It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is my favorite author.
My students, my peers, my friends, my family all know this because discussion of the topic comes up often in the line of work of an English teacher. They know this because a copy of Pride and Prejudice hangs on my classroom wall in the form of a text outlining the figures of a couple, presumed to be Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Or, perhaps because I keep a Jane Austen action figure on my desk. Perhaps it’s because I wear multiple articles of clothing touting text from Pride and Prejudice. I try to read the novel at least once a year, and when time allows, I like to watch the 5-hour BBC movie version that does the novel such justice.
So, when a trip to England provided the opportunity to visit the hallowed grounds once graced by Ms. Austen, the author who completed six perfect novels in her short lifetime, we did not hesitate. To trace the footsteps of an author whose work I admire for its humor, its courage and its essentially timeless insight into society, would be such a gift. To see, firsthand, from where she drew her inspiration, to walk where she and her characters walked? Priceless.
In Bath, where Jane and her family lived for a time, we walked the streets and spent time at The Circus and The Royal Crescent. We visited the Jane Austen Centre, which included the usual, expected features: a museum, a gift shop and a tea room.
In the tea room, we wasted little time devouring a dish called “Tea with Mr. Darcy,” which included three tiers of crustless sandwiches garnished with greens, strawberries, grapes and blueberries, and scones, and cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar. We even ate the garnish, I’m pretty sure.
During the introduction portion leading up to the self-guided tour of the home, I found myself nodding in agreement to the information presented by our hostess, cast member Lydia Bennet. Yep, I know that Jane passed away at the age of 41 after a illness, possibly Addison’s disease or some form a cancer. Accidental arsenic poisoning was also a possibility, our hostess informed us. Didn’t know that, but I continued to show my interest by nodding.
The remainder of the tour, for this Austen fan, provided a mixture of interesting nuggets of information and insight into Austen’s life, lighthearted interactive exhibits and a hint of unapologetic cheesiness. There were copies of family portraits, descriptions of what the theatre and shopping experiences would have been like in Bath while Austen resided there, and samples of food and clothing. Countless autographed photos signed by actors and actresses, including Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman, who all portrayed Jane’s characters throughout the years, lined the walls.
While this experience at the centre was enlightening and engaging, I couldn’t help but look forward to our plans for the next day: a trip to Winchester and to Chawton.
At the Winchester Cathedral, Jane is buried, and there are memorials there to celebrate her life and her literary contributions. I took advantage of the opportunity to pay my respects.
After leaving the cathedral, we headed to Chawton, quite a quiet departure from the bustle of Bath. In Chawton, Jane lived the final eight years of her life with her sister, her mother and a family friend. The house is well-preserved and features room after room of memorabilia, such as jewelry and furniture, such as the top of her small writing table attached to a new stand.
The home sits on the former estate of one of her brothers, whose residence, The Chawton House, is just up the road. We had lunch, there, in “The Great House,” as Jane called it. Also on that property is St. Nicholas Church, where Jane attended services during her time in Chawton.
To be able to immerse myself in these places and to explore and to discover these settings, even for a day or two, was precious time well-spent.
(Note: Marjorie Appelman is an English, communications and journalism teacher at Mason County High School and co-founder of the travel blog, Tales from the Trip, which is also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. She can be reached at [email protected].)