After a tough Vermont winter and a serious bout of flu what form of R and R would be good before getting back to the 24/7 business of running a small inn? As is so often the case, a little Jane Austen seemed like a good plan. I’d been noticing how amazingly often JA is mentioned in whatever I’m reading, from Mr. Churchill’s Secretary to a serious article in the Economist just last week. So I wondered how many encounters there might be as I did some walking in her part of England and decided to chronicle my adventures. And all I can say now is that it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen truly is everywhere!
Arriving in London after an overnight flight, I immediately set out for a walk. First stop was Hatchard’s, England’s oldest bookshop founded in 1797. JA’s writings were well represented and it’s always a great place to look for guides to Regency London and places with literary ties, but the appeal for me is the list of authors who were also customers. Next stop was the National Portrait Gallery for “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends”, John Singer Sargent’s striking portraits of Monet, Rodin, Robert Louis Stevenson and others, but certainly not JA who’d lived a century earlier. But returning the long way down from the third floor ladies, I came to this wall of JA’s contemporaries surrounding the tiny portrait of her we know so well.
My walk today took me down Henrietta Street where JA spent time at her brother’s home at number 8 in 1813. It’s a modern street, but I like to imagine her walking along somewhere behind me to shop as she so often did while in London. I spent a good deal of time at “Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art” at the British Museum. It is a fabulous exhibit of sculpture and pottery which relates to the early 19th Century only in that it was a time of great interest in and collecting of classical Greek art. However, a detour coming down from the restaurant on the third floor presented me with “Napoleon Era Propaganda”, lots of Gilray and Cruikshank cartons depicting Napoleon being defeated and devoured in every possible way by Wellington and Nelson. No JA in sight, but this was hot news during her time and I could easily imagine her sense of humor and sharp wit enjoying the clever satire, especially as it involved the Royal Navy she so admired.
There were lots of people on the streets of London on this bank holiday weekend so I walked down quieter Jermyn Street and met the statue of Beau Brummel, perfectly attired even in bronze. At Somerset House I was reminded that it was the Royal Academy’s first home and as so was the place where JA would have seen her ideal portrait of Jane Bennet. I passed on their Goya exhibit, but wandering through the gift shop, I found a good selection of JA’s books including this pocket-sized Jane Austen: Her Complete Novels in One Sitting. But as my phone already holds all the essential JA, I wasn’t tempted. In the evening I went to see the new movie, “A Little Chaos”, set years before JA’s time, but starring Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman and with even a brief appearance by Emma Thompson’s mother, so I had to think of Sense and Sensibility.
A nice start to the day with breakfast in my hotel where the waiters asked if I wanted a newspaper. When I replied that I only wanted a newspaper if it had good news, he presented me with the Times proclaiming the birth of the brand new Princess of Cambridge. My train journey to Winchester was interrupted by “works” so I had to take a bus for the last leg. Unfortunately they had forgotten to tell the driver to stop in Winchester so he didn’t and I got almost to Southampton. But at least the return by local bus was driving through Jane Austen’s beautiful Hampshire in May with lush green fields and hedgerows and bright yellow rape and I could easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Austen herself walking outside my window. When I at last found my B&B, I was pleased to find a house full of books and the charming innkeeper recommended one of her favorites, A Life in Small Things, and so JA appears again.
My eight-mile walk today took 15.35 miles to complete through some beautifully bucolic countryside, one narrow path with a rushing stream on either side, a mother duck with many very little ones, and many new lambs prancing among their sedately munching mothers. Because it was a bank holiday, the state rooms were open at Avington House so I walked down the mile-long driveway to visit and found magnificent grounds and a grand Palladian-inspired house, a bit old-fashioned by JA’s time, but a house she herself could have known. She was certainly remembered today on a walk that started at Winchester Cathedral.
My itinerary said I was walking 12 miles to Alton, visiting Jane Austen’s house, and returning to my hotel in Arlesford by train. Impossible! as Elizabeth might say, since the last return train was at 4:00. So I took the Watercress Railway in both directions. I was enchanted as soon as I got to the station where I found a freshly painted mid-19th Century restoration right down to the advertising posters and old luggage carts. I sat in my restored first class compartment and watched a perfectly attired conductor check his pocket watch and blow his whistle. At the other end of the platform his twin then checked his pocket watch, blew his whistle, and waved a green flag. The steam started puff-puffing and the old engine started chug-chugging and we were off. On the train with me was a school group whose lesson was re-enacting the departure of children from London during WWII, complete with period costumes and suitcases, printed nametags attached, and gas mask boxes. Each of the four stations on my journey was beautifully restored with period trunks and suitcases on luggage carts, and baskets and milk pails along the platform. The gardens were perfectly manicured and the entire journey could have been a movie set. In Alton I asked directions which took me under the highway on the Jane Austen Trail and I suddenly came upon Chawton Cottage from the side and didn’t at first recognize it. I had a little rest in the garden, quiet and resplendent with flowers. The displays inside the house seem to have been updated since I was there a few years ago and now there is a separate gift shop in the old bakehouse. A large party of French teenagers was leaving as I arrived and a large bus arrived just as I was leaving, but I had the house completely to myself. I had long wanted to walk to the church and did so down the quiet road, imagining Jane and her family doing the same so long ago. To my surprise, the Chawton House Library was allowing visitors so I walked through the dark, old house and had a nice chat with two women restoring books in the library. I walked through the coffin gate for a stop at the church and, of course, the important headstones in the churchyard.
The silly person who arranged my walks and accommodations missed the point of doing these two walks back-to-back and had me going from Winchester to Alton and then from Salisbury to Winchester so I had a wasted day of travel by taxi to Salisbury and had no expectation of encountering JA. I arrived in the afternoon and walked from my B&B to an information point where they suggested I would have time to visit the Mompesson House run by the National Trust. It is a lovely old house which I enjoyed, but it was also the location for Mrs. Jennings’s London house in the Emma Thompson movie version of Sense and Sensibility and they were enthusiastically celebrating the 20th anniversary of making the film. There were photographs in many rooms showing the scenes filmed there, some costumes on display, and documentation that JA knew the family and possibly used some of the family history as inspiration for the book. My phone chose this most nonopportune moment to refuse to take a picture so I dashed back to the center of town, found a place to get it sorted, and dashed back in time to snap Colonel Brandon, then the mantle where he is standing, Eleanor’s ball gown, Mrs Jennings’s outrageous hat, and some photos of the filming. On my way to evensong at Salisbury Cathedral, I stopped to see the Magna Carta, also celebrating an anniversary this year, its 800th.
“The word Sarum is, strickly speaking, an inaccurate rendering of the abbreviation used by medieval scribes when they wished to write the name of the place called Salisbury. But having misread the scribal hand, men found the name pleasing; and the town of Sarum has been used in writing and probably in speech for seven hundred and fifty years, to describe the town, the diocese and the area of Salisbury”, I heard as I walked from Salisbury listening to Edward Rutherford’s Sarum and it was nice to look back at the cathedral as the distance grew greater. It was a long day of walking and several times I fell in with other walkers for a while. I chatted with one lively group who expressed surprise that “their own” Jane Austen was known and celebrated in as far-off a place as Vermont.
I wasn’t expecting much on this day of travel to Bath, but my B&Bkeeper insisted on driving me to the Hospital of St. Cross, though not far from central Winchester, a beautiful and peaceful place. Not very much changed from its medieval beginnings as an almshouse, one can still ask for and get bread and beer. The old kitchen was fun to see and the gardens were beautiful. I followed a path along a river back into the city, finding a swan doing an amazing job of housekeeping, her long neck reaching out to add new sticks to her already large midstream nest and carefully arranging and rearranging her eggs. I visited the cathedral where I knew I would find Jane Austen’s grave and then walked past the house where she died which has a large plaque above the door. But today’s unexpected encounter was at the city museum. I started, as suggested, at the top and worked my way chronologically down through the city’s past to a small exhibit at the very end. It included three items that had belonged to Jane Austen: a tiny change purse, an ivory spool case with her initials on the top, and a little purse with beadwork done by her own hand.Day 10
Today was scheduled to be a day of hiking, but it was cold and raining when it was time to set off, so I didn’t. Instead I wandered around bath. Even here where JA is ever-present, there were unexpected encounters. In one of the several bookshops where I prowled, I found Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad, the true story of an unlikely friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, most definitely not in the JA section. The only Austen connection is that May includes some JA books in her literature classes in Iraq, but with that title it sold enough books to raise the money needed to help her escape to England and helps prove that universal JA truth. A particular tea room was recommended by the girls in a lovely little shop so I walked up the hill to the Vintage Tea Rooms where they had ration book menus, a lovely hodge-podge of vintage china, waitresses in WWII style dress and hairstyles, and very nice tea. But I think was best part was the toilet downstairs which was in an Anderson hut air raid shelter and plastered with period posters. As I sat in the window drinking my tea and reading about Bee and May, I looked up and discovered that I was looking at the back of the New Assembly Rooms where Jane and some of her characters danced.
I walked across the bridge and down to Sydney Gardens, passing plaques which identified residences of Queen Charlotte, William Wilberforce and Jane Austen. Then I followed the towpath west along the canal to see the locks. I returned to the gardens and took refuge from the rain in the museum where, as I had a cup of tea, I overheard three young girls talking about where JA lived and wrote. Then I walked east along the canal eventually passing two magnificent aquaducts which carry the canal over the River Avon.
Since I hadn’t walked the day before, I did twelve miles to Bradford-upon-Avon and was still ten miles from my next B&B so a taxi took me the rest of the way which happened to be in a little village called Lacock. As we arrived I noticed a National Trust sign and asked if that was for the Abbey. “Yes”, my driver said, “and the rest of the town”. I thought he was exaggerating, but in fact the whole village is owned by the National Trust and all the shops and residents rent from them which keeps it looking like it does. With narrow streets and nothing but 18th Century and older buildings, it’s like going back in time and perfect for filming period movies. And so I discovered that I was staying in Meriton, á la the 1995 P&P.
There was no assembly, but I did have dinner in that building which is really The Red Lion.
I visited the Lacock Abbey where William Henry Fox Talbot lived and worked on his contributions to inventing photography. It was also used in filming Moll Flanders, Harry Potter, Wolf Hall, and Cranford, as well as Lost in Austen and Emma with Kate Beckinsale. Back at my B&B, I noticed lots of books on a table with A Jane Austen Miscellany at the top of the pile.
Returning to Bath this morning, I made a beeline for the Royal Crescent where an exhibit had just opened of 18th and 19th Century dolls houses at Number One. Visiting their gift shop, I bought a slim volume called The Georgian Art of Gambling. Reading a bit later as I had tea in the Pump Room, I found a section entitled “Card Games in the Novels of Jane Austen”, as if picturing Amanda Root and her Captain Wentworth were not enough JA encounters for one afternoon.
Back in London, I joined some friends for a neighborhood street party. The day was winding down without a JA encounter when I turned around and saw a Pride and Prejudice handbag, one made from the covers of an old book. If reading her or watching her are not enough Jane Austen, now it seems, you can wear her as well. And in that cause I will be taking back to the inn several pins with her silhouette which will become prizes for high-scoring quiz takers at this summer’s Jane Austen weekends.