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.