In pursuit of Jane Austen
Exploring England in the footsteps of beloved English novelist Jane Austen
The Washington Post
If you go
Jane Austen’s House Museum
The Jane Austen Centre
40 Gay St., Bath
Bennett Street, Bath
“Oh, no, you can’t go into the field, dear. It’s private. And there may be cows, and the ground’s very humpy.”
The nice lady in little Steventon Church outside tiny Steventon village in England smiles sweetly, even though I’ve interrupted her Saturday cleaning duties to ask for directions to Steventon Rectory.
That’s Steventon Rectory as in the birthplace of Jane Austen. The place where the ever-elusive author (1775-1817) lived more than half her life. It’s the 200th anniversary of “Pride and Prejudice” — all together, now: “It is a truth universally acknowledged ...” — and this fairly gung-ho Austen fan has come to England to haunt her haunts.
My husband and I have checked out this little 12th-century country church (aka St. Nicholas) in rural Hampshire, where Jane’s father was pastor. We’ve seen the Austen graves in the churchyard — chiefly that of brother James, who took over after Dad retired. We’ve stared at the enormous 900-year-old yew that hid the church-door key in its hollow core.
Now I’d like to get up close and personal with the site of Jane’s home for 25 years. But apparently this cannot be.
“There’s not much to see, really,” the church lady says comfortingly. “Just this tree.” She holds up a photo of a large, spreading tree in an empty pasture. “It’s a lime, is that right, Anne?” she calls to another lady, who’s clearing away dead flowers up on the altar and doesn’t hear.
We head down the rutted dirt lane and stop at a pasture enclosed by high hedgerows. Here’s where the rectory stood until James tore it down in the 1820s to build a more imposing one across the way. Oh, James, James. What were you thinking?
Ah, well. The hedgerows haven’t leafed out yet, good thing. I can poke my nose into this nice big gap, if I stand on tiptoe and stre-e-etch my neck as far as I can. Yes, there’s the lime tree, and beyond it, a fence around the site of an old well.
And that’s it. All that’s left of Jane’s early home. Well, that’s how it goes on a Jane Austen pilgrimage. You think, if I can only see where she lived and worked and danced and played, I’ll get inside her head. Capture her genius.
Hah. That’s not so easy, is it, old girl? After 200 years, there’s not that much to see. And you’re so good at hiding.
But it won’t stop me from looking for you.
It’s such a little table — maybe 18 to 24 inches in diameter. She wrote on this? Really? With a quill pen? I’d be forever knocking the inkstand to the floor.
At Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, another teeny Hampshire hamlet — where she spent the last eight years of her life — I’m gawking at a 12-sided occasional table in the dining room. This was her writing desk, and it’s like a shrine, visitors crowding worshipfully around its plexiglass stall.
The varnish is worn, and there’s a big crack in it. After Jane’s death (at just 41), her mother apparently thought nothing of giving it away to a manservant.
After writing “Northanger Abbey,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride” in Steventon, Jane finally spiffed up the manuscripts for publication here in this plain country cottage that her wealthy brother Edward provided for her and her sister and their mother. Then she knocked off “Mansfield Park,” “Emma” and “Persuasion,” too. On little bits of paper on this little bitty desk.
I’m in awe, and feeling close to seeing Jane. Very, very close.
OK, enough of this homebody stuff. Jane and Cassandra spent hours every day roaming the countryside around Chawton. It’s a lovely sunny day — in England! — so a friend and I set off on the “circular walk,” a 4-mile tramp across swampy fields of grazing sheep and through the woods to and from the village of Upper Farringdon, where the Austen ladies would visit friends for tea.
The route winds past Chawton House, brother Edward’s castlelike manor (now a library of women authors) and Chawton Church, where the Austens worshipped (and Mom and Cassandra are buried). We check it out, but alas, this isn’t really Jane’s church — a fire gutted most of that one in 1871; this is the rebuilt version. See? It happens over and over. Layers of time between her and us.
Her corner of Hampshire — aka “The Neighborhood” — is so altered: the assembly rooms at Basingstoke (the Meryton of “Pride,” some think), where she danced away so many evenings — demolished. Manydown, the house where she flirted with her Irish puppy love, Tom Lefroy — gone. The Wheatsheaf, the inn where she’d walk to pick up the family mail — part of a Premier (think Holiday) Inn.
Plaques for Jane
“You know, if she’d been famous when she was alive, she’d have more than just plaques to mark her life,” my husband calls after me as I charge up the High Street in Southampton, searching for the next marker on the city’s Jane Austen Heritage Trail. Southampton claimed the author for a few years (1806-1809), so we’re spending a couple of hours tracking down Jane places.
Such as they are. You could say that this sprawling southern port city ain’t what it was in the Regency era. Then, it was a seaside spa for the moneyed-and-landed set, all graceful gardens and water coming close up to the medieval stone walls.
Today? Well, the walls still ring the Old Town, with gaps. But the water? I can’t even see it from the Water Gate. Which once stood beside a quay where Jane and her family boarded a boat one day for a trip to the island of Hythe. Now the tower’s totally landlocked, separated by a broad boulevard from the piers where gigantic cruise ships dock.
No, the town Jane knew is mostly a bunch of blue plaques. An ultramodern shopping complex crouches on the site of the Spa Gardens, where she took daily walks. A faux-medieval pub claims the spot of her house on Castle Square. The Theatre Royal, where she saw a pair of plays, has morphed into a hideous high-rise.
I’ve just about given up hope of really sensing her anywhere. But the Dolphin Hotel, where she supposedly celebrated her 18th birthday in 1793, is still standing. Which is why I’m charging up the High Street toward a low-slung beige building with large bay windows.
“At last, you can enter a building which Jane actually visited!” announces the trail plaque on the wall, reading my mind. I march in to the dark, wood-paneled lobby, where a line of men in business suits is waiting to check in, and straight up the broad staircase. And there, at the top of the landing, is the ballroom. The room where she partied. The door’s locked, but I can peer through the glass at the modest-size rectangular room carpeted in blue.
Wow, it’s not very big, I think. But I guess Jane’s whole world was smaller than ours. Yet grander.
Now this is what I call a ballroom.
I mean the Assembly Rooms ballroom in Bath, where I’m standing in the middle of the dance floor and feeling a bit of a thrill, I have to say. Jane wrote about this place, in “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion.”
But she also came here. Danced here, under these very crystal chandeliers. They’re electrified now, and the building, an 18th-century entertainment complex, was bombed in World War II and has been restored. But somehow it still feels so authentic.
Authentic being the word for all of Bath, really. “You can still turn a corner here and come upon a scene she described in her books,” says the interpreter who opens our tour of the Jane Austen Centre, mentioning the Gravel Walk near the Royal Crescent, scene of a pivotal “Persuasion” moment. Down which (paved now, not gravel) we of course have to walk on our peregrinations among the points of Jane.
Which are many and surviving, and much-trumpeted. Bath takes huge pride in its Jane connections, despite her prejudice against the city. It’s ironic: She’s the most famous resident of this gorgeous burg of golden buildings in southwest England, but as she has a character in “Northanger Abbey” say, it’s a nice place for a visit, “but we wouldn’t live here for millions!”
She loved Bath when visiting in her early 20s but not so much a half-decade later, after her retired father moved the family to the spa town for five years (1801-1806).
Money was tight, then her father died and the lodging situation declined depressingly. Who can blame her for not writing a word of fiction in all her time here?
I’m feeling a little disloyal, though, because I’m pretty entranced by Bath — the graceful limestone buildings, the crescent-shaped and circular streets, the squares and the Abbey and the Pump Room, where we stop in for a taste of the hot spa water (blech, but you have to do it).
But finding Jane — it’s a hunt! We hit No. 13 Queen Square, where she stayed on a trip with brother Edward in 1799. It’s real-estate offices now. No. 25 Gay Street, where Mom and daughters lived afterward — a dentist’s office. The Jane Austen Centre at No. 40 is in an identical, slightly smaller building, but the exhibit stuff sort of masks that. And there are no actual Jane artifacts.
Of which we’ve been warned by Martin Salter, the mutton-chopped greeter at the front door. “It’s not a museum,” he says. “More an interpretation of her life and times.”
Jane's resting place
“In this house Jane Austen lived her last days and died 18th July 1817.”
The oval plaque hangs high on the front of 8 College St. in Winchester, a sad and scruffy little beige house that’s nevertheless a big tourist attraction. In a corner of the ground-floor picture window, someone’s taped a hand-scrawled note: “This is a private house and not open to the public,” it scolds.
Here’s where Jane lived for six weeks while Jane’s doctor tried to cure the illness — Addison’s disease? cancer? — that was killing her. But, sigh, we can’t go in.
We can, however, go into the cathedral where she’s buried. Austen still was still pretty much a nobody when she died, but here she is lying in one of the world’s most stupendous churches (it’s the longest medieval cathedral in Europe).
They say that her clergyman brother, Henry, pulled some strings. It was a simple grave to start, just a stone slab in the floor of the north aisle. It famously doesn’t mention her writing, but that was fixed around 1870, when a nephew had a brass plaque with reference to her work installed on the wall a couple of yards away. And then in 1900, her by-then-adoring public paid for a memorial stained-glass window above the plaque.
That fancy plaque really catches everybody’s eye. People head straight for it and pose for a picture. Two women pose by the plaque as their friend backs up to frame the shot. I glance down at her feet. She’s standing right on Jane’s grave.
She snaps the photo and they wander off into the cathedral’s depths.
As I said, Jane. You sure are good at hiding.