Janeites walk in the footsteps of their idol.
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.
Going for a walk where Jane and her sister Cassandra used to ramble.
Ashe House, where Jane met Tom Lefroy.
St. Nicholas Church, Steventon, where Jane’s father was rector for 40 years.
Top photo: Lyme’s breakwater, the Cobb.
Above: “Granny’s Teeth” on Lyme’s. Cobb, site of Louisa Musgrove’s famous fall in “Persuasion.”
Above: A view of St. Nicholas Church in Chawton, where Jane Austen’s mother and sister are buried.