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Monday, May 07, 2007


This weekend, Mary and I did our Jane Austen pilgrimage, visiting the author's home in Chawton, where she was buried in Winchester, and the setting of one of her novels, Lyme Regis.

Logistically, cramming such travel into a weekend was a nightmare, requiring several planning calls to Network Rail -- a nightmare in of itself.

On Saturday morning, after an hour of tube battles (Northern Line has engineering works, yet again, and I needed to pick up tickets from Kings Cross -- heaven forbid they have ticket pickup machines south of the fucking river), I met Mary at Waterloo station, where we caught a train to Woking where we changed for Alton. From there, we cabbed it to Chawton for Jane's house before returning to Alton station to catch a bus to Winchester. After wandering about that city, we caught a train to Basingstoke, where we changed lines again for the two-hour journey to Axminster, where we caught a bus to Lyme Regis.

It was a long day. But, being completely awesome, we planned it as near to perfect as is possible, and never waited more than about ten minutes for transport, which I think is pretty damned impressive.

Enough about transport. The first destination was Chawton, the town where Austen rewrote/wrote her novels. It's a typically cute and quaint English town, and the local residents (for whatever reason) have recently been battling a new development of a dozen new homes, our cab driver told us. The developers eventually won out (as they tend to do) but either in deference to tourism or in way of apology to the local or just being a bit cheesy, they named this new estate "Pemberley". Hee.

Jane's home there was a cottage on her brother's estate. A big squarish brick building, with a rather lovely garden, it is Janeite mecca. But because it was lived in up until the 1940s, it's not preserved accurately to her era. Still, as Mary and I agreed, visiting the site is more pilgramage and paying homage than educational.

We weren't the only ones feeling that way. After winding ourselves through the various rooms -- the kitchen with the infamous creaky door, Jane and her sister Cassandra's bedroom, the gift shop -- we came to a small alcove where a letter written by Cassandra after the death of her sister had been posted up along a wall. Sent to a relation announcing Jane's passing, it is a moving remebrance of the last days of the author's life -- a beautiful and moving eulogy, even more poignant given Cassandra was not allowed to attend the funeral of her beloved sister. (Stupid ovaries, getting in the way again.)

Two fellow visitors were standing in front of this document. One of the women was reading it, while the other was writing down one section onto a scrap of paper. Both were crying. I do not mean a few tears welling up at the corner of their eyes. I mean bawling. Now, maybe they just lost someone close to them, and Cassandra's heartfelt words struck too close to their own emotions. Who knows. But much as I love Austen -- and think I would have truly liked her -- I can't mourn the loss of someone so long gone. It is very sad she died in pain at a young age, but even if she'd lived to be 103, she'd still be long dead by the time Mary slid her extra copy of Pride and Prejudice into my Gauntlet mailbox back in the day (with the words "Hope you enjoy" scrawled on a post it on the front cover).

After the visit to Austen's creative home, we spent a short time in her everlasting one -- the city of Winchester, where she's buried.

Like so many cities in this country, the focus of Winchester is a grand cathedral. Austen is presumably buried in the crypt, as there's a memorial stone laid in the church. I'm assuming she didn't gain such an honour from her literature -- she published anonymously; stupid ovaries -- but maybe because her father was a rector or her family gave enough money (it's discussed briefly here). This is reflected in the message on the memorial stone -- there's no mention of her being an author at all.

Many years later, the church rectified this apparent error by placing a rather ostentatious (and decidedly not Austentatious) shiny bronze memorial nearby. I can understand why, but it suggests fans wouldn't realise this was Jane's grave without being smacked shinely over the head with it. And really, how important is one's profession in death? Her body of work, her novels, are a grand memorial (despite not being shiny). Will my tombstone read: Nicole, Staff Writer? Will Mary's be carved with the words "English Professor"? Doubtful.

To her family, who wrote the inscription on the original stone marker, she was a loving daughter, sister and aunt. And to me, a memorial showing that side of her life is much more touching. Besides, if I want to remember her as an author, all I need do is pull one of her novels from my shelf...

This is what it says, if you're curious:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Their grief is in proportion to their affection they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the
sight of her REDEEMER.

After spending £5 and about ten minutes visiting the cathedral, we headed to Lyme Regis, which features in Persuasion. I've previously been to Bath, which also features in Persuasion, and it is actually pretty cool to see what the hell Austen's going on about.

In the book, during a visit to Lyme, one of the characters takes a fall (a jump, really) off stairs on the Cobb -- a stone man-made breaker which protects the town's harbour. I never really understood that scene. Why would someone get a head injury after landing badly? But after walking along the Cobb, well, it makes more sense... It's not big, slanty, rough pile of stone stuck out into a rather violently-wavy ocean. Take a dive off that, yeah, you might be in a coma. Or you might be dead.

But I'll get into the rest of Lyme in another post, as this one's rambly enough already... and more pictures to follow... we took a lot.



Blogger Mary said...

Much too late to be commenting on this for sure, but I believe the shiny brass plaque was erected later in 1872 (, after her nephew's 1870 biography revitalised interest in Austen. I'm also under the faint impression that the brass plaque and/or a stained glass window were paid for by a collection take up by Austen admierers, though I can't seem to locate the source of this info on my book. Will update if I find it.



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