The UK at­trac­tions ev­ery Jane Austen fan should visit

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - DESTINATIONS - By NIGEL RICHARD­SON

It’s her writ­ing ta­ble that re­ally sets the pulses rac­ing ap­par­ently — the 12-sided wal­nut sur­face (scarcely big enough for an iPad and a latte) on which Jane Austen wrote Emma, Per­sua­sion and Mans­field Park. And re­vised and brought to per­fec­tion Pride and Prej­u­dice, Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity and Northanger Abbey.

This is the inan­i­mate ob­ject that vis­i­tors to Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum, in the Hamp­shire vil­lage of Chaw­ton, make a bee­line for — its former phys­i­cal prox­im­ity, both to the great au­thor and to the raw form of her im­mor­tal work, hav­ing im­bued it with quasi-re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance for Jane’s le­gions of fol­low­ers around the world. But there is an an­i­mate ob­ject that for some com­mands al­most as much rev­er­ence. This is Jeremy Knight, vol­un­teer guide and de­scen­dant of the sainted Jane.

I ran into Jeremy in the draw­ing room where he was stand­ing next to the book­case and desk that once be­longed to his an­ces­tor, the Rev George Austen, Jane Austen’s fa­ther. “Ed­ward (Jane’s brother, Ed­ward Austen Knight) was my great-great­great-grand­fa­ther,” he con­firmed. This makes him (I think) Jane’s great-great-great-great nephew — no won­der he checked the back of his name badge, where he has jot­ted down the lin­eage (“I do ac­tu­ally know it but I get mud­dled,” he said). As we talked, a woman spot­ted the badge and ap­proached with a mix­ture of dif­fi­dence and ex­cite­ment: “I just wanted to ask — are you re­lated to the Knight fam­ily?” And Jeremy pro­ceeded to make her day.

Knight will be mak­ing many peo­ple’s days this sum­mer. For July 18 marks the 200th an­niver­sary of Jane Austen’s death, at the age of 41, in 1817 and this sig­nif­i­cant mile- stone has pro­vided a golden fo­cus for a glut of Jane-re­lated books, events and ex­hi­bi­tions. The longdead nov­el­ist — whose scope, in her own words, was con­fined to “three or four fam­i­lies in a coun­try vil­lage” — is the gift that keeps on giv­ing so far as pub­lish­ing and tourism are con­cerned. And Hamp­shire in par­tic­u­lar — where she was born, lived most of her life and died — is re­ally go­ing to town, with ex­hi­bi­tions in Al­ton, Gosport and Bas­ingstoke as well as the ma­jor Austen sites of Chaw­ton and Winch­ester.

New for this year, Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum has re­dec­o­rated two rooms with re­pro­duc­tion wall­pa­pers based on frag­ments from Jane’s era found in cor­ners of the house, and there is a rel­a­tively new el­e­ment to the over­all Chaw­ton ex­pe­ri­ence that en­cap­su­lates the dy­namic of her nov­els — from her 17 th-cen­tury, red-brick home you can fol­low in the ghostly swish of her gown to the El­iz­a­bethan manor, Chaw­ton House, that be­longed to her brother, Ed­ward.

The Chaw­ton House es­tate passed to Ed­ward from a wealthy and landed branch of the fam­ily named Knight. Overnight he be­came one of the Re­gency su­per-rich (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prej­u­dice), whilst Jane and her sis­ter Cas­san­dra re­mained in gen­teel im­pov­er­ish­ment fol­low­ing the death of their fa­ther in 1805 (the Dash­wood girls in Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity are in a sim­i­lar predica­ment). Their Chaw­ton home was part of the es­tate and Ed­ward al­lowed them to live there rent-free. But the “Great House”, as Jane called it, was close enough for them to be fre­quent vis­i­tors. “I went up to the Great House be­tween 3 & 4, & daw­dled away an hour very com­fort­ably,” she wrote to Cas­san­dra in 1814.

The manor re­mained in the Knight fam­ily but by the early Nineties had fallen into dis­re­pair, at which point a wealthy Amer­i­can phi­lan­thropist named Sandy Lerner scooped it up and trans­formed it into a re­source and study cen­tre for women’s writ­ing known as Chaw­ton House Li­brary. Aca­demics from all over the world study and stay there and a cou­ple of years ago the house it­self and the 270 acres of park­land, woods and walled gar­den that sur­round it be­gan open­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis to the pub­lic. Jane Austen fans can see the ta­ble where she dined, the creak­ing first­floor Long Gallery where the ladies would “take a turn” and the room from which she is said to have en­joyed keep­ing an eye on the drive.

So it was that I daw­dled over there my­self, past thatched roofs and cot­tage gar­dens, to the top of that sweep­ing drive. And here I ex­peri- enced what one Austen­ite de­scribed to me as a “Pem­ber­ley mo­ment” for the view of the house re­ally does chime with Eliz­a­beth Ben­net’s first im­pres­sions of the “large, hand­some, stone build­ing, stand­ing well on ris­ing ground” that is Darcy’s coun­try es­tate. When Eliz­a­beth thinks to her­self, “to be mistress of Pem­ber­ley might be some­thing!” she is con­ceiv­ably echo­ing the thoughts of her cre­ator in re­la­tion to the “Great House”.

What would Jane have worn for her up­wardly mo­bile vis­its? A good guess is the splen­did silk pelisse, bronze-coloured with an oak-leaf pat­tern, that is one of the high­lights of The Mys­te­ri­ous Miss Austen ex­hi­bi­tion cur­rently on at the Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre in Winch­ester. The premise of the ex­hi­bi­tion, as the co-cu­ra­tor, Louise West, ex­plained, is that Jane Austen is an “elu­sive” fig­ure about whom

lit­tle is known — even if peo­ple pre­sume to know with cer­tainty who she was and what she looked like.

I fell into the trap by telling West I reck­oned Jane would have been an en­ter­tain­ingly “waspish” per­son to bump into at a drinks party. The Bank of Eng­land has just com­mit­ted a much more egre­gious sin by al­legedly “air­brush­ing” her im­age on the new poly­mer £10 note.

The silk pelisse is a clue to her phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance, show­ing she was slim and tall, about 5ft 8in. But the cen­tre­piece of The Mys­te­ri­ous Miss Austen ex­hi­bi­tion is the col­lec­tion of six por­traits of Jane — two on loan from the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, the rest from pri­vate col­lec­tions — that have never been shown to­gether be­fore. They cer­tainly put in per­spec­tive the Jane on the ten­ner though only two (both by her sis­ter) are au­then­ti­cated as hav­ing been done in her life­time and one of those shows her from be­hind.

“Some of her fam­ily said that was most like her — but why would they say that when you can’t see her face?“said West. “We’ve been led up the gar­den path — not just by her but by her fam­ily — for a very long time.” In a sense the whole Jane Austen in­dus­try is built around that jour­ney through the hol­ly­hocks — but it’s an end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing saunter and I con­tin­ued my ver­sion of it by go­ing to see the place where she died (pos­si­bly of Ad­di­son’s dis­ease).

The rather shabby house at 8 Col­lege Street, Winch­ester, had a Lib Dem elec­tion poster in the win­dow — which set me won­der­ing about Jane’s likely po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions (tick your own boxes here). At­tended by Cas­san­dra, she died on the first floor on July 18 1817, lay in her cof­fin in a down­stairs room for a week, and was buried in nearby Winch­ester Cathe­dral on July 24 in the pres­ence of her brothers and nephew (but no Cas­san­dra — it was not con­sid­ered seemly then for women to go to fu­ner­als).

Her brothers were re­spon­si­ble for the in­scrip­tion on the black mar­ble tomb stone, which makes no men-

For de­tails of events across Hamp­shire visit janeausten200.co.uk.

Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum (01420 83262; jane-austens-house­mu­seum.org.uk) at Chaw­ton is open daily March-May 10.30am-4.30pm, June-Aug 10am-5pm, Sept-Dec 10am-4.30pm: adults £8, 6-16s £4, fam­ily ticket (2+3) £20. On July 7, in con­junc­tion with Chaw­ton House Li­brary it hosts a Talks and Tours Day on Jane Austen (£60pp).

Chaw­ton House Li­brary (01420 541010; chaw­ton­house.org) is open Mon-Fri noon-4.30pm, Sun 11am5pm, till Oc­to­ber 27: adults £8, 6-16s £4 fam­ily ticket £20.

The Mys­te­ri­ous Miss Austen is on at the Winch­ester Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre till July 24: Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 11am-3pm; free (01962 873603; hamp­shirecul­tur­al­trust.org.uk/event/mys­te­ri­ous-mis­sausten).

The Mys­te­ri­ous Miss Austen is on at the Winch­ester Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre till July 24

Winch­ester Cathe­dral (01962 857200; winch­ester-cathe­dral.org.uk) has a sum­mer pro­gramme of Austen-themed events (pro­gramme can be down­loaded from the web­site). This in­cludes one-hour guided Jane Austen Tours, with cof­fee and cake (from £12.50 per per­son), out­door the­atre, talks, con­certs and a fu­neral pro­ces­sion on July 24; book­ing re­quired for all events. Austen’s last home, in Col­lege Street, Winch­ester, is just around the corner from the cathe­dral close; it’s marked by a plaque but is not open to the pub­lic.

The vil­lage of Steven­ton lies about seven miles south-west of Bas­ingstoke. The site of the old rec­tory is in the field where the road to the church branches off (look out­for the biglime tree).

In Bath the Jane Austen Fes­ti­val runs from Septem­ber 8-17: janeausten­fes­ti­val­bath.co.uk.

tion of her writ­ing whilst re­fer­ring to “the ex­tra­or­di­nary en­dow­ments of her mind” (a small brass plaque put up in 1872 makes par­tial amends, as does the com­mem­o­ra­tive win­dow above). This mealy­mouthed me­mo­rial struck me as a poor con­clu­sion to my jour­ney so I de­cided to fin­ish where she started. I drove to the ham­let of Steven­ton, tucked in folds of coun­try­side and frothy hedgerows just a few miles south-west of Bas­ingstoke.

The church where her fa­ther was rec­tor still stands, con­tain­ing plenty of me­mo­rial tablets bear­ing the names Austen and Knight. But the rec­tory where Jane was born in 1775 was knocked down a long time ago. All that’s left are in­den­ta­tions in a field, a tow­er­ing lime tree (planted by her brother James in 1813), and the well, fenced off to pre­vent sheep and peo­ple fall­ing down it.

From this tran­quil spot sprang a lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­non that is now out-Shake­spear­ing the Bard (even if, ac­cord­ing to Tennyson, Jane Austen was a mere “as­ter­oid” com­pared with Shake­speare’s “sun”) and mak­ing a global celebrity of her de­scen­dant and sur­ro­gate, the charm­ingly un­af­fected Jeremy Knight. “There’s a pic­ture of me on Face­book with two Chi­nese girls kiss­ing me,” he told me at Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum. “Peo­ple get very ex­cited and I don’t re­ally get it!”

Por­trait of Jane Austin (1775-1817).

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