Sunday, 31 May 2009

Visiting Jane

One half of the world
cannot understand
the pleasures of the other.

Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that few people are bothered to visit the historical landmarks on their doorsteps.

Jane Austen's final home, in Chawton, Hampshire, is less than an hour's drive from West Berkshire -- where I live -- and yet as far as I can tell, none of my English acquaintance have ever heard of it, much less visited. I have a good friend who lives almost next door to Basildon Park, which served as Netherfield for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, but has she ever toured this grand house? In a word, no. The Vyne, Winchester Cathedral, Steventon, Bath: all of these Jane Austen haunts are within the close vicinity, but do any of my neighbors bother to make the brief pilgrimage? Not as far as I can tell. Presumably, one values a place a great deal more if one has to travel many miles to see it.

Of course, there might be another explanation -- much as I don't like to entertain the thought. When I asked a close friend if she would visit Chawton with me, she wrinkled her nose slightly, and muttered something about having been scarred by reading Pride and Prejudice for her O-levels. Attempts to cajole my daughters into visiting the house with me were met with outright hostility; (unfortunately, I think we may have exposed them to National Trust properties before they were ready.) Surprisingly, not everyone seems to think that looking at an author's relics is jolly good fun.

Jane Austen's home in Chawton, Hampshire

The gravestones of Jane Austen's
mother and sister, both called Cassandra
at St. Nicholas's Church in Chawton

Jane's sister, Cassandra, is about to be smothered
late-blooming lilac looms overhead

Jane Austen was buried
in Winchester Cathedral
on July 24, 1817

This is a Winchester Cathedral rose currently blooming in my garden

Jane Austen's desk

It gave me chills to think of her
composing Persuasion in this simple spot

Happily, I do have one bookish friend who was willing to indulge me in my pursuit of all things Jane.

Last May, during the half-term holiday we visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. (Frankly, it was a bit disappointing and tourist-trappish. Except for an interesting display of the costumes from Miss Austen Regrets, there was little to inform, please or excite.)

For a good supply of Austen memorabilia, though, the house in Chawton is outstanding. Although I would encourage visitors to go to the house on a Wednesday through Saturday (when Cassandra's Tea Room across the street is open for business), we practically had the house to ourselves on the Tuesday after the recent Bank Holiday. (Although, strangely enough, the famous children's author Jacqueline Wilson entered just as we were leaving.) We were able to admire family jewellery, a quilted bedspread that the Austen women made, copies of letters and manuscripts, and pieces of period furniture without any jostling or jockeying for position. I was also able to debate the merits of various Austen film productions with one of the volunteers there, and learned of an expansion which is currently taking place. In the next six weeks, a period kitchen and research library will be added to the house museum -- and thus, there will be a need for more volunteers.

Without pausing to reflect, I found myself lobbying for the (unpaid) job. Surely my qualifications are impeccable! I'm a teacher, graduate student of English literature, former museum docent, and mostly importantly, lover of all things Jane Austen.

Later, as I shared this exciting news with my husband, a peculiar half-grimace appeared on his face.

My friend Jenni said something along the lines of I wish that I could put into words the expression on your husband's face.

Indulgent ridicule
, said I?

Yes, I think that's probably it
, said Jenni.

Spotted across the street from
Jane Austen's house in Chawton

When we arrived at the Chawton house, I was positively transfixed by the sight of this elderly woman and her pack of rough collie dogs. Apparently, (and if you know me, you won't be surprised to know that I asked), she and her equally elderly husband are driving around England with their beloved pets. What you can't actually see in the picture, though, is that there were actually eight of these sizeable dogs. Only later did I pause to wonder at the vehicle which was transporting this pack all over greater Hampshire.

As the incomparable Jane Austen said . . .


♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

I loved seeing these photos. Such history surrounds you, all of us, but we don't pay attention. Most of our children don't care. It's our fault I know. My mother loved all things historical, was an avid reader, knew her classic literature and history frontwards and backwards ~ and somehow, I didn't appreciate all of that until she was gone. I would love to sit down with her over a cup of tea and listen...

Meri said...

Yes, sadly true that most people ignore the treasures at their doorstep. (Oh gosh, a bald eagle just flew over my next door neighbor's roof right at eye level to my office) I think we take for granted that we could see them if we wished. I often feel like a tourist in my own town and region, taking my camera with me to see it through new eyes.

ArtSparker said...

That desk is such a small piece of territory...pre-room of one's own. Astonishing.

CashmereLibrarian said...

Oh, Bee--this is wonderful! THANK YOU for sharing.

I hope you end up volunteering. I will come visit you and you can give me a private tour!

Fantastic Forrest said...

I am, as Scarlett would say, "pea-green with envy."

I'd give anything to have been able to join you in that visit. And we would have been joined by my 9 year old, who enjoys such things.

Are you serious about the EIGHT collies? Incredible. Are you sure they weren't OUTSIDE the vehicle? Can't you see them all pulling her personal version of the gold state carriage?

Bee said...

bfs Mimi - I know exactly what you mean! I've gotten really interested in genealogy lately and I am so sad that I didn't take notes and ask more questions when my grandparents were alive.

Meri - So much to see everywhere, it's true. So many natural beauties where you are . . . I was just knocked out by your picture of Mt. Rainier. (How cool to see a bald eagle!)

ArtSparker - Exactly! That's what I thought, too. I'm re-reading Tomalin's excellent biography of Austen, and I was reminded that she could not write unless she had quiet and solitude. (For years, when the family lived in Bath, she wrote nothing. So sad; especially considering how young she was when she died.)

Cashmere Librarian - A deal! (I really hope they call me.)

FF - Who knows? Maybe when you come to visit I can give you a special tour!! As for the collies, what an image you have conjured up! They were very regal, actually; their owner said that they were show dogs and liked to have their picture taken. It was too funny.

JaneyV said...

What a wonderful day out. When my MIL lived in Dorset she and I had a day out and visited Lacock in Wiltshire which was where they did a lot of the exterior shots for the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. By driving around a bit more we found the house which was the Bennet's in the same production - again for all the exterior shots of the house and gardens. We also attended an exhibition of all the costumes they used, which was fascinating as it went into a lot of detail about regency fashion and what kind of apparel would be worn on which occasion and of course how the clothes differed depending on how rich you were. It was a wonderful day out. I have no doubt that my children would object vehemently to being dragged along on that kind of excursion. Bo-ring!

I studied both P&P and Persuasion at school and I am happy to report that it only opened my eyes to the brilliance of Jane Austen. I felt physically moved by the sight of that tiny writing desk.

My heart also jumped when I saw the title of your post. I thought you'd come to visit but I've been out all day!

marja-leena said...

Okay, next time I visit England, I will be there, probably with a daughter or two and a grand-daughter as well! Many years ago when we planned our first family trip to Germany, our eldest daughter who was 10 at the time, begged to go to Beethoven's house in Bonn... and we did.

willow said...

Well, I certainly think it would be jolly good fun!! I don't understand those who have such history right under their noses and don't even take notice. Sigh.

LOVED this post, Bee.

Mary-Laure said...

Oh I'd so love to visit her house! Visiting the homes of great authors/artists in such a treat. In London, I ADORE the home of Dickens and Haendel's small apartment.

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

I think if I couldn't live in Texas I might enjoy the history & landscape of living in England. However, if sunshine is limited I may find myself feeling a bit down.
I love all things Jane Austen as well & would have happily accompanied you on your visit!

Beth said...

I would have loved to “visit Jane” with you – although I’m guilty of not visiting places of interest in my own city! (Figuring there’s always time…)
Did you take that volunteer job?
And expressions of “indulgent ridicule” are quite acceptable if they happen to be reciprocated on occasion! ;)

Anne said...

Well, I, for one, wouldn't need to be asked twice to accompany you on a visit to all things Jane Austen. Thank you for sharing your visit with us! I hope you'll tell us more about your volunteering when the time comes.

What you say about not visiting the landmarks that are right under our noses is so true. I spent nearly four months in Paris, and not once did I visit the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, or the Tour d'Eiffel. Similarly, I don't get up to the MoMA or any of SF's other fine museums (and other landmarks) nearly as often as I would like.

Sarah Laurence said...

My daughter loves Jacqueline Wilson. I hope she’ll feel just as enthusiastic for Jane Austen some day when she’s older. My kids are more keen for National Trust teas than for the houses. What was JW like in person?

It was fun to see Jane’s tiny desk. I’m more impressed by the idea of writing a novel long hand. It would be so much harder to revise without “find,” “replace all,” "cut," "copy" and "paste." It makes you appreciate the more the beauty of her prose.

Good luck with winning that volunteer job – how fun!

Delwyn said...

Hi Bee,

Your 'jolly good fun' phrase made me smile - it is such an English turn of phrase and one used a lot by the older generation of New Zealande 'educated well bred women' when I grew up - those with the BBC voices...

Your story was jolly good fun (and I don't fall into any of the previous categories...)

Happy days

Anna said...

Hey Bee how are you dear? Nice post, thanks for sharing info on Jane Austen, I wasn't really familiar about her, and now I am. Anna :)

Barrie said...

Perhaps a photo of your husband's expression? :) Ha!

What a wonderful post. And just looking at Jane's writing space gave me goosebumps. I can only imagine how thrilled and awe-inspiring it would feel "in person."

Bee said...

JaneyV - Well, I really must come and visit someday. :) (BTW, I will add Lacock to my list. Wiltshire is well within my driving range.)

Like you, I appreciated Jane's qualities from the start. When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I taught P & P for a college seminar and I was shocked to discover how many of the 20 year olds didn't "get" her humour. I started Mansfield Park last night -- one that I haven't read in awhile; and I'm "boning up" in case I get called -- and I just marveled at the cleverness in almost every line!

Marja-leena - Beethoven's house? That's wonderful. I know that you just got back home from London, but no harm in planning your next trip to England!

Willow - One of the reasons that I love my blog-friends is that they pretty much all would think that visiting Jane Austen's house is an excellent idea!

Mary-Laure - I've been meaning to visit Dickens'house. Thanks for reminding me!

Lizzy - We've had so much glorious sunshine in the last week that living in England feels like heaven.

Beth - They said that they would "call." I will certainly let you know if I get the job! Everyone is guilty of not visiting their own city's landmarks, I think. My MIL is a life-long Londoner, and there are SO MANY famous sights that she's never visited. (Yes, I believe that I have expressed indulgent ridicule towards my husband. He has several odd obsessions.)

Bee said...

Anne - Isn't it the truth? We are always too busy just living our lives . . . and hardly ever approach our own areas in a "tourist: camera and notebook" mode.

I love that you are such a well-rounded person . . . and can appreciate science, cake and Jane Austen equally.

Sarah Laurence - Yes, we were cheated out of our tea and cake, unfortunately. (Not exactly the point of the exercise, but certainly one of its pleasures.) JW is very distinctive looking: very tiny; large glasses and eyes behind them, and a wide mouth and largish nose.

As for writing in longhand, I wonder if she played with each sentence in her head before she actually wrote it down?

Delwyn - Did you also have the phrase "jolly hockey-sticks" to describe a certain sort of person?

Anna - Oh, you must become acquainted with Jane Austen! One of the all-time great English authors.

Barrie - I dare not post a picture of the infamous Sigmund! You will just have to imagine him . . .

I would like to see YOUR desk too, actually.

Elizabeth said...

Well, I would have come along on this splendid jaunt.
Yes, to going when it isn't too crowded.
Being a docent there might be fascinating -- though maddening too maybe.
The tea room sounds excellent.
I think I see my future mirroring the dog lady's....

My Castle in Spain said...

oh..i would love to visit Jane Austen's house..I already saw pictures of her tiny cute desk and at the time i thought how strange to write on such a small table but in the end all she needed was paper and ink.
Thank you for the tour Bee!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I LOVE that you are taking advantage of where you are :). Lucky you!!

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

I would have gone with you in a second! I always get happy chills when I view the belongings or work spaces of people I admire. Proust's cork bedroom at the Musee Carnavelet was one such place.
Happy June!

La Belette Rouge said...

It could have been worse. You could have told your husband you have bought 8 dogs that you want to caravan with. It makes the non-paid Austen job sound like a brilliant choice.

I envy your visit and I thank you for sharing it with us.

linda said...

I totally enjoyed this post, being a Jane fan...I would have given my arm to go on that tour, it looks gorgeous...I too was amazed at that little chair and desk on which she wrote! And might I add that Winchester Cathedral rose is spectacular and not one I have seen although the name is ringing a must have a heavenly fragrance! ;)

as for the lady with the collies, I looked and thought 'there go I someday' see, I am eagerly awaiting the birth of a litter in which I am hoping my little dears are well...I was going to get one female and now am considering two....I must be crazy given I live in a thistle/hay field with stickers for acres but having that many is a bit over the top, although they are like having a nice courteous usually quiet being by your side on that walk...

ps: my daughter would have run for cover too, lol!

Rinkly Rimes said...

I lived in London for five years and never visited The Tower. It was always a case of 'one day' and the day never arrived!

I visited the Brontes house, though, and found it very grey: well, I suppose it was.

The Dotterel said...

I, too, remain scarred from studying P&P for 'O' level. Seriously, it's hardly an obvious choice for adolescent boys (and thisadolecscent boy loved nothing better than reading off-list, so-to-speak). I have tried returning to Jane in later life, but aren't all the books (except, perhaps, Northanger Abbey) the same? (Only the names have been changed...)I'll get my coat.

Bee said...

Elizabeth - You always make me laugh! I'm certainly you could never be like the dog lady. :)

My Castle in Spain - As I gaze at my own cluttered desk, I marvel again at Jane's small, spare one!

The Things We Carried - Sometimes I feel overwhelmed (in a good way) by the wealth of history all around us.

A Thousand Clapping Hands - A cork bedroom sounds fascinating! I love it when the past is preserved.

La Belette Rouge - Thanks for putting it into perspective!

Linda - Winchester Cathedral is a David Austin rose. It does smell lovely, and it blooms continuously as well. I have three of them, and they are all covered with blooms at the moment.

I'm SURE that you would never take eight dogs on holiday . . .

Rinkly Rimes - Haworth is marvellously gray and gloomy, isn't it? About the tower: My mother-in-law has lived just outside London all her life and I'm pretty sure she has never been to the tower!

The Dotterel - I HAD noticed that no men had offered an opinion . . . until you, of course, bravely stepped up. I suppose that you could argue that all Austen novels are essentially the same, but a TRUE FAN would never agree to it. :)

Reya Mellicker said...

I would have gone with you in a heartbeat to see Jane Austin's home. Fabulous! Thank you for the "tour" even though I wasn't there in the flesh.

Love her desk. Simple and elegant. Amazing to think about the fact that she did not type her books on a laptop, she wrote them by hand, word by word. Wow.

Unlike most folks, I love visiting the historical locations in and around DC. If you ever come to visit, I'll happily accompany you anywhere.

As for your husband's disdain, well, maybe that's a British thing. I learned long ago that there are truly SERIOUS cultural differences between we Americans and the Brits. I'm sure you know this far better than I do.

Bravo! Very cool post.

julochka said...

i've seen that look of indulgent ridicule and know it well. i think most recently in association with the words "blog camp." :-)

but i think it's wonderful that you're volunteering there! there's something to a labor of love. :-)

Margaret Gosden said...

When we lived in Washington D.C we offered 10 cent tours to our friends when they visited from the UK. That was the way we got to see the sights! Now that I live in New York City, I make a point of seeing the local, undiscovered 'sights' and blogging them, like the 1st Century Roman urn, about which even the Grace Church doesn't seem to want to own up to! I guess we do these things when we are ready to. I loved your Jane Austen excursion - I was particularly fond of the film, Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivia - such wonderful humour!

Bee said...

Reya - I've always wanted to visit Washington D.C., and reading your blog this past year has made that casual desire a compelling one! I look forward to my tour someday! (And thanks for the generous feedback.)

Julochka - I guess that indulgent ridicule is an inevitable part of the marital relationship. (The blog camp comment made me laugh . . .)

Margaret Gosden - Most people have a firm favorite when it comes to P&P productions, but I like them all. You cannot go wrong with those characters and that storyline.

(I'm sure we all see more of the sights when we have visitors!)

Margaret Gosden said...

The Barn, the name of your home - is that borrowed from Jane Austen's life in some way; then there is the name of the Nicolson's home, Long Barn? Coincidences, or simply chosen tributes in recognition of a much loved author? I have often wondered.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh, I have enjoyed catching up on all your lovely, lovely posts, Bee. But of course, this one is my absolute favourite! I never did get to Chawton (boo hoo), so I thank you from the bottom of my Jane Austen-loving heart for this post!

Have you seen the Persuasion manuscript at the British Library? It's wonderful.

Bee said...

JAPRA - I've meant to ask you if you ever made it there. Well, next time you visit we can go together and then enjoy a cream tea at Cassandra's Cup.

Relyn said...

I am so glad you signed up to be a steward. So, do you drive an hour each way every Thursday? I love your comittment and your passion.