Janeites walk in the foot­steps of their idol.

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - Story and Pho­tos by Nancy Matthews

WITH APOLO­GIES to Jane Austen, it’s a “truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged” that a reader in pos­ses­sion of a favourite book would love to visit places where the au­thor has lived.

Now, I don’t call my­self a “Jane-ite.” I haven’t at­tended a Re­gency ball in full cos­tume; I’m not a mem­ber of the Jane Austen So­ci­ety of North Amer­ica (yes, there is one); and I don’t have a li­cence plate frame that says, “I’d rather be read­ing Jane Austen” – although I wish I did. I’ve sim­ply adored Austen’s books for decades.

My friend Shel­ley Holmes shares my pas­sion and of­ten said that some­day the two of us should visit the places where Austen lived and trav­elled. We knew our hus­bands wouldn’t join us – in­deed, mine even de­clared that “noth­ing hap­pens” in her sto­ries. While I love him dearly, he’s ob­vi­ously mis­guided. >>

>> So Shel­ley and I ea­gerly planned a pil­grim­age to the south of Eng­land to see sites con­nected to Austen’s life and writ­ing. Th­ese in­cluded Steven­ton (her child­hood home), Lyme Regis (where the Austens hol­i­dayed and Jane set one of her nov­els), Chaw­ton (Jane’s home for the last eight years of her life), and Winch­ester (where the au­thor died and was buried in the cathe­dral).

We re­lied en­tirely on public trans­porta­tion for this trip, since nei­ther of us was brave enough to rent a car and tackle the hair­rais­ing coun­try lanes on the “wrong” side of the road. In­stead, we worked out the bus and train timeta­bles, and went off in search of Jane Austen.

The sev­enth of eight chil­dren, Jane was born on Dec. 16, 1775, in Steven­ton, Hamp­shire, a part of Eng­land that she al­ways re­ferred to with great fond­ness. She grew up in the rec­tory, since her fa­ther was the vicar of the Steven­ton parish.

Dur­ing the 25 years she lived there, Jane wrote first drafts of books that would be­come “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prej­u­dice,” and “Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity.”

While the house no longer ex­ists, we were able to see its for­mer lo­ca­tion on an out­ing with Phil Howe, who runs Hid­den Bri­tain Tours’ Jane Austen – The Danc­ing Years.

Tours’ Jane Austen – The Danc­ing Years.

Although we’d re­searched and planned the rest of our Austen adventure, we splurged and booked Howe’s half-day tour. This en­abled us to visit places where the au­thor had lived, walked, dined and danced that we couldn’t eas­ily reach on our own. Hav­ing such a knowl­edge­able and en­ter­tain­ing guide (who quoted ex­ten­sively from Austen’s let­ters and bi­ogra­phies, as well as her nov­els) made the land­scape come alive.

Our next stop was St. Ni­cholas, the 12th­cen­tury church in Steven­ton that Jane and her fam­ily at­tended. Un­sur­pris­ingly, there is a brass plaque, erected in 1936 by the au­thor’s great-grand-niece, that states, “Jane Austen wor­shipped here.”

Jane is also com­mem­o­rated in this church by kneel­ers with her sil­hou­ette in needle­point, a plaque bear­ing a prayer she wrote, and a weather vane on the church spire in the shape of a pen. On the walls are memo­ri­als to the Dig­weeds, the “se­nior” fam­ily in this parish, who got to sit in the pew by the fire – a nice perk when there’s no cen­tral heat­ing. Our guide told us that Jane danced with the Dig­weed sons at lo­cal af­fairs – the first of many bits of his­tor­i­cal gos­sip that we heard on this tour.

As Austen’s read­ers know, dances were not only so­cial high­lights, but also a fine place to meet a po­ten­tial hus­band. Howe drove us past some of the im­pres­sive es­tates that hosted the pri­vate balls Jane and her sis­ter at­tended. One, Hack­wood Park, was owned by Lord Bolton in Jane’s time and is now the prop­erty of the emir of Qatar. Dances were also held at smaller but still el­e­gant homes like Ashe House, where one of Jane’s clos­est friends, Anne Le­froy, lived. It was there that Jane met Mrs. Le­froy’s Ir­ish nephew, Tom Le­froy. In a let­ter to her sis­ter Cas­san­dra, Jane de­scribed him as “a very gen­tle­man­like, good-look­ing, pleas­ant young man.” They con­tin­ued to meet at lo­cal balls, and Jane mis­chie­vously wrote her sis­ter, “I am al­most afraid to tell you how my Ir­ish friend and I be­haved. Imag­ine >>

>> to your­self ev­ery­thing most prof­li­gate and shock­ing in the way of danc­ing and sit­ting down to­gether….”

The 2007 movie Be­com­ing Jane with Anne Hathaway spun a spec­u­la­tive tale of their ro­mance. How­ever, Tom re­turned to Ire­land and even­tu­ally be­came Lord Chief Jus­tice – although many years later he con­ceded that he had loved Jane with “a boy’s love.”

We learned of an­other ro­man­tic episode in Austen’s life as we ap­proached the for­mer site of Many­down House. In 1801, Rev. Austen re­tired as rec­tor of Steven­ton and moved his wife and two daugh­ters to Bath. The fol­low­ing year Jane and Cas­san­dra re­turned to Steven­ton to visit their el­dest brother James, who’d taken over as rec­tor.

While there, they called on the Bigg-Wither fam­ily at Many­down, and one evening Har­ris Bigg-Wither pro­posed to Jane – and she ac­cepted. How­ever, she soon re­gret­ted her de­ci­sion and, in the morn­ing, told him she could not marry him.

Although Jane lived in Bath for five years, due to time con­straints we had to choose be­tween vis­it­ing that city and Lyme Regis. Lyme won be­cause a piv­otal event hap­pened there in Shel­ley’s favourite Austen book, “Per­sua­sion.” So off we headed to the south coast.

Sea­side hol­i­days were all the rage in the early 19th cen­tury. The Austens, too, en­joyed pe­ri­odic va­ca­tions by the sea, and Jane and her sis­ter savoured walk­ing in the salty air, bathing in the sea, and so­cial­iz­ing at evening dances. Not sur­pris­ingly, Jane in­cor­po­rated th­ese mem­o­ries into her nov­els.

As the nar­ra­tor of “Per­sua­sion” notes, “Anne and Hen­ri­etta ... agreed to stroll down to the sea be­fore break­fast. They went to the sands, to watch the flow­ing of the tide. ... They praised the morn­ing; glo­ried in the sea; sym­pa­thized in the de­light of the fresh-feel­ing breeze.”

The re­sort town is still lovely to stroll through – at least if you go early in the morn­ing be­fore the heav­ing throngs de­scend.

Shel­ley and I went ex­plor­ing at 7 a.m. when only fish­er­men and pho­tog­ra­phers were about. We walked past the pas­tel houses that face the sea, through back streets where it’s easy to get lost, and onto the peb­bly beach.

But the main at­trac­tion for Austen fans is Lyme’s fa­mous break­wa­ter, “the Cobb,” which fea­tures promi­nently in “Per­sua­sion.” There, Louisa Mus­grove makes an im­pul­sive, flir­ta­tious jump from the top step of the Cobb. But in­stead of fall­ing into Capt. Went­worth’s arms, as she had in­tended, she jumped too soon and “fell on the pave­ment of the Lower Cobb, and was taken up life­less!”

To­day the tra­di­tional site of this fic­tional event is known as “Granny’s Teeth,” since the steps jut out from the wall. We gin­gerly man­aged to ne­go­ti­ate them, while heed­ing the dan­ger signs warn­ing against slip­ping. Per­haps oth­ers have tried to em­u­late Louisa.

Af­ter living in Bath for four years, Jane’s fa­ther died. She, her mother and Cas­san­dra stayed on in Bath for an­other year be­fore mov­ing to Southamp­ton. Then, 2 1/2 years later, they moved to a prop­erty owned by Jane’s brother, Ed­ward.

When Ed­ward was young, he’d been adopted by his fa­ther’s rich, child­less cousin and wife, and later in­her­ited an El­iz­a­bethan manor house and es­tate in Chaw­ton. This prop­erty was lo­cated near Al­ton and in­cluded var­i­ous smaller build­ings, al­low­ing Ed­ward to of­fer his mother and sis­ters a pleas­ant cottage where they lived from 1809.

Chaw­ton is only about 27 kilo­me­tres from Steven­ton and Jane was thrilled to be re­turn­ing to her beloved Hamp­shire. This hap­pi­ness ush­ered in a pro­lific pe­riod of writ­ing for Jane, in­clud­ing re­vi­sions of “Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity,” “Pride and Prej­u­dice” and “Northanger Abbey.” She also wrote “Mans­field Park,” “Emma,” and “Per­sua­sion” while living in Chaw­ton. >>

>> How­ever, only four of her six fin­ished works were pub­lished while she was alive, most un­der pseu­do­nyms such as “a lady” or “the au­thor of ‘Sense & Sen­si­bil­ity.’ ” “Northanger Abbey” and “Per­sua­sion” ap­peared posthu­mously.

Chaw­ton Cottage is now Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum, a mecca for Austen en­thu­si­asts. Here we were able to wan­der the rooms at our leisure, ex­am­in­ing and pho­tograph­ing fur­ni­ture, per­sonal items and evoca­tive me­mora­bilia. While only some of the pieces are orig­i­nal to the Austen fam­ily, all are from the pe­riod.

Pride of place, though, goes to Jane’s well-worn writ­ing ta­ble in the par­lour, com­plete with quill pen. What fun to imag­ine the au­thor ac­tu­ally sit­ting here, hard at work on her manuscripts.

In an­other room we found ex­am­ples of Jane’s hand­i­work and hob­bies, such as a lace col­lar that she had made, a needle­case she fash­ioned for a niece, pianoforte mu­sic that she copied and played, and spillikins made from whale bones – a 19th-cen­tury ver­sion of the game “Pick-up Sticks” that she en­joyed.

A spe­cial de­light was see­ing items from the au­thor’s life that she had in­cor­po­rated into her nov­els. For ex­am­ple, in Mans­field Park, Fanny re­ceives a topaz cross from her sea­far­ing brother. In real life Jane and Cas­san­dra were sent such crosses by their brother Charles, who was a sailor in the Royal Navy dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, both Charles and his brother Frank be­came ad­mi­rals.

The mu­seum has an ex­ten­sive re­search cen­tre that vis­i­tors can browse and a fab­u­lous gift shop over­flow­ing with books on all as­pects of Austen’s life and work, plus the in­evitable sou­venir tea cups, tote bags and DVDs. For avid fans of the BBC’s 1995 pro­duc­tion of “Pride & Prej­u­dice,” there’s even amus­ing gift wrap fea­tur­ing Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.

Af­ter leav­ing the house, we fol­lowed the well-marked Jane Austen Trail to the church that she at­tended while living in Chaw­ton. Like Steven­ton, it is also called St. Ni­cholas. Since the doors were locked, we ex­plored

the grounds. Jane’s sis­ter and mother (whom I hadn’t re­al­ized were both named Cas­san­dra) are buried in the ceme­tery, and a large sign points vis­i­tors to their graves. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones who’d come on this quest.

How­ever, the big­gest “pinch-me” mo­ment of the trip came af­ter we left the church, climbed a stile and en­tered the Chaw­ton Park woods. As faith­ful read­ers know, many of Austen’s char­ac­ters take long ram­bles along treed paths, over fields and be­tween vil­lages. Jane and her sis­ter had loved to do the same – what a thrill it was to walk in their steps.

Sadly, the pro­duc­tive and happy years that Jane en­joyed in Chaw­ton did not last. In 1817, when she was 41, her health be­gan to de­te­ri­o­rate. Cas­san­dra and Jane moved to lodg­ings in Winch­ester, about 25 kilo­me­tres away, so she could be treated by a sur­geon in that city. A blue plaque on Col­lege Street notes the house where they stayed.

Although mod­ern med­i­cal spec­u­la­tion points to Ad­di­son’s dis­ease or a kid­ney-re­lated prob­lem, at the time her con­di­tion went un­di­ag­nosed and Jane was told that noth­ing could be done. She died in her sis­ter’s arms on July 18th, 1817. The fol­low­ing week she was car­ried to nearby Winch­ester Cathe­dral where she was buried.

In Eng­land at that time, women didn’t usu­ally at­tend fu­ner­als, so the per­son clos­est to Jane, her sis­ter, had to mourn alone. But prior to the ser­vice, Cas­san­dra wrote to her niece: “Her dear re­mains are to be de­posited in the cathe­dral – it is a sat­is­fac­tion to me to think that they are to lie in a build­ing she ad­mired so much.”

We were sur­prised that Austen’s black me­mo­rial stone in the cathe­dral floor did not al­lude to her books. That was be­cause her au­thor­ship had only just be­gun to be pub­licly ac­knowl­edged a few years be­fore her death. Later, a brass me­mo­rial was added to a nearby wall that said she was “known to many by her writ­ings.”

To­day a great num­ber of the cathe­dral’s vis­i­tors are there pri­mar­ily to see where Austen was laid to rest. A tour guide re­ported that there are of­ten bou­quets of flow­ers left on her grave by “women of a cer­tain age.” We didn’t leave flow­ers, but we en­joyed look­ing through the cathe­dral’s Austen ex­hibit and later at­tended a glo­ri­ous even­song ser­vice un­der its soar­ing, Gothic arches.

While read­ing Austen’s books pro­vides a por­tal into her world, we rel­ished the op­por­tu­nity to walk her paths and see where she lived, wor­shipped, hol­i­dayed, and died. We may not have “found” Jane Austen, but we def­i­nitely caught some tan­ta­liz­ing glimpses.

Above: A view of St. Ni­cholas Church in Chaw­ton, where Jane Austen’s mother and sis­ter are buried.

Top photo: Lyme’s break­wa­ter, the Cobb.

Above: “Granny’s Teeth” on Lyme’s. Cobb, site of Louisa Mus­grove’s fa­mous fall in “Per­sua­sion.”

St. Ni­cholas Church, Steven­ton, where Jane’s fa­ther was rec­tor for 40 years.

Ashe House, where Jane met Tom Le­froy.

Go­ing for a walk where Jane and her sis­ter Cas­san­dra used to ram­ble.

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