Jane Austen fans despair at student digs plan for hotel where she danced | Jane Austen

Devotees of Jane Austen on both sides of the Atlantic have joined a campaign to save the historic port city hotel where she celebrated her 18th birthday.

Plans are afoot to transform the Grade II-listed Dolphin hotel in Southampton, where Austen once danced in the grand ballroom, into student accommodation.

Fans of Austen in the UK and much farther afield are lobbying Southampton city council to reject the plans and keep the building, parts of which date back to the 16th century, in a form that would have been recognisable to Austen.

The writer is said to have marked her 18th birthday in the ballroom of the Dolphin on 16 December 1793 and is believed to have attended other dances at the venue, a beautiful bow-windowed room on the first floor, later in her life.

Austen aficionado Norma Mackey, a member of the Southampton-based Sarah Siddons Fan Club theatre group, said when she first heard of the plan she almost burst into tears.

A plaque commemorating Jane Austen, on the Dolphin. Photograph: Andrew Croft/Solent News & Photo Agency/Solent News

“I’m so passionate about this. As soon as I found out about it I contacted our theatre group so they knew what to do … objection, objection, objection.”

She said just knowing Austen had been at the hotel engendered warmth. “It’s a nice feeling to know she’s been here. I love the architecture as well. They will lose a gem.”

Fifteen years after celebrating her birthday at the hotel, Austen returned for another dance and wrote to her sister, Cassandra, that the ball was “rather more amusing” than she expected.

“The room was tolerably full, and there were, perhaps, 30 couple [sic] of dancers. The melancholy part was, to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders.

“It was the same room in which we danced 15 years ago. I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. We paid an additional shilling for our tea, which we took as we chose in an adjoining and very comfortable room.”

Jennifer Weinbrecht, who owns the Jane Austen Books store in Geauga County, Ohio, has written a stern letter on behalf of the “international community of Jane Austen fans and scholars” objecting to the plans.

“I request that you consider the cultural importance of the Dolphin as the only remaining structure in Southampton with Jane Austen connections,” it says. Weinbrecht described Southampton as an important location on the “extended Austen pilgrimage”, which takes in places such as the Georgian city of Bath and Chawton, the Hampshire cottage where she spent the last eight years of her life.

A local councillor, Sarah Bogle, argued that changing the hotel into student accommodation could hit visitor numbers. The Hampshire branch of the Jane Austen Society said it was “not enthusiastic” about the plans but that they were preferable to the building becoming derelict.

The scheme is being considered by Southampton city council’s planning department. A letter submitted on behalf of the applicant said the plans would “enable a long-term viable use of this important and prominent building”.

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