pink cockade, which she was fond of and mentions in letters. Following the Battle of the Nile in 1798, in which the French Navy was comprehensively demolished, Admiral Nelson was given a diamond and ruby encrusted pink cockade to wear in his tricorn hat; the pink cockade then became very fashionable for ladies of the day to wear, in celebration of the great victory. Unfortunately for Nelson, the cockade, glittering colourfully in the sun, drew the attention of a French musketeer at Trafalgar, whose shot fatally wounded him.
I was brought up at Petworth. When the war came, I joined the WAAF. My sister Felicity flew planes for the whole war, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot. Mum wouldn’t allow me to fly—she said one’s enough. My first posting was to London, to an intelligence job so I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where it was, or anything about the work. I was in charge of the telephone exchange which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin used for their discussions. One day I discovered a young man acting suspiciously around the equipment—he was trying to plant a bug—and reported it. I was told to do whatever the man wanted, so when he invited me out that evening I went with him to Soho, where he was arrested. He got 12 years, but he swore that when he got out he was going to kill me. Fortunately I seem to have survived that threat, but I was terrified by it for years. My next job was analysing aerial reconnaissance photos from the French coast, looking for German submarines and submarine pens, and V2 rocket launching sites. I was in London during the whole of the blitz, often having to walk to work through bomb-shattered streets because there was no transport, and it was all very frightening.
I was given time off to look after my mother who wasn’t well, and while I was at home a lady in our village, Mrs Baring, (the banker’s wife), started a canteen for the servicemen at the local camp, serving rather better food than the NAAFI. She would go to the camp in a pony and trap, and I went along to help. One day, just as we arrived, the air raid siren went off, and the sergeant, who was drilling troops, and his corporal, rushed over. The sergeant flung me in to one slit trench, and the corporal flung Mrs Baring in to another, and they then jumped in on top of us. Seconds later, the German aircraft opened fire, killing three men and injuring many more. So the sergeant really saved my life; his name was Rupert, and that was how I got to know my future husband. My parents initially weren’t enthusiastic because he was after all only a sergeant, but I was determined. We went along to a jeweller in the Strand and chose a lovely diamond engagement ring, but it was a bit too big. We paid for it, and the man said to come back next week after alteration. When we came back, there was just a big hole in the ground where the shop had been. That sort of thing was so common.
Rupert spent most of the war in Burma and India, so when he came back, he’d never met our daughter Clare aged 3; in fact, both children for a while thought their Daddy was a photograph, and screamed when this large man came anywhere near them. But he won them over by giving us all a wonderful cooked breakfast every morning for a week. Our first home was a small thatched cottage in Medstead which belonged to my aunt, and we kept a couple of pigs to help with rationing. Rupert began his career with the railways, and worked his way up until he became Chief Operating Manager at Waterloo, later being in charge of all services to Scotland at Kings Cross. Sometimes if he was on duty he’d get called out at 3am if there’d been an accident, and I had to drive him to the station. So we did miss quite a lot of events if he was on call, and I feel I do perhaps to some extent deserve the free tickets I still get as his wife. Rupert loved his work, but all his life dreamt of being an artist, so twice a week he would stay on late in London and go to art classes. And I wanted to learn something which I could do while at home with the children, so I did a full course at the Art School in St Albans, getting a degree in ceramics. I produced stoneware, and a bit of porcelain; I had a great friend who was a really good painter, and we would take the Quay Gallery at Blakeney in Norfolk for a fortnight twice a year and sell nearly all our work. We had lots of fun exploring the coast up there; after a particularly bad storm, we walked along the beach at Holt, and blow me, we found a case of whisky washed up. We took a bottle each, and left the rest for others’ enjoyment.
Rupert decided to take early retirement so he could study art full time in London, which he did for four years. And when we finally came to Lyme Regis to live, he taught at the Allsop Room for 15 years, while I was still a studio potter. Most my married life I was on the committee of the Jane Austen Society, and I started lecturing on Jane’s life when I’d brought up the children. My best pieces of Jane’s memorabilia I’ve given to the Lyme Regis museum, where they’re on display in the literary room. Rupert and I had a happy life in Lyme; retiring here was an obvious choice. As Jane wrote in Persuasion, ‘A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charm in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better’. And of course, the lovely clay.”