A sense of pride

Fans gear up for Jane Austen’s bi­cen­te­nary

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JEREMY SEAL

“Jane Austen didn’t come here,” says Hugh, one of the vol­un­teer staff at Stour­head’s 18th-cen­tury land­scaped gar­dens in Wilt­shire, south­west Eng­land, “but she should have done.” The great English nov­el­ist, known to en­joy a good view, would have ad­mired these cel­e­brated lake­side gar­dens and their Ro­man­tic-era fea­tures — Pal­la­dian bridge and grotto, ru­ined cot­tage and tum­bling wa­ter­fall — not least for see­ing them in their Ge­or­gian hey­day.

Our van­tage point over the gar­dens, re­stored to their for­mer glory by Bri­tain’s Na­tional Trust, is the Tem­ple of Apollo, which any Austen fan worth the name will in­stantly recog­nise as the spot where Keira Knight­ley’s El­iz­a­beth Ben­net re­buffed a rain-drenched Mr Darcy’s first dec­la­ra­tion of love in Joe Wright’s ac­claimed 2005 movie adap­ta­tion of Pride and Prej­u­dice.

Hugh’s neat line is one he looks set to re­peat time and again this year, the bi­cen­te­nary of the au­thor’s death, when her in­ter­na­tional le­gion of fans, or Janeites, will de­scend on many of the places as­so­ci­ated with per­haps the best loved of nov­el­ists. As well as Stour­head and other locations fea­tured in movie and TV adap­ta­tions of Austen’s nov­els, es­pe­cially pe­riod-piece La­cock vil­lage in Wilt­shire, the var­i­ous places as­so­ci­ated with the au­thor’s ac­tual life and with her char­ac­ters are there to be ticked off. Add to the mix this year’s crop of ex­hi­bi­tions and events, talks, pageants, spe­cially com­mis­sioned Austen-themed art trails and stat­ues, and any self-re­spect­ing Janeite is likely to be look­ing at a full-blown road trip through the au­thor’s south­ern Eng­land heart­lands.

I leave Stour­head on the short jour­ney to Bath, the Ge­or­gian city and World Her­itage site where the Austen family lived at the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury and which is the set­ting for much of her fic­tion.

The city’s an­nual Jane Austen Fes­ti­val, the place to see hard-core devo­tees decked out in muslin and lace, holds the of­fi­cial Guin­ness World Record for the most peo­ple dressed in Re­gency cos­tumes — 409 — which looks sure to be sur­passed on Septem­ber 9, when the fes­ti­val holds a char­ity prom­e­nade past grand set pieces like the Royal Cres­cent.

It helps, of course, that historic and beau­ti­ful Bath so per­sua­sively re­calls Austen’s own pe­riod — its stoneb­uilt ter­races and cres­cents reg­u­larly fea­ture as film locations, com­plete with the oblig­a­tory geese flocks and hack­ney chaises — and that many of the at­trac­tions and ac­tiv­i­ties de­scribed in her fic­tion and let­ters re­main cen­tral to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the city. Choose from tea at the fa­bled Assem­bly Rooms or “take the wa­ters’’ (the min­er­al­rich ther­mal water was a pop­u­lar cu­ra­tive in Ge­or­gian times) straight from the cen­tral foun­tain at the iconic Pump Room. Vis­i­tors can soak at the mod­ern ther­mal spa, with its spec­tac­u­lar rooftop pool, or walk Austen’s favourite haunts, not least the grand old Syd­ney Gar­dens, sched­uled for restora­tion, which the au­thor knew well from the family’s stay at 4 Syd­ney Place.

All this and the key back­drops Austen gave her char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing the gravel walk where Cap­tain Went­worth and Anne El­liot whis­per bond­ing in­ti­ma­cies in Per­sua­sion, are de­scribed in the tourism of­fice’s free down­load­able au­dio guide. For an in­tro­duc­tory ex­hi­bi­tion and a newly com­mis­sioned wax­work of the nov­el­ist, try the Jane Austen Cen­tre on Queen Square.

The Austens spent six years in Bath, but 4 Syd­ney Place and their other rented homes are ei­ther closed to vis­i­tors or in some cases have been de­mol­ished.

Bath might have pro­vided Austen with a rich source of lit­er­ary ma­te­rial but it made her nei­ther happy nor pro­duc­tive. She spent the rest of her short life in Hamp­shire, which de­servedly claims her as its own. Austen was born and died in the county, at Steven­ton and Winchester re­spec­tively, and did much of her writ­ing in the family home, now Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum, in the pretty vil­lage of Chaw­ton. In this res­o­nant old house I wan­der through pe­riod in­te­ri­ors fur­nished with relics that have been known to re­duce Janeites to tears, not least her very own writ­ing ta­ble and the cov­er­let she made with her mother and sis­ter.

Here too is her topaz ring, which the Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties re­cently cat­e­gorised as a na­tional trea­sure, ban­ning its ex­port af­ter US pop star and self-con­fessed Janeite Kelly Clark­son paid more than $300,000 for it at auc­tion.

The mu­seum, com­mit­ted to recre­at­ing the in­te­ri­ors as they were in Austen’s day, has dis­cov­ered sur­viv­ing frag­ments of Ge­or­gian wall­pa­per that it has com­mis­sioned Hamil­ton We­ston Wall­pa­pers to recre­ate, using tra­di­tional hand block printing pro­cesses. These wall­pa­pers now hang in the rooms where the frag­ments were found; you’ll also find rolls of them (at an eye-wa­ter­ing $400 a pop) in the mu­seum shop along with replica topaz rings, which many fans wear as badges of be­long­ing.

Austen liked to di­vide her Chaw­ton days into three, with the morn­ings de­voted to writ­ing, evenings to recre­ation or read­ing, and af­ter­noons to walk­ing. I fol­low the short walk she of­ten made through the vil­lage to the Great House, home to her brother Ed­ward, where the re­stored 400-year-old wood-pan­elled in­te­ri­ors are rich in Austen echoes, not least the read­ing al­cove she es­pe­cially favoured.

The house con­tin­ues the lit­er­ary theme by main­tain­ing a unique li­brary of writ­ings by early woman writ­ers, in­clud­ing ones Austen es­pe­cially ad­mired such as Frances Bur­ney, and stag­ing a rolling pro­gram of dis­plays. I also make time for the fine old tea rooms and ex­plore the ex­ten­sive gar­dens’ lawns and “wilder­nesses”. In the walled kitchen gar­den, which Austen’s brother built, a herb bed in­spired by 18th-cen­tury writer El­iz­a­beth Blackwell’s A Cu­ri­ous Herbal has re­cently been cre­ated.

I leave Chaw­ton on the signed 1.6km Jane Austen Trail into Al­ton where the Allen Gallery on Church Street is stag­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion on the life and work of the writer’s Al­ton-based apothe­cary, Wil­liam Cur­tis. Austen had a close as­so­ci­a­tion with the mar­ket town, more so than ri­val claimants, as the lady at the Allen Gallery is keen to re­mind me. “Jane didn’t even like Bath,’’ she says. “And she only went to Winchester to die.”

“Not en­tirely true,’’ says Winchester res­i­dent and Blue Badge Guide Christina Reid who shows me around Eng­land’s an­cient cap­i­tal. “As a child Jane vis­ited Winchester reg­u­larly with her fa­ther, a cler­gy­man, in the course of

Stour­head, a film lo­ca­tion for Pride and Prej­u­dice, top; Janeites dress in pe­riod cos­tume for the Jane Austen Fes­ti­val in Bath, above; Chaw­ton, where Austen did much of her writ­ing, be­low

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.