Jane Austen’s Britain: A traveler haunts her haunts

(Zofia Smardz/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Steventon Church, or St. Nicholas Church, where Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen, was rector, dates from the 12th century.

(Zofia Smardz/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Steventon Church, or St. Nicholas Church, where Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen, was rector, dates from the 12th century.

“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 smiles sweetly, even though I’ve interrupted her Saturday cleaning duties to ask for directions to Steventon Rectory. Well, to where Steventon Rectory used to be.

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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.

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. Imagine!

But now it’s back where it belongs, so we can forgive you, Mom.

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. Am. In. Awe.

And feeling close to seeing Jane. Very, very close.

“I shall have to read more Austen,” says my English friend Deborah, looking at the display about the 200th anniversary of “P and P.” Which she had to read in school, she says. “And you know what that does to one.”

Ah, yes. Force-feed someone the classics, and they’ll vomit them up undigested. And yet Jane defies the general trend toward oblivion. It’s a truth universally acknowledged (sorry) that she’s way more popular today than ever before. (Personally, I think it’s all Colin Firth.)

We wander through the drawing room, where a visitor sits down at the piano — not the one that Jane played every morning — and plunks out “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” (Not bad!) We ogle the three-volume first edition of “Pride” (the publisher probably destroyed the original manuscript, I read). We step into the bedroom that Jane shared with sister Cassandra (no, it’s not their actual tented bed).

Jane’s fading again. I wander down the upstairs hall thinking, “Where are you?” Wait. That patchwork quilt on the glass-enclosed bed in the former guest room — it was made by the three Austen ladies, the sign says.

Aha! Another something that her hands touched. She semi-materializes again, but she’s gone as soon as I step outside the room. Sigh.

We duck into the kitchen, where I try scratching out a few words with a quill pen — kind of tricky! — set out on a table while Deborah makes some sachets from the dried lavender in a bowl. I guess all museums these days love this interactive stuff. The visitors sure do: A group of girls is busily trying on all the period-style clothing laid out on a bench, giggling nonstop. I’d have a go at a bonnet myself, but they’re kind of hogging them all.

Okay, 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 we set off on the “circular walk,” a four-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 worshiped (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 — a.k.a. “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.

Even when something’s still around, you can’t be sure, 100 percent, of an Austen connection. Take The Vyne. My guidebook says flat-out that Jane attended balls at this lovely old Tudor estate that once belonged to Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain.

But try telling that to the guides at the house museum. “Oh, you hear different stories,” says one. “Some say she did visit, some say she didn’t.”

Or “she did come here, but she didn’t like it,” says another. “We think she makes a reference to the house in ‘Mansfield Park,’ ” and she (mis)quotes a description that I spend hours later trying to pinpoint in the book. (Found it, I think: “The house . . . is a large, regular, brick building; heavy, but respectable looking. . . .” As they say here, spot on!)

A third seems exasperated by the very question. “Well, if she did visit, it’s just because it’s a big house in the area,” she says dismissively. “I mean, she got around, didn’t she?”

Well, yes, she did. She certainly did.

Scouring Southampton

“You know, if she’d been famous when she was alive, she’d have more than just plaques to mark her life,” my perceptive 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 (1806-9), so we’re spending a couple of hours tracking down the 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, er, 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, broad boulevard from the piers where gigantic cruise ships dock.

No, the town Jane knew is mostly a bunch of blue plaques. An ultra-modern 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 (also, the clock is ticking on our car in the municipal lot), 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, totally 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.

A ball in Bath

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. Okay, they’re electrified now, and the building, an 18th-century entertainment complex, was bombed in WWII 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 (1801-06). (“Look, it says he wanted to be near better medical facilities,” I tease my husband at the Austen Centre. That’s one of his top criteria for retirement, too.)

Money was tight, then her father died (so much for those medical facilities) 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 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.” In his period outfit, complete with top hat and walking stick, Martin’s said to be the most photographed man in Bath. (“Possibly Britain,” he says modestly and tips his hat to a driver honking a greeting.)

After cream tea in the center’s tea room — gazing at a painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (told you!) — we set off down the hill, across shop-lined Pulteney Bridge and down long, grandiose Great Pulteney Street to No. 4 Sydney Place.

This was the Austens’ first and best lodging in Bath. It’s private now, so all I can do is snap a few photos of the front door with the signature black plaque memorializing Jane’s years of residence.

I’ve just put away my camera when two women round the corner and run laughing and chattering in Italian up the steps to strike an arms-spread-wide pose beneath the plaque.

Well, look at that. Even in Italy, she’s got fans.

Winding up in Winchester

“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., 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.

“I’m sure they’re sick of people trying to peer in,” says Michael, our city walking tour guide, as we stop across the narrow street, beside the walls that surround Winchester’s majestic cathedral. I’d be one of those people for sure, but there’s a large sheet strung across the window. Drat.

Here’s where Jane and Cassandra 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. Which is amazing when you think about it. I mean, she 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).

It’s as if the universe knew, you know? Come on, you can’t help thinking it. They say that her clergyman brother Henry pulled some strings. But still. “It does seem unusual to me, yes,” says a cathedral guide. “It would be quite an honor, I’d think.”

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.

So it’s quite the monument today, yessir. The most famous of the thousands in this enormous space. Even Colin Firth has visited; a tour guide goes all goosebumpy telling us about it. (Told you!) And that fancy plaque really catches everybody’s eye. People head straight for it and pose for a picture.

Like the three women who come in while I’m studying the cathedral’s huge west front window, which is like an abstract mosaic of stained glass with no dis­cern­ible image. (That’s because Oliver Cromwell’s army smashed it during the Civil War in the 1640s, and it was reassembled years later from the bits of glass that the townsfolk had hidden in their homes. Says the folklore.)

Two of the women march right over to the plaque. It is a very shiny plaque, I admit. And the large flower arrangement on the ledge beneath it does give it that gravesitey feel.

As the women pose, their friend backs up to frame the shot, and I glance down at her feet.

She’s standing right on Jane’s grave.

She snaps her picture, and the three move off into the cathedral’s depths.

As I said, Jane. You sure are good at hiding.

 
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