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. Every Austen fan knows that, of course.
Or should. I confess that though I’m a fairly gung-ho Austen fan, I’d forgotten this if I’d ever known it. But now that it’s the 200th anniversary of “Pride and Prejudice” — all together, now: “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .” — and I’ve come to England to haunt her haunts, I’ve brushed up on all things Jane.
Details: Jane Austen’s world
My husband and I have checked out this little 12th-century country church (a.k.a. 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. Oof, these hedges are tall!
But 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. And I’m as close as I’ll get to it.
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.
From village to village
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.