My first encounter with Jane Austen came in the form of a university essay. Although I was studying for a history degree, Jane and her cast of fictional characters appeared in the middle of my module on Regency England, dancing their way through the ballrooms of Southampton and Bath. I loved the course, reading several of Austen’s books and re-winding one particular scene of Pride and Prejudice a few hundred times. That image of Colin Firth in a wet, clinging shirt is one I’ll remember until my dying day.
Sadly, my Austen experience didn’t end particularly well. At the end of term and after submitting my essay, I was hauled into my tutor’s office and accused of plagiarism. She angrily pointed out words and sentences that she believed no 19 year old could write, before telling me that I’d have to ‘live with my lies’. It was all very Austen-esque and incredibly dramatic. She’s lucky I didn’t have an attack of my humours. Ironically, I hadn’t plagerised at all, but just been a little too enthusiastic with my thesaurus. I was like Joey from ‘Friends’ – trying to expand my vocabulary but ultimately just referring to myself as a baby kangaroo.
For 11 years, I’ve told this story to anyone who will listen, caught up in a Jane Austen drama of my own. How dare this tutor challenge my integrity? My family name could have been tarnished. Understandably, most people stopped listening to my angry little tale around 10 years ago, leaving me to harbor my own nineteenth-century inspired grudge, alone. I had slowly become Mr Darcy, who admitted: ‘I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself’.
Aside from that white shirt, Mr Darcy and I are apparently very similar.
Thankfully, we all have opportunities to let go of our grudges. Unexpectedly, my opportunity to shake the Great Plagiarism Misfortune of 2006 came in the form of Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes campaign, celebrating the anniversaries of some of our country’s literary greats. From the 20th Anniversary of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, to the 75th Anniversary of Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five’, 2017 is every book worm’s dream.
Included in these many celebrations is also the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s untimely death in July 1817. In honour of such a milestone, and to celebrate Austen’s life and renowned work, the Jane Austen 200 – A Life in Hampshire campaign was launched; allowing the public to delve past the fictional characters of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, and to discover more about the county where Jane began and ended her life; a county she adored. As literature fans – and excited by Visit England’s campaign – Claire and I instantly agreed to follow their advice and take a little trip to rural Hampshire.
I had my bonnet and fan at the ready.
Setting off one sunny Monday morning, we headed to the first stop on our Austen-inspired adventure: the tiny village of Chawton. This small corner of England – a place where Jane was said to be happiest – is nestled in greenest Hampshire, amongst rivers, streams and rolling hills. It is home to thatch cottages, rose gardens and a village pond; the would-be star of any Country Living magazine. Born originally in Steventon, Jane moved several times before eventually settling here after leaving Southampton. The busyness of the town and the ‘closeness, noise and bad smells’ had apparently unsettled Jane and during this period she wrote very little. I guess the pungent smell of fish is enough to give anyone writer’s block. Thankfully in 1808, Jane’s brother, Edward, saved the day by inheriting a number of estates, including Chawton. It was decided that Jane, her mother and sister Cassandra, would move into the cottage immediately – something Jane was ecstatic about.
Jane was born into an era in the throes of the Picturesque movement and died in the midst of the Romantic movement – ages defined by an infatuation with scenic landscapes and the great outdoors. Before that, people’s attitudes towards Mother Nature were a little ambivalent. Not for those Georgians, however. Whilst those unromantic Stuarts would simply walk past a tree, this 19th century crowd would stop and gush over its natural beauty. For any Georgian – Jane included – it was therefore incredibly important to be surrounded by a beautiful home, a pretty garden and rolling landscapes. As I write this and look out over my barren balcony – a dead Christmas tree leaning in the corner (it’s April) – I imagine how Jane might react. I imagine the scene might have killed her off.
It’s no wonder that Jane was so happy to move to Chawton. ‘Everybody is acquainted with Chawton and speaks of it as a remarkably pretty village’, wrote Jane to her sister. As Claire and I drove into Chawton, winding past its peony filled gardens, even I came over a bit Georgian. It was beautiful. The cottage where Jane would eventually live – sat squarely by the road – is thankfully much more than just a ‘drive-by’ spectacle. Now the Jane Austen’s House Museum, it has opened its doors to those visitors who want to walk through the very rooms where Jane dined, socialised and most importantly – wrote. We couldn’t wait to explore.
Walking inside the solid red-brick cottage, we were immediately struck by how light and calm the home was: the perfect place to pen some of the world’s most famous classics. With beautiful sun-dappled gardens outside, filled with flowers, established trees, herb gardens and scented roses, the cottage is an oasis of calm. Stepping into the peaceful drawing room, we began to explore the house in more detail, beginning with an introduction to the evolving ‘41 Objects’ exhibition. Featuring a variety of original items from Jane’s life, including her writing table and bookcase, each item is immaculately preserved. I couldn’t believe how small her writing table was and how much effort must have gone into writing each manuscript. Apparently, Jane would write for a few hours here every morning, dedicating herself to her heroines and villains, whilst positioned in front of the window.
One incredible detail we immediately noticed was the wallpaper throughout the house, reconstructed from scraps of original Regency wallpaper found throughout the home. Having discovered the wallpaper, the Museum commissioned Hamilton and Weston to recreate it, using the same hand block printing processes that would have been used in the 19th century. The results are gorgeous. I may buy some myself and recreate my very own Georgian parlour.
It’ll look right at home in my modern flat in Milton Keynes.
Upstairs, we explored Jane’s bedroom, and one that she shared with her sister, Cassandra. It’s a surreal feeling to know that this is where she lay each night, telling her sister her latest ideas, or sharing with her the gossip from Bath. I wondered if the floorboards had creaked in the same way that they did today. There’s also a fantastic display upstairs of further items belonging to Jane, such as an enormous patchwork quilt she helped sew with her mother and sister, and a collection of her jewellery. It seems that everyone in the Austen family cared for all their items, passing them through the generations (including Jane’s famous turquoise ring). Considering that my family aren’t quite as fastidious – my Mum taped over my own birth story with Princess Diana’s funeral – I appreciated this meticulous attitude.
Having walked around the house, eyeballing beautiful item after beautiful item, we headed outside, walking slowly through the flower-filled garden that had brought Jane so much happiness. As she once wrote to her sister: ‘you cannot imagine, it is not human nature to imagine, what a nice walk we have round the orchard’. Apparently, the garden was also a source of embarrassment for Jane, as her mother once dared venture into it wearing just her smock, before proceeding to pull up the potatoes herself. The humiliation.
Having explored Jane’s house, it was time to head to ‘the Great House’ – the imposing Elizabethan manor house that Edward had also inherited, just a short walk from the cottage. Now known as Chawton House Library, this stately home is where many of Jane’s relatives lived or stayed. The walk from the cottage to the country home doesn’t take long and is dotted with blossom-filled trees and grazing horses. No wonder Jane loved it here. Eventually, we reached the house and made our way up the long gravel drive to meet Anthony Hughes-Onslow, who would show us around. Now a working library dedicated to early women’s writing, the house is both a carefully restored relic and a bustling, working research library. This isn’t a stuffy stately home, but a hub of researchers and visitors.
I loved it.
After cake and tea in the enormous kitchen – restored as it would have been in the 19th century – we toured the house that Jane would have so often visited. Here Claire and I came face to face with the works of some of the world’s first female travel ‘bloggers’ (writers). Embarrassingly, they were far more adventurous than us, setting sail around the world and exploring jungles, alone. Anthony also let us explore the grounds and the ‘wilderness’ outside – an area where Georgian ladies liked to take their afternoon exercise. Funnily enough, this ‘wilderness’ is actually a carefully planted area of woodland, created to give the ladies a feeling that they were rambling through remote forestland, rather than the back garden. If the weather was bad, there was also a small stretch of corridor inside, where the ladies could take their exercise. Forget about HIIT, these ladies were all about the gentle circuits.
Walking back into the village, following the route that Jane and Cassandra would have taken home, it was evident that Chawton was at the heart of the Austen family: a hub where they gathered, lived and visited each other. It’s said that it was this close family community, alongside the peace of Chawton, that restored Jane’s happiness and inspired her to publish 6 novels within 6 years. Without Chawton, it might be that the likes of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ or ‘Emma’ may never have reached her publisher’s hands.
Leaving Chawton behind, it was time for a short drive to Winchester: a place that Jane would have known well. Sadly, the last time she would have visited was when she fell ill at the end of her life. In May 1817, in a pouring rainstorm, Cassandra drove Jane in horse and carriage the 16 miles to Winchester, to seek medical help. As Claire and I drove into Winchester, it was hard not to imagine Jane’s last journey here.
Aside from Jane, however, Winchester’s history is mind-boggling. It was once the ancient capital of England and the former seat of Alfred the Great. It was the stomping ground of Romans, Cnut the Great, a place visited by King Arthur and his knights; home to King Stephen and Empress Matilda; King Cenwalh of Wessex and later Kings, Queens, poets and authors – Jane, included. The city is beautiful, boasting the oldest high street in the UK, and bursting with Tudor clad homes, Anglo-Saxon walls, a sweeping river and the beautiful Winchester cathedral and Winchester College.
Eventually, after a cosy lunch at The Old Vine, it was time to see Jane’s final resting place in Winchester Cathedral. Dying at the age of just 41, it was said to be Jane’s wish that she was buried in this vast and spectacular building; the final resting place of saints and kings. The morning she was buried, just four people attended her funeral – quietly laying her to rest. No reference to her writing achievements were made on her gravestone, and instead it attested simply to her many virtues and stoicism. It’s a peaceful, beautiful resting place, for someone whose happiness was always tied up with the beauty of her surroundings.
Travelling home, leaving Jane’s Hampshire behind, it was funny to think that such a world-acclaimed author spent so much of her life in this small, still village. Jane’s world was not one located in bustling London or pretentious Bath, but one filled with flowers, a garden, and long walks, all within the confines of her beloved Hampshire. As her character, Emma, once said: ‘I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.’
Here, in tiny Chawton, she certainly found this, and I defy anyone who visits not to share just a little bit of this 19th century-inspired, Georgian happiness.
N.B – if my tutor of 2006 is reading this – these are all my own words.
Thank you to Visit England for inviting us on such a special trip.